Q&A: Winter Warrior Eric Larsen

September 28 2013, 4:20 PM

Most of us probably can’t imagine breaking one world record, let alone three. But to 42-year-old Boulder resident Eric Larsen, they’re a mere byproduct to his expeditions—of which they are 15 to date. Larsen loves winter, and has always had a fascination with snow and ice. It’s part of what drove him to travel to the “three poles” of the world—Mount Everest, the South, and North Pole—all in one year (which had never been done previously). 

You can hear his talk about his adventures at Denver’s REI on October 2 (Wednesday) at 6:30 p.m., as part of his Into the Heart of Cold: Stories from the Ends of the Earth series. To get you ready, we sat down with Larsen to talk about his expeditions, how he maintains a family, and why he decided to exchange his Midwest lifestyle for one in Boulder. (Bonus: Larsen is also releasing a documentary later this year. Watch the trailer for Colder here.)

5280: What motivates you—besides breaking a world record—to do things that no one has ever done before?

I don’t personally like to use the term world record, but it applies. You know you’re doing something that no one has done before, so by default it’s a world record. But more importantly, it’s that idea of storytelling, connecting people to those places, and conveying to them what an expedition is like in real time. Every other thing that happens as a result of that goal of sharing is icing on the cake. If I break a world record, awesome, but if I’m getting people interested in these places, and more psyched about winter, then I’ve really succeeded.

5280: You've been on more than a dozen expeditions—often spending months away from your friends and family—what have been your biggest takeaways from those trips?

The first takeaway is that when I look at my physical and mental abilities, they’re pretty limited. I’m not the naturally gifted athlete, and I’m not the genius. But what I’ve learned is that these big problems and these big endeavors can be overwhelming. But my motto “begin with one step” breaks them up into manageable pieces. 

5280: Do you have a favorite expedition?

That’s like picking out a favorite kid, because they’re all very unique. Each one occupies a different place in my heart and my mind. The North Pole expedition is probably my favorite even though it's harder, requires more training, and there’s more uncertainty about whether or not you’ll be successful. The actual ice is so dynamic; it’s moving all the time and shifting around. It isn’t just a big, smooth, flat sheet of ice. So, what you are skiing and snowshoeing across is a thin little layer of ice that is floating on water. At the most, it's four or five feet thick, and at its thinnest it's about an inch. There are even sections of open water that you have to put a dry suit on and swim across. It’s moving around and broken up into pieces, and depending on the wind, the tides, and the ocean currents, it can break apart or form ridges. It has ice chunks as big as cars that you have to maneuver. Also, it has something called the drift, that actually moves you backward, so it’s like you’re traveling on a conveyor belt. We will set our tents up at night, and we may wake up two miles south of where we fell asleep.

(Bonus: You can watch a video of Eric navigating the North Pole here.)

5280: How did you get interested in extreme expeditions?

I’ve always really liked being outside and camping. I was always comfortable with unknowns. There’s this idea of discovery and pushing yourself to try new things that you’ve never done before. It's really exciting to try to be able to discover places—maybe not for the first time ever—but at least the first time for yourself.

5280: You grew up in Wisconsin and lived in Minnesota until 2009. What brought you to Boulder?

I moved out to train for my last really big trip, which was the Save the Poles expedition: South Pole, North Pole, and Everest all in one year. I knew I needed to do more altitude stuff and stuff in the mountains. In Boulder, there’s more opportunity to get to higher altitude places, steeper terrain, and a community of adventure-minded people. But I also moved out here to have a more normal relationship with my “almost wife”—that’s what I call her, because we should already be married—Maria.

5280: How do you two cope as a couple while you’re away?

It’s hard. The danger is what it is, you don’t really think about it a lot, or you try to downplay it. But in terms of having a normal relationship, it’s not easy. The hard part is actually not being able to physically be around each other, and the burdens of having a family, and life—and Maria having to handle that all by herself. Luckily, the Delorme inReach SE allows us to keep in touch. I try to talk to her once a day, and even two years ago, that would have been impossible.

5280: Is it harder to go on expeditions now that you’re a father to an eight-month-old baby boy?

It is. Luckily he’s been young enough so far that he hasn’t technically known if I’m there or not. You feel a little helpless at times, and that’s frustrating. I think for my next North Pole expedition it will be hard because he might not recognize me when I get back. He’ll be a little older and able to comprehend who Daddy is.

5280: What’s your favorite Colorado spot?

Crested Butte, hands down. I love that town. The mountain biking is ridiculous, the scenery is awesome, and it actually reminds me of the town I used to live in in Minnesota.

—Image courtesy of Eric Larsen