The world is full of female explorers, but very few of them guide polar expeditions. To celebrate International Women’s Day we asked PolarExplorers’ guides Nancy Moundalexis and Annie Aggens a few questions about what it’s like to be a female polar explorer.
There are many iconic polar explorers throughout history but most of them are men. Who has inspired you to do what you do?
Annie: There are many amazing women in the history of polar exploration. More often than not you find them in the side stories or in supporting roles, but oftentimes they are the saviors of the day. Women like Tookoolito “Hannah” from the expeditions of Charles Hall, and Ada Blackjack from one of Vilhjalmer Stefansson’s expeditions. I love the spirit of the three women who applied to join Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition in 1914. They wrote him a letter saying,“We three sporty girls have decided to write and beg of you to take us with you on your expedition to the South Pole… we do not see why men should have all the glory, and women none, especially when there are women just as brave and capable as there are men.” But my biggest inspiration is my mom who taught me that adventure and learning should be a part of your everyday life.
Nancy: I really admire Julie Hignall, from my hometown of Ely, MN who has done some amazing polar travel and who helped pave the way for more women to do such amazing things. Also Ann Bancroft, another Minnesotan, who is pretty bad ass. On a personal level it was my sister Athena who first got me into outdoor pursuits. She took me on my first hiking and mountain trips. Without her I don’t know if I’d be in this line of work.
Why do women make great polar guides?
Nancy: Sometimes you see the look on a client’s face when they meet you for the first time. They are thinking, “You’re my guide?” We might not get the benefit of the doubt next to a big burly man, but it’s not long before the same client is thinking, “I'm really glad that she is my guide!” I have noticed that there is less ego and less bravado with my fellow female guides. I focus all my attention on developing a sense of team, having fun, and motivating people to completing our mutual goals. Of course those priorities are not exclusive to female guides but when you let go of ego it opens a lot of room for better things.
Annie: I think women are inherently adaptable, creative, persistent and positive, with the added bonus of being skilled at enduring. All these qualities make for an excellent guide. Because I am not as big or strong as some of my male colleagues I rely less on brute force and more on creativity and finesse, which ultimately is a great way to solve problems. I know many of my female colleagues are the same way, very creative problem solvers. I’d say that expedition guiding is at least 50% problem solving on the fly, so being able to think about things from different angles and find creative solutions to our daily challenges is a big asset.
What do you love about guiding polar expeditions?
Annie: There is so much to love. But for me a lot of it comes down to educating and inspiring other people to live deeply and richly and to become stewards of this planet of ours that has no voice of its own. I also love getting to know such incredible people. Our team mates are always amazing me with their own life stories and our small community of fellow guides are an impressive bunch too.
Nancy: I just love being out there. The sounds of the ice under your skis, the smells of the ice or of the dogs. I love having to problem solve every minute to ensure you get from where you are to where you want to be.
What would you say to an aspiring explorer – female or male?
Nancy: Trust your gut. Of course you will always have a lot to learn and you can never assume that you know everything, but you also have your inner voice that should have a say in how things should be happening.
Annie: Life is an adventure and deep down inside we are all explorers. Take risks and be curious. Invite adventure into your life. Start investing in your memory bank by doing things that you always wanted to do. Now’s the time. And if you want to be a professional guide take every opportunity to learn about your chosen field of guiding (Skiing? Kayaking? Climbing?) Take courses, plan personal trips, find a guide you admire and ask them to be your mentor, and take time to reflect on all your experiences so that you gain from them as much as possible.