Will This Man Be the Last to Trek to the North Pole?

On his recent trip to the top of the world, polar explorer Eric Larsen didn’t so much hike as fight, slog, and swim. He’s now convinced that his will be one of the last on-foot expeditions to the North Pole.

Oct 6, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Will This Man Be the Last to Trek to the North Pole?

In the 50 plus days it took Larsen, a polar explorer, and Waters, a mountaineer, to reach the geographic pole, they saw firsthand what climate change is doing to the arctic.    Photo: Courtesy of Eric Larsen

In March, 2014, Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters set out to walk 500 miles across fields of snow and through pools of frigid Arctic water—sometimes in white-out conditions—to the North Pole. With 600 pounds of supplies in their sleds, Larsen and Waters aimed to break the world record for the fastest unsupported huff to the top of the world. 

They didn’t break the record, but in the 50-plus days it took Larsen, an explorer who has been to the pole three times, and Waters, a mountaineer, to reach the geographic pole, they saw firsthand what climate change is doing to the Arctic. Larsen expects it will also be the last time anyone makes it to the top of the world without assistance. The window, he says, is closing. So he decided to write a book about his experience. On Thin Ice is a surprisingly honest and open account of what it takes to march across one of the most solitary places on the planet. The book came out Sunday.  
 
Outside caught up with Larsen for the inside scoop on what’s so tough about a polar expedition, his near-death experiences, and why trekking across an ice sheet is like walking on a treadmill.

OUTSIDE: You went for the “warts-and-all” approach with this book. 
LARSEN: I wanted to tell the story in a way that’s not glossed over. I’m trying to give insights into what it’s really like, versus how I want to be portrayed. I think everybody wants to look a little stronger, tougher, more epic. But that’s never really been my thing. 

You make exploring the Arctic sound hard.
My trips are kind of the red headed step-child of adventuring: they don’t have the glamour; there’s no Olympic sport associated with it. They’re arbitrary, in one sense. They’re long, boring sufferfests with little change of scenery. I used to have a little chip on my shoulder about it—I knew they were interesting trips, but it was hard to get people interested.

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  Photo: Courtesy of Eric Larsen

You’ve been on frigid expeditions all over the planet—Everest, the South Pole, the North Pole twice before. Why write a book about this trip?
My line is: it’s the most difficult expedition on Earth to a place that few people understand and it may be the last in history. I wanted to do the trip in the hardest way—unsupported and unaided—and I wanted to tell the story in a way that would get people to understand the Arctic.

I know that climate change is melting sea ice in the Arctic, but what’s to stop someone else from trekking to the North Pole? How have things changed? 
In 2006, on my first expedition there, we’d get out on an ice pan and we could ski for two hours before we hit a crack or something. And 2014, we got maybe half an hour. The ice is thinner and it breaks up easier. The surface is just rougher. It’s fractured and drifting and you’re not skiing across a flat—you’re weaving, your progress is slower. 

Physically it’s still possible, but the problem is that Kenn Borek, the only flight company [to run commercial flights to the pole], ceased flying operations. There aren’t as many multi-year ice pans that they can physically land the plane on. Plus, the length of the season has shortened dramatically. Our deadline was May 4 this time—it used to be June. 

There’s another team trying this spring. I think physically, it could happen. But the success rate for North Pole expeditions is less than those on K2—20 percent or so. There have been 30 attempts in the last 15 years and maybe nine of those have been successful. 

Walk me through a day on the ice floes. 
The thing about the Arctic Ocean is it’s never boring. It’s hard to describe this to people because you’re traveling on a surface that’s constantly changing. You could have two people start within a couple days of each other and they’re going to experience a completely different surface. It’s these massive sheets of ice, five feet thick, that are cracking apart, colliding together, moving. It’s just this constantly shifting surface that’s made up of a million pieces of ice and hopefully you get some flat ones. It’s like we were pulling our sleds through sand. Our legs were filled with lactic acid.

