Four years ago Luke Robertson had brain surgery. That scare is partly what drives him, and his adventurer wife, Hazel Robertson, to go on breathtaking expeditions and tell a story of our changing planet. Their latest, following, by ski, the reindeer migration in Norway, brought some surprises

ON the first day they arrived in Karasjok, north of the Arctic circle in Norway, explorers Hazel and Luke Robertson walked into the small town and saw what looked like a cattle lorry bearing the words Rein Finnmark. The couple had come all this way with a plan to follow the yearly reindeer migration from their winter pastures to their summer calving lands, by ski, and they joked that maybe this was how the reindeer were getting there these days. They were hitching a ride north. “It turned out,” says Luke, “that was exactly what was happening.”

The Robertsons, explorers in residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, had known that the reindeer migration was being impacted by climate change. When I chatted with them, two days before they left to take a month-long break from their jobs working for low-carbon consultancy, they said they were brimming with information from their pre-trip research into the culture of the Sami herders who depend on the reindeer. At their Edinburgh home near Blackford Hill, surrounded by half-packed bags and camera equipment, they spoke about their plans to make a documentary. Their intention, they said, was to follow a spring migration that the herds walk sometimes more than 160 miles over frozen rivers, lakes and streams. It’s one that the reindeer make instinctively. They decide when to go. The Sami people who herd them merely do a small amount of encouraging.

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This was, the Robertsons said, a new expedition philosophy for them. “We’re used to having things quite planned,” said Hazel, “and knowing where we will be at any point but certainly following such a natural journey has meant that the people we have spoken to there have told us they don’t know exactly when the migration will start, because the reindeer will decide… It’s surrender. We follow the reindeer’s plan.”

It was set to be a very different kind of expedition from the one for which Luke Robertson is most famous, a ski-trek done in 2016, in which he became the first Scot and youngest Briton to make the journey solo to the South Pole. His feat was all the more remarkable because it came less than two years after he had gone through major brain surgery for a suspected brain tumour. Luckily that surgery revealed that the problem was a cyst, not a tumour, which he now has monitored yearly. It’s not the only health problem Robertson lives with. He has had a pacemaker since his early twenties.

That brush with mortality was, he says, when we chat again after the reindeer trip, partly what gave him the drive to do the kind of expeditions he does. “I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for that health scare,” he says. “I think I’ve always been interested in the outdoors and exploring – probably from my background as son of an Aberdeenshire farmer. But I think you typically find quite a few people who have been through health issues, or a big life situation, realise that they’ve got this inner strength and confidence in their own abilities."

One of the things he credits with having pushed him further was the fact that when he woke after surgery, he found himself in a ward with a man in his sixties who really did have a life-threatening brain tumour and had been operated on for the third time. That man told him, “Go out there, make the most of life, do everything you want to do. You never know what is round the corner.”

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Since that surgery, the 34-year-old has pursued many adventures. That first expedition to the South Pole was done solo, but many of those following, including numerous endurance ultrathons, have been in a team with his wife, 33-year-old Hazel, who has been a friend since they were 13 and at school in Stonehaven, and was his fiancée by the time he ventured to the pole. She recalls that back when he took on the long-distance Antarctic trek, she had struggled being the one waiting at ground control.

“I went over to Chile as well, to the southern tip. We had a week there getting all Luke’s kit ready, double checking, triple checking. And then when I had to leave to come back and I knew Luke was going on to Antarctica that was quite hard, because I wanted to go as well.”

This recent reindeer expedition was one they had chosen partly because they thought they would be able to see, as they followed in the tracks of a herd, how Arctic conditions were altering a way of life.

Robertson describes that their immediate impression, on arriving, was that “things weren’t actually looking great from a nature point of view”. Most of the herd had already migrated to the coast, and done so “not on hoof, but by being trucked there”. The freeze-thawing had caused a hard ice layer deep down in the snow, which was preventing the reindeer from being able to scrape through the snow, with their hooves, to the food beneath – and, since they were struggling to get nutrients, many had been trucked out.

The couple's worry was that their plans were now entirely scuppered and there would be no herd to follow. But, having skied all the way to Karasjok, they settled in and started to try to track down any herds which were still making the journey on foot. They also did a series interviews for their documentary, with local herders, the head of the Sami parliament in Norway and the boss of a controversial copper mine being developed in Finnmark.

They had long planned these as part of their mission. The Robertsons are storytellers as well as explorers, and the tale they were looking to uncover was not just about the reindeer migration, but about the relationship of the Sami community, and other indigenous communities like them, to both climate-change and the efforts the rest of us make to counter or mitigate it. Among those they chose to interview was the CEO of a new copper mine which, while encouraged by the Norwegian government as a vital supply of copper for the electrification that is part of the shift to renewables, is not loved by the Sami.

“The Sami parliament,” says Hazel, “are opposed to the mine as it could affect the reindeer migration summer grazing grounds. Also the tailings from the mine are going to be dumped into the sea and could affect salmon and fish populations. But it’s complex. As we move to electrification we need more copper, but it's trying to navigate this so that those who have contributed least to the problem are not affected among the worst, and their culture and heritage threatened.”

By the time the Robertsons had nailed those interviews, they had managed to get in touch with a couple of herders whose reindeer were still around. The second of these herders was Lars Johan, who was about to start his spring reindeer migration the next day. Without delay they got on snow mobiles with him to a site, 40 miles south of Karysjok, to see what was happening.

