Travel Far Enough, You Meet Yourself
Breaking the record for the youngest unsupported, unassisted trek to the South Pole, serving Gurkha officer Scott Sears chats planning, growing social media and being on one’s own
Interview by Andy Barnham
It is fair to say that most people don’t like the cold and that most of us Brits flee to sunnier climes at the first opportunity. Goodbye frosty morning commute and hello beachside cocktail! And yet for all the appeal and charm of supping on a chilled mojito while dipping your toes into the warm sea, for some, the easy life is… well, too easy. Why spend your time relaxing when look, there’s a mountain, let’s climb it! Or in this instance, let’s walk to the South Pole, alone and in doing so try and break the world record of youngest unsupported and unassisted to do so. Meet Scott Sears.
Following his father into the sporting arena, Scott quit school after GCSEs and spent five years on the international tennis circuit. When it was clear that invitations to appear on Wimbledon Centre Court would not be forthcoming Scott won a tennis scholarship at Boise State University, where by his own admission he was unable to transfer his racket skills to a guitar and his dreams of becoming a country music legend quickly died. Returning to the UK after graduation, it took seven months and 11 rejection letters before Scott was finally accepted to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, fulfilling a boyhood dream earning a commission into the Royal Gurkha Rifles in December 2015. It was while in Nepal, visiting his regiment to be in April of that year that Scott was caught in the earthquake that claimed the lives of nearly 9,000 people and injured another 22,000, which sparked his interest to trek to the South Pole as a way to raise funds for the Gurkha Welfare Trust to rebuild a school devastated in the earthquake.
Talking to Scott, it is clear the idea was the easy part. Where and how to start planning a 1,100kms trek when the Army has sent you to Brunei and you’ve never worn a pair of skis? Scott admits, “I had to run up a huge learning curve; how to market and talk about myself, write catchy emails and how to engage interest. All skills not found in my day to day life.” Support and sponsorship (which ultimately included Juice Plus, Shackleton Company and Base Camp Food) were vital for such an undertaking, but difficult to achieve when all potential sponsors are only interested in social media followers you have and you have none. Looking at his social media feed today, with a following of 25,000 and 14,000 respectively for Instagram and Twitter respectively, you’d think he was a natural at it, however Scott will admit to spent a huge amount of time and effort commenting, following, actively engaging – anything to build an audience.
To his credit, the social media didn’t stop during the trek, indeed Scott’s social media grew during his visit to the South Pole via his daily updates conducted every evening in the comfort of his tent. Armed with an Iridian satellite phone which connected to his iPhone at a connection speed of six times slower than dial up (if you remember what that is?) it would take 25 minutes to upload an email containing that day’s post and an image to accompany. A fickle beast at the best of times, the phone would frequently require restarting and the software reset with a connection sometimes taking an hour or more to find. And sometimes, after 25 minutes, the email would just vanish… When the system worked, and through determination it was made to work daily, the email would be received by Scott’s girlfriend Olivia, back in the UK, who would then share Scott’s thoughts on the various social media channels. With friends tagging friends, and Scott trying (via Olivia) to answer a deluge of questions posed to him, Scott saw steady organic growth, with his Instagram feed slowly coming to dominate his channels and not, as he anticipated, his own blog. With questions fed to him from Olivia in the UK, Scott had no sight of his feeds and laughs when he talks about the angry comments recited to him. “People thought I was personally responsible for my updates from Antartica and couldn’t understand why I was taking so long to reply or wasn’t able to reply!”
Of course not all comments were negative and being told school classes were following him each day helped motivate his 38 day record breaking achievement in temperatures down as low as -50C. Initially skiing for nine hours a day, pulling his 90kgs sled ‘Bessie’ containing 60 days rations, Scott moved to 12 hours a day after just over a week covering up to 40kms a day. Being kept company by a trusty iPod, laden with playlists from friends, Scott’s most surreal moment came on Day 28 when approached by two Hilux which turned out to be full of Norwegians. After almost a full day’s skiing, Scott describes this moment panicking as he was at a loss of what social etiquette (surely white tie and tails in case you’re invited to dine with penguins…? Ed) in Antartica was having been alone for so long;
“The window rolls down and a bearded man is saying something at me, oh god I can’t him, why can’t I hear him, he’s looking at me weirdly now, say something Scott…say something. “HELLO! I’VE BEEN ALONE FOR 30 DAYS! I LIKE YOUR TRUCKS! BIG! VERY BIG!” I inadvertently scream at the (Norwegian) bearded man. I manage to get my headphones loose and realise how loudly I’m talking.…”
Indeed this lack of human contact meant that when Scott did reach the South Pole, so unaccustomed was he to social interaction he pitched his tent outside the South Pole station buildings, only venturing in for meals as he slowly regained some of the weight lost during his five weeks on the ice. With the human body only able to digest and absorb up to 6,000 calories a day and burning up to 9,000 calories pulling ‘Bessie’, Scott lost 10kgs in weight.
Now back in the UK, in typical fashion the British Army is expecting their man to do his duty, throwing Scott straight into a 10 day long defensive exercise with his Regiment, leading him to calculate from the comfort of a slit trench he had only spent eight nights in bed between November and mid-January. For the moment, adventurous thoughts have been put on the back-burner as Scott re-focuses on his career; he is sanguine about the fact that without a fresh challenge to set social media alight, his following will inevitably dwindle over time. However, we can’t help but think this won’t be the last time we hear about him.