Mere days into his quest to become the first person to reach the South Pole entirely by bicycle, Daniel Burton realized he had a problem. Facing gale-force winds and whiteout conditions on the southern continent, he realized it was taking far too long to cover the distance needed to reach the finish line. The plan had been to cycle over 750 miles in less than two months, climbing over 9,000 feet to reach the South Pole. The reality was different.
“I was getting, some days, as little as three or four miles a day,” Burton recalls. At that pace, he would never make it.
A bicycle shop owner from Eagle Mountain, Utah, Burton was just two days shy of his fiftieth birthday when he set out from Antarctica’s Hercules Inlet in search of achieving a world first. His story to get there is a remarkable one itself: a former computer programmer, he took up cycling in his forties after a routine blood test led to a health scare.
“They test my blood pressure, and it’s like, ‘Hold it, that can’t be right. Sit here and relax for a minute, and we’ll try it again.’ And then, ‘No, that still can’t be right.’ And then finally, ‘Nope, you’ve got high blood pressure,’” says Burton. “I panicked, and I thought I was going to die.”
“[Mountain biking] basically saved my life: it fixed my cholesterol numbers; it fixed my blood pressure and weight issues.” – Daniel Burton
A group of colleagues were into mountain biking, so Burton decided he’d join them. Soon enough, he was riding every day — eventually competing in the LoToJa Classic, a gruelling 200-mile race through the mountains from Logan, Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“My wife says I’m like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows: I get things, and I just get obsessed and kind of overdo it,” Burton laughs. “For me, it wasn’t about trying to win a race or anything … it’s about trying to see, can I actually do this? Is this something I can overcome and accomplish?”
That he ended up in Antarctica is perhaps the fault of Eric Larsen. A polar adventurer from Wisconsin — and the first to complete expeditions to the North Pole, South Pole, and Mount Everest in a single year — Larsen tried in 2012 to become the first person to bike to the South Pole, too. It caught Burton’s attention.
“Before [Eric] did it, there really wasn’t a bike that was capable of doing it. There was another guy who had tried to build a bike to do Antarctic stuff, but I don’t think it really worked that well. But just about the time that Eric did it, fatbikes really started taking off, and they started to have bikes that had five-inch wide tires,” says Burton. “As I started looking into it more and more, it just became an obsession. It overwhelmed me, and there was just no way I couldn’t do it.”
Before long, he started planning an attempt for the following year. In December of 2013, Burton started his 51-day trek.
“I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t do it,” says Burton, “a lot of people thinking that when they said goodbye to me in November when I left, that that would be the last time they would see me.”
“I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t do it, a lot of people thinking that when they said goodbye to me in November when I left, that that would be the last time they would see me.” – Daniel Burton
The plan was for Burton to make the journey solo. Along the way, he would have three stashes of food stowed ahead of him to refuel. The rest was up to him: minus 20-degree weather, snowstorms, and crevasses that could swallow him in a blink.
After the early wake-up call, Burton was able to boost his pace up to 15 miles a day — enough to complete the trek. First, though, he would have to deal with the winds.
“The problem with any expedition to the South Pole is that the South Pole is at 9,300 feet of elevation, so it’s pretty high,” Burton says. “And obviously, it’s very cold at the South Pole, and cold air is much heavier than warm air. And so what happens is that cold air at the South Pole falls from the South Pole down towards the coast. It’s called katabatic winds. So that means, basically, you have this katabatic wind that you’re fighting against almost all the time. The only time that you’d get relief from that was if you had a good storm out at the ocean that would push its way in.”
Along the way, Burton battled with sastrugi — wave-like ridges formed by the Antarctic wind. When the winds weren’t a problem, the whiteout conditions were.
“You can’t see anything,” says Burton. “It’s been described as like being on the inside of a ping pong ball.”
To reach the South Pole, Burton would put in 13-hour days on the bicycle — sometimes starting as early as midnight. With the amount he was sweating, he couldn’t afford to stop for long, or else he would risk hypothermia.
“You have this katabatic wind that you’re fighting against almost all the time. The only time that you’d get relief from that was if you had a good storm out at the ocean that would push its way in.” – Daniel Burton
“In order to keep from freezing to death, I basically had to keep that effort up all day long,” he says.
Eventually, on January 21, 2014, Burton saw the end drawing near.
“I saw three dots on the horizon. And at first, it was like, ‘are these just more sastrugi out there, or is that the South Pole?” he says. “When I saw that, I knew I was almost done. And that is probably the most awesome, wonderful thing I have seen in my whole life.”
Five years after completing the record-setting trek, Burton can look back and laugh about it.
“Antarctica is just harder than you can possibly imagine,” he says.
“Ranulph Fiennes, he said, ‘those that ask the question [of why to do such an expedition] will never understand the answer, and those that understand the answer will never ask the question,’” Burton laughs. “That’s probably the greatest answer for why.”