JODY AVIRGAN: From ESPN Films and ESPN Audio, you’re listening to 30 For 30 Podcasts, presented by the Mini Countryman.
The quest to conquer the Arctic has enticed and evaded explorers for centuries. Thousands of people have died trying to make the trip by ship, by foot, by dogsled, and even once by balloon.
But, in 1997, a woman named Caroline Hamilton decided to make history by taking a team made up entirely of amateur women to the North Pole.
30 For 30’s Rose Eveleth takes us “On the Ice.”
* * * * *
(Sound of wind blowing)
[BBC News Report
NEWSCASTER: The first attempt on the North Pole by a team of women gets underway today. 4 of them set off from Resolute Bay on the first stage of the 1000-kilometer trek to the pole. There are 5 teams all together.]
ROSE EVELETH: March 14th, 1997. Day One.
MATTY MCNAIR: As these women just proudly walked over to the Twin Otter, you know, the mist rising from our breaths and the early dawn light capturing it, it felt like we were astronauts heading to our spaceship. It was so exciting.
LUCY MARTIN: The heart’s going, the heart is definitely is going.
DENISE MARTIN: You just get in the plane and it’s magical. I love Twin Otters, the sound and the smell of the Avgas.
ANN DANIELS: The plane is amazing.
ROSIE STANCER: Twin Otters are wonderful things just the rrrrrr of the propellers
ANN DANIELS: Like the biggest hair dryer, in the world
ROSIE STANCER: And the snow starts churning up behind and you’re jam packed in knees against your pulks, your sledges, which are all jammed into this little plane as well.
SUE FULLILOVE: And then you kind of go out and you’re flying away from civilization and over the Arctic.
EMMA GOOLDEN: I think that was when it hit me that we were on… ice. And you saw the big thick black lines that were the leads that had opened up, and as we were flying over I think it really hit me. And I, I probably went very quiet for quite some time as it dawned on me exactly what we were trying to do.
ROSE EVELETH: On March 14th, 1997, a group of British ladies set out to be the first all-women’s team to reach the North Pole.
These women weren’t experienced adventurers. They were ordinary women. Complete amateurs. Some of them didn’t even realize that the top of our planet was made of ice, not land, until they set out to reach it.
And they set out to reach it, because of an ad, in a newspaper.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: I was on the tube going to work and I saw an advert that said “Women Wanted to Walk to the North Pole”
ROSE EVELETH: August 1995. London. The Classified Ads of the Daily Telegraph.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: Applications are invited from women of any age, background, and occupation, but they will have to prove fitness and commitment. They will have to put up with real pain and discomfort. They will wonder every 10 steps what they are doing, but they have an opportunity to take part in an epic adventure
[BBC New Report
NEWSCASTER: The epic adventure will take them over 1,000 kilometers of hazardous sea ice. They’ll be traveling in relays and hauling supplies and equipment in temperatures which can drop as low as minus-45 degrees.]
[BBC News Report
NEWSCASTER: Five teams of four will undertake two week relays in an attempt to cover the 1,000-kilometer journey. Enabling women who’ve had no previous expedition experience to take part.]
ROSE EVELETH: Nearly two hundred amateurs applied for the trip, women like Ann Daniels.
ANN DANIELS: When I first heard about the relay, I was actually in my dining room and I was rolling a ball to my 18-month-old triplets.
ROSE EVELETH: In 1995, Ann Daniels was a former bank clerk. Former, because, when she had triplets she had to leave her job.
ANN DANIELS: I would literally sit in a chair with two pillows and put a child to each breast and then a pillow on my knee and feed the third child, rather like a milking machine.
ROSE EVELETH: Ann could barely keep up with the three tiny babies that needed her attention. Her marriage was on the rocks and making it through every day was a challenge. Going to the North Pole seemed totally impossible.
ANN DANIELS: My first thought was it’s not for people like me, mothers of children who have never done anything outdoors, have never had walking boots on my feet. I mean, I’d been on holiday to Spain and lied by the pool, but it was packaged holidays. I had never been outside or done anything in any remote region.
ROSE EVELETH: But then again…
ANN DANIELS: It was something different that I could do that wasn’t all consuming in children.
ROSE EVELETH: So she applied.
January 1996. Dartmoor, England. Tryouts. Round One.
