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An Antarctic Odyssey

Robert and Barney Swan's Record Breaking Walk to the South Pole

by Peter Schiavelli

Barney Swan, 23, at the start of a pleasant Antarctic morning.

Barney Swan woke up as usual on the morning of January 5th, 2018; his feet, however, did not.

This was not entirely unexpected. He was in Antarctica, on day 45 of his 600 nautical mile trek to the South Pole, and he had been going through the same ritual every day since his boots had cracked from the cold a little over two weeks before.

“After about day thirty my feet were pretty cold during the day, but they would warm up at night,” he said. (It was summer in Antarctica; there was no sunset.) “They would feel like pins and needles at first, and eventually like razors when they warmed up.”

On day 45 though—even after trudging 10 nautical miles that day, uphill, on skis, with a 200-pound sled strapped to his torso—nothing. “They just didn’t wake up.” Swan was traversing those 600nm in order to complete the South Pole Energy Challenge (SPEC), which called for him and his team to walk to the geographic South Pole using only renewable energy sources.

Robert Swan, victorious after his first 900 mile walk to the south pole.

Swan had created, planned, and undertaken the endeavor with his 61-year-old father, Robert Swan, OBE, who was himself a well-known adventurer—possibly the greatest living one—and an ideal travel companion, since he had already been there.

In the mid-1980’s, guided only by “sun, sextant, and watch,” Robert completed a 900-mile trek, unaided, through the Antarctic terrain to reach the Pole. And then, a few years after that, in 1989, he turned around and made his way north to become the first person in history to walk to both geographic Poles.

The inviting south seas, en route to Antartica, 1984. (Courtesy of Robert Swan)

Barney and Rob Swan

Five years before SPEC, he and his son began to talk about making another trip. Some fathers and sons bond over games of catch or gray mornings on a fishing boat; the Swans bond over two-month expeditions through the most inhospitable conditions on Earth. Every family has its traditions.

SPEC was the latest in a long line of projects and outreach efforts set up by Robert Swan’s 2041 Foundation, a company he launched to catalyze “effective solutions within lifestyle, business, and education to encourage autonomy in our carbon neutral future.” The spirit of the Foundation revolves around the idea that Earth’s environmental future is the product of our decisions, both small (food choices at the market, carpooling) and large (investment in ocean cleanup, forestation projects). Its goal is essentially to inspire us to make better ones.

The spirit of the Foundation revolves around the idea that Earth’s environmental future is the product of our decisions, both small and large.

Multinational signatories of the Antarctic treaty, 1959.

The Foundation got its name from the year that the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1991 and prohibits drilling and mining in Antarctica for 50 years, can be renegotiated. Swan fears for the permanence of the ban, a fear that appears to be well-founded.

As the date approaches, the race for Antarctic footholds is escalating: 29 nations have established or have plans to establish scientific research bases on the continent. (Conducting scientific research is a requirement for a seat at the renegotiation table.) China alone has four, along with plans for a fifth, to go along with a second ice-breaker ship and an air squadron (and accusations by other countries of “undeclared mineral resource exploration”). The United States has six.

A line in the snow: Fracturing of the Larsen Ice Sheet, as seen from air.

Satellite photos of further ice shelf damage. (NASA)

“Antarctica really is the line in the snow,” Barney Swan told me. “If those ice caps around Antarctica start to melt it’s like pulling a cap on something—trillions of tons of ice just pouring into the ocean. It has the potential for catastrophic climate change on a scale that we can’t even imagine at a pace that we’ve never seen before.”

SPEC was the Swans’ proportional escalation in response: it is the most dangerous, dramatic, and, perhaps most importantly, well-publicized of 2041’s projects to date. It required two years of logistical planning, a year of physical training, and it received sponsorships from some of the world’s leading environment, technology, and energy companies, including Shell, Commvault, and the W-Foundation. Much to the Swans’ delight, it has also received almost 400 pieces of news coverage and reached an estimated audience of 570m people.

 

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1986 NASA Imagery of the Ozone Layer Hole

When the hole in the ozone layer was first reported in Nature in 1985, Robert Swan was far from the typical circulation routes for science journals. He was in Antarctica, hunkering down in the shelter he had built himself, waiting out the long winter before departing for the Pole the following summer.

In a 2010 interview with Sabotage Times, he described the situation. “The only way you could do it back then, we had to buy a ship, sail it from London to Antarctica, build a hut… live in the bloody thing for nine-and-a-half months, five of us, and then three of us strike out for the Pole.” He was in Antarctica for almost a year; the march itself took 70 days.

Hazardous melting Arctic ice during Robert Swan's North Pole Walk

Robert Swan's brand new ice-blue eye color, courtesy of the yet undiscovered ozone hole. 1986

The findings in that issue of Nature would not have surprised him. He and his partners spent the majority of their walk directly under the hole he hadn’t been told was there, and their experience corroborated the research. “Our faces were burning off. We just had a really strong feeling that something wasn’t right.” He still bears the effects: the UV exposure was intense enough to permanently bleach Swan’s already-light eyes a frosty sky blue.

