Skiing for up to 10-hours a day, in silence and unsupported, for 75 days, while hauling an 85kg sledge behind you would be considered a major feat in ‘easy’ conditions. But in the Antarctic with temperatures as low as minus-40 and winds of up to 50 mph? Er, yup, that’s a Herculean challenge.
Come November, this will be the reality for the Army’s Ice Maidens – a six-strong team of badass ladies planning to break records as the first all-female crew to ski 1700km coast-to-coast across Antarctica. Led by Major Nat Taylor and Major Nics Wetherill (brainchild of the expedition), team members Major Sandy Hennis, Lt Jenni Stephenson, Lt Zanna Baker and LtSgt Sophie Montagne made it through a gruelling selection process that took months to complete and saw 250 applications from women within the army.
Expedition co-leader, Major Natalie Taylor (adventure racing enthusiast and winner of last year’s notorious 6633 Arctic Ultra), took a break from duty as infantry Doctor in Kabul to chat to me about Exercise Ice Maiden, including selection process challenges and back-to-back sessions of Insanity.
Tell us about Exercise Ice Maiden and your Antarctica coast-to-coast plan
We’re going to be skiing 1,700 kilometres in total distance. We start at sea level and go up to about 3000 metres, as the Antarctic plateau is quite high. And then we head towards the South Pole – at this point the terrain is kind of undulating because of something called sastrugi; ‘frozen waves’ which you have to go down and over.
How many hours of skiing will you be doing each day?
We’ll expect to do something like 10-hour days. It depends on each day, but that’s the plan. It’ll be fluid of course, so some days will be longer if we’ve had to do a shorter day due to someone not feeling very well, or if the weather becomes rubbish and we’re not able to move very far.
What’s the weather typically like in November in Antarctica?
It’s quite varied. You can have winds up to 55 mph when it’s a really bad day and it can get down to minus-40, so when you put the two together it can be quite cold. But on an average day it will sit between minus-20 to minus-30. There’s something called katabatic winds, which start off at the South Pole and just go north and every direction opposite from the South Pole, so on the first bit we’ll definitely have a headwind.
How long do you expect it will take you to cover the 1700km?
75 days is the plan at the moment. I’m quietly confident that we’ll be able to go a bit quicker, but the team get a bit tetchy when I mention that! They did so well in Norway in February this year when the terrain was much hillier and much more demanding. But from a training point of view, the weather wasn’t was as challenging. We went at the coldest time in Norway and they had a freak warm period when it was -2, -3 [Laughs]. So we didn’t have the cold but we had some really tough ascents and descents. So I think the challenges prepared us well.
That exercise included skiing ten hour days as a test-run, didn’t it?
Yeah, everyone managed really well. The pulks weren’t as heavy as they’ll be in Antarctica – they were about 50kg in Norway, but they’ll be around 80kg in Antarctica. Because it was so much hillier, it was a really good test though. And we ate the 5000 calories a day no issues, so it was a really good confirmation that the last two years of prep have been correct.
Tell us about how Exercise Ice Maidens started two years ago?
In June 2015 we announced to the Army that we needed women to apply – they just had to be in the Army, either regular or reservist. And we got 250 applications, which is the largest number of people who’ve applied for a military expedition. Which shows there’s definitely an appetite in the military for women to do extraordinary things. Then we started the selection process in September 2015.
How did you whittle 250 women down – what was selection like?
Selection was really difficult. Nics and I thought we’d be really lucky if we got 50 women apply! I was on exercise, because I’m a doctor, a GP in infantry, so I was out with them on exercise on Salisbury Plain, secretly using my phone to look at people’s applications and Nics was doing the same at work. We just weren’t expecting so many people!
We read each application twice, three times, maybe more. And then we took 50 of those to the selection weekend in north Wales in September 2015, where we did key standard selection things; lots of tyre-dragging, horrible circuits and all sorts. And it wasn’t the person at the front we cared about; it was those who just didn’t give up, no matter how hard it got, because we wanted to check they had that mental resilience.
The next part of the selection was in Norway where you did a Royal Marines course?
