Brain surgery inspires Luke Robertson's South Pole bid

Luke Robertson Image copyright Luke Robertson
Image caption Luke Robertson is supported in his South Pole attempt by the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes

As Luke Robertson lay in the Western General Hospital, a metal plate in his head after brain surgery, he looked across the ward and saw a man in his 60s surrounded by his family.

The man was battling a brain tumour. Luke thought his fellow patient was putting on "the bravest face" for his family. Later, the cancer sufferer spoke to 28-year-old Luke about the things in life that mattered.

"He was understandably a bit scared," said Luke.

"We had so much in common - sport, nature, expeditions, travelling.

"He had already been operated on three times. He said he had lived an amazing life, but he didn't want it to end.

"He said 'Go out there, make the most of life, do everything you want to do. You never know what is round the corner'.

"I really took that to heart. He was very inspirational at a time when I had a lot of things going through my head."

Due South

Sadly, Luke's friend didn't make it. But his story, the experiences of other cancer sufferers Luke met in hospital, and the heartache of losing his uncle to cancer, have inspired the Edinburgh finance worker to undertake a solo, unassisted and unsupported trek to the South Pole.

If he achieves the goal, which he has called 'Due South', it is believed Luke would be the first Scot and - now aged 30 - the youngest Brit to do so. But first, he needs some help.

In November, Luke plans to drag 100kg of his equipment across 730 miles of snow and ice for 35 days to the South Pole, burning 10,000 calories a day and experiencing temperatures of -50C and winds of 100mph.

Image copyright Luke Robertson
Image caption Luke spent three weeks in the company of cancer sufferers in the neurology ward of the Western General Hospital during his treatment

His proposed start date of the end of November will be ultimately determined by the weather, but there is a strong possibility he will be on his own in the snow on Christmas Day.

"It will be a guaranteed white Christmas, so that will be good," Luke joked.

"There may be a lack of presents, both giving and receiving, but perhaps I can take an extra hour's break and sing some Christmas carols to myself to keep sane."

Unassisted and unsupported, he will receive no outside help such as a re-supply by air, and no support from animals or vehicles. It will just be Luke on his skis, dragging his sledge through the wilderness.

He has already received the backing of explorers Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Mark Beaumont, and is now hoping to raise £50,000 to pay for the logistics of the expedition.

If successful, he then hopes to raise £25,000 for Marie Curie by completing the trek.

Inspired by Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, Luke - who grew up in Stonehaven - always had ambitions to go to the South Pole. But it was his brain surgery which was a catalyst.

In February last year, he went to his doctor after experiencing severe headaches and problems with his vision.

'Great shock'

The following day, he was subjected to a CT scan but not an MRI, as Luke's pacemaker - which was fitted for a heart block a day after he finished university at the age of 23 - prevented this.

He was told he had a suspected brain tumour.

Luke says he only found out he had a rare, non-cancerous, enterogenous cyst after the surgeons had operated on him for five hours. They removed a large part of the cyst, but a small section remains and he has to receive check-ups to ensure it does not return.

"It was a great shock, particularly to my friends and family, but it was effectively their positivity that helped pull me through the whole thing," said Luke.

Image copyright Matthieu Tordeur
Image caption Luke has trained in Greenland as he prepares for the South Pole

"The support I have had since then is such a motivation - it can get you through anything, as far as I'm concerned. It was very humbling speaking to people in the hospital alongside me who had a lot worse things than me.

"I feel fit and healthy - I have taken on marathons, cycles, ultra marathons. I am able to do everything I want to do, apart from contact sport and go through airport security.

"It has given me a new lease of life - a strength of wanting to show people that you can come through difficult issues and difficult periods of your life and come through stronger and take on challenges."

Luke received the backing of Sir Ranulph after contacting the explorer to tell him of his plans to take on the South Pole after his brain surgery. He also met with the legendary explorer, who has agreed to offer Luke his support as patron.

'Admirable challenge'

Sir Ranulph said: "The challenge that Luke has set out to accomplish is admirable in a number of ways. Not only is he aiming to inspire others to achieve their own goals in life and also to raise funds for Marie Curie, but he does so after overcoming significant health challenges in his own, relatively young life.

"Reaching the South Pole solo and unassisted is without doubt one of the most enduring challenges possible. I wish him all the best and will be following his progress with great interest."

As well as the fundraising, all that is left for Luke to do is prepare for the journey. He has taken part in training in Norway, Greenland, and at the University of Glasgow's 'cold chamber'.

With the close support of his parents and girlfriend, his mind will soon turn to what he will take with him to the South Pole along with the essentials to keep him alive.

He will have a satellite phone to keep in contact with the outside world, and hopes to have a tracker on him for people to follow at home. Social media updates are also planned.

Sir Ranulph's autobiography, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - a work that has inspired Luke throughout his periods of ill health - is likely to find a place on his sledge, along with some treats such as chocolate and wasabi peas.

He is currently creating a playlist of music he can listen to on the way, and is looking for suggestions from members of the public. Two songs likely to appear are Ben Howard's Keep Your Head Up and The Pogues' A Fairytale of New York, the latter to get him in the festive spirit.

With the possibility of a Christmas dinner of freeze-dried food and rubbery cheese, enjoyed on his own in the middle of Antarctica, it will certainly be one to remember.

  • You can find out more about Luke's expedition to the South Pole on his website

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