Earlier this year six soldiers from the British Army became the first all-female team to traverse the frozen wastes of Antarctica despite having never visited either pole. They speak to Glint about their record breaking expedition and the legacy they hope to inspire
“What we’re trying to get across is that we are just normal women,” says Major Nics Wetherill to an enthralled audience of the great and the good inside the Palace of Westminster’s Wellington Room. Following this statement, Wetherill proceeds to describe a far from ordinary adventure, detailing the Ice Maiden Expedition she led across Antarctica: the first all-female expedition to traverse the continent.
She is joined in her presentation by Major Sandy Hennis of the Royal Signals and Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne of the Honourable Artillery Company, both of whom share Wetherill’s humility. “I’m a reservist and my normal job is in marketing,” says Montagne. “I only found out about this because I saw the poster on the back of a door.”
That sense of fortuitousness – of being in the right place at the right time – was deliberate says Wetherill. Noting the disproportionately low take up of army expeditions by female soldiers she wanted to get as many women as possible involved in the selection process for the expedition. The initial criteria for first round selection being simply that you were a woman and in the army. 250 women applied for just four spaces. Following several rounds of more intensive selection this was narrowed down 50 and then to just 22 who were taken to Norway to be trained by the Royal Marines, who taught them to “how to survive in the cold and fight it” and the Norwegian army who taught them “how to live in the cold and accept it”.
Following that, two further training excursions to Norway learning pulk-pulling and crevasse rescue narrowed the selection down to the final group of six. Joining Wetherill, Hennis and Montagne were Captain Zanna Baker of the Royal Artillery, Lieutenant Jenni Stephenson of the Royal Artillery and Major Natalie Taylor of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Lance Corporal Rin Cobb ably supporting the expedition as dietitian.
Before they left for the austral summer, the team’s last challenge was a three week self-supported trek back in Norway– “essentially a mini-Antarctica to see how our bodies would be able to cope”; the aim being to imagine the worst and then make it harder. It was during that expedition that the team honed their dietary requirements: 5,000 calories a day and a lot of macadamia nuts. They were also required to gain 10kg each, which, fittingly, was approximately the amount of weight lost by each member during the trek.
“But,” says Wetherill, “we still didn’t have any money”. Fortunately the team were able to finally secure sponsorship in June last year from Team Army as well as Blackrock, AECOM and QI Optic. That funding allowed the expedition to go ahead and in November 2017, after two years of preparation, they landed on Antarctica, only to endure a 15-day false start.
Starting on ice
“That’s when out trouble began: We flew onto the ice but the weather windows just would not align – and we were stuck at Union Glacier [logistics base] for 15 days,” says Hennis. “We were expecting the trip to take around 75 days and we knew our time in Antarctica was being cut shorter and shorter the longer we sat there waiting for the weather to clear.” The expedition was reliant on being able to reach a number of supply-drops en route which could only be deposited if the weather was clear enough for a plane to fly out. Finally, on November 20th, the storms relented, revealing blue skies and the team were able to fly out, make their deposits, reach their start point on the Leverett Glacier and set off, covering 17km in their first day.
The next day the team set off once again under blue skies, but within an hour had to get an emergency tent up as another storm hit: keeping them under canvas for two days. “We had 102 kmph winds, which is technically more that the tent is supposed to be able to survive,” says Hennis nonchalantly. “We were a little bit nervous but we made it through. The lowest temperature we had was -56°C, the average was around -25/-26°C.”
From the outset expedition leaders Wetherill and Taylor had made clear the seriousness and danger of the challenge ahead. Prior to the Ice Maiden’s departure an RAF team had attempted a similar journey, resulting in the loss of several digits to frostbite and an off-ice evacuation. “From them we could see the extreme consequences of the smallest miscalculation in Antarctica,” says Wetherill.
