An Interview with Record-Setting Explorer Eric Larsen
Eric Larsen, 40, is the first person to have reached the South Pole, the North Pole, and Mount Everest's summit within the span of one year. He spent 48 days traversing Antarctica, 51 days trudging the Arctic, and 45 days conquering Earth's highest peak before coming home to Boulder, Colorado, in 2010. He blogged and tweeted the entire way for his Save the Poles project, whose goal is to get people to care — and do something — about climate change.
Q: How did you get the idea to set this record?
A: It came to me at end of another expedition I completed in 2006, when I was at the North Pole in summertime. I was surprised to see more water than ice, and I realized that my next trip could be a really powerful tool to inspire others to act.
Q: How do you use your own travel to inspire someone else’s actions?
A: Not everyone has the ability to go to these remote places, so I think there's a lot of value when someone’s doing something that most people can’t. What I try to do when I’m there is build an emotional connection. A lot of people see the North Pole as a vast space with a blank personality, so I was painting a really vivid picture that gives people a human connection to draw on when they ultimately hear about how those places are being lost. My journeys serve as an overall source of inspiration. I’m an average person. I’m not the smartest, not the strongest, not the fastest. When you realize what average people are capable of, it inspires us all to overcome whatever big obstacles we might be faced with, whether it’s on a personal level or these bigger environmental problems.
Q: Did you have to rush to accomplish your goal, or do you feel like the pace was right?
A: The basic schedule was dictated by Antarctica in summertime, so that’s November, December, and a little bit of January. We had a limited amount of supplies, but it wasn’t like we were racing to get to the South Pole. We were able to travel efficiently and make it there in 48 days. The North Pole was definitely a bit of a race to get out before the ice started melting. And then definitely on Everest, we were racing bad weather. But I’d been planning this trip for three and a half years, so I knew the windows of travelability in each of those places. That said, there was no guarantee I was going to make it, and there were a lot of obstacles in climbing Everest where I thought, “You know what, we probably aren’t gonna make this.”
Q: How did it feel when you actually did?
A: I was relieved, actually. And I didn’t feel totally relieved until I got down to base camp because, true, I got up, but there’s still getting down.
A: I was in a constant state of awe. It was balanced with stark fear. But for me, the physical end of a trip is anticlimax. I don't feel like, "Oh, I'm so tough." It's more, "I'm just amazed I was able to pull it off." It's definitely more about the journey and the things I learned along the way. The summit or the pole, those just define the trip and give the end point.
Q: What was the most harrowing moment of that year?
A: The biggest stress was on Mount Everest. We had a very narrow weather window and I got to a point where I could almost see the summit and big storm just blew in and turned to whiteout. I almost turned around and gave up half an hour from the summit. That was a scary moment for a lot of reasons. One, because a lot of my own success was based on getting to the top. And also I was dehydrated, we’d run out of rope, and had had no sleep for several days, so I was very, very nervous about getting back down alive.
Q: Was it hard to file daily updates from the field? How did you do that?
A: I have a really great web consultant who developed a program, so I was able to just send an email with my position and feeds. That would automatically update my Facebook, Twitter, and my website. To do that, I had a small Palm Pilot computer that was hooked up to a satellite phone. And I could send out images and text through that every day.
Q: Didn't that feel like a hassle to have to do?
A: It’s definitely a lot of work. You’re outside in -40° temperatures in a tent, trying to focus your thoughts. You want to string sentences together in ways that might make sense and be interesting to somebody. It’s a lot of effort, but it’s also a very big, important part of my mission, which is telling that story in real time and getting that message out to as many people as possible. I look at it as just part of my overall job.
Q: Did you see any obvious signs of climate change?
A: Yeah. I had done that previous trip to the North Pole, so going back there, I was very surprised. The ice had changed dramatically. It was thinner and rougher and lifted up more easily. It's concerning because polar ice caps are integral in regulating the world's climate. As they change, so does the rest of the planet. In the Himalaya, all the Sherpas talk about it: the Khumbu Glacier retreating, the ice pinnacles shrinking, and definitely weather patterns changing.
Q: What are your biggest concerns for those places?
A: That they're forever changed and will no longer be in the pristine way that I experienced them. And that how they change is going to affect the entire planet very dramatically. Polar ice caps are integral in regulating the world’s climate. As they change, so does the rest of the planet. It’s a faraway place but it affects us most dramatically.
