Question: What secret did the first woman to cross the Antarctic Circle keep?
Answer: That she was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle.
To go to the literal ends of the earth is a big commitment. There was a time when only the hardiest—and most foolish—explorers would risk a trip to even the edges of Antarctica, let alone cross the Antarctic Circle (66.33 degrees south of the equator). Even today, it requires long travel and expert guides to experience this white wilderness 3,500 miles from the nearest land. Not surprisingly, history takes note of each milestone recorded here, with explorers still vying for new bragging rights.
Caroline Mikkelsen certainly didn’t set out to make history. In 1935, at 29, she and her husband Klarius set sail by whaling vessel on an expedition to claim Antarctic land for Norway. A handful of women had been aboard previous vessels that had passed close enough for them to lay eyes on the continent (see below) but none had landed. The Mikkelsons went ashore at what is now known to be one of the Tyrene Islands, less than two degrees inside the Antarctic Circle, making Caroline the first woman ever to do so. (It would be another two years before a woman stepped on the Antarctic mainland.)
The Norwegian crew first made a cairn to mark their arrival. Into the stones, they set a wooden mast from which they could hang the Norwegian flag. No one knows how it was decided who got to do the honors, but the men stood back as Caroline hoisted the colors, her beaming smile a stark contrast to the long dark cloak she wore to ward off the cold. Amazingly, she kept quiet about her triumph for decades, not mentioning it publicly for 60 years, when she revealed the feat to a reporter, only because he asked. Researchers soon after confirmed the story when they found the cairn and, today, the highest summit in the region is named Mount Caroline Mikkelson in her honor.
14 Fearless Women of the Antarctic
- Louise Seguin sailed within sight of the northernmost reaches of Antarctica, just outside the Antarctic Circle, in 1773.
- Botanist Jeanne Baret got a few degrees closer in 1830 on her circumnavigation of the globe, most of which she completed disguised as a man.
- In the 1930s, Ingrid Christensen became the first to cross the circle and enter Antarctica, as well as the first to fly over the continent and to set foot on the mainland, and as half of the first mother-daughter pair in the region.
- Jackie Ronne became the first female expedition member to explore Antarctica in 1947 and the next year, with friend Jennie Darlington, the first to overwinter there.
- The Soviet Union’s Maria Klenova became the first woman scientist appointed to an Antarctic post in 1956 and she went on to create a regional atlas.
- In 1969, the first women in history to reach the South Pole, a group of five scientists and a reporter, stepped onto the ice all at the same time, arms locked, as a show of unity.
- The first woman-led expedition was a 1971 survey of frozen lakes by New Zealand scientist Ann Chapman.
- Michelle Eileen Raney became the first female year-round physician on Antarctica (and to overwinter at the South Pole) in 1979.
- American Lisa Densmore summited Antarctica’s highest peak, Mount Vinson, in 1988, the first woman to do so.
- In 1989, Australia’s Diana Patterson became the first female station leader at an Antarctic base.
- American author and explorer Ann Bancroft led the first all-woman South Pole expedition overland, and became the first woman to reach both poles, in 1993.
- In 2001, Germany’s Sarah Ames ran a marathon on the mainland, becoming the first to complete a marathon on all seven continents.
- Brit Felicity Ashton became the first woman to cross the continent solo and under her own power (skiing the whole way) in 2007.
- In 2016, Homeward Bound launched the first all-woman initiative to train STEM leaders by way of Antarctic expedition, and has since led 95 female change-makers to the continent.
Be among the few laypeople to go inside the Antarctic Circle on our New! Antarctic Circle Expedition: Journey through Antarctica Small Ship Adventure.