Every woman who applied for the trip to the North Pole got a letter in return telling them to show up to a damp, foggy park called Dartmoor. They weren’t told what to expect, but they did know that this was an audition. Only 20 of them could be on the team. That weekend, it rained. A cold, hard, January rain, sometimes coming down sideways. But the women showed up anyway. Sixty of them.
ROSIE STANCER: I’m Rosie Stancer
LUCY MARTIN: Lucy Martin
PAULA POWER: Paula Power
EMMA GOOLDEN: I’m Emma Goolden, formerly Emma Scott
SUE FULLILOVE: I’m Sue Fullilove
EMMA GOODLEN: I was taking a gap year between A levels and University
SUE FULLILOVE: I was a junior doctor
LUCY MARTIN: I was working as a financial journalist on The Independent newspaper.
PAULA POWER: I worked in software development
ROSE EVELETH: There was also a police officer, a flight attendant, teachers, stay at home moms. And when they arrived at Dartmoor, they were greeted by a woman named Caroline Hamilton. This trip was her idea– an idea she had hatched on a whim.
CAROLINE HAMILTON: A friend of mine was dating a polar explorer, and I met him, and he didn’t make it so inspired me. He talked about it, and didn’t make it sound too difficult, and I thought well, if he can do it, so can I.
ROSE EVELETH: That friend, was a guy named Pen Hadow
PEN HADOW: I can remember her roaring off in, I think leathers, on a motorbike which I thought was … different.
ROSE EVELETH: Caroline wanted to go to the North Pole and Pen wanted to help her. But, they knew that Caroline couldn’t do it alone. They would need a team and they would need money.
PEN HADOW: But, then I thought, but this is going to be fabulously expensive and I can remember the cost were 325,000 pounds, which would be very roughly, 500,000 dollars, very roughly.
ROSE EVELETH: To get money, they would need sponsors. And to get sponsors, they would need something eye catching, something that the media would grab onto.
Something like…The first all-women’s trip to the North Pole.
PEN HADOW: That would be interesting to the public and the media.
ROSE EVELETH: And it was. Women from all over the UK showed up on Dartmoor, excited to join the exclusive world of polar exploration.
ANN DANIELS: That weekend I was completely annihilated. I didn’t know what I was doing. After an hour, I felt like this rucksack was ripping my shoulders off. Everybody could see I was just a bit of a wreck. At night, I literally sobbed when nobody could see me.
ROSE EVELETH: By the end of a full day of hiking through mud and rain and fog, Ann didn’t just feel miserable. She also felt alone in her misery.
ANN DANIELS: My vivid memory is these women going up the road singing and laughing. I just wanted to cry. I was in tatters.
I couldn’t believe the difference. Just how horrific I felt and that anybody could have had an ounce of energy, not let alone, laugh.
ROSE EVELETH: Sue and Victoria, were two of those women, walking down the road, singing and laughing.
SUE RICHES: I’m Sue Riches
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: I’m Victoria Humphries
SUE RICHES: Victoria, there’s lots of argument here, rang me up and said she was going to go on this expedition. And somehow, I found myself joining her. I say she asked me, she said she didn’t.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: She claims I invited her. My defense is, what 24, 25-year-old would invite their mother on an expedition with them?
ROSE EVELETH: They may have been in better shape than Ann, but they weren’t any better prepared for a trip to the North Pole.
SUE RICHES: It was somewhere I didn’t really know anything about, I didn’t read any books to scare myself. It was all slightly surreal.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: See I thought it felt quite real to me, but maybe because it was cause I’d read all these books and I realized they were real stories.
SUE RICHES: No I hadn’t, I thought, I don’t want to scare myself too much.
I’d just had a breast cancer, I’d had a mastectomy six months before, but also, and Victoria will say this is my optimism, I knew I’d get better. I really, genuinely woke up the next morning after the op and I knew I would be better. So, Sorry Victoria, more optimism.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: It’s this eternal optimism drives me demented
ROSE EVELETH: Pen was right that an expedition full of ordinary women would attract the media. They showed up on Dartmoor that weekend too. They simply couldn’t resist the sight of 60 ordinary British ladies tromping around a moor, acting like they were really truly going to go to the North Pole.
They loved that Sue and Victoria were a mother daughter. But, their perfect interview subject was Ann Daniels. A petite blonde woman with a great smile and easy laugh. And, most appealing of all, she was a mother of three very young babies.
