The Big Conversation – with polar explorer and record holder Ann Daniels.
Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Olly Woodburn
Fresh from her most recent expedition working with NASA and the European Space Agency, Ann Daniels is now back home in Exeter and deep in plans for her next trip.
A world record holder and one of Britain’s leading female explorers, Ann Daniels is the epitome of strength and positive mental attitude. She also happens to be mum to four amazing kids and an all round salt of the earth kind of girl.
I caught up with her at her home, in Exeter, to talk mental health, motivational speaking and living life at the edge of your existence.
Ok Ann, let’s jump straight in. What’s your life doing right now?
My life right now is slightly mad; I’m working on a lot of different projects at the moment.
One of them; one I’m really passionate about, is that I plan to take six, recovered, mental health individuals to the North Pole in 2019. Obviously it’ll be an extreme environment, so they’ll have to be pretty well recovered, but we’ll have a full support team in place, should anything go wrong.
The aim of the expedition is to give them an opportunity to understand that there is always light at the end of a tunnel and that they can achieve things. They’ll then become a beacon of light for other families and individuals; either through a planned documentary or social media.
You’re clearly passionate about working with groups of vulnerable young people. Where does it stem from?
The reason I got involved in the project, is that one of my daughters suffered terribly with mental health problems, to the extent that she was sectioned. That’s how I got involved with mental health; there’s nothing like a brush with it to make you feel very passionate about it.
She entered the mental health system at 19 and, thankfully, they did manage to reach her. It’s a success story, but it was a horrific time.
She came out, went to Queen Mary University, has just graduated with a 2.1 and is now on a Teacher First course.
That’s such a great story and something I wanted to pick up on. You have four children; three of whom are triplets! How on earth did you manage to juggle being a single mum of triplets with your polar adventures?
When your back is against the wall, you either come out from it or you don’t; you find your strength. I had to do something to provide for us and for myself.
As with everything, it’s about mindset and I took every day as it came.
And your first expedition to the pole? How did it come up?
It all came about by a local guy; Pen Hadow. In 1995, he put an advert in the newspaper and radio asking for ordinary women to apply to become part of the first all female expedition to the North Pole and I applied.
My marriage was failing at the time and I had three babies which, on your own, is all consuming.
I honestly didn’t think I’d get on; I just went for the selection because it was something different. The first weekend, on Dartmoor, I was a complete and utter mess; completely out classed by everybody else. Luckily for me though, they didn’t select then. Everyone was sent away and told that if you want to come back in 9 months, there would be a full 4 day selection and that’s when they’d pick the team.
That’s the day when I decided that I had two choices; I either give it up because I’m really bad, or I learn how to navigate, how to pack a rucksack and I get myself physically strong.
I knew I’d have to do all of it whilst looking after three small children, who were 18 months. And so I just put a plan together; a simple plan to get me to the next stage.
And that’s what I did. In the mornings, I would take the children down to a gym who sponsored me because I didn’t have the money to pay for it. They put them in the creche whilst I trained. Then, when they slept in the afternoon, I did the circuits outside.
Friends taught me how to read a map and for a while, I either trained or I’d look after the children, or I’d do them both together; I’d go for a run with triplets and a big pram.
I knew what I had to do and each day I’d get a little bit stronger. I knew that if I kept doing it, at the end of 9 months I would be in a better place than I was before I started. I wasn’t thinking that in 9 months I’d get chosen. I was just thinking that I would have done everything I could do, to make it happen; I’d be stronger and I’d know more things.
So there was no fear involved in the process?
There was no fear and after 9 months, I went back down to Dartmoor for the four day selection.
If you want to reach the stars, you have to give everything you’ve got.
There was a road race, at 2am in the morning! 75 of us had to race for two miles, to a LandRover, in the dark and back.
Some of these women were marathon runners, and I wasn’t a runner. I heard them saying that they would need to pace themselves and I remember thinking, if I don’t run as fast as I can, I don’t want to be on this team enough. So I set off like a bullet!
When I reached the LandRover I did think ‘Oh dear God, I may have made a huge mistake here’ but I turned around and, when I started to run back, I realised there was quite a distance between me and the first girl coming up behind me. So I just thought, just maintain it, just maintain it and just keep going. And I came across the line first; ahead of everyone.
That’s when a few of them recognised me as the girl who came on the first weekend and didn’t know anything. That’s the thing that made me stand out. It wasn’t that I was the best over the four days; it was because they knew I had what it took to keep going when it got difficult. It was that mindset they were looking for.
At the end of the four days, I got on the team and my parents moved into my house to look after the triplets. I was away for a month, on the ice for 17 days; that’s where I learnt my craft.
Then I came home and the marriage was over. We separated. If we hadn’t separated, I wouldn’t have done anything else; I would have had to have concentrated on the marriage. It ended though and that’s when I thought that my new skills were a way for me to find my own self worth and would allow me to provide for the triplets.
I knew that was what I was going to do, but the next time I would do something bigger and better.
So five of us put an expedition together to be the first British women to ski across Antarctica to the South Pole. That time though, we planned it; we got the kit and we trained ourselves. Obviously we had help and we got the sponsorship, which was horrendous for an all women team to secure; much, much harder.
We were at a disadvantage because we were a bunch of unknowns. Apart from Pen’s relay, we were unknown in that environment; we were turning up at offices without any real experience. We really weren’t very credible.
It took forever to get, but we kept going, as if we had the money. I’m not saying there weren’t moments when we were like ‘Oh God’! But we’d carry on anyway.
