Iced over

Polar explorer Eric Larsen uses expeditions to talk about climate change

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

In a decade of exploring the polar region, Eric Larsen has had enough time to travel in the Arctic and Antarctic on skis, on dog sleds and on foot.

He’s visited penguin colonies and passed polar bear tracks. And he’s started seeing thinner ice, more open water, freeze-ups later, thaws earlier, a change in population in polar bears and retreating sea ice. He’s watched the texture of the polar ice change from flat, thick sheets with fractures at the edges to larger rough areas, an indication of thinner ice.

Larsen has linked his expeditions with environmental education for years. At first, he pushed for legislation and international policy. Now, he’s addressing the public with a simpler message: snow and ice are cool.

Getting that information out is just the edge of a much larger iceberg tied to why Larsen likes spending so much time in below-freezing temperatures.

“I like polar expeditions because they’re places that not a lot of people know of or really are aware of,” he says. Larsen estimates he’s made 10 to 12 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic regions, almost once a year for the past 10 years. He uses the lure of adventure as a chance to tell people more about the poles.

“Not a lot of people really understand what those places are like,” he says. Antarctica is a continent of rock with up to two miles of ice piled on top of it. Skiing to the South Pole means skiing uphill, into the wind, for 750 miles. Though temperatures are typically colder in the Antarctic, the Arctic experience is its own brand of fierce.

The Arctic is made of ice floating on water, only about five feet thick and constantly moving. The humidity leaves everything covered in frost.

“It’s a very dynamic place. The ice is breaking apart. It forms leads, which are these open sections of water, it collides together and forms pressure ridges, it grinds up, freezing, refreezing so you have a real varied mix of conditions,” he says. “And that ice is actually pushing backwards as we travel north.”

Each morning, they wake up a little farther south than they were when they went to sleep, he says. Sometimes the difference is a quarter of a mile, sometimes it’s up to two miles.

“You can’t think about it too much because it’s disheartening to work 10 hours all day busting your butt through all that stuff and then have lost that mileage while you slept,” he says.

Larsen says he’s always been intrigued by the north, attributing that to growing up in Wisconsin and taking trips into northern Minnesota and Canada to the edge of the boreal forest.

“It’s just this huge wilderness, and to me it made me just kind of want to keep traveling through there and find out what’s around the next corner,” he says. He worked in Alaska as a backcountry ranger before coming back to Minnesota and landing a job guiding dogsled tours.

“The first time I stepped on the runners of a dogsled, it was just like everything came together for me,” he says. “I remember it was the first snow, the dogs were just full of so much energy, coming home they were just tearing up the ground, there was this hairpin turn, I was flung off but I was hanging on by one hand — which is pretty common on dogsleds — I drug myself back up, had snow packed in everywhere and I was like, this is awesome, I’m never going to do anything else.”

Dogsled guiding took him to northern Canada to a small cabin far enough north that the Northern Lights stretched from one horizon to the next. Clients were flown in — as were the 34 dogs, which came in a Twin Otter plane.

“Traveling through these areas, I’d read about all these different places since I was a kid and it was like, I just couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I don’t think I ever looked back. There were lots of hurdles and obstacles, but this was when I was like, ‘Wow, this could really happen. I thought it was just a crazy dream.’” Larsen left dog mushing full time to work at an environmental education center and pursue a master’s degree, then found a place where he could match writing curriculum with dog sledding expeditions.

“For me, education and adventure go hand in hand. To be a guide, it’s like, it’s got its purpose, but I’m not interested as much in that,” he says. “I want to be more of a teacher and an educator, but I still want to have that adventure component.”

When the funding for that program ran out in 2002, he met another dog musher and started planning his first North Pole trip. Then the pieces started to come together again.

“I realized that those expeditions are really good platforms to talk about these other issues, but I wanted to really continue the conversation, but not so much about awareness but really action,” he says. And what he wanted to talk about were those changes in the ice, that the freeze-ups were happening later, and the thaws were coming earlier.

So he took off on a trip that would set a record and get some attention: He decided to visit the North Pole, South Pole and the top of Mount Everest, considered the “third pole” as the highest point on the planet, in a single year. Just one of those trips in a year would have been a lot to plan for, and doing all three in that timeframe, dealing with that many variables in characteristics was unprecedented.

“Antarctica is ice on land, the arctic is ice on water, and Everest is ice on mountain, but they’re all really different and they all pose some different logistical challenges, some different expeditionary challenges physically and mentally,” he says. He completed the icy trifecta that he called the Save the Poles trip in 2009.

He’s often asked which of the three was the hardest. Most people seem to expect Everest as the answer. It’s not.

“The North Pole,” he says. “All you do is travel, eat and sleep. There’s nothing else.” Plus, there’s the constant stress of thin ice and open water, and extreme cold that makes it difficult to prevent everything from icing up.

“It can be pretty brutal,” he says. Still, he keeps going back for more. He’s training now for a snowbiking exploration later this year. Yes, snowbiking. The destination hasn’t been locked in yet, but he’s considered pedaling on 4.3-inch-wide tires all the way to the South Pole — it’s a 750-mile trip, mostly uphill and into the wind.

He’s also currently planning climbing trips to Pakistan to get more mountaineering experience so he can take on a few more peaks in Antarctica, Greenland and Baffin Island. Whatever he does, he’ll use social media and video updates on his website to get the word out.

When he comes home to Boulder to thaw out, it feels almost surreal, he says.

“It’s like things don’t have as much meaning, because on those trips everything that you do is focused on your ability to live and survive and move forward, so it’s a very direct thing,” he says. “All the sudden, when it’s like everything’s easy, it’s like ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter anymore,’ so you kind of get this letdown a bit.”

But it does still have him thinking about conservation, he says, as he looks around his house and thinks about down sizing.

A similar bare-bones approach applies to his thoughts on climate change.

“Either you believe in the fundamental principles of science or you don’t because we’re not arguing about whether gravity exists or not, yet it’s the same kind of process to explain that,” he says. “So my goal is really all to talk about, let’s not worry about what evidence we’re seeing, let’s worry about being energy-efficient and using renewable resources.”

As with his expeditions, he says, the process begins with a single step.

“As individuals let’s just take those first couple steps so we can start moving in the right direction. It’s not the answer, it’s not the thing that’s going to make all that go away, but it’s the steps that are going to drive a lot of these other changes — new technologies, national legislation or international policy.”

Dispatches from Larsen’s trips can be found on his website,