Yes, we took 22 women to Norway. Some of them had never skied before, in fact one of the [final] team doesn’t have a background in skiing. We just wanted to show that you don’t have to be an amazing athlete to do this sort of thing, you’ve just got to be dedicated, have a drive and reason to do it, and then you can achieve incredible things.
So we took them to Norway and we did the Royal Marines Survival Course, [including an exercise] where there’s a frozen lake, you break into the ice, go in and pull yourself out. Then we had a week with the Norwegian Army as well, so they taught us how to live in the snow environment, rather than simply survive. Because obviously the Norwegians are pros at that sort of thing!
Next was a further selection expedition in Norway for two weeks – with 11 women?
Yes, last year we took them to Norway again for two weeks where we went out into the wilderness, reminding ourselves how to ski. When we were there it was really dark; the sun barely rose and it was like dusk-dawn mode and then it was dark, head torches on again. So it was a really challenging way to practise our navigation. Although we couldn’t experience a white-out, it was so black it was like a white-out. It was all in aid of putting ourselves in different situations so we’re ready for the tough environment that is Antarctica.
Will you experience much skiing in the dark during Exercise Ice Maiden?
No, when we go to Antarctica we’ll have 24-hours of daylight because we’re going in their summer. We won’t need to take torches, but when the wind picks up there’s such a white-out that you can’t see the difference between the horizon and the ground, so it’s quite disorientating. Skiing in the dark is also disorientating, so it’s about trying to mimic that kind of environment and practise.
Eventually you got to the final selection expedition with 7 women where you skied for 10 hours a day for three weeks. Was there anything the team found particularly challenging?
As you’d expect we all had our own individual struggles. Some people found it difficult because there was quite a lot of descent in Norway – we’d done a lot of training on uphill skiing, skiing on the flat and traversing, but hadn’t done that much downhill because there’s no massive downhill so to speak in Antarctica.
It’s difficult to ski downhill at the best of times in touring skies, which have a free heel, and then when you put a pulk on your back and you’re tired… those that aren’t really used to it did struggle. It was good though, because the stronger skiers could support them and ski alongside, stabilising their pulks. From those adverse situations come really good team dynamics and key things we were able to build on. As an all-female team, I’m sure there are people who’d like to watch us and hope we’ll fall-out [laughs] but we’re trying to develop that team ethic of, ‘if there’s something wrong, voice it. If you have a problem, it’s your problem.’ So rather than saying ‘you’re annoying me’, you say ‘I’m getting annoyed because of this…’ And we can work out how to support you.
How many are in the final expedition?
Six members. We’d always planned to take five, but fortunately we have some great corporate sponsors – Aecom is a big international firm based in American and the UK, they do loads of stuff for defence, and they are prime sponsors. And because of their generosity and support basically, with Black Rock and a couple of others, they made it possible for us to take six team members.
Six works out better because we can sleep in tents of two. If we’d been five, there’d be one tent of three and we’d have to rotate round. But with two we can just stay as pairs and keep to our routine. And it’s better for when we go across ice fields as we can be on ropes of three rather than on a rope of five.
What will each day be like? Will you be able to chat as you ski?
Because it’s going to be a long, long journey [laughs], it’s all about being really efficient, so we’ll be skiing in a line one behind the other, following the front person’s tracks. This makes it easier for the back people and then we’ll swap round every hour so somebody else takes the lead. It’s really inefficient if you start to ski side-by-side to try to talk to each other, and when it’s cold, you’ve got your hood up which is covered in fur so you have to physically turn to them.
You can’t do that whilst skiing in an efficient manner, so we won’t be talking – although you might shout to someone, if necessary, to check they’re okay.
How often will you stop skiing for a break and for food?
Every hour we’ll have a 7-minute break, and in that 7 minutes you need to get your food and drink out – you can’t eat or drink while you’re skiing because of the wind, although some of us put a bar in our jacket while we’re going along, for half-way through that hour. You also need to have a wee in those 7 minutes – there’s a video on our Facebook page about how to go for a wee then. We just use a petrol funnel. It’s a bit like a she-wee but more robust [laughs].
