94 DAYS, 1,717 MILES
As young girls, Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen read a recount of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary attempt to cross Antarctica that stirred their imaginations and, despite being completely unaware of one another, they both declared the same childhood dream: to ski across Antarctica. In 1998, the women met for the first time, discovered they were kindred spirits, and prepared to achieve their childhood dream.
Starting Nov. 13, 2000, Bancroft and Arnesen skied and sailed across Antarctica for 94 days and 1,717 miles (2,747km), pulling 250 pound (113 kg) sleds full of food and equipment, enduring temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34 degrees Celsius) and winds gusting up to 100 miles (160 km) per hour. The following timeline recounts their incredible journey:
Start/Two Weeks Behind (Nov. 13) — Bancroft and Arnesen land on Antarctica with the intent to cross the continent’s landmass and the Ross Ice Shelf — a floating slab of ice the size of France. They are two weeks behind schedule due to weather delays and under pressure to ski and sail about 2,300 miles (3,680 km) to reach McMurdo Station by Feb. 22, when Antarctica’s brutal winter begins.
Sygyn Glacier/Thanksgiving Emergency (Nov. 14-30) — The women climb from the Blue 1 Ice Runway up the Sygyn Glacier, a 121-mile (194 km) stretch which puts them at an altitude of 9,700 feet (2,959 m). The day after Thanksgiving, an emergency beacon on Arnesen’s sled accidentally activates a “No. 15” alert (Send Help), causing the expedition’s Minneapolis team to begin rescue efforts. Within four hours, the team reaches the explorers by satellite phone and discover to their great relief that snow trapped in the beacon tripped the alarm and the explorers are safe.
Polar Plateau/Slow Progress (Dec. 1-Jan. 13) — Bancroft and Arnesen cross 1,200 miles (1,920 km) of sastrugi, icy snowdrifts as high at 10 feet (3 m) tall. Some days, they are able to ski and pull only a few miles; other days, they sail as far as 66 miles (106 km). Antarctica’s wind is unusually calm, causing the women to miss reaching the South Pole, where a re-supply of food awaits, by Christmas. They ration their remaining food (chocolate and oatmeal) and, with their team in Minneapolis, decide that if they do not reach the South Pole by Jan. 18, lack of time will force the expedition to stop at the South Pole.
South Pole Miracle (Jan. 14-17) — With a sudden burst of wind at their backs, Bancroft and Arnesen sail 77 miles (123 km) in 14 hours. Miraculously, on Jan. 16at 4 a.m. South Pole time, they reach the South Pole for a two-day rest, a re-supply and a visit with the first people they’ve seen in two months.
The Titan Dome/Desperation (Jan. 18-27) — Bancroft and Arnesen pull their fully loaded sleds up 1,000 feet (305 m) in bitter cold. Breathing is difficult; Arnesen’s fingertips crack and turn yellow. One word describes the conditions and their mindset: desperate.
Shackleton Glacier/Danger (Jan. 28-Feb. 10) — The women negotiate the most dangerous — yet meaningful — stretch of their trek: a 9,600-foot (2,928 m) descent of the glacier named after their childhood hero, Sir Ernest Shackleton. The glacier, a jagged river of ice with razor-sharp ridges and snow bridges over deep crevasses, is perilous. Arnesen skis over ridges that slice a yard-long gash in her sled, exposing food and fuel bottles. Both women punch through crevasses, catching themselves before falling in. They name an area filled with countless cracks “Hell.” They backtrack up the glacier to get out and sail the few miles to its edge.
Stepping into History (Feb. 11) — Bancroft and Arnesen step off the Shackleton Glacier and onto the Ross Ice Shelf, officially making history as the first women to cross Antarctica’s landmass on foot. With time running out, there is little time for celebration. They press on, hopeful that they can sail the final leg of their journey — the 490-mile (784 km) wide Ross Ice Shelf in 10 days.
The Decision to Stop/A Phone Call to Kids (Feb. 12-18) — Once again, Antarctica’s wind is absent. Bancroft and Arnesen pull their sled for three days, making only 24 miles (38 km). Hope that they will be able to cross the shelf and safely reach the McMurdo area by Feb. 22 dwindles. With the help of their team in Minneapolis, they decide to call a ski-plane to carry them to safety: McMurdo Station, where an ice ship waits to take them from Antarctica before winter sets in.
While they wait for the plane, they call 78 grade school students from Faribault, Minn., who wrote daily newspaper reports on their expedition. The call is emotionally moving for Bancroft and Arnesen, who were afraid that by not completing the entire 2,300-mile crossing, they had let down the millions of children who followed their trek. Says Bancroft, “To hear a fifth-grader tell you to articulately how you changed his life — that was exactly what we needed to hear. They cried. We cried. It was the tonic we needed.”
Waiting Game (Feb. 18) — The plane that picks up Bancroft and Arnesen chooses to land on a safe landing strip at McMurdo Station, 20 miles (36 km) from where their ship, the Sir Hubert Wilkins, is anchored. A helicopter from their ship is sent to pick them up, but once it has landed, it is pinned down by weather and unable for almost a day to make the 20-minute flight back to the ship.
Standing Among Heroes (Feb. 19) — Bancroft and Arnesen finally reach the ship, and they are able to spend a day as “tourists.” The ship is near the huts, or “base camps,” of the polar explorers who inspired them to cross Antarctica when they were young girls: Sir Ernest Shackleton and Capt. Robert Falcon Scott. Bancroft and Arnesen stand among Shackleton and Scott’s belongings — preserved by the cold and smelling of seal blubber, dusty book and ponies — and admire the bunks covered with reindeer sleeping bags and shelves lined with ketchup, raspberries and chutney.
After site-seeing, the women board their ship and sail for 14 days across the rough Southern Ocean to Hobart, Tasmania, where they are greeted warmly by townspeople and media.