‘Train hard, fight easy’ is an age-old maxim in the military, and one which a six-strong team of British Army and Army Reserve officers took to heart as they prepared to take on the challenge of becoming the first all-female team to ski, coast-to-coast, across Antarctica.
The ‘Ice Maidens’ accomplished their mission on 20 January, taking just sixty days to ski more than 1,000 miles. In addition to becoming the first all-female team, they also became the largest team ever to complete such an undertaking. More than that, they did so without any significant injuries.
Expedition Ice Maiden was the brainchild of Major Nics Weatherill, an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, who was inspired to lead an all-women Antarctic expedition ten years ago. After biding her time and taking advantage of all the adventure training opportunities the Army had to offer (often as the only woman taking part), she met Major Natalie Taylor, also of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Together they devised a plan to realise their dream within two years.
The only conditions for applying to join the expedition were that you had to be a woman and you had to be serving in the British Army and Army Reserve. Around 250 applied for the four remaining spaces on what would be a six-strong team. None had any experience of the polar regions.
A gruelling training and selection process, involving tests of physical and mental endurance, as well as teamwork, whittled that number down to 22, who were then taken to Norway for cold weather training with the Royal Marines and the Norwegian Army. 12 were then taken back to Norway to learn how to ski with pulks and rescue each other from crevasses (a widespread danger in Antarctica). Then, in February 2017, the seven remaining candidates undertook a mini, three-week expedition in Norway, where they had to survive on their own. After one more withdrawal, the final team was assembled.
The team arrived at the Union Glacier base camp in early November. However, there they had to wait for fifteen days as weather prevented them setting off. Eventually, the ‘Ice Maidens’ set out on 20 November, covering ten miles in their first day. Terrible weather then prevented any further progress for the next two days. Further disaster was to come in the second week of the expedition as one of the team was struck down by a viral infection.
The team pulled through though, and after a slow start they picked up the pace, covering the 350 or so miles to the South Pole by 17 December. After that, it was all about the long slog across the
polar plateau, and the mental tests posed by unchanging scenery punctured only by days of disorienting whiteout. However, the team kept their discipline, keeping out the cold to prevent injuries, and sticking to strict timings. On 20 January, they crossed the finish line, arriving several days ahead of schedule. There, the team were told that they “looked as fresh as they had when they started”, but as one Ice Maiden put it, “perhaps that was because they did not have beards”.
Like SPEAR17 last year (see PolarNotes #14), the achievements of the ‘Ice Maidens’ in Antarctica demonstrated the incredible levels of physical endurance, mental determination, and teamwork that exists in the British Army and Army Reserve. The ‘Ice Maidens’ hope that the expedition as a whole, including the 250 women who trained to be part of it, will generate a cohort of women within the Army with the skills to operate and lead in extreme conditions, as well as plan and lead future expeditions. Throughout, the team have also gathered important scientific data to support medical and psychological research on women under endurance in extreme conditions.
The ‘Ice Maidens’ now want to inspire other women, both within and beyond the military, to find their own expeditionary spirit.
The ‘Ice Maidens’ are: Major Nics Weatherill (Royal Army Medical Corps), Major Natalie Taylor (Royal Army Medical Corps), Major Sandy Hennis (Royal Signals), Lieutenant Jenni Stephenson (Royal Artillery), Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne (Honourable Artillery Company), and Captain Zanna Baker (Royal Artillery).