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Robert Swan Divulges ‘the Next Big Expedition’
Wednesday, June 8, 2022


Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both the North and South Poles, minced no words about the next big expedition.

“The last great expedition on earth, I believe, is to survive on earth. That last great expedition must be a success,” said the explorer who dedicated himself to protecting Antarctica and the planet after seeing firsthand the effects of climate change at the poles.

“Two weeks ago, it rained in Antarctica,” he told those attending this week’s Sun Valley Forum. “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief someone else will save it. If you can do something or believe you can, do it now.”

The Sun Valley Forum organized by Aimee Christensen and her Christensen Global consulting firm has brought leaders in the fields of science and innovation investment and more to The Argyros in Ketchum through Wednesday to share what they’re working on and brainstorm solutions for climate change and other challenges that the world is facing.

Swan set the tone as he described how he decided at age 11 that he wanted to go to the North and South Poles after seeing a film about explorers.

“More people had stood on the moon at this point than had walked to both poles,” he said.

The English-born Swan bought a $5 million ship in 1986 with the help of ocean explorer Jacque Cousteau to travel 3,000 miles from civilization to the frozen continent of Antarctica. Then, after wintering at the Jack Hayward Base, he and two others set off on for the South Pole carrying everything on 350-pound sleds.

They spent 72 days walking 900 miles to the South Pole in minus-87 degrees Fahrenheit as they navigated using the sun and a sextant on a continent twice the size of Australia.

They crossed 6,000 crevasses, or what Swan calls “death traps.”

“Today we are losing trust. We don’t believe what anyone says. You had to have trust as you move through the crevasses because, if you fall, you don’t come back,” he said as he described the process of crossing 16,000 feet of solid ice, which holds 72 percent of the world’s fresh water.

He arrived at the South Pole Station in the center of the continent having lost 69 pounds and being without a shower in a year only to be greeted with the news that the ship sent to pick them up had sunk five minutes before, crushed by ice.

That was a big problem, as Cousteau had charged Swan with bringing back the equipment he took so he would not defile the environment by leaving it. And Swan’s own mother had inspired him to leave no trace.

The physical changes to his body were startling, as well.

“My eyes changed color over those 70 days, my skin blistered, lumps of skin came off my face. We found out later we had walked under the hole in the Ozone. We didn’t even know it was there. When I got home, I tried to tell this to the world but nobody listened. “

Eventually people did listen. They reduced the use of aerosols and took other steps to correct it, and  now the hole in the ozone is fixing itself, Swan noted. And, three years after they arrived at the South Pole Station, Swan did return to remove all traces of his expedition.

“Jacque Cousteau gave me credibility. The greatest thing any of you can do is give someone credibility when they’re trying to get something done,” he said.

Three years after reaching the South Pole, Swan assembled a team of eight people from seven nations, including the United States, to traverse 700 miles of ice to the North Pole. It involved 70 nights in a tent in temperatures as low as minus-79 degree Fahrenheit.

The explorers almost drowned when the frozen Arctic Ocean melted beneath their feet 642 miles from land. The melting came four months before it ever had.

“This was before we’d ever heard words like ‘climate change,’ ” he said, as he showed photos of the American who lost his the heel off his foot due to frostbite.

The explorers considered they would die trying to navigate melting ice when no one knew where they were. Swan ordered 14-hour days with one hour of sleep in between and they plodded on. The wind helped out by changing direction and they made it safely to their destination.

Cousteau immediately confronted him: “What are you going, young man, for the next 50 years?”

Taken aback, Swan whimpered that he’d like a cup of tea first before considering the question. But, as he did examine Cousteau’s charge, he found a new calling.

He began throwing his weight behind environmental causes. Swan organized a South Pole Challenge that took 35 youth from 25 nations to Antarctica to remove 1,500 tons of waste left behind by researchers to Uruguay where it was recycled.

He began taking a 67-foot racing yacht with sails made of recycled plastic bottles around the world to inspire young people about renewable energy. He named the boat “2041” for the year the Antarctic Treaty can be renegotiated to ensure the continent continues to be used for peaceful purposes.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could preserve the land, leave it alone?” he said. “I’ve now been working on this for 31 years, taking business people, young people to Antarctica to give them the skills to be better leaders.”

In addition, he and his son Barney established the ClimateForce Challenge to reduce 320 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere before 2025. They started the Voyage for Cleaner Energy. And they took solar light to places like monasteries in the Ganges where monks had never had the opportunity to work by light.

“Lots of small things together can bring hope, can bring people together,” Swan said.

 In November 2017 Swan accompanied his then-23-year-old son Barney to the South Pole on a South Pole Energy Challenge to show that if they could survive on renewable energy in the most inhospitable place on earth, they could do so anywhere.

They used solar panels and an ice melter designed by NASA to power their cooking stove in minus 40-degree temperatures--temperatures cold enough to make their boots fall apart.

“Barney said: My generation is angry with what your generation has left us. But you’ve taught me you can’t get anything done without being angry,” Swan recounted.

As they walked, the elder Swan noticed that the surface they were walking on had become softer, more difficult to travel, than when he walked it 32 years earlier. Three hundred miles in, Robert Swan’s hip disintegrated so badly he was unable to maintain the 12 miles they needed to make each day and so he left his son to carry on the rest of the journey.

“I flew to the Pole to celebrate his victory. Pass the baton on to the next generation as soon as possible,” he encouraged the audience.

In fact, Barney Swan is carrying on, planting 20,000 tees in the next three weeks—part of his mission to replant part of a rain forest in northern Australia.

At the end of 2019 Swan flew in with a new hip in place to finish the trip. With 97 miles to go, his hip blew out of its socket. He returned home, had the artificial hip reinstalled with some new nuts and bolts, and returned in December 2021 to finish his trip.

“Antarctica is owned by all of us,” he said. “It represents our past and future within its ice and, if the ice keeps melting at its current rate, the rising sea levels will have disastrous effects worldwide. We must to do everything we can to preserve it.”

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