[Various News Reports
NEWS ANNOUNCER 1: What makes her achievement all the more extraordinary, is that she set off leaving her young triplets at home
NEWS ANNOUNCER 2: Ann Daniels from Bradford has triplets, age two and a half.
NEWS ANNOUNCER 3: A mother of triplets
NEWS ANNOUNCER 4: Mother of triplets
NEWS ANNOUNCER 5: And a mother of triplets are involved]
ANN DANIELS: I was interviewed a lot, mother of triplets, what will it be like?
ROSE EVELETH: And in the middle of one of those interviews, Ann Daniels realized that this wasn’t just a fun weekend away from the kids. This was something that she wanted.
ANN DANIELS: And that was when I caught the dream, because I just kept saying what I’d been told. It’s chance of a lifetime, you know. Imagine somebody like me. I just thought, “Hang on. Wow. What if I could do this?”
ROSE EVELETH: September 1996. Tryout number two. Dartmoor, again. Ann again. But this time, different. Ann had spent the last nine months training.
ANN DANIELS: Over that period of time it became about being a mother, training, being a mother, training, and that was the only thing that really occupied me for that time. I was so focused.
ROSE EVELETH: This time, she was ready.
ANN DANIELS: I know that I was bad and I know they were surprised when I turned up again. But I was a different human being the second time.
ROSE EVELETH: This time, it was hard, for everybody. At one point, the organizers shook the women awake in the middle of the night and lined them up on the moor. “Out in the blackness somewhere was a Land Rover,” they said. “Run to it and back.”
ANN DANIELS: And I could hear them saying things like, “You must pace yourself. You must do this. You must do that.” There were marathon runners amongst them and I thought, I’m not pacing myself. I’m just going to run until I fall over.
And I set off like a bullet and I just ran and ran and ran and ran. And there were times when I did think before I got to the Land Rover, I’ve really messed up.
I thought, you have to keep it up. You have to just keep running and running and running. I didn’t know if I was going to get to the end, but I did. And that was a huge, euphoric moment to pass first out of everybody. I felt like I’d got to the North Pole.
ROSE EVELETH: The first all-women’s attempt at the North Pole was, mercifully, a relay. The twenty women had been selected. Five teams of four women each would push as far and fast as they could. Each team would be on the ice for about three weeks, before handing the baton which, in this case, was a stuffed penguin, to the next group of four.
February 28th, 1997. Yeovil, England. Ann’s house.
Ann was on the first leg of the relay, the first team to set out for the Arctic. And it was now time to travel north, to leave her triplets with her mother, and head out into one of the most treacherous regions of the world.
ANN DANIELS: I said goodbye to them at home and it was really difficult because they were only three years of age and I’d never been without them and I’d been with them for so long and it was heart wrenching and my mother had sort of spoke to them and said you know, “Oh, you must be really brave and smile because you don’t want your mum’s last memory of you to be in tears.”
So, when we all said goodbye, we were really happy and, “Oh, it won’t be long and I’ll be in touch and it’ll be very exciting,” and I left smiling.
Literally, as I drove away from the house, I just burst into tears because it was awful to leave them behind.
ROSE EVELETH: March 1st, 1997. Resolute, Canada.
To get to the North Pole, you have to first get to Resolute, a tiny community in the far northernmost reaches of Canada. At Resolute, the women met their guides.
Their lead guide was a 45-year old American woman named Matty McNair, who owned an outdoor adventure travel company with her husband Paul.
MATTY MCNAIR: My husband at the time, Paul Landry, was in the UK and ran into Pen Hadow and they had too many beers, and when Pen started talking about “Oh, I have a client who wants to put a women’s expedition together to the North Pole.” Paul said, “Oh, the only person that could get your group safely there is my wife.”
And so he came back all excited about, “Whoo, you know, I think I sold this, you know, this trip that maybe you’re guiding to the North Pole.” And he was all excited about it, and I was going, “And why do I want to do this?” (laughs)
ROSE EVELETH: Matty had then recruited a second guide, a Canadian named Denise Martin. A woman who lived up in the Yukon, who Matty had been a mentor to for years.
DENISE MARTIN: And in her Matty way just phoned up “Hi Denise, how are you doing?” “Oh, I’m fine Matty. What’s going on?” “Oh, do you want to go to the North Pole?” I just said “Sure why not.”
