Interview: Cycle To The South Pole with Eric Larsen
Published on 11/27/2012
By Mallory Ayres
Photo Credit: Stephanie Scott
There are many definitions of extreme. To some, extreme means waking up before 8:00 A.M. on a weekend. To others, extreme may be running a marathon or climbing a 14,000 ft. peak. To others, extreme may mean Everest. But no one can categorize Eric Larsen’s new expedition as anything but full-blown extreme. Since crossing the North Pole, South Pole and climbing Mount Everest in a single year is on Larsen’s ‘been there, done that’ list, he has decided to take up another hobby: polar exploration, by bike. In December, he plans on riding 730 miles on a custom winter Surly starting at the Hercules Inlet and traveling to the Geographic South Pole. The kicker? He’s doing it to benefit several non-profit partners. We had a chance to interview him about his new expedition, his reasons for doing it, and the high tech gear he gets to wear (hint: it’s not bike shorts…)
Q: You’ve already accomplished some pretty incredible feats. What drew you to this new goal?
A: There is no question that I love cold places and Antarctica, of course, is amazing. So I would be hard pressed to pass on any opportunity to return. However, it's not like this trip just fell into my lap, either. I've been scheming and planning this adventure for quite some time and it's taken a lot of hard work to make it this far (which isn't even the starting line).
The Cycle South expedition really combines my two biggest loves - biking and cold. I am very focused on the style and aesthetic of my adventures and doing something that no one has ever completed before is an important part of the equation. Additionally, I wanted to continue my advocacy work on climate and equally important, Parkinson's Disease research.
Q: What are some of the challenges this expedition presents compared with ones you’ve done in the past?
A: The biggest challenge is simply 'figuring things out.' No one has ever completed a full bicycle traverse to the South Pole, so getting the exact gear (and in some cases creating gear) has easily been the most difficult aspect thus far. I'm sure once I get on the ice that will all change. Biking in a whiteout, in my estimation, is nearly impossible - and I don't like saying things are impossible.
Q: What’s the travel plan? How long do you expect it to take?
A: The travel plan is relatively simple. Travel for an hour and a half. Stop for 7 minutes. Eat a Clif bar. Travel for another hour and a half. Eat another Clif Bar and repeat as many times as it takes to cover 730 miles - at least for the most part. I build my travel schedule around getting 8 hours of sleep, but for this trip, I'll be doing everything by myself (setting up camp, melting snow, blogging) so I might have to cut into that time a bit to hit my target of 10-12 hours of travel per day. The length of the trip really depends on the snow conditions and visibility. I estimate that it will take 20-25 days to get to the South Pole.
Q: How did you train for this expedition?
A: Training for this expedition is really straightforward - time on the bike. That said, our six-week old baby boy, Merritt, has added another level of complexity to maintaining a regular training schedule.
Q: You must be riding a pretty serious bike to get across the South Pole. Can you tell us about it?
A: The Fat Bike technology has been evolving fairly rapidly for the past four or five years. I'll be riding a Surly Moonlander. Basically, it looks like a normal mountain bike but has 4.8" tires. The Moonlander is also unique in that the front wheel has a fixed gear attached and can be swapped with the rear. That way, if I have any sort of failure with my drive train - cassette, free hub or rear derailleur, I can simply switch the wheels. To carry all my gear and supplies, I worked with A-train cycles to fabricate a front and rear rack. Granite Gear is creating custom panniers as well.
Q: What prevents the bike from sliding around?
A: Bicycling to the South Pole from the edge of the continent will be primarily on snow. What most people don't realize about the interior of Antarctica is that the snow is really dry and relatively wind packed. Therefore, there is quite a bit of friction between the surface of the snow and the bike tires. That said, you can increase the amount of traction by letting air out of the tires and increasing the amount of tire surface that comes in contact with the snow. Snow bike tires can be run at very, very low pressure.
Q: Riding in bulky clothing is really hard, yet you are going to be in extreme conditions. How will you stay warm without the bulk?
A: I'm generally more concerned about getting too hot than getting cold. One of the most important factors in staying warm is to not overheat and sweat. Therefore, I am very careful about how much I wear - even at 30 below, I am generally only wearing two base layers and a shell as your body generates a substantial amount of heat when you are working that hard. In Antarctica, a fur ruff is critical as the wind chills are brutal - even on a good day. I also sewed a custom nose beak into my Optic Nerve goggles to protect my face but still allow moisture to escape without icing over. I live in my Ergodyne multi band for extra head and face protection and I've got an awesome new pair of Ergodyne gloves as well.
Q: You are doing this expedition to raise donations for several non-profits. What groups will you be working with?
A: The goal of the Cycle South expedition is really to demonstrate how you can use a bicycle to change the world. I'm partnered with the Winter Wildlands Alliance, the Davis Phinney Foundation, and World Bike. I'm also working with Clif Bar's 2-mile challenge and the Bikes Belong Foundation.
Q: Why did you choose these particular partners?
A: I have two simple goals for all of my adventures: One, tell interesting stories that help people better understand 'place,' and two, use the human interest to talk about issues that are much bigger than myself. My focus has always been environmentally related, but with Cycle South I wanted to expand the scale and scope of my advocacy work while still maintaining a biking related aesthetic.
Q: Are the non-profits important to you personally for any reason?
A: I feel very much connected to them all. I have an environmental education background and have been an advocate for environmental issues (climate) for over 20 years. However, equally important to me this year will be working to raise money for the Davis Phinney Foundation as my dad has been bravely fighting Parkinson's Disease for 25 years.
Q: In 2010 you were the first person to send a tweet from Mount Everest using DeLorme satellite technology. You will stay connected with the world on this expedition as well through tweets, blogs and podcasts. How does this technology work?
A: I'll be using a different electronic set up than I have previously; and therefore, will be able to do things that no one has ever done before in Antarctica. I am most excited about my DeLorme inReach beacon, which serves as an emergency and tracking beacon as well as a two-way communication device (texting). It works on the Iridium Satellite network so it has true global coverage. People will be able to follow my progress, in real time on a map on my web site. To send in my daily blog posts, images and podcasts. A company called RoadPost hooked me up with a wireless technology called Iridium AccessPoint, which connects my iPhone to my Iridium Satellite phone. Each day when I send in an update, and here's where it gets really interesting, a program developed by WebExpeditions takes that email updates my blog, Facebook and map automatically.
Q: Why is having this technology important to you on your journey?
A: The focus of my expeditions is to engage people in a unique experience in an interesting place. My goal is to paint as vivid a picture as possible in real time of what this journey is like. That way, I can draw people in and share some of the lessons that I have learned - and do it in a non-threatening way. Ultimately, I want people to gain new insight and understanding into themselves, the environment and how we all can help make the world a better place.
Q: How can we follow you on your expedition?
A: I'll be posting daily updates, podcasts and live tracking on my web site Eric Larsen Explore. You can also follow @ELExplore and connect on Facebook. I leave Colorado on 12/13 and will leave for Antarctica from Punta Arenas on 12/17.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Scott