Winter is coming, and if anyone knows cold, it’s Eric Larsen. An accomplished polar explorer and adventurer, Larsen has been setting records in arctic places for the last fifteen years. His roles span from expedition guide to dog musher, educator, and general cold-seeking outdoorsman. And despite what you might think, it’s for more than just the fun of it.
I first heard about Larsen while flipping through an issue of Outside Magazine. The man who would later become a friend on Twitter was pictured sprawled half-naked in a bathtub full of ice, sporting nothing more than snowshoes and a beanie—cheeky grin in tow. What grabbed my attention wasn’t his outfit, but rather the fact that Larsen had recently attempted to be the first person to reach the South Pole via fat bike—the new trendy rides that boast ultra-wide tires for traction on snow and sand. A feat of this kind had never been accomplished before, and (spoiler alert!) although Larsen didn’t ultimately reach his destination, the Cycle South Expedition was just the sort of adventure that has come to define him and inspire audiences nation-wide. But Larsen’s interest in the unusual and strikingly uncomfortable adventure began long before fatties hit the market.
Born and raised in the flatlands of Wisconsin, Larsen was destined to have a penchant for freezing temperatures and landscapes. With his father as the head of a local nature center and an appetite for survival stories and extended camping trips, young Larsen’s future interest in outdoor adventure was no surprise. When I caught up with my Twitter friend to ask what draws him specifically to colder climates, Larsen explained, “Don’t get me wrong, I like being outside no matter the temperature. But traveling in winter requires more thoughtfulness. The consequences for mistakes are much more severe, so being safe requires extra planning and preparation as well as a greater situational awareness. I’ve also always enjoyed being in that moment when things become more difficult—colder or harder, and ultimately, I love the physical and mental challenges of expedition travel.” Plus, winter seems to just be Larsen’s favorite season. “I find cold, snow and ice to be very beautiful.”
As someone new to Larsen’s adventures, it might seem like he’s just trying to bag records. His adventure résumé shows he more than walks the talk. Larsen has so far been part of the only team to reach the North Pole in the summer, as well as the only fall summit of Mt. Everest in 2010, and the only fall summit in the past 8 years. Part of the Save the Poles Expedition, these two accomplishments make Larsen the only person to reach the North and South Poles and the summit of Mt. Everest in one year (fewer than 20 people have successfully completed these three journeys in their entire lifetimes). But this trip wasn’t just for the record books. “What is more interesting to me”, Larsen explains, “is the style and story of any particular adventure. My Save the Poles expedition seemed to string a lot of dynamic elements together. People had traveled to both poles and the top of Everest before, so it wasn’t necessarily about charting new territory; it was about discovering these places as they exist today. In the past, explorers have famously quipped, ‘because it’s there.’ Save the Poles was more about, ‘because it might not be there in the future.’”
Sometimes, Larsen’s trips don’t go as planned. The much-anticipated Cycle South fat bike journey is an example. The 750-mile one-way expedition was meticulously prepared, right down to the pedal breaks and when the team would pitch camp. Mounted on Surly Moonlander bikes, pedaling across the fairly flat ice fields of Antarctica, Larsen was confronted with dangerous crevasses, whiteouts, and constantly changing environmental conditions. Larsen explains that it wasn’t just your average mountaineering trip. “It’s hard to train and plan for something that has never been done before—especially in Antarctica—because it’s so cost prohibitive just to get there. Additionally, I had to develop gear specifically for this trip, like boots that would be warm enough to withstand Antarctic temperatures and light-weight panniers in which I could carry all my gear.” And as with any true adventure, success wasn’t guaranteed. Ultimately due to lack of supplies, Larsen made the decision to turn around. “Definitely a tough break, but it was still an incredible trip. I’ve always said that simply getting to the starting line is one of the most difficult parts of any expedition.”