ROSE EVELETH: Matty and Denise were two of the most experienced Arctic guides in the world. But, neither of them had ever been to the North Pole. Very few women, had. And no all women’s team had ever made the trip.
At Resolute, the women also met their final trainer. A man named Geoff Somers. It was his job to make sure that these amateur women had the skills they needed to stay alive.
GEOFF SOMERS: I’d spent a lifetime up until then of doing polar trips, and it still scared me, so for them it was a colossal challenge. During their training, I had each group for 10 to 15 days. I kept a diary, just a daily journal of the training and I often talk about, what am I doing sending these people out? But the first day dropping that first group off, I thought my goodness, what have I done?
ROSE EVELETH: March 14th, 1997. Day One. The plane has dropped them off on the ice…
(sound of plane propeller)
LUCY MARTIN: You feel very alone when that plane takes off, you feel really, really alone.
ANN DANIELS: They’ve gone. There’s no civilization. It’s us. Thousands of miles of ice, and nobody.
ROSIE STANCER: It was like your umbilical cord stretching out, stretching, stretching out, snap, gone.
And when you see the Twin Otter just give a little tilt of its wings, and away it goes, and you feel that’s really your last point of contact.
EMMA GOOLDEN: And then just, nothing.
DENISE MARTIN: I had a bit of a sense of shock. It’s actually not this nice, white, flat snow covered, lovely skiing surface that I’d hoped for. It was a lot of open water, it was full of all these mountains of ice, and it all looked incredibly impossible. I mean, I just remember thinking there’s no way in the world we’re going to get through that stuff.
ANN DANIELS: And the ice is, it’s everything. It’s sharp, jagged, harsh lines, it’s soft, beautiful undulating snow. It’s crystals where the sun glints on the crystals of the ice and it reflects in different colors, so you see the pastels the pinks the blues. And the ice itself can be frosted white or aquamarine clear blue.
ROSIE STANCER: Aquamarine blue.
SUE RICHES: And you get this electric blue shining out of the lumps of ice, and it looks as a torch inside shining
ROSIE STANCER: I always used to think it looked like there was a little goblin in there, holding up a lantern (laughs)
ANN DANIELS: But the first time that it moves properly, when you’re stood there and these ridges as high as mountains suddenly start to move in front of your eyes. The noise then is astronomical. It is like a train coming.
LUCY MARTIN: What I would say is that it can be viciously serene, so it looks all beautiful and twinkly and sparkly, and it can turn stormy and nasty and life threateningly dangerous.
ROSE EVELETH: To get to the North Pole, each leg of the relay had to walk, or ski, usually both, over miles and miles of ice. You carry supplies in big sleds — or pulks, as the British call them. Like little boats with red bottoms scraping along the ice.
LUCY MARTIN: The pulks that we had had this light green strip around them, but I became obsessed with, I wanted an apple. A fresh, green crunchy apple.
ROSE EVELETH: The pulks are supposed to float if they fall into the water, but they can sink. And you are tied to them.
DENISE MARTIN: Sue, had a great name for it. She called it frozen bondage, she had to put on her frozen bondage every day.
ROSE EVELETH: March 26th, 1997.
For the last few days, the women have zig zagged back and forth to avoid a deep river of open water, something called a lead. But this morning, the thick black lead that had stopped them the day before had just barely frozen over, a thin skin of sparkling ice. And the women of the first team, Claire Fletcher, Sue Fullilove, Jan McCormac, and Ann Daniels, set off.
MATTY MCNAIR: I decided that it was okay to travel kind of along the edge because if somebody went through, we could jump up on this jumbled up ice and it, it would be a good place to rescue somebody from.
ANN DANIELS: We were skating along and I’m behind Claire and I could feel myself getting frightened. The ice is undulating so it’s bouncing and Claire was in front of me and her foot broke through the ice.
And I knew I was going to go in.
So I just tried to ski as fast as I could in the tracks that Claire had had, but I felt my skis go in. And as my skis went in and I went down it was very fast but it felt like it was slow motion and I just felt sick.
ROSE EVELETH: Ann was in the water, at the bend in the icy path. The women in front of her couldn’t see her. The women behind her could only see her stopped sledge, not her scrambling body around the corner.
ANN DANIELS: So, at first I started to shout for help and then I realized nobody could hear me.
MATTY MCNAIR: She was too far back and out of sight to even communicate.
ANN DANIELS: I thought I have to get out.
