Women We Love: Polar Explorer Sunniva Sorby
Sunniva Sorby is an explorer. Officially, she is a member of the famed Explorer’s Club in New York—a designation reserved for pioneers like Ernest Shackleton, James Cameron, and Sylvia Earle.
In 1992, Sunni was a member of the first female team to ski and walk overland to the South Pole. It was a grueling effort that required dragging a 200 pound sled loaded with gear: all of the food and fuel and everything else you might need to stay alive, both spiritually and mentally, on such a journey.
There were four women on the team. Before and after the expedition, they subjected their bodies to all kinds of tests in order to expand the understanding of how the female body reacts under extreme duress (most research at that time had been conducted on male astronauts and explorers). Researchers sought answers to questions like, “How do extreme conditions impact a woman’s metabolism?” and “Does a woman’s body respond differently than a man’s in extreme cold and exertion?”
The women were consuming 6,000 calories a day—60% of these from fat—yet during the course of the expedition they dropped 15 pounds each. After they returned, their bodies refused for many months to return to normal functioning, holding on to food calories for a long time. Their cycles were also documented, The women’s first menstrual periods on the journey were uncoordinated, but the second menses came for all four at the same time; it took very little time for their cycles to synchronize. Then, due to body fat drop, none of the four women had a third period.
The crew was also charged with noting the social, emotional, and mental impacts of their journey. For example, they were in continuous daylight—24 hours of sun a day—during their journey. How did that impact their mood and energy? They were isolated. How did this affect them? Did the isolation affect the introverts and the extroverts on the team differently? Sunniva observed that there was no correlation between general physical capacity and mental health; If you had inner fortitude, optimism, and kindness, you did better, no matter how fit you were. If you could dig a little deeper and give to another teammate, you were rewarded with more for yourself. Generosity didn’t drain a team member, it replenished her.
The expedition was monitored through a radio signal every three days by the BBC and by schoolchildren worldwide. As the team approached the pole, the journey’s observers sent a small airplane, which dropped a care package onto the snow and ice ahead of them. Sunniva tells the story of how it felt to open this box, and find slightly bruised apples, homemade chocolate chip cookies, a single red rose, and letters of encouragement. The sight of the tender living rose, its petals falling off, brought on tears. These small offerings reminded them they weren’t alone out there on the ice; the tears reminded them that they were still human, and that their own hearts hadn’t frozen.
Sunniva, along with explorer Hilde Fålun Strøm, will soon be embarking on another expedition called Hearts in the Ice. It involves seven and a half months of overwintering in a trapper’s cabin in the Arctic, including three months of complete darkness. The two will do citizen science on climate, and further document survival strategies for women in extreme circumstances.
I believe Sunniva is a living embodiment of Thoreau’s call for “living deliberately.” We are going to support her journey with a financial contribution (and you can too!). We will also provide the intrepid duo with some of the thickest, richest products for moisturizing and soothing the skin: our Soothe Calming Cream and Anoint, our new Nurturing Body Oil (you heard it here first!).
We are all seeking our stride and our striving, and taking off on our own inner or outer expeditions. Not all of these expeditions are about extreme conditions, but they are nonetheless momentous: embarking on the journey of parenting, starting a new career, facing down an illness, or choosing to do the things that scare us. All are bold and brave journeys into places where we feel more alive than we did before.
Here’s to feeling alive, to being on that edge of challenge and capacity.