43: Incredible Polar Feats by Women

The polar regions of the planet are tough places to survive. Biting cold temperatures causing frostbite and sapping energy, harsh winds and unpredictable ice conditions making moving in this landscape dangerous, and the vast emptiness creating an environment where one is very much alone all come together to give polar regions a pretty tough reputation. It is no wonder then that the incredible journeys in these regions by people like Fridtjof Nansen, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen have been well recorded and even for those uninterested in Arctic exploration they are well known names. However, there are many others who have managed incredible physical feats in the Polar Regions who deserve a shout out too, especially the ladies who often don’t get enough of the limelight. In this week’s plog we will be looking at a few of the incredible Polar feats achieved by women, ranging from “first woman to…” to “first person to…” to “I can’t believe that actually happened”. Enjoy!

A figure standing on snow in dark clothing and white boots carries a British flag.
Pictured is Ann Daniels, who along with Caroline Hamilton was part of the first all woman relay team to reach both the North and south pole in 2002. (Picture: Ann Daniels/CC BY-SA 4.0)

First woman to….

There are generally 3 major ‘polar’ achievements one can have- going to the North Pole, going to the South Pole and crossing the Greenland Ice-cap. Fridtjof Nansen managed the first crossing of the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1888, and since then various groups repeated the journey. However, for a long time no unsupported all women’s group achieved this difficult journey. In 1991, Norwegian Liv Arnesen decided to challenge that, and led a women’s expedition on skis to cross Greenland. Despite their skill and knowledge, the toughness of the environment could not be tamed and a hurricane force thaw wind forced them to turn back. Respecting the weather but remaining undeterred, Liv returned the following year with Julie Maske and together they completed the crossing.

Spurred on by this success, Liv turned her attention to the South Pole. There was scepticism in her abilities from potential sponsors, who doubted she could do the journey pulling her own provisions by sled (despite the fact that she had actually done this in Greenland). However, with persistence she got the trip organised and in 1994 was dropped off at Hercules Inlet on the Chile facing coast of Antarctica. With nothing but her leg muscles on a pair of skis pulling along a sled of provision she set off into the desolate white interior. 50 punishing days and 745 miles later she became the first woman to reach the South Pole alone and unaided. When speaking of the journey she said:

I hope that this ski tour to the South Pole may prove to others, especially girls, that most things are possible, even when they venture into strange arenas. To fulfil a dream, it must be converted into a goal, so that one may start planning. Hard work then follows. Most ambitions can be realised, as long as your motives are strong enough – and genuine.

Liv Arnesen, explorer of many a cold place. (Picture: The Liv Arnesen Foundation/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

On the other side of the planet the North Pole had not been forgotten by women either. Ann Bancroft from Minnesota had spent many years working as a P.E teacher and wilderness instructor. In 1986 she decided to join the Will Steger International North Pole Expedition, where as part of a group of 6 she travelled to the North Pole. This journey was on foot and with dogsleds, and Ann was the only woman on the team, making her the first woman to reach the North Pole by dogsled. She went on to lead the first all-female expedition to the South Pole on skis in 1992 (this was before Liv’s trip but Liv’s accomplishment was being the first woman to do it solo, and I mean it’s a pretty big accomplishment to do it at all!). The success of this made her the first woman to have reached the North and South Poles.

The Polar exploration world being quite small, Liv and Ann met and decided to continue their adventuring together, becoming the first women to ski all the way across Antarctica in 2001. They attempted a trek across the Arctic Ocean to raise awareness about climate change in 2007 and used it as an educational tool with their journey being followed by millions of schoolchildren. However, the trip had to be called off part way through due to Liv getting frostbite in her feet.

Liv and Ann currently own an exploration company together (Bancroft Arnesen Explore), and Ann has continued using her exploration as a way to raise awareness for important issues such as an expedition on the Ganges River to highlight the importance of clean water and the risks caused by waste in water flowing downstream. Both Liv and Ann have achieved a number of other exploration accolades and have many more trips planned.

Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft (left) crossed Antarctica together in 2001 and continue to go on adventures together today. On the right Ann Bancroft (Picture: Antarctic Logistics)

First Person to…

Of course “First woman to etc…” isn’t the only achievement ladies have made. Early polar exploration was done at a time when it was considered unsuitable for women to take part in those types of activities, meaning the male explorers managed to achieve many of the ‘Firsts”, but with greater freedom nowadays women have managed to smash some records too.

