The list of obstacles faced by those who choose to explore Antarctica is familiar enough: blizzards, bone-chilling cold, deadly crevasses, disorientation, faulty planning, and a whole lot more. The co-authors of NO HORIZON IS SO FAR added one more to that list: they are both women.
Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen were both experienced Antarctic hands. Both in fact had been to the South Pole separately before they made the 1,700-mile, 94-day trek in 2000-2001 described in this book. There had never been an attempt by two women to cross the entire Antarctic landmass, using the South Pole simply as a halfway point in a larger, longer, more dangerous expedition.
Bancroft (an American from Minnesota) and Arnesen (a Norwegian) had never met one another until they began planning this expedition. They obviously had a number of qualities in common that made them a viable two-person team. In addition to the obvious physical and technical skills, both were hugely aware of the feminist angle to what they were doing, and both were media-savvy. From the start they wanted to make a kind of worldwide educational event of their trip, involving school kids from all over the globe and actively cultivating coverage from the heavy hitters of the television talk show lineup.
They also had business skills. They assembled a small corporate backup team in Minnesota, hired a PR firm and got down to the business of cajoling financial and physical support from the likes of Apple Computer, Volvo and Motorola. In order to obtain just the right kind of satellite phone, their support staff was able to lure a three-star general off the gold course to pull the right strings. They even got themselves an audience with the Dalai Lama, who gave them a flag he wanted them to unfurl at the South Pole in his name.
The book that chronicles their trip is written alternately in the voices of the two women, with further contributions by writer Cheryl Dahle. This is a bit confusing at first because, while Bancroft's and Arnesen's contributions are labeled, Dahle's usually are not. It may take the reader a chapter or two to figure this out.
There were plenty of problems. Bancroft suffered a crippling shoulder injury that caused her pain for most of the trip. An errant chunk of ice lodged in their transmitter beacon caused a false "Send Rescue" message to be sent that induced momentary panic back in Minneapolis. The complex mechanics of ski sailing caused all sorts of delays and headaches, and the capricious Antarctic winds had a habit of not blowing when they were needed most. The food was monotonous. There were problems with the private company that was to fly them from Cape Town to Antarctica (the company tried to induce them at the last minute to transfer their whole operation from South Africa to Punta Arenas, Chile).
And in fact, the duo did not actually cover the entire distance they had mapped out for themselves. A combination of approaching winter and tough terrain forced them to call for air evacuation from a spot on the Ross Ice Shelf that was tantalizingly close to their predetermined finish line. But since the Ross Ice Shelf is actually a projection beyond the end of the Antarctic continent, they were able to claim that they had indeed traversed the whole land mass. So who would quibble? Not readers of this engaging book, that's for sure.
The personalities of the two adventurers show through nicely in their prose. Each woman acknowledges her own weaknesses and the strengths of her partner. There is however a lot of emphasis on the media-friendly aspect of the trip. Perhaps it would be unfair to claim that this dangerous expedition was conceived as a "media event" --- but that aspect was certainly a major element in its planning and execution. It also lends piquancy to the retelling of the story. For example, an executive of a major credit-card company told their fundraisers that they were not interested in helping because "we don't have any customers in Antarctica."
Bancroft and Arnesen, by contrast, made sure that they had "customers" in classrooms and corporate offices all over the world. They are a couple of brave, gutsy ladies, and they have richly earned their celebrity.
Reviewed by Robert Finn on January 22, 2011