Which is actually very similar to how you approached the first expedition; don’t worry just keep doing what you have to do and concentrate on the things you can do something about.
Exactly! Concentrate on the things you can do something about.
And so M&G Investments came on board as the main sponsors; they were amazing!
And we did it! We went from the edge of Antarctica and skied 700 miles to the South Pole! When we arrived, the whole base came out to greet us; we hit every national newspaper.
M&G got over 4.7 million pounds worth of equivalent advertising spend. We were on everything; the News at 10, TV, radio & magazines.
In the next expedition, I guided international men in the Arctic. Because of my experience, my knowledge & love of the ice and the fact that the cold and the ice movement didn’t scare me, I realised that I was actually stronger than them, in that environment.
I remember thinking that we (a women’s team) could actually do the whole thing. No women’s team had ever crossed the whole land to the North Pole and only 68 expeditions, since Peary (Robert) claimed it in 1906, had made it across the ice. So it was a huge undertaking. It took me a very long time to persuade Caroline (Hamilton) and Pom (Oliver), because they were the only two I would go with, to come with me.
But I did and M&G came straight back on board to provide our funding. We didn’t have to worry about that.
But oh God the temperatures! It was the worst year I’d ever experienced in 20 years. The temperatures for the first 27 days were between -46 & -58. Every inch of you is hurting; you’re fighting frostbite and then you have wind chill on top of that. I can’t even calculate the wind chill because our kit froze, but we were down to -70 at least.
When I’m doing my speaking, this is the trip I draw all my lessons from. We had 3 storms; one in which we couldn’t get the tent up and we were lying under a piece of tent material for 3 days. There’s no heat under there. My sleeping bag had started to freeze and my body was so cold I could easily have died. And I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t pull my sledge, I couldn’t light my cooker. What could I do? And then it was very clear.
Was there a peace or a calm, at that point?
Yes. I was very calm. Very at peace and very matter of fact. I knew I couldn’t die and that I had to go home. I’m a single mother. I am the only person for my 3 children. I knew I couldn’t die there. That’s just the way it was. All I then had, was my mind and so I just covered down and I thought of a flame. And I thought of a flame and I concentrated and concentrated and I grew it and grew it and then, after I don’t know how long, I turned in my sleeping bag and there was warmth. There was life and I knew I was ok.
That’s the biggest moment of any of my experiences; that was it, visualising life and growing and growing the flame inside.
I told that story when I was doing a speech and someone asked me what made me think of the flame. Honestly, I had no idea.
It’s because it represents life.
It does. But I don’t have training on it. I just have the ability to pull on things.
It was your anchor.
It was. I was talking to a guy, who had been in the SAS, about mental strength. He said that in those situations, when you are at the end, there’s a moment that you choose to either die or to keep fighting. That’s why you can see people with horrific injuries and some will let go and some will keep going and keep fighting. Even though they have the same injuries, it’s not that one has a weaker heart, it’s that one has decided to not let go.
And so other people have since given me an insight into what happened, even though I just did it.
So yeah, we had all that and there were more storms, it was horrific. On day 37 of 80 days, we’d only gone 69 miles of the 500. It was just never going to happen. We were never going to get there. Everyone wrote us off. Even we stopped thinking of the North Pole.
We just decided to do every day, until we couldn’t do any more and then, wherever that was, that would be ok. And that’s what we did. But, we got to the North Pole.
We just added 5 minutes to every ski session; if it was time to stop and there was a ridge or open water or thin ice, we’d go over it. If we had to work until 3 in the morning then that’s what we did and then we’d start again in the morning.
You gave an extra 1% to every aspect.
Exactly. That all adds up and we got there. We actually only should have had 75 days but the pilots did us a favour. They watched the weather window and they were so impressed that we kept grinding it out, that they pushed the envelope as far as they could; they looked at the weather, found a good day for extraction and left us with a few more days, because of the journey we’d had.
I will forever be in their debt. Forever! When they’re flying, it takes them two days to get to you. And even as they were in the air, we still hadn’t reached the pole. We had just a couple of days to spare and if we hadn’t got there, they would have had to have picked us up from wherever we’d got to. It was that close! It was real cliff edge drama!
After that, I attempted a solo trip, but after 21 days, the Russians removed every permit, for every expedition on the ice. They literally got an MI8 military aircraft and picked three expeditions up from the ice.
That was tough because I’d financed the trip on my own. I couldn’t get sponsorship as a female on my own; people were nervous about what could happen and so I’d put the trip together on a shoestring. It ended, but not because of me, because of somebody else’s political manoeuvre.
That must have been devastating. How did you get over it?
For a while, I was devastated. But only for a short while. I just began to think and realised that there was never any guarantees that I’d have made it; anything could have happened to me. I’d gone 21 days on my own and survived two polar bear encounters; it was a great achievement and that’s what I took from it.
And then, after that, I changed and began to want to do something more for the Arctic.
I began working with Pen (Hadow) and scientists, from around the world, who were focused on understanding the ice. The first expedition, off the top of my head, was 73 days, but it was a strange concept because we didn’t have to do so many miles a day. We had to achieve so much science a day.
I was leading the ice teams, even though it was Pen who put it together. Pen was collecting all the science, so he had to have someone he trusted to lead the ice team. And that was odd; leading the leader is always interesting.
And so now we’re here and I’ve just got back from another trip working with NASA and the European Space Agency.
And your final word on leadership and teamwork?
If everybody gives as much as they can to help the other person, that’s when you get the best team. It’s the same in the business world; if you all share and all put in it, that’s when the magic happens.
Follow Ann on Twitter @AnnDanielsGB