Alone on the Ice
German explorer Martin Szwed claims to have shattered the speed record for a solo ski to the South Pole last year. He has revealed no GPS data, no photos—no proof whatsoever that he even attempted the journey. Since his return from the icy continent, he has lost his house, job, and sponsors and is the subject of two investigations by the German government. Should anyone believe him?
On January 8, 2015, Swiss sports center Aranea received a text. It read: “More than half the way to the South Pole I have behind me. I am sure that I will break the record;)” The message came from German adventurer Martin Szwed, who had paused somewhere on the flat, frozen surface of Antarctica to update his girlfriend and his sponsors, including Aranea, about his status.
Szwed was skiing across the bottom of the earth, starting from Hercules Inlet, a massive ice cube off the Antarctic Peninsula, where the continental land mass ends and the ocean begins. He was on a 24-hour, berserker-style push to finish the final leg of a record-breaking solo expedition to the South Pole. The sun was out, but temperatures hovered between -20 and -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and a biting wind left Szwed with minor frostbite on his face, fingertips, and part of his left leg. When the spindrift settled, the previous world record of 24 days, 1 hour, and 13 minutes—set in 2011 by Norwegian Christian Eide—lay in pieces. Szwed released a statement saying he had shattered the mark by nearly ten days, covering the entire 730-mile route in a total elapsed time of just 14 days, 18 hours, and 43 minutes. It was an unprecedented achievement.
You may have seen photos of Szwed cascading through your social media feeds during his trip. News outlets around the world circulated images of his adventure. In one, Szwed appears to have arrived at the South Pole. It’s an apparent selfie of the man wearing mountaineering glasses, bearded and smiling through chipped front teeth, in front of a bright yellow sign that reads: “Welcome to the South Pole.” Headline after headline in Germany and abroad hailed the new world record.
News of Szwed’s achievement quickly spread to the handful of guides and logistics providers who support most private land-based adventures in Antarctica. They couldn’t believe it. In fact, they didn’t believe it. Szwed is a virtual unknown in the tight-knit community of polar explorers, and his reported time snapped the previous record nearly in half. “Anyone who has skied to the South Pole can easily see that Martin’s claim is laughable,” says Hannah McKeand, a former solo South Pole explorer who completed six ski expeditions there between 2004 and 2012. “It’s simply inconceivable.”
“Anyone who has skied to the South Pole can easily see that Martin’s claim is laughable. It’s simply inconceivable.”
Once the polar community took notice, several people began to poke holes in Szwed’s claims. For example, on December 30, Szwed said he was summiting Mount Vinson, a claim that directly conflicts with the flight log of airplane charter company Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), which on that day shows that Szwed was on an airplane flying from southern Chile to Antarctica to begin his journey. ALE notes that Szwed left Antarctica by plane for Chile on January 9, the day after Szwed claims to have been halfway through his 730-mile journey to the pole. That means he would have had to ski and hike hundreds of miles in 24 hours while dragging a loaded sled—a feat that polar travelers contend is impossible even in the best of conditions. Szwed was traveling with a GPS tracker but he said it wasn’t linking to a satellite network, so there was no trail of digital breadcrumbs for observers to follow. Also, Szwed said bad weather and failed satellite communications hindered his ability to check in with his mainland contacts at reasonable intervals during his final push, when in fact satellite communications are rarely a problem in Antarctica because the path of an orbiting satellite network travels almost directly above the South Pole.
Finally, to illustrate his arrival at the South Pole, Szwed released that selfie by the yellow sign. What drew suspicion is the fact that the yellow sign isn’t actually at the geographic South Pole, though it is in the vicinity. The true marker is a separate sign in front of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and that’s where everyone who makes it to the pole typically sets up the camera. Also, Szwed’s image clearly looks Photoshopped. (When German magainze Der Spiegel pressed him on the issue in February after his return, Szwed said the image was “a montage," and not a real photograph.)
At this point, few who are familiar with Antarctic expeditions believe that Szwed achieved his goal. German gear company Tespack Oy, one of his key sponsors, released a statement last February saying that questions about Szwed’s claims “need to be answered and all information regarding the expedition validated. Therefore Tespack Oy suspends Martin Szwed’s sponsorship, effective immediately, until Mr. Szwed provides proof to support his claims.” More than a year has passed, and Szwed hasn’t provided any evidence.
