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.”
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.
By 1992 the annals of Antarctic expeditions were filling up like the waiting list for some chic new restaurant on a Friday night. But no all-women’s group hauling its own gear had ever headed for the Pole, let alone tried to cross the continent. When Sorby heard about Bancroft’s plans, a desire to participate in the venture seized her. “All the things that were important to me in the canoe trip were there,” she says. “It was just in a cold place.”
Her roommate urged her to call Bancroft. So Sorby left a message on Bancroft’s answering machine. Weeks passed, and no one called her back, but in that interval, “I was beside myself,” Sorby says. “I was already checking into flights to Minnesota. I was talking to other people who had done expeditions. Sometimes,” she reflects, “I put the cart before the horse. But then you can be ready.”
She was in the Solana Beach store one day, fitting a customer for a travel pack, when Bancroft called. “I was so excited. Thirty years old and I was so excited! I talk like I’m 50 now. But a lot’s happened in nine years. A lot.”
After a 90-minute conversation, Bancroft urged Sorby to confer with the other two expedition members by phone, then fly to Minneapolis for a face-to-face meeting. Sorby met with the women there for four days and returned to San Diego. Mid-summer 1992, they invited her to join them. “It happened that fast,” she recalls today. “My whole life changed. It hasn’t been the same since.”
She would have no time to train with her teammates. That unnerved her. “I had never pulled a sled before,” she says. She voiced that concern on her visit to Minnesota. The others reassured her that sled-pulling required no skill. Though done on skis, “it’s not even skiing,” she says today with the voice of experience. “It’s really more about maintaining a very methodical rhythm. Can you hold on to that for a long time? It’s more like a walk.”
Through the rest of the summer, Sorby ran, bicycled, and lifted weights as much as possible, but other aspects of the trip competed for her time. She had volunteered to help the expedition secure gear. “We needed lots of travel duffels, for example,” she says. “We still needed sleeping bags, believe it or not. Also some jackets.” Through contacts she had made at work, she rounded up about $15,000 worth of goods.
“I also had to take care of all my personal finances for the time I was gone — which was supposed to be four months.” To cover those expenses, she asked the head of Adventure 16 for a loan of $7500. Because of the risks associated with the trip, “I also had to write out my will,” she says. “That was strange. I had people come back into my life that I hadn’t talked to in a long time.” They thought she wouldn’t survive.
She quit her job just one week before her mid-October departure for Minnesota. By then, “I was really stressed; just on overdrive,” she recalls. She had lost five pounds at a time when she should have been gaining weight in preparation for the trek.
From Minnesota, the four women flew to Punta Arenas, the windblown Chilean town at the southern tip of South America. There they learned that their gear wouldn’t arrive for another week. When it did, Sorby and two of her teammates gathered in the courtyard of Adventure Network International, “the only company that flies commercially in the Antarctic,” according to Sorby. “They have a monopoly.” As a result, the price of flying an expedition to its starting point is astronomical. To transport the four American women first to a base camp on the Antarctic continent, then on to their starting point, the company would be charging $350,000. Sorby remembers working frantically outside in the courtyard in the cold wind, packing and organizing the food and other goods while Bancroft met in an upstairs room with two representatives from the charter company. “We could see them once in a while,” Sorby says. They didn’t look happy. But when Bancroft emerged, she announced that the group was “good to go.”
Bad weather interfered with the women’s hopes for leaving the next day. The first leg of their air journey would take them to a blue-ice runway at the latitude of 80 degrees south. “If the weather isn’t completely clear, it’s not possible to land,” Sorby explains. The weather, moreover, would have to be clear for at least 24 hours so the pilot would have time to take the passengers from the base camp to their starting points, then make the eight-hour return journey over the Antarctic Peninsula and the Drake Passage. “You’re flying over some of the roughest water in the world,” Sorby says. You can’t make a fuel stop or hope to survive an emergency landing.
As day after stormy day passed, Sorby’s teammates grew more and more irritable. To cover the 1500 miles that was their goal, they figured they needed at least 100 days. A cruise ship had agreed to give them a ride home, but its last day in McMurdo Sound would be February 15. Now foul weather was shaving precious days off the front end of the timetable. Sorby, however, confesses that she was “secretly thankful that we were waiting!” The delay gave her time to get caught up on the expedition plans. “I knew that for me to feel like a team member instead of an outsider, I would need to get involved with everything.” She studied all the gear, pored over the route, peppered her teammates with endless questions.
