The view from the saddle makes you feel insignificant.
The plane touched down on the blue ice runway… We were exactly on schedule. We had taken a four-hour flight in an Ilyushin IL-76 jet from Puntas Arenas, Chile, to Union Glacier in Antarctica so that we could ride a Fat Bike to the South Pole. The plane has to land on a five kilometre blue ice runway, so bad weather can often delay the flight, but we were lucky.
Union Glacier, is a base camp for ALE [Adventure Logistics and Expeditions]. There are no permanent structures there so everyone stays in tents. As an ALE staff member, I sleep in a small mountaineering tent. However, Union Glacier we still have a few luxuries, including a large dining tent complete with tables and chairs, where they serve up food and wine they’ve flown in from Chile, and a heated multi-purpose tent where you can kickback with a DVD.
However, we didn’t have time to chill out, as once we were ‘on the ice’ we were already busy. My client and I had to get our bikes adjusted and tuned. Then we had to put together our expedition meals, which meant doing everything from cutting up cheese and salami for lunches to repacking freeze-dried meals. And then we had to test and prepare all of our expedition gear – tents, MSR stoves, first aid kit, solar panels, and communication gear.
It’s really hard to describe this as a waiting period as we were busy attending to all the expedition details as well as going out on several training rides. I picked up some cold virus along the way and felt fairly sick for a couple of days, which considering all the work we were doing, was tiring. And, I felt a little nervous about the expedition as there were a lot of unknowns as to how everything would play out.
On the morning of the ride we woke up at 6am. This would be our routine for the next 14 days. We would wake up at 6am and light our small MSR camp stove straightaway to start melting snow for breakfast and drinking water. Then, after eating breakfast, we would take down our tents, pack up our sleds and be on the trail by 8am. It takes a good hour to get your muscles warmed up. Often times I wish I could have stayed in bed just a little bit longer.
Our first day we alternated between riding and walking but were on the trail for roughly seven hours.
I was using a Trek Farley 9.8 and I had ridden it a little in Colorado. I knew the bike would work, but I did a few modifications to make it lighter as well as pull a sled. I took off the back brake and switched the front brake from hydraulic to a cable brake. I used a Thule Chariot arm (which is for children’s trailers) to pull a sled. The bike was flawless.
The bike doesn’t make a lot of noise while you’re pedalling. You can hear the wind, the sound of your breathing, which as you can imagine is generally fairly heavy as we were at an elevation of roughly 3,000 metres.
Weather on the ‘last degree’ can be a mixed bag. This was my fifth expedition to Antarctica and you generally experience all kinds of weather – from clear days to brutal windstorms to whiteouts. We got very lucky and had clear skies throughout our entire trip. It was cold, around -25 C and variable winds. The wind posed the biggest problem for us as it was blowing directly in our faces.
Days were long and difficult, but our pace was slow and steady. We’d take a break every hour to eat a snack. Halfway through the day we take a longer break for ‘lunch’ which was soup, cheese and salami.
The objective was fairly straightforward, however the surface conditions of the snow are variable so any time there is soft snow it is much harder to ride. Additionally, the surface is not 100 per cent flat. We were continuously going uphill for several hours then down – not a very steep grade but difficult.
Overall, the mental aspects of expeditions can be much more difficult than the physical aspects. At any given moment you can feel good or bad. Usually, things go back and forth.
There are always a lot of decisions you have to make on the fly as the environment is constantly changing. Still, we travel on a fairly regimented schedule so we don’t have to think about too much on the trail. There are a lot of little things like stopping to add an extra layer of clothes, navigating, etc. The biggest adjustment we made on this trip was having a snow machine come out and lay a track for us and make the snow a bit more firm.
I’ve done a lot of very challenging expeditions. My 2014 unsupported and unaided expedition to the Geographic North Pole was easily the most difficult. In 2010, I completed an expedition to the South Pole, North Pole and top of Mount Everest all in one year, which ended up being nearly six months in tent in the world’s coldest places. Most of my expeditions span nearly two months so a short ‘last degree’ adventure isn’t on the same scale or scope and so not really comparable.
However, there are a million things that go wrong. On any polar expedition we are travelling within a very narrow margin of safety and it would take much to tip the scales against us. A good situation can turn into a bad one when you’re dealing with extremely cold temperatures and windchills.
The view from the saddle makes you feel insignificant. Antarctica is a huge vast space and to be the only two small dots in that place makes you feel small. I feel very lucky to be able to travel in a place like the polar plateau.
There isn’t a lot of variation to the snow between the 89th and 90th parallel. However, there is absolutely nothing but snow. So all that you see is an undulating plane of white. We were lucky with the weather so had clear blue skies and it often felt we were perfectly sandwiched between the white snow and blue sky. When the horizon seems closer, we are going uphill. When the horizon seems farther away, we are going downhill. Roughly 15 nautical miles from the South Pole we can make out a few shapes of the Amundsen Scott station – the Southern-most place on Earth.
It’s always a good feeling when you finish a ride. But we had a further surprise when we got there. We saw Vern Tejas who was leading another ‘Last Degree’ ski expedition. He has done the ‘Seven Summits’ 10 times.
With this trip I learnt that there aren’t any downsides to using a Fat Bike. I learnt a little more about bicycling logistics in Antarctica and what that means for longer Fat Bike expeditions there. It just underlined what I already knew… that bicycles are awesome!