Breaking out onto the polar plateau the winds and exposure increased. Hennis shows photos of gloves wedged in around ice-caked hoods to prevent frostbite and the effects of “polar-thigh” a little understood phenomenon believe to be related to chilblains which they treated with steroid cream. Illness also struck the team two weeks in, as Hennis had the misfortune to suffer a virus she’d picked up at basecamp. She credits her teammates who were able to help her through it, not only by taking on her pulk but in providing reassurance as to the unchanged nature of the expedition. 577km later they reached the South Pole.
Long way back
Despite the initially euphoria of reaching the bottom of the world there was still almost 1,200km to go. “At the Pole we pretty much just turned left and kept on skiing for about 40 days,” says Montagne with a smile. Like the Army Reserve’s SPEAR 17 expedition the previous year, the journey was split into two legs: to and from the Pole. Having reached the prize of the South Pole early on, Montagne says the remainder of the trek became more of a “mental game” as the team persevered through Antarctica. “It very much became a case of eat, sleep, ski and eat. There’s absolutely nothing to look at, there’s no mountains. We once saw a bird which was the most exciting thing that happened. There was just whiteness. This really was the time I certainly found the hardest, as did several other members of the team; just trying to keep yourself focused and kept yourself occupied for ten hours a day as we skied. To add to this we had days of whiteout which was pretty much like skiing in a ping-pong ball. There’s no horizon, it’s completely disorientating, it’s a nightmare. On days like that we just knew we weren’t going to cover kind of distance we were looking for.”
While they were able to counter monotony with podcasts and delays with longer stints in good weather, there was little chance of mitigating the threat of crevasses until they had fallen in to one. “Some of them are big enough to swallow a man, some are big enough to swallow a truck.” Despite four days of intensive training, post selection, in Switzerland the team remained fearful of the eventuality, predominantly because of the surprise nature: “In Antarctica there’s absolutely no ground sign, you can be skiing along and suddenly the world will disappear beneath you and you can be falling for hundreds of metres.”
The crevasse field they needed to cross was just before their exit point down Hercules Inlet onto the Ronne Ice Shelf. Coming onto the sea ice off the continent they, serendipitously employed their pulks as toboggans. “That was the best way to finish,” says Montagne. “It was probably the best moment of our lives, knowing we’d just completed this, having spent two years dreaming about Antarctica. Our mission as a team was that all six of us get to the finish.”
They whole trip took the team 60 days, 15 hours and 45 minutes, down from an original estimate of 70-75 days. Wetherill credits the military inspired sense of timing and comradery for such speed and the records of the first all-female team to cross Antarctica, and the largest team to ever cross Antarctica. “However, the one we’re most proud of is that we were the first team to cross Antarctica, with none of us ever having been to Antarctic, or the Arctic, before. That just proves how far our training had taken us.”
Like other such expeditions the team also collected and submitted a wealth of scientific data in order to help measure the physical and psychological effects on women undergoing endurance in extreme conditions. Both Wetherill and Natalie Taylor of the Army Medical Corps are doctors and wanted the expedition to provide as much medical information as possible. As a result, each member wore a series of sensors, transmitting readings back to scientists in the UK and providing invaluable data on the little studied field of female endurance physiology. On return they also spent 36 hours in a metabolic chamber doing further tests forming part of the largest ever survey of Antarctic physiology.
As well as a scientific legacy the members of Expedition Ice Maiden also leave an inspirational one. Although only six were able to complete the challenge all 250 original applicants were encouraged to pursue their own challenges. One is leading an expedition to Greenland, another has become an army photographer as a direct result of the team’s mentoring.
The expedition’s success is also testament to how assumptions about gender are a poor measure of capability. Wetherill says that for a minority, women in the military remains a taboo subject “but we have not come across anybody in the military, of any rank, who has not supported us. Generals have actually been fighting to be our patrons.” Fellow polar explorers have also come forward to praise the expedition’s “brilliant” planning and execution.
Perhaps the measure of the expedition’s success is just how well they coped in one of the world’s most demanding and dangerous environments. “Actually, when we did finish, the guys that came to collect us said we looked like we’d never even done it,” says Montagne. “I think that’s because we didn’t have beards.”