So there’s not that much time to talk. You’ll check that the others are ok, eyeball them to check that they haven’t got any cold spots on their face; they’re not confused or showing any signs of hypothermia. You’re doing all of this every hour, so you don’t have much time to chat until the evening, by which time you’re exhausted! And then you’ve got to melt the snow to make the water, boil it to make your dinner, make your drinks… it’s quite a lengthy evening process. And when you’ve got the stove on, the stove’s really noisy in the tent, so you can’t hear what people behind you are saying!
You have to take on 5000 calories each a day. What will you be eating?
So we’ve got six delicious menus [laughs] of dehydrated meals. We’ve got a couple of different brands we’re using to give a variety, so we’ll rotate them and have each meal 12/13 times over the course of the expedition and then we’ll have snacks throughout the day. The Norwegians have a great saying when it comes to expeditions: Lunch starts when breakfast finishes, and finishes when dinner starts, so you’re basically eating the whole day to get those calories in.
What kind of snacks will you be packing?
Mainly nuts for snacks through the day, nuts and flapjacks. There’s an amazing company called Fusion Flapjacks and they do a flapjack that has 800 calories in it. We’re trying to find anything that has more than 500 calories on the least amount of grams, because that’s weight to carry [laughs]. Eating 100g of chocolate a day though… it’s positively delicious.
What do you expect the biggest challenge of 75-day the expedition will be?
A daily challenge will be to get up in the morning and start that routine and find the motivation, because everyone will have a dip. But I think the first third – when we go from Leverett Glacier up to the South Pole – that’s kind of our height gain where we go from sea level to 3000 metres. And there’s a few days in there where we go up the Leverett Glacier itself – now that is really quite steep with the weight of the pulks, but the good thing is that’s near the beginning so we have a few days to warm-up, get used to it, before we have a couple of really hard days. And then once we get to the South Pole, which seems like quite a big achievement to get to, we’re not even half-way. So with that reality check we need to make sure that we’re all mentally prepared; that this is where we’re going; this is how much further we’ve got to go and to make sure we look after ourselves and, more importantly, each other.
Have you been doing any mental training? I suppose you’re all really tough girls anyway?
It’s funny because everyone assumes that. I know my background is in lots of endurance racing and things, and that’s how I got involved in it, but a lot of the team haven’t necessarily done that sort of thing before. Time on our own has been a big focus of our training throughout the summers in the UK and then out in Norway. We’ve not allowed people to have music to listen to, because everything is battery operated and dependent on whether it works. Lots of teams have taken music but after 5 days their device has broken because of the cold, so it’s making sure everyone has that mental robustness and inner strength to not need it.
We also did quite a lot of work looking at what motivates us and then also what do we do when we’re having a bad day – say, some people might go shopping or buy chocolate. Then someone did a good workshop with us and we highlighted everything we WOULDN’T be able to do in Antarctica – i.e. going shopping. And she said, well, why can’t you? You can still go shopping in your head and you can still think about what you want to buy, what the options are. And actually, if you break those things down, there’s not that much that you CANT do while you’re away. You just have to ‘go’ in a different way.
Have you any personal strategies to compartmentalise the enormity of the challenge?
For me, I always break everything down into small chunks. So for the day, I’ll break this down to an hour each time. And I’ll break my snack bags down into small bits – for example, one day I might have a macaroon in my bag, so I’ll save that for leg six when I’m quite tired, so there’s always things for me to look forward to.
So it’s like a reward and something to focus on during your 10-hour ski?
Yeah, we’ve got 5000 calories per day and we like to mix up the snack bags each day. I personally really like the macaroons – and I’m allowed the calories! Some of the team don’t like them. Equally, there are some nuts that some of the team members love, but I’m not that keen on, but we need them to make the calories so we all just accept them. There’ll be days when we really like the snack bag and there’ll be days when we’re not so keen, but someone else is, so you can start doing trades and it just becomes currency – food becomes a currency!
So it’s just different ways to deal with things. Every cloud has a silver lining!
Personally you’ve done some amazing endurance events. You won the 350-mile 6633 Arctic Ultra last year – how was that?
