British Polar Explorer Robert Swan OBE On Hope And Survival In The Antarctic

He was the first man to walk unsupported to both poles. And he's doing it all over again.

21/05/2016 00:01 | Updated 21 May 2016

"I'm not an explorer. Anyone who calls themselves an explorer today is a wanker. Alright?"

But Robert Swan OBE is an explorer - in the purest of forms. He was the first person to walk unsupported to both North and South poles. And, 30 years later, he's doing the 600 mile-long trek all over again, this time with his 21-year-old son Barney.

"I'm not a scientist because I’m not clever enough, I wish I was," says Swan, who is incredibly humble for a man who has achieved mind-boggling feats and pushed his body to the most extreme limits. "And I’m not an environmentalist. I don’t even like the word."

During one of his missions across the Antarctic, Swan's eyes changed from blue to grey, and his skin blistered. Scientists later discovered Swan and his team had walked underneath a hole in the ozone layer

So who is this internationally famous 59-year-old, who was born in Durham, and has devoted his life to Antarctic expeditions?

"I am a survivor," says Swan, adamantly. "And I'm pretty good at it."

And it's this survivor instinct which drives him.

"We are actually in a survival situation, as a world, and I’ve seen how hard this world is. I’ve walked across ice caps that have melted beneath my feet when I’m 600 miles from the nearest land. And they shouldn’t have melted at that time of year.

"So if you’re good at staying alive, what do you do? You do something about it.

"I think the biggest threat to our world is people thinking that somebody else is going to sort it out."

Although Swan doesn't hold social media to blame for the rise in so-called "slacktivism", he highlights the importance of stepping back from the constant stream of "stuff".

"It would be very easy to criticise social media," he says. "But I think what the issue is, is that young people don't want any more information. They're sick of it. What they want is inspiration. 

"It is more than ‘liking’ something on Facebook. When you 'like' something, there should be a box that says ‘well if you really like this, do you want to do something about it?’. Not just a happy face or a sad face, but 'do you want to do something about it?' 'Yes.'.

"It is to do, in a very busy noise of stuff, about motivating. It’s important that you get people to stop and say ‘hey I can do that’. Rather than drifting through on a wave. One day the wave is going to come up against the beach.

"We should use technology, not be used by it. And I think that a lot of people are being used by technology.

"Because if you’re used by it, you’re just on this thing" - here Swan motions scrolling on a phone. "So I want to get people to stop, say ‘I can do that’, and act."

 Increasingly, the attention is turning towards the next generation to come up with solutions to pressing environmental issues; climate change, air pollution, sustainability. Swan calls out the "greasy politicians with a smile" who tell youths to generate answers for the problems they had no part in causing.

"It's all crap," he says, dismissively. "It’s got to be doing it together. The best way to inspire anybody is to engage them, not tell them ‘oh well could you come up with something’.

"If I was a young person, I would say ‘I’m not interested.’ If you’re able to engage with people, and actually give people a sense that they are part of it without being asked to solve it, then people will get involved."

That's why, Swan says, he is embarking on his second trip to the South Pole with his son - whose voyage will be his first.

"If these issues are coming from the right people, then the younger generation will be inspired. So people can listen to someone like me and go, 'yeah, Rob Swan, he walked to both poles and all that crap', but you know, someone like Parker [Liautaud, a 21-year-old polar explorer], who’s more their age, or my son, Barney, who’s 21, talks about these things, then people will listen."

A photo posted by 2041 (@2041foundation) on

 As if a 60 day-long trek to the South Pole next year wasn't a big enough feat, the duo will be relying solely on renewable energy to survive - something which has never been done before. Specialised solar panels which can withstand sub-freezing temperatures will melt ice and snow, and the team will bring back-up heating sources such as jet fuels made from coffee beans, food waste and wood chips.

"I had to do one last attack," Swan explains. "I've been taking young leaders to Antarctica every year, and I've set up education stations around the world which run on renewable energy, but suddenly NASA says to me: 'But Rob, the problem's got worse.'

"Bigger areas of Antarctica are disintegrating and it will create a sea level rise unless we get our act together.

"We're going to walk across this ice shelf that's melting and show that renewable energy works. I'm going to be freezing my balls off out in the Antarctic again."

It feels surreal discussing melting ice caps in the middle of the Sonoran Desert - which is where we are for One Young World's environment summit, hosted in Tucson, Arizona. But Swan agreed to speak at the event because he believes in the importance of delivering positive messages to young leaders, and wants to galvanise action. It is this passion that was the driving force behind his upcoming challenge.

"I had to do something to inspire," he adds simply. "It wasn't quite on the programme, but anyhow.."

It looks as if the last remaining pristine continent has its knight in shining armour; Swan is out protect Antarctica, long-term. His foundation, 2041, is so named because it is the year the moratorium on mining and oil drilling in the Antarctic comes up for re-negotiation. Swan is intent on making renewable energy so successful that it won't be worthwhile for companies to exploit the continent.

"It’s not enough that we all own it, somebody will go down and screw it," Swan sighs. "Let’s get renewable energy going, use different types of energy, save energy. Then we drive the cost down and no-one’s going to go sailing to Antarctica through icebergs to go drill for oil, because it won’t be worth it."

So how is Swan preparing his son mentally for such a long, arduous journey?

"It's a big deal," he says.

"I’m trying to do it so we actually have some fun. There’s nothing more depressing than seeing a person struggling through. I want to try and show them we’re surviving on renewable energy - I’m working with NASA on this - and that we can make it work. It’s not too bad, we’re not in a tent at -90 saying ‘this is dreadful’. But there we are, having a nice cup of tea and it’s all powered by renewable energy and it’s -40 outside.

"Barney obviously needs physical preparation.. but you can walk 600 miles if you can walk one mile. You can run a marathon if you can run one mile. You just have to do it 26 times in a row. And if you need to walk for a mile, and you’re not trying to break some record, so what? It’s trying to pull it down to enjoy it."

I ask whether his son will feel reassured having his father by his side but Swan quips that it's more so Barney can look after him - and I can't tell if he's joking.

"It’s an interesting thing being the first person to walk to both poles," Swan muses, before admitting one of the reasons he's going back is to "try and enjoy it".

"I hated every step before. And being with my son is a great story, people love it. Like Rocky coming out of retirement with his son. This is the best thing we can think of doing to inspire other people."

My final question to this legendary explorer - for want of a better word - is asking what the hardest part of the journey across the ice is.

"Coming back," Swan says, without hesitating. "Because there is nothing here that you need to try and survive."

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