Less than an hour after the plane dropped them off, Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters saw the polar bear tracks.
The two Boulder-based explorers were just beginning their campaign to complete a rare, unsupported land-to-pole trek, walking almost 500 miles across the sea ice from Canada's Arctic shores to the North Pole. It was fantastically difficult feat, the kind that no one had pulled off since 2010; this year, no other team even tried. But as the massive paw prints in the snow attested, that didn't mean they were alone.
Hungry polar bears were just one of the litany of obstacles that Waters and Larsen faced on their 53-day trip to the world's northern extreme. Over the course of nearly two months, the pair contended with long stretches of frigid open water, mounting physical and mental fatigue, and drifting sea ice that slowly erased their progress, carrying them south as they slept. Their persistence paid off on May 6 when they reached the pole. In the process, the pair set a new American speed record for the trek and narrowly missed the world record of 49 days set by a Norwegian team in 2006.
Few adventurers can match the professional cred of Larsen and Waters, both career explorers with lengthy resumes. Larsen is one of the world's best-known polar athletes, the first person to reach both poles and summit Mt. Everest in a single calendar year, and a musher and expedition fatbiker to boot; Waters, a professional mountain guide, has traversed Greenland on skis and completed the "grand slam" of adventure by climbing the Seven Summits and reaching both poles. The pair got to know each other on a climb of Denali, and almost journeyed to the pole once before, in 2010, before Waters had to drop out.
Larsen and Waters spent over a year preparing for their trek, fundraising and training. When they weren't looking for backers, they worked out, hauling truck tires up the trails near Boulder, hiking with rock-filled backpacks and biking to build up their endurance. The pair further refined their setups on a two-week-long training sortie to Svalbard last year.
Once on the ice, says Larsen, the partners' routine was "like Groundhog Day," a seemingly endless parade of days that followed the same pattern. Every morning, they rose at five or six and trekked until the evening, taking turns leading in one-hour shifts. Working without outside support, they pulled their gear and supplies in sleds that weighed as much as 320 pounds each. Where the ice split open to reveal stretches of open water, Larsen and Waters donned drysuits and swam across.
"The main thing people have misconceptions about is the actual environment around the physical, geographic north pole. There's no land, we're traveling on ice that's floating on water," says Larsen. "For nearly 500 miles, we're traveling on a moving sheet of ice that's breaking apart and colliding. So it's a very dynamic surface, it's not stable. You can actually see the ice moving. We can set up our camp for the night and wake up farther south than where we went to sleep, nearly two miles farther south."
Then there were the bears. Soon after noticing the paw prints on their first day, Larsen and Waters were hauling their sleds over a rough patch of ice when Larsen turned around and saw a mother bear and her yearling approaching them. Larsen and Waters attempted to scare off the animals with the flare guns that they kept in their pockets. The younger bear continued to come closer, not turning tail until the explorers fired off a cracker shell from the gun in their sled. Larsen estimates that the bears had been following them for at least 100 to 150 yards.
"Polar bears are amazing animals, I have a lot of respect for them," says Larsen. "But we're not the top of the food chain when we're up there."
While Larsen and Waters aren't the first explorers to make the trek to the North Pole, they might be among the last. Warming temperatures at the pole have shortened the season to the point where future explorers might not have enough time to dash to the top of the world before the ice there becomes too soft to land a plane on; Larsen thinks that a trip like his and Waters's won't be possible in another ten to fifteen years.
"My goal with any of my expeditions is really to tell a story, to connect people with places. And I felt like the Arctic Ocean is such a misrepresented place in our minds, and it's changing dramatically," says Larsen. "I wanted to be able to tell the story of that place before it's forever changed."
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Footage from Larsen and Waters trip will appear in an Animal Planet series on the pole in 2015. Until then, you can read dispatches from the partners at Larsen's blog.
Follow Adam Roy on Twitter: @adnroy
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