Gemma Joyce, Editor, interviews Ann Daniels on her polar expeditions.
Entering the lavish Council Chamber in Northcote House, the table adorned with heaps of fancy finger sandwiches and extravagantly coloured macaroons, I wondered whether we could possibly be further from the harsh conditions of the Arctic.
Ann Daniels shakes my hand firmly and immediately asks warmly how I’m doing at uni. The world record-breaking polar explorer emanates toughness, having tackled frostbite, dealt with polar bears and travelled, against all odds, to both the North and South Pole. It really puts my com- plaints about the state of my essays and the weather in Exeter into perspective. Having taken a break from expeditions, Daniels is an acclaimed motivational speaker with an honorary degree from the University. She’s in Exeter to speak at the Excellence in Exeter Awards.
Daniels is candid about her unlikely journey to putting ‘polar explorer’ on her CV. “My husband was pretty horrible,” she said. An advert in a newspaper offered ordinary women the chance to train to join a relay expedition to the North Pole, and Daniels seized the opportunity with both hands. “That was my turning point to get hold of my life again… I suddenly thought we all have an opportunity in life to do something different and this actually is my opportunity to do some- thing amazing… it wasn’t so much about the North Pole, it was about taking ownership and doing something for myself.”
Following an arduous weekend of trials in Dartmoor, Daniels decided to go all-out on improving her fitness. Convincing a gym to sponsor her, she was able to train in the morning and do circuits on the patio while her baby triplets slept in the afternoon. Returning to Dartmoor nine months later, she was accepted onto the team. “I went from not knowing anything to being able to lead a team and perform. It was that difference that got me on the team.”
Since her first venture Daniels has completed numerous expeditions, many of which have contributed to improved scientific understanding of climate change. I asked her whether she’d witnessed these effects first hand. She explained: “In 1997 there was so much more ice. It wasn’t as dynamic because there was more of it there. When we went in 2002 which was just five years later we would never have got to the pole if we wouldn’t have swum. We were the first team to use emersion suits and actually swim.” She added: “We were coming out earlier so it was not as far into the summer, and trying to find an area that the plane could land on… days we searched, whereas in ’97 it was half a day. Certainly, visually, it’s changed so much.”
Climate change is clearly a topic close to Daniels’ heart, and she’s given various speeches on the issues involved. “I don’t know why people are in denial. And even if they’re in denial I don’t understand how the intelligent part of their brain goes ‘Ok, for some bizarre reason we don’t believe in climate change.’ I don’t understand why people aren’t engaging.”
Her adventures have not been without incident. She recalls one horrifying moment during an attempted solo expedition to the North Pole in which she became aware of a male polar bear circling her tent. “I was half dressed and knew I couldn’t go out so I got my gun. I shot the ice and he literally did just look at it and then looked at me, as if to say ‘Is that it?’ At which point I panicked and had two fears. One is that it’s actually going to eat me because he’s really close, or I’m going to have to kill it. And I don’t know what was the biggest fear because if I ever had to kill a bear, which are very precious to me, I don’t think I could forgive myself.” Luckily, her second shot, fired above the bear’s head, meant he backed away very slowly. She claims he remained very close to her for around three days, as they tracked each other across the ice. “I feel really connected to that bear. What was the most terrifying experience of my life was the most precious experience of my life.”
Daniels describes an incredible spiritual connection with the Arctic. “I felt as if I had a relationship with it. At the same time as it tries to kill you, and it is when it’s moving, it’s also protecting you. It would have characteristics and some days it would be really angry and horrible and some days it would be beauti-ul, calm and make your days really special… You get excited when it moves because you feel nature and you know you’re nothing compared to the great cheme of the world and nature. It’s enormous and magnificent out there.”
Daniels is vocal in her condemnation of the stigma attached to female explorers and sportspeople, pointing out the continued lack of sponsorship and funding made available to females. She seems equally frustrated when I ask about her coverage and criticism within the media. Despite completing the relay, breaking two world records and working with scientists to aid cutting edge research, she claims, twenty years into her exploring career, that newspapers continue to lead with the fact that she is a mother of four.
Describing a particularly cutting interview on Vanessa Feltz’s show, in which Daniels was criticized for leaving her children, she explains: “If I cut myself short and don’t go for my dreams, how can I tell my children to do it?”
Meeting someone with such a gritty sense of determination is refreshing. In the Arctic, Daniels says: “You suffer. People ask, is it cold? It’s really painful and you get frost injuries and quite often we go and we say to each other ‘Well, we’re in pain, so we’re alive!’
“I don’t care too much about the little things that maybe I would have cared about before,” she says, as I attempt to subtly stuff the rest of the macaroons into my lunchbox. “If you go for a job and you don’t get it, so what?”
Ann Daniels is a truly inspirational lady with a thousand jaw-dropping stories and a wide open future. “I might attempt the solo next year,” laughs the 50-year-old, referring to another attempt at becoming the first woman to venture alone to the North Pole. “It’s an open canvas and come January I’ll start filling it in, but right now I’m just decorating the house and speaking and having a good time.”
Gemma Joyce, Editorbookmark me