ROSE EVELETH: To her left, the hard ice rose up out of the water.
ANN DANIELS: I grabbed high, there was a boulder of rock, and hauled myself up. As I was hauling myself up the rock of ice broke off and I plunged back in.
And I thought okay, try again. I tried a second time and the same thing happened again. And then I was starting to get really frightened and thought. I just have to keep trying and if this doesn’t work then I have to do something else. Because if I don’t try I am going to die.
ROSE EVELETH: And in the back of Ann’s mind she could hear Matty, her guide.
MATTY MCNAIR: My favorite saying is, “If you get wet, you die.”
ROSE EVELETH: So, she reached up again. So, the third time it did work and I managed to sit on a ledge. Ann was out of the water. But she was still wet, and she had to get dry as fast as she could, before the water on her suit froze.
ANN DANIELS: And Matty said what you need to do now is roll in the snow and get the moisture out of you. It’s a good absorbent.
ROSE EVELETH: The Arctic is an icy desert, and the snow up there is very dry. Dry enough that when it hits water, it sucks it right up.
ANN DANIELS: Somebody took my boots off, while someone else got my spare socks. I put my foot up Jan’s jumper while they took my wet socks off and put dry socks and boots on.
ROSE EVELETH: As they warmed Ann’s feet against their bare skin and helped her change her socks, a seal popped its head up and out of the water.
MATTY MCNAIR: I look over and there’s a seal.
ROSE EVELETH: A little wet bowling ball head, beady eyes.
MATTY MCNAIR: And the seal has its little head out of the water, it’s a ring seal, and it’s swimming along looking at me (laughs) it was so much fun.
ROSE EVELETH: And then the seal was gone, slipped down into the black water. And the team started to walk. Strapped back into their sledges to get moving, to get Ann warmed up again. Matty was glad to be moving, and not just for Ann’s sake. Seals are a favorite polar bear food.
(Crunching sound of women pulling sledges over, heavy, exhausted breathing)
ANN DANIELS: We were in temperatures of minus-32 and then wind chill on top of that, so all the time you’re in pain with your fingers and your toes being cold. You’re pulling a heavy sledge and you’re exhausted. And sometimes it just feels like you want to stop and sit down and give in, but you can’t.
So, in order for me to keep going when I was really tired and my legs wanted to stop was to just chant the children, to try and take my mind and my focus away from the painful hands and the heavy sledge and the cold air and just take it down to a different place and not think about it. I would literally chant the children, Lucy, Joseph, Rachel, Lucy, Joseph, Rachel. And just keep at it and see their faces and just keep seeing their faces — Joseph, Lucy, Rachel. Lucy, Joseph, Rachel.
ROSE EVELETH: March 30th, 1997. The first leg of the relay has hauled their bodies and sledges 56 nautical miles over 17 days. It was time for the next team of women to take the stuffed penguin baton, and continue north.
But Ann didn’t want to leave.
ANN DANIELS: We left and I looked at the ice and I had a real yearning and a real goodbye moment and a real, “I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here again.” And I looked at the ice and I felt quite an affinity, like proper, “I’m leaving you now,” like a relationship.
ROSE EVELETH: What she didn’t know, on that plane, was that while she was on the ice, her marriage went from failing to finished.
ANN DANIELS: They brought letters from the family out, and I was the only one that didn’t get a letter. So, I was quite sad. It’s quite honest. I was really sad. I was on the plane. Everybody had these letters and I didn’t. I didn’t get a letter from my husband, I knew that that was it, that we’d finished and that was quite difficult. I didn’t want the marriage to end, I was very heartbroken.
ROSE EVELETH: Her babies were there, waiting for her. But the rest of her life was gone. Like the ice, it had given out from underneath her.
ANN DANIELS: It became quite physical and then when they went to bed, I would allow myself to cry, and say, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” Then the blackness would, I don’t know how I’m going to get up tomorrow. And you get up tomorrow and the children refocus you and you keep going and then you go to sleep again at night. And I got three small children I had to look after on my own. I didn’t have the money, the resources. There was all that. I had a new challenge to focus on.
ROSE EVELETH: April 12th, 1997. Another team on, another team off. The second team marched 75 more miles. Now, it was Team Charlie’s turn. Paula Power, Lynne Clarke, and the mother daughter duo, Sue and Victoria Riches.
