A few weeks ago, after a few busy days in Minneapolis, I was returning back to Denver on an early 6 a.m. flight. Normally at that time of the morning, because I’ve been up since 4 a.m., I don’t pay much attention to those sitting next to me. Flying for me (and for many of us) has become like riding a bus — you just get on and go, hopefully on time and headed to the right place. About halfway through the flight, I noticed the guy next to me working on a presentation with some stunning photos of what appeared to be the Antarctic. The pictures piqued my curiosity so I struck up on a conversation and asked where they were shot. The photos were of the North Pole and my seat mate turned out to be none other than Eric Larsen, polar explorer. Polar explorer? That profession is up there with race car driver, bull rider and astronaut for me. Aren’t polar explorers just people we hear about on Discovery Channel or National Geographic?
In March of this year, Larsen and his partner, Ryan Waters, completed the 480-mile, 53-day, unassisted and unsupported (that means you’re on your own) expedition to the North Pole. The expedition required them to ski and even swim in open water towing 325-pound sleds behind them. Of the expedition, Eric summed it up as “Easily, one of the most difficult expeditions in the world. This may realistically be the last opportunity anyone has to complete a journey of this type in this region.”
While I was amazed at the physical demands such a journey would have on your body, what most intrigued me was the emotional toll such a challenge would take and how difficult it must have been to stay focused on the goal. What follows are excerpts from my conversation with Eric about his journey and mental preparation to accomplish such an amazing feat. In particular, I asked, “While there was physical fitness preparation necessary to complete your epic journey, what did you do emotionally or psychologically to prepare for the adventure?”
Knowing All Variables
“I’m a huge optimist in real life. On expeditions, however, I call myself a realistic optimist. There are so many things that can go wrong and for me hoping for something and then being let down becomes a physical burden. It’s overwhelming. For me, it’s important to be realistic about our odds and the conditions.”
In Larsen’s words:
“It’s hard for me to separate physical and psychological as they are both so intertwined throughout the entire process — from the initial planning stages to reaching the pole. On a basic level, being physically fit directly impacts my emotional state as having more physical energy — being strong, averting injury, not feeling as tired keeps my mind sharp. Equally important to prepare emotionally is to have the millions of details, systems, procedures, contingencies and more sorted ahead of time. Emotional stress is most often a result of being in a “new” situation that devolves out of your control. Therefore, having our equipment tested, knowing our food menu will provide enough sustenance/energy, understanding emergency procedures, developing good communication techniques, understanding our roles, knowing how to repair gear … every time one of these variables is “defined” ahead of time, it dramatically increases our confidence and reduces stress both before hand and during our expedition.
“Put simply, being emotionally prepared is simply being prepared.
Coping with Change
“Equally important is simply learning (and knowing) how to cope with constant change and fear. I don’t necessarily think this was an act of preparation per se for either of us, but having prior expedition experience where we were regularly cold, tired, hungry or scared is invaluable. Instead of thinking, “Holy s— I’m going to freeze to death,’ I think, ‘Wow, I’m really cold, but I know from previous experience I’ve got another 30 minutes before something more serious happens.’
“Another huge part of being emotionally prepared is managing expectations. I’m a huge optimist in real life. On expeditions, however, I call myself a realistic optimist. There are so many things that can go wrong and for me hoping for something and then being let down becomes a physical burden. It’s overwhelming. For me, it’s important to be realistic about our odds and the conditions. I’m hopeful but it’s hope that is securely grounded in the grim reality of the situation.
“There were little things, too. Having the technology to connect regularly with my family. Downloading interesting podcasts. Taking all the songs that I don’t like off my iPod.”
I’d have to say, Larsen was one of the most interesting seat mates I’ve ever encountered. And while most of us will never prepare for a journey as extreme as Larsen’s, his insights about preparation, defining reality and dealing with uncertainty can be applied to many areas of our lives. In my next article, I’ll share more of my conversation with Larsen.
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and the chief operating officer at Think2Perform, a business and sports performance firm that improves bottom-line results for executives, athletes and organizations. He resides in Edwards with his wife Lori and their three children. Think2Perform is a partner of the Vail Chamber & Business Association. They offer a series of “Breakthrough for Business” workshops throughout the year, helping local businesses achieve their best practices. To learn more visit www.vailchamber.org or www.think2perform.com
See Chuck Wachendorfer’s article on the Vail Daily website here: http://www.vaildaily.com/opinion/13795837-113/journey-larsen-physical-expedition