Wind ... where on earth was the wind? I stopped, my labored breath crystallizing instantly in the freezing air, and for the hundredth time that day adjusted the harness connecting me to the 250-pound fiberglass sled I was dragging.
It was late afternoon on January 10, 2000-the tail end of Antarctica's all-too-brief summer, when for a few months temperatures at the bottom of the world rise to comparatively survivable levels.
Liv Arnesen, my expedition partner, pulled up her sled beside me, and together we gazed at the landscape before us. The sun, hovering just above the horizon without ever rising or setting, cast a golden glow across a field of sastrugi-rock-hard waves of ice that cover much of the continent's surface, sculpted and smoothed by month upon month of strong, steady wind. But today there was not even a hint of a breeze.
"How's your wrist, Liv?"
"Bad. Your shoulder?"
"The same," I said. "Should we just make camp here?"
Liv scrutinized the vast expanse of ice. "Maybe we should try to get in at least a few more miles," she said.
"Yeah, you're right. I don't want to have to tell the kids that six miles was the best we could do." We fell back into step, leaning against our harnesses like a pair of mules plowing an endless white field.
Over the past two months, Liv and I had pulled our sleds and equipment nearly a thousand miles en route to the South Pole, the halfway mark for a 2,000-mile journey that would make us the first women to traverse Antarctica on foot. Yet with each passing day, the odds of success were getting slimmer. In about a month the perpetual daylight of summer would give way to the long, black, unimaginably frigid night of Antarctic winter. February 15 was the last day any pilot would be willing to risk an ice landing to pick us up, and we were hopelessly behind schedule.
Bad as things were, all of it would still have been bearable if we didn't have to report back to the kids. Packed in Liv's sled was a laptop computer and satellite phone. Each night in our tent, we posted a progress report on our Web site-yourexpedition.com-and communicated with the other "partners" in our journey-over three million schoolchildren and adults in almost 50 countries. They e-mailed back questions, words of encouragement and stories of their own challenges. These kids were a major reason why failing in our quest would sting so badly. We would be dashing not only our hopes but worse, those of all these young people. And both Liv and I knew how important it was for a child to have a dream, a goal to work toward.
When I was 12 years old, I mysteriously began falling behind in school. I'd stare in bewilderment at the blackboard. Books became harder to understand. Practically overnight, school became a nightmare of frustration.
"Your daughter has dyslexia," a doctor finally told my parents. "She doesn't process information the way other children do. Learning for her is always going to be a struggle, I'm afraid."
One day not long after my diagnosis, I opened a book called Endurance about an explorer named Ernest Shackleton, who in 1914 had set out with a crew of 27 men to cross the Antarctic continent. Their ship was locked in the icepack all winter, then chewed to pieces in the spring thaw, forcing Shackleton to lead his men on a 10-month odyssey of unimaginable hardship. Ultimately, he brought every last one of them to safety. The book had lots of photographs, but before long I started reading, and soon stopped caring that I could only make it through a few pages an hour.
That winter, I insisted on camping out in our backyard during the first big blizzard. As the snows whipped around my little tent, Shackleton's dream became my own. One day, no matter what the odds, I told myself, I would go down to Antarctica. And I would cross it.
I learned everything I could about polar exploration. Meanwhile, I found ways to cope with my learning disability. It affected my auditory as well as my visual perception, so I sat at the front of class to read the teacher's lips. At the University of Oregon, I taped lectures so that I could listen to them again later. Sports, especially cross-country skiing, helped me sharpen my concentration and develop my stamina.
In 1998, I met Liv. Like me, she had been a schoolteacher most of her life. And as a child in Norway, she too had been inspired by Endurance. Best of all, she was looking for a partner with whom to attempt an Antarctic crossing.
Two years of intensive training followed. Finally, on November 13, 2000, our plane touched down on Antarctica, and our journey across the ice began. That was almost two months ago. Now, on January 10, every expectation about where we would be and what we would be doing had changed. None of our training had prepared us for this unprecedented Antarctic summer when, all across the planet's windiest continent, the wind resolutely failed to blow.
"Okay," said Liv, after three more miserable miles of hard slogging, "my wrist is really starting to hurt now."
"This'll just have to be it for the day," I agreed. "Let's make camp."
We unfastened our harnesses and collapsed onto the ice for a moment, refocusing. Then, silently, we got to our feet and fell into the routine we now knew so well: set up the tent, drink fluids, eat a carefully rationed meal, log onto our computer and record yet another discouraging day.
We called expedition headquarters, and listened to one of our teammates read a few selections from the day's e-mails. "You just hang in there, girls," Shirley from Cape Town, South Africa, had typed. "We are thinking about you and following your progress every day on the Web. Here the temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius with a very brisk southeast wind. Wish we could harness some of the wind and send it off to blow you on your way."
"I think it's very important what you are doing, showing people there are adventures in today's life," said 16-year-old Barbara from Germany. "Knowing that life can be exciting is important for me. You are doing exactly the thing I dream of doing as a grown-up!"
Hearing these words, I found myself thinking of all the other stories and prayers that everyone from Brazilian schoolkids to senior citizens in the former Soviet Union had shared with us since the start of our journey. As bad as I'd felt that day, my fears of not completing the expedition, of letting down all those who were following our progress, now began to fade.
It wasn't whether we were succeeding that mattered to these kids -- and adults -- who were following us day by day, but that we were trying. That night as we crept into our sleeping bags, I said a different prayer from the one I usually said for wind and good weather. "Let what we're doing help others to work toward their own dreams, whether we make it all the way or not." Then I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
Early the next morning, Liv and I jolted awake at the same time. That sound --long absent but wonderfully familiar -- the fabric of our tent whipping and snapping! Quickly we bundled up and ran outside. A stiff, 30-knot breeze was blowing from the northeast. Laughing and shouting, we struck camp and then unfurled our sails. They instantly filled with wind, and we were off.
We covered a record 66.6 miles that day. At night, dead tired but too happy to care, we passed on the news to everyone who had been waiting and praying with us. "Keep the support coming," we told them. "It's not over yet."
It wasn't. Over the next days the wind died on us again-not once but many times. One day we made only a miserable 2.4 miles. But on another we sailed for an incredible 14 hours straight. We had calculated that for us to stand a chance of finishing our crossing on time, we would have to make it to the South Pole for resupply by January 16 at the very latest. That turned out to be the exact day that we arrived.
By February 12, when Liv and I became the first women to traverse Antarctica, our Web site had logged in more than 20,000 messages. We had been carried along, I like to think, not so much by the fickle wind as by the hopes and dreams of our millions of partners, and by their prayers, which had never flagged for an instant.