Boulder’s Ice men

Will global warming make this North Pole expedition the last of its kind?

Eric Larsen

Between the northernmost reaches of Canadian soil, at Cape Discovery on Ellesmere Island, and the North Pole, there is a jumble of frozen seawater and ice sheets that break apart and collide together again. It’s like plate tectonics, but these frozen plates are driven by wind, tides and ocean currents. Slabs, several feet high, shove up at angles like mini-Flatirons. Stretches of open water appear unexpectedly. Small cracks form into wide troughs. In the Arctic Ocean, the constantly moving ice trends from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western. That means, any explorer headed north who enters the ice from Canada is essentially always being pushed southward on a continent-sized treadmill.

“It’s the worst surface conditions that you could possibly ever imagine trying to travel across — unless it’s hot lava. There’s really not anything worse that I feel like you could physically try to traverse that exists on the surface of the planet,” says  Eric Larsen, who’s crossed to the North Pole twice before.

This spring, Larsen went for a third trip, traveling by skis, snowshoes and the occasional swim through slush in an unsupported 500-mile expedition to the North Pole. He was accompanied by fellow explorer Ryan Waters.

In the last four years, no one has successfully made the journey overland to the pole. Between storms at the start and broken sea ice at the finish, there’s an ever-shortening window in which to do it and ever-worsening conditions each step along the way. But in 53 days, from March 15 to May 8, Waters and Larsen did the seemingly impossible.

“One of the things I like about polar travel, especially travel on the Arctic Ocean, is it’s unrelenting, so you always have to be on top of your game,” Larsen says. “It’s like a chess game and decisions that you make on day one or day 10 — what you eat, what you don’t eat, how you use your gear, how you step on your foot — like for me, I had a blister on the ball of my foot and I kind of let it go a little bit, and that affected me a couple days really badly. All these things have this really cumulative effect, so you always have to be assessing and reassessing. … So that’s a real challenge to be constantly on. Not just for a day or a week, but for months.”

The trip was a constant push, a constant counting of the miles ahead and the hours required to cross them. There were no rest days like there are climbing mountains. They regimented their sleep, at first basing their days around building enough time for eight hours of sleep, just to stand a chance of maintaining their energy throughout the time and distance of the trip. Then they pared down to just four and a half hours a night as they pushed the last 180 nautical miles in 10 days. The pair tried to minimize their time in the tent resting and the time they spent cooking meals, because the drift of the sea ice would push them southward each moment they were still.

At the same time they were getting less food and sleep, they went up from 10 hours a day in skis to 12, alternating each hour so each spent six a day as the one responsible for watching the horizon line, keeping track of their progress and breaking trail while the other could turn gaze to the ground and relax, a little, through an hour of just moving skis over snow and ice.

Not that it was ever easy. The two men successfully crossed to the North Pole without aid in a harrowing journey across a landscape that up to the bitter end refused to show them an inch of kindness. The last three and a half miles to the pole took them eight hours to cover because of the number of stretches of open water they had to cross — a task that requires gearing up in dry suits and towing a raft of gear that occasionally was topped with a human partner. In that amount of time, they could lose two-tenths of a mile as the ice drifted.

On top of it all, they started to see polar bear tracks in those last few miles and were hit with a frigid 30 mile-perhour headwind that made them feel like they were skiing uphill. Just in the time they stopped to check the GPS, they could watch the distance move backwards.

“I was talking to my brother on the phone and he was asking me like, ‘When did you know you were going to get there?’ and I was like, ‘Right when we got there,’” Waters says. “To the last three, four days it wasn’t like a trip where you can say, ‘OK, just keep going and we’re going to get there.’ I actually didn’t know if we were going to make it to the Pole, and we had done all these days and all these miles.”

Larsen agrees that in the last few miles, as they repeatedly swam across open water and lost mileage in the time taken to do that, he was thinking, “We’re not going to make it, we’re going to have to stop and camp and we’re going to lose three and a half miles just in that time that we’re camping.”

