Parker Liautaud arrived at the South Pole on December 24, 2013, and finally got to act like a typical teenager—he got to sleep in. And while there were no traditional holiday celebrations at the southernmost spot on Earth, Liautaud was content. "Waking up on Christmas morning at the South Pole is quite an amazing gift in itself," he says.
He also woke up to two new world records. Liautaud, 19, became the youngest man to ski to the South Pole. And he and his teammate, polar veteran Doug Stoup, also set a new speed record for the fastest unsupported trek from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole. They earned it by each pulling a 176-pound sled over 314.58 miles in 18 days, 4 hours, and 43 minutes.
But the Yale University geology and geophysics student, who already has three Arctic expeditions to his name, thinks of the records as a metaphor for the speed with which climate change needs to be addressed. "The record attempt reinforces the message that there is a need for urgent, global action to address climate change," he says.
Liautaud's mission, which was called the Willis Resilience Expedition, was divided into two parts: crossing the continent in a specially outfitted vehicle to conduct scientific fieldwork and then skiing unsupported from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole.
Now safely back—and several pounds lighter—he answers our questions about the expedition.
You've now done four trips to the Polar Regions. How did you end up on your first expedition?
I met the British explorer Robert Swan just before I turned 14 in 2009, which was around the time I began to first become interested in climate change. I had the privilege of hearing how he came to create his climate mission and his organization. I eventually wrote to him to inquire about joining his next Antarctic trip. It wasn't so much an expedition, but it was the first exposure I had to the polar regions and inspired me to continue to learn more about climate change, and eventually do my own polar expedition.
Tell us about the conditions while you were skiing.
Some days were sunny and clear, and some were even so warm that Doug would wear just a base layer. Other days, we had 40-knot winds in our faces, complete whiteout, and temperatures of -40 degrees.
What was the hardest day?
Day seven. Only a couple of days before, we had reached the top of the Leverett Glacier, which was the most difficult part of the expedition. I was very short of breath, as I hadn't acclimatized to the higher elevation. I also had a cough from a viral infection. Not knowing if or when the terrain would flatten out and knowing we still had hundreds of miles to go took a serious mental toll on me, but it also became physically exhausting. That day, we had also run into several huge crevasses, some large enough to swallow an airplane.
After eight and half hours of skiing, I was exhausted and felt that I couldn't go any farther that day. I didn't know why. We had only done 12.1 nautical miles [22.5 km], less than two-thirds of our target for the day, and we were still three hours short of finishing ... (On the previous days, we were doing between 11 and 11.5 hours in a day.) It was a difficult moment because both Doug and I were really disappointed at our progress, and I was worried that I wouldn't physically be capable of reaching the pole. I questioned everything about the expedition. But eventually, with some focus, we got back on track.
What was it like dealing with the cold?
I found that the key to being able to stay in the cold for up to 12 hours every day was to ensure that I wasn't being complacent with anything throughout the day, so that I could remain comfortable until the last hour. Being lazy is very easy when tired, but it can gradually lead to discomfort and even injury, so it became important to deal with any minor issues—an ill-fitting ski binding or a twisted webbing, etc.—before they could become major ones.
What piece of gear gave you the most comfort while you were out there?
It's hard to pinpoint one piece of gear, but if I had to choose one, I would say my down vest. I used a Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer vest, which weighs only five ounces. It's very thin so I would wear it underneath my shell. It kept me consistently warm throughout the expedition, even when we had difficult conditions.
How did you train to be strong enough to pull a 176-pound sled for 12 hours a day?
I worked with my trainer Sham Cortazzi to create a program that would work for me and fit my class and travel schedule. It involved up to two to three hours of training per day in a standard gym, with some rest days after a few much longer training sessions. We would focus on strength and endurance—dead lifts, pull-ups, push-ups, squats, shoulder press—but structured in increasingly tough ways as we approached the expedition. As for endurance, we focused on the rowing machine, bike, and treadmill—sometimes a combination of two or all three. I also used a weighted vest of up to 70 pounds, and on occasion a backpack full of rocks, for both strength and endurance exercises.
Sometimes, I would have to travel but couldn't just give up training, so Sham also created go-to full training sessions that I could do with no equipment. The most important factor in getting into shape was to be disciplined and do the training no matter what else was going on.
What about your diet?
I had to gain a lot of weight, since on the ice we would burn 9,000-10,000 calories per day but only take in 4,000-5,000. Initially during the training, I was losing about a half a pound a day from not eating enough. It took several weeks of tweaking my diet to start being able to put on healthy weight. In the end, I put on almost exactly the same amount of extra weight—24 pounds—that I lost during the expedition.
Your new speed record has certainly gotten attention, but tell us about the scientific side of your expedition?
Before we set out on skis, we crossed the whole continent in a specially designed vehicle to take ice and snow samples for two initiatives. First, we wanted to see the changes in the ratios of the stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen in water molecules as you go deeper in the annual layers of Antarctic snow. These ratios can provide information on various aspects of the climate system/water cycle. And second we measured the concentrations of the radioactive isotope tritium in Antarctic snow, with the goal of finding out how tritium levels vary with latitude across Antarctica. Tritium is useful for understanding the global hydrological cycle and is an important tool for dating water and ice with high resolution.
We also tested a lightweight weather station that folds down to one meter [one yard] in length, weighs less than 10 kilograms [22 pounds]. The goal is to eventually produce a model that can inexpensively be deployed all over Antarctica to continue to improve the resolution of meteorological data being collected.
Antarctica is about as remote as it gets, but there were a bunch of expeditions happening in and around the continent while you were there. Prince Harry was there. There was the Mawson expedition team stuck on the icebreaker. Norwegian Aleksander Gamme was climbing with a team in Queen Maud Land. Did you bump into anyone?
We actually ran into two expeditions during our journey. The first was a team attempting to drive in trucks from Novolazarevskaya Station on the edge of east Antarctica to the Ross Ice Shelf and then all the way back—a journey of probably close to 3,700 miles [6,000 kilometers]. We ran into them just as we were reaching the top of the Leverett Glacier. A few days later, we ran into another expedition, led by Maria Leijerstam, who was cycling to the South Pole.
What happened once you got to the Pole?
When we reached the South Pole, I couldn't complete a coherent sentence and broke down into tears. Once I got my act together, we took all the necessary photos and videos for sponsors. About 24 hours after we reached the Pole, we were done with everything, and for the first time since November I could sleep for as long as I wanted.
(Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)