When Rob Swan passed me in his Rhino suit while running the London marathon many years back, I really knew I had to speed up.
Rob reminds me of this when the Marathon comes up in conversations in Union Glacier, Antarctic, a rather coincidental crossing of paths after over 25 years.
Rob Swan became the first person to ski to both the South Pole as recounted in his excellent book “In the Footsteps of Scott,” and to the North Pole, finishing his journey on 14 May, 1989. The success of this venture and the resulting books, talks and charitable works made him famous, thankfully without losing a respectable humility in his own accomplishments.
While he feels he has been put in the “Explorers” box, he describes himself as “not an Explorer, just reasonably good at staying alive.” That seems to be one of the top considerations of any Explorer, so while he may discount it, staying alive is certainly pretty high on the list for most of us. Considering the environments he has been in, it is a commendable achievement in itself.
Rob is perhaps one of the most natural of public speakers, something I well remember from his tour of New Zealand well back in the last century. He has an ability to weave a story together and tell a tale of adventure with a blend of force and conviction. It is his ability to speak to all audiences, with his focus on the people involved, and much less so the physical accomplishment, that has made his life and story resonate so widely.
His environmental message advocates solutions, not the protest and noise which currently passes as concern. What are the real solutions, the simple solutions that we can all be doing every day? He has been working with his son Barry, creating 5 simple solutions they have published on their ClimateForce website.
When Rob first skied to the South Pole, they had no communications with the outside world. At the halfway point they had to make a final decision. Forward to the Pole, or back to the coast? Being halfway only meant they were halfway to nowhere and a long way from anywhere.
He remembers the skiers in front of him, and still holds that vision that should he drop off the back, he would be alone on the ice. Today with Iridium phones and GPS trackers, every movement is recorded and communicated back to both Antarctic Logistics, but also those who wish to follow from afar. Within a few meters, rarely is anyone far from a distinct point on the globe.
Where does Rob’s inspiration comes from? As an 11 year old he first read of Amundsen and Scott and even then understood “Scott died because he was second to the South Pole.”
And even then he wondered, “could I be the first to reach both the South and the North Poles – that was the dream.”
And when he was done, “he was never, ever, ever going to do it again.”
That held true from 1989 until 2017. Never say never perhaps. As much as Rob doesn’t wish to be labeled an Explorer, with his ideas, and his remarkable ability to execute on his ideas, it is evident the desire to get out and do things, both for himself and as an inspiration to others burns brightly, particularly as an influence for the next generation.
Rob has long known both Scott and Schackelton’s sons, who were supportive of his early endeavors. Both had warned him of the difficulties of being the son of famous fathers. So though he never pushed his own son Barry to follow in his footsteps, Barry also took naturally to grand adventures and Rob was back in Antarctica alongside him in 2017. Their focus was on using as many renewable energies in their journey as possible, even for the simplest needs in Antarctica itself.
“To help preserve Antarctica we need to ensure it makes no financial sense to exploit it by discovering and using renewable energies.” So when they set off, they even had ways to power their water melting with solar energy. In Antarctica 2041, a book he wrote 10 years ago, he was presecently saying the things that many are just coming around to now.
On their 2017 attempt to reach the Pole, Rob soon realized that with a bad hip “the body couldn’t do it anymore.” And as a man accustomed to success, found it “hugely defining to fail.”
In returning this year, he had to overcome that failure. And it was something he had to very much do for himself, not his public persona.
As much as he had previously accomplished larger than life goals with a public agenda, this one is as much about his private need to, at 63, to finish what he started when he set out for the South Pole in 2017.
And are there fears? In a return to Antarctica? In coming back two years later and two years older?
“I am absolutely f—ing horrified. I am fearful and I am questioning every single thing.”
Yet he is here and we see him setting off from Union Glacier Camp, alone, to ski out and around our 10 k loop. He has no companions as he trains; his Guides and Film Maker Kyle O’Donoghue stay in Camp. Rob is off testing his own physicality, disappearing up the trail and around the corner into the vastness of Antarctica. He is back to overcome what he couldn’t do before, to come back and finish the job.
In that alone space he says “how do we define ourselves, how do we define how important it is to ‘mean something.’ And what do we do when we have the privilege to do this, to live this life in a way we get to choose? And from that, what do we give back, to make this mean more?”
Now with a graying beard, Rob talks of others seeing in him an inspiration, saying “they hope they are still doing things when they get to be your age.” He finds that incredibly depressing, as like most adventurers we do like to deny our age.
Yes a few “creaks” are there and we wake up a bit stiff. And yes, friends keep disappearing. But actually old? Never. In this fleeting moment of our time in life, we never want to think of ourselves as simply old.
In a life defined by adventure, he has also succeeded in securing the support of some very noteworthy sponsors. His trips to the South and North Poles were done when you needed to charter a ship, sail through the ice, winter over,with budgets running into the millions.
From the outside it is common to see fame as being the ticket to garner the funds easily. Yet Rob describes that search for support as an endless and relentless pursuit. He has discovered it is not in helping sell a sponsors product, but in telling his story and motivating their employees that he has real value.
It is less with big sponsors he wants to work with, but the many small ones. It keeps him from being owned by anyone and you reach more people on a personal level, who provide small amounts.
With his initial motivation as a child being the Amundsen – Scott race to the South Pole, he now returns with a team of Guides and Film Maker that are all Scandanvian based.
From his Guides, including Johanna Davidsson, current womens’ record holder for the fastest time to the South Pole, and Polar Expert Kathinka Gyllenhammar to Film Maker Kyle O’Donoghue, he has chosen a team that all live, like Amundsen, in the North of Europe.
Chosen simply for their abilities to accompany him to the South Pole, it completes the circle of Polar Explorers coming together to reach the ends of the Earth.
To see this years adventure, best to just watch 8 minutes of Antarctica footage to relive their experience. Perhaps yet another return…