“We didn't take breaks, we didn't stop for food, we didn't stop for water, we just kept riding” Santhosh Vijay Kumar after the 90° South - Quest for the Pole ride
Karan Ramgopal: How was the ride? Was it everything that you thought it would be?
Santosh Vijay Kumar: In some bit, I was hoping it wouldn't be! I was hoping we didn't get bad weather but we got that also, but I think it was much more than I expected. I think for thirty days, it felt like I wasn't on planet earth, just something else.
KR: How long did it ultimately take you to finish the ride? I believe you had a plan for around nine days on the bike itself, so how much time did it take you?
SVK: I was feeling very conservative and I was saying that we wanted to do 700-odd kilometres, and I said we'll take an estimate of at least seven days of riding, so we'll do at least 100km a day of riding continuously. That was in the weather conditions that we were anticipating. The conditions turned out to be good and bad both. The good bit was, it was slightly more easier to ride than I thought, it wasn't completely difficult, you could say that. You could do better speeds, but the weather, which we were supposed to have a clean wind of weather, went for a toss. We were supposed to start from 84 South roughly. But we couldn't cross 86 because there was really bad weather front on the coastal side. What happened was, the winds that were blowing were very strong. So, when I say bad weather I mean strong winds. In Antarctica, it doesn't snow at all, so the wind is really strong and it picks up the snow and moves it from place to place. We had a white out at roughly 86, and we still had to cross the Trans-Antarctic mountains in the trucks. We realized we couldn't even drive in trucks because visibility was zero. We went off the track just before we were supposed to hit the mountains, and then we realized the GPS is only as accurate as ten-fifteen feet, plus the ice was shifting, and this is crevice country. If you can't see, you can't see and we were supposed to go into the mountains, at the peak of the mountains. So we realized we couldn't go down further. Then we checked the weather, we got weather reports for the next 8-9 days, and realized the only other option was to stay put where we were, wait for 8-9 days for the weather to clear out and then go to the Ross Ice Shelf. But we also had to get back and fly out because the logistics were tight. We also took only the amount of fuel and food we needed for the attempt back. We just decided we'll stop at 86 and start riding back to 90, and from 86 to 90 the visibility was really bad. In some places, the visibility was bad but you could still drive because the surfaces are slightly better, but we finally got a chance to pull off, right from 87 South to 90 South, roughly 330km. Because I knew that the weather was going to be bad going forward, we just started riding and didn't stop. So we did about 30 hours we sat on the motorcycle, just kept switching continuously and rode back to the south pole. We didn't take breaks, we didn't stop for food, we didn't stop for water, we just kept riding which is a good thing because finally when we reached the South Pole, within about 6-7 hours the winds caught up with us and the next evening we woke up, we had dinner and it was completely white out from then, all the way to Union Glacier. 16th we reached the South Pole and from the 16th till the 24th we didn't see the sun, all the way from the South Pole to the Union Glacier. On Christmas Eve, the sun came out, the visibility got a little better but I think we got really good weather only on the 28th, that's when the wind stopped and there were no clouds. When someone says 70 per cent cloud coverage, you expect to be able to see. But 70 per cent cloud coverage in Antarctica basically means there are a lot of winds, and we just can't see anything. It is like being inside a giant ping-pong ball, we can't see the curvature, we can't see edges, we can't see shadows, we can't see anything. It's like the wind keeps picking up loose snow from the ground level, so it's like trying to ride through a dry ice dancefloor. You can't even see things on the ground and we're always hitting ruts, falling multiple times. We're just not able to keep the momentum going, so visibility becomes very bleak. We finally got to ride for 30 hours. Even that wasn't completely perfect, but at least we could manage it.
KR: Barring the 86 degree problem that you all faced, you all did manage to complete all the sections that were planned to do on the bike?
SVK: Yes, the rest of them we managed. We couldn't do it from the Ross Ice Shelf, which was what we sat out, but I think in the bargain when you go back to the story, there's a lot of people set out to do a lot of things and don't even come back. In that way, I think it's a very uncertain continent. We came back with all our fingers and toes. Almost came back without any problems part from some frostbites on the face and the fingers. But I think, we got really lucky to get the 30-hour window. If we hadn't started when we had started, and if we hadn't started off riding when we started, and we hoped for better weather, I think we would've just been sitting and crying.
KR: The total trip was how long, including the bikes and the trucks?
