The world’s most determined explorers describe overcoming terrifying situations.
What do the fearless fear? Few can imagine going to the lengths of the world’s most intrepid explorers, such as Ben Saunders, who is known for retracing Captain Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Expedition, or Annabelle Bond OBE, who became only the fourth woman to summit Everest.
But ask them their most seminal moments and it is often the failures they remember, not the triumphs. In the case of celebrated explorer Robert Swan OBE, at the age of 63 he is still determined to complete a particular milestone that has evaded him twice.
Perhaps the lesson is in there for all of us; as they say, it is not about the destination but the journey.
Here we speak to four of the world’s great contemporary explorers about their worst moments and how they overcame them.
Annabelle Bond OBE
My fear of heights was always an issue and it flourished on the sheer drops in mountaineering. I had been accepted onto a Chilean Team going to Everest. It was now seven months until the ascent and I had only climbed one mountain in my life.
The first obstacle for me was the Khumbu Icefall, a downward-hanging, constantly moving glacier with 100ft blocks of ice and crevasses that we needed to navigate for 3,000 vertical feet up to Camp 1.
When I got to the first ladder I literally froze in fear, a small rickety aluminium ladder, carelessly tied to a few more ladders, stretched across an abyss that dropped down to the epicentre of the Earth.
My crampons were meant to fit between each rung of the ladder, which they did not. The loose rope that we were clipped into was completely futile unless we fell.
My breathing came in short bursts from fear, as well as altitude, and I remember my face turning bright red with the stress. We had a hundred of these ladders to navigate through and there was blocks of ice constantly falling all around us.
I remember asking our expedition leader if I should wear a helmet in the ice fall. He told me not to bother, because if any ice hit us, we would die instantly.
So here I was attempting the biggest dream of my life and crippled with fear. Was I going to let fear be the master of my destiny or was I going to apply the mental discipline I had been cultivating these past few years and get my head around these ladders?
I thought out of the box and got on my knees and crawled across the ladders, resulting in raw open wounds on my knees from all the crossings but I didn’t care, it got me over the ladders and ultimately on to the summit of Everest.
Never let fear dictate your life. Control your mind like a vice and you can do great things.
Robert Swan OBE
In 2017 I was with my 23-year-old son Barney on the South Pole Energy Challenge Expedition. We were 300 miles from reaching the Geographic South Pole on the first ever polar expedition to survive only on renewable energy. However, my left hip had completely disintegrated. Defeated, I abandoned the expedition and my 50-year dream to cross the Antarctic landmass. Barney went on to successfully complete the journey — bravo to him.
In early 2020 — with a new hip — it was time for me to compete those last 300 miles. The Last 300 Expedition Team was led by Johanna from Sweden and Kathinka from Norway. Kyle, our veteran cameraman, was with us too. With only 40 miles to go, I slipped, and my new hip came out of its socket in the early-morning hours. I was done.
In terrific pain, I was eventually airlifted to the South Pole Station where a team of doctors put my hip back into place, although I remained in Antarctica until a weather window allowed for safe evacuation. I felt a bitter sense of failure after 1,460 miles, 34 years and three expeditions.
At the age of 63 I felt my polar days were over. But re-inspired by my Mother who is 104, I feel I have to go back to finish the job, my dream. I know that however bad things get, I do have a plan in place. I will now go back to finish the journey in early 2022. Stand by.
My most challenging experience was completing the longest-ever polar journey on foot: it was retracing the expedition that defeated Shackleton and claimed the lives of Captain Scott and his teammates.
In February 2014 fellow explorer Tarka L’Herpiniere and I stepped ashore on Antarctica’s Ross Island, completing a round-trip to the South Pole that had started from the same point 105 days previously.
That journey pushed us to the limits of our physical endurance — we dragged 200kg (440lb) sledges for a total of 2,898km (1,801 miles) — but it also changed my perspective on success.
Reaching that finish line represented the achievement of my most audacious dream, but the moment was strangely anticlimactic. Six years on, the satisfaction comes not from having reached my goal, but in how hard we worked to get there. It taught me that success is best viewed as the ability to strive with grace and ambition rather than the arrival at a finish line.
It taught me that human potential is something few of us truly tap, and that self-belief is key to unlocking it. Like endurance or strength, self-belief is a malleable human quality that responds to stimulus. The more you stress it and stretch it, the stronger it becomes.
My latest big adventure: The crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole (completed in December 2019) really pushed me and my expedition partner, Borge Ousland, to the max, and not only physically, also and above all mentally.
Every single day during this 87-day expedition new challenges would arise, and we would have no choice but to find a way to overcome them as they occurred. But the bigger challenge throughout an expedition like this are not the punctual difficulties, but the ongoing ones, such as the 24/7 darkness. When it comes to the pitch-black darkness, this is something you unfortunately have no control over, and that’s when it starts messing with you mentally on the long run.
The way I overcome challenges like these is with discipline. The will to win must always be greater than the fear to lose, and once you live by that rule, you find the discipline required to never give up and always keep on going.
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Exploration Issue, Summer 2020. To subscribe contact