Daniel Burton's groundbreaking bike ride to the South Pole began with a meltdown. A dozen years ago, after a diagnosis of high cholesterol and high blood pressure, Burton had changed his diet and taken up biking. But in late 2012, his mother died of a heart attack. "That said to me I was going to die early," he says, "and I panicked."
In 2008, Burton had opened a bike store in Saratoga Springs, Utah. There, he began hearing about fat bikes – bicycles with extra-wide tires meant for navigating sand and snow – and a few years later about polar explorer Eric Larsen's failed attempt, in 2012, to pedal one across Antarctica. Burton, about turn to 50, decided he would try to complete that 750-mile trip. "I wanted to show that biking could help save people's lives," he says. "Plus, if you could be the first to do something so cool, how could you not do it?"
Burton pieced together a bike with donations from manufacturers. He wasn't able to secure a support vehicle, though, so he had to bike solo, with a satellite phone to keep him in contact with his wife and four kids – or emergency help.
Starting out December 2 at the Hercules Inlet on the west coast of Antarctica, Burton faced soft snow (notoriously difficult to pedal through), temperatures of -35 degrees, and strong headwinds, which slowed him to six miles a day and sometimes forced him to push his bike. Burton's initial plan – to follow tracks made by a plow headed toward the South Pole – crumbled when fresh snow fell. One night, whiteout conditions were so intense that he kept tripping over a snowdrift next to his tent. But soon, seasonal weather saved the day: The 24-hour sunshine that time of year turned the soft snow to ice, creating hard paths that let him cover as many as 17 miles a day.
As he pedaled, Burton made constant tweaks to his bike. He kept the tire pressure as low as possible to improve traction (and risked frostbite when he had to use his bare hands to open the tire valves). He had to climb giant frozen snowdrifts, some 15 feet high. The cold-resistant grease on one of his gear hubs failed, so he had to order a new wheel to be delivered to a supply stop along the way. He'd read that Larsen had been stymied by the weight of his bike, so toward the end, Burton began unloading everything, from water bottles to brakes. "You don't need them," he says. "Going downhill, you're still pedaling."
Finally, after 51 days, Burton reached the South Pole. His arrival was in some ways anticlimactic – "It was a pole stuck in the ground, and I thought, 'Big deal'"– but he'd done it without assistance. He still has to figure out how to pay back the $80,000 loan he took against his house to cover his trip, but at least he came home with everything intact. "I saw all these adventure addicts down there missing fingers and toes," he says. "I just wanted so badly to come back with all my fingers."