Friday, January 06, 2012

South Pole on a bike

I will post my last Alaska symphony piece soon, but recently I've been participating in several social media discussions about a woman who is currently attempting to use a bicycle to reach the South Pole, and I wanted to distill these discussions on my blog.

Helen Skelton, a 28-year-old British television personality who I admittedly had never heard of before last month, is currently in the process of traveling 500 miles in Antarctica using an ice bike, skis, and a kite, toward the South Pole. In doing so, she's raising money for a charity called Sport Relief and also bringing the adventure and intrigue of Antarctica to thousands of young fans. It's a laudable goal with a few holes that immediately caused me to react with suspicion rather than the admiration she certainly deserves.

First of all, the media coverage surrounding this effort (at least initially) presented her expedition as an attempt to break "the world record for the longest ride on snow." This has since disappeared from most the coverage, almost certainly because too many North Americans called them out for conveniently ignoring the successful 1,000-mile rides to Nome, Alaska, on the Iditarod Trail. The southern route records are held by the husband-and-wife superteam Jay and Tracey Petervary, and the northern route records by Tracey Petervary and Mike Curiak. Curiak has also pioneered the only known self-supported snow bike expedition of that distance, successfully riding to Nome without a single resupply in 2010. Since the Iditarod Trail is entirely ice and snow (or, at its very worst, wind-scoured frozen tundra), any claims to the longest bike ride on snow, currently, would have to take place there.

Another aspect of Skelton's expedition that gave me pause is the fact that she has little to no cold-weather or snow-biking experience. She has a few crazy adventures on her resume, including a high-wire walk between the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, in London, and a solo kayak voyage down the length of the Amazon. The kayak voyage is especially impressive, but it does make one wonder what that has to do with managing a wide variation of equipment and survival techniques in the extreme environments of Antartica. True, she does have a large television crew and support team that presumably will come to her aid, as well as a guide who will be biking and kite skiing with her. But media coverage has practically praised her complete lack of preparation and experience, and her blog included descriptions of her first time winter camping, ever, just two months ago, and this gem about her bike: "I've tried it out on sand and it didn't work very well but the experts tell me it will definitely work better on ice and snow. It better!"

The bike she chose is another curious part of the expedition. It's a custom-built Hanebrink all-terrain bike, with several modifications that take extreme cold in account. However, it appears the designers failed to take into account the fact she will actually have to ride it in Antarctic conditions, which involve uncompacted wind crust, bottomless sugar snow, sasturgi (wind-blown ridges of snow that are similar to sand dunes), chunks of ice, and other technical obstacles. The 40-pound bike features a frame made from aluminum aircraft tubing, the components are simple and purposely sturdy, but the wheels are what the designers say are the key — a small wheelbase with eight-inch tubeless tires. The tires are steel-belted to add sturdiness and presumably prevent flats, because there's almost no chance she'd successfully repair a tubeless flat in extreme low temperatures. The tires and wheels combined weigh upwards of nine pounds each. Presumably they're so small to avoid weighing much more, because small wheels are usually a handicap when negotiating technical terrain.

"They're a lot like the tires for golf carts," one of the designers, Kane Fortune, told the BBC. "They are designed to leave the smallest impression as possible, so the grass on the green isn't damaged."

The problem is, Skelton isn't trying to leave golf course grass undamaged. She's trying to steamroll over incredibly difficult terrain features and float atop dry, sugary snow — while dragging an 82-kilogram sledge. It seems strange to me that with all of the research now out there on larger wheel-base snow bikes, and the fact that they have been extensively tested in extreme conditions and are now commercially marketed, that Skelton and her team would choose to use what amounts to 1990s sand bike technology. Although I'm not the expert on the mechanics of bicycle riding, I have a hard time envisioning how Helen and her guide are even propelling those things forward. All I can see is those little wheels spinning deeper and deeper trenches into the brittle crust as the sledge holds them in place like an anchor.

