Cycling to the South Pole? How one tour company is making it happen

Pro guide and adventurer Ben Shillington has spent much of his life cycling across unexplored landscapes in places like the Himalayas, France and the Magnetic North Pole in Canada’s high Arctic. Over the past 15 years, he’s battled complete whiteouts with temperatures dipping below -40 C, has raced solo on skis in a 216-kilometre ultra-marathon in -50 C weather and has single-handedly led all the winter camping/expedition programs for Ontario’s Algonquin College Outdoor Adventure Guide Diploma program. But his next outdoor voyage is bound to be the most surreal: leading The Last Degree, Antarctica’s first-ever commercial group expedition on fat bikes.

As of December 2016, Shillington and Toronto-based TDA Global Cycling, a prestigious international cycling tour group, in partnership with Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), will lead up to 30 participants on the inaugural cycling tour to the South Pole from the last degree of latitude, at Antarctica’s Union Glacier base camp. The trip, which will last 18 days and cost upwards of US$70,000 per traveller, will be a true adventure: In one of the world’s most remote and challenging environments, the entourage will traverse areas in conditions most would find intolerable. Frigid temperatures of -30 C or more await, as does limited visibility, harsh winds and sensory deprivation (read: a completely flat, white landscape void of trees, vegetation and water), where riders must be prepared to be self-sufficient while working with fellow cyclists to safely reach the South Pole as a group.

The brainchild of Henry Gold, TDA Global Cycling’s president and founder, this Antarctic rideabout almost didn’t happen. “Our first talks started in March 2015, but the idea initially seemed too logistically difficult,” says Shanny Hill, TDA’s marketing manager. Though well versed at running very long and challenging global cycling tours, like 7Epics, which allows adventurers to experience seven of TDA’s most difficult trips around the world, Antarctica presented new complications. “The level of challenges in terms of extreme weather and specialized environment standards made it so we did not feel comfortable undertaking the expedition on our own,” Hill says. Enter ALE, which runs a base camp on Antarctica and operates several of its own ski events to the South Pole, as well as other sight-seeing activities, like Footsteps of Amundsen, where trekkers follow a path of discovery to conquer the steep, scenic Axel Heiberg Glacier and a maze of infamous crevasses known as the Devil’s Ballroom. “The advantage of this partnership is that they understand the delicate environment and know what sort of precautions to take, both in terms of safety and impact on the surroundings,” says Hill.

Training for the South Pole expedition

Training for the South Pole expedition

Another ideal collaboration has been the inclusion of Specialized Bicycle Components, the brand behind the fat bikes that will propel cyclists, haul gear and make easy work of ploughing through the snow- and ice-covered tundra. According to Beth Welliver, adventure marketing manager for the California-based company and a participant in The Last Degree, the bulky oversized types work with the elements, making fatties the perfect mode of transport. “Typical mountain bikes have tire widths of between 2 to 2.3 inches. Because both the Fatboys [for male participants] and Hellgas [for female participants] have 4.6-inch tires, they are double the size of traditional tires, meaning they excel on soft and icy surfaces.”

While Specialized will provide — and give — the expedition bikes to the Antarctic cyclists, each rider is responsible for transporting their necessities (including winter camping equipment, layers of synthetic and down clothing, speciality mitts and footwear, pogies to fit over handlebars and slide your hands into, synthetic or down sleeping bags and thermoses for hot and cold beverages) via frame bags, pouches and cages that attach directly to each bike. Participants will also be outfitted with one or more lightweight sleds to haul equipment such as tents, extra food and fuel, and are encouraged to make as much time as possible for training in preparation for the expedition.

“Physically, cyclists will want to have strong legs and core to be able to efficiently deliver power to the pedals as they will, at times, be pushing through deep snow drifts and headwinds,” says Miles MacDonald, TDA’s operations manager. “Full-body strength and conditioning are optimal, as is endurance since they will need to be comfortable cycling or pushing their bikes at a consistent pace for hours.”

To that end, cyclists underwent a six-day training event at Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg in February. A chance for participants to gain an understanding of the extreme cold and physical challenges that lay ahead, their technical equipment, sub-zero clothing and specialty sleeping bags were given a dry run, as were their fat-bike cycling abilities. According to MacDonald, “In essence, the training camp was a way for us to work out the ‘bugs’ in the plan before the main event,” he says.

A rest brake during South Pole expedition training.

A rest brake during expedition training.

As for the expedition itself, travellers will arrive in Punta Arenas, Chile, known as the access gate to the “end of the world.” The focus of early days will be on scoping equipment, orienting participants, ensuring gear meets environmental standards set by the ALE and going on group rides to test bike safety and further train riders. Once benchmarks are met, riders will fly 4.5 hours to Antarctica’s Union Glacier base camp, where bikes and equipment will be prepared, a short test snow ride will follow and the group will sleep in their tents on the ice and snow. Riders will then cycle back to base camp, prep for the first day of the expedition and fly out to latitude 89-degrees south, where they’ll begin their seven-to-11 day ride. Assuming no delays, Day 16 will see the cyclists arrive at the Geographic South Pole for an evening celebration, fly back to base camp the following day for an official celebration with awards and completion certificates, and will be flown back to Punta Arenas on Day 18. A transfer to the hotel and reception to celebrate the inaugural expedition will mark the end of the trip.

“One of the potential challenges of being part of a large group like this will be to get everyone to adhere to the ‘buy-in’ concept,” says Shillington. “This means that no matter what your motivation for being involved, there are two key points that everyone needs to agree and commit to with no exceptions.” He says the first is that each person’s safety is of the highest importance and the second is how all participants agree to conduct themselves as individuals and team members to move toward the goal of finishing the expedition. “Once that foundation is laid, life gets a lot easier as we hit different challenges and obstacles because you can remind everyone about what we all agreed and ‘bought into.’”

At the end of the day, getting people excited about being out of their comfort zone and helping them experience something they didn’t think they could do is what it’s all about, says Shillington. “The Last Degree will be an experience we will all never forget, and a constant reminder that anything is possible.” 

Read more from our Adventure issue here.

Leave a comment