Hard work. Two words that mean many different things to many different people. But to polar explorer and word traveler Eric Larsen, they sum up a philosophy. A philosophy that not only drove him to both the North and South Poles, but also to the top of Everest — all during the past year. Any one of those destinations would constitute the trip of a lifetime for a normal person. And while Larsen claim’s he’s normal — “I was never the fastest, strongest or smartest,” he says — he’s not normal in one very important aspect. He just works harder, much harder, than the rest of us.
Hailing from Wisconsin, this part-time Boulder resident (he’s in the process of relocating here permanently from Minnesota) has always been attracted to cold weather. Prior to the Save the Poles expedition, which took him to both ends of the planet as well as its highest point, Larsen cut his teeth with a variety of ambitious dog sledding adventures, including trips across northern Ontario and the Great Slave Lake in the Canadian Northwest Territories.
He’s also climbed McKinley and had a successful stint as a musher, competing in Iditarod-qualifying races, as well as working as a guide.
But Larsen was always thinking about bigger things. And the storyteller in him was driven to draw attention to the changes that he’d personally witnessed during trips to some of the coldest places on the planet. Those places weren’t as cold as before. The ice was melting. And Larsen was coming face to face with compelling visual evidence of climate change.
“The idea for the Save the Poles expedition started on a return to the North Pole in 2006,” says Larsen over chai at a North Boulder espresso joint. “There was much more open water, and it brought home how dramatic the changes were. Living in the United States, it was an issue that wasn’t being talked about, and I realized that an expedition would be a powerful tool to talk about what was happening. The Arctic Ocean was an iconic cold place, as is the Antarctic and Everest. I decided to do an expedition that combined all three, not only to create awareness but also to stimulate action. 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.”
Adds Larsen, “I think it’s just creating a general awareness of those places. I still get questions like, ‘Is it really melting like they are saying?’ I think it is important to bear witness. I’m not a scientist. I’m just a normal person, and that has really resonated with people. If that’s what happens out of my Save the Poles trip, and the conversation is continuing to occur, then I’ve been successful.”
Larsen says that, due to the remoteness of the poles and high mountains from our normal daily experiences, it’s easy to become detached and think that you can’t help save a glacier or change the rate of melt of an ice cap.
“But if you decide that you’re going to ride your bike one day a week, that can make a big difference,” Larsen says.
The belief that small things can effortlessly add up to big things permeates Larsen’s approach to life. And it’s a lesson that’s well taken when it comes to making little changes that can have a multiplier effect when many people start to act. It’s also an approach that has enabled Larsen to achieve success when it comes to his expeditions.
When it comes to working to mitigate your own carbon footprint or heading out on your own adventure, Larsen’s advice is simple.
“Just take one step,” he says. “It’s amazing to me how much I’ve learned from expeditions. Just take the first step.”
That doesn’t mean that you won’t be walking for a long time before you achieve results, though. Larsen admits that despite support from sponsors, including Bing, Terramar, Goal0, Atlas, MSR, Optic Nerve and Boulder-based Sierra Designs (among others), he still lives an extraordinarily simple existence.
“My gear is all in my girlfriend’s basement,” he says, admitting that he doesn’t have a place of his own to store it.
In this regard, Larsen’s imminent move here will put him in good company, as he’ll join a cadre of elite local athletes who rely on significant others to help hold down the fort while they pursue lofty goals.
Still, with both the first step and the last step taken from his extraordinary adventure to both poles and the highest place on earth, the obvious question is what’s next for Eric Larsen? After all, the bar has now been set pretty high.
“A big part of my future is continuing to tell the story of the Save the Poles expedition,” says Larsen. “I’ll be doing presentations at schools, a book and documentary. I want to make sure that I do this story the justice it deserves. I’ll also be working with Michael Ramsey on a documentary of the Arctic Ocean, and I want to continue doing expeditions that highlight environmental issues. The platform of a journey has broad appeal. And for me, as someone who loves winter and loves cold, I want to continue to be an advocate of those places.
“For me it’s about storytelling,” continues Larsen. “It is sharing those beautiful places with people.”
And his take on the future of these places awash in a frozen beauty?
“I’m an optimist,” he says. “You have to be. I think there are a lot of examples in our history of us overcoming some major environmental crisis. Unfortunately those are all examples of how we’ve responded to a crisis. And that’s the problem with climate change: It’s not impacting us in an immediate way. I’m very worried that by the time the crisis hits it will be too late. I feel we have the ability to change, but do we have the will?”
If you’d like to learn more about how you can take action to help save the world’s most remote places, read personal accounts from Eric about his trips, check out amazing photos from Eric’s adventures, follow Eric on his blog or know when you can hear Eric speak in person, please visit savethepoles.com.