In the whirling noise of our technological age, we are seemingly never alone, never away from the barrage of electronic data and information. But Felicity Aston, physicist and meteorologist, took two months off from all human contact as she became the first woman—and only the third person in history—to ski across the entire continent of Antarctica alone. She did it, too, with the simple apparatus of cross-country, without the aids used by her predecessors, Norwegian men who employed either parasails or kites.
Aston’s journey required extremes of mental and physical bravery as she faced the risks of unseen cracks buried in the snow so large they might engulf her, and hypothermia due to brutalizing weather. She had to deal, too, with her emotional vulnerability in face of the constant bombardment of hallucinations brought on by the vast sea of whiteness, the lack of stimulation to her senses as she faced what is tantamount to a form of solitary confinement.
This is the inspirational saga of one woman’s battle through fear and loneliness as she honestly confronts both the physical challenges of her adventure and her own human vulnerabilities.
“Brings to life the terror, the wonder, and the craziness of her two-month ordeal.” —National Geographic
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The first time I saw Antarctica was from a ship. I was twenty-three and on my way to Rothera Research Station, a British Antarctic Survey base on the Antarctic Peninsula, which would be my place of work and my home for the next two and a half years. The voyage from the Falkland Islands took a fortnight, sailing alongside some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. The Peninsula seemed to be one continuous line of sharp peaks, their tips barely visible above the swathes of snow and ice that smothered them, while at their feet the ocean was glutinous with the cold and as black as liquorice.
It was a purely geologic landscape; no trees or buildings to give any sense of scale. It was only when Rothera came into view, a tiny cluster of green rectangles clinging to an area of exposed rock on the coastline, that the true enormity of the terrain revealed itself. It became clear that the peaks of the Peninsula that had looked close enough to touch were actually colossal titans tens of kilometres away and what had appeared to be delicate webs of snow crisscrossing the rock faces were in fact immense tracts of ice clinging to the mountainsides in motionless cascades.
From its rocky perch, Rothera looked out across a bay rimmed with mountains where chaotic icefalls filled the spaces between the peaks and covered the ground to the shore. The confusion of fractured ice looked almost frothy, so that the mountains took on the appearance of courtiers wearing fussy cravats and frills of lace.
Over the next twenty-eight months I spent a lot of time gazing out from the station at the profile of those mountains and it became as familiar to me as my garden at home. When the weather was relatively warm I'd sit on the veranda outside the base chatting to friends and colleagues as the midnight sun lit the crest of the mountains. Then, as the days darkened into winter and Rothera emptied, I'd often watch through the ice-rimmed window of my office as the sky turned vibrant shades of pink, orange and indigo, staining the snow-covered slopes.
The bay that had been a dark slash of ice-speckled sea when I'd arrived gradually froze until the scenery was one unbroken landscape of white. As the temperatures got colder, tiny wisps of steam rose from myriad cracks in the glaciers that poured into the sea from the flanks of each peak. The steam looked like smoke from unseen campfires, as if there was a hidden community living deep in the fissures.
By midwinter the sun was too weary to rise above the horizon and the only light was a faint cinnamon glow for a few hours a day. Sometimes this was enough to see a reflected glimmer from the snow-encased summits and to be able to trace the line of their backs. When the moon was bright the mountains reappeared as clearly as if the sun had returned. The silver radiance, although not as bright as daylight, seemed to make every detail sharper, like a perfectly exposed black-and-white photograph. Those metallic evenings were the Peninsula at its most beautiful.
I was at the station as one of the meteorologists responsible for monitoring climate and ozone. One of my regular jobs was to measure the accumulation of snow using a grid of snowstakes that had been established a significant distance from the base. Travelling out to the snowstakes on snowmobiles was one of my favourite weekly chores. Usually I took someone with me but a few months after I arrived, I decided to go alone for the first time. It was nearing the end of the summer season and the chill of an oncoming winter was in the air. I coaxed one of the station's elderly snowmobiles into life and stashed my notebooks and records under the seat before setting off. Following a line of flags I motored away from the station buildings, past the aircraft hangar and the outlying depots of fuel drums and sledges, onto the steep local glacier. As my snowmobile ground uphill, the land to my left fell away into ice cliffs, revealing the blinding glint of open water. It stretched off towards the only straight horizon visible from Rothera – that of the sea. Veering right, I followed the flagline beneath a spiky wave of dark rock called Reptile Ridge that towered overhead as it curved inland. After a few kilometres the route opened out onto a large plain. I knew that if I continued around to the left I would come to Vals, a gentle slope on the side of Reptile Ridge that we used for skiing and snowboarding, dragging each other to the top on long ropes towed behind snowmobiles. But today Vals was empty and I was travelling away from the ridge across the open space ahead. My snowmobile was heavy, more metal box than high-performance machine, but with my thumb pressed flat against the throttle I could feel it picking up speed on the flatter ground and I enjoyed the freedom of flying over the snow, letting my eyes drift across the soft curves of the undulating landscape. Solitary peaks rose above the snow surface leaving graceful arcs and semi-circles of blue and purple shadows on the otherwise raw white. Overhead, thin high cloud traced delicate curlicues in the sky as if mimicking the geometry of the shadows on the ground. Taking it all in, my breath caught in my chest and I let my thumb slip off the throttle so that the snowmobile came to a gentle stop. I stood up on the clattering machine and let myself indulge in the euphoria that had welled up inside me. I threw open my arms as if I could extend them around the whole landscape, around the whole of Antarctica. I had the overwhelming urge to scoop it all up, to skim over the flawless surface, to lose myself in its immaculate vastness. I stood there for ages feeling my heart expand to envelop the entire continent. There was nowhere on the planet that could be more fulfilling, nowhere on Earth I would rather be. I had found my perfect place, my perfect match.