She says she also invited them to go running with her, but the other women looked horrified by this suggestion. “They were, like, ‘No! We’re going to eat! We’ll be getting enough exercise when we’re there.’ ” Sorby says this response surprised her; she had always found pleasure in physical activity, but the other women seemed to lack her enthusiasm for it. All slighter in build than Sorby, they appeared no match for her level of fitness or athleticism.
Not until November 9, ten days after they had hoped to depart, did the weather improve. The four women, dressed in parkas and ready to go, raced to the airport — only to be confronted by one of the charter-company officials. “She had a stack of papers and a pen, and she sat us all down.” The papers, it turned out, were a contract stating that if the women’s expedition organization didn’t deliver a certain amount of money to Adventure Network International every 30 days, “we would be pulled off the ice.” Sorby and the other two women were shocked; Bancroft had given them no hint that she had failed to raise the money to pay for the flight.
“Was that deceitful on Ann’s part?” Sorby asks today, then answers her own question, “I think partly it was. And I don’t think I would ever have chosen to do that as an expedition leader. But she must have wanted it really bad. And I think she also felt a huge responsibility to all the people who had already given on all the levels.”
Sorby expresses amazement that the airline owners agreed to the arrangement. The commitment also put enormous pressure on the expedition staff back in Minnesota. They were trying to raise all the money from small, grassroots contributors — something that had never been done by a polar expedition.
Pondering these things, the women strapped themselves into their plane seats. A two-man team of British adventurers and a solo Norwegian did so also. The two male parties and the women would be starting transcontinental treks from different points on the coast. Hours passed and Sorby remembers looking down and “seeing my first iceberg and then what looked like steam oozing from the ice sheet.” Patriot Hills came into view, but “there was really nothing except some dots that you could see were probably people.” Landing on the rippled blue ice that constituted the runway terrified her, Sorby says. “Then I remember looking around and seeing only white. I was overwhelmed by how white it was.” She says she asked the other women what they would do next, “and nobody really had a picture ’cause they hadn’t been there before.”
She says the wife of the pilot, a gentle older woman, had come along for the flight, and she approached Sorby before her group disembarked. “She grabbed my arm and said, ‘Now dear, when you get off the plane, I want you to just stand there for a minute or two. Let the heat from your boots be soaked up by the ice.’ I did that. And it was a gift. I learned that to have moments like that I needed to create them for myself.”
After the moment passed, Sorby shifted her attention to the chaotic scene unfolding around her. “It was really windy. Stuff was flying all over the place.” The wind had snapped off the wing of a Cessna chained nearby. “It was spinning over the ice, and it could have killed a few people. Things were tense.” All the gear had to be unloaded from the big plane and transported about a half mile to the base camp, where the trekkers would board smaller planes. But Sorby says it soon became clear that “we were the lowest on the totem pole.” Crew members from the charter company loaded the Norwegian and British men’s gear on a snowmobile and headed with them to the base camp, leaving the women behind. “We felt like we weren’t being taken care of at all,” Sorby says. “Money talks.”
Infuriated, the women headed for the base camp under their own power, dragging their sleds over the uneven terrain. The sleds held nine 33-gallon Rubbermaid garbage cans packed with all their food and other gear. The status of the food worried the women. Because of the delayed departure from South America, the meat and other perishables had sat unrefrigerated for two weeks, and spoilage seemed likely. Several screws secured each container, and at the base camp the women struggled in the wind and cold to undo them using Swiss Army knives. They found that a lot of the cheese had gone bad. “We said, ‘We can’t throw away all of this! It’s our fat,’ ” Sorby recalls. “Fifty-five percent of our diet was fat.” Bancroft decided they should go through the supplies and cut off the moldy sections. “And then we tried to eyeball how much butter we needed to add to the cheese to make it equal,” Sorby says.
The butter came from an underground snow cave built by Adventure Network International. The women got permission to draw enough from this store to sustain themselves through the first 30 days. (They had already arranged for a resupply plane to bring them additional food and heating fuel after a month.) Once the food crisis was resolved, the four women crawled into one of the planes and tried to get some sleep, but 60-mile-an-hour winds buffeted the small craft. About 3:00 a.m., the pilots returned from taking the men to their respective starting points, and they set off with the women. Sorby says after landing at Hercules Inlet, 30 miles away, the pilots at last looked concerned. “They felt sorry for us,” she says. “They were looking at us like we didn’t know what we were doing, and they wondered when we would need them to come back and pick us up. They finally said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want any help with anything?’ and we’re, like, ‘We don’t think so.’ ”
Seeing the plane leave was “really strange,” Sorby says. “I had a realization that that was it.” But there wasn’t much time for introspection; the women started skiing right away. After a few hours, they erected their two small tents, then went to light the stoves on which they would cook. “Somehow we had gotten the wrong gaskets,” Sorby says. The stoves wouldn’t work.
