Robert Swan: From Chad’s to the pinnacle of exploration


Robert Charles Swan has walked unassisted to both poles of the earth, and yet refuses to be called an explorer. He was present for the first United Nations Earth Summit for sustainable development in 1992 but finds “environmentalist” and uncomfortable fit for his profession.
“I’m not an explorer” Swan claims “because Scott and Shackleton were the real deal…I’m not an environmentalist, I’m not qualified. So, what am I?”
In his own words, Swan is a survivor.

Swan’s fascination with the poles began with those “real deal(s)” from the Golden Age of Exploration.

I was inspited by the stories of Scott, Amundsen and the race to the South Pole in 1911

“I was inspired by the stories of Scott, Amundsen and the race to the South Pole in 1911 which ended up with (the Norwegians) beating Scott to the pole by a month. Scott didn’t know this was happening and arrived at the pole to find the Norwegian flag flying there… On the return journey they all died. Scott and his whole team died. That story really got into my head, and I thought to myself that maybe I could beat the Norwegians to be the first to walk to both poles – obviously kid thinking because the Norwegians are the best. I was just fascinated by the story of these extraordinary people that went.”

Swan attended St Chad’s College where he studied Ancient History and played Rugby for the University. Once at Durham, Swan found that his polar ambitions came with an unforeseen advantage.

“It went down well with girls on Palace Green, that’s the honest truth…I was interested in the (pole); fascinated with the history. (At that time) I’d never once thought about the environment; that was someone else’s job. I think people thought I was up my backside, that I had this lofty dream and goal…to become the first person to walk to both poles. I’d dribble on about it, talk too much about it. But I sort of think people got the fact that this was likely to happen. Here at Durham, I met one person in particular who would help make it happen and who was at St Cuthberts, God forbid. Peter Malcolm…(We) left Durham and went to London and started raising money to go to the South Pole. Literally it was the first thing we did. – it took years and years and years – but eventually we did it. And therefore, Durham for me was a launching pad.”

And therefore, Durham for me was a launching pad

Swan has some advice for the next generation of ambitious students:

“I think there is one lesson in that, if you really want to do something, it’s not a bad idea to talk about it… No one is psychic. So, if you want to get something done, you have to talk about it, and then other people will hear about it or other people will criticize it or want to join it. Either way, no one is ever going to know what you want to do unless you actually tell them. It’s worth being possibly seen as somebody who’s giving a bit of this…”

(here Robert Swan gestures with two fingers)

 ..and it can work out.”

Swan’s first two expeditions broke milestones in Polar Exploration. 1984’s venture saw Swan travel 900 miles across Antarctica, the longest unassisted walk to date. A 1987 expedition to the North Pole dubbed “Icewalk”  made Swan the first person to walk to both poles of the Earth. These expeditions also bore inadvertent witness to two other historical events. While crossing the Antarctic in 1984, Swan and his team found their faces blistering and flaking, their skin peeling off as they walked across the ice.

“It was a bit of a shock to have blisters in your eyes, your face all burnt off and you didn’t know why.”

On returning home, the team were informed that they were first-hand witnesses to a hole in the ozone layer, the first of its kind ever to be discovered. Three years later, “Icewalk”’s eight-person team nearly drowned in the first recorded premature melting of Arctic sea-ice, four months ahead of season.

“I came away thinking ‘what the hell do I do?’ My face has got fried off by the environmental thing, we nearly drowned at the North Pole, the ice cap melted…Well when you come out from that stuff you…say to yourself “well what am I? I’m pretty good at staying alive.”

Henceforth, Swan would come to refer to himself as a Survivor.

“A survivor survives by seeing things you’ve described – holes in the ozone, ice caps melting – and doesn’t step back and say “whatever.” They try and do something, otherwise they die…. I now believe that the last great exploration left on Earth is to survive on Earth…and to survive we need to act. A survivor is going to die if they don’t react.”

The last great exploration left on Earth is to survive on Earth… and to survive we need to act

Swan has dedicated a number of years since his initial expeditions to raising awareness of our pressing need to survive. Throughout his time as an educator, he has sensed a particular sentiment in our generation, which he likens to his initial return from the South Pole.

“When we got home, we were told that we had walked under a hole in the Ozone layer. This resonates I think with students today – no one would take it seriously. Bit like today…30 years ago people didn’t listen to what we had to say about the hole in the ozone, but eventually they did… governments got together and signed the Montreal protocol, stopped using the CFC gases and the hole in the Ozone is gradually fixing itself. So, in there is a very important thing: if the will is there, we can actually as a world change it. Often, I think young people don’t think we can, and I sort of don’t blame them for [thinking this] but we can.”

There’s a rhetoric that’s emerged amongst older generations, a transference of climate responsibility from parents onto their children. It’s refreshing then to find someone who so vocally thinks otherwise. Swan frequently collaborates with his 29-ear-old son Barney, who’s own ventures involve restoring the Daintree Rainforest of Northeastern Australia.

“We’re showing that it has got to be an intergenerational thing. The old farts and the youth – we’ve actually got to join together. … Older people cannot, cannot and should not say to younger people ‘sorry we screwed up, it’s your problem.’” “I think a lot of your generation are rightly pissed off with my generations. Angry! And you’ve got every right to be angry. Your age group have become a little bit battle weary and a little bit cynical because not as much has happened…I think…(Generation Alpha)… are coming through. We can’t afford for them to get cynical and angry. They’ve got to fly the flag on solutions…That’s the thing that I try hardest in life about. That’s why I’m here.”

Quick Qs:

Q: From all those old explorers – Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen – if you could be on any expedition with any of them, which one would it have been?

A: There’s a very good quote which covers them all. “If you want speed and efficiency you go for Amundsen. If you want courage and endurance, you go for Scott. If the s*** hits the fan, you beg for Shackleton.” So if I had to go on an expedition, funnily enough I’ve thought about that a lot, I’d probably go with Scott.

Q: One to please the readers: what was your favourite bar back in the day?

A: It wasn’t a college bar because I wasn’t very good at college stuff. I cropped up the bar at The Victoria in Hallgarth street. The guy who was pulling pints – Michael- was this sort of youth and he’s still there pulling pints. I went in there a year ago and he said “good god not you again.”

Image: Robert Swan

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