Yale Student Treks to the South Pole at Record Pace

Jan 28, 2014

Parker Liautaud, 19, is a sophomore at Yale University studying geology and geophysics. He’s also a polar adventurer who just returned from an expedition, where he and another explorer broke the world record for the fastest unsupported trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole.

WNPR’s Diane Orson spoke with Liautaud about the journey, and what he sees as an urgent need to draw attention to the issue of climate change and its impact on his generation.

Parker Liautaud arrives at the South Pole.
Credit The Willis Group
"We didn't accept any external aid; no use of the wind by using kites to help power us for skiing. We didn't get resupplies."
Parker Liautaud

Parker Liautaud: I just came back from my fourth Polar expedition. It was my first expedition to the South Pole. In fact, it’s called the Willis Resilience Expedition. We went out in November to try to, first of all, cross the continent of Antarctica, and conduct three climate change research programs, and then, after that was done, walk unsupported from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole to try to break the speed record for the fastest trek to the South Pole from the coast.

Diane Orson: How many people were in your group?

The broader group that was supporting our research -- there [were] five of us. In the unsupported trek afterward, there were just two of us: me and Doug Stoup, who is a fantastic American explorer, who was actually the first American man to walk to the South Pole.

When you say "unsupported trek," what does that mean?

We didn’t accept any external aid; no use of the wind by using kites to help power us for skiing. We didn’t get resupplies, which means we didn’t get additional boxes of food, or fuel, or other supplies dropped along the way, which would allow us to carry less weight for each stint of the journey. We were being followed by a film crew that was also live-streaming part of our journey. We didn’t collaborate with them in any way, in terms of support.

Parker Liautaud and Doug Stoup during their unsupported trek in Antarctica. A film crew followed them and live-streamed some of the journey.
Credit The Willis Group

Your speed record is fascinating in and of itself, but it's really set against the backdrop of your desire to engage people in conversation about climate change.

Right. What the speed record represents is not so much a record in and of itself; it's more. I think I wanted it to be a metaphor or at least analogous to the urgency of climate change as an issue and the importance of us addressing it; and making sure that we provide the public support necessary for policy makers to see it as worthwhile to actually go for it and introduce ambitious and bold policy that will help us get to a point where we’re not putting future generations in danger.

And that's even increasing. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication actually came out with a report that showed that Americans are increasingly not believing in global warming.

There is such a gap between what the scientific community believes and what the American public believes. We need to break down the barriers that are between scientists and people.

So are you hopeful about the future and this issue of climate change?

I am. One of the main reasons why I am hopeful is because I am very lucky to be part of a generation of people that knows how to effect change better than any other before it, that has the tools to do so – and I really mean social media and new media, versus traditional media – the tools to hold people accountable for their actions and their promises. I think that can be harnessed to be a very effective voice for climate change. It’s extremely promising.