Jake Weber/Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY – Until a few years ago, Daniel Burton was a programmer for Utah software maker Novell Inc. making upward of $500,000 a year with bonuses and stock options. It came at a cost: A largely sedentary life of 28 years left him overweight with blood pressure and cholesterol levels that were off the charts.
Then he got laid off.
Now, Burton is planning to make a grueling 750-mile trip by mountain bicycle to the South Pole from the coast of Antarctica.
“Cycling saved my life,” said Burton, who poured his life savings into Epic Biking, a shop in Saratoga Springs that operates more as charity than business – he has yet to turn a profit and had to take out a home equity loan to pay for inventory.
Yet Burton’s personal transformation set the stage for his biggest ambition: to pedal from the edge of the coldest, driest and windiest continent to the South Pole, where “summer” temperatures rarely climb above minus-20 degrees. He’ll face stiff headwinds, a 9,000-foot climb and his greatest fear, hidden crevices. Failure is a “definite” possibility, he says.
Burton, 50, plans to set off in late December, and he’ll only have until Jan. 28 to catch the last flight off Antarctica before winter conditions make flying impossible.
He has raised little of the money it will take to make the trip, but says interest seems to be picking up fast among donors and sponsors with recent profiles by Utah media outlets.
He’s confident some version of his adventure will be possible – either a full expedition with a biking partner, guide and cameraman, or a solo trip without any ground support.
Colorado adventurer Eric Larsen tried to cycle to the South Pole in December 2012, but had to turn back when slow progress convinced him he couldn’t reach his food caches before starving. Burton must realize his dream this year or face competition from an Australian and a Spaniard, both of whom plan to set off in late 2014, he said.
“I’ll do it this year or lose the opportunity,” he said. “It’s a narrow window of opportunity. Let it be an American first.”
Biking to the South Pole isn’t as hard as it sounds – a bicycle can move as fast as a cross-country skier, he said. The snow on Antarctica usually is hardpacked or icy, making for quick travel on mostly smooth surfaces. With the exception of a steep climb from the coast, Burton said he’ll be climbing a barely discernible upward slope for 700 miles to the South Pole.
He’ll be riding on 5-inch-wide tires, twice the width of normal mountain-bike tires, at low pressure to cushion the ride over icy ridges and float over windblown soft snow.
His biggest enemy will be cold temperatures and the relentless wind. But with help from a guide and cameraman driving separate snowmobiles, he can haul more gear and food and reduce the load on his bicycle. He’ll use solar cells to charge satellite phones that can transmit photographs and daily blog updates.
The former programmer who wrote a spell-check application for Apple II desktops admits to being a “terrible speller.” He loved the work, until a medical exam gave him a new perspective.
Doctors measured his blood pressure three times before acknowledging the same result, and it was bad for a man with a family history of heart disease who mostly sat at a desk.
“I panicked. I went into depression. It scared me,” Burton said. “I started biking.”
Now rail-thin with vital signs back to normal, Burton cycles for hours almost every day and is training for his biggest test of endurance.
He’s funded the ambitions of four children. Now it’s his turn.
If he can raise at least $150,000 – a bare-bones budget by any measure – he’ll invite biking partner Todd Tueller, bring a guide and a cameraman, and produce a documentary possibly for a network series. He’ll try to cycle back to the coast from the South Pole – it’s mostly downhill.
If he falls short on money, he plans to make a solo one-way trip without ground support.
As of June 14, he had raised nearly $10,000 in online donations from a pair of crowd-funding websites.
A recent and modest $1,000 donation from EnergySolutions of Utah, a radioactive disposal company, is opening doors to other corporate sponsors after what Burton described as a frustrating start to fundraising.
“Nobody wants to fund me unless they think it will succeed,” Burton said. “But it won’t succeed if nobody funds it.”