fitness · Guest Post

The first women’s expedition to the North Pole (1997)

It’s a snow day in Halifax. Shame it’s a Saturday–no school or work cancelled, for most people. When you come from the prairies, the fact that 10cm of snow gives everyone out here a holiday is a hoot. I drove around this morning in the thick of it, enjoying the way that snow on the road makes driving a much more dynamic conversation with the road. No boring asphalt that lies still as you drive over it. The snow and the ice and the slush give you some sense of a conversation with the road. It reminds me of what driving felt like for the many months of the year we had snow in Saskatoon when I was growing up, even though I wasn’t the one driving.

I canceled my plans to drive up to the valley today. So I holed up inside with a book, in between bouts of shovelling. The first round was my penance for having taken the car out–I had to shovel out the driveway to get it back in. A friend had passed on to me Matty McNair’s On Thin Ice–a memoir of a women’s expedition to the North Pole (the first women to reach the North Pole on foot, as the “explorer” trope has it).

Cover of On Thin Ice by Matty McNair

It’s not a literary work–more an expansion on the journal that arctic guide Matty McNair kept as she and her assistant guide Diane Martin led 5 relay teams of four women (20 in total) to the North Pole. Travelling to the North Pole isn’t like travelling to the South Pole. It’s not just a long hard journey over snow in extreme cold with weather and navigation challenges in a blank landscape. It’s all that, and in addition, the ground you’re travelling over is dynamic. It’s ice floating on the sea, and just because it’s metres think and forms over multiple years doesn’t mean it’s stable. The most fascinating thing about the book was the description of how dynamic the ice is–the constant challenge to read the ice, cope with its movement–giant plates and blocks of ice crashing into one another, being lifted over one another, creating rubble fields and pressure ridges. And open cracks–leads–that can block your journey and be very hazardous to cross (leaping from ice float to ice float–on skis with 50kg of gear hauled behind you in a “pulk”). These leads can then freeze and on the rare occasion when they align with your direction of travel (they don’t tend to be north-south) they offer a superhighway you can make good time on. Otherwise it’s a nautical mile an hour on average, all 800 or 900 miles to the North Pole. While the ice moves under you, often taking you east (due to underlying ocean currents) and sometimes dishearteningly even south. You can wake up in the morning 3 nautical miles from where you went to sleep. I’m still getting my head around travelling over a landscape that is constantly moving and reshaping itself in real time under your feet and in front of your eyes!

It was a joy to read this in between my sessions outside of classic NS shovelling. First it was lovely, light, fluffy snow that I could toss off the driveway in record time. Then it was the same quantity again of snow but with rain coming down, the snow getting heavier as the rain continued and me getting wetter shovelling in the rain. Then a last round after it all stopped, to clear out the ridges the snow ploughs left that would prevent my car from getting out in the morning. This last round was a classic NS experience in itself–shovelling slush!

The book is also interesting for its record of the guide’s eye view of the colonial practice of being an “explorer” and running “exploration” and adventure companies. Now, I love the sense of exploration that comes with outdoor adventures (see–I just used both words) but I’m also skeptical about it all. Aren’t I lucky to get to “explore” the wilderness areas of this province, aka portions of the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq that were taken from people who knew it like the backs of their hands and would find the idea of my “exploring” it as funny as I would find the idea of someone from New York “exploring” the streets of Dartmouth. Does “explore” just mean a person is stumbling around lost? We hear it as exploring with a hint of discovering the unknown, but it’s unknown only to us. Which surely means it’s just that we don’t know where we are. Someone knows this place like the back of their hand.

This might not have been the case about the North Pole. Who has a reason to go there after all? The fertile hunting grounds are all further south. There’s a fascinating history of controversy about who did or didn’t reach the North Pole. The first undisputed visit to the North Pole by ground is quite recent (1968 or 1969); the first one that was not resupplied by air was 1986. (McNair and Martin’s was of course resupplied by air, with every changeover of relay team.) Peary’s claim is much older, and subject to controversy about whether his Black employee made it first–and still a footnote in many discussions are the “two Inuit” who made it there with them.

