When Hamidaddin removed her gloves, there was a line dividing the frozen top third of her fingers and the healthy skin below: textbook frostbite.
Hamidaddin’s teammate Nataša Briški quaked as she pulled off her own gloves. “I looked at my fingers and saw that clear line,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’” She wracked her memory for when the cold had crept into her fingers, but couldn’t think of any particular moment she would’ve been susceptible to the elements. “I didn’t feel cold at all,” she says. “I mean, you’re cold all the time, but it was nothing out of the ordinary.” Granted, at -36 degrees Fahrenheit, even the briefest of exposure can freeze skin. Use your bare fingers to prime the stove, fiddle with a stuck zipper pull, or wipe after shitting, and you could end up with frostbite in a matter of minutes.
Getting treatment would not be easy. Briški and her 10 teammates were skiing along a floe of sea ice at 89 degrees north, making a bid for the North Pole. The group of women were hand-selected for this this trek—the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition—by the mission’s creator, Felicity Aston, and as part of the mission the group allowed scientists to study their vitals to learn more about the effects of cold exposure on the female body. The women came from all corners of Europe and the Middle East—Qatar, Sweden, Oman, Iceland, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Slovenia, Kuwait, and the UK—and their ages ranged from 28 to 50.
Besides science, Aston’s hope was that a shared objective—reaching the North Pole—would bring European and Arabian women together, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other’s cultures. In an interview before the expedition, Swedish team member Ida Olsson told the BBC that over the team’s two training trips she’d gained a new understanding of why Middle Eastern women wear head coverings: “In my mind, it always felt forced—that men forced the women to do it. But when the girls here talk about it, it’s something they actually want to do; they’re not forced to do it. That was completely new to me.”
She also wanted to show girls and women that you didn’t need to be a superhero to complete a big objective; while several members of the group were ultra-marathoners or worked as wilderness guides, others had never skied before signing on to the expedition.
It was only the first day of the expedition. That day bled into the previous one, which had started 40 hours before and 550 miles away, in Longyearbyen, the northernmost human settlement in the world and base for most North Pole expeditions, located on a Norwegian archipelago called Svalbard. The team woke up that morning unsure of when they might leave for the pole, but by their 5 pm dinner, of moose burgers and fries, plans firmed up for an Antonov An-74 to ferry them up from the Longyearbyen Airport to Camp Barneo.
Barneo—named by its Russian architects because it’s “not Borneo”—is a makeshift landing strip on an ice floe at around 89 degrees north; every year, in late March, its keepers select a floe, build a small village of tents, construct a landing strip, and maintain it for around three weeks as flights bring in tourists seeking the opportunity to walk, ski, or be helicoptered to the pole.
The team tried to rest before they were due at the airport in advance of their midnight flight, but the anticipation made it hard to get any quality shuteye. At 11 pm, they piled into two taxi vans that took them to a special hangar at the Longyearbyen airport. A few women called or texted their families one last time before their departure, while others snapped selfies. After a final round of tearful hugs, it was off to Barneo.
Because Barneo drifts, its latitude changes. The team wanted to ski the last latitudinal degree to the pole, so they were picked up by an Mi-8 Russian cargo helicopter and deposited at exactly 89 degrees north. Despite the sleepless night of travel, at 6 am the women took off on skis, each pulling sledges filled with 90 pounds of food, clothing, and shelter they’d needed to survive on the ice over the next several days, during which they were to cover the 50 or so miles to the pole.
That first day was rough. They were poorly rested, and the -36 degrees was markedly colder than comparably balmy 14 degrees they’d grown accustomed to in Longyearbyen. Pulling heavy sledges was awkward, and the team struggled to find a rhythm that suited everyone; slower skiers fell to the back of the pack, while faster skiers waited up ahead for them, trying to keep warm.
The women knew they had to stay together—if they were to encounter a polar bear, there’s safety in numbers—but they also needed to move quickly. Since the ice below them moves along the ocean, every moment not in motion could mean drifting further away from their goal. Running on adrenaline, the team knocked out 6 miles that first day.