Here is how Matty describes Sue and Victoria in her personal log book: Sue is a tall elegant woman. She takes the ice and snow obstacles in stride, even though this is her first outdoor adventure… Victoria, or Vic, but not Vicki, is 26, that age at which everything is possible if you want it badly enough. She is a tall woman like her mother and has an invincible attitude.
MATTY MCNAIR: They were really good at supporting one another when they needed support.
ROSE EVELETH: April 20th, 1997. A storm blew in.
[Audio of relay team cooking in their tent
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: Okay, we’re standing on top of the hill by the tent just down there. It’s now Sunday morning and the wind according to this is gusting 30 miles an hour just then it’s been going up to 40 plus all day and all night…
ROSE EVELETH: A storm bad enough that they had to stay inside all day. Which was nice at first. A day to sleep in, a day to rest and repair skis, play games, cook.
[Audio of women cooking and chatting inside tent
SUE RICHES: We’ll wait for this storm to brew over.
I’m making chocolate shortbread. And here Victoria is melting the chocolate and butter over the—
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: and dried milk
SUE RICHES: And dried milk, and in the background you can hear Denise hammering the shortbread into crumbs. It’s going to be added to the chocolate mix and put outside to set, and apparently, it’s a scrumptious recipe]
ROSE EVELETH: But in the Arctic there is danger in everything, including resting. As they sat, they drifted. Overnight, the team slid nearly 20 nautical miles east.
April 21st, 1997. The next morning. Matty poked her head out of the tent, and decided the conditions were good enough to pack up and go. The women, were antsy. Morale was low. It was gray and windy, windier than usual. Sue and Victoria could barely see their feet.
SUE RICHES: So we came to this area of mist.
DENISE MARTIN: I think we called it the hell zone. Like it was really an area of a lot of movement and drift.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: The winds are blowing, you could hear the ice cracking and groaning underneath you.
SUE RICHES: And we started to cross, when suddenly the ice started disintegrating underneath my feet.
MATTY MCNAIR: I said “Ski fast, Sue. You’re sinking!”
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: They started shouting Sue, Sue, move fast.
SUE RICHES: I was aware of Matty’s “Go! Go! Go!” But… why? What was she shouting this “Go! Go! Go!” for?
MATTY MCNAIR: And she stopped and looked down and sure enough her heels went through and she just slid right in.
SUE RICHES: And so I found myself walking into this water and then sinking, sinking up to my neck. I was kicking like mad, and so one boot and ski came off
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: Mum just disappeared
And I thought oh God she’s going to die, she survived cancer she’s going to die now.
ROSE EVELETH: Victoria reached out to try and save her mother. But the ice was disappearing all around them, and she fell in too.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: All I remember thinking we’ve got to get out of here, we’ve just got to get out of here or we will die.
My fear, is of my sledge pulls me down, under the water, pulls me down, pulls me down, and the ice closes up above me so I can’t get back out.
ROSE EVELETH: Then, the third domino fell. Denise, their guide, broke through the ice as well.
MATTY MCNAIR: You know, she breaks through and then she’s crawling and pulling herself up and dragging her skis, and she’d kind of get back up on her feet and go through again. And my heart kept sinking when she sank, and coming up when she was up. It was like this nightmare to watch her.
DENISE MARTIN: The one thought that went into my head as the water I could feel it on my earlobes, what would a dog do in this situation? A dog would dog paddle and keep their head up. I ended up swimming with my skis on for quite a distance.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: I remember mum swearing, and mum doesn’t particularly swear, she was saying “shit shit shit shit shit.” That was when I kind of woke up. “Oh my God what’s happened, help help help.”
ROSE EVELETH: Two women with no experience and one of their guides that is supposed to be able to save them, are all in the water. And the river was getting wider and wider.
[Audio of the women talking after several team members had fallen in
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: Sue, are you okay?]
ROSE EVELETH: After several frantic minutes, Sue and Victoria drifted over to Matty, who helped haul them out. Denise finished swimming to the other side, to join up with the other two relay members, Paula and Lynne.
[Audio of the women talking after several team members had fallen in
DENISE MARTIN: Matty I gotta get my pulk.
We gotta get these guys off of here, what’s your plan anything? Is it moving towards you?
PAULA POWER: Do you want me to go, I’m a bit lighter?
