Later this year, Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy will swap the velodrome for cycling on ice as he attempts to break the record for pedalling to the South Pole. As the first and only person to have completed the course, Maria Leijerstam holds that record. Her mother Adrianne tells the story of a very determined young woman
Maria Leijerstam rarely takes no for an answer. I should know: I’m her mother. Her motto is: face obstacles, find your way around them and be amazed by what you can achieve. It is a great philosophy that has taken Maria on an incredible journey.
Failed attempts spur her on. A Norwegian adventurer had tried and failed to become the first person to cycle to the South Pole from the edge of the Antarctic continent. Impossible for one, not impossible for our Maria. On December 27, 2013, she completed the journey in ten days, fourteen hours and 56 minutes. That is the record Sir Chris Hoy, six-time Olympic cycling champion, will attempt to break next winter when he retraces Maria’s route
Maria spent four years planning, training and preparing for her expedition and there were plenty of obstacles to face. How was she going to fund the expedition? What was the best cycle to tackle snow? And would this ordinary woman be fit enough to fulfil her dream?
“I wanted this to be a smart expedition and to demonstrate that my polar cycle is a proven method of human-powered travel in Antarctica,” says Maria. She certainly proved that.
From the moment her maths teacher said she wasn’t good enough to take the subject at A Level, she defied his advice and ended up with a degree in Pure Maths and a successful international ten-year career in business management.
Maria had always been a keen sportswoman and when her business life and her adventure aspirations began to clash she made a life-changing decision and walked out of her international career. That was no surprise to me. Maria is an action woman and when things don’t go well she raises her game and takes on more challenges.
However, Maria is also a sensitive person, always aware of how her actions affect others. While planning and training for her South Pole journey, Maria was concerned constantly about the effect her inevitable ups and downs would have on partner Wayne. Getting up to train at 5.30 every morning was hardly conducive to a harmonious relationship. “As the expedition got closer, I was irritable and impatient, and although Wayne did his best to support me I would often snap at his suggestions,” says Maria.
Sleep gave her little comfort as she suffered continuous nightmares about whether she was going to make it, or fall down a crevasse and suffer an horrendous death.
While Wayne was used to her adventure racing exploits, this was a very different challenge. “When Maria first told me about her plan to cycle to the South Pole, I was very worried about the dangers, especially extreme weather conditions and the crevasses that can open up with no warning. My main concern was that no one had ever even thought about cycling to the South Pole before. Then the year before Maria set off, a Norwegian man attempted to do so but failed,” says Wayne.
“I did not doubt her physical ability. I knew she was good at applying her mind to the task at hand. After understanding more about it, I started to balance the risks with the prospect of her earning a world first. It became very exciting.”
As her photographer and cameraman, Wayne accompanied Maria on her journey to the start line at the Ross Ice Shelf. “It wasn’t an easy decision as I grew up in Africa and was used to plus 40 degrees Centigrade, not minus 40 degrees,” says Wayne.
The journey did not get off to a good start. “We nearly missed our flight out of the UK as the polar cycle was packed into one box, which did not conform to the airline’s weight standards, so we had to re-pack it into two boxes – then run to the departure gate.”
Once in Antarctica, Maria had a serious bout of altitude sickness and her start time was in jeopardy. “The doctor from the Walking with the Wounded expedition, who checked Maria out, said she must rest,” says Wayne. “But we took the decision of driving her down to sea level as soon as possible. Fortunately, her health improved.”
Determined not to waste a minute, Maria was up early next morning to begin her expedition. For five days Maria was totally unsupported, carrying 55 kilogrammes of kit, cycling up to 17 hours a day, and then erecting her tiny red tent in gale force winds. “Crawling into my tent was a great relief, but I then had to start the long process of firing up my stove, melting ice and cooking a meal,” she says.
“I was totally alone, but it was strangely comforting. I wanted it no other way as it allowed me to focus my full attention on the expedition.”
Wayne recalls: “The first few days went relatively well and she made good progress. But as she climbed the Leverett Glacier I could see and sense her pain. We had no contact, but I was watching her through binoculars. It was very difficult watching someone you love, moving very slowly and obviously in pain. I was worried she would do lasting damage to her knees.”
Back home in the UK, we spent a nervous Christmas waiting for news. When a ‘dead man alert’ came up on my phone from the company who had provided her tracker, we were horrified. Fortunately, it was an error that was corrected, but we spent hours fearing the worst.
I phoned the tracking company and our emergency contact list. It was Christmas Eve and no one answered. I remember sitting at my computer, fingers flabby, crying and laughing uncontrollably racking my confused brain trying to search for anyone who could help us. All the possible dangers that Maria could face hit us head-on and we sat together conjuring up snow storms, deep crevasses, the biting wind, white-outs, going through every possible eventuality.
Then, suddenly, my husband Anders’s phone rang. It was the tracking company. “It has all been a mistake,” a voice said in broken English. We were too weary with emotion to complain. The next call came from Wayne, surprised by my panicked voice message. “Maria is fine, very tired, but still very determined,” he said. At last we could smile again.
During the next few days Maria faced white-outs and regular mounds of compacted snow called sastrugi. Progress was almost impossible. “At times pedalling became so tough that I could not move faster than 0.2 kilometres in an hour,” she says. “At one point it took 12 seconds for one revolution of my wheels.”
It was time to make a difficult decision. “If conditions remained the same I knew I would not make it to the South Pole in time for the cut-off. I had to move faster, and the only way I could do this was to dump my 50 kilogrammes of kit strapped on to the polar cycle.”
Wayne viewed Maria’s decision with great relief. “I could see the pain in her face,” he says.
During the last few days of the expedition, the weather improved and Maria’s determination to reach her goal reached an all-time high. She cycled for up to 17 hours a day, with short breaks to grovel around in her bum bag for sugary snacks and lumps of biltong that Wayne had inadvertently stowed in there. “Maria hates biltong, but I knew it would give her the protein boost she needed,” he says.
Finally, at the South Pole she was greeted by scientists and supporters, and it was time to give Wayne a big hug. “It was a great moment for both of us,” says Wayne. Would he support Maria again? “Yes,” says Wayne. But only on an expedition that was less dangerous.
If you are inspired by Maria’s story you can watch a documentary about her journey at: https://www.facebook.com/marialeijerstam/app/187619015182149/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adrianne Leijerstam started out as a regional journalist in London and South Wales before editing edited company magazines and newsletters. She married a Swede, Anders, after meeting him under a gooseberry bush on a fruit-picking farm in Norfolk. She later helped him renovate dilapidated farmhouses. Aside from her family, her interests include the countryside, horse riding, sailing and anything adventurous. Adrianne’s latest articles