It’s a lot to ask of the body. Extremely cold temperatures are known to trigger a host of bodily defenses; the heart beats faster as the body struggles to stay warm, and blood vessels constrict, which leads to lower blood pressure and leaves extremities more susceptible to frostbite. Adjusting to the cold also burns more calories; pair that with intense physical activity, like skiing for days at a time while pulling a heavy sledge, and the body quickly amasses a significant caloric deficit.
The combination of physical demands and the emotional strain of an expedition—managing team dynamics, anxiety about frostbite and other injuries, the threat of encountering polar bears—cause the body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol to spike. And to top it all off the sun never sets this close to the pole; it just circles overhead, throwing off the body’s internal clock and disrupting its natural sleep patterns, cortisol production, and blood sugar levels. These physiological responses were all targets of the researchers’ scientific inquiry.
Over the course of this first day, as Briški’s thoughts flit from moving one ski in front of the next to panic about her frost-nipped fingers, a suite of gadgets record her vitals—the same array each of her team members is wearing. On her right wrist is a clunky device resembling a calculator watch, measuring her heart rate and sleep quality; on the other wrist, a cotton cuff holds a penny-sized temperature tracker against her skin.
Under her clothes, there’s another temperature tracker in her bra, and an accelerometer strapped around her waist tracking her every step and turn. A micro-needle patch sits high on her left arm, measuring her blood sugar. That morning, she’d spit into plastic test tubes, meant to serve as a record of her cortisol levels—a good proxy for how stressed she felt—and filled out a psychological questionnaire. Together, those measurements would tell scientists the story of her journey.
Eleven days before the expedition, Briški is doing the opposite of skiing to the North Pole: She is laying as still as she can. For half an hour, she’s muzzled by a plastic mask dispensing oxygen, making each of her breaths sound like Darth Vader’s. The mask is connected to a hand-held machine measuring her resting oxygen consumption, which at the end of the session will print a read-out detailing each minute with a dizzying jumble of numbers. Until then, though, she’s sternly been told she must relax: no moving, no talking, no coughing, no reading, and absolutely no sleeping.
That proves harder than usual, given the early hour. It’s 7:30 am, and Briški and four of her teammates have trundled over to the Longyearbyen hospital—or, as it’s called in Norwegian, the Sykehus, a cognate for “sick house”—for physiological testing ahead of the expedition.
Like many other public buildings in Longyearbyen, there’s a taxidermied polar bear to greet visitors in the main lobby; the team is gathered in a suite of rooms just outside the surgical unit, which the head nurse says is rarely used by the town’s 2,000 or so residents, aside from major accidents or routine vasectomies.
“You’re going to be spitting a lot, but it’s a hell of a lot better than having you pee in the middle of the North Pole,” Audrey Bergouignan says to another expeditioner. Bergouignan, a physiology researcher with a joint appointment at the University of Colorado at Denver and the French National Center for Scientific Research, is the mastermind behind all this testing. She’s just explained the day’s tasks—the resting oxygen consumption test Briški is laying down for, blood samples, medical interviews, weight and body composition measurements—and she moves into the laundry list of tasks the team will undertake on the ice.
Bergouignan studies the human metabolism—how the body uses energy—and how physical activity (or lack thereof) affects it. Trailing a North Pole expedition team is hardly the strangest thing she’s done in this line of work; she’s paid women to lay motionless in bed for months at a time and worked with the European Space Agency to study what a stint on the International Space Station does to astronauts’ bodies.
From the moment she heard about the expedition, her mind reeled with hypotheses. The extreme arctic cold paired with days of grueling physical activity was a researcher’s dream, promising a rare window into how the body adapts in the most demanding conditions.
There just aren’t many scientific studies of polar explorers’ metabolisms. Previous studies focus on a very small number of participants, between two and five, and the methods used in that existing body of work are growing stale; the handful of papers published this century on energy expenditure of polar voyagers primarily use data collected between 1957 and 1996.
Moreover, that data focuses exclusively on men. With expedition data already hard to come by, data on the comparatively few women who have voyaged to the poles is essentially nonexistent. After a trip to the North Pole Expedition Museum in Longyearbyen, Hamidaddin reported, with more than a hint of disdain in her voice, that there were no women mentioned.
In a 2010 review of the past six decades’ worth of data on long stays in Antarctica, physician Alistair Simpson noted the same thing, and suggests researchers seek out different participants. “Women are often resident in Antarctica now, and research investigating their response in terms of energy dynamics and aerobic fitness would be valuable,” he says.
