In February 2001, world-class polar explorers and former schoolteachers Ann Bancroft (48, Scandia, Minn.) and Liv Arnesen (50, Oslo, Norway) captivated millions of people worldwide as they fulfilled their childhood dream and became the first women to ski across Antarctica.
On March 11, 2005 Bancroft and Arnesen set out to attempt another first for women; an approximate 1,240-mile (1,996-km) ski and ski-sail crossing of the mostly frozen Arctic Ocean. The journey was an attempt to traverse across the Arctic Ocean during the Arctic’s “spring” season. They planned to begin the journey in late February 2005 in Cape Arktichesky on Severnaya Zemlya in Russia, to cross over the geographic North Pole, and end at Ward Hunt Island, Canada in early June.
The explorers began the expected 100-day expedition in 24-hour twilight, enduring freezing temperatures that dipped to –50 degrees Fahrenheit (-46 degrees Celsius) and endured threats of polar bear attacks having had one bear track them for days. Shifting ocean ice also complicated Bancroft and Arnesen’s journey as it pushed them backwards, further challenging them to meet their daily mileage goals. The moving ice also creates pressure ridges that are enormous obstacles for the explorers to travel over.
Similar to their Antarctic trek, the women planned to ski and sometimes ski-sail across the Arctic Ocean since it is mostly frozen. However, occasional breaks in the ice called “leads,” which are also caused by shifting ocean ice, were expected to force Bancroft and Arnesen to swim through frigid ocean water that regularly drops to 29 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.7 degrees Celsius) while towing their 250-pound (113-kg) sleds.
“Our next expedition will be the ultimate challenge for us as polar explorers,” said Bancroft. “While most people will never face the harsh conditions of an Arctic Ocean crossing, we hope those who follow our journey draw connections between our expedition and how they approach their own life’s challenges, goals and dreams.”
The plans for this expedition included sharing their dramatic and inspiring stories of risk, courage, perseverance and challenges with a global audience of 12 million school children via satellite phone calls and their Web site. One of the educational programs is called “Dare to Dream” and encourages children to follow their dreams. Girl Scouts, classrooms and Bancroft and Arnesen involved World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They hoped to raise awareness of global warming and the changes in the Arctic region.
“As former schoolteachers, we look forward to sharing our stories from the top of the earth with a global audience,” said Arnesen. “Our stories may encourage others to pursue their passions and push themselves to new levels of achievement. “
In preparation for their Arctic Ocean expedition, Bancroft and Arnesen traveled to the Arctic region of Svalbard (Spitsbergen), Norway in April 2004 for a training trip. They tested their expedition gear, immersed themselves in Arctic water and practiced defense against polar bear attacks. Where Arnesen and Bancroft trained and prepared for the harsh elements and wildlife, they did not foresee the obstacles that resulted in cutting their journey short.
March 31, 2005 Bancroft and Arnesen were unexpectedly evacuated from the Arctic Ocean due to a business dispute between two competitive logistics companies that transport scientists, tourists and expedition teams to the Arctic region from Russia. A similar dispute delayed the explorers’ departure from Russia which was initially planned for February.
The evacuation ended Bancroft and Arnesen’s attempt to become the first women to cross the Arctic Ocean. Bancroft and Arnesen had been expecting a re-supply of fuel on March 31, but instead were notified that helicopters were en route to evacuate them and the other two expeditions traveling from Russia to the North Pole — Pole Track (U.S., Norway, The Netherlands) and Ann Daniels (England).
The mounting dispute between Bancroft and Arnesen’s French-based logisitics company and the competing Russia-based logistics company compromised Bancroft and Arnesen’s plan for a safe expedition, which included having emergency operations in Russia through March, and a base in operation near the North Pole (Barneo Ice Station) from April 1 until early May to support resupply and emergency situations should they arise.
Bancroft and Arnesen said during their call with expedition headquarters that they were extremely disappointed the conflicts between the two logistics companies could not be resolved. They also expressed their disappointment for the millions of kids worldwide who were following their expedition via the web, schools and museum programs.
Bancroft and Arnesen were making strong progress towards their goal, having traveled approximately 200 miles of their 1,240-mile goal.
Arnesen and Bancroft are both intimately familiar with the Arctic region. In 1992, Arnesen led the first unsupported women’s crossing of the Greenland Ice Cap, and she spent many of her summer holidays in the Arctic in Spitsbergen as a wilderness guide. Bancroft last visited the Arctic region in 1992 when she led the first American women’s east to west crossing of Greenland. In 1986, Bancroft became the first known woman in history to cross the ice to the North Pole as the only female member of the Steger International Polar Expedition.
Bancroft and Arnesen returned to the Arctic Ocean in 2007, this time launching their Expedition at Ward Hunt Island off the Canadian Coast.