The effects of climate change were even more manifest a few years later, on the other side of the globe. He set off for the North Pole in March, after the winter freeze but before the summer ice melt, only to find himself slipping and sliding over a crumbling Arctic ice sheet. “We were walking across ice that should not have been melting,” he said in the same interview. It was supposed to start melting in August. “We damn nearly all died.”

From that point on, environmental preservation and sustainability became Swan’s life pursuits. The idea of anthropogenic climate change was still nascent—the International Panel on Climate Change was founded only one year before Swan made it to the Arctic Pole—and the science behind it was not being widely disseminated. Swan immediately understood both the value and the urgency of the message, and he decided the most effective way for people to understand it was the way he had: through experience. (As his son put it, “to look people in the eye and connect with their senses.”) In the past 14 years, the 2041 Foundation has taken over 3500 people on 22 expeditions, from month-long South African yacht trips to cross-country bike rides.

Although the elder Swan had been back to Antarctica many times, that first expedition was still the only time he had made his way to the Pole entirely by foot. He and his son started talking seriously about recreating the march when Barney was eighteen. SPEC was announced three years later, and Barney, at just twenty-one years old, was in charge of logistics.

Barney filling his water canister with a NASA designed snow melter.

Rob replenishing energy stores, courtesy of Shell Biofuel.

Ever the showman, and keenly aware of the power of a compelling narrative, Robert had added a twist to each of his first two famous expeditions: his first jaunt to the South Pole had been the longest unassisted march in history; and for his trip to the North, he took with him seven team members, one from every continent. SPEC had the obvious one—father and son, the continuation of the fight, inter-generational commitment, etc.—but the Swans wanted to make a more tangible, emphatic, clima(c)tic statement as well. So they decided to make the trip solely powered by renewable energy sources. Shell provided advanced bio-fuels; NASA designed ice melters for warm water; they had lithium batteries, vacuum flasks for melting and storing liquids, and solar panels to prop over their sleds.

After all, if renewables could sustain someone in Antarctica, couldn’t they sustain someone anywhere? And, by extension (and in light of Antarctica specifically), if the world ran on renewables, why would anyone even need to drill?

After all, if renewables could sustain someone in Antarctica, couldn’t they sustain someone anywhere?

A souvenir for Barney's troubles.

In Antarctica, around the time Barney’s boots cracked, Robert came to a realization: he wasn’t moving fast enough. They were averaging nine nautical miles per day, but in order to reach the Pole in their window, they would need to increase that to over 11, as well as climb 7000 feet of elevation. On day 26, Robert wrote an ominous post on the expedition blog: “I am slow, I recognize that and still fatigued from the travel already completed. My body has not recovered as well as I had hoped but my only concern is that I don’t slow the others down. This weighs heavy with me tonight. We must make good time and I hope I can keep pace.”

Barney could see Robert’s pain. “He was really hurting himself,” he said. Temperatures were reaching minus-40°F even without the harrowing Antarctic wind chill, and Robert was fatiguing quickly. He had frostbite on his face, frostnip on his fingers. His chafing was so bad that patches of skin “the size of a small child’s head” were peeling off his legs. Their friend Henry Worsley, OBE, a British explorer who had died in Chile two years before, was not far from their minds.

Worsley, who, like Swan, had spent much of his adventuring life in the Antarctic wilderness, had made it his mission to become the first person to walk across Antarctica entirely unassisted. He had mapped out a path that would take him from Berkner Island on the continent’s west coast, past the Pole, up and over a massive snow ridge called Titan Dome, and would ultimately finish at the Ross Ice Shelf in the south, more than 1000 miles from where he began. On November 13th, 2015, Worsley set off—alone—from Berkner. On January 2nd, just one day behind schedule, he reached the Pole, though his body was steadily weakening, and he was suffering from sharp, sporadic stomach pains. He forged ahead. On January 20th, after more than two weeks of relentless, ruthless climbing, he crested Titan Dome. He was less than one hundred miles away from the Ice Shelf, but his body was shutting down. For two days, he couldn’t leave his tent. Finally, on January 22nd, after 71 days and 800 miles, he relented and called for help. When the airlift picked him up, he was conscious and optimistic, and he spoke reassuringly with his wife on the phone that night. The next day, his organs began failing. Bacterial peritonitis was discovered in his abdomen, and bile was leaking into his abdominal cavity and blood stream. He was immediately flown from Antarctica to a hospital in Chile for surgery. The day after that, he was dead. He was 55.

Barney remaining in high spirits.

By the time the next SPEC blog entry was posted—on day 29, by Martin Barnett, the team’s navigator—Robert had turned back.

“That first couple of days after leaving dad, it was just incredibly quiet,” Barney told me. “It was a relief because he was hurting himself during the day, but it was also hugely daunting—we had over halfway to go. I’d look behind in the hope that he was somewhere on the horizon trying to catch-up, and I’d kind of see a little mirage of him.” He paused. “It was just deadly quiet.” Their pace, though, picked up. Between days 29 and 31, the remaining three members of the team—the younger Swan, Barnett, and Kyle O’Donoghue, a documentary filmmaker—covered almost 38nm.

