Eric Larsen on Why He Decided to Lead a North Pole Tour Through Russia

Yesterday, polar guide Eric Larsen returned to Colorado after another disappointing North Pole season. The Barneo ice station near the North Pole was slated to run this year for the first time since 2018.

Larsen was the only Western outfitter willing to risk the uncertainties of the new route through Russia, despite the U.S. State Department’s Level 4 Travel Advisory. He had five clients — two from the U.S., one from Canada, one from Spain, and one from South Africa.

All had signed up and paid years before, when Barneo was a regular and reliable feature of the arctic expedition season. They had opted to wait through years of cancellations — from politics, COVID, and sanctions — for another chance.

Four of the five clients were trying to complete something called the Explorers Grand Slam. Despite its alluring name, this somewhat artificial list involves climbing the Seven Summits plus skiing the last degree to the North and South Poles.

In the early days of ExplorersWeb, in the early 2000s, this list — sometimes called the Adventurers Grand Slam — required skiing the entire distance to the North and South Poles from land. But the North Pole, in particular, was too difficult and committing for the average, non-elite adventurer.

man in fur ruff in arctic environment

Eric Larsen. Photo: Eric Larsen


Last full North Pole Expedition

Larsen and partner Ryan Waters were, in fact, the last people to do a full-length expedition to the North Pole, and that was in 2014. Some unnamed collector then redefined the Grand Slam as merely the last 100km to each Pole. That was a lot easier, and the new definition stuck, even though it made the Slam a lot less grand.

Even that last degree to the North Pole has been almost impossible in recent years. But it looked like the staging camp at Barneo was going to run this year.

Larsen and his small group flew from Istanbul, Turkey to Moscow or Novosibirsk, and from there to Krasnoyarsk, in central Siberia. Here, they waited. Large Russian cargo planes had already dropped the bulldozers and other heavy equipment and workers by parachute down onto the ice floe they had chosen for the Barneo camp. Now, they needed to build a 1,000m airstrip and put the quonset-style shelters and other logistics in place.

Larsen told ExplorersWeb that choosing to ignore the sanctions against Russia had been difficult for him and his clients. In the time since the last successful Barneo season, Larsen had had a close brush with mortality, an advanced form of colorectal cancer that he seems to have shaken off.

“I’m back to 98 percent,” he said. Returning to his familiar and beloved Arctic was tempting. “It’s the one place where I have a skill set that means something in the world,” explained Larsen.

He also felt a responsibility to his long-committed clients. And, he said, “There’s a long history of polar explorers working with Russians.”

Larsen refers to the late 1980s and early 1990s when cooperative expeditions created “polar bridges” between the West and the then-Soviet Union during the perestroika period of thawing relations. Some would suggest things are different now.

woman walks along snowy Russian street

Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Photo: Shutterstock


Larsen’s group wasn’t the only one in Krasnoyarsk. Another dozen clients from India, China, and Europe were being guided directly through the Barneo organization. Toward the end of their stay, the North Pole marathoners began to drift into town. There was talk of another planeload of skiers after theirs.

“Everyone was happy to be there,” said Larsen. He pointed out how hospitable the Russian people themselves are, aside from the politics of their leaders. “Everybody was nice,” recalled Larsen. “People often stopped us on the street and asked where we were from.”

Larsen converted U.S. dollars to roubles on his way to Russia but said that buying roubles directly from a local bank in Krasnoyarsk was no problem.

In the end, as we reported last week, Krasnoyarsk was as far north as they went. The weather over the Arctic Ocean was bad, the runway at Barneo cracked, and there wasn’t time to rebuild it. “It definitely would have taken at least a week,” said Larsen.

So for the sixth time in a row, the season was ultimately canceled.

Next year?

Would Larsen try again next year?

“It depends whether you ask me or my wife,” he said. “I love that environment, but as a business decision, it’s not the best idea.”

Later, on social media, he added, “Svalbard makes the most sense as a jumping-off point [to Barneo]. For starters, all the polar guides (myself included) have storage units in Longyearbyen full of expedition gear, as does the Barneo team. For clients, it’s an easy-to-reach destination with modern amenities…

“The decision to fly through Russia was not one taken lightly…but without the permits from the Norwegian government to land and refuel, there was no other option.”

Larsen has no other arctic tours planned for this spring. “I’m coaching under-12 soccer,” he said.

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. One of Canada’s premier arctic travelers, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and has just finished a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada and in 2022, he received the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Medal for services to exploration.