A 20th Anniversary: The American Women’s Expedition
Merrium-Webster’s online dictionary defines the word traverse (when used as a noun — a person, place, or thing) as: something that crosses or lies across; a route or way across or over; the course followed in traversing; the act or instance of traversing (crossing). Of course there are other definitions of this word, but I chose the ones that apply to today’s topic.
If you have been following my blogs all along, you know that the WISSARD team was depending on our traverse team to haul our equipment, containers, instruments, and field camp supplies to the Subglacial Lake Whillans deep field location over 500 miles from McMurdo Station. That journey was completed late Saturday night. Here is the final map of the traverse.
Now, they face the task of smoothing out the surface of the snow at the site, and positioning all of the containers for the drilling and science operations to take place very soon. Back here in McMurdo, we are playing “the waiting game.” Weather is not cooperating for flights today, and lately that’s been the story around here. Antarctica and Mother Nature seem to always have the last word on this icy continent.
The traverse team has much work to do to repair containers that were damaged from the movement along the traverse route. They will spend part of their time welding and making those repairs. They are a highly skilled team, and we value their support in the field. The photo below shows some of the damage to a container.
Since people began exploring this continent, many have made a traverse from one location to another. Early explorers of the Heroic Age were focused on making the traverse to the South Pole to claim that prize of being “first” to reach this geographic location. After Amundsen and his party reached the South Pole in 1911, Shackleton and his men attempted a traverse of the entire continent — the Endurance Expedition. That expedition met with many challenges and was not successful. (But it’s a great story…read more about it!)
It wasn’t until 46 years (1957-1958) after Amundsen and Scott reached the South Pole that the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by British explorer, Dr. (later knighted “Sir”) Vivian Fuchs completed the first overland (over snow and ice in this case) crossing of Antarctica. Using Sno-Cat tractors, they crossed Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the South Pole, continuing on to the Ross Sea, reaching Scott Base 99 days later. The team had traveled 2,158 miles on this journey. This expedition was the third to reach the Pole overland (after Amundsen and Scott and their men), and the first ever using land vehicles to reach the Pole.
The photo below is from the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. It demonstrates the extreme danger of crevasses in the ice and snow.
In the years following this expedition, many teams of men came to this continent and attempted to be the first to follow a certain route, achieve a longer distance, reach the South Pole on skis, or traverse the continent. Their stories are for another day.
Today is a celebration that marks the journey of the first women to ski to the South Pole, arriving at the Pole on January 14, 1992. That was exactly 20 years ago today. Known as the American Women’s Expedition (AWE) their original goal was to traverse the continent. Although they had to stop short of that goal, they completed a grueling 67 day journey that was an Antarctic “first.” They were the first women to reach the South Pole in an overland journey.
Ann Bancroft, Anne Dal Vera, Sue Giller, and Sunniva Sorby worked together to deal with adversity that came in the form of exhaustion, pain, the feeling of total isolation, extreme weather, the repetitive nature of skiing and hauling heavy sleds each day, and at times a feeling of despair.
On the flip side, they experienced the joy of exploration and discovery in a place few people will ever visit; the learning experience that comes from a massive amount of teamwork; the support of friends and family back home and around the world; the exhilaration of knowing they’d given their all for this expedition; and the feeling of accomplishment for inspiring so many school children and people around the world to follow their dreams and reach for their goals.
My interest and connection with this 1992 expedition really stems from a later expedition undertaken by Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen. In the austral summer of 2000-2001, as they attempted to traverse the continent, a challenge was issued to school children…”Go the Distance.” This challenge was to inspire teams of children and teachers to walk, ski, bike, run, canoe, or skate the same distance Ann and Liv would ski and sail (using special parachute-type equipment) in Antarctica.
Being a bit of an adventurer myself and having been to Antarctica in 1998, I encouraged my students to walk with me. Over the course of several months, while Ann and Liv were skiing in Antarctica, we collectively walked “with them” on the expedition. It was so much fun to set this goal and work with my students to achieve it.
Here’s an excerpt from an article posted on the Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation website, retrieved from a December 2001 post on library.thinkquest.org
“Explorers Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft were not alone when they completed a 1,717- mile, 94-day trek across Antarctica to become the first women in history to cover the continent on foot. Through the power of technology, thousands of students from schools such as John F. Kennedy High in Bronx, New York, and Husmann Elementary in Crystal Lake, Illinois, traveled with the former teachers as they braved the blizzards to reach their goal.
Classes worldwide followed the day-to-day challenges, delighting with progress made and worrying when weather hindered expected destinations. Through e-mails, message boards, audio and video, students communicated with the travelers. Says one high school girl in her note to Arnesen and Bancroft: “you have inspired me to reach for my dream, which I never before felt I could meet!”