In many ways that sense of elation has never left me. Two and a half years later when it was time to leave Antarctica for the first time, I stood out on the ship's deck and watched the skyline I knew so well gradually morph into an unfamiliar view as we sailed out of the bay and into a different perspective. A friend who had worked on the base with me and who was also saying his goodbyes to Antarctica came to stand close by in companionable silence.
'I thought you'd be in tears, Fliss,' he said eventually.
It struck me as odd too that I didn't feel more emotional. I wasn't entirely sure why. Perhaps it was because after such a long time away from home, I was ready to go despite my sadness. Or perhaps it was because a part of me knew that it wouldn't be long before I was back in Antarctica, even though I had no idea at the time how or why I would return. I remember looking into the hard black surface of the Southern Ocean, trying to imagine what my plan would be when I got home. I attempted to picture myself in all sorts of employment but somehow I just couldn't envisage fitting in to any one profession. I assumed that the answer would emerge in time – but it turned out that my inability to see myself with a job was prophetic. To date, my position at Rothera remains the closest I've ever come to having conventional employment. On my return I worked in London briefly, organising expeditions for young people, but I only lasted a matter of months before resigning. I knew instinctively that I didn't belong in an office.
Instead, I began to organise expeditions of my own to the polar regions, putting together interesting teams to go to isolated places, but it was to be six years before I found a way back to Antarctica. In 2009 I trained and led an unconventional team of novice explorers with the aim of skiing together to the South Pole. The eight-woman team was from Brunei Darussalam, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. Most of the women had never spent a night in a tent, put on a pair of skis or experienced sub-zero temperatures before joining the expedition. However, despite the physical challenge of the environment and the human challenge of working together as a group, we skied more than 900 kilometres from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole in thirty-eight days. This was the first time I'd had an opportunity to reach the South Pole and I couldn't have wished for a better way to arrive, at the head of the largest and most international team of women ever to ski to ninety degrees south.
In the hours after arriving at the bottom of the world, I sat in the cramped hospitality tent drinking tea, listening to the rest of the women excitedly announce our success to their families over the satellite phone and feeling myself relax in a way that I hadn't been able to for months. Fatigue gradually overtook each of my teammates in turn and they drifted off to our tents pitched nearby. I was enjoying the moment too much to submit to sleep just yet so I walked back to the South Pole a few hundred metres away. The spot was marked with a red and white striped pole topped by a glossy silver sphere surrounded by the flags of the original Antarctic Treaty Nations. Apart from the snap of the flags in the wind, all was quiet. I had the end of the Earth to myself.
I stood for a moment gazing at the horizon we had skied over, letting my memory trek backward over the miles we had travelled. The cold burned the exposed skin on my face and made my eyes water, so I turned out of the wind and studied the opposite horizon. My imagination instinctively raced over the kilometres of wind-furrowed snow, creating mental visions of the landscape beyond that I had only seen on maps: an immense empty plateau, then a wall of serried mountains where the ice spilled between the peaks onto the ocean, forming a great floating platform – the Ross Ice Shelf. Absently, I wondered how it would feel to set off towards those mountains. I felt a gentle pull toward that imagined landscape. Tired and aching though I was, I knew with certainty that I could continue beyond the Pole if I had the opportunity – but could I make it all the way to the mountains, and then on as far as the Ross Ice Shelf? Could I ski across the entire continent from one coast to the other – and could I do it alone?
This wasn't a recent idea; the concept had been in my head so long that I couldn't remember exactly where it had first come from.
During the previous thirty-eight days the team had travelled in single file, taking turns to navigate from the front of the line. When it was my turn to lead I'd often pretended that the women behind me had disappeared and that I was out there alone. I'd look around at the white expanse and try to imagine what it would feel like to have that empty landscape to myself, to have no voices around me, no sense of movement apart from my own.
The notion of being alone in Antarctica both thrilled and appalled me. Back at home in the UK I would sometimes dream about it and wake up in my bed shaking with terror at the thought. Even as I reassured myself that it wasn't real and as the relief calmed my fast-beating heart, a part of me knew with some dread that this idea wasn't going away. Now that the proposition of crossing Antarctica by myself had taken hold, my choices were to see it through or to live with regret for the rest of my life. It was bizarre how a plan that caused me so much fear could become such an unshakeable ambition. My instinctive response was to shrink away from the idea and yet I wanted to make this journey with every fibre of my being.