There is also the matter of what happens to the components of a bicycle in the extreme cold that Skelton will almost certainly encounter in Antarctica. In 2004, Mike Curiak and his friend Pat Irwin set out to scout a remote route in the Yukon that resulting in them spending several days pushing through temperatures in the negative 50s. After their struggle to survive, the Anchorage Daily News ran a piece about their trip in which Mike explored their mechanical failures.

"At 40 below zero, we started to have tube failures," Curiak wrote. "We had WTB (Wilderness Trail Bikes), Kenda and Avenir tubes with us, and they all pulled apart at their seams. The flats were so prevalent that we no longer had to look at our thermometers to know when the temp had hit minus 40. After the race, a product manager explained to me that 40 below zero falls a bit outside of the design parameters for bicycle inner tubes."

Skelton's bike has tubeless tires, which will mitigate the problem of exploding tubes. But the fact remains that rubber rendered inflexible in the cold can crack. Any air it is holding can escape. Even steel belting can't necessarily prevent this. And the fact is, no one has really extensively tested bike performance in extreme cold. Curiak noted all sorts of mechanical problems that the Anchorage Daily News reported:

• At 25 degrees below, the suspension seat post on his bike froze solid.

• At 30 degrees below, the headsets on the bikes started to freeze, making it hard to turn the handlebars.

• At 40 degrees below, the tube failures started.

• At 47 degrees below, the plastic head on his tire pump shattered.

• At 52 degrees below, the headsets on the bikes became so stiff that the handlebars wouldn't turn more than 10 degrees.

• At 55 degrees below and colder, it was time to forget riding and start pushing, because tubes wouldn't hold up at these temperatures and patching them was impossible.

• And at 60 degrees below, the only thing that mattered were the words of Hudson Stuck: "One must keep going."

Curiak has, in my opinion, already pioneered the current best possible system for a long self-supported snow bike expedition during his 2010 ride to Nome. He rode a titanium Moots frame with standard 26" 100-mm rims and used no trailer or sledge, instead adopting a more minimalist approach and piling up everything he needed on his bike using a rack and pannier system. With this system he successfully rode 1,000 miles to Nome without resupply, carrying all of his food, fuel and survival gear from the start.

Admittedly, Nome in the winter is a less extreme situation than an expedition to the South Pole at any time of year. Weather is almost certainly milder, a trail is generally set in place, and there are evacuation options if things go wrong. But Curiak's 2010 ride is currently the most ambitious winter bicycle expedition ever undertaken, and no one has yet successfully piloted a bicycle self-supported all the way from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole (which, in my opinion, must be the parameters for the first official bike ride to the South Pole.)

It would be wonderful if a woman were the first person to do it. However, I don't think that woman will be Helen Skelton. I do wish her the best, hope she raises a lot of money, inspires a lot of kids, and has an amazing life experience. I admire her adventurous spirit, and the fact that despite all of the obstacles, she is still charging forward all the same.

I just threw this photo in for fun. A blog friend, Claire, sent this to me from "Down at South Pole" back in 2008.


  1. now thats a sweet ride, a cold one , but sweet

  2. The fact that she gets blisters from just walking tells me she's completely unprepared. It doesn't really bother me though -- I hope she's successful. There's something about the idea of a blonde (no offense Jill :p) television personality casually achieving what would otherwise be considered pretty hard core that pleases me. It's fun to imagine the "hard core" people gnashing their teeth. Of course, this likely won't happen because there's a reason certain things are considered "hard core." We shall see...

  3. Ha ha, Danni. I'm inclined to agree with you. I love an underdog hero, and I too am rooting for her, really. I just wanted to voice my opinion on some of the hype.

    And I wanted to clarify that I didn't mean I didn't think she would make it to the South Pole. The woman does appear to have grit, and I'm betting she'll tough it out. I was only speculating that she won't be using that bike much to get there. She's already kite-skied many more miles than she's biked, and I expect that trend to continue. I only hope that if she kite-skis 450 miles and bikes 50, the headlines afterward won't tout her "bike ride" to the South Pole. It's really just not the same thing.

