Call of the White: Taking the World to the South Pole

Call of the White: Taking the World to the South Pole

by Felicity Aston




An inspirational account of eight women on one very unique expedition
Felicity Aston challenged women in many countries, asking if they could ski to the South Pole, as she set out to create the most international all-female expedition ever to the Pole. The team would not be experienced explorers but "ordinary" women who want to inspire others to follow their dreams. She received more than 800 applications and led a team from places as diverse as Jamaica, India, Singapore, and Cyprus—some of whom had never even seen snow or spent the night in a tent before joining the expedition—on one of the toughest journeys on the planet. Eighty-mile-an-hour winds ripped through base camp, frostbite and injuries were an everyday occurrence, and deadly crevasses cracked beneath their feet. This is their story of newfound strength, persistence, and friendships.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781849531344
Publisher: Summersdale
Publication date: 05/01/2012
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Felicity Aston is an expedition leader, public speaker, and freelance travel writer. Her past achievements include leading the first British women's team across Greenland, completing the infamous Marathon Des Sables across the Sahara, as well as working as a meteorologist in the Antarctic for three years.

Read an Excerpt

Call of the White

Taking the World to the South Pole

By Felicity Aston

Summersdale Publishers Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Felicity Aston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84839-466-7



I stood in the centre of London on a traffic island in the middle of a pedestrian crossing. A stampede of distracted commuters jostled either side of me. Dressed in my smartest business suit, I looked like anyone else rushing from tube station to office in the morning drizzle. Nobody could tell that the day before I had been huddled in a slightly damp sleeping bag in a cold corner of a soot-filled military tent in a freezing part of central Norway. I could barely believe it myself. For the previous fortnight my world had been drifting snow, pink-lit peaks and glimpses of musk ox as I taught others how to travel through that bitter cold. Now, after a 24-hour dash by train and plane, I found myself in a landscape of belching buses, aggressive taxis and an unyielding workforce marching towards their day.

Taking my time, I walked along Gloucester Road to the headquarters of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. In a grand-fronted building with fat white pillars and a glossy black door, I sat in front of a panel of four very stern- looking men and told them my idea: I wanted to take a team of eight women from across the Commonwealth to the South Pole. The team would not be experienced adventurers or seasoned polar explorers but 'ordinary' women who wanted to show the world what they were capable of. The trust awards a number of grants every year to people who want to travel overseas for career- enhancing study or to complete projects that will bring benefit to themselves, their community and, ultimately, the UK. My application was unusual in that I wasn't asking for funds towards the main project, the expedition to Antarctica. Instead, I asked them to finance my journey to eight carefully selected Commonwealth countries to interview candidates and find an expedition team. I needed a team before I could go in search of sponsorship for the main expedition and I was hoping the trust would help me fund this initial step.

The interview didn't go well. I'm usually confident at interviews but this time I felt nervous; perhaps an indication of how badly I wanted this panel of strangers to support my wild idea. One member of the panel announced that he was an expert in Commonwealth matters and then fell silent. His lack of opinion on my idea didn't seem favourable, neither did the fact that the chairman of the panel (who asked all the questions) seemed keen to move on swiftly, repeatedly cutting short my answers before I'd had time to make my case. The sticking point seemed to be a concern that the support of the trust would be overshadowed by all the other organisations and sponsors that I would need to involve in order to fund the actual expedition. 'Regardless of the future support or outcome of the expedition, if the trust supports my recruitment journey then it will always be the very start of our story,' I tried to reassure them. 'It will be the very important initial seed that makes everything else possible.'

Twenty minutes later I sat in a nearby coffee shop, trying to overcome my disappointment. I had attended so many interviews for grants and funding over the years that I had developed an instinctive sense of the outcome. I called my mother but didn't get the sympathy I was looking for. 'You always do this,' she sighed down the phone. 'You think you've done badly and then a few weeks later it all works out fine.' I rang off feeling frustrated. Just because things had gone my way in the past didn't mean that they always would.

That night I flew back to Norway to become an instructor again for a few more weeks and my days were absorbed by pulling sledges, tent routines and ice-breaking drills. Unfortunately, open wilderness can be a surprisingly claustrophobic place. The constant driving snow forced me to retreat into my goggles and the hood of my jacket, which formed a tiny protective cocoon from the brute forces beyond. Days were spent skiing along silently in my own personal bubble of thought, mulling over my plans. I kept telling myself that rejection from the trust was likely to be the first of many obstacles that I would have to overcome. If the expedition was truly an idea worth pursuing, it had to be strong enough to withstand setbacks like this. Still, it was hard to see how I would be able to move forward without funding, and there were precious few sources of finance.

