Alumni: Scott Sears Breaks World Record with South Pole Expedition
Bede’s alumnus, Lieutenant Scott Sears (Deis House, 2003-2006), reached the South Pole on Christmas Day 2017 on an expedition across the Antarctic – becoming the youngest person to ever make the journey alone, unsupported and unassisted. Despite being back at work just a few days after his return to the UK, Scott found time to speak with us about his experience.
Scott’s gruelling 1,100km journey from Hercules Inlet involved climbing uphill through crevasse fields on a pair of skis and dragging a 100kg sled (which Scott affectionately named ‘Bessie’), for a consistent 12 hours per day. By the end of the trip, Scott had reached 10,000 feet in elevation while battling the unpredictable Antarctic weather of winds up to 150mph and temperatures to -50c.
All photographs in this article are courtesy of Scott Sears.
The physical challenge is no mean feat by anyone’s standard, and the charitable fundraising efforts behind the expedition makes Scott’s achievement even more extraordinary. At the time of writing, Scott has raised £39,290 for the Gurkha Welfare Trust, far surpassing his original target of £4,000. The charity works to ensure that Gurkha veterans, their families and communities are able to live in dignity following their service in the British Army, and – as a serving Lieutenant in the Royal Gurkha Rifles – is a cause very close to Scott’s heart.
“I was lucky enough to go to Nepal for two weeks for a language course with work, and I have seen the devastation of the 2015 earthquake first hand,” Scott explains. “It’s a great thing to be able to deliver some of the money needed and to see the implementation of it. I would like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has donated; the support has been absolutely amazing.” The funds raised will build a school in Gorkha named after Rifleman Suraj Gurung, a fellow soldier in the Royal Gurkha Rifles who sadly lost his life in Afghanistan in October 2010.
Alongside charitable fundraising, Scott’s main motivation came from the thrill of the challenge itself. “I wanted an adventure,” he says. “I’m inspired by explorers like Ranulph Fiennes and Douglas Mawson, and wanted to test myself in the polar climate as it is the most miserable and challenging environment, both physically and mentally. The world record is an amazing thing, but it wasn’t something we set out to do originally – it came up later, and became a way to attract more corporate sponsors. I wanted to see if I was quite as robust as I thought I was, and if I could continue going without relying on my teammates.”
It took two years to plan the expedition, and Scott did most of the preparations while he was working in Brunei. “I was lucky that with my job we spend most of our time walking long distances with lots of kit on our backs,” Scott says, “so I was training constantly with the Gurkhas which kept me at a relatively high level of fitness. I added in some long tyre drags across the beach in Brunei to simulate dragging a 100kg sled.”
The most difficult part of putting the expedition together – despite the intense physical challenge ahead – wasn’t the training, or even logistics. “The hardest part of the whole thing was getting the money together,” Scott says. “I needed to raise £77,000 in sponsorship, and the process was exhausting and demoralising.
“I tried everything, contacting everyone I knew and every company I could think of, even with the most ridiculous tenuous links. I was sending around 100 emails per day from around 2am from Brunei [9am UK time]. Out of the 100 emails, I would get a response from 8-10 companies, and 90% of those responses would be a ‘no’. So I would be left with 1-2 emails received per 100 sent requesting a further conversation, and 1 out of 50 of those would result in sponsorship of a few hundred pounds.”
Thanks to a lot of resolve and the generous support of several organisations – including Scott’s co-presenting sponsors, The Shackleton Company and Juice Plus UK – the funds were finally in place and the expedition could begin. “A lot of people assume I had a whole team behind me to plan this expedition, but most of the people involved came in at quite a late point,” Scott explains. “For the majority of the two years, the planning was up to me and my amazing, long-suffering girlfriend, Liv.”
The expedition had some dangerous elements and, although Scott made the journey alone, he had a team in Antarctica (ALE) to support him with safety on the ground. The risk of the journey was a concern for Scott’s friends and family, and convincing them that it was a sensible idea took some time. “For the first year and a half it was not a topic spoken about in the house,” Scott jokes. “I think that for them the idea came out of the blue – I had never been skiing before, and I can see why they thought that I may have been ill prepared for the challenge ahead.
