The last time Rob Swan walked to the South Pole he relied on jet fuel to heat his food, provide warmth and melt ice into water during the 1,400 kilometre journey. Three decades on and he is going back, this time using renewable energy to stay alive.

In the 1980s, he was the first person, as he puts it, “stupid enough” to walk to both the South and North Pole. In mid-November, he will start his latest adventure – the South Pole Energy Challenge – to highlight the importance of renewable sources of energy to help protect the environment.

There will be a key difference to his earlier adventures. Swan, 61, will be joined by his son, 23-year-old Barney. Each of them will haul a sledge containing supplies and equipment including a solar ice-melting gadget.

“In the Antarctic, water is everything,” says Swan, a steel-jawed British adventurer who has spent his life walking, sailing and cycling around the world to campaign on environmental issues.

“You’re surrounded by 90% of the world’s ice but turning it into water to survive takes a lot of energy. Using jet fuel to melt ice is incredibly effective but it’s exciting to see how the sun can power our trip.”

The solar-powered ice-melter was designed by NASA, the US space agency. On sunny days, the adventurers hope it will turn ice into hot water.

They will take advanced biofuels made from woodchip waste which has been produced at the Shell Technology Centre in Bangalore, India.

A jet-grade fuel, it has been tested at temperatures of -60° Celsius to ensure it will work in such harsh environments. “If it gets to -60°C, the fuel will function, but we might not,” Swan quips.

Back in 1985, Swan carried no communications equipment and his team navigated to the South Pole using a sextant, an instrument that dates back to the early 1700s.

This time they are taking digital equipment to navigate and make contact in an emergency.

A polar obsession

Swan grew up in northern England in the 1960s. Like many schoolchildren, he was fascinated by the legendary British polar explorer Captain Robert F Scott.

Along with the remaining two members of his team, Scott froze to death in March 1912 on his return from the South Pole. Wanting to be the first man to get there, Scott was beaten by Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen.

Getting to the Pole became Swan’s obsession. He joined the British Antarctic Survey, one of the world's leading polar research institutions, after leaving university and then spent five years raising funds for an expedition, which Shell sponsored.

After arriving in Antarctica, building a camp and staying through the winter, he and two companions set out for the South Pole in November 1985.

It was a grueling start and only got tougher. Despite Swan’s fitness, after 550 km he could no longer pull his sledge. “I’ve always been able to overcome physical challenges but I was falling to bits. Should we turn back? Would we die? I felt my dream of all those years fading away.”

His teammates discovered that the runners on his sledge were attached incorrectly, preventing it from gliding smoothly across the ice. After maintenance and rest, the team continued onwards.

Preparing for the challenge

More than three decades later, Swan is still pushing his body to achieve the fitness he will need to survive the trek.

Training has involved dragging tyres on mountain walks, high-altitude cycling and other alternative training.

“To the delight of my son, I’ve taken up yoga,” he says. “Back then, I was a bull in a china shop. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d never really been camping. I wasn’t a mountaineer. All I had was this passion to get to the Pole.”

Swan has a commanding presence, with a face etched by his experiences in some of the harshest weather conditions on earth.

His 1985 journey to the South Pole bleached his eyes and burned his face because of a hole in the ozone layer above the continent.

In 1989, members of his expedition to the North Pole came close to drowning because of unseasonable melting of ice.

Ahead of the South Pole Energy Challenge, he believes he is better prepared mentally to take on the journey.

“It’s crucial to break it up into chunks – each hour, each cup of hot chocolate,” he says. “If you think about reaching the Pole, you’d be insane by day seven.”

Inspiring a mission

In January 1986 Swan’s indomitable spirit was dealt a shuddering blow minutes after the team reached the South Pole.

The Southern Quest – the ship they planned to leave Antarctica on – had been crushed between ice floes and sunk. Most of the team was evacuated over the following days.

But two members stayed behind to look after their base camp.

The expedition, the ship’s sinking and returning for his teammates left Swan heavily in debt. But he was determined to clear up all the equipment and rubbish left behind during the evacuation, whatever the cost.

“I’d made a promise to leave Antarctica as I found it,” says Swan. “It took a long time and I was bankrupt but it was worth it. It shaped my life and I’ve never looked back.”


By Marcus George


Update: In December 2017, as the South Pole Energy Challenge passed the halfway mark, Robert Swan made the tough decision to return to base camp to allow the team to increase their pace. Hear Robert Swan's audio dispatch on his decision.


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