Secrets of a holiday on ice

Hurrah hurrah stop ... Put out the bunting stop ... British women become first to reach the North Pole stop ... So why does the triumph of Zoe, Pom and Lucy leave Paul Vallely cold?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I realise I am going to make myself very unpopular here. But I have to confess to being bemused by all the fuss over the women who have trekked to the North Pole.

Make no mistake, other newspapers have been a deal less restrained than the few paragraphs which appeared on page two of this newspaper yesterday recording that a team of 20 women, travelling in five relay teams, had reached the pole after a 1,000 kilometre expedition. The Times talked of conquest, the Telegraph of odyssey and there were liberal references to Ab Fab on Ice. Doubtless if it hadn't been too cold to persuade them to get their kit off the tabloids would have had a field day turning Spice Girls into Ice Girls.

To cap it all there was the verdict of the team's sponsors, the biscuit manufacturers McVitie's, whose Penguin logo was emblazoned down the front of the women's ski-suits. "One of the classic British sporting achievements of recent times," the firm's PR men trumpeted, though quite how firm a grasp of these things they have is unclear, since the real-life penguin confines its activities to the Antarctic and has never been seen further north than Edinburgh Zoo.

None of this is to denigrate the effort made by the women trekkers, in particular that of the two guides who were the only ones to cover the entire 635 miles, accompanying each leg of the trek for which the teams were flown in and out by fixed-wing plane. (The papers have not made much of this because Matty McNair, 45, is an American and Denise Martin, 30, is from Yukon in Canada.) But can the effort really be seen to compare - as one member of one of the repatriated legs was grandiloquently doing yesterday - with the achievements of Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to conquer Everest, or of the round-the-world yachtswoman Tracey Edwards?

The fact of the matter is that the Polar Travel Company, in of all places Yelverton in Devon, which organised the trip, routinely organises such events as adventure holidays. Usually, of course, it is the chaps who go in for such things as "Ski-dooing" and "pulking" in the frozen wastes. (A Ski-doo is a snow machine, and a pulk is the local term for a sledge).

"Recently we had a party of men pulling sledges from Resolute Bay for two weeks," says the company's Mike Ewart-Smith. "We had a group who Ski- dooed towards the northern magnetic pole for one week and then carried on to the North Pole on skis, at the end of which a plane came to pick them up. We also flew a group of men to 89 North, within 60 miles of the Pole, and they pulked the rest of the trip. It's a way of getting an Arctic experience when you only have three weeks' holiday and yet you want something pretty unique." And pretty expensive. It costs about pounds 15,000 a head ("though if you want to go to a more accessible wilderness you can do it for half that") which is why those in the all-women party number film financiers, ex-bankers and interior designers with names like Caroline, Lucy and Pom. One was even the great-niece of the Queen Mother.

The men's adventure holidays, of course, do not attract much in the way of publicity, which is why the Polar Travel Company decided to string five such hols together and turn them into a "relay" expedition. It's better publicity, admits Mr Ewart-Smith, and "very few ladies phone us". Perhaps that will change now.

Even so, polar veterans like Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both poles, remain a bit sniffy of the enterprise. "There is a trend which will see people saying: 'I was the first to do it backwards with my arms tied behind my back'," he says, deprecating what he sees as a desire to claim ever more obscure records. It is not, he says, as if this was a continuous solo attempt.

He misses the point. We are not talking here about the ever-increasing refinements in the record-breaking process: the first person up Everest, the first solo person up Everest, the first without a sherpa ... without oxygen ... and so forth. This is not about record-breaking (The Guinness Book of Records says it will refuse to admit the women on the grounds that they are a "first" rather than a "record"). It is about gender politics.

With female emancipation came a steady stream of firsts: the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, the first woman lecturer at the Sorbonne, the first woman called to the Bar, the first woman prime minister and so on. But the media, having found a formula, do not know when it has reached the end of its useful life in charting serious social shifts. So we get the first woman to stand for the committee of the Rugby Football Union, the first woman to pilot a B52 bomber and the first woman to win The Times Crossword Championship.

What characterises the reporting of such events is not the sense of indexing social change but an opportunity to sneer, according to Rebecca Abrams, author of The Playful Self: Why Women Need Play in their Lives. "It's fantastic to see women single-mindedly pursuing an activity which isn't essential," she says. "Play is an activity that puts you in the centre of your life. Women are expected to put other people's needs first. They are the providers of pleasure to others. Here they are entering on to the male playground."

The media respond to this with deep ambivalence, which is why there is a mix of the admiring and patronising in the tone of so much of what is written. "It's a form of sneering," says Rebecca Abrams. "That's why so many of the articles which have been written are about how women pee in sub-zero temperatures." (I point out that the average man might not be to keen on getting out his equipment and waving it around in air which is minus 45, but Ms Abrams studiously ignores the remark.) "There is a tendency in all this to take the piss," she continues, without evident irony.

She has a point. To underscore the gender issue, the reports make reference to facts such as that at one point a "mother of triplets" fell through the ice. It is hard to remember any references to the progeny of Ranulph Fiennes in reports of his chilly exploits.

"It's very double-edged coverage which reveals the ambivalence we still feel about women who indulge in this type of play," she says. "It raises again the questions about why we don't think that men have equal responsibilities for child care. It is true that they can't share in the carrying, bearing or breast-feeding, but after the first six months it's different. In the end it's the quality of love rather than the gender of the carer which counts. And children benefit when mothers are happy and fulfilled rather than being frustrated or depressed."

None of which is new. Similar sentiments were expressed over Alison Hargreaves, the British climber who was the first woman to conquer Everest alone, and who was killed by an avalanche while descending from the summit of K2, the world's second highest mountain. Again there were allusions to the climber's physique - a 5ft 2in woman in 6ft snowdrifts - and pointed references to the fact that she spent only two weeks with her two children - Tom, 6, and Kate, 4 - between the Everest and K2 climbs.

Her widower did not agree. "She is not some housewife who happened to wander up Everest instead of wandering into the supermarket," he said. "This is her job. It is how she makes a living. The fact that she has children is irrelevant. No one said to Reinhold Messner you shouldn't climb because you have children."

But that is exactly the subtext of this week's coverage of the polar trek. There is no doubt that it was a challenging adventure. But there is no doubt that it was little more so than the men's holidays which the Polar Travel Company routinely sets up. "It was comparable," says Mike Ewart-Smith. "There are dangers but they're manageable." So why all the coverage? Why the tabloid buy-up of the final team? And why, come to think of it, am I writing this? The answer, of course, is one which much of contemporary society still does not really want to hearn

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