The expedition was an idea that had gestated in my brain during dozens of similarly long ski journeys. While making slow progress through white landscapes, numerous ideas float into my head; many roll around for days, perhaps even weeks or months, but generally they fade and disappear. The good ideas are the ones that refuse to leave, the ones that keep coming back. The Commonwealth Women's Antarctic Expedition wasn't an idea that had arrived fully formed. It had grown slowly, taking on different formats as I thought through all aspects of the plan. The motivation had accumulated just as slowly during my travels over the previous five years. The more I saw of the world, the more I realised that the majority of women on the planet, even now in the twenty-first century, are unable to make their own choices in life. Whether the cause is economical, political, cultural or religious, many women are still considered to be inferior by the society in which they live. The realisation made me sad and frustrated. Gradually, I began to feel an unshakeable sense of responsibility. I was one of the lucky ones that had the freedom to live my life as I wanted. Shouldn't I be doing something to help those women around the world that weren't so lucky? Forming an all-female team to ski to the South Pole might seem like a bizarre way to address inequality, but skiing to the South Pole is widely seen as more than just a physical journey; it has become a well-understood metaphor for overcoming obstacles and reaching a common goal. It struck me that an all-female team completing a journey so readily associated with heroic male explorers sporting icy beards would send a very strong and positive message about what women are achieving today, despite obstacles that are far more challenging than the subzero temperatures of Antarctica.

My first problem in planning the expedition was deciding which countries to include. There had to be some common theme that drew the countries involved together. I considered all the groupings I could think of: the United Nations seemed too vague; NATO was far too military and political; the European Union didn't strike me as a terribly innovative basis for an expedition; but what about the Commonwealth? I read through the list of just over fifty states that form the Commonwealth. It was an intriguing roll call of nations: developed countries were listed alongside those that were emerging onto the international stage; countries with troubled or tragic histories were mixed with those facing difficult futures; countries that were instantly familiar were as common as those that I wasn't able to point out on a world map without some hesitation. It was an eclectic and exciting list. It fitted. Even better, the Commonwealth would celebrate its 60th anniversary year in 2009, making a Commonwealth expedition very timely.

There was just one reason to pause: I had to be sure of what the Commonwealth, as an organisation, stood for. Its original purpose 60 years ago had been to retain a degree of connection between the newly independent countries of the devolving British Empire. To some, its survival into the twenty-first century is a slightly embarrassing and anachronistic reminder of a colonial past, but I needed to make up my own mind. Skimming over the endless debate about what political influence the Commonwealth should have, what became clear from my research is that the Commonwealth remains a channel through which nations from a diverse economic, cultural and geographical spectrum communicate with each other – and that struck me as something that deserved credit. As I delved further into the work of the Commonwealth, I was impressed by the number of projects designed to share skills and knowledge between countries. These range from media training to encourage free speech, to experts sharing ideas on health care and social services. I saw the very modern concept of global social responsibility reflected in the work of the Commonwealth. Rather than a staid old dinosaur, I found a vibrant global community and felt proud that the UK had been so instrumental in its foundation.

I needed to be sensitive about which countries I approached, avoiding those that had recently experienced intense political or social turmoil. The obvious choices would have been the rich, developed Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, South Africa and Australia, but this seemed too easy and would represent only one side of the Commonwealth. Many Commonwealth nations are in Africa or the Caribbean, so this is where I focused first.

Jamaica appeared to be one of the only Caribbean nations large enough to provide the support a team member would need. It has a fiercely patriotic diaspora that would be likely to add their backing to anyone flying the Jamaican flag at the South Pole and although adventure sports are not an established pastime in Jamaica, there is a Jamaican ski federation, a dog sled team that competes internationally and the legendary Olympic bobsleigh team – all of which gave me hope that the expedition might win support. Turning to Africa, I looked for a Commonwealth country relatively free of political and economic chaos. Ghana in West Africa stood out, with its comparatively free press, stable economy and robustly democratic political system. In addition, it had been the first African country to join the Commonwealth, a distinction that seemed to make it fitting that a Ghanaian would represent Africa on the expedition team.

Likewise, India's place in history as the country whose independence had prompted the formation of the Commonwealth in the first place made it a clear candidate for being included in an expedition to mark the event. India is an enthusiastic mountaineering nation and has a long association with Antarctica, having operated research stations on the continent since 1983. An association with Antarctica similarly prompted me to involve New Zealand. New Zealanders consider Antarctica to be their own backyard, and many were astounded by the fact that whoever joined this expedition would be the first New Zealand woman to ski to the South Pole. Most assumed that the record had been claimed years ago.

Looking at Asia, Brunei Darussalam stands out within the Commonwealth as one of only three absolute monarchies (the others being Swaziland and Tonga). It would also be the only Muslim country to be represented on the expedition. Its near neighbour, Singapore, is a small but wealthy city-state that is carefully multicultural, representing the incredible diversity of the Commonwealth.

