Eric Larsen, Polar Explorer is just back from his latest adventure in Antarctica where he attempted to ride a fat bike from the coast of the continent to the South Pole. In 2009 he became the only person to reach the North Pole, South Pole and Mount Everest (often referred to as the third pole) in one year’s time. SBM caught up with him at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. He told us about ‘beautiful weather’ on his Mount Rainier climb last summer, what it’s like to camp in Antarctica (it might not be what you think), how his decision-making process has changed in the last few months, what’s his Holy Grail, and which of his adventures made climbing Mount Everest seem like a piece of cake.
SBM: Let’s start locally. Did you go up Mount Rainier when you were in Seattle last summer and did you summit?
LARSEN: Yeah. I’ve gone up a couple times now.
SBM: So you had decent weather?
LARSEN: No, it was brutal. It was in July. I was doing this Big City Mountaineers thing with my buddy. He has his own guiding company; he’s been up Everest twice. We were supposed to go to Pakistan and we were going to do G1 and G2 [Gasherbrum I and II are near K2 in the Karakoram] but I talked him into Rainier, so he came over as a favor to me, and here we are sitting on Rainier, and I’m like ‘sorry’. It was late, but I was trying to get these seven climbs in, they didn’t have to be hard. We decided to go up Rainier and I hadn’t been up to DC [Dissapointment Cleaver] before. We were going to go over to Little Tahoma but that was not good so we were going to leave that night and it just poured and lightening like crazy. So we just sat up there [at Camp Muir] for a whole day in the weather and said ‘oh my God, come on’. So the next day when we went up it was just blowing these ice balls. It was really fun.
But it’s a beautiful mountain and I think that climbing out there or hiking is such great training because it’s 10,000 feet of elevation. But it’s beautiful too, because it’s so dramatic. In Colorado you get out of your car and you’re at 10,000 or 11,000 feet.
SBM: That was always my argument. People are quick to point out “Oh Colorado’s peaks are higher.” But there isn’t really any place where you can go from sea level to fourteen and a half thousand feet in a day outside of Washington State.
LARSEN: Exactly. And it kind of feels more like the Himalayas because when you’re on Rainier you’re so far above all the surrounding peaks that it’s this very different feeling. It’s cool. And I love the weather. I love the rain and I love the bad weather.
SBM: Wow. That’s unusual.
LARSEN: I actually took one of my favorite shots ever in my life at the top of Rainier. It was a picture of my buddy.
SBM: It’s a pretty photogenic place on a good day.
LARSEN: Oh, it was a total white out.
SBM: How can you love that much cold and snow and miserable conditions? How do you deal? How do you handle it?
LARSEN: I don’t love it… well I do. I remember one time when I was twelve I had this paper route and I had to deliver a hundred and fifty newspapers, it took me five hours. I had a wagon that I pulled behind me. I remember this one time there was a blizzard and I was holding a newspaper in front of my face, because it was just coming down and I tripped over this fire hydrant. I remember thinking ‘what kind of weather is this that I have to hold this paper and trip over this fire hydrant?’ But the thing I like about winter is that it requires a little more thought and effort to be out and be safe. And I also like trying to figure out ways to be comfortable in those situations. I want to figure out ways to be warm in the cold. I also like to do my own thing. I’m not a huge fan of crowds and there are less people around when it’s cold. I’m comfortable by myself and polar travel is this long boring, journey.
SBM: On your bike trip how did you plan it? Did you have people following you with sleds full of supplies and food? Give us an idea of the set up. Who supported you, and where?
LARSEN: I’ve always kind of been a one-man band and not because I don’t want more people helping me out but just because I haven’t had the resources to be able to employ people or have other people around. So I do a lot of the project just on my own and I’ve actually coordinated much of my trips just from the ice, which is not quite as traditional. But I’ve been working with a few different people over the years to help out with some of the other things that go on, which is the storytelling aspect and how that gets distributed. So my friend Tim Harincar, from Whiteout Expeditions, designed all my remote blogging, mapping, and all these other things and he integrated all that. So it’s just like, boom. And that’s important because that’s part of what my objective is, to tell stories in real time and now with social media its getting to people that can interact with it. His wife helped out while I was on the ice, coordinating with some of my non-profit partners, as well as just having some conversations back and forth about whatever might arise, inevitably there is always some other issue. I have a PR agent, Lora from Scream that I’ve worked with, she’s awesome, doing press releases contacting media. So that’s kind of what my support staff is.
Then I have sponsors and they’re all listed on my website. I spend a lot of time looking for gear that fits my purpose and meets my demands and rigorous use. I’m out for weeks and months and there is a big difference between using something for a weekend and using it for three or four weeks especially in really cold intense UV exposure, everything breaks, that’s the bottom line and I don’t want to spend a lot of my time fixing things although I do end up doing a lot of sewing. I have a repair kit and what not. That’s really important to me, that gear. And I enjoy the people I am involved with, there are a lot of great people behind those brands and they’re my friends.
