The Women of Antarctica

Submitted by Thorsten on 12th January 2020

Antarctica season is always a special time of the year for Polar aficionados, like me. In a span of not even three months, dozens of explorers are out there working towards the goals they trained and planned for – often for many years. The 2018/19 season gave us an exciting struggle for the – supposedly – last real first out there, with Louis Rudd and Colin O’Brady both going for an unsupported and completely human powered traverse. In comparison to the media buzz created especially by O’Brady last year, this season may appear kind of slow. This perception may have been reinforced by the fact that due to weather delays, a lot of this year’s explorers only got on the ice at the end of November, which means it took till well after Christmas to hear of the first arrivals at the Pole. But the 2019/20 season stands out for another reason as well: for the first time in my memory, it’s the women dominating the headlines. Here’s a list of some of the amazing women who just wrapped up their expeditions.

Wendy Searle

Route: Hercules Inlet to South Pole, Style: solo & unsupported, Mode of Transport: skiing

Wendy Searle is no complete stranger to Antarctica. Last year, she acted as Lou Rudd’s expedition manager, a favour he returned this year during her own Antarctic outing. Wendy originally set out to beat the women’s speed record. She started her expedition on November 27th from Hercules Inlet and kept a fairly tight lid on her exact progress for the most part of her trip, which certainly avoided creating the impression of a race against Jenny Davis. During Wendy’s trip, Antarctica threw some curveballs at her. Among other struggles, she managed to break off not one, but two of her teeth. Wendy arrived at the pole after 42 days, 16hrs and 23mins. She is the first of the solo explorers to make it to the Pole this season, only the 7th woman overall to complete the Hercules Inlet route solo and unsupported, and the 4th fastest of them. Despite missing the speed record Wendy is thrilled about her accomplishment.

It’s just been such a massive adventure and emotional journey. I feel so fortunate and privileged to have been able to do this journey and all the support I’ve had.

Wendy Searle

Jenny Davis

Route: Hercules Inlet to South Pole, Style: solo & 1x emergency resupply (yet unconfirmed), Mode of Transport: skiing

Simultaneously with Wendy, fellow Brit Jenny Davis set out for the women’s speed record. Just like Wendy, Jenny started on November 27th and just like Wendy, there wasn’t much information about her progress until she was about 100 miles from the pole. According to her expedition manager, she managed to keep a world-record pace for about two-thirds of the journey before losing speed during the climb onto the polar plateau. Jenny was struggling with a worsening Polar thigh injury and a malfunctioning stove from that time on. Apparently she took on an emergency resupply late in her expedition, but that’s not officially confirmed by her expedition team, yet. Jenny arrived at the Pole about a day after Wendy, her official time is yet to be confirmed. This was her second attempt at the speed record after she had to abandon an expedition due to illness during the 2018/19 season.

Anja Blacha

Route: Berkner Island to South Pole, Style: solo & unsupported, Mode of Transport: skiing

Flying a bit under the radar was German explorer Anja Blacha. Her expedition isn’t relying on media coverage to raise money for herself or for charity. Anja chose to start from the coast of Berkner Island and make her way to the Pole from there. She arrived at about the same time as Jenny Davis after an official time of 57 days, 18 hours, and 50 minutes and became the first woman ever to ski the Berkner Island route solo and unsupported. She also briefly became the youngest woman ever to reach the South Pole solo, until Mollie Hughes arrived a few hours after her. Anja is supported by German sports retailer intersport with their Not Bad For a Girl campaign.

Mollie Hughes

Route: Hercules Inlet to South Pole, Style: solo & 1x emergency resupply, Mode of Transport: skiing

Edinburgh-based explorer Mollie Hughes started her South Pole expedition on November 13th, two weeks before Wendy and Jenny, and she hit bad weather right from the start. Since she wasn’t going for a speed record, she went a bit slower than Wendy and Jenny and made it to the Pole after a bit over 58 days of skiing. While Mollie planned to go unsupported, the bad weather at the beginning of her trip delayed her enough that she chose to take an emergency resupply, not wanting to make her expedition a race against the clock. Because she is 15 days younger than Anja Blacha, she is now the youngest woman ever to reach the South Pole solo from the geographic coastline.

Jo Bradshaw

Antarctica offered a Polar adventure of a different sort for British mountaineer Jo Bradshaw. On December 27th, she was part of a group summiting Mt Vinson, the highest peak on the seventh continent. This summit is the sixth of her seven summits attempt with Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania planned in March of 2020.

Women Guides

There are also a number of guided efforts underway with experienced women leading the trips. Polar Veteran Robert Swan is on an expedition from the Thiel mountains to the South Pole. He’s being accompanied by two guides, Johanna Davidsson and Kathinka Gyllenhammar. Johanna is the current women’s speed record holder for an unsupported solo Hercules Inlet route.

Another expedition is heading to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility. Chinese Adventurer Jing Feng became the second Chinese woman to ski to the South Pole last year and this season, she is back in Antarctica. She is led by the guides Sarah McNair-Landry and her partner, Erik Boomer.

