Ann Daniels is a friend who has inspired me more than she can know and I was delighted when she agreed to write for us. I read lots of books about polar exploration and human endurance and this is one especially for you. This is our 100th post… and a story that will make you laugh and cry. The incredible photography is by Martin Hartley (

As a polar explorer who holds world records for reaching both the North and South Poles, and a leader of major polar expeditions, I’m often asked what inspired me to begin my unusual career choice.  As unlikely as it may seem, having children was instrumental in changing my life and giving me the impetus to understand there is a big world out there and that we can achieve anything we want if we’re prepared to take a risk and stick our necks out.  Having children has helped me to want to do my best in life, to show them how to live and I am certain I have them to thank for my greatest achievements.


It all started for me when I answered an advertisement asking for ordinary women to apply to be part of the first all women’s team to walk to the North pole.  At the time I had no outdoor experience whatsoever and as a mother of 18 month old triplets an unlikely candidate for the job.  It didn’t help matters when the kit list arrived and I didn’t possess one item on the list.  Thankfully my husband at the time was in the military and he set about borrowing everything I needed for the weekends selection process.

I travelled down to Dartmoor in the mist and rain, alone and apprehensive of what I would encounter there.  I looked like GI Jane but with no clue as to what I was doing or how to operate in the great outdoors.  There were 250 other hopefuls and it’s fair to say that I was completely outclassed by everyone on that weekend.  After an hour I was in agony and wondered what the hell I was doing there.  I simply gritted my teeth and kept going, hating every second, my body screaming in pain as we marched across Dartmoor for over 11 hours.  The heavy rucksack was cutting into my shoulders as the rain lashed at my face.  I  wanted to get it over with and return home as fast as I could.  At the end, beaten and tired I was desperate to leave that godforsaken place, but as a mother of triplets I was targeted by the media and repeatedly asked what it would feel like to reach the North Pole and become a world record holder.  Although I didn’t think I had a hope of getting on the team, I said what was expected “It will be fantastic, amazing, a life changing experience”.  During one of those interviews, I suddenly caught the dream and realised this really could be my opportunity to do something truly unique with my life.  Thankfully for me, no one was selected that weekend and we were all told to go away and if we were still interested, come back in nine months time for a four day “SAS style” selection when the final team would be selected.  I had nine months to make it happen.

Life is mad enough with baby triplets.  My parents and family lived many miles away in Yorkshire which meant I had no outside help but I knew if I wanted to get on that team I would have to put the work in, take care of the children and look after a home at the same time.  Life  became even more manic. I would put the children in a creche at the local gym for an hour each morning so I could train while they played.  In the afternoon when they had a nap I would work out in the garden doing circuits and military type training sessions and friends taught me how to read a map and pack a rucksack properly.  Even taking the children for a walk in the pram, was an exercise in getting fitter.  I would walk faster and longer and when I wasn’t training I was doing all the other things that mothers and housewives do.  There wasn’t enough hours in the day, but by the time the second selection weekend came I was ready.  We were put through the mill with four days of physical and mental punishment, but this time I loved every minute of it.  I was fit, strong and up for anything they threw at us, even managing to win the road race at 2 am in the morning.  At the end of the process, although I had no idea whether I was being considered for the team or not, I was confident I had done everything I could and had given my all.  That was a nice feeling irrespective of whether I made it or not.

We were all gathered into a barn and I couldn’t believe it when I heard my name mentioned along with the other successful candidates.  I had made the team.

The expedition was a relay, five teams of four women together with two guides were to go in relay format to the North Pole.  We flew to Resolute Bay, a small community in the high Arctic to acclimatise and for me, as a non skier, to learn how to ski.  On 14 March we were taken by twin otter aircraft to Ward Hunt Island for the beginning of the expedition.

As the aircraft left us alone on the ice I immediately fell in love with the Arctic and its magnificence.  The start of a North Pole expedition is the hardest.  The pressure ridges are at their highest, temperatures can be as low as – 50 º C and the sledge is at its heaviest.  The cold is so intense that the hairs up your nose instantly freeze and as you take your first deep breath it feels as if your lungs have turned to ice and will shatter at any moment.  Your fingers begin to throb as your vital organs draw the heat from your extremities and adrenalin begins to flow because you know if you don’t move and create heat you will be in real trouble.  This is frostbite and hyperthermia territory and the environment and the dangers it represent need to be treated with respect.  In the first days, nothing, not the cold in my fingers or the exhaustion from pulling a sledge over huge ridges could suppress my awe at this fantastic wilderness.  I had imagined it would be boring and white but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The colours ranged from the brightest white through to the darkest of blacks from the inky ocean and when the sun shone on the ice ridges it glinted in pale blues and pinks.  For someone who had only had an experience of Dartmoor it was mind blowing.  Even wiping my bottom with ice wedges was a huge thrill.

