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ADV NewsExtreme Ice Expedition On A BMW F850GSA Snow Bike

Extreme Ice Expedition On A BMW F850GSA Snow Bike

Arctic adventurer Oliver Solaro takes on the sea ice in the frigid north.

Published on 04.21.2023

Riding in temperatures as brutal as -40C, facing polar bears, and sleeping in trees and abandoned cabins on sea ice: Oliver Solaro’s adventures far exceed anything your average rider would imagine possible, yet the draw of the North, according to Oliver, is impossible to resist.

Hailing from Williamsburg, Ontario, Oliver has been going out to remote Hudson Bay areas covered in ice and snow for a decade now, each time getting further and delivering supplies to a remote Churchill (Manitoba) community during wintertime. Often riding in extreme freezing temperatures, Oliver says he’s found out what works and what doesn’t over the years, perfecting the bike and sled setup and going on month-long expeditions in the extreme cold.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures
During his many expeditions in the extreme cold over the years, Oliver has been perfecting his bike and sled setup “playing with studded tires and all sorts of modifications.”

“I’ve been punking around on the ice roads and in the Arctic trying to figure out what works, playing with studded tires and all sorts of modifications, and I admit that sometimes, I’d only made it because of dumb luck rather than any skill or talent. I’m no mechanical guru, but in the process, I’ve amassed a certain amount of knowledge and gleaned some engineering skills and ability that I can use down the road. In 2017, when I heard that the mushers of Churchill were struggling to get dog food as the town had been cut off due to weather conditions, I raised money, packed hundreds of pounds worth of dog food, and set out to deliver the supplies. I’ve been returning to that area ever since,” Oliver shares.


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The grateful Churchill mushers gifted Oliver a dog named Bruce who became a faithful travel companion, and over the years, has done several trips into the extreme North. First experimenting with the Kawasaki KLR 650, KTM 350, and CCM450 motorcycles fitted with either tire spikes or a snow bike conversion kit. For his latest adventure – a three-week, 1,600-kilometer ride to Churchill traversing snow-covered trails and sea ice — Oliver settled on a BMW F850GS Adventure.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures
For his latest ice journey, Oliver chose a BMW F850GSA which he painstakingly converted into a snow bike using his own “backyard techniques.”

Beyond Churchill, Oliver pushed on, scoping out abandoned outposts and shipwrecks on the sea ice. “While technically not considered the ‘high Arctic,’ this region consistently experiences temperatures much colder than the North Pole due to something called the Polar Vortex (which is also why Siberia is so cold),” says Oliver.

BMW GSA vs the Polar Vortex 

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA

Oliver’s latest ice ride was being documented by a film company hoping to create a series, and for this trip, Oliver chose a BMW F 850 GSA to be converted into a snow bike. Using an old Camso track kit from his previous CCM450 project, he engineered the BMW into a hybrid machine in his living room for the expedition North.

The adventurer grafted the track kit on the GSA using basic machine slugs and scrap metal; despite the kit being designed for a lightweight KTM 450 dirt bike, it could be adapted for the BMW and, according to Oliver, it’s so robust and simple it could easily be repaired roadside.

Oliver managed to transform the BMW in his living room using an old Camso track kit designed for a KTM 450 dirtbike. Through his crafty use of basic machine slugs and scrap metal, he was able to adapt the kit to the BMW resulting in a build “so robust and simple it could easily be repaired roadside.”

“I could chop the bike up any way I wanted, so I set to work using redneck backyard techniques – I’d sometimes need to unplug my kitchen stove just so I could weld – and a sledgehammer was used a lot, Fred Flintstone-style. In the end, though, the engineering got me home”, Oliver shares.

In addition to the track kit, Oliver had to modify the axles and skis, and before setting out, he’d disassembled the bike completely to lube and spray everything against rust and corrosion and wrap the wires and cables.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA
Oliver at the town dumpster scrounging for broken track parts for his snow bike build.

