On March 8, eight explorers and 49 dogs pulling five loaded sleds departed Canada’s frigid Ellesmere Island and headed north across 1,000 miles of arctic ice. Fifty-five days later, on May 1, six team members arrived at the North Pole, thus completing the first confirmed dogsled trek to the top of the world without benefit of resupply. (In 1909 Robert Peary and Matthew Henson claimed to have made such a trip, but historians have challenged their account.) One member of this year’s team was Ann Bancroft, a 30-year-old former gym teacher from St. Paul, Minn. As the first woman to have reached the pole on foot and by sled, Bancroft endured temperatures routinely reaching minus 70°F to explore what had generally been an all-male preserve. She gave her account of the Steger International North Pole Expedition to correspondent Civia Tamarkin.
I get stubborn and dig in when people tell me I can’t do something and I think I can. It goes back to my childhood when I had problems in school because I have a learning disability. Teachers kept telling me I had to go back a grade, and I refused. I never wanted to be perceived as handicapped or limited in any way.
Sledding across the frozen, barren arctic was a lifelong fantasy. Still, last July, when Will Steger offered me the eighth spot on the expedition, I knew I could not let my sex become an issue. One of the first things he asked me about was my period—was I crabby, did it bring me down for a day? So I just fired back questions like, “What are you like at low ebb?” I know he was just checking. I was nervous and actually just wanted his reassurance I could make it physically. At 5’3″, I wondered what it would be like dealing with loaded sleds weighing 1,200 pounds. I had climbed Mount McKinley in 1983, but the North Pole was something else.
Growing up in a rural setting in Minnesota, I was raised with the outdoors and a sense of adventure. In the fourth grade I began camping alone in the orchard during the winter. My brother Bill, who is a year older, is a climber, and when I was in the seventh grade he taught me how to rappel off the frozen waterfall in our backyard. Everyone in my family is a risk taker in his or her own way. From my mother, who may go to jail at age 56 for protesting Honeywell’s defense contracts, and my father, a photographer who has been to Central America to document atrocities, the message I got was ‘Go ahead and try—you just might get what you want.’ ” I tried to convey that when I was teaching.
When I got the okay from Steger in July, I immediately quit my job. I chose not to take a leave of absence because, if there is an opportunity, I want to be able to grab it.
In October we started training up in Ely, Minn. Will had us living in tents in the woods without electricity or running water. We spent a good portion of the day just maintaining life up there, hauling water and firewood. And of course I learned to dogsled. We cut paths through the woods to make training routes for ourselves and the dogs. I learned to move logs that easily outweighed me. Training together and living together in tight quarters meant that we bonded as a family.
On March 8 we were all set to push off from Ellesmere Island. It was very slow going the first 10 days. We’d go only a mile and a half to three miles a day, the temperature was 70° below, and most of the time we were pushing and pulling the sleds up 30-to 60-foot-high pressure ridges of ice, which form when the ice floes jam up. You’d reach the top, and all you’d see was a maze of ridges. It was a despairing sight. You’d say, “My God, where do I go from here?” That’s when you couldn’t give up or you’d be the weak link.
I think that women on expeditions often get sucked into giving 150 percent of themselves because they feel they have to prove themselves physically equal to men. We get ourselves into trouble and burn out. We feel if we fail they are going to think it’s because we’re women, even though that has nothing to do with it. I had no doubts I could go to the pole. I may not be as strong, but I make up for physical strength in other areas, like steadiness and not panicking under stress.
That is what got me through, because from Day One to the last day the grind never let up. Some days it took hours to go just 400 yards, or we’d have to untangle the dog lines 150 times a day. It never got easy. For 12 hours a day we’d hack pathways in the ice, clomp on a bit, then hack and chop some more. The situations changed, but it never got easy.
Psychologically, the hardest thing for me to deal with was the lack of privacy. Eight people in a couple of tents. When we weren’t slogging it outside with the dogs, we’d never leave the tent. We’d cook in it, change in it, sleep in it, eat in it and, because of the freezing temperatures outside, even go to the bathroom in it. In this regard, my being a woman wasn’t an issue. We were definitely asexual up there. I wouldn’t have gone if there had been seven jerks who thought they could pinch my bottom.
I coped with modesty the same as the men. You pee in a coffee can and you respect the guy who is peeing in it next to you. It’s not something anyone enjoys watching so you just don’t pay attention. We were living four to a tent and the can was used by everybody.
On March 17 Bob McKerrow, a New Zealander, injured two ribs when a bouncing sled slammed into his chest. He had to be evacuated by plane, during a scheduled dog lift. Then nearly three weeks later, with about 300 miles to go, Bob Mantell, who’s from Alaska, had to be flown out because his toes were frostbitten. He was in a lot of pain, and I think that was my worst day because I adored him.
That period was also difficult because we were down to three sleds; they were too heavy and we weren’t making mileage. So we decided to lighten our load by 300 pounds. We soul-searched and tossed off everything from tea bags to iced-up parkas and sleeping bags, keeping only what we needed to live. That was the one time I felt like giving up. Soon spring temperatures would break up the ice so much we wouldn’t be able to go on. It was a touch-and-go race with time.
It sounds crazy but the one thing I really wanted to keep was a paperback book I brought along, Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I had promised to tear out the pages as I read it to reduce its weight.
With the lighter loads we started making 20 miles or more a day, skiing or trotting alongside the dogs. But we began running into more breaks in the ice, sometimes 10 to 30 feet wide, so we had to ferry ourselves across on loose ice blocks or take giant detours.
One day the edge of the snow gave way and suddenly I fell in the freezing polar water. I was very lucky that I was able to climb out and quickly change clothes. Otherwise I could have died within minutes. It was two days before I got over the chills.
By now I should have gotten used to the loneliness, but we still had our bouts of tent fever. We kept a lot of things bottled up, and at times we fought like brothers and sister. Usually the clashes were over space and food, which was always the same—megadoses of oatmeal, cheese, noodles, dried meat and fat. Someone might be dishing it up, and when you’re tired, cold and hungry and you think you’re not getting equal portions, you get bugged. That little extra noodle could set you off. I could no longer go into my sleeping bag to cry or be alone because toward the end we had fewer bags, which we zipped together and slept in three to a bag. When we lost that little bit of private space we had to learn to get it from within. You learn to space out in your head.
I missed having another woman to talk to, to share emotions. And though I sometimes felt slighted or cut out of a conversation, in a way I became the emotional baby-sitter, having to listen to the guys go on about the cold. One time I finally blew up and said, “If you want a token female, then you have the wrong woman.” Or I’d scream and jump up and down to be heard or taken seriously. It also irritated me when they would look surprised because maybe I’d done something better than they thought I could. I love these guys to death, but I’d blast them when I had to.
On the day we got to the pole, there was no summit, no sign we were approaching, nothing. It looked like all the other ice we’d seen. Miraculously, we drifted to within 200 yards of the pole. Then, with an energy beacon system, we verified our position and celebrated a brief moment of triumph. Before the three Twin Otter planes picked us up, I’m sure each of us felt he had accomplished a personal first. Some of us, like me, were even thinking of a new challenge—possibly the South Pole. But that will have to wait for another day.