Karen Darke, MBE - Pole of Possibility. An Antarctic World First, ICE Full Fat Handcycle World-Record, Update
Karen was as a geologist in the Bolivian Andes, but a life-changing accident aged 21 left her paralysed from the chest down. But this didn't stop her and she then became a British paralympic cyclist, para-triathlete, adventurer and author. She competed at the 2016 Rio Paralympics winning Gold in the Women's road time trial, following her success in the 2012 London Paralympics winning a silver medal in the Women's road time trial.
The Pole of Possibility (POP) is a World First and Guinness World-record breaking 300km cycle. She will be riding an ICE Full Fat recumbent trike fitted with a one-off handcycle modification by a company called Ztrikes, especially for the Pole of Possibility challenge. In which the team will explore personal and planetary possibility around mindset, technology and sustainability.
Karens latest and biggest challenge is called 'The Pole of Possibility', planned for December 2022. She describes it as 'A unique Antarctic project exploring ‘inner gold’, value of nature & sustainable wellness'.
Karen says, "I have cried twice now on beaches, after 30 years of being paralysed I have never been able to go to these places, being able to go on to a beach, into a forest with friends and be immersed in this beautiful place ... it's completely life-changing".
Paralympian Karen Darke and team will cycle and ski across the Antarctic plateau using enabling technology to explore the value of nature. Karen, paralysed from the chest down will unravel the process and mindsets that have helped to navigate tough mental, emotional and physical challenges. The team will explore the power of nature and its critical role in keeping humans and the planet in balance and wellness.
The journey into the icy Antarctic wilds will be with film-maker Mike Webster who will record the expedition through a documentary film, and Professor Mike Christie of Aberystwyth University who will use the expedition as a research platform to demonstrate the impacts of climate change on the Antarctic continent and how this has wider impacts to people and nature across the world.
The Team’s vision is to ‘inspire through exploration’. Through this unique expedition, the Pole of Possibility team will demonstrate what is possible when we seek the growth in difficult challenges, and highlight how interactions with nature can keep ourselves and our planet in a state of health & and wellness.
The team hope to encourage people to see the opportunities in adversity and diversity, to recognise the value of nature for physical and mental well-being, and to catalyse thinking on sustainable living.
Karen will be cycling, using only her hands, 300km to and from the Pole of Possibility across the Antarctic on an ICE Full Fat trike with the bespoke custom handcycle modification created by ZTrikes, especially for this challenge.
ICE are extremely proud to be involved in the project and we wish Karen and the team every success and good luck on their challenge. The ICE Full Fat has its heritage built from the success of the Polar Cycle that was designed and built by ICE for Maria Leijerstam's 2006 cycle to the South Pole Guinness world record in 2013.
Update from Karen following the Antarctic Challenge
Karen and the team began their journey to the Pole of Possibility on the 22nd December 2022. They skied down Union Glacier, up the Skytrain Ice Rise and across a shear zone onto the Ronne Ice Shelf, a total one-way distance of 79 nautical miles (148km) to 79-79, planting a flag there on the 28th December 2022. With the intention of ‘leave no trace’, they removed the flag and took the return journey back to Union Glacier, arriving their 8 days later. With a total distance of 300km involved an average of around 11 nautical miles / 20km a day. 79 is the atomic number of gold and the team wanted to take this journey as a reminder of ‘inner gold’: the light we all have within us, and that collectively with a positive mindset, creativity and collaboration we can all make surprising things possible. The project was a Guinness Record for the longest sit-ski journey taken by anyone in Antarctica.
Karen says, At Union Glacier there is no life beyond lichen clinging to icy rock and humans seeking the edge. For the ten-week duration of an Antarctic summer season, there is a temporary camp here. A collection of tents, a couple of Nissen huts, and some makeshift toilets intrude on the pristine expanse of white. Those seeking to explore something – science, a wild continent, themselves – often come via this base, a four-hour flight from Punta Arenas in southern Chile.