Team Alpha, which was my team, had 17 days on the ice and we managed to double the mileage we had been set as a target at the beginning, which meant a lot to me personally and we passed the baton to team Bravo to continue the challenge to the pole.  As I flew away I looked back thinking I may never come back agai,n but I knew the ice had captured my heart.

Each team did their bit and on 27 May 1997, Team Echo planted the Union Jack and stood on the North Pole triumphantly.  We’d made it, albeit in a relay fashion, but it was a triumph for a group of unknown women.

That may have been the end of my story and indeed it was for some of the girls, but not for me. It was just the beginning.  Unfortunately shortly after returning from the Arctic my marriage broke down and I took it very hard.  Emotionally and physically.  I suddenly needed to find a way to mend a broken heart and support my children financially.


Certain tragedies in life can lead to new beginnings.  A second expedition could help my finances and assist in restoring my self esteem, which was dreadfully low.

This time I wanted to do a real expedition, something from beginning to end and not put together by a third party.  Thankfully there were other women on the original North Pole team who felt the same way and so we got together and made a plan for another huge challenge. An attempt on the South Pole.  There were five of us.  Myself, Caroline Hamilton, Zoe Hudson, Pom Oliver, and Rosie Stancer.  We planned it. organised it, trained for it, raised the funds and in November 1999 we were set down at the edge of Antarctica and without the aid of guides , walked over 700 miles across the most inhospitable continent in the world to reach the South Pole on foot.  The first all British women’s team to do so.

During the South Pole expedition I had shared the navigation and lead position at the head of the team with Caroline,  dealt with the communication aspects of the expedition,  maintained stoves and other pieces of vital equipment and together with Pom Oliver been responsible for food and cooking.  The experience I had gained meant I was no longer a novice and I began to guide mini expeditions to the North Pole.  I would fly 60 nautical miles short of the pole and guide groups of generally men for that last degree of latitude to the top of the world.  It was during one of those trips that I began to dream of a whole expedition to the North Pole, from beginning to end.  I had done the last bit through my guiding and the first bit with the relay, I wanted to complete the whole journey.

And so I approached Caroline Hamilton and Pom Oliver from my previous trips to join me on an expedition to walk to the North Pole.  At first they said I was stark raving mad but after some persuasion the girls agreed and after sponsorship was secured, the M&G North Pole expedition was created.

We again left from Ward Hunt Island and I imagined I knew what we would face at the start of the expedition.  However my experience in 2002 was nothing like the relay.  In 1997 temperatures had been between – 28º C and -35º C, pretty cold but in 2002 the temperature was between -40º C and – 54º C for the first 27 days.  It was unbelievably cold, horrendously painful and all consuming.  Everything froze, our clothes, our eyelashes, our brains, even the tiny hairs on our faces, giving us little white Santa Claus beards.  We found we could only do one thing at once and function at a very slow pace.  We would pick up one bag and stagger to our sledges before returning for another.

We pulled all our own equipment, food and fuel in sledges weighing almost 300 lb each and travel during the day was excruciatingly slow and hard.  In the early days, we completed just one nautical mile a day.  The ice ridges were huge and never ending and it took 3 of us to lift one sledge over each ridge.  If the days were bad, the evenings were worse.  As soon as we lit the cookers, the tent filled with steam and we couldn’t see each other at all.  We would sit hunched up on our sleeping bags unable to see, unable to talk.  We ate silently and as quick as possible until it was time to crawl into our sleeping bags.  After five days the bags froze solid with steam and the moisture from our bodies and wet clothes.  We literally had to chip our way into them each evening and lie on what felt like solid ice until we fell asleep exhausted.

If the conditions weren’t bad enough, our fuel was contaminated and acrid fumes spewed from the cookers making life even more unbearable.  One evening Pom suffered from Carbon monoxide poisoning and collapsed in the tent.  Another evening in the haze, the chicken dinner over boiled and scalded my right hand, leaving painful blisters.  Caroline suffered from painful snow blindness.  Things just couldn’t get worse.

And then they got worse.  On our 7th day on the ice we had travelled a total of 9 miles, we went to bed completely disheartened and were woken up very early by a sudden cracking of the ice and rumbling as the ground around the tent began to break up around us.  We were in danger of being churned up with the currents.  I put my head out of the tent and there was a huge crack between the guy rope and the tent.  I could see the ocean below.   We quickly scrambled into our outer jackets and boots (the only things we removed at night) and threw everything in the sledge as quickly as possible and got out of there as fast as we could, hauling our heavy  sledges through the moving ice.