So when the opportunity to study this expedition team presented itself, Bergouignan knew she had to take it. That opportunity was years in the making; the seed for the expedition was planted in 2009, after Aston, this expedition’s leader, had led a different expedition of women to the opposite pole.
Among her most memorable experiences on the way to the South Pole was learning about the backgrounds and cultures of her teammates, who came from Singapore, Brunei, India, New Zealand, and Cyprus. For years, she dreamed of putting together a team of women from the East and West, providing a more explicit opportunity for cultural dialogue and, in a world long on male explorers, to show that women are capable expeditioners.
It wasn’t until late 2015 that Aston announced she was seeking applications for a Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition. “No experience necessary but passion, enthusiasm, and willingness to work hard are essential,” she wrote in a Facebook post kicking off her recruitment efforts.
That post somehow made it to Susan Gallon’s feed, and her interest was piqued. A marine biologist, her research on seals led her to field work in Tasmania, Brazil, and Scotland, but she’d never undertaken an expedition like this. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was already ahead of the game by knowing how to ski.
Bergouignan, one of Gallon’s close friends, encouraged her to apply. The two have had their share of adventures together: They met as young women at a summer research program in Slovenia, where they snuck out of their strict host family’s house and hit the bars in their pajamas, and years later they went on to hitchhike from Hungary to France and drive through hurricane-force windstorms in Iceland. Bergouignan knew Gallon had the drive and athleticism to make it to the pole, and, she joked, on the off-chance Gallon was selected, what fantastic research she could do on the team.
Gallon was one of roughly 1,000 applicants, and much to her delight, Aston sought her out for a Skype interview. After a couple calls with Aston, she got the official invitation to join the expedition while visiting her mom, Laure, in France. “Felicity said, ‘Welcome to the team,’ and Susan started crying,” Laure says. “She said it was better than winning the lottery.”
Lucky for Bergouignan, the team was receptive to the idea of being studied while en route, so she set about making preparations for her studies. She dubbed the project the POWER study: Physiological adaptiOns in WomEn during a NoRth Pole expedition.
A bit of a tortured acronym, perhaps, but she felt it captured the spirit of the expedition and the research, and she assembled an all-female team to collect and analyze the data. “We just have so little information on women, so this is a really great opportunity to see what the body does under these extreme conditions,” says Jessica Devitt, a family medicine doctor at University of Colorado at Denver assisting Bergouignan with testing. Polar expeditions are just one of many niche areas in which women’s data is sparse. “Even in routine drug trials—what we base medical decisions on—many focus on men,” Devitt says.
Men have long been used as the default in medical research, despite evidence that women’s bodies often operate differently. This is especially true in the case of exercise and metabolism; women tend to have more body fat but also rely on those fat stores more for energy during physical activity. On any expedition—to one of earth’s poles, into the desert, even to outer space—knowing what each expeditioners’ body needs can be advantageous.
To use an extreme example, consider taking food on a space mission. “It costs 10,000 euros to carry half a kilo of food to space,” Bergouignan says. “If you overestimate the amount of food you need to bring, it’s going to have a tremendous economic impact; on the other hand, if you don’t bring enough, you may risk starvation of the crew. It’s extremely important to be able to assess this with accuracy.”
There are also good reasons this research hasn’t been done before. To put it mildly, it’s a logistical nightmare, and expensive to boot. Just figuring out which country to ask for ethical oversight, a mandatory step for anyone running a study using human participants, took months; unsurprisingly, the North Pole doesn’t have its own review board, so Bergouignan was left to figure out whether she’d have to ask the local Svalbard government, the EU, the US, or each expeditioner’s home country for approval. (She went with the US.)
Then, there’s the gear. That tracker that looks like an ’80s calculator watch is actually a research-grade heartrate and sleep monitor and runs $1,000 a pop. Bergouignan has also brought bottles of doubly labeled water, a special type of H20 in which the H and 0 have been lab-manufactured to contain atypical isotopes, which allows researchers to trace those elements once the water exits the body as urine.
