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One of the first things they did was cut their hair. Now it’s easier for American Ann Bancroft and Norwegian Liv Arnesen to keep it tucked away and unfrozen as they attempt to become the first women to cross Antarctica.

Eye in the Sky

Bancroft, 45, and Arnesen, 47, skied off November 14 in fair weather on the Fimbul Ice Shelf bordering the coast of Queen Maud Land. They expect to encounter wind gusts as high was 100 miles (160 kilometers) an hour before reaching McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf by ski and windsail in about 100 days. Their journey will cover 2,400 miles (3,840 kilometers) across a frozen continent—the world’s fifth largest—that in terms of area could easily contain both the United States and Mexico.

The women’s start was originally planned for November 1, but they were held up in South Africa when bad weather in Antarctica made flying to their jump-off point impossible. Despite their late start, they hope to reach the South Pole by Christmas. Both expressed relief that the trek was finally underway. Schoolchildren around the world will use the Internet to follow their progress.

“I still have this longing for the great wide open spaces,” said Arnesen, who as a child acquired that taste while spending winters and Easter holidays in the Norwegian mountains. As a 12-year-old child, Bancroft first dreamed of trekking in Antarctica while reading about explorer Ernest Shackleton. “I am also living my dream and doing what I feel I was meant to do,” she said.

Both women are veteran cold-weather adventurers. Arnesen led the first unsupported women’s expedition across the Greenland ice cap in 1992. In 1994 she became the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole.


Bancroft, who has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame as a result of previous exploits, grew up in rural Minnesota with a learning disability. A self-admitted poor reader, she was drawn to the photographs in Endurance, a book by Alfred Lansing about explorer Ernest Shackleton. She said the tale inspired her “curiosity with Antarctica and the dream of one day crossing it.”

She graduated from St. Paul Academy and became a gym teacher, coach and wilderness instructor. In 1986 she resigned her job to participate in the Steger International North Pole Expedition. After 56 days she and five others reached the North Pole by dogsled without being resupplied. Bancroft was the first woman to do so.

Bancroft also was the first woman to ski across Greenland, and in 1992-93, after climbing Alaska’s Mount McKinley, led the first women’s team to reach the South Pole on skis.

The history of Antarctic exploration has mostly been filled with male names. Shackleton led one of some ten major expeditions that took place between 1839 and 1917. But his attempt to reach the South Pole turned into a harrowing survival experience after ice trapped his ship in McMurdo Sound.

A team led by Norwegian seaman Roald Amundsen first reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Robert Falcon Scott’s British crew arrived a month later, only to discover that they had been bested. Scott and his mates perished on the return trip. Another British team made the first land crossing of the continent in 1957-58.

After a 50-day trip, Norway’s Erling Kagge became the first person to reach the South Pole alone and without resupply in 1993. Countryman Boerge Ousland became the first person to solo across the continent without support, performing the feat in 64 days. Robert Swan led a three-man Footsteps of Scott expedition that reached the South Pole in January 1986, thus becoming the first person to walk to both Poles.


For most of the 20th century, women in the polar regions have been more notable for their absence. In 1935, Caroline Mikkelsen, the wife of a Norwegian whaleboat captain, became the first woman known to have stepped onto the continent. Two American women lived there for a year in 1947.

But it wasn’t until the 1990s that women became seriously involved in Antarctic trekking. An American Women’s Antarctic Expedition arrived at the South Pole on skis in January 1993, covering 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) in 67 days. Afterwards, team member Anne Dal Vera of Colorado said she wanted to prove to herself that she could, and forever demolish the idea that “you have to be a big burly man to do it.”

In January 2000, a team of six British women became the first all-female expedition to walk to both the North and South Poles. Caroline Hamilton, Zoe Hudson, Pom Oliver, Rosie Stancer, Ann Daniels and Jan McCormac had reached the North Pole in 1997.

One handicap that women continue to suffer is their difficulty in attracting funding for such ventures. Norwegian-born Sunniva Sorby and Uiloq Slettemark of Greenland recently had to cancel their planned Antarctic crossing after a sponsor dropped out, leaving them $200,000 short of their budget. Slettemark and Sorby, who had considered themselves “friendly competitors” with the Bancroft Arnesen Expeditions, threw their moral support to their rivals.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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More Information
•  The first woman known to have set foot on Antarctica was the wife of a Norwegian seaman in 1935.
•  Covering about 5.5 million square miles (14.2 million square kilometers), Antarctica is covered by an ice cap whose thickness averages one mile (1.6 kilometers).
•  Ancient Greeks, including the geographer Ptolemy, noted the presence of a southern continent.
•  It wasn’t until the 15th century that explorers began getting an idea of Antarctica’s true size, which is considerably smaller than was earlier presumed.;

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While female trekkers are still relatively rare in the polar regions, women are increasingly numerous in the more than 40 winter-time scientific research stations on the continent. More than 4,500 people live on Antarctica during the summertime; but when the sun disappears for the three month Antarctic winter, all but about 1,000 leave for warmer climes. About a quarter of the some 200 Americans who remain through the long, cold night are women.

Women fill the gamut of jobs in research stations. Some are scientists who perform experiments in a wide range of areas. Others are doctors, mechanics, cooks and laborers.