Sunday 1 May 2016

Xtremely Queer : Pole to Pole

Every year has its own fair share of anniversaries. Some are widely celebrated while others are remembered more modestly. One anniversary which I think needs to be widely celebrated this year is the 30th anniversary of the first woman and first lesbian to reach the North Pole.

The 8-person expedition set off 30 years ago in March to try to become the first to reach the North Pole over the ice by dogsled and foot without being re-provisioned on the way. The only female member of that team was Ann Bancroft (b.1955). It was the first of several expeditions that put her in the record books.

Rather than go over the expedition itself, just as I have done with several other adventurers (Cason Crane, Sarah Outen, Larry Jacobson) I want to concentrate on Ann Bancroft herself today and look at her achievements.

Among these achievements, as well as being the first woman to reach the North Pole in 1986 Anne also Led the first all-female east-to-west crossing of Greenland (1992), became the first woman to have reached the North and South Pole (1993), and with Liv Arnesen became the first women to ski across Antarctica (2001).

The Minnesota-born polar adventurer was often taken on camping trips by her father and enjoyed canoeing in Boundary Waters Canoe Area next to the Superior National Forest in the north of the state. It gave Ann the enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits. Diagnosed as a child with a form of dyslexia Ann found physical activity less of a struggle and she acquired a determination to overcome any limit to he abilities.

Having developed a love of physical activity Ann went to the University of Oregon to study for a Bachelor’s degree in physical education. She then became a teacher of physical education in several schools. In 1983 Ann and a friend climbed up Mount McKinley Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America, and one of the Seven Summits (the 7 highest mountains on the 7 continents – see here).

Two years later Ann got the call to join the North Pole expedition which celebrates its 30th anniversary today. The expedition leaders were Will Steger and Paul Scharke. Ann was the only female member of the 8 person team. Ann gave up her teaching job and polished up on her photography skills as “National Geographic”, one of the expedition sponsors, had chosen her to take photos of the trek. Some of her photos and excerpts from her expedition journal were published by “National Geographic”.

The tram, reduced to 6 members due to illness, reached the North Pole 30 years ago today. This success made them all huge celebrities in America at the time, and they were even invited to meet President Reagan at the White House.

With this boost to her reputation as a prominent female adventurer was also invited to give talks and presentations. She turned down an invitation to join an expedition to climb Everest. But she had her mind set on her own challenges. The next one was an al-female trek across Antarctica, called the American Women’s Expedition. Fundraising proved a little frustrating as not many sponsors were interested unless there was at least one man on the team. Also, as an open lesbian, corporate sponsors were reluctant to contribute. Ann admitted in an interview, “They don’t know what to do about that. That’s certainly not an image they want to portray … I can’t lie to get corporate money.”

With the Antarctic expedition on hold until full funding was acquired Ann continued to train for it. As part of this she organised the first all-female expedition to cross Greenland (east to west) in 1992. Later that year Ann took the decision to go ahead with the Antarctic crossing despite not having the full funding. Arriving there on 9th November 1992 the four women in the team set off in the all-day-round sunshine of an Antarctic summer and took 67 days to reach the South Pole. In doing so Ann Bancroft became the first woman in history to reach both the North and South Poles over the icecaps. The team continued on across the continent to complete their expedition but were delayed by the weather and had to abandon their trans-continental trek.

Back in Minnesota Ann had to clear all the debts caused by the delay and shortfall in expenses. Once that was done she was already planning her next venture, a renewed effort at the Antarctic crossing. This time there would just be two team members, Ann herself and Liv Arnesen. Liv had already become the first woman to ski to the South Pole. The expedition was successfully completed in 2001.

Since then Ann had helped to award and grant scholarships to recognise and encourage the achievements f women and girls. She and Liv also founded Bancroft Arnesen Explore, an organisation which encourages women to follow their dreams.

A trek by Anna and Live across the Arctic Ocean in 2007 to highlight the problem of global warming had to be abandoned.

In 1995 Ann Bancroft was inducted as an Honorary Member into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

“I’m in love with these cold, faraway places” Ann told “Runner’s World” magazine in 1994, and her determination and pioneering spirit has pushed her to the limit and placed her at the top of the world of female exploration.

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