It’s summertime in Antarctica right now, which means expedition season. Explorers have descended on the icy continent, and the record-breaking attempts are lining up: a UK explorer is gunning for the first-ever unsupported solo crossing of the 1,100-mile continent; a Scottish finance worker wants to become the first Scot to complete an unsupported trek to the South Pole; a group of cyclists had planned to compete in the inaugural fat biking race to the pole (but ultimately didn't). The list goes on.
Most sports have guidelines, rules, and official governing bodies. Exploration, however—whether at the poles, in the mountains or jungles, or on the seas—is more of a free-for-all. The routes, loads, time frame, and exact specifications typically vary from one expedition to the next. An expedition can be partial, aided, supported, motorized, or guided. Without a governing body and easily understandable rating system, the public and the media tend to measure each claim with the same yardstick. To people unfamiliar with the realities of Antarctic travel—most everyone in the world, it’s safe to say—Szwed’s feat appeared as real as the next piece of news floating through the digital data stream. And therein lies a frightening reality of 21st-century exploration: Hoaxes abound, and they skew our perception of what it means to push the limits of human discovery.
For hundreds of years, starting in the 15th century during the Age of Exploration, explorers focused on expanding national borders and enhancing trade and were funded primarily by national governments. But by the turn of the 20th century, most of the world’s political boundaries were mapped, and the impetus for exploration shifted from discovery to breaking records and pressing the limits of human endurance. The new zeitgeist was encapsulated in George Mallory’s famous reply, in 1923, to the question of why he had chosen to climb Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.” That opened the floodgates. No longer was there a need to justify any higher reason than pure desire.
“Fear of death is bad enough, but the fear of the failure in an achievement-oriented society is worse.”
The shift in objectives meant a significant drop in government backing, and expeditions became reliant largely on sponsorships or donations from patrons. It’s easy to think of private sponsorships as a recent development, but even famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton spent substantial time chasing dollars to fund his exploits. He funded the 1914 Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition (of Endurance fame) with roughly 50,000 pounds sterling, or roughly $1.57 million in today’s dollars. He solicited all of it from private donors. Even at that price, Shackleton’s expedition was bootstrapped from the start. By contrast, the budget for Will Steger’s seven-month traverse of Antarctica in 1989 tipped the scales at an unprecedented $12 million. (Twenty-five years later, the operator that carried Steger to Antarctica would fly Martin Szwed there as well.)
The 1990s ushered in a breed of adventurer never before seen in the annals of exploration: the paying client. This new guard effectively sidestepped the rites of passage that characterized the careers of professionals like Mallory, Shackleton, and Steger, who spent decades building their adventure resumes and earning hard-won wisdom. Many of these newcomers were successful businessmen or entrepreneurs who were interested in pushing personal boundaries but lacked experience in the brutal environs where they sought adventure. At the same time, technological advancements in GPS, satellite communications, and outdoor gear and apparel made adventuring much more accessible. Logistics companies began offering easy access to places that once took years to reach.
Nowhere is this evolution more clearly seen than in the commercialization of Everest that began 20 years ago. To support a growing demographic of amateur mountaineers, guide services in Nepal and abroad sprang up, designed to cater to nearly anyone who could foot the bill. By 1996, the year in which eight climbers died in a storm that engulfed the mountain, it was not uncommon for a client to show up at Everest Base Camp with barely the knowledge of how to lace their crampons, let alone climb the tallest mountain in the world. The same is true of paying customers on the mountain today.
“You should always believe an explorer’s word.”
As more people set out in pursuit of a record, and with so many of the most enticing ones already claimed, we started inventing new “firsts” to achieve. In 1985, for example, the late Dick Bass, founder of Utah’s Snowbird Ski Resort, became the first person in history to complete the Seven Summits—climbing the highest mountains of each of the seven continents. The feat launched what Jon Krakauer dubbed the “postmodern era” of exploration, which persists today. A quick online search reveals a surprisingly long list of records: The first Norwegian to reach the Seven Summits. The first American to climb and ski the Seven Summits. The first married couple. The list goes on and on. Instead of focusing on the physical feat, we're now focused on the defining characteristics of who did it, with the differences between records sometimes too minute to really matter.
“It can be frustrating to see what in your own mind is a less difficult expedition gain attention from media,” says Ryan Waters, who has summited Everest three times and holds the Antarctic record for completing the first ski traverse without resupplies or using kites. “A good headline can be the difference in how much exposure a feat will receive.”
