Explorer’s adventures come through Austin

Published 7:03 am Thursday, March 11, 2010

She was the first woman to reach the North Pole and the first woman to ski and sail across Antarctica, but Ann Bancroft didn’t credit her accomplishments to physical gifts.

“I’m an average person, just with a big dream,” she said.

Explorer Ann Bancroft spoke during a school-wide assembly in Austin High School’s Knowlton Auditorium Wednesday morning as part of a tradition of speakers during Women’s History Month.

Bancroft, 54, was born in Mendota Heights in 1955 and grew up on a farm. She still lives in Minnesota, but her travels have taken her all over the world.

“I have been so lucky in my life to be able to travel, not only to the north and south poles, but points in between: Greenland, Africa, China and many other places, and they have taught me so much about myself and the rest of the world, and how I want to navigate in that world and the work that I want to do,” she said.

Before becoming an adventurer, Bancroft taught physical and special education in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, and she was also a coach. Then in 1985, Bancroft took a risk and gave up teaching to join the Will Steger International North Pole Expedition, becoming the first known woman to cross the ice to the North Pole.

The expedition was supposed to be all men, but two team members were added during the planning stages, and the team decided one spot would be filled by a woman.

Despite her fears of being the “weakest link” on the trip and fears of leaving her job for a year, Bancroft followed her gut and decided to go on the trip.

“I did have a sense that if I didn’t grab this opportunity, then I probably would never have it again,” she said.

Bancroft said she grew up dreaming of traveling to places like the North Pole, and she said her parents were always supportive of her dream, even when friends at school told her that was not a dream for girls.

However, Bancroft proved her friends wrong, as she traveled 1,000 miles from the northwest territories of Canada across the ice caps to the North Pole. Bancroft was truly the only woman on the trip, as she traveled with 7 male team members, and 49 male dogs pulling their sleds.

“I wasn’t quite sure at any moment that I was going to be able to do this,” she said. “You have self-doubts on these trips when you’re pushing and pulling. You wonder if you have what you need to go the distance.”

On the challenging trip across the constantly shifting frozen ocean, Bancroft said that two team members left because of injuries, and she said media people covering their 57-day voyage asked her if she was the team member leaving.

“All the media came over to me on that first flight, assuming that it was going to be the shrimp that was coming out first, that it was the woman in this journey that would be coming out,” she said. “When they came over to me, I was having the time of my life.”

Bancroft was the smallest team members at 5 feet 4 inches tall; however, one of the team members to leave injured was one of the physically largest members of the team. Bancroft said the assumptions that she — as a woman and the smallest team member — would be the one to fail was as challenging to overcome as the trip’s physical barriers.

Bancroft left the sled dogs behind in 1992 and 1993, as she skied with a team of all women to the South Pole. In fact, the trip was done without corporate sponsorship, as Bancroft said no companies would sponsor a trip because they didn’t feel four women could reach the South Pole.

After that trip, Bancroft then pursued perhaps her most challenging dream to cross Antarctica’s landmass — a 1,717-mile trip. Bancroft and Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen made the trip in 2001 in more than 90 days using skis and sails, becoming the first women to make the trip.

At first, Bancroft and Arnesen were stalled in Africa as they waited for storms to pass in Antarctica. Finally the two set off pulling sleds with only a tent for shelter as they traveled through temperatures of about 30 below zero, but that was often accompanied with high winds.

The two could travel at most 15 hours a day. On their best day, the two sailed 77 miles, as they skied and were pulled by sails that looked much like blue parachutes. When they skied, the fastest they could travel was about 15 miles a day.

While Antarctica is a traditionally windy continent, Bancroft said they traveled during one of the calmest seasons on record.

The calm weather posed challenges, as Bancroft and Arnesen only had about 100 days to cross the continent before the season shifted and the long days turned to long nights. Once that happened, there’d be no means of transportation for them to leave Antarctica.

Bancroft has blended her two passions of exploring and education. School children were able to follow their trips through radio communication. She said students followed her trip through news clippings, and she said that’s grown as technology has improved.

On one trip, they got word that students were following their trip, and she said it served as a boost at a low point in the trip.

“The kid’s energy was amazing,” she said. “It was like they were sitting on the sled saying, ‘Go.'”

In 2011, Bancroft and Arnesen are planning another trip, and they hope as many as 50 million students will follow their trip.

Trips also give Bancroft the chance to discuss issues important to her, like women’s issues, fresh water shortages, collaboration, creating dialogue, and environmental concerns.

“I know now that I can use these trips to generate attention and excitement, and it gave me an opportunity to say some things that are important to me,” she said.