Journey to the North Pole

Gender Agenda
Gender Agenda

Issue 5 Easter 2003

The magazine of


Women's Union

Journey to the North Pole

Victoria Riches

The plane started to bank and as we came through the clouds and prepared to land, all we
could see was a vast expanse of whiteness – our home for the next few weeks. The final
approach began and the ‘runway’ came into view – a half a mile by a quarter of a mile stretch
of flat ice, which had been dug by hand. We braced ourselves, the wheels touched the ice and
then, the plane took off again…. what was wrong? We suddenly banked and prepared to land
for the second time, but again the wheels touched, followed by a steep rise back into the
skies. My patience ran out, I shouted over to the pilot to ask what was happening – he
replied that they had to touch down on the ice at least two or three times to confirm that the
ice was thick enough to hold the weight of the plane! I was terrified. After an eternity,
probably half an hour, the plane finally landed, a comfortable landing in the circumstances,
we only bumped off our hard seats a couple of times. Forty minutes later having unloaded all
our gear we were ready for the off. The plane doors shut and the engines started, it
disappeared into the distance and we were alone on the top of a giant ice cap in the middle of
nowhere, two miles above the seabed, a thousand miles from the nearest village and two days
away from the nearest hospital.

Two years previously, I had seen an article in the Daily Telegraph asking for volunteers to
attempt to become the first women in the world to walk to the North Pole. Women had been
there before but had had dogs or skidoos to help pull their equipment – we were intending to
put the verb man-haul to good use. Insane and mad were the words many friends used to
describe my plans, but when they heard that my fifty year old mother, recently recovered from
a mastectomy, had also survived various SAS style selection weekends and was coming along too,
then words failed them! The selectors were not looking for hyper fit gym instructor types,
though fitness was to be important, instead, they were looking for mental strength and a ‘can
do’ attitude. Life is easy when everything goes according to plan, but the true survivors are
those who can put up with adversity, smile when everything is going wrong around you, and pull
together as a team.

 



The expedition was to be a relay of five teams; each with four people, and two female guides
would accompany us the whole way, thus becoming the first women in the world to walk the whole
way to the North Pole. Mum and I were in Team Charlie – the middle team. The six months
after selection were taken up with extensive training and preparation in three areas –
fitness, weight and mental. While trying to attain peak fitness levels, we also had to put on
at least a stone in weight. In the extreme temperatures of the Arctic (on average of 40
degrees below), your body burns off its fat to keep warm, once the fat has been burnt off it
eats into the muscles – hence it is vital to have as much body fat as possible. We also got
to know our team and learnt to work together. Everyone had different skills, habits,
mannerisms and the four of us had to learn how to work together and more importantly, how to
compromise. A team cannot be made up of disparate individuals, there is no point starting on
a task, project or expedition without having become a whole being. Training both in England
and during our three week stint at base camp was also about practice, practice and more
practice. We were all desperate to get onto the ice proper and start walking north, but in
this environment, jumping in the deep end would probably have meant just that. It was vital
to understand the ice and to learn how to live and eat in sub zero temperatures.
Most important of all, we had to learn how to trust each other; a team cannot work without
trust. For example when the plane touches down you have only forty minutes in which to get
everything out and prepare to start walking. This is not the time to ask your team mate if
they have remembered to get the skis or food and fuel out of the plane; you just have to trust
that they have done it. Trust is one of the toughest lessons to learn. So often we end up
doing too much, whether at home or work, because we don’t want to let our colleagues do it,
just in case it goes wrong, however if you can trust someone, then life is so much easier, and
quicker!

By mid April it was finally our turn to be on the ice heading north, playing our part in this
unique adventure. The Arctic is one of the most beautiful places on earth – imagine a
landscape with every shade of blue, white and black. The scenery changes every day, literally
as the ice moves apart and crunches together again. It is also the noisiest place on earth,
the ice makes a rumbling noise, similar to a tube train coming out of a tunnel, as it crashes
together and the snow and ice crunching under your feet sound like the first bite of an apple
or of an aeroplane coming out of the clouds. The ice formations would be a geologists dream,
every type of stalactite and stalagmite imaginable, and all in this beautiful shade of
electric blue. Thousands of massive ice chunks that have been just thrown into the air and
left as they landed, all higgledy-piggledy – the scene is impossible to describe without doing
it injustice.