The challenges of such an extreme environment attract few, even less those with extra physical challenges such as my own. The accident that changed my life didn’t change my love of wild places, but calls for me to find new, novel ways to move around. Being paralysed from the chest downwards with a passion for the natural world requires help from people and technology. Hence we arrived from Chile with a lot of excess luggage: an ICE trike with hand-bike attachment designed by ZTrikes, and a sit-ski as the reliable, known back-up plan.
Nowhere in the world can replicate the unique conditions of each Antarctic season. What would the conditions of the ice be like? How big would the windblown ice dunes of sastrugi be? Would the trike have traction to propel through the terrain? The ICE hand-trike had been fantastic for rolling on beaches in Scotland and in Patagonia. In the previous months it had moved me to tears to be able to pedal through ocean waves and sandy forest, places that for almost thirty years had been inaccessible by regular wheelchair. Buzzing with anticipation, I climbed into the trike for its inaugural Antarctic ride.
It rolled beautifully, and a smile widened within me as I pedalled around camp, sticking to the marked area so as not to encounter a crevasse. However, the reality of our plan hit us when Josh from travel safety showed us satellite imagery, explained the unmapped nature of where we planned to journey to our ‘invented’ pole: the POLE OF POSSIBILITY at the intersection of 79-79. Zooming in on a shear zone between the Ronne Ice Shelf (sea ice) and the Skytrain Ice Rise (land ice), he looked us in the eyes, “This is a real adventure. You are going into unknown territory. No-one has ever been here.”
There was a buzz around camp that we had chosen to go where no-one had ever been. Most people that visit Antarctica are aiming for the ‘last degree’ to the South Pole, to summit the highest mountain on the continent, Mount Vinson, or perhaps a longer coast to Pole trek on an established route. With the objective of 79-79 SW latitude and longitude, we were going uncharted. However, judging by the imagery the route could be crevassed, sastrugi could be large, and it was time to do more testing before deciding between the handbike or the sit-ski.
Three full days followed, trying the trike out on different terrain around the Union Glacier area. My heart was with the wheels. I wanted it to work.
On hard, blue ice, it worked fabulously, affirming what we already knew. In 2013, Maria Leijerstam became the first person to cycle to the South Pole, and remains the only person to have done so. She used an ICE trike and followed a compacted ice road from McMurdo station on the coast of Antarctica, but the ice there is established as a road, hard-packed and more rideable than the rough terrain of wild, inner Antarctica. Other people have since attempted to mountain bike to the Pole, and as we began our journey south, Italian cyclist Omar di Felice was attempting to ride a wild-ice route to the Pole. We had news in our days at Union Glacier that conditions hadn’t worked for him. His progress had been extremely slow and he had to abandon.
As we ventured off-camp and into terrain more representative of our route, the rear-wheel got stuck in the softer ice in the lee of the waves of sastrugi. Whilst the clearance beneath the trike was great, the traction even with ice-spiked tyres was difficult. The relative effort required to gain ground in comparison to the sit-ski was huge. The biting cold wind and relative high exposure of my legs to the climate raised my risk of polar-thigh and other cold tissue injuries, an aspect I had anticipated but that was more challenging to solve than the cosy position of my legs being tucked together and super-insulated in the sit-ski.
“So many people try bikes, but you really need tracks not wheels to get the grip on the varying ice” Eddie the piston-bully driver shared his experience. It felt important to choose the option that gave us the greatest chance of success. The Pole of Possibility was about exploring possibility, that process of vision, creativity and adaptation that enables us to reach surprising places. Adapting in this case meant letting go of my dream of hand-biking there. In this case, for our route, the sit-ski was the better option.
A huge well done to Karen from all at ICE Trikes, in completing her goal of creating a new Pole of Possibility.
Find out more about Karen and the Pole of Possibility here or read more in the Outside website article and learn more about the ICE Full Fat here.
You can also watch an interview with Karen on the BBC Scotland, The Adventure Show on BBC iPlayer: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/b0071mxr/the-adventure-show
Sign up for ICE Trike News