You have to work pretty hard to find a modern polar explorer with more street cred than Eric Larsen. The native Wisconsinite spent the past 2 decades racking up an impressive list of exploration and mountaineering accomplishments, including being the first (and only!) person to reach both poles and summit Everest in a 365-day period.
Now, Larsen has partnered with German brand Jack Wolfskin to help train the next generation of explorers — a generation that, hopefully, looks different than it has in the past.
“Regardless of the challenges that I personally faced, I — like many others — more importantly realized the advantages that I have been given in life simply because of the color of my skin,” Larsen shared with GearJunkie in an interview.
“As I move forward with my career, focusing simply on my own personal objectives seems weirdly selfish. While some part of me will always want to do personal difficult trips, I am more focused now on lifting others up and making this style of travel accessible to everyone.”
In that vein, The Polar Academy 2024 Scholarship Honoring Matthew Henson will cover all expenses — gear, clothing, travel, and the week-long training course — for six BIPOC individuals drawn from an applicant pool by a selection committee.
According to the application page, BIPOC applicants should have a “reasonable” fitness level, be over 21, and carry valid medical insurance. Beyond that, it’s all about grit and a willingness to channel the spirits of past explorers — like the award’s namesake, Matthew Henson.
Matthew Henson: BIPOC Scholarship
Henson’s fame has ebbed and flowed over the years, but his name deserves to be household. He accompanied legendary Arctic explorer Robert Peary on no fewer than seven expeditions in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In 1909, Henson was a member of the Peary expedition that claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole. Henson later received a lifetime membership to the Explorer’s Club, a Peary Polar Expedition medal, and a posthumous Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society.
“I’ve been a huge fan of Matthew Henson since I was a kid, and I’ve been trying to get others interested in his story for quite some time,” Larsen told GearJunkie. “In reading about historical expeditions, you very quickly realize the skill set that is required for success — and it’s not just one thing. While supporting and traveling with Robert Peary’s North Pole expeditions, Henson was the guy doing most of the heavy lifting.
“He could speak Inuit fluently, he was an excellent dog driver, solved all sorts of problems, could fix anything, an experienced navigator, he was adept at building snow houses and had incredible strength, stamina, and endurance. Understanding the vast skill set that Matthew Henson possessed served as a goalpost to work toward in my own polar career. I also look at Henson as someone who learned from Inuit in the area rather than pushing his own beliefs forward, which if you look at the historical age of exploration, was the downfall of many European explorers.”
A Vast Skill Set
Like Henson’s 2-decade exploration career, the training will likely be rewarding, but difficult. January in northern Minnesota is no joke; in fact, conditions there mimic the weather found at the top and bottom of the globe.
Trainees will learn shelter pitching, stove use, ski and towing skills, first aid, sled packing, nutrition and meal planning, gear drying, and photography — among other invaluable winter travel skills. And that’s just the first 4½ days. After that, it’s into the frigid Minnesotan woods for 3 days of putting all that training to use.
The deadline to apply is Dec 1. Chosen applicants will be notified by Dec. 8 and start training on Jan 20, which gives them just under 2 months to prepare (physically and otherwise). “Bicycle Nomad” Erick Cedeño, cold-weather thru-hiker Emily Ford, and skier/entrepreneur Danica Carey will all sit on the selection committee.
So, if you’re a BIPOC person interested in a very particular type of skill leveling/adventure/suffering (or know someone who is), zip over to the scholarship website and smash that apply button. And if you’re feeling skittish about participating in the program, that’s understandable. But Eric Larsen has a few final words of encouragement for you.
“My ultimate advice is that it’s OK to feel nervous,” Larsen advised. “I think the key for [scholarship recipients is] to know that ‘we’ve got their back’ — from travel costs, food, and gear to supportive teammates and trip leaders. They will be able to be in a group with similar appearances and perspectives where they have a safe space to learn, grow, practice, and expand their winter skill set.”