The pressure to be successful has led to corner cutting, falsifying records, and outright lying, even among acclaimed professionals. Take Christian Stangl, an Austrian climber who lied about breaking the summit record on K2 in 2010. Stangl had already racked up a lifetime of speed ascents by the time he reached K2’s base camp in August of that year and was coming off his successful five-year Seven Summits Speed Project. His effort on K2 appeared even more impressive and involved a solo push to the summit via the Abruzzi Spur. In just 70 hours, Stangl had managed to summit the most dangerous mountain in the world. Or did he?
Stangl had no GPS data to back his claim. His single summit photo cast further doubt because the background deviated from other summit photos. Amid mounting pressure to substantiate his claim, Stangl admitted the hoax less than a month later during a press conference.
“I suppose that I came to this from a mixture between fear of death and even greater fear of failure,” he said at the time. “Achievement and success were and are the determining factors in my sport…My sponsors did not pressure me into doing this. This pressure came from inside me. Fear of death is bad enough, but the fear of the failure in an achievement-oriented society is worse.”
Tom Sjogren has a saying: “You should always believe an explorer’s word.” While exploration isn’t exactly the gentleman’s game of golf, endeavors like ocean sailing, mountaineering, and polar exploration are fundamentally rooted in the etiquette of honesty and accuracy. Most of these expeditions are carried out solo and occur in remote locations with no other witnesses. In some cases, all we have is our word. Which reveals a great dilemma: How can we trust solo explorers setting out to claim new records?
Sjogren, originally from Sweden, runs the online expedition news forum ExplorersWeb with his wife, Tina. Since it launched in 2002, the site has become the authoritative source for information on all types of expeditions, in part because the couple has taken to fact-checking questionable record claims like Szwed’s. In the past several years, the pair has debunked everything from falsified North Pole records to a claims by a pair of Swedish climbers that they summited China’s 26,286-foot-high Shisha Pangma in 2009. ExplorersWeb receives between five and ten major accusations a year, Sjogren says, most of which devolve into he-said, she-said arguments that can’t be proven one way or the other.
An investigation begins when one explorer calls another’s record into question—usually through emails to ExplorersWeb. Tom, Tina, or a staffer then contacts the person who claimed the record, asking if he or she has any evidence of the feat. If the person doesn’t provide it—as happened when the Sjogrens reached out to Szwed—ExplorersWeb will then contact news sources that reported on the expedition, sponsors, relevant logistics operators, and prominent members of the associated community. In its search for any clues that Szwed may have left, ExplorersWeb talked to the South Pole station and other people on Antarctica during Szwed’s alleged journey. They all had the same reply: We didn’t see him.
After a prolonged investigation, Tom and Tina came to the conclusion that Szwed’s claims didn’t add up. His timeline was highly doubtful; without GPS data, there was simply no telling where he went and, consequently, where he didn’t go. Plus, there was the doctored photo. When they reached out to Szwed for an explanation, he didn’t attempt to clear up any of the accusations against him. In his reply he said:
I know what I did and I know how fast I did it. I did it for me, just for me, only for me. I never wanted to break any records. Sorry that I was so fast. I’m not claiming any of (Christian) Eide’s and ALE-made records, keep them for you. But if there are people doubting it, pay me the expedition one more time and I’ll repeat it.
Unsatisfied with Szwed’s replies to Tom and Tina—as well as a heated exchange between Szwed and Eide—I decided to reach out to the man myself. I’ve been a professional adventurer and guide for 20 years. I’ve skied to the South Pole twice, once along the same route that Szwed claimed to have taken. Polar exploration is my livelihood, and the trust of my sponsors is a hard-won privilege I don’t take for granted.
Here’s what Szwed told Outside in email exchanges and via Skype. He developed cancer when he was 24 years old and started adventuring as a way to “fight through” it. He worked for years as a climbing instructor in Germany and has carried out expeditions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, China, Chile, Iran, Uganda, Canada, and elsewhere. He set his sights on the Seven Summits some years ago and began planning a trip to Antarctica to summit Mount Vinson. Since Vinson is comparatively easy at only 16,050 feet, Szwed began scoping out other expeditions he could attempt while on the continent. He settled on an unsupported ski to the pole.