By analyzing that urine, Bergouignan can deduce each woman’s baseline energy expenditure levels, but this carefully engineered water costs around $2,300 per person. Bergouignan estimates the sensors and testing equipment she brought were worth around $70,000, which she lugged around in a gargantuan suitcase weighing more than 175 pounds. Luckily, Bergouignan was not obliged to bring a centrifuge to spin blood samples; though she had initially considered bringing the machine, roughly the size and heft of a late ’90s laser printer, she was relieved to find that the Longyearbyen hospital already had one.
All these carefully laid plans are dependent on the expedition schedule, which, of course, can change at any moment. As Devitt sat in a Lyft taking her to the Denver airport, she received an email from Bergouignan saying that permit roadblocks had pushed the expedition dates by at least 10 days, and that there was a possibility it wouldn’t happen at all. “Maybe it’s better you know now?” counseled her Lyft driver, and for a moment Devitt debated whether to make the three-plane, 24-hour journey. “But Audrey’s email was so upbeat—‘We’re going to have a grand adventure! Cheers!’ So I got on the plane and figured we’d deal with it once we got there.” (I received a similar email from Bergouignan, which I read at the baggage claim in the Longyearbyen airport—too late to consider making alternate plans.)
That roll-with-the-punches attitude serves Bergouignan and Devitt well. Here at the hospital, they’ve hit some minor logistical snags with blood draws. While the first couple proceeded without incident, they’re having trouble finding the right vein in expedition leader Felicity Aston’s arm. “Perhaps it’s a good thing that my body doesn’t give up blood easily,” she jokes after the third attempt. It’s all relative; a few pricks are nothing compared with Aston’s impressive record of enduring sufferfests.
She was the first person to ski more than 1,000 miles across Antarctica alone, a feat that took 59 days in 2012. She also took part in the first all-female British expedition across Greenland and led a team to the South Pole, which landed her the honor of being a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
She has also completed a 156-mile ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert and is a new mom. As this expedition’s leader, she has set the tone for the rest of the team to welcome all this guinea-pigging. “Comfort isn’t an issue,” she told Bergouignan and Devitt after the team’s initial meeting with the research team. “We’re all keen to get you the data you need.”
Briški, for one, is enjoying herself. Beaming, she exits the room where Bergouinan is measuring women’s body mass, broken down into fat, bone, and water weight. The machine also spits out a judgment of each woman’s metabolic age, and Briški is delighted by her results. “I just found out I’m 30 years old,” she announces.
A willowy Slovenian, Briški is in her forties but certainly has the levity and athleticism of someone younger—and with just a tinge of pink in her white-blonde pixie cut, she looks it, too. Later, during her blood draw, Devitt compliments her on having strong, easily locatable veins. “I feel so privileged to be told all this,” she says, “that I’m 30 and have good-looking veins!”
Once the blood draws, the oxygen tests, the body composition measurements, and the gear assignments are completed, Bergouignan, Devitt, and I grab burgers and beers, but it’s clear that Bergouignan’s brain is still moving a hundred miles a minute. The trip delay has torpedoed many of her plans, but luckily she is the queen of making things work. (One of the first times we spoke, she apologized that she’d forgotten I was going to call because her house had been robbed that week, and then her car stolen. But, she says, she’d just stolen back her own car, and all was fine.)
She runs through a list of what she needs to coordinate to get the project back on track. First up are more test tubes, but she discovers that having them shipped to Svalbard will take weeks she doesn’t have. Instead, she sets a new plan into motion: She texts her fiancé in Colorado asking him to mail a package of them to expedition team member Susan Gallon’s mom, Laure, in France, so that Laure can fly with them when she visits her daughter in Svalbard the following week. It’s convoluted, but it’ll get the job done.
Meanwhile, the team is trying to put on a good face about the expedition’s delay. One night, as we’re making pasta at the guesthouse where some team members are staying, Asma Al Thani plays us a 20-minute video of clips from dozens of people wishing her well on her journey. “Don’t get eaten by a polar bear,” her best friend’s daughter warns. “When you come back, we should make an Asma Barbie with a sledge and kit, complete with a pee bottle accessory,” suggests another friend.
Al Thani, whose great-grandfather founded Qatar, is royalty in her country, and if she succeeds in reaching the pole she’d be the first Qatari to do so. Being the first comes with unanswered questions—like how to pray toward Mecca. “Technically, you can pray at any angle since it’s all south,” she says. “No one has written anything about this, and I asked elders but they all said they weren’t sure. I think they’re afraid to say anything because it’s never been done before.”
