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Norwegian, American set out to be first women to ski alone across top of the world

MOSCOW—One grew up in Minnesota, the other in Norway, but as young girls they thrilled to Jack London's adventure stories and breathtaking accounts of the great polar explorers.

Starting Monday, as polar explorers in their own right, they'll try to become the first women in history to ski across the top of the world—two women pulling two sleds across 1,000 miles of frozen ocean. No dogs, no men and one .44 Magnum revolver.

Ann Bancroft, 49, from Scandia, Minn., and Liv Arnesen, 51, from Oslo, left Moscow by plane Thursday evening, bound for their official starting point at Cape Arktichevsky in Russia's Far East.

Their plan is to reach the North Pole in about six weeks. They'll get an airdrop of food at the pole, then take another two months or so to cross the rest of the frozen Arctic Ocean. They hope to finish by June 1 at Ward Hunt Island in Canada.

They'll walk and ski, mostly. They'll also harness themselves behind big kites—like sailboat spinnakers—that will catch the Arctic wind and carry them along.

And if they come across patches of thawed ocean, well, they might even try to swim a little, using high-tech "dry suits."

But if spring should come early to the Arctic and the ocean is open, Bancroft said, "We'll back off. ... This is not an ego thing."

The women will use a small computer and satellite phone to send daily feeds to their expedition Web site (www.BancroftArnesenExplore.com). Their sponsors include the Girl Scouts, and organizers expect 20 million schoolchildren to follow the trek online.

"We want to use our stories to ignite people to their own journeys," said Bancroft, a former gym teacher and coach who also worked with special-needs students in St. Paul and Minneapolis. "It's a privilege to travel to these places, to the poles, and it's a privilege to be able to speak to so many young girls."

"Our main motivation is to share our stories with girls and women, actually with anyone who wants to stretch and learn and grow," said Arnesen, a former high school history teacher and cross-country ski racer. In 1994 she became the first woman to ski solo and unsupported to the South Pole. That trip—50 days—covered 745 miles.

It's that kind of focus that will make her a good partner to Bancroft as they face thinning Arctic ice, snow-blown whiteouts, temperatures of 75 below and perhaps the occasional ravenous polar bear. (That explains the Smith & Wesson.)

Bancroft and Arnesen have teamed up before. Four years ago they skied and sailed across Antarctica. That trip, which included a breather at the South Pole, took 94 days and covered 1,717 miles.

Bancroft has been to the North Pole before, although that was nearly 20 years ago. As the only female member of the Steger expedition in 1986, she became the first woman to cross the ice to the pole.

The next three months promise to be arduous. The pair will live largely on fruits and nuts. They will bathe with baby-oil towelettes.

Already, one can sense that Bancroft is preparing for the ice. She smiles and is friendly. But she acknowledges she's kept her emotional distance since her friends and family gave her a send-off party two weeks ago in St. Paul. She's sure they understand.

"They've come to learn that the expedition begins before the ice," Bancroft said during a private chat at the Norwegian embassy in Moscow. "It's actually better for my focus not to stay in touch. It's better to mentally leave as you physically go."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ARCTICTREK

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