The expedition ended with the two facing a deadline for the last flight out of the North Pole for the season just 10 days ahead while they were still 180 miles from the pole — almost a third of the total distance of the expedition to cover in 10 days, while the previous 320 miles took them 40 to cover.

“When we got to that push, and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, we have 180 miles to go and this many days,’ in my mind, I’m like, ‘I don’t think we actually can do that,’” Waters says. “Not having that real confidence that you can even do it, it’s hard to wake up in the morning and put your boots on and be like, ‘OK, I know we can get there if we just keep doing this.’ You wake up and get your boots on every morning and go, ‘I may be doing this for nothing.’” “I kind of came up with a philosophy near the end of the trip that it’s just putting in your time, and we just focus on that. The mileage will happen if we put in enough time,” Larsen says.

Larsen knew what he was in for. The long time polar explorer, who now lives in Boulder, has been to the North Pole multiple times, as well as the South Pole and the summit of Mt. Everest.

“For me the Arctic Ocean has always been this really unique environment that few people understand, and it also represents one of the hardest expeditions on the planet and an expedition that few people even know about what it’s like there,” Larsen says. “So my goal has always been to tell stories of places and connect people to places, but also on a more selfish level to push and challenge myself and since that expedition is so incredibly hard and so few people have ever completed it in history, I was looking for that challenge personally but I also wanted to go back to create a documentary. That was really a big impetus for me to document that place and a style of travel that are fairly unique and I think a lot of people thought I was crazy, because they were like, ‘Why would you go back to the same place three times?’” 

“Especially that place,” Waters adds. 

“Especially that place.” Larsen agrees, and laughs. “But that’s the thing about passion, you don’t necessarily know where it comes from and when it calls, I guess I’ve always been someone who’s listened to that voice.”

This would be Larsen’s first unsupported expedition — no food drops, no one to bring extra gear if something broke, no help along the way. Just the two of them carrying everything they needed, from food to fuel to a spare ski, for the duration of the trip.

Waters has summitted Everest three times and skied across Antarctica, but wanted to explore the polar north. Teaming up rather than going solo meant they approached the task with double the skill sets — expeditions like these, Larsen says, aren’t won by the strongest, they require strength, fundraising skills (just their flight home from the North Pole cost more than $100,000) and an ability to fix problems, including broken gear, as they arise.

“It’s hard for someone to be really good at all those things,” says Waters, also from Boulder. As a stranger to the Arctic, he says, he leaned on Larsen’s experience. “A lot of the time, I was at my limit just trying to ski and be productive so it’s hard to be that person that, OK, I’m going to fix that or I’m going to do that, and then sometimes maybe Eric was tired and couldn’t do it. So we rely on each other not only with those skills, but also just emotionally and mentally.”

They called their expedition Last North because they fear it may be the last of its kind. It’s possible that as the planet continues to warm, repeating their already difficult journey may prove truly impossible.

The ice is changing — it’s thinner, so it breaks up more easily and is rougher, presenting unusual conditions that didn’t exist 10 years ago. The weather patterns are shifting, delaying departures with bad storms in early March, typically when teams set off for the poles. Waters and Larsen were delayed so many days if their flight had been pushed one more day, they’d have had to cancel the trip, knowing there wasn’t enough time to complete it. And flights out rely on large pans of ice as landing strips, and those are getting harder to find and don’t last as late in the season — at one point, planes could land in June. Now, it’s early May. Expeditions in the mid-2000s took almost 70 days on the ice. Larsen and Waters finished in 53, in part because they had to.

“As much as I don’t want to be known for potentially completing the last ever complete North Pole expedition from land to the pole, it’s quite possible that will be the case,” Larsen says. “If somebody does it — I hope they do, because that means that the ice is still good for one more year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it never happened again in that style in my life.”

Just looking at the logistics and the odds, paired with the small number of people who would have the desire and the skills to complete it, Waters says, and “Who knows if someone is going to try that again.”

