On May 6, Ryan Waters and his partner, veteran polar explorer Eric Larsen, completed an unsupported expedition to the North Pole after walking, skiing, and swimming for 53 days and 480 nautical miles from Cape Discovery on Canada’s Ellesmere Island. This feat made Waters the first American to complete the “Adventurers Grand Slam” unsupported, which includes climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents and traveling on foot to the North and South Poles.
During the North Pole journey, the pair faced relentless challenges, including -45 degree F temperatures, howling headwinds, falling through the ice into Arctic waters, getting stalked by polar bears, and contending with diminished polar ice that made travel painfully slow. Some nights, they’d drift two miles farther from the pole while they slept. Many times, they wondered if they would make it.
We sat down with Ryan the day after he returned to his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, to hear his reflections on this harrowing expedition, and whether he would do it again.
Adventure: What motivated you to do this expedition?
Ryan Waters: It was the challenge of the trip, and taking part in this kind of expedition. A lot of people say that it’s one of the hardest expeditions you do. And I wanted to experience the Arctic, at a time when it could be one of the last times to make it to the North Pole.
A: Was this your first trip to the North Pole?
RW: Yes, and probably my last.
A: Only ten people have ever completed the Adventurers Grand Slam before you. When did you set your sights on this goal?
RW: I didn’t at first. It just kind of happened. I remember being 18 and reading a book about the seven summits, thinking, “That would be kind of cool, but there’s no way I could afford to climb Everest and get to Antarctica.” Over time I became a mountain guide, and suddenly I found myself climbing these things, so I pieced it together by working. At one point I realized I was getting close to doing the seven summits, so I decided I might as well.
For my last summit, I guided Vinson in Antarctica. I had already done a South Pole ski traverse. Then I said, “Why not do the North Pole?”
A: It’s a pretty big accomplishment.
RW: Yes. No American has ever completed the Adventurers Grand Slam unsupported.
A: What was the goal of the North Pole expedition?
RW: I wanted to do the expedition and come back to tell a great story. It’s also an opportunity to draw attention to climate change and melting ice. We called it The Last North because the idea is that North Pole expeditions might not be possible anymore because of the melting ice.
I care about environmental causes and am an ambassador for the Climate Reality Project. This trip will be a great avenue for educating people about a place that is affected by climate change.
A: You set the American speed record. What does this mean?
RW: You have to travel on foot (or skis) from the northernmost point of land to the North Pole. The typical starting point is at Cape Discovery on Ellesmere Island in Canada. We completed the trip in 53 days. The American record is 55 days, and the overall record is 49 days.
A: What was the hardest part of the trip?
RW: There is no day that isn’t a hard day. The hardest day was at the beginning of our “berserker” run (when we had 175 miles to go and were trying to move as fast as we could—so we were going all out for days and days.). We opened the tent door and it was the worst weather you can imagine—a whiteout, with super flat light (which happened often). We’d be skiing along and we couldn’t see anything and suddenly we’d ski into a three-foot ice block. It kept happening and it was so demoralizing. I was upset. Eric was upset. We were trying to make distance and we couldn’t because it was too hard.
We stopped for a break and Eric took out his camera and asked how I was doing. I said, “Not good.” I was crying inside my goggles and saying, “I don’t know if I can do this.” And at the same time my partner was feeling the same thing. There we were, these burly adventure guys, both crying. So I wrote a song called “Crying in my Goggles.”
A: How did you recover from that?
RW: We just had to just stay positive. You have to take it one step at the time and focus on the present moment. One of the key points is that you can’t focus on the end. You can only focus on short-term goals. We would think about getting to the next lead [a crack in the ice where there is open water].
A: Was this the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
RW: Yes. I’m psyched we did it, and it was a great experience. But it was the hardest thing I’ve done so far. You get so worked. Every day is so challenging. It’s different from Antarctica where you kind of know what you’re going to get each day. In the North you don’t know that. The ice is always changing.
Most of the time you’re just in survival mode. You’re not thinking, “This is awesome.” You’re thinking, “This place is trying to kill me.”
A: Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it?
RW: It wasn’t until the last hour that I knew we were going to get there. The ice got worse in the last week. There were so many leads on the open water. We swam about five times on the last day. We were drifting so much at that point, after crossing a lead we would be farther away from the pole. Then we found some good ice but we had to ski straight into a 30 mph headwind. If we stopped to rest, we’d drift backward.
A: How did you feel when you got there?
RW: Relief! I was happy to have reached the point where we could stop moving and sleep. The words I kept thinking in the last week were, “I’m tired.” We had been at it for so many days that I was ready to be finished. So I was happy and relieved when we made it.
A: Would you do it again?
RW: Definitely not. You might not even be able to. We were the first team to succeed since 2010. And the ice is melting so rapidly, it might not be possible in the future.
A: What’s next for you?
RW: Something easy. For the next month, all I want to do is wear flip-flops, sit in the sun, and drink coffee. Then I’m guiding Denali in June.
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.