DENISE MARTIN: No, I don’t want you to go in the water, we can get another person in the water]
MATTY MCNAIR: Denise, I can tell she’s getting hypothermic just from the tone of her voice, and she’s lost both skis and both boots now, she’s standing there dripping wet and she’s freaking out and she’s just screaming at me , “Matty, my fucking feet are freezing! Matty!” and the wind is picking up so it’s starting to be harder and harder to yell across
(archival of a relay team member yelling)
WOMAN: “Hold on!”
ROSE EVELETH: The river between the two groups was too wide to cross. But standing there would mean certain death for Sue and Victoria who would soon become human icicles.
So they started walking.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: Just walked, on and on and on.
ROSE EVELETH: Matty imagined the two groups, wandering out on the sea ice, the winds blowing their tracks away behind them.
MATTY MCNAIR: The worst thing that can happen is not us going through the ice, but being separated and not being able to find each other, and the weather was starting to shut down and visibility was getting poor.
ROSE EVELETH: Sue had lost a boot, so she was walking with a stuff sack on one of her feet.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: And we just had to keep jumping over little island, little island and each time you just thought, how are we going to get out of this?
And then we got to this junction, this Y of the riverbank where our bank kind of forked one way their bank forked the other. And there was no way we would get to over to the other side. At that point it was almost, despair. what… do we do?
But we then had this, bizarre moment, where the ice just… came over to us.
MATTY MCNAIR: The great big pans of ice started to come back together, closing this lead.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: And it wasn’t like this whole river. It was just this one little bit of ice in front of us.
I strongly, strongly, strongly believe it was a miracle of some description. Something happened, something saved our lives. We were very, very lucky.
ROSE EVELETH: April 22nd 1997. The river that, just the day before, had nearly swallowed them, was now frozen. And sticking out of it, were a variety of supplies that had been lost the day before, now frozen into the ice like popsicle sticks.
Matty slid out onto the ice with an axe, and chopped their gear out.
Then it was time to get going.
SUE RICHES: And I was quite jumpy because I thought to myself when we met open water. I’ve fallen in once and survived. If I fall in a second time can I survive.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: The next day, I was absolutely convinced that it would happen again, and we would fall in again, and we wouldn’t all be so lucky the next time. I can’t describe the fear that I was feeling, I cannot describe how terrified I was, absolutely terrified, every second of that day. I honestly, honestly thought I was going to die in the Arctic.
ROSE EVELETH: Sue later wrote in her diary that falling in the water was the worst day of her life. Worse than finding out she had cancer. “Cancer is something you can’t see. But in the Arctic, she wrote, “the reality is there right in front of you. And there is no escape.”
April 28th, 1997. Sue and Victoria like all the women before them, got their escape. They climbed into the tiny plane, and headed back to Resolute Bay. The next team took the baton, and Matty and Denise led them north.
May 17th, 1997. The final relay team hits the ice. Lucy Martin, Pom Oliver, Zoe Hudson and Caroline Hamilton, the organizer of this whole wild adventure. 110 miles left to go. Striking distance.
REPORTER: Almost there, the last of the five teams of four women are in pole position. They’re just hours away from their target of reaching the top of the world.]
REPORTER: This is the real meaning of Girl Power, and it’s taking them to the top of the world. Five teams have trekked 600 miles in relay. When the final group arrives at the North Pole it will be the first all women expedition to complete this epic journey.]
ROSE EVELETH: May 26th, 1997. Denise’s birthday. Pole day. On this day, the first all- women’s relay, reached the North Pole.
MATTY MCNAIR: Getting to the North Pole is a bit anti-climactic. I must confess it’s not like climbing to the top of a mountain and you’re on the top. There’s no other up to go. Just kind of looks like everything you seen for the last weeks it’s like more the same in every direction still looks the same.
DENISE MARTIN: And it was a bit like Oh my God we’re here. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I can’t believe we can actually stop. It felt like we should have felt exhausted and sort of like ready to throw ourselves on the ground through fatigue and and hunger. But it was like oh I guess we just set up camp now. I don’t really know what to do.
CAROLINE HAMILTON: What do you do when you get to the North Pole? So we decided we must sing the national anthem
[The last relay group singing British National Anthem at North Pole
CAROLINE HAMILTON (singing): God save our gracious queen, long live our noble queen
CAROLINE HAMILTON: The morning of May 27, we arrived here North Pole at 10:45 last night, just a few hours ago not been to bed yet, lots of celebration and I’m just thrilled to bits.]
