THE RED BULLETIN: When you crossed Greenland in 2010, you and your expedition partner, Eric McNair-Landry, had to sit out a blizzard for seven days in your tent. How did you stop yourselves from going crazy?
SEBASTIAN COPELAND: Adrenaline keeps you alert, to start with. I was worried the storm would damage the tent. Then, getting to sleep became a problem. The wind shook the sides of the tent at speeds of up to 80 mph. It felt like camping in a jet turbine.
What did you both talk about?
The thing is, you don’t go on a polar expedition with the aim of making friends for life. You seek out a professional like Eric who in all likelihood is going to see the mission through. We didn’t have any profound discussions about our childhoods. We spent most of the day in thought; we played the odd game of chess.
What’s the most important mental quality an explorer is required to have for a polar expedition?
Your head is more important than your body—that’s beyond question. The physical preparation is the easy part. You go to the gym and you get in shape. Dealing with pain is more difficult. One part of my training involves me putting on a 110-pound vest and trekking through the mountains for two hours. Obviously, you’re completely exhausted after five minutes, but you’ve got to get through it, even if it hurts. If you flag on an exercise like that, what business have you got going to Antarctica?
When you were in Greenland, you traveled on skis and were pulled along by a kite and set a new record for traveling that way: 370 miles in 24 hours. When did you eat?
We cooked meals in snowmelt in the morning and evening. You can buy almost all foods in dehydrated form: beef bourguignon, fettuccine alfredo. You need a lot of fat and carbs. I ate Brazil nuts between stages. They have the best weight-calorie ratio. You need to be scientifically rigorous when choosing your provisions. Every calorie is counted.
In your photography and film projects, you seek to address the risks of climate change. What’s the most difficult thing about raising environmental awareness?
We’re increasingly isolated from the consequences of our actions. Your electricity bill, your trash disposal, it’s all dealt with easily just by you writing a check. But when you’re living in a tent in the snow for weeks at a time, you become aware of every single tin can. You think to yourself, “What idiot chose to camp here?”
How did you get Leonardo DiCaprio to write the introduction to your book of photography, The Global Warning?
I work for an environmental organization called Green Cross International and helped prepare an initiative for the Earth Summit in Johannesburg with Leo in 2002. After that he started coming to my presentations. I consider Leo to be one of the most committed environmentalists from the world of show business. You can believe what this man says.
You broke two ribs right at the beginning of your 2011 Antarctic expedition. How did you persevere for the remaining 75 days?
I fell on a sastruga, an ice formation shaped by the wind, during a kiting maneuver. Ironically, I’d met an adventurer friend for dinner in Cape Town a couple of days before. He told me about how he’d broken a rib once during an expedition. I asked, “What did you do?” He answered, “Took painkillers and soldiered on.” And I took that as advice after my own accident because I knew that he’d managed with a broken rib.
What lessons do you take from your expeditions into everyday life?
First, that problems don’t solve themselves by you moaning about them. Secondly, learn some humility. Expeditions require you to have a strong ego but there’s no more efficient way of learning humility than being exposed to the elements in a desert of ice. You get out of the plane, set foot on the ice, and you know that you have 2,500 miles ahead of you.
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