Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
The North Pole has long fascinated adventurers, each one eager to set new records. But being first is no longer the holy grail of Arctic exploration. Polar explorer Eric Larsen shares what expeditions are like now—when the finish line is melting.
“It’s not about being first,” polar explorer Eric Larsen tells me, before we embark on a overnight winter camping trip with a group of other cold-weather loving adventurers. “It’s about being last, and seeing these places before they’re forever changed.”
We weren’t heading to the North Pole (even if it sure felt like it) and a place Larsen knows well; instead, we pitched our tents in the backcountry of Irwin, Colorado, outside Crested Butte. And Larsen wasn’t challenging anyone to a race up the mountains either. He was referring to the race to the North Pole—a race that has changed significantly since the heyday of Arctic exploration, thanks (or rather, no thanks) to the modern-day threat of global warming.
The North Pole has fascinated and obsessed polar explorers for over a century—it’s not only been an international competition to be the first to arrive there, but also with some sort of unique spin.
In 1969, British man Sir Wally Herbert was the first confirmed person to reach the North Pole on foot—with a team of dogs. Russian Dmitry Shparo led the first team to ski there in 1979. And American Ann Bancroft was the first woman to trek there in 1986, as part of an expedition team led by Will Steger—also the first team to do so without a resupply. And in 2006, Eric Larsen together with Lonnie Dupre, became the first to reach the North Pole on foot during the summer—when sea ice is looser than usual—in an attempt to raise awareness of climate change, the first of his several North Pole expeditions.
“The character of the sea ice is dramatically different. It’s thinner, it’s much more rough, and it’s broken up more. Less big wide pans of ice,” Larsen explains to me. “The drift is a lot different, it moves every which way instead of this consistent drift.”
In fact, the ice in the Arctic is shifting so much that during one expedition, after a couple of weeks’ trekking, he found himself more south than where he started.
Larsen and his expedition partner Ryan Waters are among the last—if not the last—polar explorers to have trekked to the North Pole on foot. Their 2014 journey was documented in Larsen’s book, On Thin Ice, and the Animal Planet documentary, Melting: Last Race to the Pole. It details the perils of their trek from the north coast of Canada’s Ellesmere Island to the geographic North Pole, 500 miles across the Arctic Ocean, and highlights the changes taking place. This body of water, typically in a frozen solid state, has been diminishing rapidly over time; according to a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) report, the polar region is warming twice as fast as the world average.
“There’s no such thing as cold weather … Just not enough layers.”
Larsen and Waters’ 2014 trek has been dubbed “The Last North Pole Expedition” and their footage reveals the reality of Arctic ice sheets—they are in a far more unstable condition for trekking than they have been in the past. And although their expedition was successful, it was not long after that trekking to the North Pole was deemed logistically impossible, at least, from North American entry points; the airline that supported North Pole expeditions suspended all air service indefinitely because of the unpredictable ice. In fact, two Dutch explorers on an Arctic expedition in 2015 went missing, most likely falling through the ice and drowning.
“What we’re doing now is still kind of a voyage of discovery, so to speak,” says Larsen. “But we’re discovering a place as it exists right now, which is a lot different than what it used to be.”
Eric Larsen did not grow up in an environment of polar exploration. As a kid of Wisconsin, USA, he found himself looking for a job in Minnesota and accepted a lodge’s offer to be a musher.
“I’d never seen a sled dog before,” he says. “And so I drove back home and rented that Disney movie Iron Will. I was watching it, taking notes, basically in my mind thinking, Okay, here’s what they do. And I got all my long underwear and gear—like the crappiest cotton long underwear you could possibly imagine—and a pair of boots. I had nothing basically.”
On-the-job training conditioned Larsen to the cold outdoor lifestyle, and exposed him to polar exploration culture. By the following spring, after his winter mushing job, he had the opportunity to travel to the Arctic—and he was instantly hooked. Short trips became longer trips, which became bigger expeditions.
He’s since been to the North Pole a few times, was among the first mountaineers to summit the peak of Jabou Ri in Nepal in 2015, and even made an attempt to be the first person to bike across Antarctica to the South Pole in 2012. He’s also the first to have trekked to the North Pole, the South Pole, and the peak of Everest—within the span of one year.
