The Last Great March: Sebastian Copeland Sets Sights on the North Pole

Credit: Sebastian Copeland

In 2014 Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters made what they predicted would be the last unsupported trek to the North Pole. “Climate change is altering the landscape, melting the ice, making it impossible to cross the Arctic sea on foot,” Larsen told us after (barely) completing the feat.

Sebastian Copeland hopes to prove him wrong in 2017, when he embarks, in 9 months, on a 480-mile trek starting at Canada’s Ellesmere Island, aiming to reach the North Pole after two months of walking. Copeland and expedition partner Mark George will each tow a 325-pound sled packed with food, fuel, and supplies across the frozen Arctic sea, which is no longer the smooth ice sheets that polar explorers enjoyed in the past, but a fractured environment with pools of open water and giant ice “mountains” where the sheets have collided. In the past 10 years, only seven teams have successfully completed the journey. The failure rate is 80 percent.

Following several seasons of record-high temperatures in the Arctic, there is less sea ice forming, as well as a shrinking window of winter, which decreases the time teams have available to make the crossing. Larsen and Waters' 53-day trek required swimming through giant breaks in the ice and struggling with southerly drift, which causes the sea ice to flow away from the North Pole, reducing each day’s progress by up to 20 percent.

Another factor working against Copeland and George is that Borek Air, the sole service that rescues stranded explorers, discontinued their North Pole service after Larsen and Waters' trip, leaving adventurers to secure their own search-and-rescue plans with individual pilots. “I’ve been around the block enough to know that whenever someone calls something ‘the last,’ it’s not necessarily the case," says Copeland. “But I believe this will be the last. Not just because of the climate, but because of the cost. In the future, somebody will have to come along with some really deep pockets.”

Copeland and George have confirmed that they plan to go after the speed record — 49 days set by a Norwegian team in 2006 — but that it may no longer be possible to beat. “There’s no question that there’s more open water at the North Pole than probably ever before,” says Copeland. “The expedition is considerably harder to do now than it was 20 years ago. And most likely harder to do than it was in 2006. Either way, we’re going to find out.”