After the video, she checks her phone and announces that a Qatar lifestyle Instagram account has reposted her most recent photo from Longyearbyen. “They have 65,000 followers,” she says, smiling, but her face falls quickly to neutral and she stares blankly out the window. “I really hope we make it to the North Pole now.”
Compared with the harsh reality of the elements 50 miles from the top of the world, the memory of worrying about the expedition’s start seems quaint. It’s the eighth day of the expedition, and Briški’s first task upon waking up, like the six mornings before it, is to spit into a tube.
She’s supposed to lie motionless in her sleeping bag for another 10 minutes before collecting a second sample, but she’s antsy to get her day started; even in all her layers inside the sleeping bag, she’s freezing, and she could be preparing her gear for the day’s departure, melting ice into water for coffee and breakfast, or, more urgently, emptying her bladder.
Since that first day, Hamidaddin was helicoptered back to base camp at Barneo, and the prognosis for her frostbite was good. “Not too serious,” the camp doctor said. “No chop.” To Briški’s relief, her fingers have stayed fairly healthy, mostly through her obsessive focus on rotating among her pairs of gloves and a meticulous regime of applying healing balm.
She’s ready to go home, though; over the last few days, she’s battled her sledge, which flipped at the slightest hint of uneven terrain. After the expedition, Briški posted on Facebook about her beloved sledge, which tipped over upwards of 30 times a day. “Kindly told him, ‘Behave or be thrown out of the helicopter on our way back to Barneo.’”
Sledges were even more of a pain while the team crossed mounds of ice rubble; often, they’d just form a line across the rubble and hand sledges through rather than tugging them. And the sledges were a real hazard at frozen water crossings, where an unlucky step could break the fragile ice, plunging skiier and sledge into the frigid sea. “In a few places, before we started, we joked about making our final goodbyes,” Briški says. “The ice looks solid, but you never know. How fast would I actually be able to untie myself from the sledge?” Gallon said that before each crossing, she made sure to unscrew the gate on her caribiner connecting her harness to her sledge, just in case she fell in and needed to make a quick getaway.
Taking measurements for Bergouignan’s study was another added challenge. “Let’s just say, politely, that we were cursing the whole time,” Briški says. “It took an effort.” Though Bergouignan made every effort to simplify the procedure, popping open small test tubes for saliva collection proved difficult with clunky gloves on, and removing buffs or balaclavas to free up the mouth for spitting was less than pleasant in the cold. Briški says her samples got a little gross. “I wasn’t very good at spitting, so it usually ended up all around the tube.”
At 7 pm on that eighth day, the team’s GPS finally reads out 90 degrees north. Aston puts her poles down to commemorate the spot, and for just a few minutes, that is the North Pole. Even after the ice drifts them south, that patch remains their North Pole. Each team member unfurls her nation’s flag and poses for photos. They call Barneo for a helicopter and are delighted to find Hamidaddin has hitched a ride, rightfully joining her team at the pole after all.
Once they return in Longyearbyen, Bergouignan and Devitt are long gone, so Gallon and Briški take over scientific duties themselves. All that skiing, sledge-pulling, shivering, and sled-pulling meant a big calorie deficit; preliminary results indicate that nearly everyone on the expedition gained muscle while losing fat, and, on average, dropped around four pounds over the week-long expedition. “Some of us got younger too,” Briški grins, eager to share her metabolic age results. “Now I’m 29.”
It will take months for Bergouignan to pore over the specifics of the results, but she’s already planning ahead: six months after the expedition, she’s planning to send each team member a small research kit with instructions on how to measure their daily energy expenditure in a less extreme environment. (One exception is Russian team member Olga Rumyantseva, who’s already alerted Bergouignan that she’s running a four-day, 170 kilometer ultramarathon and will probably be in better shape in October than she was for the expedition.)
I ask Briški what kind of data Bergouignan should expect from follow-up. She lays out her typical day: waking up around 7, working until 4 or 5 while trying to fit in a run during lunch hour, then going out for dinner or to the theater. “Oh, and I’ll have a normal toilet,” she adds, “and a shower.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.