Major Nic Wetherill tells The Mixed Zone’s Emily Victoria about achieving her long-held ambition to ski to the South Pole and back with an all-female team using sheer muscle power
The record-breaking Ice Maidens’ trek to the South Pole and back was not for the squeamish. For starters, their diet regularly consisted of portions of reindeer stew; then, a visit to the Ladies involved digging a hole in the snow and squatting in temperatures forty degrees Centigrade below freezing.
Even so, British Army doctor, Major Nic Wetherill, the instigator and leader of the six-strong, all-female expedition across the harsh, barren wasteland that is Antarctica, insists: “I miss it.
“It just seems surreal to think that two months ago we were in the middle of nowhere, and completely self-sufficient with no communications other than one very slow email a day and a sat phone.
“Out there you just had nothing to worry about other than what food you were going to have the next day, which was only really a choice of six.” Among the items on the menu were the aforementioned reindeer stew, spag bol and cod. Major Wetherill didn’t really go for the stew, but it was the only thing on offer which even came close to filling them up.
It was not surprising the women were hungry a lot of the time when they each pulled around 73 kilograms of kit all day every day. Their schedule was like clockwork, as might be expected from a group of experienced members of the British Army.
Major Wetherill reels off the daily routine: “We got up at zero six thirty hours. One person would cook, and one person would have a day off. So, whoever was cooking would put the stove on, put the water on and get cooking while the others got dressed.
“We always left a zero eight hundred hours on the dot. And sometimes, if we were all done before, we’d leave a bit earlier. I think we only left after eight o’clock on three occasions and that was usually due to an unforeseen event like someone’s ski was frozen.
“We were very, very hot on timings. So, at zero eight hundred, you’d leave and then you’d ski for ten minutes, and take a three-minute vent stop so, if you put on an extra layer to start off with, you’d take it off.”
The rest of the day followed a fixed pattern: ski for 75 minutes, have an eight-minute break to eat as much as humanly possible to re-fuel and go to the loo if needed. As Major Wetherill put it: “You just dig a hole and you bare it. Sometimes it was pretty miserable.”
Being women, the team also had to prepare for the logistical issue of coping with menstruation – a problem to deal with amid harsh winds, snow storms and layers and layers of clothing. Major Wetherill explains: “Basically, we all agreed we didn’t want to have them [periods]. Most women in the military, when they’re going on an exercise, don’t want them. We just take contraceptive hormones that stop it, so it wasn’t really an issue. For those who did get one, we had the moon cup just because you can’t get rid of anything.”
The women would complete the cycle of ski and break eight times until 6pm when they would bunk down for the night. One person would cook, the others set up camp and one person would take charge of the blog and phoning in the team’s co-ordinates at the end of each day. The person in charge of the sat phone was said to be on their ‘special day’, because they could contact family and friends – even if the process was as slow as using a Microsoft box-computer from the early 1990s. This privilege only came once a week, though.
Now the 61 days on the bottom of the globe are over, Major Wetherill speaks fondly of the experience, the isolation and the peace, while admitting that it wasn’t without its challenges. “The lowest moment was at the beginning,” she says. “We had been waiting for two weeks before we could set off, before we could get to the start line – and that was because of weather.
“There was quite a lot of tension. We were stuck in a camp not being able to do anything. Not being able to get on our way or anything. And then, just as we started, we had this massive storm. It just felt like another failure. That was a low – probably more out of fear, because we just didn’t know [what lay ahead]. We thought, ‘If this is what Antarctica is going to throw us every day, then this is going to be a lot harder than we thought’.”
What they found on their 1,700-kilometre route was a patchwork quilt of ice and snow with the possibility of deep, sinking crevasses at every step or wrong turn.
However, an even trickier terrain for Major Wetherill came in the form of trying to navigate group dynamics. “[There were] definitely ups and downs,” she admits, “but on the whole there was a very good team atmosphere. I think because I was leading it, it was at some points quite difficult, especially when there was a big split in the team.
“There were a couple of days when half the team wanted to do one thing and the other half wanted to do something else. There was no right or wrong. Ultimately, when there was a split, it was down to me to make that decision. That was fine but, because people had become very verbal, when you didn’t take on their idea, they can get, well … they become more upset.”
However, the 73 kilos on their backs, the physicality of the task, the length of time away from home didn’t faze the already-toughened women of the British Army. They experienced unexplained fluctuations in emotion just as they might back at home.
Major Wetherill believes anyone can achieve anything with the right training, and by creating the “right place and right time” to begin the journey to achieving a dream, no matter how hard, or how long it might take to reach it.
“Reaching the South Pole was one of the biggest highs,” she says. “It was definitely a point that we’d been focusing on and it meant we’d achieved something. If it all went Pete Tong after that, at least we’d achieved the first step of our goal and that was great.”
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