SBM: How do you do food planning?
LARSEN: First of all, the one thing about the overall gear is, planning for a forty day trip is roughly the same as planning for a three day trip because there isn’t much difference. If I’m going to go out on an overnight winter trip I’m going to bring roughly the same amount of gear and equipment. The thing that changes really is the amount of food and fuel that I have. I also need to understand what my calorie consumption is going to be based on what the endeavor is and how long I’m out because it changes over time. So my menu planning is relatively basic. I start at five thousand calories a day and it bumps up a couple times over the trip to roughly seventy two or seventy five hundred calories depending roughly upon who you are, what your metabolism is like and how efficient you are at what you do.
It’s important for me to have a well balanced diet. Because after four or five weeks you just don’t have a lot of physical or mental resources. So I’m looking at a complete diet that’s got a good proportion of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Then you have to factor in that you’re carrying everything so it has to be light as possible and also volume a lot of times especially on the bike is very limited so it has to be very compact. So those are some big factors and I’m constantly looking at food and seeing what the calorie per weight ratio is. Fats have the highest calorie per weight ratio. My expedition diet is roughly 2.2- 2.5 lbs of food per day. And that’s around five thousand calories per day.
SBM: Is that mostly rehydrating?
LARSEN: Dinner and breakfast are. I used to make a special oatmeal that was whole milk, and olive oil and pumpkin seeds but I don’t really like breakfast. This time I just took freeze-dried dinners with olive oil instead. And then have a two-portion meal, which is four servings for dinner. Then I also had extra fat. During the day I had seven Clif Bar products and I eat them at different times. At lunch I have a hundred grams of chocolate, fifty grams of salami, fifty grams of cheese, and a little bit of soup which is part of my dinner leftovers. I’m not any kind of big nutritionist but the more time you spend doing these things the more you understand how certain foods make you feel.
SBM: What’s it like to camp down there?
LARSEN: Antarctica is the easiest place to camp in the world because it’s twenty-four hour daylight and as long as the sun is out, it’s really warm in the tent. So I’m just sitting in my base layer. There are times that I’m half out of my sleeping bag. I’m never cold. Maybe a couple of times when its overcast it’ll get to be about zero in the tent but it’s often ten, twenty, even forty degrees in the tent and it’s dry. It’s easy to dry out gear. That’s easy. Now, conversely, the Arctic Ocean, [near the North Pole] is very different. It’s minus 40 out there and overcast and it’s humid. It’s the same temp in the tent. You sleep in a vapor barrier bag, so that your sweat and moisture doesn’t get into the bag and ice up, then a second bag, so it’s a three layer system.
SBM: So when you get out of that bag in the morning how do you keep from freezing with all that moisture?
LARSEN: Oh, you don’t because we also have to get out and put everything outside right away. In that situation we can’t have our sleeping bags in the tent either because as soon as the stove comes on there’s a lot of moisture that would collect in our sleeping bags.
So the Arctic Ocean, the North Pole trip is in my mind probably the hardest expedition that exists. Way harder than Everest, ten times harder.
SBM: Just simply because of weather and extremes?
LARSEN: Well, there’s not the altitude of Everest, and not the chance of falling off the South Summit or avalanches but there is thin ice you can fall through, there are polar bears, there’s pressure ice. There are a lot of physical, objective hazards and everyday you’re moving, whereas Everest, I was on the mountain nine days, and then came back to a base camp where you’re sitting in a chair eating at table. It’s a piece of cake versus my last North Pole trip fifty-one days, the one before that sixty-two days and seventy-two days on the ice. Of moving everyday and setting up camp where it is so extremely cold and sleeping in this coffin of a sleeping bag system where it’s not even that comfortable. That’s a difficult trip.
SBM: So what it is about this that makes you keep doing it?
LARSEN: I’ve been trying to figure that out my whole life. I don’t know. I don’t really know the answer. I think part of it is how I was built. I think another thing for me is that it is a form of self-expression… it’s who I am. Doing a unique trip or a unique style or maybe it’s a trip that everyone else has done but telling the story of that trip the way I see it is part of my self-expression, like painting a painting. I think that is the underlying part of it. I think that is why I want to do it.
From a more pragmatic perspective I like the physical and mental challenges of expedition travel. It’s hard when you’re in the situation but I feel like when I started out doing little trips when I was a kid I like those challenges and also like the rewards that come with that direct contact with nature and the with the elements and the consequences are one to one. In our normal lives we have all these layers and these filters. There are safety nets there. But to me that direct relationship you have with, not only the elements and the style of travel but also with the people you’re working with, that’s important. Maybe that’s another artistic thing but it’s part of finding meaning in things that I do.
