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.