In December 2013, 19-year-old adventurer Parker Liautaud successfully attempted to set the record for the fastest journey from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole on skis. On the 397 mile journey Parker and his team-mate Doug Stoup would be undertaking three scientific research programs to help scientists further understand how the climate is changing.
Despite his age, Parker, who is a campaigner for climate change, is no newbie to adventuring. He’s already skied to the North Pole three times since he was 14 and his new challenge will pit him against some of the harshest conditions on the planet. We caught up with Parker in October 2013 to find out more about the Willis Resilience Expedition and why he decided to do it.
Could you explain to our readers exactly what it is you’re doing in Antarctica this winter?
In November and December this year, I’ll embark on an expedition to the South Pole. We will first undertake three scientific research programs in partnership with academic institutions in the US, Europe, and New Zealand. Then my team-mate Doug and I will attempt an expedition from the coast of Antarctica (on the Ross Ice Shelf) to the South Pole, covering a distance of 640km.
The latter part of the expedition (coast to pole) will be a speed record attempt, but there’s been some confusion within the exploration community as to exactly what record I am attempting, which I’d like to clear up. The current speed record is widely seen as belonging to Christian Eide, who trekked solo over 1,100km in 24 days, starting from the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf (Hercules Inlet).
My expedition starts from a point that is characteristically similar to Eide’s start point (the land-sea boundary, but at a permanent ice shelf) but much closer to the South Pole (about 40% closer). Our start point is on the other side of Antarctica compared to Eide’s expedition. The fastest expedition from a similar distance that I am attempting, from the coast of Antarctica, is 21 days and 23 hours, set by a Norwegian team in 2011.
Christian’s accomplishment was monumental and changed the face of polar adventure. I am not attempting to break his record. Doug and I will attempt to set a new record for the fastest expedition from a completely different route. It is a different record based on a time of 21 days 23 hours, a time which was set by an expedition that was around the same distance from the pole as ours but which still started from the coast.
Parker on an expedition to the North Pole.
Why did you decide to do this particular challenge?
Antarctica is an incredible place. It presents an exciting opportunity to understand how our world is changing (and how it has changed in the past). Thousands of scientists have been working in Antarctica for that specific purpose. We will be undertaking three research programs, which will include testing a new type of weather station, and analyzing trends in various climate proxies over the past few decades. Hopefully we can make a small contribution to the much broader scientific effort to understand how our world is changing.
I hope that the Willis Resilience Expedition will also provide a platform to tell an important story about the importance of the changes that are occurring in Antarctica and throughout the world, in a powerful way.
How did you get into adventuring?
I started to become interested in climate change at a young age (around 13 years old) and ended up joining Robert Swan OBE (the first person to walk to both the North and South poles) on an Antarctic trip when I was 14. From there I joined up my interests in climate issues and adventure by attempting to walk to the North Pole when I was 15. I wanted to harness modern technology to communicate climate issues from the places that are being hit the hardest.
It’s great to see someone as young as yourself doing these amazing things, do you hope to inspire the younger generation into getting out there and exploring?
I hope that my expeditions will play a role in my generation pushing for urgent and concrete global action to address climate change.
When he’s not exploring Parker studies Geology and Geophysics at Yale University.
How do you manage to fund such expeditions?
For this expedition, I was very lucky to find a shared vision in Willis, EMC, and all my supporting sponsors. Each of my sponsors shared my desire to communicate the importance of striving to continually better understand our changing world, and promote resilience as a key component of addressing issues as significant as climate change.
Would you consider yourself a “normal” teenage lad when you’re back home?
Of course. Most of the time I’m at university, where I’m in my second year working towards a degree in Geology & Geophysics.
What do you think will be the hardest part of this expedition?
I can’t be sure, but I think the two hardest aspects of this expedition may be the altitude and keeping focus. I’ve never dealt with high altitude on top of everything else on a polar expedition before, and I’m doing my best to address that in my preparation and training.
The isolation has always been a challenge for me, one that I am always working to become better at dealing with. On the Antarctic plateau, typically, it can be difficult to maintain focus and keep a rooted sense of scale, because there are no significant features. I am, however, particularly looking forward to the early stages of the expedition when we’ll be moving past some beautiful mountains.
What’s an exciting story you have from one of your previous adventures?
During my first expedition to the North Pole in April 2010, Doug and I had to cross a section of open water, which we planned to do using a small kayak we had brought with us. Doug crossed first and I was holding onto the rope that connected me and our equipment sleds to Doug in the kayak. Suddenly, the ice just gave way below my feet and I fell straight into the Arctic Ocean.
Seawater filled my boots and up to my leg. Doug couldn’t do much because he was stuck in the kayak. I remember thinking back to all the times I was told that the worst thing that can happen to you is to go into the water (it only takes a minute). Eventually I managed to clamber out using the ropes connecting me to my harness, but I had to take off my boots, socks, and layers (to dry my skin) when the air temperature was -40C. I had an spare “lower layers” stuff-sack in the front of my sled for specifically this purpose.
I was luckily able to find it fast because when we were preparing, I had practised finding certain items with my eyes closed (thanks to advice from Robert Swan!). I was lucky that I was near an edge of solid single-year ice. Many explorers have had far more harrowing encounters with the Arctic Ocean!
Parker and Doug will begin their expedition on December 3rd when they depart from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. We wish the team the best of luck and hope to hear back from them when they return to see if they were successful in their record breaking attempt.
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