I examined my own motives to try and understand why this journey more than any other had captivated me. Past expeditions had pushed me in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, as a person and as a leader; but, to date, I didn't feel that I had found my limits. I knew I still had more to give and it seemed that going alone was an obvious way to challenge myself more than I ever had before. There was something about the completeness of crossing the continent, of travelling from one coast to the other, that appealed to me – a chance to see an entire cross-section of this most enigmatic of places. There was beauty in the simplicity of it but, as I was to discover, the details of the plan were anything but simple.
Antarctica is a vaguely circular continent with the South Pole roughly at its centre. Looking at a map it appears that two large bites have been taken out of the landmass; the one at the top is filled with the Ronne Ice Shelf while the one at the bottom, almost directly opposite, is filled with the Ross Ice Shelf. The route between the Ronne Ice Shelf and the South Pole is relatively straightforward. Starting at a point called Hercules Inlet it is a straight line southward for 1,100 kilometres to the South Pole. It is a route that has been followed by dozens of expeditions over the years and was very similar to the one I had skied with the team. Travelling between the South Pole and the Ross Ice Shelf was a little harder. A bit of research quickly showed that very few expeditions ventured this side of the Pole because it was so difficult (and expensive) to get logistical support. I began to refer to it as the 'wrong side' of Antarctica.
The crux of the problem was getting through the Transantarctic Mountains. This chain of peaks forms a wall of rock that curves like an eyebrow over the Ross Ice Shelf and marks out the edge of the continent. Ice from the plateau, moving somewhat like runny icing poured onto the centre of an uneven cake, glides slowly from the elevated interior of Antarctica to its fringes. It pours through any gaps in the barrier of mountains along its edge to form great glaciers that trace sinuous channels to the coast. These glaciers are the only routes through the mountain ranges but they are not easily travelled. The ice of the glaciers is often deeply fissured making them dangerous pathways – particularly if I was to be on my own with nobody to tie myself to, nobody to rescue me and nobody to raise the alarm should I fall into one of the many crevasses.
The largest of the glaciers through the Transantarctic Mountains is the infamous Beardmore. This long, ponderous runway of ice that buckles and fractures for nearly 160 kilometres on the eastern side of the Ross Ice Shelf was used by both Shackleton and Scott during the first exploratory expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s. Scott's Norwegian rival, Roald Amundsen, favoured the shorter, steeper (but equally lethal) Axel Heiberg glacier tucked into the top corner of the Ross Ice Shelf, where the distance to the South Pole is shortest. Since then, only a handful of expeditions have followed these pioneering routes and even fewer have attempted new ones. In the 1950s Sir Edmund Hillary led a convoy of modified farm tractors up the Skelton Glacier, close to the Beardmore, as part of Sir Vivian Fuchs's mechanised crossing of Antarctica and, more recently, Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen made a descent of the Shackleton Glacier in 2000.
Blazing my own trail along an unknown glacier – alone in one of the remotest parts of Antarctica – was not an option. I didn't have the skill, confidence or appetite for that level of danger. Instead, I considered each of the known routes in turn. The Beardmore and Skelton glaciers were both on the western side of the Ross Ice Shelf and would add considerable distance to my journey, so I focused on the glaciers on the eastern side of the ice shelf, the Shackleton and the Axel Heiberg.
Norwegian explorer, Borge Ousland, had chosen to descend the Axel Heiberg during his solo transantarctic expedition in 1997. His book gave a lot of detail about the route down the glacier and had plenty of terrifying pictures of fractured ice and partially concealed cracks of monstrous proportions. The top of the glacier was known as the 'Devil's Dancefloor' because of the sheer number and intricacy of crevasses. The route looked highly complicated and very risky to travel alone. Images of the Axel Heiberg filtered into my dreams, filling them with lurid visions of a long, lonely death at the bottom of a cold crevasse.
The Shackleton was little better. In an account of their traverse of the glacier in 2000, Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft describe a nightmare terrain of crevasses concealed by rotten ice. Repeatedly they fell through the surface, usually getting wedged thigh-deep but occasionally ending up dangling by their elbows over cavernous spaces.
'We would later name this place Hell,' records Ann.
Liv had a particularly close escape, finding herself staring down into a blue-black abyss, saved only by some webbing around her wrist that had snagged on a lump of ice. It allowed her just enough time to gain some purchase on the wall of the crevasse and lift herself out.
'I still have nightmares about what happened on the Shackleton Glacier,' she writes. 'To this day it remains one of the most terrifying experiences I've had in all my travels.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Alone in Antarctica"
Copyright © 2014 Felicity Aston.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Joanna Lumley,
Chapter One: Every Step,
Chapter Two: Paying Attention,
Chapter Three: LOO-JW,
Chapter Four: Forty-Six,
Chapter Five: Life Raft,
Chapter Six: Bald-Headed Men,
Chapter Seven: Sundogs and Haloes,
Chapter Eight: Skiing in the Dark,
Chapter Nine: Getting Out of the Tent,
Epilogue: Echoes and Shades,
About the Author,