MATTY MCNAIR: And it’s really have to play your head around like “I’m at the
top of the…” I have to imagine I’m standing on the very tip of our planet.
[Video of Caroline Hamilton walking around North Pole
CAROLINE HAMILTON: I’m in the same time zone as London. And if I keep walking in this way around in a circle, I’m going to walk through all the time zones of the world. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, I reckon I’m in Moscow now?]
MATTY MCNAIR: If I run around the North Pole kind of clockwise will I get younger if I stay over here it’s tomorrow if I go over here it’s yesterday… you know wait a minute.
[Various News Reports
NEWS ANNOUNCER 1: They’d walked hundreds of miles over shifting ice, all that remained was to trek across the arrivals lounge at Heathrow. There, a warm welcome for women who’d conquered the coldest place on Earth.]
NEWS ANNOUNCER 2: (cheering) This morning at Heathrow the team was reunited with friends and other team members.
NEWS ANNOUNCER 3: This was the last of the five teams who’d endured temperatures of minus 45 degrees Celsius and risked attack from polar bears, to reach the North Pole.]
ROSE EVELETH: The 1997 women’s relay was a success. It was the first all-women’s team to walk to the North Pole. Matty and Denise had brought twenty amateur women on one of the toughest trips in the world.
What do you do when you get back from the North Pole? For some, their brush with the icy North nudged them onto a different path.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: It was probably the only time in my life when I haven’t had a big to-do list, or I’ve got a weight on my shoulders of something that needs to be done, the only time in my life when I’ve had no real pressures is those few weeks up in the arctic.
ROSE EVELETH: When she got off the ice, Victoria left her job.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: I wanted to leave London
ROSE EVELETH: And her boyfriend.
VICTORIA HUMPHRIES: I realized while up in the Pole, it wasn’t the man I wanted to marry, it wasn’t the man I wanted to be with.
ROSE EVELETH: When Ann got back from the ice, she had no choice over whether she wanted to be on a different path. Her husband had left her. He had decided that for her.
ANN DANIELS: I knew I didn’t want to be with him, I just had been with that man since I was 18 so I didn’t quite know how to fill that gap. And suddenly I’m a really single mother of triplets. I’ve got a broken heart and I don’t know what to do with myself. And for quite a while I struggled. And I would I’d look after the children during the day but when I put them to bed more often than not I’d be very upset.
ROSE EVELETH: For a lot of the women, the expedition was like a dream, or a trip to another planet. When they got home, they just settled back into their lives.
These days, almost all of the women have moved on from polar life. They run record labels and software companies. They’re teachers, designers, doctors. Matty is retired, and goes dog sledding as much as she can. Denise works at a school in Scotland, as an outdoor instructor.
Today, even if the women wanted to replicate their entire, 416-mile North Pole relay, it would be nearly impossible. Not because they’re twenty years older, but because the ice is melting too fast.
GEOFF SOMERS: There are very, very few people now that can manage to go all the way. It is so much more difficult with much, much more open water. The pole has less and less ice each year.
ANN DANIELS: There just is so much water now. Anecdotally and absolutely too much.
ROSE EVELETH: And Ann knows, because after that first trip to the North Pole, Ann Daniels found a new passion, and a new job.
ANN DANIELS: I’m Ann Daniels and before this trip I was very lucky to be a mother of triplets and ex-bank clerk. And now I am a polar guide and mother of four children.
ROSE EVELETH: Today, Ann Daniels is one of the most experienced polar guides in the world.
ANN DANIELS: So I’m going in April. Yeah, I’m training. I’ve pulled a few injuries. I’m also getting old. April this year. It’s a climate change expedition. It is specifically to raise awareness of what’s happening up there and to collect data that scientists want and are able to use.
ROSE EVELETH: And on 18 April 2017, a little over a month before the 20th anniversary of the 1997 all women’s relay success, Ann Daniels was at the North Pole once again.
ANN DANIELS: It’s Ann Daniels here, at the very top of the world the North Geographic pole. We made it and we got to the top of the world!
20 years ago when I started a lot of it was the same, the same cold hands the same cold feet. The journey is always different, it changes. It moves, it melts, it grows again. So, every year is a different journey. The difference now of course is I’m now at the front, I’m navigating, I’m making sure people have what they need and passing on the knowledge that I’ve gained over 20 years.
And now it’s time to leave and come home again.