Armed with French, Norwegian, and English language skills, Sorby looked around for a job. Manufacturers Hanover Bank, which had conducted business in Norway for 15 years as a shipping finance company, was opening its doors to the public for the first time. “I jumped on that bandwagon,” she says. She was given responsibility for the firm’s computer transactions between Norway and Sweden. “I had the biggest office in the company, because I had all the computer equipment in there.” Despite the long hours and high stress, Sorby says she loved the challenges. She also bought a huge apartment and refurbished it. “It was in an area that was being redone by the city of Oslo, so it was good timing. The price went up. And, you know, I was happy.” She says the word in the joyless tone people use when they don’t mean it.
“If I could put it into two words, I was spiritually bored.” After three and a half years, she quit her job at the bank, sold her apartment, and enrolled in a four-month mountaineering program in western Canada. She hoped to “learn enough about the outdoors to where I could actually teach it.” When she completed the course, Sorby moved back to Catalina. One day while visiting the Adventure 16 store in Orange County, she impressed the store manager with her energy and he hired her as a salesperson, placing her in charge of the store’s adventure-travel center, with future opportunities as an outings instructor. “I’ll never forget the day I was hired,” she says. “It was on March 17, 1989. I was just so happy. I wasn’t making much money, but I didn’t care.”
Sorby eventually became the manager of the Orange County store, then she moved to Solana Beach and ran the branch there. After a year of her stewardship, she says sales had climbed by 20 percent. But she was feeling restless again. “I was 30, and I was looking for another challenge.” She began to dream about building a cedar-strip canoe and paddling it across Canada. “I wanted to follow the old fur-trader route, and I had done a lot of research about it.” No woman has ever made the trip. What most appealed to Sorby, she says, was not achieving some feminist milestone but rather the opportunity “to see what it would be like to live in a world of utter simplicity. Where everything you needed was what you brought with you.” The allure of such an adventure may stem from her struggles with decision-making, she confesses. “When I’m inundated with choices, I feel like I want to do everything.” Throughout her 20s, she’d kayaked, climbed, trained for marathons. “But I had a hard time committing to any one thing. It was almost like I couldn’t eat the world up fast enough.”
She says she’d met a man in Encinitas who had an encyclopedic knowledge of canoe-building, and they had long, intense conversations about wood. In the spring of 1992 she was immersed in plans for her cross-Canada project when her roommate came home one night and told her about the Antarctic Women’s Expedition.
The brainchild of a woman named Ann Bancroft, this project was to pit four women against the vastness of the coldest continent. They would ski across the breadth of it unaided by dogs or motorized equipment. Bancroft had been the first-known woman to cross the ice to the North Pole, and she was organizing the South Pole effort from her home in Minnesota. Sorby’s roommate, the editor of Adventure 16’s Footprints newsletter, had just returned from interviewing Bancroft about her plans, and in the course of the interview, she’d learned that Bancroft was looking for a fourth team member. (One of the women who had been planning to go had dropped out after getting very sick on a training trip in Greenland.) “They were keeping it hush-hush because they were still looking for sponsorship,” Sorby says. As she listened to her roommate, “a lightbulb went on,” she adds. “It just spoke to my heart. It spoke to every part of what I was.”
As a child, “I’d read a lot of polar literature,” she says, “and being born in Norway, I grew up with those stories. What fascinated me most was the psychological stuff — how [the early explorers] dealt with all the hardship.” But Sorby says she’d never envisioned herself following in the footsteps of Amundsen, Shackleton, or Scott — the titans who struggled to be the first to reach the South Pole in the early 20th Century.
Although Amundsen’s success (and Scott’s tragic failure) in 1911 had drained much of the world’s interest from the southernmost latitudes, Shackleton tried to revive that interest in 1913 with what he called “the last great Polar journey” — the crossing of the continent. Epic disaster overtook him and his crew the next year when their ship, the Endurance, was caught in the ice 85 miles short of the coastline. They survived the breakup of the ship, a harrowing journey in lifeboats, and stranding on a frozen, deserted island. But no one attempted a traverse again for more than 40 years. In 1958 Sir Edmund Hillary (of Everest fame) and a British scientist named Vivian Fuchs finally pulled off the feat using snow tractors. In 1981, English explorer Ranulph Fiennes repeated the achievement using snowmobiles. Not until 1990 did anyone complete an unmotorized crossing. That year two teams of adventurers succeeded. American Will Steger led one that was assisted by dog teams, and Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner and an Austrian companion skied across Antarctica hauling their gear in sleds. Casual contact between human beings and the Antarctic was also increasing. Luxury cruises (which began in the mid-1960s) and excursion flights (which started in 1977) were bringing more visitors to within gawking distance of the continent. In 1989 the first tourists (of a sort) arrived at the South Pole on skis after paying $70,000 each for services that included transportation of their gear in two accompanying snowmobiles. Planes resupplied them twice. That group included two women, one of whom wore makeup every day.