Felicity Aston: Journey into the White
She became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica and into the Guinness World Records.
She felt like a speck in the frozen vastness. Every direction she turned, she could see ice stretching to the horizon: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Nothing but her. It’s exactly where British explorer, Felicity Aston, wanted to be.
The pure whiteness surrounded her as the sound of the plane faded into the distance, disappearing into the emptiness of the colorless landscape. That last churning of the propeller signaled the end of her connection to human civilization. There were no tears to cry, only frozen droplets that fell from her eyelids and sprinkled on the snow like diamonds.
“The first time it really struck me was when the plane dropped me off (at) the beginning of my journey, and I watched it disappearing into a dark blob (in) the sky,” she recalls of her adventure.
A Solo Endeavor
It was hard to breathe, and each time she exhaled the moisture froze on her face: a chandelier of crystals hung from her hair; her eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; her eyelashes cracked when she blinked. The temperature was nearly -40 °F, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making her so disoriented that she could topple over, her bones rattling against the ground.
Her trek took her from the Ross Ice Shelf, up the Leverett Glacier, and then past the Transantarctic Mountains towards the gigantic central plateau, where she had to weather and defeat the pounding headwinds most of the way to the South Pole.
Despite being a seasoned explorer — she previously led a team to the South Pole; raced across the Canadian Arctic, and traversed the inland ice of Greenland — this was her first solo expedition. She says she has never felt so alone.
In the white expanse at the planet’s southernmost continent, Aston had to overcome her racing heart — her primal panic that screamed for an exit — in order to make her tent. Her hands trembled as she set up the tent that would protect her that evening. But she was no ordinary woman, in fact, only a certain type of individual has the tenacity to survive in a truly inhospitable environment. The next morning, she put on her skis and headed towards the horizon — one that few humans have ever witnessed.
Woman of Substance
Joanna Lumley describes Aston as being “resilient, brave, daring, foolhardy, admirable and hugely likeable.”
At age 23, Aston worked as a meteorologist in Antarctica monitoring climate and ozone for nearly three years. This was followed by involvement with races and expeditions in Siberia, Greenland, and the Arctic. In 2009, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth, she selected and trained eight women from countries including Ghana, India, and Jamaica, and skied with them to the South Pole.
In 2012, she traversed Antarctica by herself, a journey covering 1,744 km (1,084 miles), taking 59 days. This feat secured her place in the book of Guinness World Records. She was skiing solo across the great frozen continent and had not seen another human being for weeks. It often became so challenging that she would hallucinate, dreaming of thins she missed. Aston recalls the time she felt like she could smell the aroma of freshly fried fish and chips. “It drove me insane,” said Aston. “It was like I was skiing along a huge row of fish and chips shops, the whole day.”
She crossed the continent on Nordic cross-country skis dragging 85kg of supplies. On occasions she was engulfed by bad weather and was forced to delay her adventure, enduring four days of temperatures of -30 °C (-22 °F).
Aston has authored three books and writes articles for numerous publications including CNN, Geographical, and The Huffington Post. Thriving on adventure, she has participated in science and expedition documentaries and mini-series for BBC. She continues to work with expedition-related organizations sitting on councils and being an ambassador for a number of charities. Among fellowships, honorary doctorates, and numerous recognitions, Aston was awarded The Queen’s Polar Medal and is only one of a few women receiving this special honor.
Adventurer at Heart
From Kent in the south of England, Aston developed a taste for adventure at an early age. Inheriting an intrepid spirit from her parents, who took her with them as a baby as they traveled, she remembers being mesmerized by snow days during her childhood.
“My first ‘expedition’ involved being bribed up a modest peak in England at the age of nine by my parents with a packet of Opal Fruits (my favorite sweets at the time),” she says. “The sense of achievement on reaching the top was slightly lost in the pouring rain but something about the experience must have stuck because I haven’t stopped since.”
When she first traveled to the Antarctic Peninsula, the landscape captured her heart and soul. The colors that imbued the scenery were enough to summon her inner explorer. We may think of the polar landscape as an endless stretch of pure white, but Aston sees the true and majestic colors that paint the cold continent. She sees the pink, orange, and indigo of the endless sky, and later recalled the magic of the “dusky lilac” and “vibrant ochre” she witnessed. She has spent the following years gathering the funds and resources required to explore the world’s last uncharted lands and research how the human body handles and adapts to extreme polar conditions.
“There is much more “computer work” involved in being an explorer than people think,” she says. “When I read about other people doing stuff I always ask myself would I have done that,” she continues. “In this case, I wanted to know if I could do it. Then it is about finding my own limits. At the start of the expedition I was at my limits every morning.”
More about her experience can be found in her 2011 book, Call of the White: Taking the World to the South Pole, as well as a film, Call of the White, which documents their experiences as they embark on a life and death journey. Learn more about Aston and her expeditions at www.felicityaston.co.uk.