While training for an expedition to the North Pole,
former NOLS instructor and explorer Annie Aggens had
each of her team members jump through a hole cut into
a frozen lake, climb out, and change into dry clothing
before hypothermia set in. The drill, which mimicked
the real risk of falling into an open lead (a hole
in the ice) while on the expedition, was designed
to see if they were ready for life in the arctic extremes.
In the end, only two of the people vying for a spot
on the expedition were prepared for the real thing.
They joined Aggens, another leader and a team of Italians
in April, 2000 for a 14-day trek to the North Pole.
The group flew from Siberia to Camp Borneo Research
Station at 89 degrees North. From there, they skied
the final 60 nautical miles to the pole. Considering
the drift of the ice pack, detours around open leads
(which she likened to river crossings in Wyoming’s
Wind River Mountains), and roundabouts around pressure
ridges, the route was closer to 100 nautical miles.
Aggens, who describes the route as “incredible,
beautiful, ever-changing, windy and cold,” was
in charge of keeping the group going in temperatures
that hovered around minus 40 degrees F. Frostbite,
she says, was an ever-present danger. “The environment
provided many new challenges with little room for
error,” says Aggens. “One has to adapt
Navigation was another constant challenge. Pack
ice drift often moved the expedition 4-5 miles overnight,
so Aggens experimented with a sextant and celestial
navigation along with the teams’ Global Positioning
System (GPS). It was an ordeal, says Aggens, that
gave her a feeling for what some of the first explorers
to the North Pole encountered. Aggens and her team
reached the pole, unfrozen and unfettered, in 14 days.
For Aggens, who credits NOLS with giving her the
confidence to lead in such extreme conditions, pushing
herself to the edge of extreme limits is a way of
life. Most of her expeditions are focused on her love
for traveling unfrozen waterways in a canoe. Some
of her most noteworthy expeditions include a 40-day,
550-mile trip down Canada’s Kazan River to the
geographic center of Canada, a 45-day, 550-mile expedition
on the Elk River in Canada, and a journey of 400 miles
down the Thelon River, also in Canada. Most recently,
Aggens followed a whim and decided to paddle the Mississippi
River, from Chicago to New Orleans. The 1,500-mile
trip took two months, and although not as remote as
the North Pole, Aggens and her partner braved icy
winter storms and the obstacles of modern-day rivers,
including dams, barges, locks and ocean-going vessels.
Rather than arctic villages, the duo passed places
like St. Louis, where they found front country travel
to have some benefits. “People were very friendly,”
says Aggens. “We were invited for some of the
best barbecue ever in Lousiana!”
When asked why she explores, Aggens says she believes
people learn more about themselves through adventurous
expeditions. She is currently co-authoring the book
“Outdoor and Wilderness Skills,” an a-to-z
encyclopedia to living in the wilderness.
Aggens says that, while at NOLS, she discovered
that being a leader on an expedition is probably the
most rewarding experience of all. “Teaching
and leading help me remember the sense of discovery.
You can have it over and over again. Teaching extends