And were someone to undertake it, they would face the same, as Larsen says “death by a thousand cuts” and the mentally exhausting undertaking of knowing each decision has ramifications on not just the next few hours — the immediate consequences of making a poor choice for the route and getting mired in bad ice, which can make for a miserable few hours — but the potential success of the entire mission. 

“You can plan all you want, but that place doesn’t really let you do what you want,” Waters says. “You’re getting up, putting on your boots in the morning, not knowing if you’re doing it for nothing.”

“It’s all a mind game that you’re playing, and you just kind of have to fool yourself into thinking that you can whittle away at all that impossibility,” Larsen says.

They took to reframing their estimation of the landscape — it’s not that they lost time in bad ice, but that they gained it in good ice.

And on bad days, each tried to buoy the other. They talked little, except to offer a few reassurances and confirm their plans — which were always to take it in increments, to see how crossing just to the next latitude line went.

“You have temper tantrums out there. You’re frustrated. When you’re cold and you’re tired and you’re hungry and you’re scared, it’s not your best foot that always goes forward, and that’s how it goes. I don’t think either one of us think any less of each other because we cried or we threw our poles or swore,” Larsen says. “Just knowing that somebody’s got your back, it helps.”

A big part of Larsen’s mission with this particular expedition was getting other people involved and invested in the place and the journey. He blogged and posted to social media, trying to record in real time what was happening and get other people involved. Among the feedback he heard: “I never realized how interesting following a dot on a map would be.”

He’s motivated to share the stories of these places in part because the stories he collected in his two decades of traveling in the world’s most extreme regions show that it’s getting warmer there. His start date, just 11 days later this year than his 2010 North Pole trip, began with weather 20 degrees warmer, up from minus 55 to minus 35, and the entire month of April was warmer than it had been four years previous.

He realized in the early 2000s, as he began to explore the Arctic, just how little people know about the poles. He’s been asked questions like, how much will sea levels rise if the Arctic melts? (Answer: It won’t rise. The Arctic floats on water. It’s like asking if your glass of water will overflow when the ice cubes in it melt.)

“I think people are just unaware and disconnected, and so having that kind of story unfold of people and human experience there is much more powerful,” Larsen says. “So my goal has always been to get that story out to the biggest audience possible.”

To that end, they filmed the trip for a pending program on Animal Planet.

Both Waters and Larsen have a long-time commitment to environmental efforts, specifically conservation and climate change issues. The message Larsen has spent years focused on is one of saving the winters and protecting the poles from climate change. Now, he’s applying the lessons from this expedition to that task.

“We always kind of had this attitude, like, there will be a solution at some point, and that was, I do think, one of the reasons we were able to get through. It wasn’t that everything went perfectly, it was that we were able to deal with the adversity and the issues that arose and at some point come up with solutions that would work,” Larsen says. “Personally, I think that’s a good lesson for climate change. …

We get so bogged down that this may not work, or that this energy solution isn’t the right thing, I think the key from this trip and that lesson is, the right solution doesn’t always come, but if you keep trying, you can find a solution. And equally as important, we had our long-term goal of getting to the North Pole. To think about that goal on day one, you would go crazy. It’s impossible. It’s literally impossible and there’s nothing on day one that you have that will allow you to achieve that goal. The only reason we were able to achieve that goal is that we achieved the short-term goals, and the shortterm goals along the way helped us have the ability to reach the long-term goal — and again, the same thing with climate change. You think about, like, how are we going to get our global carbon emissions down? It’s impossible. Yeah it is, but that’s because we’re not setting these short-term goals as well. … Let’s take the lessons here and apply that to this really important issue. … You’ve go to realize that the knowledge you need only comes through this process and you just have to be willing to accept that this process is going to be able to teach you the skills and provide the building blocks to get there.”

To read more about the Last North expedition by Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters, visit expedition/lastnorth.