Soft snow, high winds and blinding whiteouts forced Crested Butte’s famed polar adventurer Eric Larsen to abandon his quest for a speed record to the South Pole.
America’s most accomplished polar explorer was planning a meticulously scheduled push across 700 miles of ice to the bottom of the world in less than 24 days. Pulling a sled with a mere 150 pounds of food and gear — enough to last barely 23 days — Larsen was scheming an all-or-nothing assault on the South Pole.
“So it ended up being a nothing because of that gamble. I’ve been on the other side of that gamble, where it works out, and that has been awesome,” he said last week, a few days after arriving at his home in Crested Butte and decompressing with family. “The whiteouts were killer this year. I feel like I’m pretty good at working alone, but 15 hours of just nothing was something I’ve never experienced before in my life. That was hard.”
There’s the physical demand of 20-hour days in the world’s coldest, windiest climate, pulling gear through sastrugi — wavelike gnarls of wind-buffed ice — and snowdrifts, cooking food and setting camps with visibility barely reaching beyond his mitten. But, Larsen said, the mental demands were worse — especially as the record-setting mission grew even more difficult with each passing hour.
Larsen says weather in Antarctica doesn’t matter. It’s always cold and windy there. It was just a matter of buckling down and taking the next step. But this year in Antarctica was different, he said, with heavy snowfall slowing his pace. Every hour, he’d do the math in his head. He was traveling too slow at 1.5 mph. So, by his second day, he cut his sleep from six hours a night to four and upped his daily trail time to more than 15 hours. A clear day would buoy his spirits, and he’d get his speed up to 2 mph. Then several consecutive days of whiteout would return and fresh snow would grab his sled. One day, he traveled fewer than 15 miles, less than half the daily miles he needed to set the speed record. He ditched some gear. He started rationing his food portions, hoping for a marathon push of clear skies and firm snow to the pole.
“As physically hard as it was, the mental aspect was harder. I was constantly dealing with trying to dig myself out of this hole,” he said. “Can I do it? Will I do it? Trying to psych myself up. That got really hard.”
On Dec. 15, he posted an audio update on his blog.
“I’m in a pretty dire situation here in the sense that I don’t have a lot of food,” he said before heading out for what he called “a last-ditch effort.” “I’ve been living on the edge for a while now.”
That was his 20th day on the ice. The next day, at about 86 degrees south, he reluctantly pulled the plug on his record-setting push, realizing his food supplies would not last more than a few days and unsure how much time he would need to traverse the final leg to the South Pole. He turned around and spent his final two days skiing north — nearly 60 miles — to a snowy airstrip where he caught a tourist-loaded plane bound, ironically, for the South Pole.
“It was a bummer,” he said. “It’s hard because (for) these big trips, you have to put so much into it on the funding side of things that there’s a lot of pressure. So, coming up short is really hard. But on the other side, … failing is just a normal part of doing adventures. So when you come up short on something, it can feel like a big deal, but, in reality, I think that is the norm when you are doing hard things.”
Larsen is well acquainted with difficulty. He is the only person to have reached the South Pole, the North Pole and the top of Mount Everest in a single year. He has trekked to the South Pole four times, including once by pedaling a fat-tire bike for 700 miles. Four years ago, he completed what will probably stand as the last-ever human-powered expedition to the North Pole, skiing and swimming across the melting ice cap. The 47-year-old, who has two young kids, spent 2018 on five expeditions: skiing across Greenland; biking and packrafting east to west across Colorado and the same way across Wisconsin; conducting polar training missions in Lake Winnipeg; and guiding clients in the Arctic.
“This trip was a really emotional journey, not only just because of failing, so to speak, but also just because of where I’m at in my life,” he said. “It was a very stark realization to know that I have two small kids who I haven’t seen for almost six months out of this past year. I think a lot about the cost of adventure and this cost of my passion for my family.”
If this was a regular expedition, covering 13 to 14 miles a day, Larsen is sure the weather would not have dragged him down. But he was needing to cover closer to 30 miles a day. That’s doable, but not for days on end as snowstorms slow progress.
Last week, American endurance athlete Colin O’Brady sprinted more than 77 miles in 32 consecutive hours to claim he was the first to cross Antarctica solo and unaided. O’Brady skied 54 days across 920 miles to edge past Great Britain’s Louis Rudd, who finished his solo, unsupported, continent-crossing quest two days later.
Larsen said 2018 “was probably one of the biggest expedition years for Antarctica.”
He’s happy to see others developing the particular skills he has spent his adult life honing. It’s uplifting, he said, to see other athletes seeking adventures around the poles. But he’s not ready to talk about trying for a South Pole speed record again. Maybe he will. Maybe not. Regardless, he counts himself a better man for having tried. He calls it “failing forward.”
“The cool thing about any of these adventures is that they have a lot of lessons to teach on a lot of different levels. Some of them you get right away, and some of them take longer to sink in. I think this one, with a trip that I had been focused on for several years, … will take awhile to know the full impact. What it means to be unlucky. What it means to come up short. What it means to try. What’s really important in my life as I get older,” he said. “I look at what I do as a progression over a lifetime. I give this advice to young people all the time: Nothing you do is a mistake. That, for me, encapsulates the idea of failing forward. Learn from every step, you know?”
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