Polar exploring demands a myriad of skills for safe and efficient traveling, combining endurance and strength with hard, technical alpine climbing skills, glacier and cold weather travelling protocols, and even a bit of luck. And when you tack on the burden of telling the story while you’re there, an entirely different set of media skills and equipment is added to your list of daily tasks. But, that’s how SCARPA athlete Eric Larsen likes it. He has recently returned from a training mission to Hudson Bay, and will soon be off on another to Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II (G2), neither of which give him much time under the warm sun. Here’s what he has to say about it.
You just got back from Hudson Bay for a month? What kind of training did you do and what makes Hudson so good for that kind of training?
We went to Churchill, Manitoba, which is on the edge of Hudson Bay. This is a perfect place for polar training because it’s relatively close and you can get there easily while bringing a lot of gear (via train from Winnipeg). Flying to many arctic locales can be cost-prohibitive, which is another reason why training in Churchill is so appealing.
Hudson Bay also offers the ability to travel on sea ice, which is dynamic and dangerous and therefore very challenging to traverse. Because of the tides and ocean currents, you get pressure ridges, rubble ice, and even open water. Of course, where there is open water there are seals, and where there are seals in the arctic, polar bears are close by as well.
Open water also means that the air is fairly humid, which makes the cold feel really intense. Churchill is far enough north that you can still get really cold (-20 F) temperatures in late to early spring while daylight is also increasing, so there is plenty of time to travel. Of course, March is also a great time for Northern Lights. While there I did a lot of snow biking and some skiing and snowshoeing too.
You seem to be a champion for all things cold. What’s the allure for you, and is “cold” another quality to remote?
I think I simply like extreme environments because they present a lot of obstacles in order to travel comfortably and safely. Go to the beach, and all you need is your flip-flops and a towel, but go somewhere cold and you immediately have to deal with severe consequences. Cold, to me, is also very elegant. By its very nature, cold is designed to shut things down or keep things away. Remoteness is definitely a factor as well. For whatever reason, I am drawn to big, vast wilderness areas. The Arctic and Antarctic are the largest and most remote wildernesses on the planet. They just happen to be pretty cold as well, which is nice if you like winter—which I do.
I’m also really fascinated by snow and ice. Depending on the environmental conditions, snow and ice can take on all kinds of different shapes, forms and qualities—which to me is incredible.
Can you describe the different types of cold you’ve encountered? How do they differ?
First of all, one of the most important things to realize is just the subtle difference in temperature itself. There is so much that happens in the environment and objects within it as the temperature warms and cools. For example, cold at 30 F is much different than 20 F, which is very different than 0 F, which can seem downright balmy compared to -35 F. A stuff sack can be pliable and easy to use at 10 F but at -30 F becomes brittle and rigid.
Nothing is colder than the Arctic Ocean. Plain and simple. Temperatures at the start of my North Pole expedition were -50 F. Because it’s the ocean, it’s also very humid, so the cold just creeps into your bones. Moisture builds up really easily too, so your clothes become caked with frost.
In Antarctica, the temperatures are actually not that cold but the wind chill is insane, making temperatures feel like they are 40 or 50 below. At altitude, temperatures that aren’t so bad (-10 F) still feel very cold and require huge down gear to stay warm. I’m not exactly sure what temperatures were on the day I summited Everest—maybe 15 below at the coldest—but I wore about six or seven layers. In Antarctica, at that temperature, I would only wear two thin base layers and a shell.
With the progression in technology over the last several years, explorers are equipped to give on-the-fly storytelling from such wild and remote places like Hudson Bay. Do you enjoy on-location story telling? What makes it valuable?
For me one of my biggest goals is to connect people with places, and some of the issues that are affecting those places ,so being able to connect with people in real time—and have them interact with me—is very important. It definitely helps build awareness of what these places are like and how they are unique.
Arctic and Antarctic journeys make certain demands for the gear we use. Which SCARPA boots do you find the best for stomping around in sub zero temps?
I worked with SCARPA to develop the Tele Phantoms, which are basically a Phantom 8000-meter boot with a Telemark/3 pin style sole. In 2009, I used these boots on my 750-mile expedition to the South Pole. They were super-warm and easy to put on and take off. They also offered excellent support. On Everest I used the Phantom 8000’s, which I also love. I never had any cold feet problems, and the lace system makes putting them on and taking them off very quick and easy, which to me is very important.
I’m basically in SCARPA gear 24/7. It doesn’t matter if it’s an expedition or not, so I’ve got great footwear for whatever I’m doing—trail running, hiking, mountaineering or hanging out.
You’re headed to G2 this June to join a friend for a training mission to get more mountaineering skills. What are the future goals?
I’ve come into the expedition world through dog mushing, which has little to do with mountaineering or alpine environments. So anything I can do to gain more mountaineering experience is definitely a priority as one of my main goals is to combine polar travel with mountaineering for expeditions to places like Baffin Island, Greenland and Antarctica. I’m also gearing up for a big trip this winter, which for right now is top secret.
Is summer overrated?
No way. I love summer and it’s actually my favorite season: shorts, flip-flops, a river—my dreams come true.