“Now, the plane’s gone. We don’t have any hot drinks. And we’re cold!” Sorby recalls the moment. “At the end of a long day, a hot drink can be more than sustenance. It’s also nurturing. I like the comfort.… So there’s a lot going on around the stove not working. We’re all really agitated. Ooh boy.” All the women knew that if they couldn’t fix the stoves, they would have to abort the expedition. If they needed any lesson about their dependence upon key pieces of gear — tents, compasses, batteries, and so on — they were getting it early.
Sorby says after several hours they finally jury-rigged a repair using duct tape and spare gaskets. The next day they started skiing in earnest. “If it’s your goal to do so many miles in a day, you need to allow for so many hours of skiing to make that possible,” Sorby says. Everything “gets built around that.”
Every day, she says, one of the two women in each tent would arise at six to light the stove and reheat water that, the night before, had been melted from snow, warmed up, and stored in thermoses. “The other person could stay in her sleeping bag until the first hot drink was brewed.” By 6:15 or 6:20, “both of you were wrestling to get your stuff together.” By a quarter to seven, the women would be eating breakfast, usually a big bowl of oatmeal or cream of wheat. For lunch they would pack food into little containers. “It’s usually just gorp — nuts and raisins and dried fruit. Or cheese sticks, cookies, crackers, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.” Sorby says although she and her comrades ate 6000 calories a day, they still experienced a constant hunger. “Everything revolved around food. Breakfast was a highlight. Cereal was a highlight.”
By 8:25 or 8:30, “we would be ready to leave, depending on what kind of a morning it was. The tents would be down and packed up, the sleds would be packed up, the daypacks fastened to the top of the sleds. Your boots would be on, skis on, harness on, and you’re ready to go.”
I asked whether Bancroft had ever envisioned using dogs to pull the sleds. Sorby said no. “It would have been a very different trip — much more expensive, with the cost of the food and everything. And more complicated, since we would have needed an experienced dog-handler.” (In 1994, dogs were banned from the Antarctic to protect the environment.) The women did bring large round sails that they hoped to employ on the final leg of their journey, from the South Pole to McMurdo Sound. But the initial route to the Pole went into stiff head winds that made the sails useless.
They had to depend on their own muscle power, and some of the women adapted to the challenge better than others. Sue Giller, at 46 the oldest member of the team, seemed to struggle the hardest in the first days. Although Giller had spent more time than the other women in frozen wilderness regions and boasted stellar skiing and mountain-climbing skills, the brute strength demanded by the sled-hauling discouraged her. She made no effort to hide her physical discomfort or her fear that she might lack the stamina to endure for 100 days. Sorby, more loath to complain, also was disconcerted by the uneven terrain. “I really struggled in the beginning to find a rhythm, to try to understand this new way of moving,” she says. “I love marathon running. But I like it because I can get a rhythm going with my breath and my steps.” That seemed impossible as she lugged her sled through the heaving, pockmarked fields of ice. The motion reminded her of walking in her mother’s high-heeled shoes when she was five years old, ankles wobbling, “with very little control over balance.”
On one of the initial days, the group covered only 5 miles instead of the 10 to 15 they had counted on. Although the sun shone around the clock, they halted at evening, as they would every night (usually between 6:30 and 8:00 p.m.), to prepare dinner and recoup their strength for the next day. To make camp, the women positioned one tent behind the other, backs to the wind, stakes hammered into the frozen ice. They sawed out blocks of ice; these they piled about five feet high behind the windward tent as further protection against the gales. Ski poles planted against the snow wall helped to reinforce it.
They employed a complex strategy to prevent currents of rivalry or contention from ripping apart their comradeship. Every eight days they changed tent partners. “When we started each eight-day routine, we’d grab a food bag, bring it in the tent, and we’d also grab a duffel bag that had all our cook gear for the tent,” Sorby explains. Each 32-pound food bag contained enough to feed each of the two tent partners two pounds a day for the time they would “room” together. Each woman also brought personal gear into the tent at night, “so we’ve got about three or four duffels in the tent. The tent’s big enough for us, but it’s busy,” she continues. “You’ve got to be mindful of your stuff and keep it organized and be respectful of the other person. And that’s where living in such tight quarters with somebody can just break you. If they have some little habit that you don’t like or can’t get along with, you’re stuck if you let it get to you.” She says she most enjoyed the stints with Bancroft. “We were both easy to get along with. Anne Dal Vera [the fourth member of the team] had her little quirks and was a little bit too needy. Sue Giller was a little bit too picky. It was just relational stuff.”
