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A Life Less Ordinary – Sandy Hennis

Earlier this year Major Sandy Hennis hit the headlines as one of the Ice Maidens – a group of British army soldiers who became the first all-female group to cross Antarctica on foot. She talks to THE STAND about being a positive role model, skiing in the middle of the night and the importance of teamwork.

What made you want to be a part of the Ice Maidens expedition?
I had been doing my civilian job, taking school kids on month-long expeditions and doing project work when I noticed a lack of confidence when it came to physical endeavours, especially among the girls. I wanted to be a positive female role model – showing our younger generation that you don’t have to fit societal norms and that you can achieve whatever you want. Then an advert for the expedition landed in my inbox and I thought, ‘yeah that’s it’.

How did you prepare for Antarctica?
Our first expedition was to Norway, where we worked with the marines. They took us through their cold-weather survival course, so we had to dig holes in the snow and live in snow caves. We also had to learn how to survive in winds and freezing temperatures and we skied through the night to get used to that lack of vision. Then there were the ice-breaking drills, which involved cutting a hole in a frozen lake and then skiing into the water. You can’t get straight out either – you must show that you’re calm and in control before they allow you to crawl out of the water just as you’re about to hit hypothermia!

We also worked with some very capable Norwegian skiers who taught us how to ski and live in the cold, rather than simply survive it. As we were all living in different parts of the UK we trained a lot on our own and so we would meet once a month at the weekend. Included in our regime were endurance events like 24-hour tyre-pulling sessions, to push us to keep going even though our bodies were shattered.

Ice Maiden

Sandy and team pulling equipment across Antarctica.

How did you develop team dynamics during the training?
We had a WhatsApp group, so we could constantly stay in touch and tell each other things like ‘it’s Grandad’s birthday’ or ‘my sister’s giving birth’. That makes you feel like you are part of a family.

In business you can hide behind emails, but it’s essential to have that face-to-face contact

What were the toughest challenges during the expedition?
One of the biggest challenges we faced came right at the start of the expedition. We got stuck at the base camp for 15 days because of bad weather and all became quite irritable – it could have built up into something huge. We got through it by having team meetings and embracing conflict by talking to each other. It’s so easy to mishear someone in the wind, for example. As women we can overthink things, so when you’re skiing for 10 hours a day you can build things up. Being honest meant we could deal with issues there and then and move forward.

And what were the biggest highlights?
Getting to the South Pole was obviously the big one. I’d become quite ill just after the first week and at one point didn’t think I was going to make it, so it was a massive high to get there. It’s the only landmark in Antarctica so there was a huge sense of achievement.

More women leading the way:

Clare Smyth, chef-owner of Core in London.

Olympic gold medalist, Kate Richardson-Walsh.

Kathryn Parsons, co-founder and co-CEO of Decoded.

What leadership lessons did you learn during your career in the army?
It’s important to know your team and know them well. A team will work for an individual to a level but unless there’s a real bond and you understand them, you won’t get the most out of them. As a leader, your job is to build those relationships, set the conditions and build that trust.

Drawing on the Ice Maidens experience, what other lesson did you learn that anyone in business can relate to?
The value of talking. Although we were all there together, we couldn’t communicate well during the day because of the wind and having to wear face masks. So we had a team meeting every evening. In business you can hide behind emails, but it’s still essential to have that face-to-face contact. Everyone is busy but if you want the team to do well it’s very important to build that bond. We all said that one of the best things about the expedition was the teamwork and sense of belonging.

And finally, is there another adventure on the horizon?
Myself and Sophie, who was also on the expedition, are taking our boyfriends out to France to climb Mont Blanc this summer. And I’ve signed up for a triathlon in September in Anglesey, which I’ve never done before. I’m not a great swimmer and it includes a sea swim so that’s my big challenge.

Behiye Hassan is a journalist specialising in entrepreneurs, travel and trends in the workplace.