SVK: The total journey was around 4800 kilometres.
KR: Of this, around 600-700km is done on the bikes?
SVK: No. Those 600 were supposed to be done on the motorcycles, but we did exactly from around 87degree to 90degree, which was roughly 311km.
KR: Any storms that you all didn't expect, that caught you off-guard, apart from the white-outs?
SVK: We expected bad conditions on the plateau. When we were going from Novo to the South Pole, we expected bad conditions — we didn't get them. We didn't get bad conditions on the plateau going to the South Pole at all. We didn't expect bad weather at the Ross Shelf, we expected bad conditions on the plateau which we never had. We were really happy when we set off and we first saw the surface, the track that we were going to be riding on was really firm, as in it wasn't very soft, there was no loose, drifting snow on it. You could see, the visibility was great. We thought we missed setting land speed records, and we were all jumping up in joy. But then once the storm picked up, it didn't really pick up until we reached 85. We reached 85 and then the storm started picking up, and suddenly turned into an all-out blizzard for close to 30 hours. We waited for 30 hours to see if it was like a passing thing that will go away. It didn't. Then we checked with people at a camp. Everybody said that the weather outlook has changed for the next seven days, everything is going to go haywire. We knew there would be some amount of wind because we'd been using the Garmin Inreach. It kept predicting that the visibility might go a little. But it never told us the winds would be 60kmph with a gust of 100kmph! 100kmph winds blowing snow is something that I hadn't seen before. We got bad weather, where we didn't expect it. We'd got good weather where we didn't expect it. The winds trashed the track completely. The winds were so strong that the track was washed away. It was like riding on loose deep snow. Plus there were these ice formations like the waves that you see on the ocean, you see those waves, I mean in the ice and snow is deposited like a wave across the track. So when the visibility is nice, we can avoid them, but when the visibility is not good and there's a lot of loose snow that's fallen over it, you hit them. You hit them at odd angles. There is no way that you can't not fall — the front just washes away and we had a lot of falls. But luckily none of us broke a bone.
KR: Apart from the weather, did you face any other major roadblocks?
SVK: Nothing else man. Probably the weather was really bad. The cold you adapt to over a period of five days in Novo itself, you've adapted to the cold. We were just layered well. But when there is a blizzard and you have to put up a tent because you've been going for 30 hours, you can't drive anymore, and you know that the blizzard is not going to stop, you want to rest. It gets a little tiring but it was also great fun. All of us actually bonded when the going got really, really tough. That's when we were looking out for each other — if someone wasn't keeping well, you did their share of the duties. It took us 45 minutes to melt snow into ice-cold water, another 20 minutes to turn that into boiling water to be able to have a cup of coffee. One hour from the time you get up to make coffee. If we knew someone wasn't feeling well, we made sure when they came there was boiling water so that they could have coffee. That's the kind of things, I think, we actually enjoyed. I did because a couple of days I was really tired, so when I woke up I was like "oh this is going to take 1 bloody hour to make coffee", and when I come there and realize that someone's left one cup of boiling water so that I can have a cup of coffee. It feels really great.
KR: What gear were you wearing?
SVK: I didn't wear the motorcycle gear at all, apart from the helmet. I used a Bell open-face helmet. Because with my riding in Iceland, I realized that no matter what helmet you use, the visors are going to get fogged up, no matter what anti-fog treatment you're going to do. I wanted to wear motocross goggles, but even with the adventure helmet, the motocross goggles weren't working very well because there was some gap between my face and the goggles, and it still kept fogging. With an open-face helmet, what happens is, the goggles are not designed for open face helmets so they go right go onto your face and seal it. The helmet gives you the protection that you need it for, so you use the open-face helmet with the motocross goggles. I used winter boots, they kept my toes really warm. They're insulated boots and I never felt cold in them. Then I wore base layers made of merino wool, we always need that, you can't take that off. Then I used the bottom layer, the winter layer, the down pants. Then I wore a snowmobile suit as a one-piece. So I wore that to keep the wind completely out. For the torso I was wearing merino wool, then a fleece-pullover kind of a thing, then the one-piece ski suit would come over it, then I'll top it all off with a parka on the top. The parka is really thick and well-cushioned, so most of my falls were absorbed by parka, you don't need to worry about abrasion because snow is not that abrasive. A couple of times when the elbow hit the ground I could feel the pain, but the rest of it the parka absorbed. My cruising speed was about 25kmph, and my top speed was about 50kmph, so I wasn't trying to go really fast, I was just trying to cover the distance. For gloves, I tried various options. I tried heated gloves, that was the worst. That didn't work at all. Then I used a pair of mitts, polar mitts — no separate fingers. That kept me really warm but it didn't offer the feel of the handlebar. Then I had a battery-operated glove, which didn't need me to connect it to the motorcycle but the problem was that was rated to last two hours, on the highest heat setting it could only last half an hour, so I always had to put it back in the car to charge it, which would take about 1 hour to charge. For every two hours, I would have the heated gloves for one hour, and one hour I was riding pretty much cold.
