‘Survival situation’

Polar explorers Rob and Barney Swan risked their lives to spur action on climate change. Hear their story.

03 Oct 2018

Just 30 years ago, Robert Swan became the first explorer to walk unsupported to the North and South Poles. He may remain the only person to ever hold that record.

“I am the first person to walk to both poles,” Swan said. “And with the disintegration of the Arctic sea ice, across which you must walk to walk to the North Pole, it looks like I might be the last person to walk to both poles—because there is no ice to walk on. Now that is staggering that that's taken place in only three decades.”

Hoping to spur others to action on climate change, Swan set out for Antarctica again in late 2017, embarking with his then 23-year-old son, Barney, on a record-setting trip powered only by clean-energy technology. And next June, the father and son will be bringing travelers to the Arctic as part of a nautical expedition series to areas around the world that are most threatened by climate change.

In a special UBS On-Air interview, Rob Swan spoke about his pioneering expeditions to the poles, his harrowing journey back to the South Pole with his son and what others can do to have a positive impact on the environment.

’We touched and felt things personally’

When Swan first set out for the South Pole in 1986, he had no environmental mission. His aim was simpler—to set a world record by trekking hundreds of miles across some of the most desolate and inhospitable terrain on earth.

“We had no radio communication, no GPS, we had no backup,” he recalled. “If we made a mistake, we were going to die.”

But it’s what happened along the way that changed his life, he said. As they trudged across snow and ice, Swan and his travel mates began to feel their eyes tearing up. Their faces felt hot, and their skin began blistering. “My eyes actually, through damage, changed color in 70 days.”

Swan would later learn that they had walked below the then-newly discovered hole in the ozone layer and been exposed to dangerous ultraviolent rays.

“This was quite a shock,” he recalled. “I’d always thought that governments, that states, that countries, that somebody else would perhaps deal with issues about our survival here on planet Earth. And this was the first indication to me that this wasn’t happening”—that such threats to the environment “might not be somebody else’s problem. They might be my problem.”

Three years later, Swan got another shock while trekking to the North Pole: Suddenly after 600 miles on foot, the ice shelf covering the Arctic Ocean began melting underfoot. This was in April—and “it’s supposed to melt in August,” he recalled thinking.

It was these experiences that spurred Swan to devote his life to preserving the environment. “That was where this really began,” he said. “Because we touched and felt things personally.”

‘A leap into the dark’

After his first expeditions, Swan, now 62, would have been content to hang up his skis and snow boots for good. But when he and Barney spoke with NASA scientists a few years ago about the accelerating pace of polar ice melt, they decided they had to do something.

Intent on drawing more attention to the disintegration of the ice shelf, the father and son embarked on a new journey to the South Pole, this time aiming to become the first explorers ever to survive the trip solely off of renewable energy sources. They faced hundreds of miles of ice, snow and average December temperatures of negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

“What this meant was taking a leap into the dark,” the elder Swan said. “What this meant was throwing out the fossil fuels we had used successfully all those years ago to reach the poles.”

Instead, they relied on solar panels affixed to a sled to generate the energy needed to cook food and melt snow and ice into hot water.

“Barney and I set off on that journey to inspire people with one simple message: that we can actually do things, that the inconvenient truth is now over and it’s now time for convenient solutions,” Swan said. 

But things did not turn out as he expected. After nearly a month on the trail, Swan’s age began to catch up with him. The harder he pushed himself through sub-zero temperatures, the more his health deteriorated. “My hip literally disintegrated in the first 300 miles of that journey,” Swan said.

Eventually, he made the difficult decisions to bow out and was airlifted back to base camp.

Barney forged ahead, determined to reach the south geographic pole by foot.

Weeks later, Rob helicoptered back in to make the final 60-mile leg of the trek with his son.

“I am hugely proud of him,” Rob Swan said of Barney. “Father and son, divided by 38 years, can join together on these issues of sustainability and our survival here on planet Earth.”

‘Survival situation’

The end of that journey was the beginning of a new one for Rob and Barney Swan.

Months after reaching the South Pole together, they have teamed up to help launch a new expedition series to areas around the world most threatened by climate change. The series kicks off with ClimateForce Arctic 2019 next summer, when the father and son will be bringing travelers to the Arctic by ship to learn about sustainability and environmental leadership.

Rob Swan, whose company, 2041, led the first corporate expedition to the Antarctic, believes that it isn’t enough to simply warn people about the dangers of climate change. You have to inspire them to take action.

“We are in the business of inspiring people,” he said. “One of the best ways to do that is to take young leaders [and] old leaders, like myself, on expeditions to the Arctic or the Antarctic, which are showing us clearly that the changes are happening—and those changes are very, very dangerous to us.”

Of course, there are other ways to have a positive impact as well.

“One of the great things [people] can do is to really, really think about how they’re investing their money with the greatest impact,” Swan said, referring to impact investing—an approach that allows for positive social and environmental change while still generating a potential return.

“This is an ongoing process where people who have the power to change feel inspired to continue to make those fantastic and important changes—because we are, here on planet Earth, in a survival situation,” he added. “Unless we respond to that survival situation, we will not survive.”

To learn more about Rob Swan’s work in education and environmentalism, contact him at Robert@RobertSwan.com.