British explorer Maria Leijerstam leads Christmas cycle race to the South Pole

Race has echoes of Captain Scott’s famous battle with Roald Amundsen to reach the bottom of the world

A British explorer had a special reason to enjoy a White Christmas today as she led her two male rivals in a challenge to become the first person to cycle to the South Pole.

Maria Leijerstam, 35, from the Vale of Glamorgan, is ahead of American Daniel Burton and Spaniard Juan Menendez Granados in a race that has echoes of Captain Scott’s famous battle with Roald Amundsen to reach the bottom of the world.

Since setting off on 16 December on specially adapted three-wheeled trike she has endured whiteouts, 100mph winds and temperatures falling to 40C. Now the Welsh cyclist only has a final dash across the polar plateau in front of here and is expected to reach the pole within the next two days.

Ms Leijerstam, who doesn’t have a major sponsor but is raising money for the Alzheimer Society, opted to take a more challenging route than her two rivals, which has seen her tackle the fearsome Leverett Glacier. Her team reported she had to navigate by GPS in zero-visibility and had to drag her cycle across ice fields to reach the summit.

She is in limited contact with home but reported on Christmas Eve that it was a “Tough day with knee pain and sticky snow! 159k to go. Had an emotional day wishing I was with family.”

Speaking The Independent her mother Adrianne Leijerstam, said “We’ve had a very crackled call from her wishing us Merry Christmas and she’s looking likely to beat her rivals to the Pole. I just hope her knee can hold out as it’s been giving her trouble, but I know she’s determined and will just pedal on and get there.”

She added: “Christmas Day isn’t quite the same here without her, but she has a drive inside of her which compels her.

Ms Leijerstam is all alone on her patch of Antarctica , but the vast white continent is actually rather busy at this time of year with up to a dozen different expeditions all racing for the South Pole.

On Christmas Eve a 19-year-old Parker Liautaud became the youngest man to ski to the South Pole and set a new speed record in the process, while British explorer Ben Saunders is days away from successfully recreating Captain Robert Scott's ill-fated 1,800-mile journey to the bottom of the earth.

Mr Liautaud spent Christmas Day at the South Pole after arriving on Christmas Eve at the head of the Willis Resilience Expedition, achieving the goal of setting a new record for the fastest-ever unsupported walk from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole

Mr Liautaud, a student at Yale University, has a very different approach to many other Polar explorers as when he set out on 6 December he aimed to collect nearly 2,500 scientific samples and has joined forces with academic institutions to study climate change.

The unsupported speed record started on the Ross Ice Shelf from where Mr Parker and his teammate Doug Stoup covered 314 miles to the bottom of the world pulling sleds weighing in excess of 80kg over ice and snow, across the trans-Antarctic mountain range, through blizzards and mist in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius

“It's an incredible honour to stand at the South Pole after a successful expedition,” said Mr Parker in statement from the South Pole. “Over the past several weeks I have learned a lot and am very thankful for the support of the team around me that made this expedition possible. I now hope to work with our scientific partners in the next phase of the research from this expedition and continue to contribute to reigniting the dialogue on climate change.”

Speaking to The Independent via satellite phone from the South Pole Mr Parker added, that he was “exhausted” and “emotional” after his journey but would be spending the day like “everyone else eating and sleeping”. He’ll be staying in his tent, however his support team at the Pole has set up a stove and a chair, which he described as “wonderful luxuries”.

Meanwhile Mr Saunders is expected to reach the South Pole by the end of the week. Speaking from his tent in Antarctica, he said: “We’ve spent much of the last week in at least partial whiteout which I can only describe as a bit like existing inside a ping pong ball. When the sun does break through though it’s clear blue skies and a white surface to the horizon in all directions.”

Mr Saunders is blogging his experiences to sit alongside Scott’s diary, but like early pioneer of Polar exploration he only enjoyed his standard rations – almost 6,000 calories of high-energy freeze dried food, hot energy drinks and energy bars in place of a traditional roast turkey, mince pies and Christmas pudding.

You can read his blog here: http://scottexpedition.com/blog

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