The tent partners took turns cooking every other day. The woman who had made breakfast in the morning would crawl into the tent as soon as it went up at night. She would start the stove, melt snow, reconstitute the freeze-dried and dehydrated foods. The other tent partner would finish building the snow wall, then rest or attend to other chores. Sue Giller, for example, plotted the group’s progress at the end of each day with the aid of one of her two global positioning systems. Sorby says Bancroft used a military radio to talk to the outside world. “Boy, have times changed!” Sorby exclaims. “Today you can go with a little satellite phone. But back then our radio was a high-frequency one. It weighed 30 pounds. We communicated with Patriot Hills every three nights at seven o’clock.… All they would ask is, ‘Where are you? How are you? How’s your food? How’s your fuel?’ That’s all they cared about.”
A nightly chore for each woman was filling out a questionnaire devised by University of Minnesota scientists who wanted to learn more about women under stress. “There was a list to determine how you coped,” Giller later wrote (in an essay published in the book Women in the Antarctic). “We all…found that having that list of coping mechanisms actually gave us ways to deal with difficulties. I would think, oh well, I’m kind of mad at somebody; what am I going to check off for coping with this? So you might choose to go talk to the person.… I think, to some extent…having that checklist helped to diffuse some of the stress that might have otherwise built up.”
For all the time the women spent together, the dynamics of the trek didn’t foster soul sharing, Sorby says. They traveled single file behind that day’s navigator and pacesetter. Consuming calories — not conversing — commanded their attention at mealtimes. Three of the women kept a journal, and this and other small tasks competed for attention before exhaustion compelled them to sleep.
Sorby says one thing that didn’t require much time was hygiene. “Winter camping is probably one of the cleanest things you can do,” she declares. “There’s no dirt. The only thing we really have to worry about is perspiration.” But on an Antarctic trek, “you don’t change clothes,” she says. “First of all, you can’t take that much. And you don’t really need to change clothes, when you think about it. Here we do it because we’re socialized to and we need to always smell good and look good. But out there, you really don’t care.… We were pretty rancid, after a while,” she concedes. “We didn’t shower for 73 days.”
I asked what the women did to clean their hands after going to the bathroom. Of course there are no bathrooms on a trek across the Antarctic. You have to leave your tent and find a spot to relieve yourself in 20- to 30-degree-below-zero temperatures. Sorby says they buried their feces, the only waste the women did not carry with them to the South Pole. To disinfect their hands, they relied on towelettes. These had to be defrosted. “Everything is a huge chore,” Sorby says. Once in a while, as a special treat, Sorby would heat a little water in the lid of her thermos, dip her bandanna in, and “do a sponge bath. And then I would put baby powder on — just for the smell and to feel fresh.”
The small details of daily life were just beginning to coalesce into a routine when Sorby got the first hint of her body’s impending revolt. On the fifth day, “I started to have a golf-ball-sized knot in my neck,” she recalls. She had a ready explanation for this: muscle cramping caused by pulling the great weight of the sled and compounded by stress. More baffling and frustrating was the croupy cough that took possession of her around the end of the third week. It seemed viral in nature, but where could the virus have come from? At the start of the trek, Sorby had seemed the picture of health. No living organism inhabits the interior of the Antarctic continent, and none of the other women in the expedition were sick.
Sorby’s cough worsened as the women approached the one-month mark in their journey. From the radio operators came the welcome news that the expedition fund-raisers back in Minnesota had raised enough money to make the first payment, averting a pullout — at least for the moment. But the next day Sorby stumbled crossing an ice gully and sprained her ankle. She continued to ski on it; a worse problem was the tendinitis she was developing in both feet. “I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me or make concessions for me,” Sorby later wrote. “It was as if this card in the deck had been specifically dealt to me, and I had to accept it; I couldn’t fight it. So I just dealt with it.”
Horrible, all-consuming pain began to overshadow most of her waking hours, she says. She could ski, but she reached a point where walking became impossible. “I was on massive doses of drugs just to get through the day,” she later wrote. “I sort of bottomed out emotionally and then got to another level that I wouldn’t have imagined possible.” It felt like a spiritual experience, she says in retrospect, an experience of liberation.
Sometimes she hallucinated. The waves of ice would flicker before her eyes and transform into animal shapes. Other times she saw Amundsen and the other early explorers, struggling beside her. “The days really varied,” Sorby has recorded. “Every hour seemed to be a little bit different.” In her mind, she replayed song lyrics, wrote long letters, built elaborate wood constructions. She fought off dark thoughts: despair over foods she craved and couldn’t have; fears about the downward spiral of her body. Her muscles, she knew, were breaking down, wasting away to help fuel her continued progress. She also worried about her teammates’ reaction to her ailments. For once in her life, she felt like the unreliable one, the weak link, and this feeling, too, sickened her.
