It attracted more applicants than any recent Army challenge. 200 servicewomen signed up, eager to be selected for the journey of a lifetime.
The British Army was auditioning them to see if they have what it takes to attempt a crossing of the Antarctic Land Mass unaided - and to be part of a research project into female endurance in extreme conditions. The information gathered will shape decision making on allowing women to take on frontline combat roles.
Fifty made the shortlist and onto the selection weekend in Snowdonia (minus the white stuff). Not only did they have to prove they could get to grips with the aims of the South Pole expedition - they had to cope with long days of activity, team-work and er, socialising. Because there’ll be a lot of that, in one of the most remote spots on earth...
Applications were invited from all women serving in the British Army, regular or reserve. While the selection tests were physical, current fitness levels weren’t the only arbiter. The right attitude towards and availability for the endeavour will be crucial over the next two years. Thirty candidates were eliminated. The remaining twenty – twelve drawn from the ranks and eight officers – proceed to the next stage of build-up and whittling-down:
March 2016 - Exercise ICE BAMBI (and no, we don't know who names these things) involves ten days’ training with the Norwegian Army’s winter skills specialists, learning ski touring and basic survival. The expedition ends here for eight of them, twelve will go forward.
November 2016 - Exercise ICE READY will improve the women’s skiing abilities and teach them to pull pulks (toboggans loaded with their gear). In the harsh winter conditions, the team will be refined to the chosen 6 – 8 members.
Exercise ICE DIAMOND - the final work-up phase - a fortnight in a remote Norwegian location, getting the group ready for the southern hemisphere.
The venture won’t be publicly-funded. The MoD expects corporations will be queuing up to offer sponsorship to the initiative "showcasing the pioneering qualities of modern servicewomen".
There’s no denying it’ll be the challenge of the soldiers' and officers' careers. The experience will look great on their CVs too, and is sure to teach them a lot about themselves, and their sisters-with-sledges. But as the final gutsy few trudge 1700km in temperatures down to minus 80 degrees Centigrade and winds gusting 60mph, they’ll also be guinea pigs - subjects of medical and psychological research on their sex's ability to cope in the most severe environment - which could influence how the Army deploys females in the future.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the expedition’s leaders are two Army doctors: Captain Nicola Wetherill and Major Natalie Taylor.
Nics Wetherill is an endurance athlete who holds army colours for nordic skiing. Her diploma in mountain medicine has meant she’s been a handy addition to trips including a climb of Kilimanjaro.
Nat Taylor also has an extensive nordic skiing background, having represented Army Medical Services. She’s a renowned endurance adventure racer, and serves as the Regimental Medical Officer with the First Battalion the Rifles.
Exercise ICE MAIDEN will eventually see the team flying to Chile in October 2017. Their route across the Antarctic Land Mass will be from the Leverett Glacier to the South Pole, to Hercules Inlet.
You can follow the ice maidens’ progress on Forces TV, and their 'leading ladies' have already started documenting their journey online.
Mt Herschel Picture Credit: Andrew Mandemaker