78 Degrees North: What I Learned from Organizing an Expedition

5 women, 3 weeks, 1 mission—and 5 helpful tips to help you plan an adventure of your own

I watched the dense clouds part as the fourth flight I had taken in less than a week descended toward the island. After months of planning, our group of five women was about to finishing loading gear onto the Knut, a 50-foot sailboat off the coast of Svalbard, Norway, and embark into the unknown. Some of us knew each other and others had never met, yet we had planned and committed to a lofty ski and sail expedition in a part of the world where none of us had ever set foot.

We traveled through the unexplored wilderness of Svalbard, home to the largest polar bear population on the planet, documenting the effect of climate change in the region through film and personal storytelling.

After three weeks in a confined space together, where weather, water, and snow conditions dictated our course, we returned to Longyearbyen. A little awed and delirious—but also a little wiser, it was one of the first expeditions I helped organize.

These were my biggest takeaways from planning my first all-female expedition.

1. Commit to Your Objective

It can be easy to fall into the mental trap of doubt: I’m not good enough, I don’t have the skills to do this, what if I fail? Obviously, you want to enter a physical endeavor or expedition with the hard skills and fitness to be safe, but before we embark on any significant moment in our lives there is a typically a moment when we question ourselves.

Personally, I was nervous about how I would handle living on a sailboat for weeks when I’d barely set foot on one before. The risk of aggressive wildlife—more polar bears call this area home than anywhere in the world—was also high on my list of worries. Yet, behind every notion of fear, I knew we had the core skills to survive and that our team was prepped to handle anything thrown at us.

We set the course, bought the gear, chartered the boat, made a plan and flew to Norway. The first step was committing.

2. Pick Team Members Who Contribute in Different Ways

When we traveled to Svalbard, which is one of the northernmost masses of land in the world, our team brought a variety of skills to the table. From our guide, Jessica Baker—who pored over maps and beta to select the best routes and terrain to ski while we were there—to our Creative Director, Nayla Tawa—who outlined storylines, shot video and continuously gathered film content from our trip—we were a well-rounded team that could accomplish many different things together. We also had videographer Meredith Richardson, who not only provided much needed comic relief, but brought in a drone to capture shots of the mind-blowing terrain we experienced. Add in Hadley Hammer for industry advice, a plethora of mountain experience and aesthetic, powerful skiing, and you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Each member held a wide range of skills that contributed to the goal at hand: skiing and sailing in the Arctic and producing a film. That meant that while Jessica was focusing on safety and logistics, she knew Hadley and I had the technical glacier experience to back her up if something happened on the ice. Just like Nayla and Meredith had the knowledge and creativity to capture footage on a rope and pull together a storyline from each mission we embarked on. We all worked together as a cohesive unit while supporting each other with our own arsenal of skills.

3. Set Expectations Early

If one team member imagines a luxury cruise while the rest of the team is expecting less than comfortable conditions, there will be a rude awakening. Clearly outline goals, expectations and aspirations to each potential team member before they commit. Conflict can arise from two group members with different core objectives, so before you even go down that road, let everyone know what to expect.

This also applies to group roles—whether it be the leader, who oversees food and group nutrition, who will run lead on medical and who’s in charge of gathering specific gear.

For Svalbard, Jessica made an in-depth and detailed gear list for all of us, setting up expectations for the types of conditions we would be traveling in. So on the first day when our “easy ascent” turned into skinning and then booting up a 50-degree icy face, we had the chance to problem solve as a team and get everyone up and down safely, with the correct equipment. Although there were many days when we ended up in situations we didn’t anticipate (like sailing for 10 hours straight to avoid a squall at the last minute), we all knew this was part of the adventure we signed up for and tackled each challenge together.

4. Prioritize Communication

No expedition is without conflict. Maybe you’re annoyed because the kitchen is right next to your bunk and there are people in your sleeping space 20 hours of the day. Or perhaps, having a three-hour turnaround time from objective choice to launch irks you. Regardless, having a team that can communicate effectively by addressing friction without assigning blame is not only good for morale but also helps ensure success and safety.

After the first week on the boat, it was easy to see that all of our nerves were frayed. Post-ski one day, I was visibly upset, so we called a pow-wow on the beach to air our grievances. For an hour, we spoke candidly about what was bothering us and how to fix the problem. Coming into the discussion without ego and to genuinely problem solve, gave us all the opportunity to do just that. We returned to the boat with our conflicts resolved and worked better together as a team from that point on.

5. Have a Sense of Humor—Because Things Will Go Wrong

The anchor will give out after the first time you moor, or suddenly you’ll be trapped on a ridge with what looks like a polar bear in between your group and the boat. Things go wrong, gear breaks and sometimes you need to improvise. Take each situation seriously but also with a good sense of humor. You’re in a place where you most likely have limited control over everything around you. Relish it and laugh at the situations that turn up unexpectedly. (Case and point: When we lost our drone on its first flight and discovered it on top of a scree pile two days later.)


Expedition planning can feel overwhelming, yet, had I let that feeling hold me back, I would have missed out on one of the most impactful trips of my life. For us, learning to sail in a remote environment while dodging ice and seeking new terrain to ski and ride together in the Arctic opened up a door of new possibilities. It was worth every moment of planning and effort it took to get our trip off the ground.

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