The geographic South Pole is located on a vast plateau almost 10,000 feet above sea level. When the women began to slog across this expanse, the snow seemed grainy. Moving through it felt like trudging through sand dunes. The altitude made it even colder than it had been before. And in the thinner air, Sorby couldn’t seem to get a full breath. As Bancroft noted these things, she felt more and more convinced that Sorby would have to drop out at the Pole. “Antarctica’s a place where you don’t really heal,” Bancroft wrote in her essay in Women in the Antarctic. A radio exchange with one of the flight company’s crewmen early in January brought Bancroft’s unvoiced concerns into the open. The pilots were scheduled to bring in more food, but they didn’t want to transport Sorby’s portion if she wouldn’t be continuing on to McMurdo. They wanted an answer the next day.
Bancroft, in fact, had decided that only she and Sue Giller (who had overcome her early problems) had a chance of completing the traverse. Dal Vera, the fourth team member, had been battling emotional demons, and Bancroft doubted that she had another 900 miles in her. The leader called a meeting for ten that evening, and tension mounted as the four women crowded into one of the tents. “They knew something big was up,” Bancroft later wrote. Each woman spoke in turn, and “fortunately, most everyone agreed, to a great degree, about what I was saying and why.” Still, faced with being left behind, Sorby turned her face away and wept silent tears.
“So two people were going out at that point. The question was — could the remaining two make the traverse?” Bancroft began to think about evacuating Sorby and Dal Vera early. This would enable her and Giller to proceed at top speed. Bancroft, who felt like she had never been in better shape, hungered for this with every fiber of her being. “Every day was…pivotal,” she records. “Would this be the day that would make it or break it? It was just horrible.”
She finally decided Sorby could make it to the Pole, and the group, which had received a supply drop at the one-month point, had enough food to complete the first phase of their trip. “It might jeopardize what little hope was left for the traverse, but it was most important that we get there as a group.…” Bancroft concluded. Once she accepted this, she felt less burdened, she later wrote, but still devastated by the likelihood that the continental traverse would now prove impossible. “I cried every day under my mask.”
For her part, Sorby concentrated on pushing herself despite her physical agonies. She got one big boost a few days after the pivotal meeting. The women were skiing in dense fog when a form appeared on the horizon. It was a plane, and as it passed nearby a tiny object fell from it. The object turned out to be a package from a flight crew who had heard about the women. When they opened it, the scent of a rose penetrated the cold. Along with the fresh flower, the women found homemade chocolate-chip cookies, cheddar-cheese Goldfish, comic strips, crossword puzzles, and words of encouragement.
On the final day, the women awoke in their tents 14 miles from the South Pole Station. They could see it all day as they skied toward it, Sorby says. “It was very exciting to be moving for the first time toward an actual physical destination.” She was still in pain, but the thought of being able to sleep in late the next morning encouraged her. For the final stretch, the women abandoned their single-file formation to ski side-by-side; crowds of the scientists and technicians stationed at the Pole cheered them on. But Sorby felt saddened by the knowledge that the journey was over. She says she also felt out of place. “We were walking into what looked like and felt like a space station. It was really a shock.” Inside, the smells, the conversation, the stuffiness of the rooms overwhelmed her. From time to time, she would go outside to stare at the emptiness. She didn’t want to leave “this place that I had come to know so well.”
Bancroft also recoiled from the thought of leaving. She wanted to proceed with Sue Giller toward McMurdo Sound, where, she was confident, they could arrive before the departure of the last cruise ship. “I had [time] left. I had food. I had physical ability like I’ve never had before in my life,” Bancroft told me in a phone interview from the Minneapolis office where she also is now preparing for another Antarctic expedition. “It felt like thievery” to have to turn her back on the second half of the crossing in 1993, she said. However, Bancroft knew that if she and Giller missed that final cruise ship and had to call for an evacuation, the cost of the rescue plane would add $300,000 to the expedition’s debt. Another alternative would be to stage a life-threatening emergency so that the group’s insurance company would have to pay for the rescue. “Sad to say, it’s somewhat common practice on expeditions such as this,” Bancroft has written in Women in the Antarctic. But, “we couldn’t live with that…dishonesty, particularly after being on a trip where so much depended on honesty. And part of that is leaving a legacy for others, because it could jeopardize the next expedition.”
