Exercise Ice Maiden, the first all-female military trans-Antarctic crossing planned for November 2017, is the brain child of expedition leaders Captain Nicola Wetherill and Major Natalie Taylor. The two adventurous Army doctors hope that the expedition will inspire others, particularly women, to seek adventure and to engage in arduous outdoor activity. In addition, regardless of who achieves a place on the final team in 2017, the leaders hope that the selection and training process will have equipped a number of female Army personnel to plan and lead their own expeditions in the future. Lastly, the Exercise Ice Maiden team members will be closely monitored and tracked during the expedition. It is envisaged that the data collected will provide a unique insight into the effects which fatigue, extreme cold and prolonged periods of arduous exercise have on the female body and psyche.
Such a demanding final expedition requires a thorough and lengthy selection and training procedure which began with the paper applications made by around 250 women in the summer of 2015 and will continue until the final team of four plus the expedition leaders depart for Chile in October 2017. As part of this process a team of twenty hopeful Army soldiers and officers, including seven Reservists, travelled to Laksalv, northern Norway, on Sunday 28 February 2016 for Exercise Ice Bambi, the first of three ten day training and selection exercises ahead of Exercise Ice Maiden itself.
The group stayed at the Allied Training Centre and enjoyed the hospitality warmly extended to them by both British and Norwegian forces. The aims of Exercise Ice Bambi were to introduce the beginners to Nordic ski touring and to consolidate any pre-existing knowledge amongst the others, expose all candidates to a harsh environment, teach basic survival skills and educate the team in relation to the use and maintenance of appropriate clothing, kit and equipment.
The first five days were spent under the supervision of British forces personnel. The extremely experienced tutors, Dan and Ian, provided the team with detailed information and demonstrations on various aspects of cold weather survival, including nutrition, tent routines, marching routine and the kit and equipment they use. This period of classroom based tuition was followed by four days out in the field putting this new found knowledge into practise. After a morning of snow shoeing, the group had some basic skiing tuition followed almost immediately by a night ski. The use of head torches was discouraged as skiing ‘blind’ encourages the skier to trust the messages received by their feet. This approach was met with mixed reviews from the women initially but it was generally agreed that a vast amount was gratefully learnt by all.
Norwegian Captain Vibeke Sefland from the School of Winter Warfare then provided a further few days of invaluable training, tweaked to the unique challenges faced by women in the field. She shared a vast number of tips gleaned from her decades of experience both as a mountaineer and as a cold weather specialist and provided the group with further advice on appropriate clothing, ski technique and tent and march routines. Her enthusiasm was infectious and her permanently upbeat nature and steadfast patience in this difficult climate were inspiring.
The training portion of Exercise Ice Bambi culminated in the infamous “ice breaking drills”, thoughtfully arranged by Ian and Dan. The group, who had made camp on a frozen lake, were woken to the sound of the Norwegians drilling a large hole through the ice, an experience akin to watching someone make your own coffin. Each team member was then led through the drill which involved stepping into the frozen lake and successfully exiting it with the use of ski poles, bergen in tow.
The expedition leaders then had to make several difficult decisions regarding who would be brought forward to the next round of the selection process. Ten of the twenty women, plus two in reserve, from across the rank structure were chosen to progress to Exercise Ice Ready in November 2016.
Upon returning to the UK, the group had further administrative tasks to complete and those progressing to the next round engaged with the Army Media Team and began to plan their forthcoming training weekends which will include a mountain marathon, tuition in navigation and kit and equipment repair, crevasse training, tyre hauling, further team bonding and a much anticipated introduction to roller skiing.
Four of the women progressing on the selection and training journey are Army Reservists. They would like to extend their thanks to the Ulysses Trust for the support kindly offered to them as they each pursue a place on the final expedition.
Photographer: Cpl Jamie Dudding RLC