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A Not So Ordinary Endeavour


Photo by Daniel Fatnes on Unsplash

As world opinion grappled with a paradox, Dr. Sarah-Louise Jones brought a youthful clarity to the Berkeley Circle. Much more attention is being given now to minorities. It’s bizarre, however, that women are being considered as one minority amongst others, while in fact the female population of the globe constitutes half of the whole. It has proven hard to forsake the wrong path taken by father Adam. Eve has not been allowed to rid herself of that overrated rib and go her own way. The 1997 all female expedition to the north pole in which Dr. Jones took part was a step in the right direction.


Dr. Jones did more than recall the expedition. She relived it with an enthusiasm that made us feel the joy and excitement she felt at the time. The adventure began with a newspaper ad calling on “ordinary women” for “an extraordinary quest”, a peculiarly understated view of a project that would be ordinary in no sense whatsoever. The Penguin Biscuit Company, as sponsors, was entering into its own adventure in publicity. 


Sarah-Louise’s rule of life  had already taken shape. She would grab at opportunities, never mind the risks. The first hurdle of essay writing passed, she was called to Dartmoor for training in the field. It narrowed contestants to a final twenty who were sent home with instructions to continue preparations on their own. Sarah-Louise complied by hitching herself to a heavy tractor tyre and dragging it around a farmyard.


Organised in four teams of five, the twenty women flew to Toronto.  In stages they would fly on to Resolute Bay, one of Canada northernmost settlements, an Inuit (Eskimo) hamlet on Cornwallis Island. Here on the edge of the Northwest Passage, the team underwent more training, this time in the hands of polar specialists.


The frailty of the tiny aircraft with their jack-of-all-trades pilots was not at first reassuring. But the pilots’ ability to discover landing space in the rapidly changing conditions was masterful. Weather was king in the Arctic and never stable. Action was always subordinate to it.


While Antarctica is a landmass, the Arctic is a not always solidly frozen ocean. The trip after Resolute, from a base camp to the geographic north pole was a gruelling ski run, dodging open water and violent ice flows with each team member dragging, not a tractor tyre, but a heavy pack. Sarah Louise was precise in explaining tent life, sleeping and eating arrangements, daily routines, 

mishaps minor and more serious. The four teams advanced by relays and looking back now Dr. Jones insisted that for her the lesson learnt from the whole operation was the absolute importance of teamwork. As for her moment of most fright and awe, it was, she feels, the sudden awareness of being in a world that was nothing but ice and snow.


Eleven similar treks were attempted in 1997 and only three succeeded, including this first all female expedition that earned a Women of the Year Award. The Penguin Biscuit Company was dismayed to learn that penguins lived only in Antarctica and on TV. This did not prevent them from going ahead with their "P...P...P...Pick up a penguin!” slogan that 1980s’ children of the UK find it hard to forget


Dr. Jones’ account of her trek to the remotest of places resonates with the spirit of Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753)). From his cozy beginnings in Dysart Castle, County Kilkenny, Ireland, he would one day undertake a precarious trip to Bermuda on the quixotic mission to found a university. Government finance withdrawn, that dream had to be abandoned, but his explorer’s zest left a mark on North America from Rhode Island to Berkeley, California and its university. Dr. Jones’ interests like the Bishop’s extend to international partnerships and collaborations. She has among others an intriguing project afoot in South Africa that we hope she will tell us about in the future.


Peter Byrne

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