All four women thus climbed on the plane for the journey back to Patriot Hills, and as they did so, Sorby felt convinced that “I had more in me.… I just felt as if we were not done yet.” She says a year or so later, when she recognized she wanted to go back and try again, her first impulse was to ask Bancroft to team up for another attempt at a continental traverse. “I actually approached her and asked her,” Sorby says. Bancroft was devoting all her energy to paying off the debts of the first expedition. “She said she wasn’t in a position to be thinking about anything new,” Sorby says. “So I accepted that.” In her heart, Sorby says she hoped Bancroft would change her mind. But Sorby began looking for another expedition partner, and she found one in a man named Laurie Dexter, a Scottish-born Canadian ultramarathoner.
One of the quaint things about the Internet is the way it can freeze certain moments in time. Such a moment came early in January 1998, just as Sorby and Dexter were completing a 13-day training trip on King George Island, off the coast of Antarctica. The website www.phd.gta.ca/transant.htm (still in operation) reports the unfolding of this trip as if it just occurred. It details the plans for Trans-Antarctic Expedition 2000, “planned for October 1999 to mid-February 2000.” In one section, the site informs visitors that “Sunniva and Laurie will travel to Punta Arenas, Chile, South America by commercial airline. From there they will fly by plane operated by Adventure Network International (ani) to Patriot Hills, Antarctica (8-hour flight). Then they will go by plane to the official expedition starting point, the shore of the Weddell Sea, Berkner Island, Antarctica.…” Their venture would make them “the first female/male team ever to attempt a crossing of the coldest, windiest, driest place on the planet.”
She and Dexter were “great on the ice together,” Sorby says today. But 80 percent of the trip would not be spent on the ice, and in the organizational phase of their planned expedition, she found “we weren’t compatible. He had a very different idea of how to get things rolling. He wasn’t driven by timeliness,” she explains, “and [the expedition] seemed like something that would be taking a very long time to make happen.”
By June 1998 she had decided to find a new partner. “It was my first hard decision.… Because it was a divorce. And it was huge.” Sorby says she began to wonder if she could make her dream a reality. “I had the skeleton in place to support a project. But there was no substance. I didn’t have a teammate.” Bancroft by then had changed her mind and decided to mount another attempt at a continental crossing in 2000–2001. But according to Bancroft, she thought Sorby was committed to the 1999 traverse with Dexter. Furthermore, Bancroft had met a woman in 1993 who was planning (and in 1994 succeeded at) a solo, unsupported trek to the South Pole, a Norwegian mountain climber named Liv Arnesen. In the fall of 1998, Arnesen agreed to be Bancroft’s expedition partner.
Sorby, meanwhile, slogged on from the summer of 1998 to the summer of 1999 “proceeding on the assumption that I was going to find the right expedition partner. I was so hopeful.” She says she continued to train while searching for corporate sponsors. In May 1999, she flew to Greenland to ski across its huge ice cap (second in size only to Antarctica’s) in the company of two experienced adventurers. The 34-day trek turned out to be hellish. Record-setting cold, winds, and snow tormented the threesome. Sorby says she grumbled at this turn of events, but at the same time “part of me thought, ‘Well, this is good. We want to experience what Mother Nature has to offer.’ ”
The Greenland trip brought more unambiguous good fortune in the form of Uiloq Slettemark, a 34-year-old native of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city. A mutual friend introduced the two women, and when Slettemark, a computer programmer and competitive cross-country skier, heard that Sorby was still searching for an expedition partner, she expressed interest. Sorby liked Slettemark’s self-confidence and drive. The fact that Slettemark had agreed to marry her husband only on condition that he ski across Greenland with her impressed the San Diego woman even more. Last September, Sorby chose the Greenlander to be her expedition partner.
Even before news of her decision became public, some observers were commenting on the apparent competition shaping up between Sorby and Bancroft. In a catty article entitled “You First, Ann. No, No — You First, Sunniva, Please,” the fall 1999 issue of Women Outside magazine all but scoffed at the notion of two “friendly” simultaneous Antarctic traverses involving the former expedition partners. In defense of her decision to pick Arnesen instead of Sorby, the article quoted Bancroft as saying, “I felt like I needed a total peer — in skills, in personality, and in self-knowledge.” Sorby denied that any competition existed; rather the two efforts were “a celebration of our differences,” she contended, and in January she was still insisting this in public appearances.