  4. Go easy on her, Jill. She's a bit of a hero over here in the UK after her Amazon canoe journey. She presents a well known kids programme (Blue Peter - surely you must have heard of it over by?) and as you suggest is an inspiration for women and kids, on the context that you don't need to be a superwoman to attempt life changing challenges. Yes she's got lots of support, and yes she doesn't approach these challenges in the same way that you do. But having seen her film of the Amazon trip there is no doubt that she pushes herself deep into the zone. And in addition she has raised millions for charity.

  5. Donald, sorry, I hadn't heard of Blue Peter before last month. But I agree she's an inspirational force with a wide fan base, and this is a great charitable endeavor. That alone is a lot to have at stake and one of the reasons I think she will make it to the South Pole.

    Since I'd never heard of Helen I can't begin to critique her "chances" as an adventurer and wouldn't try to even if I had. I was only taking issue with some of the media claims. That "longest ride on snow" claim especially made some people bristle I think, because they worked hard for their achievements without the hype. I'm not saying Helen perpetuated these claims herself, but there's a lot about the media coverage that makes it seem like her publicity team didn't conduct even cursory research.

    I of all people should support the idea of ordinary people taking on extraordinary challenges, given that's all but my tagline in life. But I also feel strongly about honesty and full disclosure, and I wish her media team would look beyond the hyperbole of "world record" and "first bike ride to the pole" and just tell the world the story of what she's doing, because it's awesome without the hype.

  6. I think we all cheer for her and wish the adventure and fundraising to be a success. I have no doubt she's tough - it takes a lot of guts to even try this, even with much support (though doing it on your own is a very different thing).
    I think people are taken a bit back by the complete media ignorance about a whole snow bike culture, if they would have done even the least amount of research, they would have made the connection. That's not Helen's fault, and to be frank it doesn't surprise me - every time I know something about a topic that makes it into the media I find the information presented to be atrociously bad, unless it is in some very specialized publication.
    I am though surprised at the approach taken - testing gear for the first time in an expedition is questionable - I've seen this myself with my much easier Iditarod preparations. Definitely the people behind the expedition (in terms of planning, gear setup etc) seem to be arrogant or ignorant by ignoring the wealth of knowledge built up by people who do this stuff a lot.

    I do think Helen's a tough chick. But it's basically the difference of someone joining a guided Everest exepdition versus doing a solo ascent - it's not the same ... and to claim a record, I think you'll have to do the latter.

  7. Is it just us foul Americans that snicker at the title "Blue Peter" -- especially for a kids' show?

  8. Well put, Jill.

    It's tough because I like to see women doing awesome things, but being completely supported by guides, media, Internet connection, etc. takes away from the positives of the expedition (but if you don't stir up a lot of media support, no one cares, do they? Double edged sword). Tweeting and Facebooking while you're supposedly fighting for survival seems really lame.

    Contrast this to an accomplishment like the new route on the Trango tower put up by an all-woman team, which gets no attention from the media, and it's just...well, I don't know what it is.

    I don't think anyone is down on Helen personally. It's just when someone who isn't a serious participant in a sport (or even a participant in that sport at all) undertakes a huge, difficult trip with no prior experience, accompanied by a bunch of guides and a huge media blitz (and a sexed-up head shot emphasizing cleavage), it falls a little short of authentic.

    Yes, it's for charity, I get that. Considering how much such an expedition would cost, does it really raise that much money at the end (I don't know; that's a real question)?

    No, you don't have to be a superwoman, but the message is that you have to be a) cute and b) in possession of massive amounts of support and guidance to undertake these endeavors, neither of which is true.

    Though it's not a crime to be cute and it's unfair to harsh on someone for their looks, good or bad. I do think it's a huge part of her popularity but who can blame her for exploiting that? Anyway, best of luck to her and I hope that her PR team learns to do some research before making claims.