In 2016 Jade Hameister, an Australian national, skied to the North Pole spending 8-10 hours a day pulling her sled of provisions behind her. Not only was the journey bitingly cold, physically intense and dangerous due to lurking polar bears and thin ice. In addition the movement of the sea ice on which she skied often caused her and her team to be pulled off course. However, they made it to the finishing point. This incredible journey was made all the more amazing by the fact that at the time Jade was 14 years old. On her journey she was followed by National Geographic who made a documentary called “On Thin Ice: Jade’s Polar Dream”, and she became NatGeo Australia’s Young Explorer of the year. The following year she set off to cross the Greenland Ice-cap on skis and foot for 9 hours a day, managing the total journey in 27 days and becoming the youngest woman to complete this crossing.

Later that SAME YEAR, the unstoppable Hameister headed South becoming the youngest person to ski to the South Pole at 16 years old, throughout the journey pulling a sled that was twice her own bodyweight. She arrived in January of 2018. This achievement also marked her out as the youngest every person to complete the Polar Hat Trick- completing journeys to the North Pole, South Pole and Greenland Ice-Cap.

Jade passionately advocates for shifting the focus for young women on what they can achieve, and for awareness of the impacts of climate change in Polar Regions. Oh, and she trekked to Everest basecamp at 12 years old and hasn’t even finished high school yet…

There are also many first nationals- Elham Al Qasim became the first UAE National to reach the North Pole in 2010, Namira Salim was the first Pakistani National to reach the North Pole (2007) and South Pole (2008), and former maths teacher Dk Najibah Era Al-Sufri became the first citizen of Brunei to reach the South Pole doing so in 2009. By doing so all these women have been incredible representatives of their country, not only completing these difficult journeys but doing so coming from countries where snow is not exactly widespread.

Jade Hameister, youngest ever person to complete a Polar hat-trick at the age of 16 (Picture: Ming D’Arcy)

Just generally quite incredible

Not all polar feats involve skiing to or from somewhere. Another notable one is that done by Jerri Nielsen. In 1998 she went to the Amundsen Scott Research station in Antarctica to work as a medical doctor for the research staff there. Due to the environment, during winter the station is completely cut off from the rest of the world and has to be self-sufficient, therefore needing an on-site doctor.

Whilst working there Nielsen made a discovery no one wants to make, she found a lump in her breast. She had email and video meetings with doctors in the US, and took the incredible step to perform a biopsy, which involved operating on herself to removing part of the tissue for testing to see if the lump was indeed cancer. Unfortunately the equipment on site meant that she couldn’t really trust the diagnosis. A military plane was sent to the station, but couldn’t land so air dropped medical supplies by parachute. This was done in the middle of the Antarctic winter (July) so was totally dark meaning barrels lit on fire had to be set on the ground to guide the plane.

With the new medical equipment Nielsen, in consultation with the doctors in the US and with a small team at the station who she trained to do the job, started herself on hormone treatment and performed a new biopsy on herself which confirmed that she did indeed have cancer. With this difficult news, she then set about performing chemotherapy on herself with the help of her little team of newly trained helpers. In October she was finally able to be airlifted back to the US, where she had multiple surgeries involving a mastectomy.

Nielsen travelled extensively as a motivational speaker. Unfortunately after 7 years in remission the cancer returned and three years later in 2008 it had become a brain tumour. She passed away in 2009. However, her incredible skill and fortitude was not forgotten, and before her passing a novel about her was written, a film was released titled “Ice Bound: A Woman’s Survival at the South Pole”.

Dr Jerri Nielsen who worked as a medical doctor in the research station in Antarctica, managing to treat her own cancer whilst there. (Picture: United States National Science Foundation/Public Domain)

There have been many other feats stretching back further in time such as Jennie Darlington and Jackie Ronne being the first women to overwinter in Antarctica in 1946-48. It should also be noted that whilst the first recorded women to crisscross Greenland and various parts of the Arctic have been recent, there is nothing to say that many other women such as the indigenous Greenlandic people have achieved this incredible journey in the past. It simply hasn’t been recorded in the current official books but is entirely a possibility. These potentially forgotten intrepid women aside, this article is just a brief window into some of the amazing women who have managed to do incredible journeys and actions in some of the toughest environments on our planet. Nicely done ladies!

For more info:

Jade Hameister’s website: http://www.jadehameister.com/

Liv Arnesen’s website: https://www.livarnesen.com/

Cover image: Jennie Darlington and Jackie Ronne

Music: kongano.com

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