The British still describe what they do in outdoors activities as “exploring” and some describe themselves as “explorers”. I hear this on climber’s podcasts. In this North Pole case, the expedition organizers were some kind of equal opportunity colonialists–willing to treat their Canadian and American professional guide team (descendants of British colonialists themselves) with all the disrespect they would give the Sherpa people who have helped them up mountains for decades.

The expedition was planned by a British arctic adventure company just getting in the game–they recruited “ordinary” British women from various walks of life and raised funds ($600,000!) to do the trip. The guides had to haul pulks for 2 and a half months of continuous arctic travel while the relay teams rotated in for 12-14 days. The guides had to cope with constant second guessing by the expedition organizers who hired them, inadequate gear provision, poor clothing choices (to satisfy British sponsors), and awful food with inadequate calories. And at the end of the day, the expedition leader who had flown in for the last leg organized the photos of the successful team–with no question that of course the guides who in fact did the whole route and got them there would not be in the photos. McNair and Martin had to fight to be included in the last leg of the trip. The British company knew that if they did the whole trip, there would be two firsts–the first relay style trip to the North Pole, and the first women to make the trip continuously (McNair and Martin). They tried to deprive their guides of this accolade, but McNair was too aware of the industry and how to fight for her place to let that happen.

I’m in awe of the competence and responsibility that McNair and Martin showed as professional guides in this process. They were taking five groups of four women, most of whom had never done much serious outdoor travelling before and some of whom had never so much as slept in a tent before, on a ground trip to the North Pole. Travel in this environment is extremely hazardous–it doesn’t take much for things to go seriously sideways, and many teams attempting to reach the North Pole fail. The last relay team on the expedition—those with the social capital to get themselves on the leg to have their pictures taken at the North Pole–had even refused to learn to cross country ski properly. The big achievement of the trip is undoubtedly that McNair and Martin successfully guided 20 women inexperienced in Arctic travel to the North Pole. It’s an enormous achievement in the profession of guiding. She has a nice description of the approach that she thinks led to success:

I can’t help feeling proud of these women who, with no previous winer camping skills or arctic experience, are gaining on a group of expedition men! [Comparing their relative position to other teams out on the ice.] I believe that we are succeeding because we are traveling and camping with style. Traveling in style to me means that we are taking care of ourselves: eating before we are starving, drinking before we are dehydrated, stopping before we are exhausted. It means that we have the extra energy to help each other over the ice and support each other emotionally when needed. It means having a warm tent to look forward to during cold days. It means being able to dry our wet mitts, hats, neck warmers. It means keeping up our morale by taking sponge baths, brushing teeth and hair and taking time to prep items of clothing and equipment. It means not dreaming of being somewhere else. Doing it in style means celebrating the joy of living on the polar ice with love and laughter.

Matty L. McNair. On Thin Ice: A Woman’s Journey to the North Pole. p. 114

Basically the lives of all these women depended on Matty and Denise organizing things so everyone could get their clothes dried every night before they set off again the next morning. Small details like that make the difference between safety and success, or lost limbs, death and failure in such an environment.

I made three trips outside today to shovel and I haven’t got a dry mitten or glove left in the house.

I particularly loved her own gradual realization that freshly frozen “leads” with a skin of maybe 3 cm of ice–ice you can feel undulate under you as you travel over it (!!?!)–is actually safer than the much thicker ice that has been broken up and refrozen with newer ice in between old ice. Its consistency gives it greater integrity, and the fact that you can spread your weight across the skis (instead of concentrating it on one block that you stomp on with your boot).

It’s hard to find good YouTube videos showing what it’s like to travel over this arctic ice. Maybe people doing this are too busy surviving to record and post it, and the environment is too unforgiving to bring along a camera person for a small expedition. (It’s a big contrast with climbing, where no one seems to do anything these days without contrast instagram updates and a professionally-produced, sponsor-supported youtube video. Being a pro athlete in some “adventure” fields is basically agreeing to make your athletic accomplishments into commercials for the brands.) Click through to watch on youtube.

Matty still works for the guiding company she founded, now owned by one of her children. I’d love to give you photos from the site but the site is built so I can’t do that. Here’s a screen shot of the home page. Go visit it for more stunning visuals:

homepage of Northwinds Expeditions