On January 14, 1993, San Diego resident Sunniva Sorby and three women companions arrived at the South Pole after a 67-day journey.
Starting at a point on the Hercules Inlet, they had trudged 700 miles, each woman hauling a sled that, when fully loaded, weighed 200 pounds. Severe frostbite had afflicted two of the four, and though 31-year-old Sorby had escaped that scourge, she became so ill from bronchitis that her companions feared she might die.
In the days after her arrival at the Pole, fever and racking coughs continued to batter Sorby. She looked emaciated. Her ankles had swollen to a grotesque size, and the pain from tendinitis was so bad she could barely hobble. She had no thought then of returning to Antarctica. There was too much else to deal with: recovering from her illnesses, getting home. She says it took about a year before the desire claimed her: to go back and ski even more miles for even more days through the brutal wasteland.
Sorby says she didn’t confide this to anyone for a while. She faced a daunting debt. The expedition owed more than $400,000, and she helped repay the money by giving talks, selling T-shirts, and organizing fund-raisers.
By 1995, however, she had announced her plan to try again at what the 1993 group had failed, at what no woman in history has yet achieved: trekking not just to the Pole but across the continent. Since then, Sorby has created an organization with an 18-person advisory board, and she’s approached hundreds of businesses and foundations in search of financial sponsorship. To toughen herself, she’s hauled 40-pound tires through Peñasquitos Canyon while wearing a backpack filled with 40- and 50-pound loads of rock. She’s found an expedition partner, a champion cross-country skier from Greenland, and the two women have trained together in the northern reaches of Norway and Canada. To make the Antarctic crossing, they have to be on the continent by this coming November 1.
When Sorby gives public presentations, she shows slides. She likes to begin with images of the Antarctic continent — photographs that illustrate its rugged majesty and alabaster beauty. But she also shares images that record her ordeal. One of the most striking pictures was taken in her tent one day when she was ill and exhausted. Her hair looks thin and greasy. Her face, puffy and ravaged by the wind, could be mistaken for the face of an old woman. She looked like the granddaughter of that woman on the March morning when I met her for coffee in Hillcrest. Sorby is five foot six, slim but strong. One of the things that makes her look younger than her age (39) is her luxuriant, shoulder-length golden hair. She has a broad smile and clear blue eyes and delicate Nordic features. She was born in Norway, the daughter of an oil-tanker captain who moved his family to Toronto when Sunniva was a year old.
It was tennis that brought her as a young woman to Southern California. She gave a little laugh when she told me that, like a person remembering an odd detail in a dream.
“I moved out here with my boyfriend at the time because I wanted to pursue a tennis career. I had this dream of going to Wimbledon in 1988. I’m a Pisces, so I am a dreamer. You’re laughing…”
Dreaming is a good thing, she often lectures. “They don’t all come true. And it’s interesting to look at the value of that. What’s the point, then, of dreaming? But they lead you to other things, and that’s important.”
Sorby says she finally gave up her tennis dreams “because it was financially impossible for me to keep training at the level that I needed.” Also, life with the boyfriend soured. By then, however, she had a job stringing rackets at a tennis shop in Costa Mesa. “Two brothers from New Jersey ran it, crusty guys. But they loved me and I loved them. And people loved to come into the shop with the young blonde from Canada and the two old guys from New Jersey. The place was dirty. I was always trying to clean up after them.”
About 1983 Sorby returned to Canada to finish her economics degree at Bishop’s University. “Then I came back and lived on Catalina Island for a year and a half. I worked as a prep cook at the airport, at the Runway Café. Never could do the over-easy eggs! But that time over there was magical. I lived in town like everybody does, but I would sometimes ride my bike up and back. Sometimes I would get a ride up and run home. It was a good ten miles.” Her sister, one year younger, lived with her. “We were like this dynamic duo, very close.”
Sorby says a call from their father interrupted their Catalina idyll. “He told us he was going to be sailing from England to Norway, and he wanted his daughters to join him. He thought it might be his last year of sailing.
“So we left everything. Flew to England, hopped on the ship and sailed for a month. Stopped in Rotterdam in dry dock for about a week and a half and then moved on to Norway.” Once there, Sorby decided to look for work. “It was the kind of thing that involved huge risk — leaving one country to go to another. But I grew up with uprooting, with having to reintegrate into a new society.” Sorby thinks this shaped her ability to work on the South Pole project. “When you’re traveling on an expedition, you have to know a lot about how things work, so you can deal with them when they go wrong. Things always go wrong. For example, What’s the infrastructure like in a place like Greenland, when things go wrong? How do you complain there? We know how the channels work here, but it’s different in every country.”