It’s interesting because I never, ever wanted to do this race at all. I’d known about it for years and I’ve always been ‘Wow, gosh, that’s definitely not me’. Then Nics [co leader] called me up in the summer of 2014. Nics is really persistent and after telling her it wasn’t for me [on several different occasions], she called me up: ‘I’ve entered! I think you should come along, I’m going to come down to where the organisers are based’ which is near me. Then when she said, ‘The reason I want you to enter is because I want to take the first female team to cross Antarctica coast-to-coast and I want you to be in it,’ that made me start thinking.
So she came down. As a doctor, my concern is always about the med cover and whether I’m going to be safe. So I discussed with race officials what happens, what kind of injury patterns they’ve seen in the past etc. I’ve been down to minus-20/25 cross country skiing, but not below. Anyway, they reassured me enough that I foolishly gave them my credit card and paid for it there and then!
And then you went on it win it! Was that your goal when you signed up to the 6633?
The plan was just to finish – so I never thought that I’d do more than that; just finish. It was really nice, people were like ‘Ooh you won this’ and I was just very glad to have finished to be quite honest! It was definitely a surprise, but I thoroughly enjoyed it!
We were really lucky that there was a massive solar storm at the time we were there. The Northern lights, which are graded 1-5, were level 5. So every night I had these incredible lights to keep me company. And you just create little stories in your head as you fatigue – I got around 2-4 hours’ sleep – I probably shouldn’t divulge too much as people will think I’m insane [laughs], but the evenings were amazing.
Were you pulling a sledge in the 6633 like you will be in the Antarctic?
Yeah. It was on a frozen dirt track for a lot of the time, so because it was on ice, it was on wheels. And I was walking rather than skiing. Otherwise it’s the same type of sledge we’ll be using in Antarctica.
Would you do the 6633 Arctic Ultra race again?
Ahhh [laughs], I’ve thought about it because there’s a record time, and I think if I’d done different training and planned it a bit differently, maybe I’d have pushed towards that time. But that had never been my intention for this one. But then again, there are so many other amazing races. I race because I really like the journey – I race, but I’m not necessarily racing other people, I’m racing myself, pushing myself.
Normally with races I have a rough time in mind that I think I’ll be proud to complete it in, but I’ll still be chuffed if I finish it however many hours later. However, I did a 100-mile race, which wasn’t my longest, the Arc of Attrition Winter Ultra in Cornwall, and I came first lady in that. I wanted to make it in 36 hours to get back to see my Niece before she went to bed! That took me 27 hours and my motivation was wanting her to be on the finish line. Obviously being a three-year-old, when I finished the race [exhausted], she was like ‘Carry me!’ [Laughs]
Do you get opportunity to train in Kabul? Is training part of your job?
No, training certainly is not part of my job! I’m out here as a doctor, to provide medical care – I go from treating people with traumatic injuries to heart attacks to very simple stuff like athletes foot. We also do training for the medics etc and I advise commanders from a medical point of view. So that’s my day-to-day.
Because Kabul is warm – around 30-35-degrees, sometimes 40-degrees at times – I get up at around 5am if I’m going to do a tyre drag for a few hours before it gets too hot, and then if I’m not doing a tyre drag, a group of us do Insanity – the 30-minute one, so we do two of those.
Two Insanity sessions back-to-back?
Yeah, to push ourselves. It’s horrendous [laughs]. And then we’ll finish off with a bit of yoga and then one of the girls is a spinning instructor so we sometimes spin. I try and do two training sessions a day; a morning session like a tyre drag or a high-intensity thing, and then in the afternoon I’ll do walking on the treadmill on the biggest incline it can go, just walking at 3-miles an hour – because there are no hills where I am now, it’s just a flat city!
Do you drag your tyre for time or distance?
Just for time. I started putting crates of water in it to make it heavier as I don’t have a hill to replicate. They come in packs of 12 so I put two packs of 12 waters in – that’s 12 kilos – to just make the tyre heavier. The longest tyre-drag I’ve managed to do is 3 and a half hours, now that it’s getting hotter. But it’s really boring – it’s definitely training your mind!
Back in the UK, the girls do a bit longer because they have better terrain whereas I’m kind of restricted by the heat.
Do you have any days off work in Kabul for training?
