In October 2010, Eric Larsen became the first person to summit the South Pole, North Pole and Mount Everest over a 365-day span. The 39-year-old polar explorer and educator from Wisconsin embarked on his expedition to raise awareness of the threat of global warming.
But his moment of personal triumph was tempered by the knowledge that the public discourse regarding the environment had improved little during his travels.
“Every time I had a human interaction, especially on Everest, because there are so many people living near there, I realized how much of a concern there is among those people,” says Larsen. “The Sherpas who are living in the Khumbu Valley, they see the pinnacles of ice shrink. They’re worried about melt-off from the plateau. And they’re asking, what are Americans doing about this?
“To them, it’s not a debate. They say, ‘It’s global warming.’ There’s an awareness that the environment is changing due to the phenomenon of the warming climate.”
The Boulder, Colorado-based explorer says the three treks confirmed many of the concerns he had developed during previous adventures. “I studied polar history for a long time, and read about all the other polar expeditions, even my contemporaries, like Will Steger in the 1980s,” says Larsen. “I read about the ice conditions that they encountered. These big flat pans, and massive pressure ridges that would span a half-mile, just gigantic. We didn’t see any of that.”
Larsen admitted to feeling a certain amount of frustration and cynicism, as he hasn’t seen much movement on behalf of the world’s developed nations to seriously address what he sees as a desperate issue.
“Our problem is that this has turned into a debate,” he says. “We’ve started to argue fundamental principles of science. Nobody is trying to say microwave ovens work because of genies, or that gravity doesn’t exist. But these are the same scientific principles. That’s the core of the issue.”
However, Larsen remains optimistic. “One of the things I learned on this trip is that humans have a remarkable ability to achieve incredible things,” he says. “We have the ability to make positive change. We just need to do it, and do it in a timely manner.”
“One of my philosophies has always been, ‘Begin with one step.’ These problems, they can seem so huge, so overwhelming, but you’ve got to take that one small step. If you combine that with everybody else, then that’s a pretty substantial effort,” he says. “The solutions are out there. It’s not rocket science. There’s renewable energy, solar and wind, fuel cells potentially. But the real answer right now is a dramatic cut in consumption. We need to reduce our use, which isn’t that crazy a thing. We can do a lot of that by simply implanting energy efficiency and conservation standards.”
The magnificent and beautiful places that Larsen visited exist within a narrow range of environmental conditions, he says. But an even narrower mindset may be their greatest threat.
Learn more about Larsen’s ongoing work at SaveThePoles.com.