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Photograph courtesy Eric Larsen

Polar Explorer Eric Larsen Begins Attempt to Bike to the South Pole

After polar explorer Eric Larsen finished on the “triple crown of adventure”—traveling to the South Pole, the North Pole, and the top of Mount Everest in one year—it was hard to imagine what he might do next. But he has a plan. In December of 2012, Larson will begin another crossing of Antarctica. Once again the Minnesotan is attempting to make the 750-mile trek from the edge of the continent at the Hercules Inlet to the geographic South Pole. But this time he’s going by bicycle!

If he’s successful Larsen will be the first person to complete the journey he calls Cycle South. Although British adventure athlete Helen Sketlon made the final few miles of her South Pole expedition back in January 2012 by bike, Larsen’s long pedal has yet to be accomplished. Riding a production model Surly Moonlander, a fat-tire bike made in Minnesota with 4.8-inch wheels, the trip promises to test the constitution of both man and machine through one of the harshest environments on the planet.

Apart from frigid temperatures 20-degrees below zero in the Antarctic summer, sudden storms can dump vast quantities of new snow on the trail ahead. Larsen will likely encounter whiteout conditions that will make it impossible to distinguish between the snow and the horizon adding to the difficulties of navigation—it’s hard to pedal a bicycle if you can’t see. Plus there are the objective hazards of crevasses and sastrugi, wave-like ridges of ice and snow formed by wind, that can be major obstacles to a bike weighed down by heavy gear.

But well familiar with the route Larsen is confident of his chances. Hoping to raise awareness for the importance bicycle travel as a way to cut down on carbon emissions from automobiles he aims to demonstrate that human-power should never be taken for granted. He wants people to know that in all kinds of weather the bicycle is an excellent alternative mode of transportation to help mitigate the long-term effects of climate change. Larson also hopes to prompt his fans and followers to contribute a little cash to support research to find a cure for Parkinson’s Disease.

Larsen spared a few minutes to answers questions from James Edward Mills of the Joy Trip Project.

James Edward Mills: You’ve already made it to the South Pole as well as the North Pole and the top of Mount Everest all in one year. Why do this?

Eric Larsen: Well, the big difference is it’s on a bike. So that really poses a lot of logistical considerations. Not only that, but the North Pole, the South Pole, and Everest, those expeditions had already been completed before by other people, myself included. Nobody has ever completed a bicycle traverse to the South Pole. There are a lot of unknowns that add another level of severity. And there are a lot of interesting and fun problems to try to solve.

JM: Can you be specific? What kind of “interesting and fun problems” do you need to solve on a bicycle as opposed to a dogsled or skis or on foot?

EL: For one thing, how to keep your feet warm. What types of boots to wear while still using clip-less pedals, which is most efficient. How to manage different types of equipment fatigue and repairs. I’ll have a standard repair kit that I use. But what can potentially break on a bike in those conditions at higher levels of severity? There’s carrying all the supplies. And navigation as well. I navigate by compass while holding it and eyeballing an identifiable snow drift or something. Navigating while on the bike and moving around over sastrugi is challenging as well.

JM: That actually makes me wonder. I imagine you’ll be moving faster than you might on foot or even skis. How do you probe for things like crevasses while you’re on a bicycle? Is that even an option?

EL: It is. But I have skied this route before and it’s relatively crevasse-free. I didn’t see any, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t ski over a ton of them. There is some crevasse danger. It’s relatively minimal, so it is a concern. In a place like Antarctica it’s somewhat “terra-cognita” in the sense that there have been enough flights over this general region where a lot of the crevasse fields are known. But like I said, I skied that route in 2008. I got to the South Pole in January of 2009 so I have all my GPS points.

JM: You’ve got a pretty good idea that you won’t come across any crevasses. But apart from that, how are you preparing for this expedition? How did you train?

