Kate Powell meets up with polar explorer Sunniva Sorby of Polar Latitudes for an exclusive insight into the challenges, rewards and hidden secrets of the enigmatic South Pole.
Sunniva Sorby is the physical incarnation of the adventurous spirit. Born in Norway, growing up in Canada and raised seeing the world as completely accessible, she made history as a member of the first women’s team ever to reach the South Pole on foot and has been sharing her love of this privileged experience ever since.
Today, she teaches history and leads Zodiac tours on board expeditions to Antarctica with Polar Latitudes, whose Italian-built boutique passenger ships offer world-class cuisine, spacious upscale suites offering views of the natural surrounds and cutting-edge technology that enables smooth sailing even in the untamed wilderness of the Antarctic region.
Destined for discovery
Meeting Sunniva, I understand the unique appeal of these expeditions. Her enthusiasm and genuine love of the Antarctic region is contagious, and the sheer energy she radiates is so hard to resist almost immediately upon shaking hands. Today, Sunniva has travelled to Antarctica almost 100 times, although not always in the comfort provided by luxury passenger ships. Considering having spent most of a lifetime travelling, I am surprised to learn that she once worked a desk-job for a shipping bank.
“I quit a job in Norway as a computer programmer; if that doesn’t sound boring, I don’t know what is,” she laughs. “I left and I went to Canada, and picked up a brochure for a four-month outdoor leadership course because I wanted to learn to be self-sufficient in the outdoors.”
Although it seems a spontaneous decision, Sunniva’s love of the natural world has been a part of her life since early childhood. At 10 years old, she wrote a letter to NASA expressing her desire to go to the moon; it is no surprise, then, that she went on to make history exploring the most untouched wilderness to be found on our home planet instead.
Breaking the ice ceiling
In her twenties, Sunniva was invited to join the first team of women that would ski across Antarctica to reach the South Pole. Before this, no woman had ever achieved this; no woman had ever even been part of a team that tried.
“The world couldn’t understand why would we want to – or that we would even be successful – because really, only men had done this,” she tells me. “And it did break me: emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
The expedition required each member of the team to pull a 100-kilogram sled behind them for a gruelling 1500-kilometre journey through the coldest, driest and most barren terrain on earth, and Sunniva to this day attests that it was perhaps the greatest challenge of her life. But on 14 January 1993, the women prevailed.
“It was minus-76 degrees Celsius, and we were standing at 3000-plus metres at the South Pole; at the place where the Earth squeaks on its axis,” she tells me. “It was incredible.”
I am thrilled to learn that today, Polar Latitudes proudly carries the torch for women in exploration and science. It is the only Antarctic operator for the Homeward Bound leadership, strategy and science initiative for women, which serves to increase women’s participation in the science and policy decisions that affect our planet’s future.
Luxury in extremity
Antarctica is an exclusive destination few have been lucky enough to visit. As Sunniva explains to me, it is the only place on Earth where nature still truly reigns supreme. On expeditions, she drives Zodiac tours through the complex ice mazes composed of colossal glaciers, giving rare opportunities to see the elusive native life and natural landscapes of the Antarctic region.
Island Sky hosts just 114 passengers in all-suite accommodation, including a queen-sized bed, flatscreen TV, independent temperature control and mini-bar. The ships also feature live entertainment, bars, a voyage photographer and a comprehensive library equipped with lounges, computers and Wi-Fi, offering a unique calibre of comfort in this otherwise unforgiving climate.
However, Sunniva explains to me that even just to sit in quiet stillness is a simple luxury that people sometimes need to be dragged to the edge of the Earth in order to appreciate.
“Sometimes, I’ll turn the engine off, and I’ll ask people to take just one minute – which actually feels long sometimes – to use no cameras, try not to move and just feel the place. Let it take you for a minute. And I have many people tell me that it’s the highlight of their trip because it’s a sort of silence and peace that, unless we’re given permission to take it, we don’t.”
Lose yourself to find yourself
Any true traveller knows that luxury is more than simply cost or comfort. The time and freedom to search for something more, to chase adventure simply because it’s there, and even to challenge yourself to evolve: these are the more rewarding luxuries afforded by this short life that Sunniva values.
“We have a range of guests – they’re always well-travelled, well-educated, they want service and professionalism – but they also want to achieve that unrequited dream within. We all have that little thing that’s in there that we haven’t finished, haven’t explored,” she confides.
Hidden within life’s greatest challenges are also the greatest opportunities to grow, and Sunniva understands the appeal of Antarctica for this very personal aspiration.
“It’s transformational because Antarctica is a place that reflects our greatness,” she tells me. “It reflects power in the ice and the snow and the history and all the things that live down there. It reflects our tenacity and our human spirit. It’s the only place in the world where we go that we can’t take anything; we just experience it.”
Polar Latitudes distinguishes itself with some of the best guides, naturalists and expedition leaders in the industry aboard its boutique passenger vessels. A range of itineraries allows for various time requirements and experiences between November and March.
All images © polar-latitudes.com