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.