A few months later, things had changed. “Oh, we’re definitely in competition,” she admitted to me one day this spring. This had become undeniable, she said, after a training trip to Norway she and Slettemark took in February. Sorby and her partner had run into Bancroft and her teammate there, and Sorby says her immediate instinct was to work in tandem with the other group. “But they refused. They said, ‘We shouldn’t even train with you. We should probably just do our own thing.’ ”
Sorby looked stung by this memory, then she reflected, “I think they’d probably talked to their base camp in Minnesota about…marketing and what to do when people approached them for a story. Do you talk about the fact that there’s another women’s team?” It makes business sense to view each other as rivals, she acknowledged. “But that goes against every grain of my belief system.”
When I asked Bancroft if she sees herself as being in competition with Sorby, she said, “In one sense we are.… We’re both hoping for the same thing. I want to be first and so does she. We want it for our own personal reasons. We want it for our sponsors.” But Bancroft added that she and Sorby are still friends, and she stressed that Sunniva’s illness on the 1993 expedition had nothing to do with the fact that the women are planning to go back to Antarctica on separate expeditions. “What happened to Sunniva on the ice in ’93 could have happened to any of us. And I also thank God that it happened to her because she’s a much happier person to be with when she’s injured or ill than the other three of us would have been. She’s just such a great personality. She can smile in that kind of adversity. Whereas I think I would be a total pill.”
Sorby never disparaged Bancroft to me. By this spring, however, she had shifted all her attention to her new expedition partner. One day in March, Sorby mentioned that Slettemark was flying into San Diego and would attend a luncheon where Sorby would speak. She invited me to meet the woman from Greenland.
The luncheon took place in the Grand Salon of the Civic Theatre. As Sorby set up the projection system to show her slides, Slettemark and I chatted. In the photographs on Sorby’s website (www.tae2000.com), Slettemark had struck me as looking a bit masculine and arrogant. In person, her boyish haircut showcases a classic female beauty: flawless skin; broad, high cheekbones; dark, expressive eyes. Self-possession emanated from her. But when she talked about the day Sorby asked her to join the expedition, Slettemark radiated a girlish happiness.
Slettemark had been thinking about skiing to the South Pole ever since her premarital trip across Greenland, she told me. Unlike Sorby, Slettemark and her husband-to-be had enjoyed superb weather. They had sped across the ice cap, completing the trip in just 17 days (half the time it took Sorby). “We were thinking, ‘We’re so lucky to do this!’ ” They thought of their coworkers, confined to offices, “and here we were out in the sunshine and having such a good time. You always think, ‘What next?’ ”
To a Greenlander, the notion of a polar trek doesn’t seem that remote, she asserted. “Growing up there, you have the extremes very close to you. The winters are very rough.” So many relatives and friends had died in bad weather that she couldn’t even count them, Slettemark said. “There’s bad weather when you go out on the fishing boats.” It could strike any time you were outdoors. “You have it so close to you, and of course you always fear it.” Yet the prospect of bad weather on the Antarctic trek didn’t appear to worry her as much as the crevasses that might lie in ambush for her and Sorby.
Crevasses are fractures in the ice. They can range from a few feet to hundreds of feet deep, and the literature of polar exploration contains frightening tales of their danger. Douglas Mawson, for example, recounts one in his book, The Home of the Blizzard. A member of Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–09 expedition, Mawson had returned to Antarctica in 1912 to map the hitherto unexplored coastal region nearest Australia. His party had set up a base camp and survived months in which they clocked average daily wind speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour. With the approach of the Antarctic summer, Mawson and two companions made a long foray into the uncharted wilderness. All three men were healthy and in good spirits one day toward the end of their outbound adventure, when Mawson heard “a faint, plaintive whine from one of the dogs” being driven by the man skiing behind him.
Hastening back along the trail, he came to a spot he had just crossed moments before. But instead of a solid snow bridge, he found “a gaping hole in the surface about eleven feet wide,” Mawson later wrote. He leaned over and shouted into the depths. “No sound came back but the moaning of a dog, caught on a shelf just visible one hundred and fifty feet below.” The animal appeared to have a broken back, and Mawson could discern another dog lying motionless nearby, next to “what appeared in the gloom to be the remains of the tent and a canvas food-tank containing a fortnight’s supply.” Mawson’s companion, “a young giant in build, so jovial and so real but a few minutes before,” had vanished. “At regular intervals we called down into those dark depths in case our companion might not have been killed outright.… All were dead, swallowed up in an instant.”
I asked both Slettemark and Sorby if any technological advances protected them from such a disaster today. They both replied that satellite images of their route would help them avoid the bigger crevasses. Smaller ones, however, don’t all show up on maps. Also, whiteouts and other conditions could make them difficult to see, Slettemark pointed out. Sometimes snow masks their presence altogether.
