In 2013 Maria Leijerstam did something that until not too long was deemed impossible: she became the first person in the world to cycle from the Antarctic coast, across the entire icy continent, to the South Pole. For this ‘White Ice Cycle’, as she named her adventure, she rode a custom made, 3-wheeled polar cycle covering 400 miles in just 10 days 14 hours and 56 minutes! That’s even faster than Manon Ossevoort’s record breaking tractor drive to the South Pole.
Not the only cycling contender
After two years of extensive research and training – among which was her ‘Black Ice Cycle’ adventure across a frozen lake Baikal – Leijerstam started her bike ride on December 17, 2013 from the Novo Russian air force base at the edge of the Antarctic continent and the far end of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Surprisingly she was not the only rider aiming to take away the title of ‘first bike ride to the South Pole’ as just a couple of days before her two other riders – American Daniel Burton and Spaniard Juan Menendez Granados – had set off with the same goal in mind.
However, Leijerstam had a secret weapon: her custom made tricycle!
The Bicycle….. or actually Recumbent Trike
As opposed to her two rivals – who rode fat tyre normal upright bicycles – Maria decided to ride a three wheeled bike. She had teamed up with Inspired Cycle Engineering (coincidentally shortened as I.C.E.) and they came up with the idea for a recumbent tricycle because an extra wheel would not only mean extra float in the snow but it would also allow her to maintain stability in the often very-high winds.
The trike allowed her to store the 45kg (100lbs) of food and equipment she was carrying on the back on top of the extra wide rear driving wheels adding additional purchase in icy conditions. To top it off the front wheel could be changed for a ski to help negotiate snowdrifts.
All this allowed her to concentrate simply on moving forward, instead of having to waste time and effort keeping her balance.
The ICE team used a modified version of the commercially-available Sprint trike completely adapted to polar circumstances.
A different route: cycling across the Trans-Antarctic Mountain range
When Leijerstam set off from the Novo Russian air force base on 16 December she knew the two other cyclists had left just days before.
Both Burton and Granados were making the trip solo and unsupported, while Leijerstam had a support team with her along the entire way. However, to take the title for ‘First bike ride to the South Pole’ this did not matter and Leijenstam had to find a way to overtake them.
This is where her secret weapon (the recumbent trike) came in handy.
Her tricycle, on the one hand allowed her to move faster across the ice and on the other hand it allowed her to take a shorter steeper route than her rivals – American Daniel Burton and Spaniard Juan Menendez Granados. The latter two were cycling over the longer so called Hercules route which goes around the Trans-Antarctic Mountain range.
Instead of going around Leijerstam cycled right up and over the Trans-Antarctic Mountain range. That route would involve the crossing of the notorious, steep and technically more challenging Leverett Glacier.
This route was chosen due to its compact surface created by the South Pole traverse that delivers fuel to the South Pole station each year, making cycling possible for a tricycle….or so they hoped as it had never been done before.
She started out the expedition unsupported, meaning she was carrying all of her food and supplies for the duration of the journey, after three days of climbing more than 2,000 meters up the Leverett Glacier, she made the decision to unload all of her gear on the trucks that were shadowing her and filming the journey.
“Made the tough decision to unload my kit mid morning as my pace meant i would miss my cut off,” she tweeted.
The Leverett Glacier crossing
Accumulation of snow drifts on the South Pole supply tracks made for some tough days of cycling through deep snow. On the day of the critical Leverett Glacier crossing her support team said the following:
“She set off this morning in white out conditions so bad that she could not see anything in front of her and had to navigate with her GPS. Visibility improved later in the day and she then focused on the steepest part of the climb from 2,200 metres to 2,300 at the top. She has managed to cycle most of the way on her amazing cycle but had to drag it through the last section with the help of a harness which produced a sore back.”
At times she had to cycle inclines of up to 20%. The maximum altitude she reached was 2941m while the South Pole lies at 2835m. Just above the Leverett Glacier Maria had to take a detour to avoid a major crevassed area adding some distance to her route.
Arrival at the South Pole
This strategical move of taking a more direct route than her compeitors soon put her ahead of her rivals. It proved to be a lead she would not give away anymore.
On December 27th at 1am GMT, she achieved her goal, becoming the first person to ever successfully cycle from the edge of the Antarctic continent to the Pole.
The “shorter” route she had taken was nonetheless 638 kilometers long, stretching from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, up over Leverett Glacier, and onward to the South Pole.
Maria cycled between 10hrs to 17hrs each day with no rest days. She cycled every metre of the way, using human power alone with the lowest recorded temperature being minus 29 degrees C (not taking into account wind chill).
She also lost 8.2% of her body weight during the White Ice Cycle expedition despite consuming in the region of 4000 kcal per day.
On their return from the South Pole, Leijerstam and her team took the Hercules route, making a 1,200-kilometer journey over the ice and passing both of her “competitors’ along the way. The team passed Burton while he was in his tent, but managed to stop and chat with Granados. She reported that he was in good spirits, but cycling has been tough for him.
White Ice Cycle Documentary
A documentary has been made about this kickass adventure. Find the preview below