The British Army’s "Ice Maidens" have become the first all-female team to cross Antarctica using muscle power alone, with US-headquartered infrastructure company Aecom as the expedition’s headline sponsor.
After spending 62 days on the ice, the six soldiers led by Major Nics Wetherill and Major Nat Taylor crossed the finish line at the Hercules Inlet on Saturday, 20 January.
Over the last two months the team travelled up to 43 kilometres a day, navigating crevasse fields whilst pulling sledges weighing up to 80kg and battling temperatures as low as -40°C.
"I’m just so incredibly proud of the team. I can’t believe how far we’ve come… This journey has had good times, bad times and great times for all concerned, and each of them, I know, has made us better people," said Wetherill at the finish line.
"I now know my five companions so well as to be able to almost tell just from the back of their heads whether they are smiling or crying," she said, "although determining this when facing them can be just as difficult with their faces obscured by hoods, goggles and masks!"
A British Army servicewoman drags a tyre, simulating towing a sled, during initial selection for the expedition (Corporal Max Bryan, British Army)
Major Nat Taylor said: "I have spent the last few days trying to imprint this beautiful landscape in my mind. We have called it home for close to two months now and I will, in a strange way, miss it a lot!"
"The snow sparkles like there is a layer of pearls on the surface and everywhere you look there is beauty and stillness. The photos just don’t do it justice."
Taylor and Wetherill came up with the idea for the expedition, and wanted to inspire women of all ages and abilities. The only conditions for applicants were that they were serving in the Army, Regular or Reserve, and female.
250 applicants were tested to the limit in the UK and Norway, with six making it through the final selection.
Starting on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf on 20 November, the team climbed up the Transantarctic Mountains, via the Leverett Glacier, to reach the polar plateau.
After a re-supply at the South Pole the team turned north-west towards Hercules Inlet. Skiing 600km across uneven ground, spending Christmas Day on the ice before reaching their final re-supply point at the base of the Thiel Mountains. From there, they descended to the Hercules Inlet and the finish line.
Making do: Christmas on the ice in Antarctica (British Army)
They were due to be flown to Union Glacier, Antarctica before going to Chile for recovery.
The team comprised Major Nics Wetherill of the Royal Army Medical Corps, based in Portsmouth; Major Natalie Taylor of the Royal Army Medical Corps, based in Chepstow; Major Sandy Hennis of the Royal Signals, Army Reserve, based in Redditch; Captain Zanna Baker, Royal Artillery, based in Bedfordshire; Lieutenant Jenni Stephenson, Royal Artillery, based in Wiltshire; Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne, Honourable Artillery Company, Army Reserve, based in London.
Major Sandy Hennis said she was looking forward to talking about the journey in schools, saying "you can achieve if you believe in yourself and are willing to try".
"I don’t think I fully appreciate what we’ve been up to yet," said Lieutenant Jenni Stephenson at the finish line.
Speaking about the moment the team reached the South Pole, Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne said: "It was the middle of the night when we arrived and there was not a soul to be seen. This really added to the poignancy of the moment as the Pole was ours alone – cue a flood of tears from almost every team member!"
The team, setting out from Heathrow. From left, Major Nics Wetherill, Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne, Lieutenant Jenni Stephenson, Major Sandy Hennis, Major Natalie Taylor, and Captain Zanna Baker (British Army)
Captain Zanna Baker said "There is a small part of me that wishes I could just pause time and freeze the moment, so I can truly appreciate where I am and what I have been doing. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s supported me. I am actually quite excited to get back to work and see what could be around the corner!"
Aecom’s Lara Poloni, chief executive of Europe, Middle East, India & Africa, sent congratulations to the team on Saturday.
"Your dedication, hard work and team spirit are an inspiration to us all here at Aecom and we’re incredibly proud to have been able to support you," she said.
Top image: The team travelled up to 43 kilometres a day, navigating crevasse fields whilst pulling sledges weighing up to 80kg (British Army/Youtube)