KR: In terms of the bike, how did the Himalayans perform?
SVK: That was the star because the motorcycles always started first crank. Once, when the motorcycles were on the trailer, completely encased in ice and snow, we just wanted to check if they would start. We thought the batteries were definitely not going to work, we just connected it to the truck, started it, and the bikes started on the first crank. The motorcycle was brilliant. Of course, the best thing, the good thing was I thought there might be some issues — there were zero issues with the motorcycles. The only issue I had was when the blizzard was so strong that all the ice and snow got stuck in the air filter. The smallest crack that you can have, the snow will manage to figure out how to get through it. Then we had to take the air filter out and clean the snow. Apart from that, the motorcycles were brilliant.
KR: Going forward, say if you were to attempt something like this again, would you be comfortable doing it with the same setup or would you do something different, or would you set up your bike in another way?
SVK: The same thing, I would do it differently. I would use smaller wheels, bigger tyres with thicker sidewalls, probably build sidewalls out of something like an aramid, get it to flex a little more. It'll flatten up, so if you have a smaller wheel, it'll spread out not just sideways but it'll spread out lengthways also. That's the only change I would do to the motorcycle. I'd put smaller wheels and bigger tyres.
KR: Was there a problem with oxygen when you go to such places?
SVK: I didn't face any issues, but yes, we went up to 3700m, the South Pole by itself is at 2835m above sea level, out of which it is two and a half thousand metres of ice, but on the plateau, we reached 3700m, which is like four and a half, five thousand in the Himalayas because the air is thinner down there. I didn't have any issues, one of the guys in the content crew had problems, Dean Coxson had issues because he's not been to higher altitudes. There were two guys who had problems, but I felt the same thing that if you feel good in the higher altitudes, everything is a lot more tiring, that's all.
KR: Any nice memorable interactions or stories, something that's probably left a mark?
SVK: I think I'll hold it on for life. There was this one time when the truck broke down, one of the trucks broke down. Later on, we realized the problem was with the fuel hose. They have multiple tanks, auxiliary tanks because they need to carry about 650 litres of fuel. One of the trucks was carrying 650 litres, and this is in the tanks, not even the fuel drums you carry on top. They actually have tanks built to take around 650 litres, that's a 6x6. The other one takes 400 litres of fuel. The 6x6 had an issue where the fuel hose had a problem and we ended up camping at 3600m which we didn't want to do but we ended up doing it because we couldn't fix it because there was a blizzard going on. We spent two hours in the ice and snow, everyone was really cold trying to help them out, I was trying to give them the tools that they asked for. We were all standing out in the blizzard. Then we decided we can't do this now, we'll figure this out later, let's put up a tent. It took us two hours to put up a kitchen tent, and then the three two-man tents. By the end of it, you can't work with heavy gloves, so I was working with thin fleece gloves because you're not able to hold things and move them. There was ice on the eyebrows and moustache and all of it. Everyone looked really tired, we had six beers with us that we were carrying inside the car. I said "does anybody want a beer?", and three of us had beers at minus 35, suddenly someone was laughing and I was like "what happened?" It's ridiculous to be drinking beers at minus 35 and I am like "yeah it was really funny", but it was great fun. While we're talking, the beer's freezing in the can. That must have been the best beer I've had in my life.
KR: Now that this is done, what's the next adventure that you're going for?
SVK: I don't know, we haven't thought of anything as such, but I think we'll figure out something sooner or later.
KR: The Himalayan has another feather in its cap now.
SVK: Yes, I think the tribute is to the motorcycle. It's so friendly, you can put it into the worst conditions and it still makes the rider look good, that's the great thing about the bike.