5 Minutes with Maria Leijerstam

Maria Leijerstam became the first person in the world to cycle to the South Pole from the Amundsen coast.

On 27 December 2013 Maria Leijerstam became the first person in the world to cycle to the South Pole from the Amundsen coast and set the new human powered speed record by completing her journey in 10 days, 14 hours and 56 minutes. Here is what she had to say about her experience. 

I spent four years training and planning for this expedition. I developed the concept for the polar cycle and planned the route and all logistics involved. It was one of the most complicated projects I’d ever run.

Getting support was tough as this expedition has never been done before and I was an unknown to many brands who I approached.

My route stretched from the Ross Ice Shelf on the Amunsden Coast, through the Trans Antarctic Mountain Range.

Cycling up the Leverett Glacier was some of the toughest cycling of my life. At some points the incline was over 25% gradient on the glacier which on snow and ice, carrying 55kg of kit, was very hard work. My progress was so slow at 2km per hour. The days just dragged on. Before the trip, I had a recurring nightmare about that climb. I dreamt that I fell off the polar cycle at the top of the glacier and it rolled all the way to the bottom, only for me to have to start all over again.

I was completely self-sufficient. I carried supplies for 20 days – freeze dried food, my tent, a sleeping bag, tools, emergency communication and polar clothing.

I burned around 4,000 calories a day so I had to make sure I brought enough food with me. I carried a bum bag on my front filled with a delicious combination of liquorice, beef fat, jelly beans and pretzels. It was the perfect combination.

I suffered from pretty bad altitude sickness. I lost my appetite completely. I really had to force myself to eat. This made for a very uncomfortable expedition. As I climbed through the mountain range I lost my appetite due to the altitude and hence had to force myself to eat. This made for a very uncomfortable expedition.

 I endured temperatures of up to minus 40 on the polar plateau. I had to ensure I didn’t sweat because any sweat would instantly turn to ice when I stopped cycling. My fingers and toes were freezing throughout and I constantly made myself check that they were still there!

Every evening I took a photograph of my face to see if I’d suffered any frostbite. On the fourth night I saw some frostbite on my right cheek so for the following days I wore extra face protection. It was a really petrifying experience to realise that any tiny mistake could have a huge impact. I learned a lot.

I spent days gazing into nothing as I cycled along but my mind was constantly focused on the pain I was suffering in my knee. I had developed repetitive strain injury from having worked so hard cycling up the glacier. I was delighted when all of a sudden I developed exercise induced chest pain because this took some of the pain way from my knee! It was excruciating, horrendous unavoidable pain.

Christmas day was emotional as I thought about my family at home, celebrating without me. It was the first time I considered whether what I was doing was all worth it. I have a very close family and in all my 35 years have never missed a Christmas at home. I cried a lot on this day.

Antarctica is a vicious yet beautiful place. It is very unforgiving and a place that needs huge respect. To have had the opportunity to experience this pristine desert is one thing I will remember forever. I saw no wildlife and smelled nothing.

After ten days of cycling I finally arrived at The South Pole. I had a real mixed bag of emotions when I arrived; some crying some laughing and some shivering from the sweat that had built up on my body during the final few kilometres. Despite having been on the go for over 17 hours that day I still found enough energy to have a tour of the South Pole Station and I was also lucky enough to meet Prince Harry!

I still can’t quite believe what I have achieved and I really want to share it with the world. Against all odds I managed to achieve a major polar record and I hope that this will inspire other women to go out and live their dream.

Maria organises events for women and families called the Burn Series.


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