1. ITV Report

The pain and ecstasy of cycling to the South Pole

On 27th December 2013 Maria Leijerstam, from South Wales, became the first ever person to cycle to the South Pole. Photo: Maria Leijerstam

On the 27th December 2013, 35 year-old Maria Leijerstam became the first person in the world to cycle from the edge of the Antarctic continent to the South Pole. She also set the new World Record for the fastest human powered coast to pole traverse, completing her journey in 10 days, 14hrs and 56 minutes.

Maria cycled the entire way to the South Pole in just 10 days. Credit: Maria Leijerstam

In a Wales This Week Special, cameras followed the adventurer from South Wales as she cycled up the Leverett Glacier and over the Transantarctic Mountain Range 638 kilometers to the South Pole. It is the equivalent distance of cycling from Cardiff to Edinburgh. And as she was unsupported for part of the journey, she carried 130kilos up 3 times the height of Snowdon. The maximum altitude she reached was 2941m above sea level. The South Pole lies at 2835m.

In order to avoid snow drifts and crevases, Maria chose a route which had been untested by adventurers until very recently. She followed the South Pole Traverse which has had most of it's surface compacted by tractor trailers delivering fuel to the South Pole each year.

Maria started her journey at the Leverett Glacier. The more traditional route taken by adventurers before her would commonly start from Hercules Inlet. The route from Hercules Inlet avoids the Transantarctic Mountain Range but it can take anywhere between 25 and 81 days to reach the pole, as it is almost double the distance of Maria's route from the Leverett Glacier.

Maria’s route is different to that chosen by adventurers before her and was key to her success. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales
The Leverett Glacier and Transantarctic Mountain Range Credit: Maria Leijerstam

Maria and her polar cycle faced wind speeds of up to a hundred miles an hour, so she designed a three-wheeled tricycle for maximum stability at very low speeds. She also decided to cycle in a recumbent position - to make herself more aerodynamic. It was built by a team of specialists in Cornwall. Speaking before the expedition the Director of Inspired Cycle Engineering said:

It’s much easier than a mountain bike would be. Because she has got the stability of having three wheels she can ride easily at 1mph, no wobbling about, no trying to keep her balance she will just keep moving. If the hills are steep enough she will have the gears to just power away up them...If this machine fails she fails so it’s got to survive.

– Chris Parker, Director of Inspired Cycle Engineering

At this time of year the South Pole has 24 hours of daylight so Maria managed to cycle between 10 and 17 hours a day. She cycled up the Leverett Glacier and over the Transantarctic Mountain Range but the very next day, with bad weather closing in and agonising pain from a former knee injury, she made the heartbreaking decision to go supported and offload her kit as she feared she may not make it to the Pole in time to leave before the winter sets in.

The pace I was going meant that my cut off, I was in fear of missing my cut off date. It make it even worse because I climbed all the way up the Leverett Glacier and covered 150kms totally and utterly unsupported and to have to do this at this stage just made it really hard.

– Maria Leijerstam
The Polar plateau could reach temperatures of minus 40 celsius. Credit: Maria Leijerstam

Two others were also attempting to become the first to cycle to the South Pole, but cycled from Hercules Inlet. Spaniard Juan Menendez Granados made it to the pole after 46 days. He says he cycled most of the way but, had to tow his bike for some of it. He remained solo, unsupported and unassisted.

American Daniel Burton is still attempting to ride a 2-wheeled bicycle the entire way to the pole. He is hoping to stay unsupported but has been assisted with food drops.

*The full emotional story of her adventure is in a Wales This Week Special tonight at 1035pm. *