According to the rider, the GSA turned out to be a perfect machine for the task. “The bike has a large tank which is a huge bonus out there, its multiple cylinders are much easier to start in extreme cold, the engine is simple and robust rather than highly strung, and the electronics are pretty basic. I had to pre-heat the engine a few times as it wouldn’t start below -12 C, and I had to use snowmobile oil to make sure it doesn’t solidify, but all in all, I’d be happy to stake my life on that bike if I was to continue going out into the North,” Oliver explains.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA
Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA

Having ridden in temperatures below -40 C, Oliver shares there were some issues along the way – the track kit and ski suspension broke down several times as the rider hit exposed bedrock under the snow, and the bike’s weight – around 700 pounds – presented a bit of a challenge, but it was possible to repair the bike fairly quickly.

“All those little failures are giving me tools to deal with issues for the next adventure,” Oliver adds.

Luggage and Gear For The Extreme North 

As Oliver prepared the motorcycle for the expedition, luggage and gear needed consideration, too. Swearing by Klim’s snowmobile gear for riding, Oliver carried extra petrol, tools, survival gear, and food.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA

“I needed to keep the weight as low as possible: in extreme temperatures, even something like pulling your ankle when you’re picking up a heavy bike can mean an end to the trip. Everything had to be bare bones. Forget showers and hot meals; I was carrying trail mixes and high-protein granola bars, and ate solid foods like bacon, butter, and peanut butter sandwiches. In fact, I’d sometimes eat whole blocks of butter just to keep the calories up: using 4-5000 calories a day out in the cold is normal,” Oliver says.

For camping, Oliver carried reindeer hides, seal skin, and two Thermarest sleeping pads – it’s crucial not to lose heat through the ground when sleeping on the ice. His survival gear included emergency flares, a firearm (although Oliver says he’s never had to use it), a small diesel heater, a spare change of clothes, and a vacuum-packed set of clothes and ice picks in a small backpack in case he broke through the ice.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA
Oliver camped most of the way sleeping in his tent, in trees and old abandoned cabins. Due to the extreme conditions, the adventurer returned with frostbite on his toes and face.

“Out there, you can’t just call roadside assistance or your mom to come and help you, and there’s little you can do if something happens – for example, if you hurt yourself and pull out the first aid kit to stop blood loss, you’ll need to take gloves off and that can mean frostbite. The key is to prevent issues rather than having to deal with them. While I’m a bit of a self-taught survival guy, I’ve always been outdoorsy, and I’m not afraid to be alone. I do put some faith in technology, too: I carry GPS units and a SPOT device. Finally, whatever happens, the key is not to panic and think creatively. You may not be able to build an igloo, but you can use your bike to construct shelter? You just need to think outside the box, however cliché that sounds,” Oliver explains.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA

Polar Bears And Other Dangers 

In addition to extreme winter conditions and unpredictable weather, Oliver says there’s another danger to consider when traveling solo in an icy landscape: polar bears. Once, exploring an old shipwreck frozen in sea ice, Oliver found bear paw prints inside. “I guess that old shipwreck looked like a pretty cozy apartment for a polar bear mama with her cubs. Another time, I stopped to investigate some wolf tracks I’d spotted; when I got back to the bike, I saw fresh bear prints around it. Needless to say, I didn’t wait around and hightailed it out of there. Out on the ice, polar bears see anything that moves as food,” Oliver recalls.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA
“I cautiously entered the wreck with frozen fingers…In the fast fading light, my eyes struggled to take in the shadows from days of travel through the blinding white realm. Once my retinas leveled off enough to pull data from the darkness, adrenaline came in so fast and hard it made my skin feel as if it might leave my frame. At my feet were paw prints. Big paw prints.” – Oliver Solaro.

During the trip on the GS, Oliver camped most of the way sleeping in his tent, in trees, old abandoned cabins, and sometimes, motels. Still, the adventurer returned with frostbite on his toes and face, and navigating the ice was no easy task.

“North American tundra is very cold and dry, and the Hudson Bay area is unique in that the salt water here mixes with fresh water, which means it’s hard to gauge just how easily the ice might break. You have to rely on the locals to know where to go, and still, thanks to climate change, conditions can be unpredictable: even indigenous people have perished out on the ice.

