Eric Larsen: Last man walking

Polar explorer Eric Larsen recounts what could be his final journey to the North Pole at Outdoor Retailer's Conservation Alliance Breakfast.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 5 – 8. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

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When you spend 53 days snowshoeing, skiing, crawling and swimming your way across the (mostly) frozen Arctic Ocean, you have plenty of time to think about what it all means. For polar explorer Eric Larsen, it all came down to the fact that he and expedition partner Ryan Waters might be the last people ever to complete this perilous journey — and the need to share what he was seeing on the rapidly changing planet’s poles.

“I am an ice warrior protecting the last great frozen places on the planet,” Larsen told a packed ballroom at yesterday’s Conservation Alliance Breakfast. In a speech that drew frequent laughs, Larsen described his successful 2014 Last North expedition, an unsupported traverse to the geographic North Pole. But he also used his tales of escaping polar bears and enduring extreme sub-zero temperatures to urge attendees to take action on climate change. “We are all explorers,” he said. “Our job as explorers in the twenty-first century is not to discover these places, but to protect them.” He added, “Which resources we use and if they’re renewable or not — those are questions we should ask ourselves every day.”

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On March 15, 2014, Larsen and Waters set out from Canada’s Northern Ellesmere Island loaded down with 325 pounds of Arctic gear in two sleds, including enough butter, sausage, and cheese to sustain a 7,500-calorie-per-day diet for 50 days. Their goal: to complete a human-powered journey to the geographic North Pole, a 480-mile trip across a constantly shifting landscape of ice, snow, and open-water channels called leads. Why? “Because it might not be there in the future,” Larsen said, referring to projections that melting polar ice caps will render the route impassable. “We talk a lot about these ‘firsts,’ and we’re very focused on this pinnacle of achievement. That idea of being last is rarely mentioned.”

From the start, the team battled tall ridges of ice, fierce winter storms, and ice that literally shifted beneath their feet. “Oftentimes when we set up our tent at night and woke up to check our GPS in the morning, we would have drifted farther south,” he said. After five days, the two had made it only 8 nautical miles: “We joked that our progress was a race between a tortoise and a snail.”

But Larsen — who also has a 2006 summer expedition to the North Pole and 2010 triple expeditions to the North Pole, South Pole, and Everest in the same year on his adventure resume — and Waters gradually picked up the pace, beginning to average 8 or 9 miles per day. “To travel in this human-powered way for days, weeks, months…you’re not traveling through a place, you’re becoming it,” he said. Clips of Larsen and Waters dragging sleds through looming ice formations and firing cracker shells to scare away a stalking pair of polar bears, part of an upcoming Animal Planet documentary, showed just what he meant.

 John Sterling and Eric Larsen - photo by Jenny Jakubowski.

John Sterling and Eric Larsen - photo by Jenny Jakubowski.

When they hit day 40 on the ice, the team still had 205 miles to go—so they implemented what Larsen called “The Beserker Strategy.” “Imagine the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your entire life,” he explained. “Do it for 40 days. Then on the 40th day, double your effort.” That meant pushing themselves to travel for 12 to 14 hours a day, sleeping only 4 hours a night, to make time toward to the pole. He described running into dangerous pools of water as they went farther north, forcing them to put on dry suits and swim the icy water in some places.

The plan worked: On day 53, Larsen and Waters were within 3 miles of the North Pole. Eight hours of grueling travel later, they reached the top of the planet. “It was the biggest moment of anticlimax that I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Larsen joked. “There’s no land there, no marker, no park ranger writing me a ticket for too many people giving me high-fives.” The explorers snapped photos, then collapsed in their tent for a true victory prize: 36 hours of straight sleep.

Before Larsen’s talk, Conservation Alliance Executive Director John Sterling and Board of Directors Chair Scott Whipps (also Clif Bar vice president of sports retail for North America) reviewed the organization’s successes since last January’s Winter Market. Chief among them: the designation of two new national monuments, Colorado’s Browns Canyon and California’s Berryessa Snow Mountain, and one new wilderness, Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds (passed just last week). The Conservation Alliance has contributed funding to campaigns for all three for years. “Sometimes this is a marathon, not a sprint, and the stars aligned last week,” said Sterling.

The organization’s next big goal is the protection of five new wild areas, including Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon and Birthplace of Rivers in West Virginia. Group members urged attendees to sign a postcard in favor of the campaign to President Obama before heading back to the show floor.

--Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

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