Eric Larsen is at it again. The Boulder-based explorer and environmentalist has just returned to Colorado from Antarctica after an attempt to cycle to the South Pole, a project dubbed the Cycle South expedition. While Larsen failed to make it to the pole, there’s no doubt that he managed to set a record for distance traveled by bicycle in the harsh environment of Antarctica.
“This was not the first time that this icy place has turned back an expedition,” says Larsen, who admits that pulling the plug seven days into the trip was “tough.”
Larsen is used to facing adversity. Resilient and focused, the adventurer has chalked up some notable successes, including a massive year in which he made it to both the North and South poles and summited Mount Everest as part of his Save The Poles expedition in 2009 (“Ice Man,” Boulder Weekly, Nov. 18, 2010).
But in addition to his exploits, Larsen is also an activist. In the face of global warming, he’s banging the drum loudly for the preservation of the coldest places on the planet. Places that, because of their very nature and unique ecosystems, are at grave risk from a warming climate. He’s committed to other causes, too, putting his apparently boundless energy into improving the planet, as well as the lives of people who live on it.
The Save the Poles project was born of his environmental commitment. Larsen came face to face with dramatic changes on a second trip to the North Pole in 2006.
“There was much more open water, and it brought home how dramatic the changes were,” Larsen recalls of that journey. “These are some of the last true wildernesses left on the planet. I didn’t want to have the feeling that it’s too late. I wanted to tell their stories and wanted people to act, but not some huge action, just do one or two little things.”
Pushing his bike through snowdrifts slowed Larsen's expedition. | Courtesy of Eric Larsen
And it’s the little things that matter, says Larsen. Things like riding your bike rather than taking your car when you head down to Pearl Street can become a personal impact on climate change.
“If you decide that you’re going to ride your bike one day a week, that can make a big difference,” Larsen says. And you can bet good money on Larsen jumping on his bike when he wants to go to Pearl Street.
“I actually do a lot of biking in general,” says Larsen, who made cycling the centerpiece of his Cycle South expedition. “I worked in bike shops in high school and college and the majority of my training is on bikes for expeditions. The long hours lend themselves to what you experience when you’re on a trip. Expedition travel is a steady pace. It is a battle of attrition.”
For his Cycle South project, Larsen chose a Surley Moonlander.
“The bike is pretty standard,” he says. Along with its massively fat tires, designed for riding on snow and ice, the Surly had another key attribute.
“The bike has an offset fork,” Larsen explains. “So you can run the rear wheel on the front.” This design meant that Larsen could use a front wheel with a single-speed hub, a crucial consideration if any of his drivetrain components failed.
“If anything broke,” says Larsen, “I could run the fixed gear on the back, that was really important from a safety consideration.”
His bike was only one part of the equation.
“When you do something that no one has done before,” Larsen adds, “there’s nothing to go by. You have to figure it out yourself.”
Larsen designed his boots for riding. He also designed the panniers he used to haul gear.
These latter elements are the hidden aspect of an expedition.
Larsen uses his trips to extreme environments to raise awareness of how those places are changing. | Courtesy of Eric Larsen
“The planning and preparation was 10 times the work of actually going on the trip,” he says. “It’s a lot of effort.”
Once the planning was done and he climbed on his bike and took the first pedal, Larsen came face to face with the challenges of the actual trip.
“It was a hard trip, I’m not going to lie,” he says. “A lot of the time is spent managing stress. You break each hour into little segments: I’m riding this far, wind is this speed.”
As the miles unfolded there were amazing highs, says Larsen, though they didn’t come as often as on his other projects.
“One day I was looking at the sastrugi, these arcing forms of snow, and to be out there in a place where you don’t see anyone, biking along for two weeks without seeing any other humans, imagine that happening in your normal life, that’s an incredible experience,” he says.
And there were the lows, particularly when it became obvious that he wasn’t making fast enough time to reach a temporary station at the South Pole before it was dismantled, and that to continue on his quest would result in needing to be rescued, or even in death.
"I had a specific objective. To not reach it is disappointing,” says Larsen, who admits that he sat down and cried in his tent when it became apparent that the South Pole was out of reach.
Still, now that the adventurer is back in Boulder, he’s gaining some perspective on the exact magnitude of what he was able to accomplish, no small feat given the remote and harsh landscape of the Antarctic.
“I call myself a reluctant mountaineer,” admits Larsen. “I’m not so obsessed with the summit. I like the process.”
And, as with all of his expeditions, a big part of the process and how his endeavors will be ultimately judged lies in their larger impact. For the Cycle South expedition, the project combined adventure and advocacy to demonstrate the ways people can use a bicycle to protect the environment, but also set a goal of raising $10,000 for research into finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
Despite the fact that the expedition is finished for Larsen, the $10,000 goal has yet to be reached, so in reality, the project is ongoing, and true success is still within reach. Given Larsen’s track record, we won’t have to wait long to pop a cork on the bubbly and celebrate a job well done.
To learn more about Eric Larsen, see photos and videos of his the Cycle South expedition or assist him with his goal of raising $10,000 to help combat Parkinson’s disease, visit www.ericlarsenexplore.com.