Interview: Eric Larsen on the South Pole Speed Record

Arctic Poles
Eric Larsen is aiming to break Christian Eide's mark of 24 days, 1 hour and 13 minutes. Photo: Eric Larsen

“Don’t forget to rest a lot every day.” — Christain Eide’s advice for Eric Larsen

With news that Eric Larsen has designs on Christian Eide’s seven-year-old South Pole speed record, ExWeb decided to find out how Larsen plans to tackle it.

In 2011, Christian Eide, then 35, was running an Oslo-based expedition company and had been planning meticulously for some time: “I was very well prepared before I started out on December 21.” His preparations had included intense physical training, including time at altitude and on the ice: “In the year leading up to the attempt, I had skied across Greenland twice, and just before starting out from Hercules Inlet, I climbed Mount Vinson and skied the Last Degree.” In fact, he arrived at the South Pole on that Last Degree trip only six days before leaving Hercules Inlet on his record attempt.

Eide also honed his equipment choices. He hauled a payload of just 63 kilograms. He didn’t use any specialized ultralight gear, apart from a carbon sled with custom runners to reduce friction. He also chose classic cross-country ski boots instead of expedition boots, relying on the fast pace to keep his feet warm. Thanks to his strong background in cross-country skiing — he started at age two — Eide cranked out almost 50km in short, 10-hour days: “The last two hours every day were real pain, the other eight hours were okay. The last day, I skied 90km.”

Armed with Eide’s perspective on what the record entailed, ExWeb caught up with Eric Larsen down in Santiago, Chile.

Putting in the miles on Lake Winnipeg. Photo: Eric Larsen


ExWeb: When are you setting off?
I’m starting around November 23. I was actually hoping to start later in December  — warmer/more stable weather — but I’m trying to balance flights with my family commitments. So the 23rd (-ish) it is.

ExWeb: Why target the speed record?
I think this is where the leading edge of adventure exists today. With some exceptions, there is no new territory to discover, so the real challenges lie in pushing our personal limits in these environments. Historically, the polar world was never focused on speed. The aim was simply to accomplish the feat that was most important, and difficult. However, as our understanding of these environments and knowledge of how our bodies perform in these conditions have increased, and the weight of the gear needed to be safe has decreased, we are able to push the edge in different ways: Not by going to new places, but by trying to do traditional expeditions more elegantly.

In Antarctica, there is a lot of subjectivity in defining records. In my opinion, the Hercules Inlet route remains the yardstick with which to measure, push and test these limits.

Larsen on the first ascent of Jabou Ri in the Himalaya with ExWeb ambassador Ryan Waters in 2015. Larsen climbed Everest five years earlier. Photo: Ryan Waters

ExWeb: Of all the polar speed records, do you think Eide’s is the toughest to beat?
There aren’t a lot of polar speed records to choose from. I think the Skog, Bae and Borch unsupported record to the North Pole is more difficult. In terms of overall route difficulty, Rune Gjeldnes’s and Torry Larsen’s unsupported/unaided crossing of the Arctic Ocean and Richard Weber’s and Misha Malakhov’s North Pole out and back have to be two of the most difficult in history. Both Rune’s and Borge Ousland’s crossing of Antarctica are spectacular as well. That said, Christian Eide put in a magnificent effort and dramatically changed how we view modern polar expeditions and what is possible. It took the traditional mindset of polar travel (slow suffering) and turned it on its head.

ExWeb: How do you rank yourself as a cross-country skier? Have you ever raced?
I grew up as a Nordic skier and raced, but was pretty terrible.

ExWeb: Are you using skins or fish scales? If skins, how long and wide? [Note: Eide used ordinary skins approximately 40cm long)
I love this question! It seems like this always becomes the centre of the debate on this type of travel. I personally like to use three-quarter skins (35mm wide) on Madshus BC 55 MGV+ (fish scales). I will trim down the skins when I reach the plateau. Personally, I feel that even a good skier wastes energy climbing on kicker skins with heavier weights. This is because you need perfect form to compress the camber of your ski to get enough grip. Additionally, you have to use your upper body more, both of which translate into extra energy burned. When climbing, I think you benefit more from longer skins and increased traction than you lose from extra friction.