Q: How do your explorations promote clean-energy solutions?
A: That’s something I’ve definitely struggled with, which is, “What is the value of what I do?” First, it’s just providing a testimonial that these places are changing and melting. While that might not have been the ultimate goal of my trip, with today’s political climate, that’s the most important thing I can do, to provide that verification. Secondly, it reminds and assures people that individual action can have a dramatic effect and can make positive change.
Q: Do you offset your flights?
A: Yes, with Terrapass.
Q: What’s your favorite story of being in these great frozen places?
A: One time on the Arctic Ocean, we were traveling in a really bad whiteout. I couldn’t even see the snow underneath me and broke a ski. And in all that stress, suddenly the sky above us cleared up. There was a hole of blue. It was just so incredibly beautiful. We were in awe at being able to experience the raw power of that place.
Q: What helps you inspire other people?
A: I talk about the overwhelming goal of completing these three trips. At the start, it seemed impossible to me. I mean, nobody had ever done it before. I acquired this philosophy of “begin with one step.” If you take a big problem and break it up into little pieces, we can accomplish just about anything. Climate change is much like this big problem that seems so large that any individual action seems insignificant. But using that philosophy of "begin with one step" is an empowering way to remind people that individual action can make a difference.
Q: What got you interested in being an explorer? What made you make that life decision?
A: [laughs] I tried to ask myself that same question for many years and finally I just gave up looking for an answer. Because there are a lot of other jobs that are more secure and stable. But for me, it’s the curiosity about the natural world. I wondered what it’s like. Not just learning from a book, but to physically be out in these places without a motor for days and weeks and months. You begin to really understand all the little nuances of that place. That’s a really empowering feeling and something that I really enjoy. I also like the physical and mental challenges of these expeditions because they’re these big puzzles. I enjoy trying to find ways to put those pieces together.
Q: In case someone reading this wants to follow in your footsteps, can you tell us how you make money at being an explorer?
A: No idea. Absolutely no idea. Let me know if you can tell me because I would love it [laughs]. I wouldn’t say that I’m making money. I’m sustaining myself. There’s a difference. I do some other work, like guiding, so a lot of that money goes to pay for the expeditions. I do a lot of speaking engagements as well. This whole trip was a pretty low-budget affair. It was me working out of my basement. It definitely involved a lot of planning and preparation.
Q: What’s your advice for aspiring explorers?
A: Uh, don’t do it? [laughs] No, I’m kidding. Excel at one thing. Find whatever your niche is. Try to be unique and different. And then throw your heart over the fence and hopefully the rest will follow. Because there are so many hurdles along the way that it’s very easy to give up, but with enough hard work, you can accomplish a lot.
Q: How about endurance tips for someone wanting to do a similar exploration?
A: First of all, understand what you’re willing to sacrifice. Sacrifices are many, from hanging out with your friends to having financial stability to being relaxed. You can kiss those goodbye. But the main thing is, plan and train for years. I have a philosophy: “Train hard and travel easy.” All of that work and training, it pays off.
Q: How did you keep your team motivated?
A: Motivation is an interesting thing. Ultimately, it has to come from within yourself. Every aspect of these expeditions is heart. Nothing is easy. Sleeping is 50 times harder than it is at home because it’s -40° outside. So the motivation is something that I struggle with, and that I think everybody struggles with. The big thing is to realize that your motivation is going to wax and wane, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s also humor and pleasure in the worst situations, which also helps. Finding any sort of positive in all that negative is a way to stay motivated.
Q: What was your most important piece of gear?
A: As silly as it sounds, maybe the satellite phone. Even though I could have done the trip without it, I couldn't have shared my story, which was my biggest goal.
Q: How does your family handle you being away so much? Do they worry?
A: I don’t think they do. I’ve been doing expeditions long enough now that I think they understand that my goal is to be safe and come back alive. My family is very supportive, and it’s nice to know that people are thinking about you when you’re out in those places.
Q: Your last name sounds Nordic.
A: Norwegian is my heritage, yes.
Q: So does your heritage come into play in trying to save these places?
A: I don’t know. Maybe. I'd like to think it does. But I think more of it stems from spending a lot of time outside with my family as a kid.
--interview by Avital Binshtock / photo courtesy Eric Larsen Explore