You’d most likely dreamt of the roaring log fire, smoldering glass of vin chaud and tasty dinner while on the slopes today. Your muscles might be aching from head to toe, it’s nothing a quick dip in the chalet hot tub won’t fix. Your bruises might span everything from your skiers thumb to your pride, all will feel infinitely soothed after a warm night’s sleep under a cozy duvet. And for those of us that, upon wakening on the second morning of a ski holiday, wail ‘it hurts too much, I can’t get up!’ Antarctic adventurer Felicity Aston has five words for you.
Get out of the Get out of the Tent!
And to take her advice one step further…
‘You are infinitely braver and more resilient than you imagine’
These are the final words of Felicity’s book Alone in Antarctica, an inspiring, gripping and at times terrifying account of one woman’s lone journey across a continent. On 24th November 2011 Felicity was dropped by airplane on the Ross Ice Shelf, a 1744-kilometer journey on skis ahead of her. Only two people had crossed Antarctica alone and 34-year-old Felicity hoped to become the third.
The pilot carrying you out to the Ross Ice Shelf called you a ‘true rock star’ to voluntarily spend time in such harsh conditions. What were you feeling during your journey to the starting point?
“Nothing like a rock star! I needed an escape route and I was looking for any reasonable excuse not to get off the plane. I was wracked with self-doubt and felt physically sick. I’d had the same feelings many years earler, when I was about to start an expedition across Greenland. I remember looking for ways that I could badly sprain my ankle, in order to bow out gracefully”.
Perseverance kept Felicity’s plan in place and her account of the journey is brutally honest and humbling. Few could image the psychological impact that being alone on the ice would have. “It would be perfectly justifiable, I reasoned with myself, to return to Union Glacier and explain that after seeing what I’d be facing, I’d realised I wasn’t up for it’.
The mental battle seemed more demanding than the physical one. Is this how you remember it now?
“Absolutely. My ability to cross a continent alone was more in my head than in my body. Feats of endurance are based on mental attitude and self-discipline. I knew I needed to be strict with myself and to be organised. This involved little things like drying out my boots properly, redressing blisters… everything helps your frame of mind in those conditions”.
During Felicity’s 59 days in Antarctica she was bolstered by a rather unexpected and unseen source – Twitter. The expeditions Twitter account (@felicity_aston) was designed for one-way communication and Felicity tweeted daily using an SMS satellite phone. Simple updates such as ‘alone’ turned into more positive updates, such as ‘another awesome day skiing past a parade of beautiful mountains beneath crazy clouds’.
You couldn’t interact with your rapidly growing Twitter tribe while out on the ice, but did your updates help your frame of mind?
“Reporting my progress on Twitter had a big impact. The Antarctic landscape makes you feel like you’ve left reality, like I’d dropped off the map. Twitter updates became my psychological crutch, confirming that I was still on the planet and my existence had been registered. It’s a far cry from the old days when expeditions weren’t heard of until they returned!”
The preparations for Felicity’s expedition were lengthy and thorough. Supported by a number of generous sponsors, she was able to select the best available and most trusted equipment. Another important preparation was psychological. Human beings are social creatures, we’re not designed to be alone for extended periods, especially not in such harsh and dangerous environments.
The ‘Resilient Thinking’ theory clearly had an impact on your mental processes during the journey. Are you able to translate them to everyday life now the journey is over?
“I learnt that when I’m feeling high emotion – annoyance, sadness, frustration for example – it’s important to stop and analyse what’s happening. I try to look objectively at my emotions and ask myself ‘why am I feeling like this?’ It’s often easy to fi nd the root cause and this does help in everyday life. But then again, sometimes, a good cry is necessary!”
If you were to witness a friend, relative or indeed a complete stranger yelling ‘shut up’ in the direction of an irritating noise, you wouldn’t necessarily question their sanity. If they begin to talk to the sun, or see small men with bald heads and triangular bodies riding on the backs of dinosaurs, you might begin to worry.
You had quite a few hallucinatory experiences during your journey. How did you reassure yourself that you hadn’t gone mad?
“Dr Pack told me, ‘as long as on some level, you know what you’re seeing is not real, you’re ok’ and so I trusted him! I knew that if the point came, when I was unable to tell the diff erence between reality and fantasy, I had a problem. So I had a few good conversations with myself to check and these became my safety net”.
Felicity’s accounts of extreme temperatures, mountain ranges and sastrugi (naturally created ice formations) are at the same time terrifying and breathtaking. It’s a tug of war that continues throughout the journey and matches Felicity’s own inner wrangling. “I came to view Antarctica as a testing ground that would allow me to understand my potential and my vulnerabilities” Felicity recounts, around the half way point.
Now that you’ve achieved your goal, does this mean that you’ve yet to discover your limitations?
“I’ve discovered that I can keep pushing my body and my mind, and the human race is proof that humans can tolerate a fair bit. Wars and personal traumas test the resolve far more than expeditions. Do I want to push myself to the brink of insanity? No, absolutely not. I have the choice, many do not”.
Alone In Antarctica is a story of perseverance. Felicity’s experience forces the question – how much could we all achieve with a bit more perseverance?
“… remember that it is vital to celebrate daily successes – even those as marginal as getting out of the tent…”