“I’m not from a military family, and although I had been leading 30 guys in the jungle for a couple of years before the trip (which in some ways is a much more hostile environment than the Antarctic), my family hadn’t seen that – they didn’t know that side of me. I think they still saw me as I was at Bede’s, losing my tennis rackets and leaving my bags on the bus all the time. But by the time I was making my way to the Antarctic, everyone was incredibly supportive.”
One of Scott’s main highlights of the trip was at the beginning, standing at the start point, Hercules Inlet, as the small twin otter plane that carried him there from the Union Glacier Camp flew away. “That was a really special moment,” he says. “The landscape was completely barren with white and blue everywhere. I wasn’t dealing anything stressful, like hunting for [sponsorship] money or answering emails, everything was just still. The first couple of minutes were amazing.”
From there, the challenge really began – and it pushed Scott to his absolute limit. “The day before the finish line was the worst day – I hit ‘the wall’ about 30km from the pole, and was moving just a couple of steps at a time [before having to pause]. However, there was never a point when I thought, ‘I’m going to stop’. It was hideous at times, but I didn’t give myself the option of being picked up. And I’m glad that it wasn’t too easy – it’s good to know that I was able to break through it and keep going to the end.”
Naturally, Scott’s adventure gained a lot of attention, and many people showed their support and followed the expedition online. The avid followers of Scott’s blog and Instagram page were kept updated with news from the Antarctic thanks to a satellite phone and Liv’s efforts. “I could connect to Bluetooth via the satellite phone, but it was 6 times’ slower than dial-up speed,” Scott explains. “So after 12 hours of skiing, I would spend 25 minutes every night uploading the pictures and text, sending it to Liv, and then she would post the updates from the UK.
“The public response has been amazing,” he continues. “I really wasn’t aware of how closely people would follow the blog, but we had 30,000 people viewing it every day. Some of the people following the trip and getting in touch were from Sussex and my childhood, which meant a lot.”
Scott was born and raised near Lewes in East Sussex, and was introduced to the world of professional sport from a young age (his mother water-skied for South Africa, and his father was a full-time tennis player before becoming a coach). Scott’s passion for sport and the outdoors led to a tennis scholarship at Bede’s. “I really enjoyed my time there, and played tennis most of the time,” Scott says. “It was fantastic for my development.
“Working with Julie Salmon [Director of Tennis at Bede’s] was a real highlight, and we still stay in contact now – she has always been so supportive, and we are good friends. It’s nice to know that I still have a connection with Bede’s, even though it’s been over 10 years since I left.”
After leaving Bede’s, Scott was awarded a tennis scholarship at Boise State University in Idaho, USA, and went on to play tennis on the international circuit for 5 years. However, at the age of 19 years old, Scott decided to call time on his tennis career – “I came to the disturbing realisation that I was truly horrible at playing tennis,” he jokes – and pursue his lifelong dream of joining the Army. “It’s always been something I have wanted to do,” Scott says. “As a kid, I was always playing soldiers in the woods. I’m suited to a physical, outdoor environment – I have never really been interested in an indoor job.”
Despite Scott’s passion for joining the military, the Army originally rejected Scott’s application to attend the Royal Academy Sandhurst. “As I left Bede’s at 15 years old to pursue tennis, I didn’t have any UCAS points,” he explains. “They rejected me on that basis – despite the fact that I had a degree.” Adamant that he wasn’t going to give up, Scott set an alarm for 11am every day and phoned the recruitment office between lectures at the University of Sussex (where he was completing a Graduate Diploma in Law as a backup plan), and persisted for 7 months. “I think they got really sick of me phoning them,” Scott jokes, “as I was invited to attend the Officer Selection board and commissioned into the Royal Gurkha Rifles in December 2015. Getting into and serving with the Gurkhas has been my biggest achievement by far.”
So, what is next for Scott? “My main focus is on work at the moment – I’ll be going to Afghanistan next year, and will be in Egypt for a couple of months’ training before then. I’m looking forward to it; it will be busy, which is always good."
And any more expeditions planned? “I do have a few ideas – the whole thing is a bit addictive, so I’m sure that something will come up.”
Watch this space.