Our first week was marvellous. We skied for roughly ten hours a day, occasionally even
covering nine nautical miles, whilst pulling our sledges weighing approximately 140lbs. We
had to haul these sledges up pressure ridges, sometimes forty foot high, made up of huge
chunks of ice, sometimes as big as double decker buses. At other times we would pick up speed
as we came across a perfect flat pan of ice that headed north, sometimes for up to a
mile. However, on some days we found that despite walking for ten hours due north/north-west
we had in fact drifted south and east – rather like being on an Arctic treadmill!
By the second week things had changed, we had had storms and gales and the ice was starting to
break up. We regularly came across vast expanses of open water, leads, which meant that we
had walk for many miles east or west, in order to find a suitable crossing place. At times
like this, it was tempting to be incredibly cautious and just wait for the ice to freeze over
– however this was not realistic. An expedition in the Arctic is a race against time; you
have only ten weeks in which to complete the whole 650 miles, before the ice starts to melt
under your feet. A calculated risk is the only option – just as in normal life it is the risk
takers, such as Richard Branson, who are often the most successful. In the Arctic, it is
those who take a sensible risk who make it to the ultimate goal, however this sometimes comes
at a price.

The open water and constantly crashing ice floes had pushed all thoughts of enjoyment out of
our minds and fear was the predominant emotion. Maybe terrified is a more appropriate
word. We were walking on very thin ice, literally, and every footstep was risky – but we had
no option, we could not turn back, the ice had opened up behind us to expose a mass of black,
freezing water. Suddenly, and without warning, Mum just sank into the ocean – the ice
underneath her had disintegrated. Within seconds, I was also swimming in the sea – not easy
when you still have your boots and skis on, and are attached to a heavy sledge. The time we
spent in the water has become a blur, but I can remember trying to stay calm and wondering how
on earth we were going to make it to ‘dry land’. Those ten minutes seemed interminable,
however eventually we managed to scramble onto an ice floe that could hold our weight, most
just disintegrated as soon as you got onto them. But while we may have been out of the water,
we still had the imminent threat of hypothermia and frostbite – rolling in the snow absorbed
any excess water, and walking north, minus our skis and boots, which we had kicked off in the
water, saved our lives – clambering through waist deep snow and over ridges got the blood
pumping and helped to refocus our minds. In retrospect we seem very lucky to have survived,
however I now realise that much of it was down to our mindset – we had no intention of giving
up or, ultimately, of dying. I was terrified that I would lose Mum, but you just have to put
your emotions to one side and get on with the job in hand – not easy, but that was why we had
been selected for the expedition.

Our final challenge was to keep going when suddenly all our confidence and bon homer had been
wiped out. We were part of a relay, and if we gave up then we were not just letting down
ourselves, but were letting down the team, the backup crew and our family and friends. Every
footstep required one to summon up every ounce of willpower and courage – I now knew what lay
beneath the ice and that falling in was a terrifying experience I never wished to
repeat. Somehow, we got through the final ten days – the team drew on each other’s strength
and helped each other along, it was just as difficult for those who watched us fall in (they
felt totally helpless), as it was for us who actually went in. However by the final few days,
our courage had returned and the songs and jokes in the tent at night became commonplace again
– we were determined to leave on a high.

On May 26th 1997, Team Echo finally reached the North Pole – we had done it. Many people have
asked us if we regret not being in the final team and getting to stand at the pole itself, but
to be honest, no I don’t. This was a relay, a team effort – Echo would not have got there
without the rest of us, and none of us could have done it without the back up team. While the
lead actors and actresses may get the curtain call, they know that a team is greater than the
sum of the individuals and on their own, they would be nothing. A solo explorer has reached
the North Pole, but many more have tried and failed – however by working together as part of a
strong and successful team, anything is possible.

Victoria Riches has since returned to the Arctic on two subsequent expeditions and is always
looking for a new adventure. Along with her mother, they have written a book about their
experiences, Frigid Women, and they travel around the world giving motivational talks and
after dinner speeches.

 


 

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