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A Colorado adventurer faces his biggest challenge yet: late-stage cancer

Eric Larsen was told he had maybe three years to live, but his latest scans haven’t detected any cancer
Polar explorer Eric Larsen photographed at the Snodgrass Mountain trailhead near his home in Crested Butte on Wednesday. (Dean Krakel/Special to the The Colorado Sun)

MOUNT CRESTED BUTTE – “I used to think that North Pole expeditions were the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but ...”

Whatever Eric Larsen says next is going to be the world’s most heinous sufferfest. This is the explorer who crawled and swam 53 days through the melting Arctic Ocean to reach the North Pole in 2014, likely the last human-powered trek ever to the globe’s northernmost point.

He’s (almost) pedaled to the South Pole. He climbed Mount Everest and reached both the North and South poles in a 365-day period in 2009 and 2010. He’s hiked, pedaled and paddled across Colorado, Wisconsin and Kansas.

The renowned polar explorer has put one foot in front of the other in 40-below-zero blizzards, sleeplessly staggering with minimal rations to find the exact point where his compass spins. He knows how to persevere through hardship in the world’s loneliest, frozen, lunar landscapes. What possibly could be harder?

A stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis early last year.

“What followed was ... the most difficult thing that I’ve endured, that made our polar expeditions look like a cakewalk,” Larsen said toward the end of a funny, motivating slideshow presentation of his polar adventures that, as of recently, has taken on a new level of inspiration.

Larsen, a father of two, has always gleaned lessons for the world from his polar jaunts. He returned from the North Pole in 2014 with a firsthand account of a rapidly melting ice cap. His push for a speed record to the South Pole in 2018 revealed how melting polar ice caps are threatening everyone. He championed the notion that adventure is everywhere by biking, hiking and pack rafting from eastern to western Colorado in 2017, then doing the same self-made triathlon in his home state of Wisconsin and then again in Kansas.

Now back home in Crested Butte, doctors tell him they can’t find any cancer but there are more scans coming. He’s got a new lesson to teach and it didn’t come as easily as crawling and swimming to the North Pole in 53 days.

“My role in adventure, I feel like, is shifting,” he said.

Eric Larsen spent 53 days skiing and swimming to the North Pole in 2014, an expedition many suspect will be the last human-powered mission to reach the top of the world as a warming climate melts the ice cap, making it impossible to traverse. (Eric Larsen/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Larsen didn’t want to talk about his cancer. He wrote a few updates on his Caring Bridge webpage, but mostly, he kept it to himself. Doctors in January 2021 told him he had maybe three years to live and they wouldn’t be good years. He relied on that grit that kept him leaning into frozen whiteouts, putting one foot in front of the other, to fight.

“I was trying to white knuckle it,” he said.

After chemotherapy, radiation, a particularly gnarly surgery and an infection that kept him bedridden for three months, Larsen was at the Gunnison pool, wading through the water when a guy came up and asked if he was Eric. He was a bit further along in his battle with colorectal cancer. He thanked Larsen for the inspiration to keep fighting.

“And, bam. I felt so much better. I was just in so much pain and not talking to anyone. I saw that the way I was trying to get through this was not working at all,” he said. “You’d think that I’m 50 and I would have learned a few things over the years. So, yeah, big surprise to no one but me, but it took that intense moment with a stranger to really change my perspective. Maybe I need to talk about this stuff. Maybe I need to share this defining thing in my life. There was a time when I didn’t think I was ever going to see my kids ever again. Now, it’s time to talk.”

Eric Larsen and partner Ryan Waters spent 53 days hiking, skiing and swimming to the North Pole in 2014, an expedition many suspect will be the last human-powered mission to reach the top of the world. (Eric Larsen/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Larsen has been a public speaker for as long as he’s been trekking across polar caps. He’s got that down. Earlier this month at the Colorado Outdoor Industry Leadership Summit in Mount Crested Butte hosted by the state’s outdoor recreation office, he captured a crowded ballroom with hilarious retellings of his adventures. (Clicking through a dozen slides showing viewers Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, Greenland, Manitoba and more, all looking like the inside of a pingpong ball.)

“It’s hard to make polar travel really interesting,” he said. “It’s one of the most boring sports in history.”

But Larsen makes it fascinating. He’s the last of a breed of polar Explorers who traversed frozen landscapes that won’t be icy much longer. His firsthand accounts of rapidly melting polar caps — and harrowing photos and stories of swimming gear across open expanses of sea — punctuated with dire warnings of a warming climate.

And Larsen pushed everyone he met to find their own thrills in the outdoors.

“Adventure can happen on any scale, in any place,” he said.

Larsen’s “Adventure is Everywhere” message resonated with Ryan O’Donoghue, the executive director of First Descents, which shepherds young adults with life-threatening illnesses into the outdoors for therapeutic experiences on rivers, mountains and beaches.

“That really hit home,” O’Donoghue told Larsen after the explorer’s talk in Mount Crested Butte. “The idea that adventure is everywhere, that’s a belief we hold true at First Descents. We witness it every day through our community of young adults impacted by cancer who embrace adventure to support their ongoing healing journey.”

O’Donoghue hopes to enlist Larsen in his mission, getting the polar explorer to work with his global program of young cancer warriors.

“You’d be amazing,” he said.

Polar explorer Eric Larsen helps his son Merritt, age 9, with homework in their home in Crested Butte, Colorado on Wednesday. (Dean Krakel/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Larsen has only begun to open up about his journey. He’s still in it. While preliminary scans do not show any cancer, his journey doesn’t have an end date. Yet. He’s recovering from an ileostomy reversal and mentally preparing for more scans in September. He’s adjusting to his new digestive system — minus a foot of colon. And he’s still assessing how his new “comfortable relationship with death” might be tapped to help others.

Larsen’s wife, Maria Hennessey, has friends who are fighting cancer and never talk about it. As Larsen shares more details about his journey, they are finding ways they can show up for people who are quietly enduring illnesses. The cancer community shares a dark bond, with veterans of the invader’s shadows able to guide the newcomers.

“It’s still so fresh for Eric, but it would be a missed opportunity for him to not do this,” Hennessey said.

Polar explorer Eric Larsen photographed in his home in Crested Butte, Colorado with his wife and partner Maria Hennessey on Wednesday. (Dean Krakel/Special to The Colorado Sun)

And Larsen rarely misses opportunities. His experiences in the coldest places on Earth give him the physical and mental fortitude to keep going through the blizzard. His cancer is giving him a new type of strength, one he’s still studying but he knows will be just as useful as those lessons learned in the whiteouts.

“I mean, I don’t want to have cancer, but the perspective I’ve gained is incredible,” he says. “It’s hard because I’m still in it, so everything is evolving, but, really, this is a gift. It sounds so weird to say, but I feel totally different than I used to. I feel like I need to pay this forward, you know?”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.