No – I’m here to do a job, we don’t get a day off so every day is a working day. A couple of times you might get an earlier start, but everyone’s really supportive; the team I work with I might tell my medics that I’m going to the gym and if anyone’s sick, just grab me, as it’s only downstairs. Then I train late afternoon so I can normally work later in the evening to fit it in. Otherwise, you know what it’s like when you work a really long day – the last thing you want to do is go to the gym in the evening.
Is tyre-dragging the core part of your Antarctic-specific training?
Yes, that and weights – I’ve actually got a lot stronger since I’ve been away. When you’re dragging a sledge that weighs more than you – they’ll weigh about 80 kilos – it’s really important to have good quality strength. So three times a week I’ll do a leg workout, a back workout and an upper body workout. And to get that core strength, every day I’ll do 5 or 10 minutes of core, so we don’t injure our backs.
What kind of weight training do you do?
In Kabul I use a mixture of free weights and cable machines, so the leg press and the hamstring curls are really important, as well as doing lots of squats, deadlifts and good mornings, stuff like that. I had a guy at work talk me through technique before I came out.
What will you be wearing throughout the expedition?
Aclima is supporting us and giving us their base layer, so it’s like a thermal wool netting. They’re really good as they capture the air a lot better and they’re lightweight. Then there’s a second set of thermals to put on top of that. Mountain Equipment are really good – they’re providing all our outer equipment, like our suits and down jackets and things. We used them in Norway but fed back that although they’re really good, but they’re not quite long enough to cover our bums – as girls we have more fat on our bums and thighs, so they’re more likely to get cold in there and get polar thigh. Rather than accepting it, we’re avoiding it [and Mountain Equipment are] putting more down around our legs just to protect them so they don’t get so cold.
Where will you feel the impact of skiing 10 hours a day for 75 days?
It’s a real mix, depending on what your pole technique is like. If the poles aren’t quite tall enough, or if your pulk gives way on the snow you might jar yourself. In Norway, some people felt it in their shoulders. A lot of us feel it in our backs a little because when you’re pulling you pull with a very slight forward lean and then if you’re sharing a tent you’re hunched over, so you end up becoming permanently hunched instead of standing up normally. You’ve really got to force yourself to stand upright again when you can.
If you’re on your feet for 10 hours a day, for 70+ days, your feet are going to hurt, so it’s all about getting that good admin when you get back into the tent. And we’ve developed our own tent yoga to try and stretch a bit more.
What will you be doing about blisters and blister prevention?
So we’ll probably take a lot of Duoderm, which can be used for blisters and also polar thigh, so it’s multi-usage. We’ll still take some Compeed, but the key is to treat a hot spot if you get one. We’re really rigid that we’ll walk for an hour and won’t stop EXCEPT if someone’s hotspot is developing.
We’ve all used boots while we were in Norway and everyone’s feet were really good, and we tried out different liners, depending on what individuals’ feet liked. Everyone has socks that work for them now.
Do you tape hotspots up?
It really depends where the hotspot is. For me, I’m a really big fan of taping stuff up. So if I’ve got something that feels like a hotspot and looks a bit red on my heel, I’ll just tape it. But it depends on where it is, is the tape going to be annoying.
Fortunately Nics and I are doctors and treating blisters is pretty much bread and butter for us!
Seeing the number of female applicants during selection must have been pretty special…
Each of the 250 women all had brilliant stories and actually, it just makes you realise what major talent the British military has. All the women were really humble and [at work] perhaps they don’t put themselves forward or explain what they’ve done. What we’ve tried to encourage is that you’re all part of this amazing journey, and what’s really nice that some of the girls who weren’t successful, have now gone on to organise their own expeditions or are taking up activities that they really wanted to do but never had.
You can follow Major Nat, Major Nics and their teammates Sandy, Jenni, Zanna and Sophie via their Facebook page www.Facebook.com/exicemaiden or via www.twitter.com/exicemaiden.
Each of the team have their own twitter account: @icemaidenNat, @icemaidenNics, @icemaidenSandy, @icemaidenJenni, @icemaidenZanna and @icemaidenSophie – and you can find out more about the expedition at www.exicemaiden.com