Riding a Bike to the South Pole
Three Poles explorer Eric Larsen recently announced an attempt on his dream expedition, cycling from the coast of Antarctica at Hercules Inlet (80°S) to the Geographic South Pole (90°S). His trips are not really about being the fastest or the strongest, Eric recently told ExplorersWeb, rather they are about telling stories and engaging people in a unique experience. This cycling from the coast to the Pole, though, will be a world-first attempt, covering a distance of 1130 km (750 miles) and possibly farther. In this Q+A, Larsen gives us expedition details and shares Antarctic expedition tips and his essential gear.
What is your plan for Antarctica this season?
I'm pretty excited to be doing something that I've been dreaming about for nearly four years—a bicycle expedition to the South Pole. This is a unique journey with a good overall aesthetic and mission (which is important to me).
Personally, I enjoy traveling with a team, but the Cycle South Expedition will be just me, a bike and a lot of snow. My plan is to fly to Union Glacier on the December 17th ALE Ilyushin flight. I'll take a couple of days at Union for final prep, then I'll fly to Hercules Inlet for the official start. I'm planning on getting three resupplies on the way to the Pole and am hoping to cover 25 to 40 nautical miles each day.
I think the first half of the journey to the Thiels [the halfway point to the Pole] should be pretty straightforward as the snow is generally harder and more wind-packed. Going later in the summer, I'm hoping for more stable weather and snow conditions.
I'll be riding a Surly Moonlander fat bike with specially designed racks by A-Train Cycles and custom high-volume, low-profile panniers made by Granite Gear.
If conditions permit, I'll turn around at the Pole and ride back to Hercules.
Gear-wise, I've had to pare things down quite a bit from my previous 'comfortable' supported ski South Pole trips.
Why are you attracted to the world's cold regions?
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the variety of snow and ice that exists on our planet. To me, the cold regions of the world represent one of the last frontiers of human exploration, as well as some of largest remaining expanses of untouched wilderness.
Traveling in these places requires an additional level of planning and preparation that I find appealing, as everything requires extra thought. Therefore, the consequences of bad decisions are much more severe.
I also really enjoy the physical and mental challenges of extended expedition travel—at least I think I enjoy them.
What are your top five tips for South Pole travel?
1. There is no such thing as bad weather—ALE's meteorologist Mark de Keyser always asks me if I would like to receive daily weather forecasts. Every year I politely reply, 'No thank you.' While weather forecasts are important for climbing and kiting expeditions, modern ski-style South Pole expeditions don't require weather updates.
It's easy to sit in the tent and think things are worse than they actually are: Windier, colder, lower visibility, etc., especially if someone is on the other end of a sat phone saying that it is. Travel every day and know that the weather will always change. Good weather gets bad and bad weather gets good. Once you realize that, everything else is pretty much gravy.
2. Efficiency—The difficult component of polar travel isn't the technical aspect, rather it's the fact that most trips take a long, long time (6-8 weeks). To have enough energy at the end of the trip when things are generally the most physically demanding and mentally challenging, it is important to conserve energy in every way possible.
Develop systems for everything! From melting snow to lacing your boots to setting up the tent and more—shaving a few seconds from each daily task might not seem like much, but it all adds up and will ultimately affect your ability to succeed.
3. The Polar Strip Tease—If there is one thing I hate during an Antarctic expedition, it's being too hot. Seriously. Sweating won't kill you but it will make you cold eventually and even hypothermic. Monitor your body temperature constantly and start to unzip or take off clothes as you heat up. As you cool off, put layers back on. Don't make decisions based on the amount of work it might take, make them on if they are the right thing to do or not.
4. Take Care of Yourself and Be Self-Aware—Your body is a machine and it needs fuel and healthy parts to keep moving forward. Don't let problems go unattended. Listen carefully to your body and what it needs and fix problems immediately as they arise.
Skiing to the South Pole should not be mind over matter but rather the two pieces working together.
Make sure you check in with yourself regularly as well. How you feel can vary greatly from one moment to the next. Additionally, take an objective look at your personality and your role within the team. Are you the squeaky wheel who always complains? Are you always pushing to go faster? Do you take up too much room in the tent? Learn to communicate and compromise.
5. Train Hard and Travel Easy—You can fool yourself and you can fool your friends, but you can't fool the last degree. I've seen a lot of really tough people fall apart in the last 60 to 100 miles of a South Pole expedition.
Antarctic travel isn't rocket science, but if you don't take training seriously you're going to have a miserable last couple weeks. As silly as it sounds, it's also important to learn how to relax. In polar travel, things happen at a snail's pace. Don't waste your mental energy trying to solve problems that don't really exist, it will wear on you.
What are your top 5 pieces of gear?
1. Iridium Satellite Phone—My trips are not really about being the fastest or the strongest, rather they are about telling stories and engaging people in a unique experience about a very interesting (for the most part) place. Being able to share my adventures in real time is one of my most important objectives. This year I'll be using an Iridium Extreme for the first time. $1,495; iridium.com
2. DeLorme inReach Beacon—Another 'first' for me is using a DeLorme inReach beacon, which should eliminate the need (and extra weight) of a back up satellite phone. Most importantly, the inReach is an easy to use and lightweight emergency and tracking beacon that I can easily store on my body. Traveling by myself, this functionality is critical to my overall safety. I can also use the inReach unit to send and receive text messages! $249; inreachdelorme.com
3. Ergodyne Gloves—My whole body can be cold and I'm generally fine, but when my hands get cold, I get pretty grumpy. I rarely wear mittens and have never used pogies (although I recommend both for most people). Instead, I prefer insulated gloves. I am a bit of a glove snob, and it has taken me a long time to find the perfect glove—one that has the right combination of insulation, dexterity and durability, but I worked with the Ergodyne design team to make a prototype that I love! I mean I am seriously in love with these gloves (I'm not kidding). ergodyne.com
4. Optic Nerve Goggles with custom nose beak—I base my whole visibility, face protection and overall comfort around my goggles. Back in the day, I never wore goggles; now I don't go anywhere without them. I sew a homemade 'nose beak' onto the foam of my goggles (with a very special technique to prevent foggy goggles) to protect my face while letting moisture out. I've seen people come back from the South Pole with some pretty bad facial skin damage. Use goggles and a nose beak and you'll always be able to see and will come back to Union Glacier with skin as soft as a baby's bottom (well, maybe not exactly, but you get the idea). opticnerve.com
5. A tie between Clif bars and my Goal Zero Panel—I bring a lot of communication and camera equipment to ensure I am capturing the essence of my journey. To keep all my electronics fully charged is an important daily task. With 24-hour daylight, I set the solar panel up right before I crawl in the tent and charge gear while I sleep. As far as Clif Bars, it's hard to imagine how something so simple can bring so much joy, but they do. I like that they have a bit more carbs in them for a quick pick-me-up and then protein for a sustained effort.
Do I get one more? Take at least one pair of insoles :)
How do you keep fit during the year?
The easiest way to keep fit is to never get out of shape. Personally, I like to exercise and enjoy being outside. I'm generally biking, hiking and running to keep in shape. However, there generally isn't much of an off-season as I usually have some kind of smaller mountaineering trip or other adventure. The key for me is to not let travel get in the way of my overall fitness, which it always does.
I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Antarctica again this year. I've got a lot of great support from a lot of great organizations. Please visit my website to learn more about my partners and advocacy work.
I want to share my love of cold, ice and snow with the world and my goal is to get as many people excited about winter as I am. So please share your snow or ice pictures each week!
—interview by Correne Coetzer
This interview first appeared on ExplorersWeb.