  9. Blue Peter has been going for so long that there can't be anyone British under 60 that didn't grow up with it.

    Through all that time they have had a history of doing things like this and always with someone like Helen. Google John Noakes or Peter Duncan and check out stuff like the 5 mile free fall!

    What you got spot on though is that it is reported on by the British press. The BBC (who have a vested interested) are usually world class but many of the rest are a waste of space if you want facts. Unfortunately this is the stuff they love to cover and sensationalize. As someone who grew up in the UK and then went on to live for a while in Canada with 2 meters of snow and -30C during the winter, I can tell you that they have no concept of what that means so not much chance of the reporting getting better.

    But everyone wants her to get there.

    PS Jill, I tried snow biking when I was in Canada and you are officially insane! Give me CA any day.

  10. How about for next year's Sports Relief you get together with Helen and do it properly, ride from the coast to the pole. I'm sure Carlton Reid has some connections that could be used to set it up.

  11. It's funny how people take ownership over a sport or a location, something I see a lot up here in the Yukon. It's almost as if the "locals" get off on ridiculing outsiders who either try their sport with little experience (I really don't see the problem in that, shouldn't we be encouraging people to get involved in sports??!); or trying something adventurous in a "their" area (Christopher McCandless comes to mind - he was vilified by many Alaskans after simply following his own journey in life).

    We Yukoners could get annoyed that there was also no mention of the Yukon Arctic Ultra in the coverage (yours or Helen's), but what's the point? It's happened before, it'll happen again.

    People have been skiing, biking and running the YAU route for many years now, up to 480 miles. There are others who have walked and ridden the Iditarod and Yukon Quest trails on their own as well. There are the hardcore winter bike commuters in Fairbanks who blow my mind with their dedication to riding at ridiculously low temperatures on a regular basis. So yeah, Helen is not the first to ride her bike in the cold. And the fact that she has little cold weather experience makes it even more interesting. People are almost expecting her to fail, yet she's proven(regardless of her looks - would we even be discussing looks if this was a good looking guy??) that she has some significant experiences under her belt. Mental toughness will get her a long way.

    Supported or not, it's a great feat and I certainly wish her the best of luck. Maybe her next adventure will be to come up North!

  12. With all the chatter and widely mixed opinions I have been seeing and hearing regarding this journey, I'll now direct them to read your review Jill. Good read, good information, fair journalism as it should be.

  13. Stacie,

    I may be coming across as overly critical of Helen herself. I'm actually not trying to be. But what she's doing is akin to a champion surfer from Florida deciding he wants to ride the 430-mile version of the Yukon Arctic Ultra with little to no preparation or training. That kind of thing wouldn't be seen as brave, it would be seen as suicidal, and rightfully so. If Helen didn't have her support team, there's a good chance she wouldn't survive. Grit and perseverance just isn't enough for a place as remote, and with as small a margin for error, as Antarctica. You need experience, survival skills, and a whole lot of planning.

    I didn't mention the Yukon Arctic Ultra because there currently isn't an option in that race longer than 500 miles. If someone's completed the route from Whitehorse to Fairbanks on a bike, that's news to me. That would be an amazing accomplishment, given the Yukon Quest trails extreme cold and remoteness. As it is, only about a dozen people have ridden the entire route to Nome on bicycles.

    I'm all for more people becoming involved in snow biking. I think what Helen is doing will only hurt publicity for the sport, because that bike isn't going to work and she's going to make the whole thing look like a joke. The point of this blog post was to express my opinion that the nature of this expedition makes it seem like she and her team didn't do any research at all, didn't make great choices, and all but set themselves up for failure. I'd love to be proven wrong, honestly. We shall see.

  14. Her diary:

  15. Kathi Merchant sent a link to this--glad she did as I don't check in here much.

    Fun to see the dredge of mine and Pat's trip on the Yukon.