“Not knowing how fast the river or tide below is flowing or if it’s eroded the ice from beneath, the occasional surface love tap is never a bad idea.” – Oliver Solaro.

Another thing to consider was getting stuck. I knew that if something happened and I couldn’t repair the bike, that would be it: hitting the SOS button means you’ll be rescued, but your bike and gear, most likely, will not, and remain there on the ice abandoned,” Oliver explains.

Nature and weather aside, a trip like this is a costly endeavor. Oliver shares it cost over $3,000 for a month up in the North for food, fuel, and an occasional motel, bike and gear not included.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA

“Everything in the North is incredibly expensive. One red pepper up there can cost $9, for example, so adventuring in the North on a motorcycle definitely isn’t cheap. You need to ride about 8,000 kilometers just to the starting point of your adventure, and when you factor in the sled, the bike kit, the gear… So far, I’ve been funding these trips on my own dime, but I’m hoping I might get some support for future adventures,” Oliver shares.

When the World Falls Away

Even with the best prep and experience, things don’t always go as planned. During a previous ice expedition, Oliver’s cornea froze to his eyelid rendering him blind in one eye for two weeks.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures
“As I started to experience what I thought was my lens fogging up. I opened my visor a tiny bit, but it was my cornea freezing. When I went to blink, I couldn’t open my eye again as the eyelid froze solid.” – Oliver Solaro.

“I was coming to a settlement, it was getting dark, and I was starting to worry – I didn’t want to ride in the night – as I started to experience what I thought was my lens fogging up. I opened my visor a tiny bit, but it was my cornea freezing. When I went to blink, I couldn’t open my eye again as the eyelid froze solid. Two hours later, I got to a settlement and made it to a nurse’s station where they told me to just wait and see – if the cornea had been frozen through all its seven layers, I would have lost sight. Thankfully, although I couldn’t see for two weeks, my sight returned, but I now know not to take any chances. Something as seemingly insignificant as lifting your visor a tiny bit or having your wrist slightly exposed between the glove and the jacket sleeve can mean serious damage when the temperatures are extreme,” Oliver explains.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA

So why do it? Why go through all the extremes, the hardship, and the solitude out on the sea ice when temperatures dip below -40 C and polar bears are on the prowl? Oliver says the North has its own magic impossible to experience anywhere else in the world.

“I nearly lost my toes, I’ve been lost, cold, and alone, but there is a draw of the North that I cannot explain to most people. There are experiences that absolutely gobsmack you, things you wouldn’t see anywhere. There is no camera to truly capture the absolutely awe-inspiring experience of the Northern Lights when you’re utterly alone out there.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA
“I nearly lost my toes, I’ve been lost, cold, and alone, but there is a draw of the North that I cannot explain to most people.” – Oliver Solaro.

In this world, things are constantly vying for your attention, but when you’re out there alone on the ice, it’s a beautiful, stark universe. When your only motivation is to move forward, it takes the edge off the world. It’s about being able to be alone and introspect without the mad crescendo of life coming down on you. When you come back, you’ll have to fix the roof and pay the bills, but out there? Even the fear is almost calming. You get into a sort of state of flow – the world falls away and time doesn’t exist when you’re hyper-focused on staying alive,” Oliver explains.

Arctic rider Oliver Solaro extreme ice motorcycle adventures on BMW F850GSA

According to him, riding in the North is a passion he didn’t know he had until he went out there. Taking the GS out on the sea ice, Oliver says, is just the beginning: the adventurer has an array of other projects engineered on paper and ready to go. Although the rider isn’t sharing what they will be just yet, one thing’s for sure – expect something extraordinary (and something cold).

Follow Oliver’s ice adventures on his Instagram and YouTube channels.

Photos by Oliver Solaro, Max Attwood and Shaun Stratford

Author: Egle Gerulaityte

Riding around the world extra slowly and not taking it too seriously, Egle is always on the lookout for interesting stories. Editor of the Women ADV Riders magazine, she focuses on ordinary people doing extraordinary things and hopes to bring travel inspiration to all two-wheeled maniacs out there.

Author: Egle Gerulaityte
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