The 2041 Foundation has always made it its mission to show people, in the most visceral way—that is, by actually taking them there—what is happening to our environment. SPEC, however, was far too long and far too intense to be opened up to the public, so 2041 set up the Ski Last Degree program.

Reunited for the Last Degree.

Participants in the program, called the Last Degree team, were flown in so that they could ski the last latitudinal degree (from 89°S to 90°S, 69nm of terrain) with the SPEC team.

When the Last Degree team arrived at Union Glacier base camp just after New Year’s Day, they had an unexpected addition to their group: a rested, recovered Robert Swan, their new expedition leader. He would accompany them—and his son—on the final leg of the expedition.

On January 15, 2018, fifty-six days after they initially set out, Barney and Robert Swan arrived, together, at the South Pole.

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A small roadblock on the way.

At the south pole.

Spreading the word

In the months since they returned home, Robert and Barney have taken almost no respite. The message, not the expedition itself, was the real goal of SPEC, and they are, as Barney put it, “pushing as hard as we can to scale what we did.”

Barney flew from Antarctica to Davos, Switzerland, to speak at the World Economic Forum, and since then they have been on what amounts to a world tour of conferences and seminars, from London to Chicago, Australia to Vietnam. The intention, he said, was to “be a part of a group of people that actually want to make a tangible impact. To be a part of some good projects and good people that actually make a difference.”

Barney has taken the lead on formatting their message for the rising generation: in addition to internet blogs and videos, they have been working on a virtual reality program to play at eco-conferences and Burning Man, as well as a phone application that will track its user’s carbon footprint. The idea is that the app will motivate people to make environmentally-friendly life decisions, because those decisions will yield better scores on their phones—a Fitbit for greenhouse gas emissions. (Hopefully the 2041 app can capitalize on people’s competitiveness—or guilt—in much the same way.)

The Climeworks Switzerland Carbon-Capture Factory

The Foundation has a new long-term goal, too: the ClimateForce Challenge, which aims to remove 320m tons of carbon dioxide from the air by the year 2025. The Swans’ focus on carbon removal is recent, and it’s happening because they see the writing on the wall: although reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a necessary step in mitigating global warming, the total amount of emissions in the atmosphere is already perilously close to reaching the tipping point beyond which environmental disaster is all but certain.

The necessary step, then, is to find ways to remove existing CO2 from the air. The Swans used SPEC to demonstrate some of the technologies that make this possible. Between trip-planning, logistics, and flying themselves and their equipment to the continent, they estimated that SPEC came at a cost of 240 tons in CO2 emissions. (The march itself, obviously, emitted none.)

To counteract this, they arranged to have that amount of CO2—plus another 50%, just to be sure—permanently removed from the atmosphere, a total of 360 tons. They used a combination of natural and man-made solutions: investment in afforestation, reforestation, and ocean-cleanup projects, and they financed a direct-air capture company in Switzerland called Climeworks to suck some of it out of the air and store it underground. This also made them the first—of many, hopefully—commercial customers for carbon dioxide capture and sequestration.

The 2041 Foundation’s next expedition was also recently announced—ClimateForce: Arctic. In June of 2019, Robert and Barney will take, by boat, a team of professionals, industry leaders, and students to the Arctic, where the ravages of climate change are most evident, and most destructive.

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On day 45, when his feet refused to wake, Barney Swan still had almost 100nm left until he reached the Pole. His father had turned back two weeks before, and he was looking at feet that were indisputably frostbitten. “That was the hardest day. The reality of losing toes in that moment…” He trailed off. “I think what really got me through was remembering that I was there by choice, not by circumstance. There are so many people in the world who aren’t there by choice. I chose to put myself there, and I had an obligation to live up to what dad and I had been working towards, and to the story moving forward.” He managed to regain some feeling in his feet towards the end of day 46 and has, so far, escaped amputation. Even now, though, five months later, “they still feel a little numb.”

The idea of choice being the tool by which Barney succeeded was symbolically fitting. SPEC, on the whole, was a success: it proved—in an exciting, public way—that the technologies necessary to live sustainably are out there already, that global warming does not have to be the inevitable cost of economic prosperity. Averting disaster is still, at least for now, a choice.

When I asked him to describe the Antarctic landscape, he was effusive, respectful, a little playful, like a boxer, bloodied and battered, after a match that had gone the distance. “The sky was just amazing. Like being on the ocean but standing on it, and just this buckling dome above you. In between the suffering and spitting blood out of your nose because it’s so cold, and ripping ice off your face where it’s been for eight hours”—he laughed—“moments of awe and moments of ecstasy.”

“It was like a canvas,” he said. A canvas that, at the moment, is still blank, its unblemished white face still an image of hope. But a canvas upon which, very soon, our decisions will be drawn.

A blank canvas.

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