Book review: First all-women’s expedition to the North Pole produces a modern-day adventure tale

“Polar Exposure: An All-Women’s Expedition to the North Pole”

By Felicity Aston; Imagine Books, 2022; 272 pages; $24.99

Even today, long after it has been reached many times, the North Pole beckons adventurers. An objective of explorers for centuries, setting foot atop our planet remains a formidable goal. And with the polar ice cap melting into a future of nonexistence (at least in summers), it’s likely that the days of human expeditions getting to the pole by traversing the ice are likely nearing an end.

British explorer Felicity Aston, who has logged countless weeks and months on polar excursions, recognizes this fact. It was one of the factors that led her to organize the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition, which brought a team of women from Europe and the Arab world together in a quest to reach north latitude 90 degrees while promoting and expanding cultural exchanges and demonstrating the physical abilities of women to accomplish such a goal. And she wanted to have a good adventure along the way.

As we learn from Aston and her teammates, all of whom contribute to the text of “Polar Exposure,” an account of their journey and the work involved in making it happen, these goals were all fully realized.

The idea for this adventure originated with Aston, and she carefully chose the participants. As she recounts in the early pages, she made a public call for applications and received over a thousand, which she winnowed down to 10. The women came from Slovenia, France, Svalbard, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and more. All brought significant skills to the mix, although only a few had prior polar experience.

Aston’s first job was to hone the group into a functioning team. Her goal, she explains, was not to be leader, but to instead get every member trained to the point of being capable of reaching the goal on her own.


That Aston doesn’t perceive herself as a superior is evident in the unique way this book is assembled. Aston begins each chapter with a summary of the events that occur in it, moving the story along and describing her role. Then the narrative is picked up by various members of the expedition, who fill in details, extend the account, and offer their own perspectives on what transpired. In some instances, this leads to interesting and sometimes not entirely congruent recollections of events told by different participants. What results is a more comprehensive look at the expedition than Aston alone could have provided, a result that reflects how well the team seems to have gelled when it reached the ice.

Once the team was assembled, training began. They first gathered in Iceland, where some of the women, having never before seen snow, had to learn to ski. Their second training expedition took place in Oman, which might seem incongruous, but actually makes sense. For the expedition members familiar with arctic conditions, the desert was as foreign as the ice was to the Middle Easterners. It helped them understand how out of place some of their teammates initially felt.

For the third training session, they returned to Iceland, joined by a climber from Russia added after a previous member opted out. There they weathered a violent storm that collapsed a tent with one woman inside. The rescue required they all put their skills to use. By allowing several members to tell the story, including the woman who was briefly trapped, readers again appreciate the story more fully than they otherwise might have.

Then it was off to the ice. These days, as this book makes evident, North Pole expeditions are somewhat industrialized. With the ice no longer spread as widely as it once was, the women were flown from Longyearbyen on Svalbard to a base camp on the ice cap named Barneo. From here they were shuttled to their starting point via helicopter. This left them just 50 miles from the pole, a far closer latitude than early 20th century explorers launched from, but under present conditions, the best that can be safely hoped for.

Still, as Aston writes, once on that ice, little had changed. As the group began moving, they faced the same challenges as better known explorers before them: ice grinding against itself to form ridges, or breaking apart to form open leads, both presenting significant obstacles to their goal. And their bodies had to cope. “In the Arctic,” she tells us, “the only way to get warm is to take action to make yourself warm; the only way to find shelter is to build it; the only way to keep moving is to will yourself forward.”

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They kept willing themselves forward, save for one member, a Saudi woman who developed frostbite on her fingertips and had to get a medical airlift back to Barneo, where the Russian-speaking doctor told her “no chop” was required. She got to keep them.

The other 10 pushed over ridges and across leads, each on skis while dragging heavy sledges, and they made it.

The book does point to the fact that, even as the ice rots away, reaching the pole has gotten to be like climbing Denali. People are flown into a base camp, multiple teams are converging on the pole at once, and rescue helicopters can be summoned with one emergency signal. It’s a far cry from the destitution of the classic polar expeditions, but it is the present reality.

Aston and her teammates still make a good story of it. As Aston herself notes (and again as with climbing), people still die doing this. It might be an adventure for the well-heeled, but it isn’t without risk or significant physical challenges. All the women discuss their hopes and fears, but they don’t obsess over them. It’s less a women’s adventure story than an adventure story that happens to be entirely about women. This, more than anything else, shows that Aston accomplished her goal of simply making it happen. It’s a fun tale, burdened only by the knowledge that, with the ice vanishing, there probably won’t be many more like it.

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David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at