When we cleared the area we breathed a sigh of relief and hugged each other. We celebrated with a few squares of chocolate and a handful of nuts.  Unfortunately our celebrations were short lived as the wind picked up and changed direction.  We became aware that the air was ominous and a storm was brewing.  We looked for a place to pitch the tent but within 5 minutes the wind was so strong it picked up Pom, the tent material and a 250lb sledge and slammed her against the nearest pressure ridge.  We would never  be able to pitch the tent, so we corralled the sledge on top of the material, threw our sleeping bags underneath and crawled into our makeshift shelter, boots and all.  For 3 days we lay there unable to move, with only a small amount of chocolate and water to sustain us.  The wind and snow battered us continually. It was so loud and unrelenting that conversation was impossible.

But all bad things come to an end and of course so did the storm.  After 3 days our prayers were answered…the storm blew itself out/died and we crawled out to brilliant sunshine.

What do you do when you’re so far behind schedule and it’s the most perfect travelling day?  Well, we took the day off.  Put up the tent crawled inside, ate, drank and more importantly regrouped emotionally and recovered from our ordeal ready to focus on the journey ahead.

The storm had taken its toll on our bodies.  We all had frostbite.  Mine and Pom’s toes and Caroline’s hands were black, painful and useless.

Caroline couldn’t even dress herself and had to be clipped into her sledge.  She couldn’t do anything with her hands, not even go to the toilet by herself.  As a mother of 3 children, the job came down to me. Needless to say Caroline and I became very close during those days.

We had two more storms to contend with and on day 37 of an intended 75 day expedition we had travelled just 69 nm’s of the 412 nm journey.  Success seemed impossible.

Thankfully Caroline’s hands healed but Pom’s frostbite steadily got worse and worse and then wet gangrene set in.  She could hardly walk and was the true heroine of the trip.  She would put her boots on in the morning and weep with the pain and then go out and ski for 8 or 9 hours to keep the expedition alive.

On day 47 the resupply came in and Pom had to leave the expedition.  It was a brave and courageous woman that got on that plane. If she had stayed on the ice any longer she would have lost all her toes and the expedition would not have made it to the pole.

Caroline and I now had over 300 miles to go in less than 30 days.  Mission Impossible.  It became a race against time.  Each day we skied longer and longer to gain miles.  If the cold had been our enemy in the beginning suddenly the warmth became our problem.  The day Pom left the temperature rose from -30º C to –20º C and in a few days  to -15º C.  There were more and more areas of open water and thin ice.  So much so that we had to swim across stretches of open water in a specially designed immersion suite.  We skied over 15 hours a day and the two of us became the ultimate team.  We thought the same thoughts, even had the same dreams, which for me was great. Caroline’s dreams had always been more erotic than my own.


Every day became about adding more miles and more time on the ice.  We walked longer and longer hours.  On one occasion I broke through the thin ice into the Ocean below but we couldn’t afford the time to put the tent up and dry me out properly so I simply had to pull my hood up, work hard at pulling my sledge and generate enough body heat to make sure I didn’t succumb to hyperthermia, which is a killer.  It took 14 hours of hard skiing before I felt safe and out of danger. In the evening we only drank tepid water because we didn’t want to spend precious minutes to boil the water for a proper cup of tea.  It wasn’t until our penultimate day when we only had 18 more miles to complete that I began to believe we would actually make the pole.  At first I didn’t want to get there because that would be the end of this adventure I had been focusing on for two years of my life but then as we got closer and closer the excitement grew until finally, after 80 days on the ice, we reached the North Pole, exhausted but triumphant and planted the union jack.  We sang the national anthem terribly and celebrated with a tot of whiskey we had saved for the occasion.  The fiery liquid burnt our cracked lips but we didn’t care.  Against the odds we had become the first women in the world to walk to both of the world’s poles.   Success was sweet.  Caroline and I were hailed in the press as the first women to achieve this but I always felt they’d got it wrong because it wasn’t just Ann Daniels and Caroline Hamilton who made this journey, it was also Pom Oliver.  She may not have been there in body but certainly was in spirit.  If it hadn’t been for her massive input and sacrifices we wouldn’t have made it.


That was 2002 and since then I have lead many expeditions including the prestigious Catlin Arctic survey.  I love my career and truly believe that women, mothers or non mothers, have the potential to achieve greatness.  We just have to believe that bit more and not accept second best.

To all women, you are unique and special.  Get out there and live the life you deserve..


Ann Daniels – Mother of Four and polar explorer.