Antarctica has no central government; anyone who wishes to journey there needs permission from their respective home government. In Germany, that means applying to the Federal Environmental Agency. Szwed did and was denied passage. But by then he says he had obtained sponsorships, trained physically, and sold his car to help cover the costs of the trip. He was steeled. “I said, for sure you won’t stop me from my dream,” Szwed said. He left for Punta Arenas, Chile, and booked a trip through logistics provider ALE to the icy continent on December 30. The order and veracity of the events that took place afterward are fuzzy.
Szwed initially told his sponsors that he summited Vinson alone on December 30. He then claimed to have reached the South Pole on January 13. But apart from the ALE flight log showing that he was in the air on December 30, a photograph provided to the sponsor Aranea by his Vinson guide showed Szwed with a group of other clients on the mountain on January 5. Then ALE recorded Szwed in its logbook on a flight out of Antarctica on January 9.
During a recent Skype interview with Outside, Szwed appeared with a goatee, pierced eyebrow, and ponytail, wearing rimless glasses and a fuzzy Adidas jacket. He said he wouldn’t specify his timeline for fear of reprisal from the German government. Szwed said he is currently the subject of two investigations: A public prosecutor has accused him of fraud, on the ground that the South Pole expedition never took place, and Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency is pursuing a claim against him for traveling to Antarctica without permission. Szwed said he could face jail time and a fine of 50,000 euros if he divulges any details about the timing of his trip.
Szwed said he has the GPS data that can clear his name, but he’s sure that if he releases it, the German government will throw the book at him for traveling to Antarctica. He didn’t snap a photo at the pole like everyone else who makes it there does, Szwed said, because he left his sled—and his camera—at a cache point about 75 miles from the pole and carried just a small rucksack for the last leg of the journey. “If a guy is in the middle of nowhere for two weeks and goes over his limit…the last thing you think to do is make great sponsor pictures,” he said. The doctored selfie was an attempt to get the message across that he’d succeeded, not to serve as verification, Szwed said.
Szwed maintained that he broke the record and said the facts of his journey were distorted by his sponsors and the news media. He doesn’t dispute that he knowingly traveled to Antarctica without the proper permits. “I made some mistakes,” Szwed said. “I acted in a way that I wouldn’t do now a second time.” He reiterated the challenge he put to the Sjogrens—that anyone who doesn’t believe him should pay his way to Antarctica so he can make another attempt on the speed record.
“I made some mistakes. I acted in a way that I wouldn’t do now a second time.”
A number of blog posts on Aranea’s website documenting Szwed’s trip have been taken down, but two remain. The first, dated November 19, 2014, is an excited, one-line announcement of Szwed’s upcoming departure to Antarctica. The second, from August 2015, recaps the contradictions of Szwed’s claims. At one point, the unnamed writer asks, “Is it conceivable that he actually believes himself that he was at the South Pole?”
Had Szwed claimed anything but the solo speed record in Antarctica, most of us in the polar community probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. Lesser claims of success at the South Pole are so common that they don’t register among the guides, support staff, and polar pioneers still cracking away at the few real records left in Antarctica.
As a modern-day adventurer, I am constantly working to gain exposure for my exploits and promote myself via social media, just like Szwed did. I leverage my experiences, stories, and pictures into sponsorships, and I’ve had my share of mishaps and embarrassments. In 2012, for example, I failed an attempt to become the first person to bicycle to the South Pole. My fully loaded bike was frequently bogged down in soft patches of snow, and I fell over every hundred feet or so. It would have been easier just to push the damn thing. I remember being on the ice, feeling like I was letting down friends, family, and my sponsors after only a week of effort. Back in the United States, I quickly penned a news release stating that I had “set a new record for the longest distance ever cycled in Antarctica”—the most spin I could muster while still sticking to the facts.
When Outside contacted me to ask my opinion on Szwed, I was teaching a polar travel course on Lake Winnipeg in Canada. I had never heard of him or his situation. But I wasn’t surprised. Polar travel has long been home to a variety of hoaxes and outright lies. Regardless, I jumped at the opportunity to help shed light on what I believe is a growing cancer in the adventure world: the graying line between truth and fiction. Social media and technology have made it possible for anyone to brand themselves as professionals and experts with little or no vetting. Of course, we all want to be our best selves online, but the strategy of “fake it until you make it” has become an art form among would-be adventurers.
For hundreds of years, all that we explorers have had is our word. But in the 21st century, maybe it’s time to backstop the integrity with some proof.
As for Martin Szwed, he is gearing up to climb Everest later this year. It would be the final peak in his Seven Summits project. He is looking for sponsors.