Learn more about Eric Larsen's attempted cycling trip to the South Pole at ericlarsenexplore.com.
Boulder explorer Eric Larsen had cycled 175 miles across Antarctica toward the South Pole, alone, when he decided to turn around.
Snow conditions and logistics had made it impossible for Larsen ride quickly enough to reach the South Pole before the semi-permanent camp there was disassembled, at the end of January.
Larsen is back in Boulder, reflecting on the merits of his shorter-than-expected trip and learning that failure isn't the worst thing to happen to him.
What were your goals during this expedition?
On this particular trip, it was the idea of using bicycles. They're an amazing tool to get help you get places, to keep in shape, and they're also a tool for other things, like people living with Parkinson's disease. My dad has had it for 25 years or so now and research has shown people with Parkinson's, bicycling can help them with physical therapy. People who can't necessarily walk can bicycle. I was trying to raise $10,000 for the Davis Phinney Foundation, based in Boulder, and also working with Worldbike, which works at getting bicycles to people in developing nations. I also worked with Winter Wildlands Alliance. The journey is a hook to get people interested in these other issues that are really important.
Can you describe some of the logistics of the trip?
I flew down to southern Chile and from there I flew on a jet, which lands on a three-mile long blue ice runway that's basically a glacier. Then from there I went to a temporary camp and then I took a small plane to the start, which is a place called Hercules Inlet, which has traditionally been a jumping-off point for the South Pole. From that point to the pole is 730 miles.
Basically you're traveling across snow. Antarctica is covered in about a half-mile thick sheet of ice. It's an undulating ice cap. The elevation at the South Pole is over 9,000 feet, so you're climbing the entire way, but because it's an ice cap it's moving and buckling.
To travel that distance I was using a Surly Moonlander Fat Bike, which looks like a normal mountain bike except for these big wide, 4.8 inch tires. I run them at really low pressure so I can get over the snow. I carried all my gear and supplies so my bike weighed 130 pounds with 10 days of fuel, food, a sleeping bag -- all the things I would need to live for 10 to 15 days at a time in Antarctica. I had resupply spots along the way.
Why did you decide to turn around?
One of the reasons bike travel was possible was because of character of nature and surface of Antarctica. It's wind blown, hard-packed almost like pavement, but it's also very windy and this winter was one of the windiest in the last few years, so there were all of these big snow drifts that formed. Around the drifts, soft snow piles up like an eddy in the river. I was encountering all these softer pockets of snow. I was having get off the bike and push myself through. I was doing 20 nautical miles a day, and I needed to be doing 35 or 40. So it was just a question of going 1.5 miles per hour slower, but with a tight time frame you just don't have that much room for error.
By a standard definition, the trip failed. Do you feel that way, or do you feel you still accomplished some of your goals?
In the end I didn't make it, unfortunately, but I think the thing is when you take big risk, the chance for success is limited. I think it's important to take the risk nonetheless.
The more expeditions you do, and the more experience you gain, you have that insight into what's safe and what's not safe and what's feasible to accomplish and what's not given all the variables. Those are hard decisions to make. I've been in a lot of dangerous situations previously and I've taken a lot of chances, and Antarctica, in terms of being on a bike, isn't necessarily like Everest in the sense you're going to fall off and drop 2,000 feet, but there are some other dangers.
I've skied to the North Pole, there's no marker there, there's nobody else there, the ice is moving. It's a real arbitrary destination. In that sense it's really the journey that becomes a really powerful experience and for me in this trip I didn't reach my initial objective but it was still an incredible experience being out there.
What does one think about during a solo bicycle expedition across Antarctica?
I always say the best hour on an expedition is the one that goes by really quickly and effortlessly. Polar travel can be really hard and physically taxing, but it's also pretty boring. You're staring into white nothingness. In a white out, it's like being on the inside of a ping-pong ball, there's not a lot of scenery.
It's an emotional roller coaster. It can be very stressful when you're starting out and you're staring down the potential of 30, 35 days out there on your own. That's a big thing and that's pretty overwhelming.
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.