Strange things will go through a man's head while he's trekking across the frozen interior of Antarctica, his vision dazzled by the ice and a sun that never sets, his imagination fired by the weirdly sculpted sastrugi of windswept snow. ¶ So it was for Doug Stoup in the early weeks of 2001, while becoming the first American to make the 730-mile journey on skis from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. A 39-year-old videographer from Boca Raton, Fla., Stoup made the trip in 63 days, but even as he did, one thought kept rolling around in his mind: He could have traveled the same terrain a heckuva lot faster by bike.
"I think I could have covered the same ground in 22 to 25 days—three times as fast," Stoup said recently, a few days before departing for Punta Arenas, Chile, to pursue a dream he has been cooking up ever since: the first bicycle expedition in Antarctica. A veteran guide for Adventure Network International (ANI), a Canadian company that specializes in land-based Antarctic adventure travel, Stoup will follow a route that takes him from ANI's base camp in Patriot Hills into the Heritage Range of the Ellsworth Mountains and back, a 10-day, 200-mile loop. He'll travel on an icebike that has no plastic parts (to keep it from shattering in the cold) and fat tires, similar to those on a lawn tractor, that are 14 inches high and six inches wide. In soft snow Stoup will deflate the tires for traction; over hard-pack and ice he'll reinflate them for maximum speed. Stoup, who has been to the South Pole four times, will do the trip solo, hauling 100 pounds of provisions
behind him on a sled. For added historical weight, he hopes to make first ascents of two mountains during the trip. He'll have a satellite phone for emergencies and a camera to film a documentary he's tentatively calling Alone. But the main purpose of his trek is to prove that the icebike—designed by cycle maker Dan Hanebrink—works. Stoup's grand plan is to get sponsorship after his return and prepare for a full-fledged, solo, unsupported bike expedition across the Antarctic continent in 2003-04, from sea to frozen sea.
"It's the last frontier," Stoup says of his beloved Antarctica. "The last untouched wilderness."
Untouched? Well, there was a time when most of Antarctica was untouched. But those days are fading fast. With a lust to be the first to do something on what adventurers like to call the last continent, a veritable army of recreationalists is descending on Antarctica's remote, pristine expanses with all manner of modern toys, despite criticism from environmentalists worried about the long-term effects.
The most popular activity is climbing 16,607-foot Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica and one of the Seven Summits, which are the highest peaks on each continent. While not a challenging climb technically, it's a must-do for the vertically obsessed.
Ski-ins to the South Pole are big, and for $45,000 a head an ANI guide will take you and your friends from the coast to the Pole in 60 days. Seven intrepid adventurers ponied up for that trip during the last Antarctic summer (which runs from November to February). Don't have two months to spare? You can sign up to be flown within a 10-day ski of the Pole. Want to get into Guinness? This season alone Tom Avery, 27, became the youngest Briton to walk to the Pole. Andrew Gerber, 28, became the first South African. Jose Fejou, 54, of Spain, became the first diabetic to follow in the snowshoes of Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, whose race to be first to the Pole was won by Amundsen in 1911.
Scott was a month behind, and he and his companions died trying to make it back to their ship. No explorer returned to the South Pole by foot until 1956. But these days to stand on the Pole all you need is a checkbook. "We've had numerous inquiries from all-women's groups and all-retiree groups who want to ski to the Pole," says Anne Kershaw, the president of ANI, which will fly a record 179 adventurers and tourists to Antarctica in the 2002-03 season, at an average price of $25,000 each. "We've had inquiries from people who want to travel by Land Rover or Range Rover. With the right tires, they'd do fine. And there's been a lot of interest in organizing a race for solar-powered vehicles, which are environmentally friendly and can be fun."
One Australian cruise line, Adventure Options, offers sea kayaking and scuba diving during its Antarctic trips. Skiers and snowboarders first carved tracks down Vinson Massif in 1999 (Doug Stoup was among them.) Hot-air balloons have soared over the Pole, the first in January 2000. A skydiving expedition over the South Pole in 1997 ended tragically when the chutes of three members of the six-man team failed to open, and two Americans and an Austrian were killed.
The prize for season's most quixotic quest goes to a pair of Irishmen, Brian Cunningham and Jamie Young, who hoped to travel from the Pole to the coast by kite-powered buggies. The 10-foot aluminum contraptions, which they assembled at the Pole after ANI had flown them in, resembled iceboats on skis. Giant spinnakers were supposed to harness Antarctica's famous winds and whisk Cunningham and Young the 650 miles in 10 days. Instead they were becalmed from the outset and aborted the mission before leaving sight of the Pole.
"The scientific community still looks at all this recreational activity with disdain," says Kershaw, whose company has been bringing adventurers to Antarctica since 1985. "They see it as the frivolous pursuit of people with too much time on their hands and money—money that could be better spent on science. But when our clients return from their Antarctic experience, they're ambassadors for the continued protection of the continent."