Also, it’s all pushing you south. 

That’s crazy. How do you deal with that? 
It’s like you’re on a treadmill. Our last day we went three and half miles in over eight hours. We would reach a crack in the ice, swim across it, and we’d get to other side and we’d be farther south than we were before. The whole thing is moving south that fast. We watched our GPS distance from the Pole just tick up. It was nuts. 

You swam across cracks in the ice? 
Yeah, we’ve got dry suits—its fairly protective, you’re fairly buoyant.

That sounds terrible.
It isn’t terrible because we’d practiced it enough. But you get in some situations. You’re already tired, you know? There was this one time where I was unable to get out of the water on the other side and it was very scary to me. I was drained for the next couple days. Crossing each one of those takes half an hour to an hour. And your margins of safety—which are already very thin—go down even further being in that water. It’s easy to have water go down where your face is. Your body core temperature drops. 

Recovering from each of those and dealing with that kind of greater physical threat—as well as the overall idea that the progress is being slowed and the ice is breaking up. It’s a perfect storm of crap. It’s never easy. There’s was never a time like, “We’re just gonna swim across.” You’ve done it 50 times, but the 51st time is still a lot of stress. You’re still on edge. You do it, but it’s because you have to. 

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  Photo: Courtesy of Eric Larsen

Was this harder than everywhere else you’ve been? Even harder than Everest? 
The Himalayas are an intense environment, but overall it’s relatively dry. Cold temperatures with humidity, like in the Arctic, destroy everything. Plus, the physical aspects of this trip—when you make a mile of progress after eight to ten hours of the hardest thing you’ve ever done—were brutal. 

That’s a hard thing to physically deal with, but the mental aspect of managing all these unknowns and uncertainties and your fear, that becomes a bigger priority than your physical condition. You can deal with physical discomfort or pain, more or less, but this mental thing—it became a physical weight on us all the time. Every decision has a direct impact on our ability to live and survive.

And the South Pole? 
Antarctica, without trying to be too stupid, is the polar opposite. It’s true. Antarctica is a continent. All the snow and ice on Antarctica is on land. You can stand on the ice in the Arctic Ocean and see it move. 

Antarctica is also a desert, so it’s very dry. And you’re there in summer, you get in a tent at night and it’s, like, comfortable. I always say that’s Antarctica’s dirty little secret. There’s times when the sun’s out and you’re sleeping on top of your sleeping bag. Of course, it gets cold and windy and it's intense in its own right, but it’s very terra cognita. That route has been done. For me, even going up Everest, I knew that so many other people had been up there, and just thinking that I’m on this route people know, that provided me with a lot of strength. It didn’t make me as nervous. It’s the same in Antarctica. 

Ryan, my partner up there, is a hardcore dude. He did the longest unsupported crossing of Antarctica in history. On our North Pole trek, he was like, "I feel like I’m in kindergarten out here." It’s such an intense environment. 

You said you felt a pang of sadness when the plane landed to extract you—that you’d miss the isolation. How hard is it to go back to the normal world after two months living like this?
It’s a really unique place. Going through those intense moments and coming out on the positive side, it makes you feel really good and strong. Being able to be somewhat comfortable in one of the harshest environments on the planet, that’s pretty empowering.

Afterwards, I said there’s no way I’m going back to that place. It’s too crazy. At a certain point, you’re like, what am I getting out of this? This is shit. My wife, Maria, she’s stressed because she has to be on solo-mom duty. But it doesn’t take too long before it seeps back. It’s hard to describe that pull.

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  Photo: Courtesy of Eric Larsen

One last thing. You say in the book that you hate being cold. That seems ridiculous.
I don’t like being cold. I think I’m like a lot of people. I feel bad for people in New York when they have to go outside in the winter. Cold is a painful thing. It hurts. I like being warm in the cold. I think that’s the challenge. 

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