Finally, my attention switched to Europe. There are two Commonwealth countries within Europe apart from the UK: Malta and Cyprus. For its size, culture and complex political history, I chose Cyprus. I now had the complete composition of my team. The countries involved would be Brunei Darussalam, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. I wasn't surprised to arrive home from Norway to find a very thin letter on my doormat stamped with the logo of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. My heart sank. It was a thin business envelope with no more than one sheet of paper inside. Experience has taught me that thin letters indicate a negative reply: positive replies come with information leaflets and papers to sign. Putting the envelope to one side I fought my disappointment. I had suspected that this would be the outcome but even so, it was a blow to have confirmation. I'd have to find another way to make my project happen but, right then, I was physically and emotionally drained from a month instructing others and didn't feel able to shrug off a setback just yet. All afternoon I pottered around my flat unpacking, doing washing, gazing out of the window and reinserting myself into my life after weeks of being away. That evening, glass of wine in hand, I finally sat in my front room and steeled myself for the rejection inside the envelope. I'd had all afternoon to get used to the idea. I unfolded the letter and read the first line.

'I am very pleased to inform you that you have been selected for the award of a 2008 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship; I offer my warm congratulations.'

I had to read the letter again to make sure I'd understood. I read it a third time before it sank in. I dropped the letter and skipped stupidly around the room, laughing at the unnecessary agony I'd been putting myself through for hours – so much for experience! As quick as the laughter (and the skipping), came another thought and a slowly rising panic from the pit of my stomach. Now I had to turn this big idea into a reality. The trust's panel of four had believed in me and with that belief came the pressure to deliver. The volume of work to be done filled my head and I started scribbling down a colossal to-do list that just kept getting longer. As the size of the project became clear, I felt my confidence begin to waver. I wanted to get to work straight away, worried that otherwise I'd never have the courage to begin. But there was a delay: I was due to spend the next ten weeks on back-to-back expeditions in remote locations without the means to access the Internet or the free time to spend planning the project. I put my to-do list away, knowing that it would be mid May before I would have a chance to look at it again.

It wasn't unusual for me to disappear to far-flung, and usually frozen, destinations for weeks at a time. If I were able to travel back through time and appear to an 18-year-old me for long enough to describe to her what her life would be like in a dozen or so years, I often wonder what she would make of it. I worked hard at school, and I was good at it, but I never really had any strong preference for one subject over another. When it came to A levels, I hated deciding what subjects to study; it felt like I was narrowing down my options. Choosing a subject to read at university was even worse. I remember sitting in the small careers room at school flicking through a book of degree subjects arranged in alphabetical order. I started at the back and worked my way forward. I'd nearly finished the book before I got to astrophysics – the physics of the stars, understanding the rules of the universe, learning what is beyond our own existence. It was the only subject that I could imagine would hold my attention for the next three years. I went to University College London in the centre of the capital. It was a fantastic place to be a student but, as the years rolled by, the pressure grew to decide on a career, a direction.

Finding myself back in a careers office, I explored the possibilities. I loved the astronomy I was learning but, as I neared graduation, it was becoming clear that I was reaching my intellectual limit in aspects of the subject. As my lectures delved deeper into cosmology and quantum mechanics, my brain felt warped. It was time to bow out. I needed a new focus.

For several years I had been vaguely aware of the British Antarctic Survey but I had assumed that to be sent to Antarctica you would need to be a serious scientist – to have a PhD at the very least – so I was surprised, and excited, as I read through their adverts asking for graduates to fill assistant roles. With conviction, I knew that I had found the new direction I had been looking for.

After graduation I spent two and a half years, without a break, at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula with the British Antarctic Survey. Rothera is the largest British base on the continent but it is still relatively small. The station itself covers an area barely a kilometre square, containing a few dozen buildings of all shapes and sizes, and houses a transient population of 85 in the summer season that shrinks to a permanent crew of just 20 during the seven-month winters. I was in charge of ozone and climate monitoring on the base but it was the place that fascinated me more than the science. At times it was hard to be cut off from the rest of the world with a random group of people, some of whom I periodically neither liked nor understood, but I never once lost my complete awe of the landscape that surrounded us. It was such a privilege not to simply visit Antarctica but to actually live there and have the chance to get to know the continent and all its sublime faces, both wonderful and terrifying at the same time.


Excerpted from Call of the White by Felicity Aston. Copyright © 2011 Felicity Aston. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
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Call of the White: Taking the World to the South Pole 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
KristyMcCaffrey More than 1 year ago
In "Call of the White," Felicity Aston recounts taking 7 women to the South Pole. What makes this story unforgettable is that these women weren't trained outdoor/polar experts; they were average women, all with a desire to push beyond their boundaries. Through an interview and pre-selection process in Norway, she chose women from Cyprus, India, Singapore, New Zealand, Ghana, Jamaica, Brunei Darussalam and the United Kingdom. Aston recounts their efforts to raise money, to deal with team conflicts, and ultimately, to ski (pulling a sledge) 900 km (560 miles) from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. The expedition took 38 days. This is a fascinating read about an audacious plan. Some of the women had never before seen snow, let alone skiied. This tale is a testament that anything is possible. And yes, they succeeded.