    You've got a good overview of Helen's overall schtick written out here, but I think a basic misunderstanding of bike mechanics/geometry may be hurting you a bit. You may even be confusing "wheelbase" with "footprint"? Helen's bike has a much longer wheelbase than what most of us know as a 'snowbike' these days: Pugsleys, Fatbacks, Snoots, etc... Long = bad for maintaining float and traction on a breakable crust. Short = easier to maneuver and easier to apply body english when the inevitable punching occurs.

    The only other thing I wanted to point out is that IMHO a wintertime run up the Iditarod will see much more difficult climatic conditions than a summertime (the only time it can be done) run at the South Pole. Do a little reading on past expeditions south (whether from 100 years or 100 days ago) and you'll find a common theme: The everpresent sun and lack of humidity make it levels warmer, more comfortable, and easier to keep gear dry than what you'll find in a colder, (much) darker, and much more humid Alaskan winter. Neither is easy, but the endless days of a S. Hemisphere summer begin to seem like a beach holiday when compared to the short days of a N. Hemisphere winter.

    Admittedly I haven't yet set foot on the Antarctic continent. But I believe that raising the $$$$$$ to get there will be the crux. Moving forward, enjoying and adapting to each day, and finding the rhythm of the ice will be much, much easier than my last trip up the Iditarod.



  16. MC,

    Thanks for commenting. Your opinion obviously means a whole lot more than mine on this matter. And thanks for the clarification on the word wheelbase. Again I am getting my terms confused; this is why I don't often and probably shouldn't weigh in on matters of bicycle mechanics. I've just been following this expedition with curiosity, and as a journalist can't help but express my own opinion on the matter. My concerns mostly have to do with media coverage, and the fact that it is presenting this trip as a "bike ride" to the South Pole when it is shaping up to be anything but.

    I see what you mean about the environmental difficulties of an Alaskan winter versus Antarctic summer. I was thinking the wind, storms, complete exposure, and remoteness were major factors in the difficulties of Antarctica, but you make better points about the variability and unpredictability of Alaskan weather. Again, thanks for weighing in. Hope you're enjoy this beautiful spring weather in January that seems to be sweeping the Lower 48 (it's a balmy 62 and sunny here in Los Altos, California, today)

  17. I don't think anyone's expecting her to fail, that's the whole point. She can't possibly fail with such a massive support team and so many sponsorship dollars and failsafes behind her. That's why it doesn't seem like an authentic adventure and comes off as more of a stunt, IMO.

    If she were trying this on her own with no guides & support team, then I'd certainly expect her to fail; she doesn't have the experience. That's what I don't like about this stuff, it diminishes actual accomplishment in favor of media blitz for dilettantes.

  18. One last thing I should have added - nothing wrong with trying new stuff, just wrong to seek so much attention for it.

    But having said that, hmmm, why is it wrong? hmmmm. Interesting topic indeed.

  19. The british have a long and proud tradition of using foolish and untested equipment in the Antarctic, Scott took dogs, horses and tractors and ended up hauling by hand until he died. Amundsen took only the tried and tested solution of dogs and cruised it.

  20. I have to say, I wonder about those small wheels too - especially since they look SO small. I was in the market for a folding bike recently, and I took a look at the small-wheeled models, but ultimately went with a folding bike with full-size wheels, so that I wouldn't be spinning my wheels on a daily basis. Maybe spinning is an advantage in adverse weather conditions, but I can't imagine those small wheels being more efficient than larger ones. Then again, I don't know much about sub-zero cycling either...

  21. Hey I stumbled upon your blog looking at pictures of touring rigs. I am currently at the south pole! Helen certainly will not be able to ride a bicyle here. A kid has a Surly Pugsley here and it can be rode only on the packed snow. Kite skiing seems to be the way to go. A group of Spaninards came sailing in a few weeks ago with a tent set up! I certainly wish Helen the best of luck.

  22. re: Longest snow bike

    Bikes were fairly common during the Yukon and Alaskan gold rushes.

    This may be a longer ride (not self-contained) than the modern Iditarod trail ones:



Feedback is always appreciated!