Staying alive

In Antarctica the possibility of failing is not just a bitter feeling, it is a matter of life and death.

by Susanna Marchini

Environment 13 May 2021

When explorers want to test their mettle, they don’t go for a Sunday stroll. They embark on the world’s most extreme adventures, tackling the highest climbs, deepest dives, and roughest paths on the planet. Expeditions require a huge amount of planning and every stage of this meticulous preparation is filled with mixed emotions. In the middle of all this excitement, there is always a moment during which on every adventurous mind the same question pops up. What if I fail? What if I can’t do it?

Robert Swan, OBE, is an English explorer known for being the first man in history to walk to both the North and South Poles. For the complexity of these journeys, he asked himself these questions several times in his life, but he was able to reframe the negative influence these thoughts have on his spirit. “The fear of failure has been a huge driver in my life since I was a young man, it was instilled into me that one was never meant to fail,” he says. “I am the last of seven children, I was sent to a private school and there was always that sense I couldn’t fail or I would fail my parents.” Then, when he decided to walk to the Poles, he was asking people to support him, so he got to raise millions of dollars in seven years of fundraising to undertake the expedition thinking about letting his sponsors down in case he couldn’t finish it. “Essentially, failure has been a huge part of my motivation to complete tasks.”

The first time Robert Swan decided to cross the Poles he was just 11 years old, fascinated by the mysteriousness of these lands: “When you look at the world map, Poles are not there,” he says. “You might get a little piece of ice at the top of it saying Greenland or a little piece of Antarctica sticking out. That’s an image that never goes away and makes me smile, where you want to go isn’t on the map.”
From that moment, he has dedicated his life not only to plan his explorations but also to the preservation of Antarctica through the promotion of recycling, renewable energy and sustainability to combat the effects of climate change. “I was given a mission by Jacques Cousteau 30 years ago to try and make sure that we leave Antarctica as an unadulterated environment,” Robert recounts “and for 30 years I’ve been worried that I might fail on that mission. This has driven me forward to keep going because now we have just 20 years to go until 2041.”


2041 is a crucial date for climate activists: it’s the year of the re-negotiation of a moratorium on mining which designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. This land has been protected by the Antarctic Treaty since 1961, and an additional 50-year agreement was signed in 1991 to stop exploitation of its soil. Unfortunately, this extension could still be altered, modified or even abandoned. “We have a huge responsibility to not let this happen, because Antarctica belongs to us all, no country owns it. I find this place beautiful and inspiring and I do feel immensely privileged to have the possibility to travel in a land we haven’t destroyed yet and I am extremely lucky that my place of work is the last great wilderness left on Earth.”

2041 is also the name chosen by Swan for his foundation which aims to engage businesses and communities in climate science, personal leadership, and the promotion of sustainable practices. “I’ve undertaken expeditions to the South Pole because if you’re trying to inspire young people, then you must be doing things and you can’t just sit around and talk,” he says. “What I’ve seen at the North and South Poles are clear evidence that we are failing as a world and that makes me keep going with my efforts to inspire people on the whole issue of making change and finding solutions.” 2041 foundation participated in all three Earth world summits, twice in Rio de Janeiro and one in Johannesburg and for the past 11 years, they have also taken over 1,000 people from industries and business, and students from all over the world to Antarctica to see with their own eyes what was happening to that magic land. They manage to pull out over 15,000 tons of twisted metal left rusting on the ground and recycle it in South America.


Robert Swan has travelled to the Poles 35 times; his first trip took place in 1987 when three adventurers found themselves marching to the South geographic Pole on the longest unassisted march in history with no radio communication and no backup. Beneath their feet, was 90% of all the world’s ice and 70% of all the world’s fresh water and they faced the danger of crevasses and intense cold for 70 desperate days. In 1989, they headed North. For 60 days, every step was dragging them away from the safety of land across a frozen ocean and they quickly started noticing that arctic ice was melting and crashing around them. In Robert’s head something clicked and he realized that the world was in a survival situation; that feeling stayed with him for 25 years.

If the fear of failing a mission can be the driving force behind an accomplishment, a real failure can have a tremendous impact on the human spirit. To pursue his inspirational campaign, Robert Swan recently made two other trips to the South Pole and he failed twice. In November 2017, he went with his 25 year old son Barney, on the mission, known as the South Pole Energy Challenge, skiing 600-miles surviving on renewable energy and equipment designed by NASA—such as solar ice melters, waste biofuels, lithium batteries, and passive solar flasks. After walking300 miles his left hips gave out and he had to pull out from that expedition. In early 2020, he came back to the South Pole to complete the last 300 miles of the adventure and just 40 miles before the finish, he slipped and his hips blew out again.

“I failed twice to do what I’m good at doing. I failed to reach the South Pole twice through injuries. To experience failure as I did on both of those expeditions, was very hard: it took away my confidence.”
These failures left Swandestroyed, but once he was able to push the discomfort away, he had to learn the lesson and move forward. “I had to fail, I think, to understand that it doesn’t matter if you do fail.” As a matter of fact, on both occasions Barney made sure that the expeditions were a success, rescuing and supporting his father. He was able to carry on with the journey and Swan’s old-fashioned fear of failure was no longer there because he succeeded.

That’s why the third expedition is going to take place in 2021 with a completely different attitude. “I would really like to finish this,” Swan says, “I’ve spent 30 years as a polar traveler, and rather than thinking about I can’t do this anymore, I’m going to finish this expedition because I want to, not because I’m worried that I might fail a third time. I would like to go out there and finish a mission I’ve been trying to do for 30 years with a different attitude.” Swan is trying to change his view on failure because: “If you are not that happy with the way something is and you keep doing the same things, then you are going to get the same results.”

He recently started to break away from failure and to look at circumstances more positively: if before, this fear was necessary to test his own skills, perseverance and motivation, now, he feels the need for more joy and laughter. The preservation of Antarctica, the fight against climate change, the involvement of communities, nothing can be achieved through anger and frustration; people need to know that they can make a difference and heal our planet with action and hope.