Offbeat Adventure

The World's First All-Female Expedition to the North Pole Has Returned

The North Pole was once visited only by sturdy scientists working to extend the boundaries of human knowledge. But that was a long time ago — these days, it receives about 1,000 visitors every year, mostly tourists hoping to prove their mettle. After all, how much more can we find out from an endless expanse of ice that people have been exploring for centuries? Well, it turns out there's quite a lot still to learn. You just have to send the right kind of people. The world's first all-female expedition to the North Pole has safely returned to solid ground, and they've got tons of data never collected before.

Related Video: There's a North Pole Marathon

Brrr-l Power

Felicity Aston was no stranger to cold temperatures when she began organizing this history-making expedition. She has been a frequent presence at both poles for nearly two decades, and in 2009, she led a similarly record-breaking all-female trip to the South Pole. These trips aren't just to prove a (long overdue) point about the resiliency of female explorers. They were to collect (also long overdue) data about human physiology and psychology in extreme environments.

The thing is, there just aren't a whole lot of scientific studies looking into the effects of polar environments on the human body. Furthermore, most of those that have been carried out used outdated methods, focused on small groups of participants (teams of two to five), and used data from expeditions carried out in the latter half of the 20th century. And, oh yeah, none of those studies included women. In other words, the scientific community lacks all but the most basic understanding of the different ways that men and women respond to extreme cold. That data is more important than ever now, especially when you consider that the number of female researchers in Antarctica has skyrocketed in recent years.

Shivering for Science

It was a grueling trip, as you might expect, but despite some minor frostbite and a couple of close calls on thin ice, all 11 participants made it back safe and sound. As they made that 50-mile (80-kilometer) journey on skis, they were also collecting spit, urine, blood, and other samples for two studies: one physiological and the other psychological. They tracked body temperatures, heart rate, and metabolism, among other biometrics. They also brought bottles of lab-created water with unique isotopes on the hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which allowed researchers to track energy expenditure by examining the explorers' urine.

Then there was the psychological study. Researchers measured cortisol levels in the participants' saliva, which offered a glimpse of their stress during the expedition. But more than that, they wanted to see how the women's personal views and values changed over the course of their adventure. The trip required them to navigate a highly stressful situation by relying on their team members, despite the fact that each of them came from different countries and cultural contexts.

Women of the World

So where did this team come from? Believe it or not, a Facebook post. Aston wasn't necessarily looking for experienced Arctic adventurers. Obviously, physical fitness was an important criterion, but what was more important was enthusiasm and a proven ability to carry a difficult task to completion. Even beyond the scientific and sociopolitical missions of the trek, Aston wanted to bridge a gap between different cultures. Hence the Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition was made up of women from all over — Saudi Arabia, the UK, Kuwait, Slovenia, Russia, Sweden, Qatar, and others.

Crossing cultural divides was also a big part of the mission, and it was a success as well. As Swedish team member Ida Olsson told the BBC, she came to understand Muslim women's veils in a whole different light. "In my mind, it always felt forced — that men forced the women to do it. But when the girls here talk about it, it's something they actually want to do; they're not forced to do it. That was completely new to me."

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Female adventurers aren't actually anything new, though. Take Gertrude Bell, a contemporary of T.E. Lawrence known as the "Queen of the Desert." You can learn all about her (in her own words!) in "A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of Arabia." Bonus: it's free with your trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 21, 2018

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