When asked if he applies any self-regulating measures such as meditation to help handle the cold, Larsen keeps it simple. “Sweat is a killer in the cold, so I’m very careful about regulating my body temperature. I’m always adjusting hood, hat, and layers to prevent overheating.” His training tactics consist of dragging pick-up truck tires uphill through dirt and hitting them repeatedly with sledgehammers to the sound of 80’s jams (video available on YouTube). While it sounds like something out of a fraternity pledge class, CrossFit has nothing on the grueling task presented by each expedition. It takes around 400 calories per hour just to stay warm in sub-freezing temperatures, let alone to lug your gear across sticky and broken ice fields, let alone up Everest. Larsen and his team members typically consume upwards of 8,000 calories per day while on a trip. Aside from the caloric challenges, every expedition presents a riddle in maximizing calories and minimizing weight (butter winds up in almost every meal). Other musts in terms of functional and efficient gear include Helly Hansen base layers and DeLorme’s inReach Explorer two-way satellite beacon, which allows Larsen to tweet voraciously and keep us all posted with daily expedition updates (find him at @ELexplore).
So what keeps Larsen coming back for more close encounters with frostbite? Each expedition is rooted in deep purpose. In his own words, “The biggest driving force behind my expedition is story telling. My ultimate goal is to tell the stories of the last great frozen places left on the planet before they are gone. Not everybody has the desire or ability to travel to these locations, but I do think it’s important for everyone to feel connected to these places so that they better understand their importance as well as their role in a healthy and stable planet.” Ultimately, “coming home safely is the top priority. After that it’s a tie between telling an engaging and accurate story, and inspiring people to take their ‘step’ to help protect the environment.”
Larsen now speaks at events around the nation, energizing audiences about following their passions for the unconventional and pushing the boundaries of what was previously thought possible in the outdoor world. His experiences overcoming obstacles of a frozen nature apply to more than individuals looking to trek into the wild; universities and organizations are some of his biggest advocates. It’s easy to see why—Larsen offers quality advice. “My basic expedition philosophy is ‘begin with one step.’ Big expeditions are physical and mental quagmires. Thinking about the end of an expedition on day one or week one is overwhelming, and these are not trips that are measured in days and weeks, but in months. So to whittle away at that impossibility, I break the big problem up into manageable pieces.” His speaking topics range from leadership to climate change to crisis management, and could conceivably supplement any topic to which you could apply hard work and a little elbow grease.
Despite the studious tones underlying Larsen’s journeys far and wide, he has more than a few legendary stories worth telling around a campfire. When I asked him for the best, his response was tongue-in-cheek; “How many polar bear stories do you want? I have lots… In 2005, we had one jump in our tent while we were sleeping in it. During the Last North Expedition, we had two polar bears follow us while we were both pulling one sled forward. We randomly stopped at some point, turned around, and there they were. Luckily, we were able to scare them away. And if you ever find yourself wondering how many Clif Bar products you need to pack for 50 days on an ice field, Larsen is your man. Hint: it hovers around 300.
Now father of two-year-old son, Merritt, when asked about his plans to continue adventuring, Larsen is optimistic. “I love being a dad and seeing the world through Merritt’s eyes. He’s an amazing little boy and I don’t want to miss any of it. At the same time, being on long expeditions is a big part of who I am. I’m faced with these huge opposing forces—wanting to be home and hang out with my son, and wanting to plan bigger, longer and harder expeditions. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful for everyone involved. Still, I’m managing to find a balance when I’m home. Of course, that doesn’t make being gone any easier!” It’s clear that Merritt, honorary motivation coach to the expedition team, will be a baby born for success in the mountains. At just six-months old he was camping in Moab, a favorite family destination when they’re not seeking snow. Whether Merritt one day pioneers a brand new line up a mountain or prefers to explore the “flat Everest” following in his Dad’s footsteps, it’s sure to be something awe-inspiring.
Next on Larsen’s schedule? A documentary for Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet on his Last North Expedition earlier in 2014. Another one of our explorer’s brrr-inducing missions, in this most recent trip Larsen tried to break the unsupported speed record to the North Pole. It’s sure to tell an incredible visual story. You might be wondering, what’s he dreaming up next? An unsupported Southern Patagonia Ice Cap Crossing. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Follow along with Larsen’s adventures on Twitter and Instagram at @ELexplore and ericlarsenexplore.com.