I think the last thing is, I was a teacher previously and an educator, and I want to share these places with people and have them better understand them and appreciate them and I think trying to make the world a better place is very important to me. These are all integral parts of the mission. So one of my challenges is, how do you get people involved in these things in away that’s not threatening, in a way that they will be engaged. And that’s the Holy Grail for me. I was an environmental ed teacher for five, six or seven years and substitute taught in schools I have always been interested in how to get people engaged in things and have them learn about a place or an idea without them ever realizing it. And I think that is the beauty of an expedition. It is an interesting story and that human element is fascinating to all of us and there are a lot of analogies. Everybody deals with hardships and with problems. I never set out to be a big motivator but what I’ve learned is that a lot of the skills I’ve learned in expeditions apply to my own life and I find myself giving my self the pep talk, ‘here’s what I learned.’
SBM: I know you are hard on yourself about not completing your last goal. Even without the success what did you learn?
LARSEN: I learned some pragmatic things about bicycling in Antarctica that I hadn’t previously known. I’d done a lot of testing and training.
I think I learned a little bit more about how that trip should change to be successful and my initial plan of starting at the edge of the continent and going to the pole, I don’t think that is a realistic plan. I think I need to reverse the route and start at the pole and go to the edge of the continent and then have twice as many resupply points.
Then also, I have a lot of desire inside of me to do things and it’s a really intense drive and I wanted to make this trip happen this year. And I don’t know if it was necessarily the best time in my life. [His first child was born in October.] I’ve also learned that risk has changed for me: The amount of risk I’m willing to take. And not that I’m worried about injuring myself that much, but last year, had I been in that same situation, even knowing what I knew – that I wouldn’t make the pole or I’ll have to be picked up costing an extra 40 grand and making it a more risky venture for everyone involved – I probably would have kept going. I would have gotten a hundred more miles and my food would have run out but I wouldn’t have quit just then. I felt like I made the right decision. And I think that perspective is good.
SBM: That’s a wonderful answer for someone like me. I climb mountains in my area and as a mom, I have to boys at home and a husband, and it doesn’t not go through your head, you know.
LARSEN: And that’s different for me. I’ve never felt this way before. I thought ‘what is this feeling here, I’m not familiar with that one’. That said, my life is based on doing these things that are inherently risky so I need to come up with some kind of middle ground in what I can do. I think that is an important part of my life. So those are the big things.
SBM: When you’re out there working across the miles, my guess is your not spending time worrying about “oh, I hope I didn’t forget to pack the bottle opener”?
LARSEN: No, I never do that. I also don’t ever make lists. I’m pretty visual, so I just lay out all my gear. But I’ve never make a gear list, like ‘okay I need two pairs of socks and one fuel bottle,’ and I probably should make lists but for whatever reason that system has served me all right.
SBM: That’s good.
LARSEN: It’s good and bad. I mean it doesn’t work well with other people [like clients he's guiding] sometimes because not everybody necessarily works well that way.
SBM: I’m curious to see if you can continue to operate that way once you have a toddler.
LARSEN: I know. Well Maria and I are aware that we’re well into our adult hood… we have been for a while. I’m forty-one now, and have been making decisions however I wanted, and that’s not an option with a newborn. Things will certainly be different.
SBM: You’re a good storyteller. And I want to know if you have plans to turn any of your expeditions into books or if you have already?
LARSEN: I have not turned any of them in to books. I really want to. The story of the three poles trip, I think, is a really good one. And I really love writing too. It’s one of the things I enjoy on the expeditions. I’ll write a blog and I’m generally very tired by the time I get to it. I’ve even fallen asleep while writing stuff during a trip. But I do like writing and I would like to get a book out soon. I just need to get it done. Quit making excuses.
SBM: What one thing do you want people to take from your endeavors?
LARSEN: Well it’s not one thing, it’s two things. I don’t think of anything I do as overly incredible. I grew up in Wisconsin. I was an average athlete by every stretch of the imagination. I think I try really hard and I have a lot of motivation but I think that a lot of success is a pretty simple formula. There are some pretty basic steps to achieve big goals and that is a pretty valuable lesson that I’ve learned from these trips. Achieving things is not some secret recipe, we all have the ability to do these amazing things and it’s important to be reminded of that. I need to be reminded of that. We can do this, and we can do a little more along the way by understanding more about our world because it’s an amazing place.
And also, I want to teach people that we need to protect our planet and that we all have the ability to make change. Sometimes we think these issues are so big that one little hand clapping won’t make much difference but I would disagree. Those two things hand in hand.