Drive for adventure takes this man to both Poles

by Sarah Schmidt
Staff Reporter write the author



Richard Laronde poses during his attempt to scale Mt. Vinson in Antarctica. Behind him is Mt. Knutzen, which he and his party had scaled earlier that day. And yes, those are icicles in his moustache.

MEREDITH Wanderlust can take people to some fairly odd places, but most people don't trek to both poles and make outer space their next destination. Bear Island resident Richard Laronde is, obviously, not most people.

Almost exactly a month ago, Laronde, 56, a seasonal resident of Meredith and Massachusetts, made it back home in time for Christmas after a dangerous climbing expedition to Antarctica. While trying to scale the continent's tallest mountain, Mt. Vinson, Laronde and his party became trapped by a violent storm and had to turn back after waiting out the storm in their tents for five days.

Laronde's journey began as a child with his fascination for polar exploration; he would take walks through snowstorms, "to feel the wind and the storm."

About four years ago, Laronde suffered from sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and diabetes. His doctor told him that he must lose weight to halt the progression of his ill health. Remembering his love of polar exploration, Laronde decided that to lose the weight, he would begin training for a skiing expedition to the North Pole, training on the frozen Lake Winnipesaukee. In April of 2006, he reached the North Pole, one of the first people from Massachusetts to do so.

"Once we reached the pole, one of my first thoughts was to go to the South Pole," said Laronde. "So I made plans and went there last January."

Laronde came to Antarctica for the first time last year, experiencing the harsher chill of the southernmost continent. In a 70-mile journey skiing to the South Pole, Laronde described the landscape as "completely flat, just flat land and snow," as they skied over the polar plateau. The average temperature was about -38 degrees, with a 40 mph wind, a wind that came to Laronde's attention as he realized there was nothing on the barren plateau to block it.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," said Laronde. "It was not fun. But getting to the Pole was absolutely fantastic."

Eager for one more round with the frozen continent, Laronde planned a trip to climb to the summit of Mt. Vinson, leaving in late November to fly in from Punta Arenas, Chile. With him came his guide, Chris Simmons, and a party of other guides and climbers.

"The weather is good now but not expected to last," Laronde ominously wrote on Dec. 5, as his party began their trek to the low camp on Vinson. Laronde kept an online journal, updating it with pictures and text that he sent in via satellite telephone. His journal and pictures from both South Pole expeditions can be found at www.icetent.com/vinson.htm.

Negotiating steep crevasses that were "everywhere," Laronde and his party began their ascent to the summit, using a fixed rope three-quarters of a mile long, and managed to make it from low camp to high camp. At that point they had to stop - the weather changed, with winds roaring at 50 mph.

"The outside temperature is up to minus 27 making the inside of the tent a little more comfortable," Laronde wrote. "If you want to experience this fun get a large chest freezer and live in it for a few days eating freeze dried foods. You also need constant bright light and wind sounds. This is fun, but if we stay another day Chris and I will run out of stories to tell each other."

The party stayed at high camp for five days, hoping to wait out the weather. In such conditions, Laronde and his guide couldn't even light their stove, as it was too dangerous. Since cooking in Antarctica is usually "a matter of melting snow and mixing hot water into everything," the sugarless oatmeal became even more unappetizing as cold mush. By the last day, though, that was no longer an issue, as the party had run out of food.

The attempt on the summit was abandoned, and since conditions were expected to worsen, no help could reach them, and Laronde and his party had to make their own way down from the high camp. Before beginning the climb down, Laronde called his wife, at home in the United States with their 9-year-old son.

"I think I said a little too much, got a little too mushy," Laronde said. "She got concerned, but as soon as we were down, I called her. I didn't say goodbye."

Dehydrated and hungry, Laronde and the others made their way down the mountain as quickly as possible. With winds gusting at over 100 mph, many were knocked off their feet, especially dangerous with the sharp crampons they carried.

"I got really lightheaded," said Laronde. "We had just been lying for five days, and suddenly we started running."

Out of the wind came a group of 10 Austrian climbers, "huge guys," one of whom had the record for running up and down Mount Everest. The climbers helped them down the mountain and gave them some food. Upon reaching the low camp, Laronde and his party found all but one tent destroyed and pushed further to the base camp, safe at last.

Laronde said that though other earthly challenges had captured his interest - climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, river rafting in Alaska - he has now set his sights heavenward, following the astronaut heroes of his childhood into outer space.

Laronde will go to the National Aeronauts and Space Training facility in Philadelphia to begin training at the new facility to journey into outer space as a "space tourist."

"I heard about Richard Branson going into space, so I sent in my check," said Laronde. "I get to have lunch with Richard Branson."

Laronde's original goal, to lose weight and gain back his health, has been more than achieved, he reported.

"I lost about 120 pounds, and that's the best news," said Laronde. "My blood pressure is back to normal, my sleep apnea is gone, and my diabetes is gone, and my blood sugar's back to normal. I didn't know it was possible."

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