MANSFIELD — Sean Swarner went to great lengths — and greater heights — to practice social distancing even before it became a thing.
There was no mass gathering waiting for him when he reached the top of Mount Everest in 2002. Or when he scaled the highest peak on the other six continents to complete the Seven Summits. Or when he trekked to the South Pole in 2015 and the North Pole in 2017.
The 1993 Willard High School graduate literally stood alone in becoming the first cancer survivor to climb Everest as well as the only person to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam —reaching the Seven Summits and both Poles — and finish the Ironman Triathlon, the almost inhuman three-pronged race of swimming, biking and running that he tackled in 2008 at age 34.
He did it all after surviving two terminal cases of cancer as a teenager and being left with only one functioning lung.
But, hey, he’s always had a healthy sense of humor.
"I have no idea why they call it the Explorer’s Grand Slam," he said recently about being one of only 69 adventurers to accomplish that goal. "To me it sounds like a Denny’s breakfast platter."
You’ve heard about laughter being the best medicine? Swarner, as a teenager, needed it in large doses.
Nothing is more devastating than finding out, at 13, you’ve got Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and have three months to live. You survive that only to learn, at 16, you have a unrelated form of cancer called Askin’s Sarcoma and are given two weeks to live.
He was listed in the medical journals as the only person to ever have both forms of deadly cancer. That’s distancing from people that no one seeks.
But Swarner beat incredible odds both times and would continue to do so with his inspiring feats of physical and spiritual strength.
Each time he completed a leg of the Grand Slam he carried a flag dedicated to everyone impacted in some way by cancer. Inscribed on the rainbow-colored flag he took to the North Pole were 1,960 names and the word HOPE.
"It’s amazing how the body adjusts," he said. "I think I have one big, bulldog lung that over the years I’ve trained to get stronger and stronger. It’s more psychological than anything else."
For someone so adverse to sitting still and staying put, COVID-19 has probably been every bit as nerve-wracking as walking precariously across aluminum ladders, sometimes three of them fastened together, over bottomless crevasses on his ascent of Everest — all 29,029 feet.
This health crisis has made him stir crazy.
"Last year I put in about 250,000 miles on American Airlines traveling around, making (motivational) presentations," Swarner said when reached at his home in Castle Rock, Colorado, "and this is the longest I’ve been home in 15 years. So I’m jumping out of my skin to go somewhere and just travel."
When it’s safer to fly, he’s looking at taking a group, through Swarner Expeditions, to Everest base camp, possibly next spring. The camp sits at 17,600 feet on the mountain and takes two weeks to reach.
"I would be using that trip as a vehicle to help people overcome their fears and gain their confidence back," the 45-year-old Swarner said. "It’s kind of like an immersive experience to empower people."
Swarner estimates he’s been to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet, 18 or 19 times. He tries to take a small group up every year and offers a free trip to a cancer survivor. That survivor, in turn, is responsible for using the climb as a fund-raiser to send another survivor the following year.
"It’s kind of paying it forward and keeping it in the cancer community," Swarner said. "We actually raised enough money to take three survivors this year and would have left (this) week. All three said they want to go next year."
At this point, Swarner could probably scale Kilimanjaro blindfolded.
"I don’t know about that," he said, laughing, "but they did adopt me into the Chaga Tribe, a local (Tanzanian) tribe at the base of the mountain. They gave me a name in Swahili."
It’s Mzungu kichaa.
"Loosely translated," Swarner said, "it means crazy white man."
Sounds about right.
Last Friday was the 13th anniversary of Swarner’s ascent of Alaska’s Mount Denali, also known as McKinley, which completed his climb of the Seven Summits in a six-year span.
Eight years would pass before he skied to the South Pole and then three years ago, in April, he made it to the North Pole. That latter adventure — a seven-day, 80-mile journey over floating ice in which his party braved minus-70 wind chills, pulled 150-pound sleds, risked frostbite and kept a wary eye on polar bears — was captured in a one-hour documentary called "True North: The Sean Swarner Story." It can be streamed at Amazon.com.
"Both (poles) are unique and have different obstacles to overcome," Swarner said, "but the North Pole, hands down, is much more dangerous."
Of the 15 people who set out for the North Pole, several had to be evacuated for frostbite or exhaustion, including Swarner’s team doctor.
And for those who made it, the only way they knew they arrived at the earth’s true north (90 degrees north latitude) was by GPS. There’s no land mass, no distinguishing features, just polar ice. And that ice is constantly shifting.
"If you look at the world as a glass of ice water, the northern polar ice cap is like the ice cubes floating on the water," Swarner said. "You have these arctic currents flowing underneath. One night we set up camp and literally floated 2 miles backwards. It’s insane.
"In the middle of the night, you could hear the ice cracking all around you."
It’s easy for Swarner to romanticize that sometimes-harrowing experience, especially since he proposed to his girlfriend, Julissa Perez, on his satellite phone from the North Pole.
"I go ‘Hey, when I get home, let’s go someplace warm, so I can thaw out,’" Swarner recounted. "My brain ... you know how fast your brain thinks. I said ‘Let’s get married.’ There was this long pause and I’m thinking, oh, crap, did we get disconnected? Is she thinking about this? What’s going on? Then she said yes."
It gets better.
"Later I called her and I told her out of respect for her family and culture (Julissa is from Puerto Rico), don’t tell anybody," Swarner said. "I want to ask your parents for permission. She said, ‘Well, everybody already knows.’
"She went on to tell me that when I called from the North Pole, she knew I was going to make it that day. So when I called she had me on speaker phone and her whole family was there."
They met in 2011 when Swarner was giving a presentation in San Juan. Julissa was in the front row and he had to keep telling himself during his address to stop staring. They were sitting at separate tables afterward, neither making a move, when he found out from her friend that Julissa wanted to meet him as much as he wanted to meet her.
They got married a year ago February.
"I’ve been told," he joked about giving up bachelorhood, "that it was more difficult than climbing Everest."
Marriage doesn’t mean Swarner is going to settle down. Now that he’s also a certified performance coach as well as a motivational speaker, author (his book "Keep Climbing" was on the New York Times bestseller list) and founder of the non-profit organization, The Cancer Climber Association, he plans to launch "The Summit Challenge" at SeanSwarner.com on July 1.
He will be giving clients a series of seven challenges, each to be completed in three weeks.
"The goal is to really impact their lives," he said. "We can stay in a state of suffering from pain or grief or we can choose to change into a state of joy and happiness."
New goals to reach
Swarner, who was back home last year to receive the Distinguished W Alumni Award from the Willard City Schools, also has two new extreme adventures on his radar.
Next year he’d like to run a marathon on each of the seven continents in seven days. That’s 26.2 miles a day.
"You get off the plane, you run, you eat, you get back on the plane, you fall asleep, you wake up, you run, you eat, you get back on the plane, you sleep ... repeat, repeat, repeat," he said of the whirlwind pace he would keep.
Why couldn’t he? He spent only seven months training to climb Everest and just five months preparing for the Ironman, against the advice from experts. And unlike most Seven Summitters, he started with Everest instead of finishing with the highest and hardest peak.
He’s not wired like you or me. Or anybody.
As for the other goal on Swarner’s wish list, that would truly test his motto: Redefining Impossible.
"I’d love to get in touch with Elon Musk or Richard Branson," he said, "and take a ride into space."
Makes perfect sense. Space ... the final frontier for Sean Swarner to conquer.
How do you say Rocket Man in Swahili?