Ann Daniels, 44, polar explorer, is about to trek 1,200km to the geographic North Pole. By the time she arrives, she will have dragged a 52kg sledge for 100 days and put up with great hardship: temperatures of minus 52ºC, plunging into Arctic waters, no luxuries, dehydrated food, a cup, spoon, pencil and a diary. She won’t even be able to wash or change her clothes for more than three months. But there is one thing she won’t sacrifice: phone calls to her children — triplets Lucy, Joseph and Rachel, 14, and five-year-old Sarah.
“The phone is really for operational purposes,” she said, “but if they [the team] want me to perform, I just have to use it for the family. Going on past experience, I’m fine for about three weeks, then I start to pine and am really unhappy, so I get on the phone. They never really want to know what I’m up to. They just want to tell me what they’ve been doing. Then I’ve had my fix and I’m OK again.”
Daniels has been to the North Pole six times, but the Catlin Arctic Survey is her first scientific expedition. Led by Pen Hadow, the polar explorer, its aim is to measure the rate at which the polar ice cap is melting.
“Ann’s as tough as you like,” said Hadow, who describes her as immensely grounded and cool under pressure. “She is the best woman explorer in the world.”
We meet at her village home in Devon where she lives with her partner, Tom O’Connor, an aircraft engineer who is on nights and asleep upstairs.
Sarah, her youngest, is milling around eating her mother’s expedition rations of chocolate chips — you can’t take bars of chocolate into the Arctic, Daniels said, as she pulls her daughter close, because the chocolate gets so frozen it would break your teeth.
Outside there is heavy snow, and Daniels’s parents, who “move in for every expedition and take over my life,” are dressed in heavy knits and scarves, but Daniels is wearing a light jumper because by her standards this cold is close to tropical. Inside, there’s a play-school atmosphere — bits of paper and glass beads on the kitchen table — mother/daughter art-project bonding before she leaves in five days.
“The children are a barometer for me,” she said. “I always think, I’ve got to come home. So I don’t take stupid risks.”
Not that everyone agrees. There are plenty who say mothers shouldn’t leave their children to do something so dangerous. She went on a TV chatshow in the late 1990s “knowing the whole show would slag me off. I was the mother from hell.”
But one woman stood up and said she admired her personal ambition. Still, she is disappointed by how little attitudes have shifted since Alison Hargreaves, the mother and climber, was killed on an expedition to K2 in 1995.
“That was more than 13 years ago and I’m still being hit with her name,” she cried. “How many other mothers have died in that time on motorways, and in work environments, whether they be policewomen or nurses or cleaners. Nobody ever mentions them. It’s always Alison Hargreaves doing her job.”
“She does have a harder time from society,” said Hadow, who has two children, “much harder than me.”
Daniels’s children, for their part, are sanguine.
“It just feels ordinary because she’s my mum,” said Joseph, when I ask him what it’s like having a mother with two frostbitten toes.
Plus, he rather likes the routine: “She doesn’t work every day. She stays home for, like, a couple of years and then goes away in one chunk.”