EL: Training and preparation have always been critical for me. I have kind of a philosophy: Train hard and travel easy. And so for me it’s just been spending a lot of time just on the bike riding, which is ironically what I do for a lot of my training for cold travel like ski expeditions. So I’ve been doing a ton of biking. Honestly, it’s been a little bit more difficult because we have a baby boy who is two months old. So that’s added another level of fatigue to this overall endeavor. Getting the four and five-hour rides in has been a little more difficult. It’s been a lot more like two and three-hour rides. That’s one thing. The other is I probably spend the most time just working and solving all the gear problems, gearing up and menu planning, those kinds of things. For polar travel you know there’s generally a bunch of different modifications I do to the equipment to make sure that it’s able to withstand those conditions and also function properly.

JM: How much support are you going to have? Will you be hauling all your own gear?

EL: I’ll probably get two to three resupplies along the way. I haven’t totally decided yet. And so I’ll be hauling about 90 pounds of gear with me as I’m traveling. I’ve been down in Antarctica before. I’ve worked for a company called Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. They do a majority of the private expedition support in Antarctica. They also do scientific support. The NSA does most of the scientific support out of South Pole Stations in McMurdo and Palmer. They have a pretty comprehensive program and so they actually fly to the South Pole in a Twin Otter (aircraft) somewhat regularly throughout the summer season.

What they’ll do is they’ll land at a kind of a rough latitude that I specify. And they’ll just open the door up real quick, they’ll take out a shovel, bury my little Granite Gear stuff sack full of food and fuel and they’ll put a little black flag on it about two feet high, mark the GPS point, and send me the GPS coordinates. If the conditions are good from about a mile away, if I’m navigating well and it’s clear, I can see that black flag. I’ll have all those bags packs prior to going over to Antarctica. Basically they’ll deposit the first one probably right away when they drop me off. And then I’ll be in contact with them just to see what the status is for the other potentially one or two resupplies. It depends on how fast or slow I’m going.

JM: What’s the overall goal of this expedition? What do hope to accomplish in order to be successful?

EL: I think for me getting to the starting line is probably one of the biggest hurdles of any expedition. Getting this far to me and hopefully doing Antarctica is a pretty big success.

That said, a big part of my expeditions are really about advocacy and trying to connect people with other issues. For me I’ve always had this choice in my life between wilderness and bicycles. It has always been a conflicting interest. This trip is interesting to me because it gets to combine my two great loves and really focus on some things that I feel are important, protecting the environment by using bicycles to reduce carbon emissions, creating awareness and raising money for Parkinson’s Disease. My dad actually had Parkinson’s Disease, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to coordinate with a trip. My focus will always be environmental, but these expeditions are good platforms to talk about whatever. And I feel like we all have this responsibility to leave the world a little bit better off, to continue with my environmental advocacy with Clif Bar and Wild Lands Alliance and a little bit with world bike organizations. To do some work with others along the way like the Davis Phinney Foundation.

Davis Phinney is an ex-bike racer. He’s the first or second American to win a stage in the Tour de France. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, as my dad was diagnosed for over 20 years. He’s also based in Boulder. That’s going to be the figurehead of the expedition, trying to raise $10,000 for his organization. And then there’s the pragmatic goal of trying to bike to the South Pole.

JM: There’s the possibility of you cycling back the way you came. What has to happen in order for you to decide that that is a possibility.

EL: I think the big thing is just that I’m healthy and the weather has been good and that I’ve made good mileage. The big part of the trip is to get to the South Pole. I’ve got about 40 days to do that. I think it could take upwards of half that time, but you know, it’s Antarctica. There’s a lot of variability. I’m relying on information that I gleaned from my prior experience and training. There are so many variable that I want to be safe in what my estimations are. And if can ride back well that’s just icing on the cake.

JM: Have you thought past this expedition? What do you hope to accomplish next?

EL: My expeditions are about telling stories. That’s my primary goal. I want to do original trips that tell good stories. The world records, the look-at-me-I’m-awesome thing, that’s not necessarily as important to me. I have a lot of different projects that I’m thinking about. I’ve been to Antarctica three different times. I’ve lead two whole trips and one partial trip to the South Pole and its an amazing place. Would I like to go back and do the full trip to the South Pole and back if I don’t finish? I don’t really know. Would I like to go back and do some other cool trips in Antarctica? Definitely.

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company.