Editor’s blog: Interview with Felicity Aston, the first woman to cross the Antarctic alone

Friday, 24 February 2012 8:42 AM

Felicity Aston, the first woman to traverse the Antarctic alone

Felicity Aston battled the elements for 59 days, covering 1744km

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Imagine being in the middle of a barren, white landscape in bitterly cold, sub-zero conditions for 59 days – completely alone...

That is what Felicity Aston – the first woman to cross the Antarctic alone – faced on her epic Transantarctic Expedition. 

Supported by Kaspersky Lab, Felicity battled the elements for 59 days, covering 1744km. She started her route on November 25th 2011, journeying alone from the Ross Ice Shelf up the Leverett Glacier across the Transantarctic Mountains to the South Pole, where she had her only one-day rest period. She then continued on across the Polar Plateau to the opposite coast of the continent at the Ronne Ice Shelf. Felicity finished her heroic journey on January 22nd 2012, having set a new world record.

We caught up with the intrepid explorer to discuss the highs and lows of the expedition, how she coped with the loneliness and what tips she would give someone planning a similar trip:

What made you decide to embark on this epic adventure?
Every expedition that I’ve taken on has been a challenge in some way or another. The last one two years ago was about bringing together a team of novices from the Commonwealth countries (the largest and most international women's team ever to make the 900km ski journey to the South Pole); this one was all about my own personal challenge, to find my mental and physical limits. It was also the appeal of crossing from one side of Antarctica to the other; there’s huge satisfaction in doing that.

When you think back on the expedition, does a particular moment come to mind which epitomises your experience?
Definitely the first moment when the expedition began. When the plane dropped me off, in the middle of a barren white landscape, all alone, it really sunk in what I was about to do and the loneliness of it. I burst into tears! The sense of feeling alone for the first time really epitomises what the expedition was about and I don’t think I ever really got over that feeling of being alone – and the fear of it.

Did you have any dangerous or risky moments?
There’s this constant level of risk. Every single moment I was out there was a fear of something going wrong. (Felicity only had a satellite phone with her, which she would use to ring the station at the South Pole every day to check in. They keep an eye out for everyone who is not part of a research project in Antarctica. That’s all the support structure she had during the expedition).

One day to day example is using my stove inside the tent. That tent was highly flammable and would burn down in about three seconds and I would be left with a bunch of burnt ciders – and that would be it! The larger risks were things like crevasses. If I had fallen down one, there’s wouldn’t have been much hope of rescue; I certainly wouldn’t have had any signal to ring the station that deep down, not to mention the risk of serious injury during the fall.

What was your day to day routine during the trek?
Everything was routine, routine, routine! I had routines for absolutely everything. I would get up at the same time, get ready in the same order and make breakfast in the same order every morning. Then I’d pack up all my kit and get out of the tent. The routine gave me the momentum to push me forward. It saved mental energy as well; by following a routine, it meant that I didn’t have to worry about forgetting things – I would be confident that it was all done.

59 days is a long time...How did you motivate yourself? Was there a particular song that you would put on to get you moving?
Routine, as I mentioned, was the best way of motivating myself. I had a real mix of music with me – over 800 tracks, from Johnny Cash to Prodigy. By the end of the expedition, I was bored with pretty much all of them. I remember one perfect afternoon – I felt good, the weather was great, I was making good progress and I listened to Beth Orton and some of her albums. It was just perfect for Antarctica; absolutely matched to my mood and the environment. However, other days, Beth Orton would have driven me mad, so I needed a big variety.

What did you find hardest to deal with – the physical or mental side of the expedition?
Definitely the mental side of it. Yes, it was physically hard but it was all about what was going on in my head. That was the crux of the challenge, without a doubt.

Travelling alone must have been hard. How did you combat the loneliness?
I don’t think you can really combat loneliness on this sort of expedition. Sometimes I’d listen to music, sometimes audio books. I could have rung anybody that I wanted to, as I had my satellite phone, but I didn’t because that would have been too emotional.

Because I had no one else to talk to I found that I started talking to the sun (as it was the only different thing in the landscape!), as if it was a friend accompanying me on the trip. Sometimes the sun would even answer back, asking why I was doing such a silly thing!

If you had to pick one top tip to offer someone thinking of doing a similar tip – what would it be?
Definitely to bring more matches! All my lighters failed to work in the extremely low temperatures, so I found myself counting out all my matches and working out how many I would need each day. If they broke, or ran out, I would be in trouble!

Lastly, what are your future plans?
I am going to start writing a book about the experiences I had in Antarctica; that’s the next thing for me and my focus for the next few months.

For more information about Felicity and the expedition visit www.kasperskyonetransantarcticexpedition.com.

By Sarah Gibbons

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