Students throughout the world seriously followed Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft’s trek across Antarctica. Many teachers planned curricula in conjunction with this momentous event. Betty Trummel, a 4th-grade teacher at Husmann Elementary School who once explored the Antarctic through a National Science Foundation program, designed a mathematics project where students and parents would keep track of the miles walked to get a first-hand idea of the vast distance of 1,700 miles. Her pupils also conduct experiments with the online help of the International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) (www.ume.maine.edu/itase) that is studying this continent’s weather and environment.
In addition, Trummel’s students gained information on geography, mapping tools, history and science by following the exploits of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions. ANARE has had seagoing vessels in this area for over 50 years. “The children are fascinated with the history of the Arctic and Antarctic explorers,” explains Trummel. “At the same time, they are in touch with what is happening right this moment. History is happening right before their eyes. By contacting individuals like Liv and Ann while traveling, the students literally become a part of history being made.”
I was excited to learn that a member of the American Women’s Expedition was working in Antarctica this season. Anne Dal Vera has actually worked on the ice for the past seventeen years. You might remember Anne from my blog post on the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Project, because that’s where she works now. Throughout the years she’s had many jobs on the ice, which includes working with cargo in McMurdo and at the South Pole, as well as working in two field camps – at Siple Dome and Upstream Bravo. She’s now spent nine seasons working for LDB. When not on the ice, Anne works as a wilderness ranger in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado, a job she’s done for twenty years.
I sat down with Anne recently and we talked about her participation in the American Women’s Expedition twenty years ago. She shared details of the expedition which I’d like to share with you. One of her first comments was that the expedition was “so much bigger than any one of us.” It was a combined effort of the four women who took part, but it was also a huge grassroots effort (one that involves lots of people in a community or on a local/ground level). Many people of all ages got involved with fundraising and support of the expedition. The team did not have huge corporate sponsors, due in part to the fact that they were a team of women, not men. At that time the expeditions who received big financial support were all-men expeditions.
Despite that fact, the women raised enough money to get started on the expedition and spent five years paying it off at the conclusion of their adventure. They kept their dream alive and worked hard to accomplish their goals. They had planned, they were prepared. Weather delayed the start of their journey by nine days, but once underway from Hercules Inlet, they spent long days skiing, setting up camp, cooking, and tending to injuries along the way. It was a voyage of self-discovery, pushing them to the limit.
The book Four to the Pole is a great resource to learn more about their journey and the many hardships and joys they had along the way. Much of the text comes from the journals these women kept while on the expedition. I’ve enjoyed reading this book while I’ve been here in Antarctica. It puts it in perspective being on the same continent and knowing a bit about the challenges of being in this remote, harsh environment. I used this book as a reference for this blog post.
Anne told me that her preparations before arrival on the ice included two and a half years of training, and longer for other members of the expedition. Anne spent time canoeing and cross country skiing as part of her training. She also took part in three prep trips: Yellowstone National Park, Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and she skied with team members across Greenland. She says these trips were “a good shake0down for the gear and equipment.” One of those pieces of equipment is called an Upski. It is a canopy like a parachute that catches the wind. It’s about 12-15 feet in diameter. Here’s a photo of Anne using the Upski on her way back from the LDB Project near McMurdo.
At the start of the expedition, each woman pulled a sled that weighed up to 200 pounds. These sleds got lighter as they made progress, using up supplies and food. Each woman also strapped a day pack on the top of their sled. Day packs included items like a camera, thermos or water bottle, goggles, and extra supplies that could be accessed quickly if needed.
Each member of the team had a particular role in the overall expedition. Ann Bancroft was the expedition leader. She was also in charge of the radio. Ann had the responsibility of calling into the base camp at Patriot Hills every three days to report their progress and position. If the team had any individual messages, they were relayed to Ann’s sister, Carrie, who had stayed behind in Chile as a point of contact. She would relay the messages back to the United States. Regular contact was an important task because family members wanted to be sure the four women were doing okay. AWE had also made a commitment to children at schools in the U.S. and Canada, who were following the trip. Educational aspects of this expedition were further developed by curriculum materials designed to teach about not only the expedition, but the continent of Antarctica.
Sue Giller was the navigator of the team. She used a GPS (Global Positioning System) to keep track of their exact location. This would be critical, for so much of Antarctica looks the same. She kept the team on course, and helped them navigate through and around areas of sastrugi (ridges and irregular grooves in the ice/snow formed by wind erosion) and crevasses. I’ve included a picture of sastrugi so you can see what it looks like. Notice the old South Pole Station dome in the background. (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zastruga)
Anne Dal Vera was in charge of organizing about 1,000 pounds of food for the traverse. She was also in charge of planning out the meals for the expedition, which would need to include about 5,000 calories a day for each woman. They would need to fuel their body for the challenges and exertion of daily life during their days on the ice. Anne had to balance the different types of food and make sure the team had variety. Spices were added to give the food more flavor.
