In Her Element Two women break boundaries
in the most isolated corner of the world
In the picture, Anna Pfaff is standing in front of a bright red shipping container. The container and the cold weather gear that covers every inch of her skin are the only colors set against a stark white landscape. The setting is Antarctica, one of the most brutal and remote places left on Earth.
Savannah Cummins took the picture—one of her personal favorites—right after the two women landed at the Novolazarevskaya base in Queen Maud Land, a desolate region of the continent claimed by Norway. They were exhilarated. It was finally hitting them that they were in Antartica, about to spend two weeks of December 2017 in one of the most isolated and forbidding environments in the world, tasked with climbing a set of mountains that only a handful of people had seen in person, let alone summited. The two women were part of an expedition, supported by The North Face, that included four other climbers with decades of mountaineering experience, all of whom were united by their desire to chart the unknown.
It was a new chapter in the history of exploratory ventures in Antarctica that one of their team members, Conrad Anker, had helped inspire. The veteran climber completed his first Antarctica expedition in 1997. That same year, he appeared on the cover of National Geographic, in a photo that showed him looking out over Queen Maud Land, where Pfaff and Cummins now stood 20 years later.
Novolazarevskaya base queen maud land, antarctica avg. temp. during trip -22.5ºF
The two women would be part of a team that was carrying on a tradition born out of a deeply human instinct to explore, and Antarctica—the only landmass that, as far as we know, never had an indigenous population—remains one of the most uncharted and untamed places on Earth. But their presence on this expedition, the goal of which was to take on the entire Drygalski mountain range, signalled a shift in the evolving world of exploration. After all, a woman in Antarctica had never been on the cover of National Geographic; the world’s “greatest explorers,” or the ones who got the most attention, had historically been men. Cummins and Pfaff were ready to show the world, and particularly young women, that that pattern was changing.
Cummins and Pfaff were reminded of what it was they were trying to change when they first touched down in Antarctica, before joining their team members on the small plane that would take them to the Drygalski mountain range, in that bright red shipping container on the Novo base. After the camera shutter clicked and they went inside, it quickly became clear that the container’s manufacturers hadn’t considered that women would ever be there—and need to use the restroom.
That’s when they realized they were the only women at the Novo base, they’d be the only women on the expedition, and that the female climbing duo they comprised was rare—especially in Antarctica, where American women were federally prohibited from working until 1969.
“We realized, ‘We are in a man’s world down here,’” Cummins says. “It was eye-opening.”
But after Cummins and Pfaff left the Novo base for the Drygalski mountains, after the plane that dropped them off was out of earshot, they both felt strangely liberated: Out there, they were in a world so isolated that it wasn’t anyone’s world at all. So why couldn’t it be theirs?
The first thing Cummins noticed was the quiet. It was a dead silence, the kind created by relentless, numbing cold and endless banks of untouched snow. “There was nothing to be heard,” she says. When the team of six landed at the Drygalski mountains, she says she might as well have opened her eyes on the moon.
“It’s almost like being on a different planet,” Pfaff adds. “I was amazed by the serenity of it all…. There's no noise; there's just the wind blowing in your hair, hitting your skin. It almost has this smell of purity.”
Drygalski Mountains – Climbs
Queen Maud Land, AntarcticaDec. 1, 2017 – Dec. 17, 2017
The Eastern Peaks
- Holtanna 2650 MSavannah, Anna, Alex, and Cedar summit
- Mundlaga 2455 MSavannah and Anna attempt to summit
The Western Peaks
- "The Penguin" 91 MSavannah, Anna, Alex, and Cedar summit
- "The Tastebud" height unknownSavannah and Anna climb
- "The Chimney" height unknownSavannah and Anna climb
- Philiptana 2200 MSavannah, Anna, and Pablo summit
- Odin height unknownSavannah and Anna attempt to summit
The six major peaks that form the Drygalski mountain range are roughly arranged in the shape of a wolf’s open bite, which is how that formation received its other name: the Wolf’s Jaw. Those peaks protrude straight up to heights of nearly 10,000 feet in almost-comical contrast to their flat, white surroundings. And the team, splitting up into pairs and trios, was going to summit all of them.
“They looked improbable,” Cummins says. “Looking at these peaks, even from the plane, I was like, ‘How are we going to climb these?’” But as Pfaff looked out at the windswept, lifeless scene in front of her, she sensed potential. “It’s so quiet, you can almost hear the earth vibrating. You can just sense that there’s something going on.”
It wasn’t just the silence that was unsettling: It was paired with similarly relentless sunlight. Antarctica’s position on the planet means that at certain times of the year, the sun never sets, which actually presented a hazard to the climbers. Our internal clocks take cues from the rhythm of natural light, meaning the team might have had trouble knowing when to stop and rest. “We had to be really careful to watch the time,” Pfaff says. “When it doesn’t get dark, you can easily not get tired.”
Despite that sunlight, the unearthly cold—the average temperature in Queen Maud Land is minus-44 degrees Fahrenheit—was probably the focal antagonist of the expedition. But part of what kept Cummins and Pfaff warm was knowing what their presence proved. “I hope that the experience is eye-opening to younger generations [of women] to show them that we can survive in the cold just like the dudes can,” Cummins laughs.
The other climbers on the expedition—Anker, Jimmy Chin, Cedar Wright, and Alex Honnold—were mostly weathered alpinists with decades of climbing under their belts (Anker had already been to Antarctica 11 times). Cummins, 25, and Pfaff, 36, in some ways represented the next generation of alpinists. The team often split up to tackle different climbs, and Cummins and Pfaff, who had just completed an expedition in India together, worked together for much of the trip.