The two women would probably tether themselves together at times, Slettemark told me, but if one woman steps into a hidden pitfall, it may be difficult for the other to stop both from plummeting downward. “If we fell and survived the fall, we might be able to use our radios to call for help,” the Greenlander said. Nonetheless, both women wanted to practice more crevasse-avoidance and rescue techniques.
In April, they were supposed to meet in a place called Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, to work on that and other expedition skills. I made plans to talk to Sorby after her return, and on a Sunday morning in early May, she welcomed me into her tidy University Heights apartment, just a few blocks from the Vermont Street foot bridge. “A lot has been happening,” she said in a tone that sounded ominous. “The training trip never happened.”
Sorby explained that she did fly to Edmonton. But while waiting in the airport for her connecting flight, she’d called San Diego and learned some disturbing personal news (which she declined to disclose). She says she knew she could proceed to Yellowknife “and do the training trip and be less than 100 percent. Or I could come back and take care of myself and then be 100 percent.… A year ago, I probably would just have kept plodding along.” This time she turned around.
Canceling the training trip had become a catalyst, Sorby continued. “It forced me to just stop, look at the project, at myself, at how tired I’ve been.… I’ve been on an expedition in my living room!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been in a very introspective place.”
The result was that she had “put the brakes on,” she told me. “In talking with Uiloq, I told her I couldn’t do everything that I’d been doing at the pace that I’d been working anymore. And she, she — accepted that. And we redefined what the next few months will look like.”
For one thing, Sorby says she finally confronted the question: “At what point do you decide that you just can’t make this happen?” People have asked her over the years what she would do if she couldn’t raise the money, and “I’ve always said if I didn’t get a corporate sponsor, I wouldn’t put myself in debt and mortgage my tomorrows to make it happen.” So she decided to set a “drop-dead date” of August 1. If she hasn’t raised the money to transport herself and Slettemark to the Antarctic continent by then, she’ll cancel the expedition, she says.
The expense that has most galled Sorby is the $195,000 tab for the flight from Patriot Hills to the ice-locked Berkner Island. Starting there and finishing up at McMurdo Sound would constitute a full continental crossing. To scout whether she and Slettemark might get to Berkner Island by ship, Sorby made a trip to Antarctica this past winter. She concluded that she would need a ship equipped with a helicopter, and few of those exist. “And also, if we went in by ship and something happened, we would lose our one chance to start. With a plane, if the weather’s bad, the plane can still take off the next day.”
She says when she sat alone in her apartment in April and faced the stark choices before her, she had to admit that simplifying the route might salvage the trip. She’s thus resigned herself to landing at Patriot Hills and taking a snowmobile to the nearest point on the edge of the ice shelf. There the wind patterns wouldn’t be as favorable as they would be from Berkner Island. However, “It means we’re not dependent on another flight.” Adventure Network’s charge for flying her and Slettemark and their gear from the tip of Chile to the Patriot Hills landing strip will be about $43,000, she says. At McMurdo, she’s confident she and Slettemark can get a free ride to New Zealand on a cruise ship. The cost of flying home from New Zealand and the cost of flying to Punta Arenas at the start of the trip will amount to $15,000 or so, she estimates, and two resupply flights will add another $50,000 to the tab. Altogether, the air costs of this bare-bones approach amount to perhaps $110,000.
Early in June, Sorby told me that after a year of courting Motorola, the corporation had made a commitment to a five-figure sponsorship, and it was talking about increasing that to six figures. But by mid-July, she had received crushing news: Motorola had decided not to sponsor her but instead to bestow its corporate largesse on Bancroft’s undertaking. Sorby wasn’t willing to give up all hope; a few long shots still might pay off before her August 1 deadline. Since May she has been writing to between 10 and 15 corporations per day.
“In this day and age, there’s so much competition for attention,” she says. To engage in one of the loneliest activities imaginable, you first have to excel at grabbing the spotlight. Just this year alone, the “first married couple” arrived at the South Pole, as well as the “first British women’s team,” prompting Briton Robert Swan (the first man to walk to both the South  and North  Poles) to grouse, “What next? The first person to reach the Pole with one arm tied behind their back and wearing underpants?”
When someone asks, “What’s new and different about your expedition?” Sorby has answers. If she and Slettemark beat Bancroft and Arnesen, they’ll be the first women to cross Antarctica on foot. They’ll be doing scientific research along the way. They plan to educate schoolchildren about their exploits through an Internet link. Still, she says it’s hard for her to boast “We’re gonna do this! We’re gonna do that!” She says what she feels like saying sometimes is, “Well, it’s the first time I’m doing it.” That may not be enough, but it’s the truth.