They came upon the herd as they came over a small rise. “They were all sitting down in the middle of the snow,” Hazel recalls. “It was peaceful and calm and that was the closest we’d ever been to a herd. Here they were right in front of us, in these amazing colours: butterscotch, vanilla, brown. And they were just doing their thing, scraping the snow and relaxing and munching. Then some just kind of got up and stood up and started walking. Lars Johan and his dad came behind once they started to get up and started making a bit of noise to bring them all together. Then they all started walking.”

They followed the herd for a while that day, stopping in clearings occasionally while they rested. Then they came back the next day on skis, by this time so familiar with some of the reindeer that the animals would eat from their hands. But Johan decided that they shouldn’t follow them the full way. They ended up skiing in the path of the migration on their own, and not directly with a herd.

On that cross-country ski trip they became more aware of the warmth of the recent spring. The snow was melting, faster and earlier than they had been told it normally would be. Everyone kept telling them it was warmer than usual. “One night,” she recalls, “we were sitting in our tent cooking and it’s like, what’s that familiar noise? We realised it was rain on the tent. Poked our heads out and it felt a bit like camping in Scotland.” This made skiing conditions tougher. They were crossing on frozen lakes and rivers and the smaller rivers were beginning to break-up. “For the final leg we were essentially skiing in water, 15 centimetres of it.”

This is not the first time that Luke and Hazel have had a trip altered by the impact of climate change. In 2017 for their first major expedition together, they attempted to be the first to journey from the bottom to the top of Alaska by bike and kayak – but were prevented from doing so by the way the melting of the permafrost was making the lakes they were kayaking across, and which were part of a historic trade route used by the indigenous Inupiat, drain down.

“As we got further inland,” Hazel recalls, “we realised that the water levels in these lakes were really low and there was this sludgy mud at the bottom that the kayaks kept getting stuck in. Long story short, we found out once we got back that the air temperature is warming and the permafrost that covers all of the Arctic and sits under these lakes had been starting to thaw.”

“It was devastating,” says Luke. “ And it made climate change much more real for us. We’ve enjoyed telling that story. We also found that we were very interested in the people who were affected by it, in the indigenous communities.”

For this latest trip they returned to that interest. Here they were, from the start, looking to find a story about how indigenous communities were being affected.

The Robertsons are a remarkable couple both in terms of the way operate under such intense conditions and the way they live so closely. In their Edinburgh lives, they even work full-time as environmental consultants for the same company. Don’t they ever, for instance, get to a point on their trips, when they’re really irritated with each other and just want to cycle ahead or sleep in another tent?

“When you’re on a trip,” says Hazel, “you let things go that you maybe wouldn’t otherwise because you’re focused on the biggest things, like getting to where you need to get to, staying safe, and you know that the other one is tired as well.” The most difficult moments for her were, she recalls, on the cycle sections in Alaska in which, since Luke is much stronger and faster, she would feel like, “I wasn’t pulling my weight and I was holding him back. Mentally I really struggled with that. We had a few difficult moments.”

"Usually the problems," says Luke, "boil down to tiredness and hunger. Just like real life.”

“Just like a child,” agrees Hazel. “Hangry.”

Both are keen to point out that there's nothing exceptional about them. “I’m not special,” says Luke. “I’m a completely normal human being who has just done a few crazy things. I feel that if I can get through the health issues I’ve had, then so can others. It’s about others realising that they have this inner strength.”

Hazel hasn’t had health issues herself but says she is affected by Luke’s experience. “I think knowing what Luke has gone through has made me think about my own mortality and be aware that things can change so quickly. Your whole world can change. Because of that I try to get the most out of life. I think it’s calculated risk taking. Let’s just do it. Not maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. No. Just do it.”

That awareness of mortality also seems to have prompted a desire to make a difference. “I think,” says Luke, “that going through severe health issues, and coming out the other end and realising how lucky you are, gives you a feeling that you make a positive impact in lots of ways in the short time we have on earth.”

One of the ways they hope to have that impact is by communicating stories, like this, about climate-change.

What they found in Finnmark, says Hazel, was a story about how some of the people who “make the least contribution to climate change are being hit the most.” The Sami herders have, she says, “been living in tune with the land and in quite a circular way, by making sure that the land is in good enough condition for the next year’s reindeer grazing and the year after that.” But, she observes, they are being impacted not just by climate-change itself, but also projects like the copper mine, or windfarms which are being built on the pastures.

We should consider such people, she says, as the world attempts to shift towards greener energy. “That has to be done in a way that doesn’t disadvantage anyone," she says. "The irony is that a lot of the people who have not caused the problem are being hit worst. This trip has definitely taken that to a more human level for me. We need to think who is going to benefit, and who is maybe going to be unfairly affected?”

The couple, in their own way, are part of a new kind of exploration, one that is not about discovering new places, but about discovering the ways in which the world is changing rapidly, and bringing back stories of that impact – a kind of eco-exploration.

“For us,” Hazel says, “it’s about discovering the changes to places and being able to share the stories of how they are impacting the people that live there. A story feels more powerful when it has a human element. You’ve looked these people in the eye and heard their stories and tried to understand what their life is like. I think that’s important given the trend, globally, towards countries looking a bit more inwards. What we need to be doing is looking outwards and learning from others.”