His hair long and shaggy, his face sunburned and wind-chapped, Eric Larsen looked like the last person who would be speaking to students in the University’s Business Opportunities in Leadership and Diversity program. Larsen had gone without showering for up to six weeks at a time on his Save the Poles expedition to reach the South Pole, the North Pole and the summit of Mount Everest within a continuous 365 days. Now clean-shave, he braved the Ithaca cold on Feb. 15 to speak about extreme leadership and his efforts to raise awareness on climate change.
Larsen is the first American to reach all three “poles” and the first person ever to accomplish this feat within one year. He grew up in Minnesota and joked that his most unusual characteristics are his love of winter and love of camping.
“[I] judge quality of life by how many nights I can spend in a tent,” Larsen said.
After graduating from college, he joined the Student Conservation Association and worked as a backcountry ranger in Alaska, where he explored the Canadian Arctic.
When his interests shifted from recreation to education, he went back to school for a master’s degree in environmental education. After working at an environmental center for four years though, he delved back into expeditions, convinced that kids need outdoor experiences to fully engage in environmental learning.
In 2006, Larsen made the first ever summer expedition to the North Pole with the goal of getting polar bears listed as an endangered species. The fracturing of Arctic ice, which threatens the livelihood of the bears, also threatened the expedition, which many thought to be impossible.
For Save the Poles, Larsen set his sights even higher, intending for the three-part expedition to serve as a “springboard for telling story of global climate change,” Larsen said.
Since the world has long since been charted and mapped, Larsen considers the word explorer to be an artificial term and instead views himself as a storyteller of “how unique, beautiful, seemingly pristine these places are, [yet] how fragile and changing,” he said.
Moreover, Larsen added that there is a “powerful, automatically interesting aspect” to the environment, and it need not be value-laden with a political agenda.
Throughout the presentation, Larsen conveyed an easy-going and self-deprecating attitude. He professed to not being the strongest, smartest, or fastest person but believing that we all have an “innate ability to excel and survive”
Larsen and his team encountered “a lot of situations where you’re really pushing the envelope of safety,” he said.
In Antarctica, there are “so many ways to fail,” Larsen said, from falling into a crevasse to hypothermia, to broken equipment, to getting lost or disoriented, especially in white-outs. “Put blank sheet of paper in front of your face, and that’s like skiing in Antarctica,” Larsen said.
One of Larsen’s many mantras is “No one of us is as strong as all of us.” He had to operate within three different teams, in three different places, under three different situations, yet he equated the expedition with baking cookies, and each day as “stamping out one cookie. Hopefully we can do that enough time to be successful and reach our goal.”
On Save the Poles, Larsen simultaneously played a leader and a team member – both unconventionally defined. As a leader, he always volunteered first for the worst jobs, such as physically breaking ice sheets with his body, choosing to lead by example. As a team player, he was selfish about conserving his energy because every ounce of energy saved contributes to the team’s overall success.