Hazel & Luke Robertson: Modern Scottish Explorers
Two modern-day explorers who are using their experiences to help other people realise their own dreams.
14 Jan 2022
Two modern-day explorers who are using their experiences to help other people realise their own dreams.
14 Jan 2022
Historian Jo Woolf, writer in Residence for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, tells the story of Luke and Hazel Roberston - two modern day Scottish explorers using their experiences in Antarctica, Alaska and beyond to inspire others.
At 100 Princes Street we will pay homage to Edinburgh's rich history and take inspiration from the explorers who put 100 Princes Street on the map. In design, our teams will look to create a 'sense of place', working with local artisans to create bespoke pieces and feature a mural honouring the adventures of several great Scottish explorers by Croxford & Saunders. Read more about this rich history below.
Together and individually, Hazel and Luke Robertson have taken on the challenges of some of the world’s wildest and most inhospitable places, from Alaska to the Antarctic. As a husband-and-wife partnership, they have learned, first hand, about the preparation and mental attitude necessary not just for solo expeditions, but for travelling together and as part of a larger team. The outdoors is their motivation and their inspiration, and they light up when they’re talking about their experiences.
To begin with, I was interested to know what started them both on such an adventurous path. Hazel explains that her family moved to Alaska when she was nine, and she lived there for four years: “For me, it was the perfect age… we had moose and bears in the back garden, and spent the summers camping and fishing. There was a forest at the back of our house, and we’d build forts, climb trees, and just let our imagination run wild.” Total immersion in a different culture gave Hazel an early love of exploring new places and getting to know the people who live there.
Meanwhile, Luke was drawn to the woods near his parents’ farm in Aberdeenshire; like Hazel, he spent all his spare time outside. His inspiration came from books by Enid Blyton - The Secret Seven and The Famous Five - which he would read in dens made of straw bales. Then, when he was eight, his family moved to France for a year, and Luke found himself in a French-speaking school: “No one spoke English there… it was total immersion, and I was soon speaking fluent French! Everyone was so friendly. That experience made me curious about the world - very open to finding out how other people see things.”
Back in Scotland, secondary school trips to Iceland and the Alps opened the door to exciting new possibilities. Luke says: “I started to think a bit bigger: could I explore other parts of the world? Then I began to read about the great polar explorers - people like Scott and Shackleton. Antarctica seemed like another world, a whole continent of ice - I couldn’t get my head around that!”
The world was expanding for Hazel, too. In the US and Canada, she worked as an expedition leader and guide in summer camps and ski resorts, and she also started long-distance running. During a race in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, she realised that she loved the simplicity of adventure: “It was as if a switch flicked on in my head. I knew I had everything in my backpack that I needed to survive. It was liberating.” Challenging herself to run longer distances, Hazel was soon competing in the Arctic Ice Ultra, a five-day race in Arctic Sweden.
For Luke, aged 23, the Antarctic was a dream for ‘someday’… and then life presented him with a new reason to focus. Diagnosed with a heart condition, he was told that he needed to be fitted with a pacemaker. He says: “I realised that ‘someday’ needed to be sooner than I thought, because it might never happen. After the operation, I started to think intentionally. I decided that although I couldn’t change my heart condition, I could still control my outlook on life, and what I wanted to do with it.”
Luke started planning his expedition to Antarctica and was about to embark on training expeditions in Norway and Greenland. Instead, he found himself in a neurological ward awaiting another urgent operation. Intense headaches, dizziness and nausea had prompted a CT scan, which revealed a mass in his brain, identified as a brain tumour. Amid the doctors’ warnings, he held on to his vision: “My ward was three or four storeys up and every evening I watched the sun setting behind the Pentland Hills. I thought, that same sun is in Antarctica, right now, and I’m going to follow that sun and get to the South Pole.”
On waking from his operation, Luke was greeted with good news: the mass was a very unusual and benign enterogenous cyst, so rare that it had misled the surgeons. He was out of hospital within weeks, rather than months. He knew then that his Antarctic dream would become a reality. He says: “My life became a lot fuller! I had more sense of purpose… I thought, if I can do this, then it will hopefully inspire other people. Their dream might not be a polar expedition - it might be to run a marathon or start their own company - but it will prove to them that they can still achieve big things in life, no matter what they’ve gone through.”
On 5th December 2015, Luke stood on the shore of Hercules Inlet and watched as the plane that had just dropped him there rose from the ice and disappeared into the vast Antarctic sky. He was alone. 730 miles of ice lay between him and the South Pole. For a few long moments, he wondered if he was capable of completing the task he’d set himself. But 40 days later, he became the first Scot ever to complete an unsupported solo trek to the South Pole.
The expedition certainly had its scary moments. Two weeks into the trek, his batteries failed to re-charge. Hazel, who was maintaining regular contact from Scotland, had to rely purely on data supplied by the logistics team about Luke’s position. His food and fuel supplies ran so low that he was dreaming - or was it hallucinating? - about supermarket trolleys piled with food. But he still skied past the emergency supplies at the half-way point, in order to fulfil the criteria of an unsupported journey. By the end, he was also suffering from severe lack of sleep. He says: “Yes, I was scared. I had fear and doubts. But there’s a true saying that where the mind goes, the body will follow. You can choose to think differently about every situation.”