With the adventure industry being generally male-dominated, it’s inspiring to see so many great women braving the harsh conditions out there and following their dreams.

Previous Women Explorers of Note

Of course, there have been many other women of note in Antarctica before Wendy, Jenny, Anja and Mollie. Let’s take a look at some of them

Shirley Metz and Victoria Murden – First women to reach the South Pole overland

Team size: 11, Distance covered: 1,207 km, Duration: 51 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and snowmobiles

I could not find a lot about this particular expedition. It was led by Martyn Williams and pioneered a new route to the South Pole. They set out on November 28th 1988 and arrived at the Pole on January 17th 1989. the Team consisting of 9 men and two women skied dragging pulks and was accompanied by snow-mobiles carrying their camping equipment. (sources: 12)

American Women’s Trans-Antarctica Expedition – First all-female expedition to the South Pole

Team size: 4, Distance covered: 1,078 km, Duration: 67 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and kites

Led by Ann Bancroft, who had previously skied to the North Pole, Anne Dal Vera, Sunniva Sorby and Sue Giller planned a traverse of Antarctica on the same route Messner and Fuchs had taken several years earlier. They relied on a supply drop halfway to the Pole, and also wanted to resupply at the Pole a second time. They set out on November 5th 1992 and planned to arrive at McMurdo station February 17th the latest. Unfortunately, the start of their expedition had been delayed by 10 days already, and it soon became apparent that they would not have time to reach their goal in time. Faced with the decision to pay 300,000$ for a later pickup from McMurdo, or take a plane there from the South Pole, they had no choice but to abandon their crossing plans. They still reached the Pole on January 14th 1993, becoming the first all-female team to do so. (source)

Liv Arnesen – First woman to complete an unsupported solo expedition to the South Pole

Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,200 km, Duration: 50 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing

I could not find a lot on this expedition online. I don’t know if this trip involved any other means than human power alone. If you have her book or know details, please let me know! (source)

Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft – First all-female unsupported crossing of Antarctica

Team size: 2, Distance covered: 2,747 km, Duration: 94 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing and kites

This is another expedition I can’t find a lot of details on online aside from the bare metrics. The pair of Bancroft and Arnesen set out on November 10th 2000 from the northern end of Queen Maud Land, pulling 113kg pulks. They reached the Pole on January 17th 2002 and finished their traverse at McMurdo base on February 11th 2001. (sources: 12)

Felicity Aston – First woman to cross Antarctica relying only on human power

Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,745 km, Duration: 59 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing

Felicity Aston conquered one of the last remaining firsts for women in 2012 by becoming the first woman to complete a crossing of Antarctica relying only on human power. She started on November 25th 2011 from Leverett Glacier and ended her journey after 1,745 km at Hercules Inlet. (source)

Maria Leijerstam – First to cycle to the South Pole

Team size: 1 + motorised support team, Distance covered: 638 km, Duration: 10 days, Mode of Transport: Tricycle and motorised support team

Maria Leijerstam pioneered a new method of travelling in the snow in 2013, when she reached the South Pole using a specially modified tricycle. She set out from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf and reached the Pole after only 10 days on December 27th 2013. She cycled from 10 to 17 hours each day. Her expedition has been criticised for using motorised support (sources 12)

Ice Maidens – First all-female crossing of Antarctica relying only on human power

Team size: 6, Distance covered: 1,704 km, Duration: 62 days, Mode of Transport: Skiing

The Ice Maidens, a British Army team made up of Major Nicola Wetherill, Major Natalie Taylor, Captain Zanna Baker, Lieutenant Jenni Stephenson and reservists Major Sandy Hennis and Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne, set out on November 20th 2017 to cross Antarctica. They finished their crossing in only 61 days on January 20th 2018. (source)

Hannah McKeand – First ski journey to the south pole relying only on human power in under 40 days

Team size: solo, Distance covered: 1,100 km, Duration: 39 days, 10 hours and 33 min, Mode of Transport: Skiing

Hannah set the speed record for the fastest coast to Pole journey in 2006, at that time setting the record for both men and women. In 2008 Todd Carmichael bested her by just under 2h, and in 2010 Norwegian Christian Eide crushed both their times by making the journey in 24 days 1 hour and 13 minutes. This year Eric Larsen is attempting to make the journey in 22 days. Hannah’s record was beaten by Johanna Davidsson, who made the trip in 38 days 23 hours and 5 minutes in 2016. (sources: 123)

Barbara Hillary – First African American Woman to reach the South Pole

Team size: N/A, Distance covered: N/A, Duration: N/A, Mode of Transport: Skiing

Barbara Hillary already reached the North Pole in 2007, becoming both the first African American woman and, at the age of 76, one of the oldest persons ever. In 2011 she skied to the South Pole, now aged 79, and became the first African American woman to reach the Pole. (source)

The Women of Antarctica


Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.