Conserving fuel was an important concern, so most meals were cooked in one pot. Meals had to be high in protein and fat, including things like bacon and sausage, cheeses, and butter. They had basic foods such as oatmeal for breakfast. Dinners might include hash browns, pasta, beans, or rice…foods high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are used by the body to make glucose, the fuel that gives you energy. The team needed hot drinks to warm their bodies throughout the day. Anne also made sure they had special treats to celebrate Thanksgiving, birthdays, Christmas, and other special events along the way. Snacks like nuts, cheese, dried fruits, and chocolate were often kept inside pockets of inner clothing to keep the snacks from freezing. I can’t imagine the planning and preparation that went into just the food portion of this expedition.
Sunniva Sorby had the job of keeping the medical kit well-stocked and ready to go. She had to keep track of what was used. The kit contained first aid items, and also medicines such as ibuprofen, anti-diarrhea medicine, and ointments. The AWE expedition was also conducting scientific research in two areas. One study had to do with using psychological surveys to record their life under extreme stress. Another study centered around changes in their body functions and results of life in constant daylight. For this study they had to spend time one day every three weeks collecting spit samples that would be analyzed once they returned to the U.S.
After 32 days of skiing a small plane called a Twin Otter helped resupply the team. In that resupply was food and fuel; enough to get them to the South Pole. AWE sent out their garbage and recycling along with letters, film, and video tapes to be sent home. Messages were also delivered to the AWE team. It was a huge morale boost to not only get the supplies, but to have contact with others. The women got delicious treats such as homemade pineapple cake and oranges while they enjoyed the shelter provided by the plane. However, all of the new supplies meant their sleds were going to be heavy again.
As they pushed to reach the South Pole, a landmark on the traverse of the continent, they faced emotional and physical challenges. They knew they were behind schedule. Back at the start the team had been forced to spend an extra nine days in Punta Arenas, Chile because weather had been too risky to fly to Antarctica. This delay was now a big factor in their expedition. If they got to the Pole too late, they wouldn’t have enough time to ski to the coast of the Ross Sea to meet an Australian cruise ship that would depart on February 17th.
On January 14, 1992 the American Women’s Expedition skied into South Pole Station, greeted warmly by many of the station residents at that time. The decision was made to stop at the Pole. Being two weeks behind their intended schedule, Ann Bancroft and the others knew that it would not be a good decision to push on to the Ross Sea. If they didn’t reach the coast in time, a plane from Adventure Network International (their air support) would have to come pick them up and it would add $350,000 to the already expensive expedition. One other factor contributed to their decision: Antarctica itself. After mid-February conditions will often deteriorate. The 24 hours of daylight fades and darkness increases. Temperatures dip lower and winds get stronger, making travel throughout the continent risky. The facts were against continuing. In addition to that, Anne Dal Vera and Sunniva Sorby had already made the decision to stop at the Pole. They would not have continued to the coast.
Here are the four AWE expedition team members at the South Pole.
The group was disappointed about not achieving their original goal. However, these women have had an amazing story to tell and they are an inspiration to many around the world. Their achievement of being the first women to ski to the South Pole is a huge accomplishment. They shared a common goal and trusted each other along the way. Each person had struggles, but also encouraged her three teammates. They needed each other, and stood firm to meet the many challenges that Antarctica put in front of them.
While I was talking with Anne, she reminded me of something very important in our lives, “There’s always some support, no one does it alone.” Yes, they pulled those sleds to the South Pole; they did the work on the continent. But, support came in so many ways before, during, and after this expedition. All of us need to look for that support in our lives and be ready to support others. It doesn’t have to be an expedition to Antarctica. It can be a simple thing in our day to day lives. Think about how YOU can support others today and every day.
Speaking now, 20 years later, on the very continent where she had this incredible adventure, Anne says she can point to many positives about this experience. She told me that the expedition “intensified her love of nature and wilderness, gave her more self-confidence and made her a better public speaker.” (from giving talks after her return) Anne, Sunniva, Ann, and Sue pushed themselves to the limit; physically, emotionally, and financially. Twenty years later, the lessons they learned are still having an impact on their lives and those around them. They are an inspirational group of women. It was my honor to interview Anne while in McMurdo and to hear her story. All photos from the American Women’s Expedition were supplied by Anne Dal Vera.
Go the distance, follow your dreams, set goals for yourself, help support others, and have a great day!