Larsen on his 2014 North Pole expedition. Photo: Eric Larsen

ExWeb: Eide set his record doing 9-10 hours a day. Do you feel you can equal that, or will you put in longer days?
I think the people who have attempted this record have been focused on going faster. But when you’re hauling a heavy sled over sandpaper-like snow, there’s only so much that your speed can increase. So I think the best strategy is putting in longer days, while still skiing as fast as possible.

ExWeb: How much will your sled weigh?
It doesn’t matter what I put in my sled, it always weighs too much! I don’t have the exact weights now, but I’m guessing around 61kg.

ExWeb: How have you minimized weight?
I have a basic philosophy about gear: Not light, but right. I think lightweight gear is important, but it also needs to be durable and easy to use. Being efficient is equally important, so one of my most important pieces of gear is my Citizen watch. Adhering to a strict schedule and not wasting time will prove more important than anything else. That said, I worked with MSR to design a solo tent for my trip and will also take my signature Therm-a-Rest Polar Ranger sleeping bag. I also have been fine tuning my stove system over the past several years, as fuel and food are the biggest overall weights. I will take two pairs of underwear, but I’ll only wear one.

Testing electronics. Photo: Eric Larsen


ExWeb: How have you trained for this effort?
This year, I’ve already been three months on expeditions. My polar training course that I teach every year on Lake Winnipeg, a trip across some of Svalbard and guiding the Last Degree North Pole, and then guiding a Greenland Crossing… so I have a really nice base. I spent the entire summer riding my mountain bike, which believe it or not, I think is excellent polar training. I’ve been doing the usual tire pulling but also did a nine-day, 800km adventure across Wisconsin two weeks ago to get my body used to the big days. I’ll also do some longer shakedown trips at Union Glacier for a few days before leaving.

ExWeb: Why do you think you can break the record? I’m not totally sure that I can, but I like setting difficult goals and trying to achieve them. I think that the most important part of any adventure is simply the act of trying, regardless of the outcome. That said, going fast in Antarctica is not just about being the strongest, it’s about having the right systems, self-discipline, resources, schedule and experience. I feel like I’ve accrued a lot of that information over the past 20 years. The target is pretty straightforward, so either I’ll break the record or I won’t. Time will tell. I have confidence in my experience and abilities, and a significant part of this is about confidence.

ExWeb: Anything else?
I’m calling my expedition Last South. Obviously, I know there will be other South Pole expeditions in the near future, but there is a ticking clock on polar ice caps and glaciers on this planet. I do feel that polar enthusiasts have a responsibility to protect the places in which we recreate. Additionally, there is a shrinking community of people focused on these adventures. In one sense, I’m a dinosaur and my knowledge relates more to Amundsen in 1911 than to how my son will understand the Earth’s Poles in 2030. The title is hyperbolic, but I do feel that understanding how climate change affects us is vital.

I’m also at a time in my life where I’m equally as focused on my family as I am on my expeditions. To that end, I built a mission control station where my kids can track my route through my Garmin inReach, learn more about Antarctica, count down the days and more. I am just excited about helping my kids understand more about Antarctica as I am about this expedition.

The Larsen family Mission Control Station. Photo: Eric Larsen

Editor’s Note: Eric Larsen’s Antarctic Gear List is on Facebook.


Previous

ExWeb interview with Christian Eide, My main target is to beat the South Pole solo ski record

About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer with a PhD in Exercise Science. He lives in the UK and has also written for Rock and Ice, Outside, UK Climbing etc. He recently led a 634km foot crossing of a frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia. See more at www.ashrouten.com.

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of