Hazel and Luke’s next major expedition was planned together, and they chose Alaska. Their ambition was to cycle, walk and kayak the full length of the state - all 2,000 miles of it. Hazel explains: “Alaska really captures the imagination, especially when you realise how much the environment changes from south to north. You start in a temperate rainforest, and move up to glaciers, mountains, and then tundra.” They went there to understand how climate change is affecting local people. The north of Alaska is experiencing an increase in storm surges, and sea levels are rising; melting glaciers are changing the course of rivers overnight. The evidence was everywhere. Luke says: “We saw fish populations decreasing in south Alaska, and in the north the thawing permafrost is warping roads and disrupting pylons.”
But climate change soon disrupted Luke and Hazel’s own plans, too. Some of the lakes that they aimed to kayak through no longer existed, while others were impossibly shallow. Water once held at the surface is draining away as if from a bathtub. The maps were no longer accurate. Hazel says: “We couldn’t make sense of it. Old trading routes between settlements, which were once used by the Inupiat, were no longer passable.”
The changing environment became the theme for Luke and Hazel’s ‘Arctic Connections’ expedition in 2019, which was inspired by the Sàmi people in Finnmark. For many of the Sàmi, their traditional way of life is centred around migrating reindeer herds, but it is now being threatened by plans to open a copper mine. Travelling long distances by ski, Hazel and Luke talked to the reindeer herders, the CEO of the mining company, and to the Sàmi President, Aili Keskitalo, to highlight the situation.
These two expeditions - to Alaska and Finnmark - help to define what Hazel and Luke see as the role of modern-day explorers. Hazel says: “Whereas hundreds of years ago, explorers would have been mapping out uncharted areas, now we are finding and sharing stories; we’re asking, what’s happening now in these places, and what is being achieved?” Storytelling is an important part of their mission, spreading awareness and mutual understanding of complex issues in the hope of an eventual solution. “Ultimately,” says Luke, “we’re trying to be forces for good in the world.”
Both Hazel and Luke are guides for the Polar Academy, a charity set up by another Scottish polar explorer, Craig Mathieson. The aim of the Polar Academy is to support and inspire ‘invisible’ youngsters who are suffering from low self-confidence. Participants undertake a rigorous training programme before embarking on a group expedition in eastern Greenland. Hazel says: “They pull everything behind them that they need for 10 days. They’ve never been on skis or seen a glacier. They’re learning about teamwork - helping each other, learning how to cook and how to camp.” Afterwards, the change in these young people is astonishing. “They realise that they can do whatever they set their minds to. Their horizons expand dramatically.”
Five years after Luke’s trek to the South Pole, in February 2020 Hazel was crawling out of her snow-bound tent on the Hardanger Plateau in Norway. The Hardanger Plateau is about twice the size of the Cairngorms National Park, and she had set off from the isolated town of Finse a couple of weeks before. She wanted to experience what it felt like to be alone in a wilderness, and responsible for her own decisions: “There was such a sense of freedom and simplicity. I loved knowing that I was pulling everything I needed in my pulk. I felt calm and completely self-reliant - whatever happened, I knew I'd figure it out.”
Hazel’s challenge could easily have turned into a crisis. Unusually severe snowfall threatened to wreck her plans, because the deep, soft snow made skiing with a heavy load almost impossible. Every morning she dug herself out of a snowdrift, and she had to rock the pulk to and fro just to get it moving. Progress was painfully slow, and she broke it down to 10 steps at a time. “I thought, how can I use this? Well, I’m definitely going to be able to tell this story in a talk. And I can practise being in the moment… maybe I can even enjoy it.” Once she reached the top of the plateau, “the feeling was incredible. I was gazing out at all the other mountains, and the deep zigzag path I’d cut in the snow.”
This story re-confirms one of Hazel and Luke’s core beliefs - that if you absolutely believe you can do something, you will do it. They have both proved it beyond doubt, having faced some of life’s biggest and most daunting dilemmas and turned them into unique opportunities, both for themselves and for others. As Luke says, “The choices we make in those moments determine our future.” They have also shown the importance, not only of connecting with the natural world, but of connecting with ourselves at the very deepest level.
Over the last couple of years there has been a shift away from long-distance travel, and Hazel explains that this, too, will bring its own benefits. “Everyone is more conscious now of our own footprint in the world. We’re going to look more at what’s around us here in Scotland and focus more of our time on what’s underneath our feet. This country is amazing - there are so many Munros we’ve not done, and so many places we’ve yet to explore.” Luke adds: “We’ve always tried to be aware of the impact we’re having, while telling stories about climate change. We’re now working on ways to maintain that focus, while having less environmental impact ourselves.”
Courtesy of Hazel and Luke Robertson
Hazel and Luke Robertson are Explorers-in-Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. They share their incredible experiences through public speaking engagements, and through their public speaking and mindset coaching business, Everyday Impact, they help purpose-driven leaders make more impact in the world.
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