But all six became a temporary nuclear family, rotating domestic duties like cooking and melting water based solely on who returned to their base camp at what times. “The dome,” a larger, communal tent that served as the common area for the team, became the hearth that brought everyone together at the end of each day before they dispersed to smaller sleeping tents. “We all switched off playing the roles of looking out for and taking care of each other and being supportive of what everyone wanted to climb,” Cummins says. “It all happened naturally, and that was the beautiful part of the expedition: We all sought out what was inspiring for us and then made it happen.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW
Cummins and Pfaff agreed that out in Queen Maud Land, perhaps because they were so far removed from the rest of society, there was no point to dwelling on gender divisions. And in such an extreme environment, it would’ve been a waste of time and energy. Every member of the team was a valuable node of support in such an alien and unforgiving landscape. “That was the beautiful thing with The North Face team,” Pfaff says. “Man, woman, male, female—everybody was just supportive as human beings. That’s the athletes that we are.”
Part of what inspired Cummins and Pfaff was their working relationship, which helped them both feel safe even as they risked frostbite and hypothermia and climbed up and down practically sheer cliff faces, all while knowing that the comforts and safety nets provided by civilization were far out of sight and reach. “Climbing and making it to the summits was important, but so was growing the partnership between Savannah and me,” Pfaff says. “She’s someone that I hope I’ll be partners with [in the future].”
Cummins and Pfaff know the tightrope-walk feeling of being a girl in a boys’ club. Though nailing down a quantitative breakdown of the gender gap in alpinism is tricky, it’s telling that in the 100-plus-year history of the American Alpine Club, only seven women have been inducted into its Hall of Mountaineering Excellence.
Especially in the early days of the Drygalski expedition, both women were hesitant to voice their concerns too loudly to the other climbers—partly because the others were so experienced, but also because women in male spheres know very well that everything they do runs the risk of being extrapolated and attributed to their entire gender.
But a safe and empathetic space developed between the two women, one that was founded on an unspoken, mutual understanding. When Pfaff felt cold, or tired, or intimidated by a climb, “I may not want to say that, because I need to be a strong woman. I’m not going to complain,” she says. “Whereas with Savannah, I can be like, ‘I’m really cold.’ And she’ll say, ‘Yeah, me too.’ But it’s not going to make us stop.”
As the women grew more comfortable with the rest of the team, it did become increasingly clear that all the athletes were motivated by the same thing: exploring the vast emptiness of Queen Maud Land and summiting those peaks that looked designed to keep them down. They inspired and were inspired by each other in multiple ways: Cummins, for example, had followed Jimmy Chin’s work as a photographer for a long time. But on one team climb of 9,600-foot-tall Ulvetanna, she was the one behind the lens: “I got to go ahead of them and shoot photos of them on their way up. Jimmy has been somebody that I have looked up to for forever,” she says. “He’s an incredible climber, photographer, and role model. Having Jimmy on the other side of the lens was really cool, as was getting to see all the hard work that they had put into their climb.”
But there were countless other, less dramatic moments that proved how the particular bond between Cummins and Pfaff—how they learned to support each other’s weight—literally elevated them both. One climb on a peak they dubbed “The Chimney” was meant to be a quick excursion for the pair, but they found themselves struggling to progress further up the peak as they moved out of the sun. “My hands were completely frozen. I’m digging around in snow and ice, and I can’t get any gear in,” Cummins remembers. “Anna tries it, and she comes down: ‘It’s too cold, I can’t do it.’ So we sit in the sun for a little bit and contemplate what we’re going to do. Then Anna was like, ‘I’m trying again,’ and she got us to the top.”
As an expedition comes to a close, Pfaff usually struggles with knowing that the clarity that comes with having concrete, daily, physical goals is about to end. “You can really focus and everything is really clear,” she says. “Then you get back into regular life, where you’re like, ‘Oh God, bills, car payments, this stack of mail I don’t even want to look at.’ You want to go back out to the mountains.”
It’s sad, too, for her to prepare herself for the dissolution of the nuclear family of six that had now bonded over a singular experience. “You’ve established these beautiful relationships, because you truly are the only ones who’ve experienced what we experienced,” she says. “You can try and tell the story to everybody, but nobody really knows what happened unless they were there.”
Even so, she knows that there is symbolic significance, even for people who weren’t on that trip, to what she and Cummins did at the Wolf’s Jaw. “The older I get, I’m realizing that I am this inspiration or role model,” Pfaff says. “I think for younger women, seeing [other women] is really important, and that’s where the change in society is going to come from. Young women have to see that it is possible to do what they want to do.”
In the final days of the two weeks the team spent at the Wolf’s Jaw, everyone was proud of what they had accomplished, and of the physical strides they had taken. And Cummins, who also had served as the trip photographer, was pleased with the work she’d done. “When I go somewhere that’s been photographed a lot, I have to try really hard to be creative, to not re-create images that have already been done,” she says. “In Antarctica, I felt like I could shoot however I wanted to; I could do whatever I wanted and make it my way.”
She became a better climber, too, and a bolder one. In fact, she’s the one taking the lead now, mentoring a 14-year-old girl new to the world of climbing in Salt Lake City. “She’d never done anything like it before,” Cummins says. “She was like, ‘I think smaller people like being up high. I love being up here.’ She kept saying that over and over again, and I was like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to keep climbing with you.’”