On Thin Ice

After a history-making, 94-day trek across Antarctica, Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen faced the toughest challenge of their journey: finding the courage to surrender.

These are the conditions of Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen's current work- place: The sun shines a scant few hours a day; temperatures routinely drop below -75 degrees; the ice under their tent creaks and shifts with the currents of the ocean beneath it; when they travel, that ice can open into wide cracks, which the two must swim across in cumbersome dry suits while towing 250-pound sleds. They pack a .44 magnum revolver to guard against polar bears.

Bancroft, 49, and Arnesen, who at 51 recently became a grandmother, are training for a February 2005, 1,240-mile expedition to become the first women ever to cross the Arctic Ocean by skiing and swimming. As career explorers, both have multiple polar treks to their credit.

Undoubtedly, it takes immense bravery to face the extreme natural elements and torturous physical hardships of the frozen polar landscapes. Even with modern technology and equipment, the threat of death is very real. A plane rescue is often impossible — most times, the weather is too abysmal and the terrain is too rough to land. But Bancroft and Arnesen's deepest courage has shined not in enduring these environments but in allowing themselves to surrender — to accept less than their ultimate goal, to fail for the right reasons.

In 2001, the two became the first women to cross Antarctica's land mass on foot. But they had intended to do more — to cross the entire continent, ice shelf and all. As the end of the Antarctic summer drew nigh, the pair found themselves with about 400 miles of ice yet to cover. They had already traveled more than 1,700 miles. During their 94-day journey, Arnesen had crashed through thin ice that concealed a crevasse that plunged so deep its bottom disappeared into blackness. She caught herself at the edge, and only quick reflexes and a little luck prevented her supply sled from falling into the hole and dragging her down with it. For Bancroft, every mile became an excruciating test of will after she tore her right shoulder muscle. Each woman had lost about 20 pounds since the start of the journey.

Despite the mental and physical wear and tear, the two felt strong on February 11, as they stood at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. Behind them, the Transantarctic Mountains scraped a jewel-hued sky. Ahead lay victory, so tantalizingly close. The problem was time. The Antarctic summer was at its end. The breaks between whiteout blizzard conditions were narrowing, and soon days of 24 hours of darkness would descend. To extend the journey would risk the lives of the pilots who might have to rescue them in an emergency, as well as those of their expedition team, who waited in a small ship in McMurdo Sound as the menacing pack ice gathered. They had spent three years planning, training, and raising funds for the journey. Bancroft, who had attempted a crossing once before in 1992, had carried hope for more than a decade. This was her last chance.

After 18 more hours of towing their sleds and a few minutes of deliberation, they decided the dream had to end. Bancroft dialed the team in Minneapolis. Overcome with emotion, she handed the satellite phone to Arnesen. The crew tried to boost their spirits, reminding them that the journey had inspired millions. Arnesen cut them off gruffly. "This is the right decision," she said, her voice breaking.

Bancroft says the choice was sealed not only by the weather but also by their devotion to the 3 million children who had followed their progress through the team's Web site. "The trip didn't belong to us alone," she says. "We had a chance to honor the relationships we'd created with our community; we wanted to make difficult but responsible choices for the kids. To me, that was a valuable legacy."

Their affection for the children gave the women the courage to call off the trip, but it was the children's affection for them that allowed the two to make peace with the decision. As they camped for days on the ice, waiting for the weather to clear and a plane to pick them up, they spoke by satellite phone with a classroom in Minnesota and cried as they heard one little boy say, "You changed my life."

Will Steger, a world-renowned polar explorer who's led multiple dog-sled teams at both the North and South Poles, says the decision the two women faced is the most difficult of any journey. "Doing what Ann and Liv did is much harder than reaching the peak of the mountain, flying a flag, and saying, 'We're heroes, take us to the parade.' " Steger says. "Real leadership is not about getting to the top. In this game, leadership is about coming back alive."

"Will I rise up and do what's right, even if every fiber of my being tells me otherwise?"

The annals of high-risk adventure and exploration are full of stories of those who put their ambition first and perished as a result. Those adventurers might have been physically brave, but morally, they were not courageous. There's no courage when selfishness takes over. Bancroft and Arnesen showed the courage to act on their beliefs — that the team's well-being mattered more than their own goals, that the true mission of the trip was not personal glory but setting an example. The price was high: relinquishing a lifelong dream. But the reward was in discovering their true mettle.

"For me, exploration is about that journey to the interior, into your own heart," Bancroft says. "I'm always wondering, how will I act at my moment of truth? Will I rise up and do what's right, even if every fiber of my being is telling me otherwise?"

For Bancroft and Arnesen, that question has been answered with a resounding, valiant yes.

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