What would you ask someone trekking across Antarctica?
- How cold does it get when you are trying to sleep?
- How many layers of clothing are you wearing?
- If four of you fell into a crevasse, what would the others do to save you?
- Were you scared?
- How and where do you go to the toilet?
These are the questions that Carla Hooper’s Year 5 class at Furze Platt Junior School asked the Ice Maidens – six British army women who trekked 1,700km across Antarctica earlier this year, becoming the first all-female team to have ever done so on muscle power alone.
Women breaking records
Carla first heard about the Ice Maiden’s expedition in January 2018 and was keen to get her class involved: “I loved the fact that they were doing it under their own steam and with very little fanfare.”
“The girls in my class are at the age where the negative effects of social media are beginning to have an influence on them. I want them to be inspired by amazing women who are not afraid to be themselves – and who go against what is ‘expected’ of them.”
No wonder Major Nics Wetherill and her team mates were a top choice for Carla’s class project.
When I asked Nics to describe a typical day on the expedition, she said they walked and skied for 10 hours a day in 75-minute blocks with just eight minute breaks. “You walk in a single line and whoever’s in front has to break trail, whilst navigating.” Why a single line? “There’s the constant threat of falling into crevasses, so it’s easier to go in one line as you know that’s the safe route,” Nics explained. “You can’t talk to each other because it’s so windy, and you have various layers over your ears. We had our iPods but a lot of hours merged into one and it actually got quite lonely. The emotional side was definitely the hardest.”
If you watch some of the training videos or look at the pictures, you start to get an idea of what the reality of 10 hours walking in such arduous conditions must have been like. From temperatures reaching as low as -56 and winds blowing up to 60mph to the risk of frostbite and cold spots which, if any of the woman showed signs of, would end their expedition immediately.
If that wasn’t challenging enough, they also had to pull their food and equipment behind them on sledges.
Bringing Antarctica to the classroom
I can understand why such an expedition inspired Carla to get her school kids involved. In class, they read some of the Ice Maiden’s blogs and watched their training video. “The kids loved it so much, they decided to contact them”, Carla said.
Nics and the rest of the team were really keen to have the ability to be contacted by kids from their classrooms whilst they were in Antarctica. They’d had trouble with the equipment to begin with though, “Did Carla’s children get the answers to the five questions they sent us?” Nics asked me, concerned.
They did, and they were chuffed to find out that:
- Because there is 24 hours daylight it can actually be quite hot at night because midnight is like midday and the sun shines brightly onto the tent.
- When we’re skiing we only wear two or three layers as it’s hard work and if we sweat we’ll get hypothermia.
- There are six of us so hopefully only one person would fall in at a time! We’ve practised rescuing each other from crevasses in Switzerland over the summer.
- I was scared before I got here. Then, when we got here, there was a massive storm in our first week and we couldn’t leave the tents for two days. After that I knew that our tents were strong enough and we could cope with the worst Antarctic weather so I wasn’t scared anymore.
- We dig a pit in the snow to go to the toilet – and make it quick! We also use a Shewee and a pee bottle in case we need to pee in the tent at night.
What’s your Antarctica?
As well as being the first female team do the trip and the largest team to ever do so, the record Nics said she is most proud of is the fact that “we were the first team to cross Antarctica without ever having been to the North pole or South pole or Antarctic region before.”
That’s right: Nicola Wetherill, Natalie Taylor, Sophie Montagne, Jenni Stephenson, Zanna Baker and Sandy Hennis weren’t seasoned arctic adventurers or serial world record breakers, they were simply a group of women in the army with dreams of embarking on a big adventure. “It just proves that you can go from nothing to crossing Antarctica if you do the preparation and training,” said Nics.
Keen to point out that teamwork was fundamental to their success she added: “I’ve come away with five best friends for life – the bond you create and the teamwork is incredible”. Carla said they had also discussed the importance of being able to work as a team when they were discussing the Ice Maiden’s success. “The project showed them how working together means you can achieve amazing things, and that nothing should stop you if you want to achieve something.”
Carla’s poignant words are closely mirrored with Nics’ when I asked her what the trip meant to her, and what her message to others would be:
That you can have a dream and you can achieve it. What’s your Antarctica? This was my dream, but your’s doesn’t have to be as big as this, or as physical. Maybe you want to write a book or pass grade 8 piano. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Work backwards. Have your goals and work through all the steps that you need to complete in order to achieve it. Then you can start climbing the steps to get there.
You can find out more about the Ice Maiden’s exhibition on their website where there are plenty of videos and blogs that you can use to inspire your class. Follow the team on Twitter or Nics Wetherill.
You can also find more interviews from our 100 Years, 100 Women project here.