Needless to say, Eric Larsen has become quite accustomed to sub-zero temperatures. In fact, he favors them. “I prefer minus 30 over plus 30,” he once told Jay Leno during an appearance on The Tonight Show while promoting climate change awareness and his 2006 summer expedition with Lonnie Dupre.
The coldest Larsen has ever endured is an ambient temperature of -60°F, which didn’t exactly worry him. “There’s no such thing as cold weather,” he explains. “Just not enough layers.”
“A big polar expedition is like a chess game that plays out over two months, so you’re having to make these moves very carefully over time.”
Strategies in layering up—but not overlayering—was one of the lessons I learned on our Colorado camping trip, an abridged version of his polar training course, which he typically conducts on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, central Canada. One of his life’s missions—outside of polar exploration and mountaineering—is to “make cold cool.”
“I think people are often times really afraid of the cold because it makes them cold, and being cold is uncomfortable,” he says. “I don’t want to be uncomfortable either. Having layers and using them appropriately is a really important part in being comfortable.”
Crappy long cotton underwear no more; Larsen now prefers and suggests thin, meshy synthetics with wicking properties that draw moisture away from the skin.
Through his lectures and hands-on instruction during our overnight winter camping trip, I learn about what it takes to endure on a polar expedition, from managing your body temperature to seeing snow as a tool rather than an adversary. I learn snow can be melted for a water source, or used—due to its recrystallization properties—to support or build shelters. However, most of polar survival is mental.
“A big polar expedition is like a chess game that plays out over two months, so you’re having to make these moves very carefully over time,” he tells us. “Something that may happen on day one could affect day 34.”
“I think what I try to do is to remain on top of all aspects of my ‘game.’” shares Larsen. “Part of that is being thoughtful. Thoughtful about the gear that I’m into, the clothes I’m wearing, how my body feels, where my mind is at, where the wind is coming from, what the surface is like.
“I’m always thinking in my mind, ‘What’s the worse case scenario?’ Mostly because I’ve probably been in it at one point or another. When you’re dealing with extreme conditions, it doesn’t take long to go from status quo—’everything’s all right’—to a super-survival situation in a matter of minutes … I’ve had my fair share of falling through ice, having close encounters with polar bears—they’re either stalking us or jumping on the tent we’re sleeping in.”
However, it’s not all physically perilous; the mental game can sometimes be the losing battle. “There’s a lot of times where you just feel so out of control. You’re just a small little dot in this huge wilderness, and so you get this overwhelming sense of futility in everything that you do at times. And that can be just as debilitating or life-threatening.”
During Larsen’s abridged polar training course in Colorado, I did get a glimpse of the Arctic’s reality. While there were no simulated polar bear attacks or demonstrations of falling through ice, I experienced another threat to the region: warming temperatures. The backcountry of Irwin, Colorado, where we had been winter camping, was also unseasonably warm, with temperatures above freezing.
Needless to say, we did not need quite so many layers.
“I’m in a periphery sport that not a lot of people understand—nor the place I’m traveling to,” Larsen explains. He said this is especially true in the US, a country that doesn’t have a collective consciousness of polar exploration on a national level, compared to, say, Norway. “So many people ask me, ‘Is there land at the North Pole?’” he gripes.
However, he wants people to overcome this naiveté and understand. And his decades of experience and wisdom mean he has the credentials to be a true educator in his field, be it via his polar training courses or his many TED talks. It’s one of his life’s goals to pass his knowledge to others, just as explorers of the past have bestowed upon him.
It was polar explorer Will Steger—who led the first unsupported North Pole expedition in 1986—who really inspired Larsen. “He is probably one of the biggest modern-day pioneers of polar exploration,” he says. “The expeditions he did were almost directly similar to Shackleton’s, still using analog technology. They weren’t using GPS. A lot of the time, there’s no logistics. To me, he kind of represents the end of that classic era of exploration.”
Perhaps it’s coincidental that Steger and Larsen—now friends—both represent the end of an era in North Pole exploration. A 2017 report from the Arctic Council predicts that the ice in the Arctic will be completely melted by 2040.
“I’m basically a dinosaur,” Larsen tells me. “The pursuit that I had chosen may no longer exist in the very near future.”