Ice dreams

4th July 1997 at 01:00
PE teacher Sarah Jones has always relished a challenge. So she joined a 20-woman British expeditionto the North Pole. She tells Wendy Wallace of her experience in the 24-hour bright light of the Arctic Circle

Many teachers like to do something a little different in the holidays. Make for Morocco and forget the marking or go to Oporto and obliterate OFSTED. Sarah Jones, a 29-year-old physical education teacher from Kent, went several steps further - to the North Pole, walking for 19 days over the drifting ice packs of the Arctic Circle, where the polar bears prowl and in summer the sun shines 24 hours a day.

Sarah was among a team of 20 women picked from more than 70 applicants to form the first British all-female relay expedition to the Pole, an ambition which the final team realised on May 27 this year.

She got involved after hearing about the proposed expedition on Radio Four, where "ordinary women wanting to take on an extraordinary challenge" were invited to make contact with the organisers, the Polar Travel Company. "I've always been the kind of person who really relishes challenges," she says, drinking elderflower tea in the comfortable confusion of the staffroom at Maidstone Girls' Grammar School. "I'd hate to get to 90 and say - what have I done with my life?" A year spent working with terminally ill AIDs patients, she says, had also heightened her desire not to waste time.

The first selection weekend in January last year would have seen off most "ordinary women". Contenders took rucksacks and sleeping bags and spent two days being marched over Dartmoor, through rivers and over hills, sometimes at a run and usually in freezing rain. "Quite a few people struggled," she says. "It was really just to see if you were outdoor kind of people."

The second training session - with reduced numbers - assessed mental stamina. More than 50 women were once more sent out on Dartmoor in the middle of the night, this time in groups of eight, to search for a map reference. Once they'd found it, the teams had to scramble up rocks then abseil down the other side before being told they could cook their supper. The minute the food was ready, they were told they had to move on. Four hundred yards later, having ditched the rehydrated chicken curry, they were instructed to strike camp - but only allowed to sleep for four hours. "You can't bring icebergs to England," says Sarah Jones. "But you can replicate the unpredictability of the Arctic. They expected you to be fit, and spent their time putting you under mental stress. "

The 20 team members were picked from that five-day assessment. They were told they would all have to become much fitter, and were asked to help raise money for the expedition, which cost Pounds 300,000 to mount. Sarah Jones wrote to large companies for sponsorship, and saved for her own Pounds 1,500 contribution. She trained in the school gym, and took up running. Unlike some of the team, she couldn't book her annual holiday to coincide with the trip but had great support from her headteacher, who agreed to release her from school for five weeks.

She was in the fourth of five relay teams. By the time her team - Delta - arrived at base camp on April 16, the third team was making its way north across the ice, 160 miles from the base camp at Resolute Bay in Canada's North West Territories. Like the preceding teams, Sarah Jones and the other members of Delta stayed in an Inuit village (population 75) for 10 days training for the ice, which covered everything from navigation and skiing techniques to how to frighten a polar bear (use flares), and what to do with a broken stove, or if someone fell into the water. "I was incredibly excited," she says. "I felt - this really is it."

Training completed, they flew for two-and-a-half hours on a small Twin Otter plane to where Charlie team were waiting for them. "All of a sudden we saw a tiny dot in the vastness of white. It was them. They were jumping up and down and waving and we were screaming. It was an incredible moment." But the plane couldn't land on the runway the team had cleared. "You think the ice is flat," says Sarah. "It's not, it's up and down, and has ice boulders and things like giant molehills." The pilot found another site, but had to touch down and pull up again seven times before deciding it was safe.

Having unloaded their sleds and equipment, and picked up the previous team, the plane left the women on the ice with their guides, two American women making the entire journey. "I was suddenly aware of the silence," says Sarah. "You turn 360 degrees, and all you can see is white snow and blue sky." They put up their tent, got the stove going for melting drinking water - a constant task - and went to sleep in the bright light of the Arctic night.

Over the days that followed, the team became familiar with the ice cap. The terrain consists of "pans" of ice - some quite small, others five or six kilometres wide. These are joined together by "leads" - smooth, icy joins between the pans which serve as a skiers' motorway but which can be hazardous if they crack. "Very quickly you can become at ease with the ice," says Sarah. "You're taught how to test it and if you're sensible, there's no reason why you should go in."

Walking either in pairs or in a line, and pulling sledges of supplies which initially weighed as much as they did, the team averaged more than 10 miles a day, navigating mainly by the sun and wind. (Ordinary compasses don't work, so close to the magnetic north.) Sometimes the wind meant the women could not hear each other, at others they walked in silence. The sound of ice floes moving, Sarah says, ranges from a throat-clearing noise to something that resembles an orchestra tuning up.

The team encountered 30ft-high ice "rubble", and saw seals and the tracks of polar bears. Sleeping six to one cramped tent, eating salami, fudge and lumps of butter in soup to keep up energy levels, they were in touch with base camp by radio every other day. "I got messages from my parents and my partner and school," says Sarah. "Colleagues sent 'keep up the good work' type messages, and they tracked our progress on the Internet."

The team heard the results of the General Election from base camp. "Three of us screamed with delight and one of us didn't." They got irritable with each other over little things like "someone getting out of the tent to go for a pee and knocking your tea over. You'd talk about it and it would be done with, " says Sarah. They took photographs and lost weight and missed home and began to smell. "We all stank, towards the end. We were sweating all day and could only wash out of our soup bowls."

But the experience was mainly one of exhilaration. "There was not one moment of boredom. The seascape and weather change constantly. And you don't realise how many different kinds of white there are. You cannot spend enough time taking in the beauty of the place."

After 16 days, the team were due to be lifted off the ice to make way for Echo team, which would complete the journey to the Pole. They found a potential runway, radioed their position, and waited for the noise of the Twin Otter. But bad weather prevented the plane from reaching them for almost four days. "It was quite good to have a couple of days not walking but thinking," says Sarah. "I was looking forward to having a bath, and eating something different, but there was a lot of sadness about going."

All the women who took part in the expedition were deeply affected by the experience. Back at base camp in Resolute Bay, Sarah wrote in her diary: "I remember my last few nights - sleeping outside of the tent, feeling the snow falling on my nose and seeing the snow crystals shimmering across my bedroom floor. The only noise was of the air whistling the antennae and the only feeling was of a light breeze across my cheeks. If a never-never land exists then I was in it there - and now I must make the painful transition between there and another reality... a reality which forms the majority of my life, a place that I have missed and dreamt about during the difficult times on the ice, but which seems as far away to me now as does the ice cap."

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