“Have your own dream! It doesn’t have to be big and fancy like walking to the South Pole but have your own damn dream.” Robert Swan
January 17, 1912 – South Pole, Antarctica: British explorer Robert Scott stared in disbelief at the flag with a blue cross on a red background planted at the South Pole. Norway. Scott’s rival, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, had beaten him to the South Pole by a month.
A former Naval officer turned polar explorer, Scott had been selected to lead the British Antarctic expedition in their quest to be first to the South Pole. His team had trudged 883 miles through the most challenging weather in the world, only to lose the race. They were humiliated. How could Scott tell the British Empire that he had been beaten by tiny Norway?
Amundsen and his team were celebrated worldwide. Nine months later, Robert Scott and his team were discovered frozen in their tents about 25 miles from the pole. He had written in his diary of his arrival at the South Pole, “The worst has happened. The appalling sight of the Norwegian flag is a terrible disappointment.” The team lost hope in an environment capable of killing those without hope.
More than 50 years later, 11-year-old Robert Swan saw the movie Scott of the Antarctic and was inspired by the 1912 race to the pole. He took it personally that Norway had gotten there first. Robert Scott became his hero and his passion. Young Swan determined that he would find a way to reclaim England’s place in polar exploration history. The youngest of seven children, when he told his busy mother that he planned to walk to the South Pole someday, she replied, “Ok, whatever. Just get on with it.”
After receiving a degree in ancient history from Durham University, Swan moved to London and rented a warehouse close to where Scott had assembled his expedition 70 years earlier. Swan’s mission was to become the first man to walk unassisted to the South Pole. With only a dream and no polar exploration experience, he was laughed at when he asked for money for his expedition. One potential sponsor told him, “There’s no way we will support you. You are going to die in Antarctica.”
Swan needed to raise $5 million to buy a ship and polar exploration equipment. Then he needed to find two other guys crazy enough to go with him. He drove a taxi while trying to raise the money. It took him seven years, but he eventually convinced Shell Oil, Barclays Bank and French ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, to help underwrite the cost of his pole walk.
In September 1984, Robert Swan and his team left England and sailed 70 days to McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. They would follow in the footsteps of Robert Scott’s 1912 expedition. On November 9, without the aid of sled dogs or snowmobiles, Swan and his team left base camp on skis. Each man pulled a 350-pound sled loaded with 80 days of food, fuel and supplies.
On several occasions, the brutal conditions almost claimed their lives. The journey took 70 days of walking into a bitter polar wind, with temperatures sometimes dropping to minus 40 Fahrenheit. On January 11, 1986, 28-year-old Robert Swan, 70 pounds lighter, became the first to walk to the South Pole.
After celebrating his successful Antarctic walk, Swan set his sights on walking to the North Pole. In 1989 with a team of eight walkers from seven countries, he left from the northern tip of Canada. His team covered 700 miles in 56 days before reaching the pole. Twice they almost drowned because unseasonably warm temperatures caused the ice to melt.
On May 14, 1989, Robert Swan became the first to walk to both poles. Almost 80 years after Robert Scott’s tragic expedition, Robert Swan honored his boyhood hero, while earning a place for England and himself in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Two years after his North Pole walk, Robert Swan was challenged by Jacques Cousteau with a 50-year mission to protect the Antarctic from the effects of climate change. Today, 32 years later, the 66-year-old explorer is a leading advocate for Antarctica. As he endeavors to protect the icy continent for which his name will always be linked, he has taken more than 3500 people on 22 expeditions to show them the effects of climate change.