A father and son on the first solar-powered Antarctic expedition spent Christmas apart after poor health forced the older explorer to return to base camp.
Robert Swan, 61, was the first man to walk to both the South and North poles, a feat he accomplished in 1989. He returned to the Antarctic in November with his son, Barney, 23, to break another record: to reach both the poles using entirely renewable resources.
The Swans and their team have relied solely on solar energy and renewable biofuels made by Shell to cook, melt water and keep warm in temperatures as low as minus 40C, to raise awareness of the damage to the Antarctic from climate change. Despite gruelling conditions the team hit the halfway point last week. It was then that Swan admitted defeat. He had vowed never to return to the Antarctic after his “nightmare” expedition last time, during which he struggled mentally, but this time it was his body that failed him.
“The lowest point for me was realising that I simply did not have it in me to average more than ten miles a day,” He said. “My pride is hurting for being slower than the others. Age eventually catches up with all of us and this is my moment.” Swan made the difficult decision because he realised that the team were running out of time. Daylight started to fade on December 20 and temperatures plummeted. By the end of January the Antarctic season ends and “things get very dangerous, fast”, said Swan, who was born in Durham and now lives in California with his son.
“The other three explorers, who have an average age of 30 years younger than me, had the strength to travel more than ten miles each day,” he said. “I kept up for 500km at a terrible physical cost to my body and in the end I realised I could not push myself any further.
“If I had stayed I would have slowed them down, which was a risk to all of us. I offered my son, Barney, the chance to return with me to base camp and he said, ‘No, I will continue on for us both’. He has his father’s spirit inside him.”
Swan, who has spent the past 26 years working to help to preserve Antarctica through his 2041 Foundation, was inspired to take the trip by his son’s efforts to fight climate change.
Before setting off Barney said that it was his duty to make a stand. He added: “Our expedition is a small example of how we can all make choices to help us transition to a cleaner-energy future.”
Accompanied by the explorer Martin Barnett, who has climbed the highest summits of all seven continents, and Kyle O’Donoghue, a cameraman and adenturer, Barney is determined to carry on. “Of course I’m worried about him,” his father said. “But I know he will push as hard as he can. Barney is so brave at 23 to carry on. This is his moment but he’s not doing it for fame.”
Christmas for Swan was to be spent at the Union Glacier base camp, where he hoped to speak to his 102-year-old mother in the northeast of England via satellite phone. Barney was expecting to settle for a celebratory toast of Ardgowan scotch and extra rations.
Swan’s advice to his son was: “Eat as much as you can, look after your feet, hands and face, and know that if deep down you think you can do it, you will.”