(By Correne Coetzer) "The North Pole is like going into battle or something. You get beat up, you get frustrated, cold, scared, you don´t really know if you can make it, and that goes for the first day all the way to the last,” Ryan tells ExplorersWeb in the comfort of his home in Colorado. He says he did not know he and Eric would reach the Pole until they were about half a nautical mile (1 km) away, "which seems crazy, but it was because the last day was one of the most difficult due to terrible weather, lots of leads, very strong wind and more."
On May 6, 2014, Ryan Waters and Eric Larsen arrived from Canada at the Geographic North Pole after traveling 770 km (in a straight line) in 53 days on human and mental power, in the same set of clothes. They were the first team since 2010 to complete a successful expedition from land to the North Pole and were unassisted and unsupported.
ExplorersWeb: You have been 10 times on 8000 meter peaks. How did this North Pole expedition compared to your 8000m peaks? Have you given it a though that you could do this more than once (10x for that matter)? Have you ever punished you body so much on a mountain?
Ryan: Well, just to clarify, I have been on 14 expeditions to 8000 meter peaks, I missed the summit on a few of those but that is part of big mountain climbing. Several of the trips were to the same peak because I have guided on a lot of those. It seems important to clarify that since that magic 14 number happens to be special in the 8000 meter world...
Climbing 8000 meter mountains is a challenging affair and has its own set of hardships but they are much more condensed into several days of hard climbing mixed with rest days at a camp or whatever, versus a constant struggle over 2 months [on the Pole], it would be kind of similar to just doing high camp carries day in and out for 2 months straight everyday or something.
No, I do not entertain the idea of doing an unsupported North Pole trip more than once. A last degree trip, sure, but I am honestly just thankful to have been able to complete this really tough journey and to look back on it now.
You did Antarctica also the hardest way, an unassisted unsupported crossing. How does the SP and this NP compare?
Ryan: It is very hard to compare the two. The North Pole expedition is harder than our crossing in my opinion and I am pretty sure Cecilie would agree.
The Antarctica crossing was difficult for sure, but in a way that involved distance, time, longevity and mental challenges in a different sense. Whereas the North Pole is like going into battle or something. You get beat up, you get frustrated, cold, scared, you don´t really know if you can make it, and that goes for the first day all the way to the last.
On our Antarctica crossing, I had this strange feeling that I knew we could do it. As long as we stayed healthy and did not have big gear failures, we were just in a groove and kind of skied like crazy and had confidence.
In the North, that kind of long term confidence is dangerous, you had to focus more on things like... o.k. I feel pretty certain that we may be able to do like 4 miles today if a hundred factors going against us do not overwhelm us today!
This whole expedition is an enormous challenge from beginning to end. What situations/conditions/circumstances stand out as most challenging?
Ryan: The short answer is that nothing about the trip is easy.
The overall thing that stands out is when you are somewhere in the middle of the trip and have lots of distance to go, the weather is bad, the light is flat so visibility is terrible, and it is minus 40 degrees. Where do you find the motivation to slip your feet into your semi frozen boots and get out of the tent to have at it again when nothing is certain for the next 12 hours in your life other than you will not be comfortable. I do not know how to answer that when people ask, but somehow these challenges add up to the possibility of completing an overall goal so you just do it.
Were there times that you thought of giving up, that you thought you will never reach the Pole? What kept you going?
Ryan: This is quite interesting... the difficulty day in and day out are enough to make anyone feel the thoughts of giving up. I did not have frequent thoughts of quitting, but instead very frequent thoughts of how damn difficult the expedition is, which makes you feel more overwhelmed than anything else.
There was one specific day actually very late in the trip when both Eric and myself had a random both-in-a-down-place-day at the same time and I would say that the thought that it would be easy to just end the hardships did cross my mind, but we just kind of ignored it and kept skiing.
I did not know we would reach the Pole until we were about half a nautical mile away, which seems crazy, but it was because the last day was one of the most difficult due to terrible weather, lots of leads, very strong wind and more.
Falling though the ice without a drysuit is probably one of the things that every North Pole skier fears. Tell us what went through your mind and how did your body react?
Ryan: Surprisingly I did not feel scared at that moment, it was more like an instant thought of, oh this is not a good situation, you need to get out of the water as fast as possible. Trouble is the ice kept breaking as I was trying to crawl out of the other side because it was just a very thin layer so you then have time to get a little worried.
But more I just thought about getting dry and new base layers on. It took us about an hour to get me all sorted and then we skied the rest of the day so not a huge deal. I will say that it was fortunate that the weather and wind were nice, which can make that situation a whole lot different!
What did you learn about Eric that you didn't know?
Ryan: I was extremely impressed by his skill set in the Arctic, we of course had done training trips in places like Svalbard and Canada, but to be in the real deal, suddenly I could see his complete competence for North Pole trips in action.
He masks that a lot with a very tempered outlook, meaning he never wants to make too many plans that could very easily and often do, fall short, because in his own words, he hates to get let down when it does not happen that way, so his defence is to just kind of quietly go go go, and put in time, eventually I could see how that was an incredibly valuable characteristic on this trip.
What did you learn about yourself on this expedition?
Ryan: The funny thing is I remember actively thinking this exact thought... This is so hard to keep going day after day, I do not know why this trip was so important to me, what have I learned about myself… nothing. OK that I can suffer? What is the point of this?
But somehow there was a deep down drive to be successful on reaching the Pole and I just kind of never really wavered to achieve that. So in that sense, I think I learned that I can be pretty driven to accomplish a goal, farther than I ever thought before.
Did you food, gear and clothes work well? Could you have taken something different? What did you miss most?
Ryan: We brought just the right stuff, sure we could in hindsight say I would bring more energy bars or whatever but the truth is our stuff worked just right. We had a lot of things to repair on the trip and that is just part of it.
Our Bergans of Norway clothing was right on the money, perfectly engineered for this trip. I would have taken more podcasts or different music for late in the trip when you can actually listen to things sometimes.
After such an ultra-extreme expedition what is the most difficult to adapt to back home and among people who don’t actually understand what you have endured?
Ryan: It is a little hard to come back but I think it is more because you have that blank space to fill, when you have focused on the project for so long and it is such a focus, and suddenly it is over; it can be hard to adjust.
It already feels like a dream and it is very hard to explain to people what the trip actually was like, this is why doing speeches and the stuff we filmed for Animal Planet will be super fun to show what it is like, the video speaks for itself.
Ryan Waters and Eric Larsen departed from Cape Discovery, Ellesmere Island, Canada (83ºN) on March 15, and arrived 53 days later at the Geographic North Pole (90ºN) on March 6. The two Americans were unassisted (no resupplies), and unsupported (no kites/dogs/vehicles) and each pulled a 144 kg / 317 pound sledge at the start, while skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, crawling and rafting to the North Pole. They covered 770km.
The ski distance is calculated in a straight line from the start to the Pole. What is not added, are all the detours around high ridges, ice blocks, rubble or leads (open water). Also not added are the negative drift and relaying sleds.
In January 2010 Ryan completed a record-breaking unassisted, unsupported Geographic South Pole crossing from the far edge of Berkner Island to the Ross Ice Shelf at the bottom of Axel Heiberg Glacier with Cecilie Skog.
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