My Heroes, by Sebastian Copeland

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It is impossible to travel to lands of extreme snow and ice, to stand at the poles or on the Greenland Icecap, and not be changed in some fundamental way. These places become a part of you, still extreme but no longer foreign, and when their seeming permanence begins to crumble under climate change, it is impossible not to act.

And act is what explorer, skier, and polar adventurer Sebastian Copeland is doing. Copeland holds numerous world records in the far north and south, including the mind-boggling 24-hour distance mark for kite-skiing during an expedition across Greenland with Eric McNair Landry — 595 kilometers. He walked 400 miles to the North Pole for the centenary of Robert Peary’s 1909 trip, and last austral summer crossed Antarctica on skis in 81 days and 2,500 miles. He also moves seamlessly through the world of Hollywood, both as a still photographer and director, having overseen commercials for Old Spice, Disney, and other brands. But much of his energy now is directed at fighting global warming and the changes he’s seen firsthand on his expeditions. In between trips to the poles, he uses his dramatic photographs to convey the sense of beauty and fragility of polar regions, lectures extensively, and works closely with Global Green, in the process becoming one of the more articulate voices urging action on climate change.

Here are his heroes.

My hero is anyone who has the courage to follow his or her instinct and commit to decisions even while facing challenging odds. That spans the spectrum from everyday heroes to historic figures. Mothers are heroes for their sacrifices and their courage. Of course this goes all the way to public figures, those who show conviction in the face of great resistance; those who see a goal where others only see void; and pursue that goal no matter the odds, until they reach it. While sometimes paying the ultimate price.

Mikhail Gorbachev, last head of Soviet Union. President Gorbachev is a modern hero for the courage he displayed in making moral — if unpopular — choices amidst mounting international tensions. He put an end to the dementia of the arms race, which could have led to total annihilation as almost happened between Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy in 1962. In the face of the military elite of his country, Gorbachev took down the wall that separated east and west, effectively and singlehandedly ending the Cold War. He went on to form Green Cross International, an NGO dealing with reduction of weapons of mass destruction, global water issues, and the anthropogenic impact on the environment. Resented in his country for the path he led, President Gorbachev will be remembered for being on the right side of history.

Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmentalist. Maathai forged a path for environmental conservation in Kenya long before that concept registered in the rest of Africa, let alone the developed world. She led with courage and determination, in a country fiercely governed by men. For that and her work protecting women’s rights, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Like all heroes, Maatahai committed to her instincts while facing challenging odds; she saw a goal where others mostly saw void and has inspired a whole generation by her actions, in and out of Africa.

Mohatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi and King both came to be the voice of the oppressed. At opposite ends of the world and decades apart, they took on racial and social divisions, defying stereotypes and setting examples for the power of peaceful protesting while facing tremendous social and political resistance. With grace, eloquence and the un-wavering conviction in the power of reason, they reminded a divided world that humanity is universal. For that, they both paid the ultimate price.

Fridtjof Nansen, explorer. One of the more extraordinary feats of Arctic travel certainly goes to Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen was a Norwegian explorer at the onset of the golden age of polar travel. His historical crossing of the Greenland ice sheet in 1888 was remarkable in itself, but it is his attempt at reaching the North Pole that sets him apart in exploring history. Nansen had chosen to drift his ship in the sea ice, calculating that over time, it would approach the pole. When the drift reached it farthest north, he set off on foot with one partner, abandoning ship. They were eventually forced to retreat against the southerly drift, and made out for land in spite of broken critical navigational equipment. After one and half year, they were reunited with their ship and finally reached civilization three years after their departure. While unsuccessful, that trip established critical data in the movement of the ice, and etched Nansen’s name forever as a polar hero.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, explorer. No polar enthusiast could make a list of heroes without including Sir Ernest Shackleton. After a missed attempt at reaching the South Pole in 1909 (one that still earned him the furthest convergence of that time) Shackleton’s dream was taken away by the explorer Amundsen who, in 1911, reached the pole for the first time. Shackleton returned to Antarctica in 1914 with the intention to cross the continent from sea to sea. Once his ship got trapped in ice on approach, the ordeal led to the most heroic exploit of polar survival, netting no loss of lives, following one and half years of narrowly escaping death. Shackelton also understood the value of documenting the ordeal on film: That trip was captured by another hero, expedition photographer Frank Hurley. Of all explorers, Shackleton impresses most for his heart, navigational skill, and care for his men.

George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, climbers. The duo perished on their attempt to be the first to summit Everest in 1924. It was Mallory’s third attempt. While today, more than 6,000 people have made the summit, in Mallory’s times reaching the Himalaya alone was an adventure in itself, not to mention the twine rope and natural fabric clothing for sub-freezing climbing. Like all trail setters before him, Mallory made dreamers out of the generations of adventurers that followed. While it remains unclear whether Mallory and Irvine made the summit, artifacts found on the mountain point to striking distance from the top. His frozen body was found almost 70 years later, and speculations remain about their success. Still Mallory remains an example of understated grace and simplicity. When asked why he wanted to conquer Everest, Mallory simply replied: “because it’s there.” Everest would be conquered three decades later by two other climbing heroes, sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay in 1953.

Learn more about Sebastian Copeland at sebastiancopelandadventures.com, check out his book at antarcticabook.com, and order his movie at intothecold.org.

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{ 2 comments…read them below or write one }

  • John Perry Barlow

    Hi, Sebastian… I suppose you’re own of mine. here are some others, partial and freely associated: Gilberto Gil, Lao-Tsu, Thomas Jefferson, Neal Cassady, Gandhi, Heraclitus, Mikhail Gorbachev, Cynthia Horner, Mark Twain, James Dean, Will Rogers, Leah, Anna Winter and Amelia Barlow, Mitch Kapor, Alvin Toffler, Werner Heisenberg, Jedediah Smith, Buffalo Bill, Randy Newman, Nietzsche, James Madison, Earl Monroe, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Teilhard de Chardin, William Blake, Peter Drucker, Gregory Bateson, bell hooks, Benoit Mandelbrot, Sir Richard Burton, Otis Redding, Louis Rossetto, Dorothy Parker, Tom Paine, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Pam Samuelson, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Senator Thomas Daschle, Ann Simpson, John F. Kennedy, Jr, St. Theresa of Avila, Elaine Barlow, John Stewart Mill, Alan Kay, J.C.R. Licklider, T.S. Eliot, Salvador Dali, Miriam Jenkins Barlow Bailey, Niels Bohr, Timothy Leary, Chief Seattle, Carolyn Bessette, Vaclav Havel, The Buddha, Shakespeare, Robert Hunter, Vint Cerf, Walt Whitman, Lenny Bruce, Calamity Jane, Leonardo da Vinci, Jaron Lanier, Lauren Bacall, Bobby Weir, John Cage, Rumi, Nelson Mandala, Mick Jagger, Buckminster Fuller, Jerry Garcia, Robert Pirsig, Amelia Earhart, Marshall McLuhan, Jacqueline Onassis, Louis Brandeis, Crazy Horse, Juanita Simmons (my black elementary school teacher in Wyoming), Kevin Kelly, Lewis Thomas, Stewart Brand, and, on a good day, myself.

    • Sebastian

      Hi John–
      I am happy to see some cross reference between yours and my list, albeit perhaps obvious ones. One that I should have included: Elaine Barlow for putting up with you antics and banter for so long which I am sure is at least one reason that we all have gotten to benefit so much from it.
      Don’t slow down!

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