Whether you are a woman or a man, any great adventure must begin in the mind. Without immense mental power it is difficult to conquer the physical challenges that a truly great adventure entails.
A great adventure should make you conquer your own physical and mental limits and help you go beyond them. It is essentially an exploration of the self, and also of going beyond the self. In this process you become an even more potent, an even more evolved person than before.
On one such great adventure concluded on the 23rd of January, 2012, a 34-year-old British adventurer and explorer from Kent, named Felicity Aston became the first woman in the world to ski solo across Antarctica.
Earlier a team comprising of female and male explorers did ski across Antarctica without kites or machines, but Aston has become the first person to do this solo.
She not only reached the superhuman limits of mental power and physical prowess to do what no human has done ever before, but also became the first person to ski across this icy continent without the help of kites or machines.
In doing so, she not only conquered Antarctica, but also her own limits and fears. We feature here, an account of her amazing journey and an interview with Ms Aston herself by reporter, Swarnendu Biswas.
Creating Her Story In Antarctica
It sounds unbelievable that she skied through 1084 miles of extreme cold and loneliness pulling two sledges carrying her supplies weighing 85 kg alone across Antarctica.
She hauled the two sledges around yawning crevasses, over tall mountains and into seemingly never ending headwinds to complete her expedition in 59 days without any human, machine or animal support.
On such lonely trips, there is no expectation of help coming from any quarter if something goes seriously wrong. You have to rely only on your talents and endurance to see you through.
Fortunately, Felicity has both of these in unimaginably high quantities, which helped her to achieve this seemingly impossible feat, with the support of only her uncommon mental and muscle power.
Kaspersky Lab, a leading developer of secure content and threat management solutions, sponsored Felicity’s journey. The expedition was named Kaspersky ONE Transantarctic Expedition.
“My title sponsors were Kaspersky Lab with whom I have had a continuing relationship since they supported the Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition that I led in 2009. I was also supported by CGR Group and Fantasea Adventure Cruises, as well as several equipment suppliers such as Montane and Mountain Equipment,” elaborated Felicity.
On the completion of her journey, Felicity said: “I cannot express how happy I am to have finally made it! The Kaspersky ONE Transantarctic Expedition represents a culmination of everything I experienced and learned before on other challenging journeys.”
“I prepared for it physically and mentally for a very long time. And finally here I am having reached my final destination, having got through some rather severe conditions, but most important of all having overcome my own fear. I will never forget this moment, and I am sure the memory will lead me on to other ventures in the future.”
Her 59-day-long expedition began at the Ross Ice Shelf and culminated at the Hercules Inlet.
“I flew from Punta Arenas in Chile to a base camp in Antarctica called Union Glacier. I was then flown by a small aircraft to the Ross Ice Shelf at the foot of the Leverett Glacier (S 85 25).”
“I passed through the trans-Antarctic mountains via the Leverett Glacier and onto the plateau. Following that I arrived at the South Pole and then continued towards the far coast on the Ronne Ice Shelf to a place called Hercules Inlet (S 79 58).”
“I was lifted from this point by a small aircraft and returned to the base camp at Union Glacier, before flying back to Chile,” elaborated Felicity while summing up her momentous journey quite dispassionately.
In order to give a more accurate assessment of her Herculean achievement, you need to know that Antarctica is the world’s southernmost continent, which also encapsulates the South Pole.
The continent does not have any permanent human habitation, except for the 1000 to 5000 people who reside at the research stations scattered across the continent.
Though she undertook the Kaspersky ONE Transantarctic Expedition from the 25th November to 23rd January, when it was summer in Antarctica (when it is bright daylight at night for 24 hours a day), the temperature on her journey fluctuated from Minus 28 to Minus 40 Degrees Centigrade.
That is twice as cold as the inside of a refrigerator! Moreover, the continent is almost permanently covered throughout the year with a thick sheet of ice. Only cold-adapted organisms like algae, penguin, mites, seals, survive there on a permanent basis.
Enduring the Cold and the Bad Weather
“The cold was challenging because it was relentless. In fact, you cannot escape the cold in an Antarctic expedition unless you are keeping yourself comparatively warm by moving about or in a tent,” she affirmed the lady. But the cold was only one of her many challenges in the expedition.
“The wind brings the temperatures down even further and it was windy pretty much all the time! I also gained a lot of altitude during the expedition as the South Pole sits at over 3000 meters, so the effect of high altitude and the cold, dry air made things difficult physically,” she added as her blue-grey eyes twinkled with excitement while she reminisced about her journey through the remotest place on Earth.
The much-more-than-freezing iciness was of course supplemented by tricky terrain, crevices, transatlantic mountains, and frequent bad weather. Yes, her Antarctic expedition was frequented by bad weather, and sometimes there was bad weather for three to four days at a stretch.
“But then when the sun eventually used to come out, it used to feel nothing short of a miracle, which used to make me euphoric and moved me to tears,” observed Felicity, expressing her delight on seeing sun dogs and sun halos, which are fascinating tricks of light seen around the South Pole.
Felicity was moved by the little things that occurred. “It was usually the small things that made my day during my expedition; the dramatic cloudscapes, the texture of the snow, a rainbow around the sun will all be permanently etched in my memories” she said as her voice became heavy with emotion.
It is an amazing reflection of her resilience that she only stopped “once for the day due to weather.” Bad weather did delay the start of her expedition by two weeks.
“Luckily I was able to cover much more ground than expected once I left the South Pole and headed for the coast due to the fact that this part of the journey is mostly downhill and the wind is behind you,” says Felicity.
Wasn’t there a risk in travelling despite persistent bad weather? Or does nature sometimes bow down before the unwavering human spirit, we asked.
Felicity didn’t answer this question. Instead she says, “There was always a time pressure throughout my trip and this was foremost in my mind, so although I experienced a lot of bad weather, I felt I had no choice but to ski despite that.”
The Sheer Challenge of Loneliness
Besides the sheer and relentless cold, winds and drifting snow, there was the incomprehensible cold of loneliness with no one to speak to or ask for support, which made her journey still more daunting.
Felicity had to counter the challenge of deep crevasses, trans-Antarctic mountains, and headwinds across the vast central plateau to the South Pole.
But according to this intrepid explorer with a continual thirst for adventure and several challenging and successful expeditions to her credit, “The greatest challenge was not the physical difficulties pertaining to the cold, the altitude, etc. but the mental challenge of being alone in such a remote and hostile environment.”
She admitted that though the journey was extremely arduous and demanding in physical terms, but the mental challenges were tougher to handle. She hadn’t seen a single person in the last three weeks of her journey!
Felicity admitted that she found the mornings most challenging to handle, where the incredible loneliness of being, almost unnerved her. At times she thought she couldn’t continue with the expedition any further but she countered such negative thoughts eventually.
She said that sometimes she countered such thoughts with positive thinking and other times with a good cry, and some other times simply with music.
She was also extremely candid to admit that she was indeed scared time and again during her journey. However, her resolve to conquer Antarctica was much stronger than all her fears combined.
In fact, she was more enthusiastic to talk about the euphoric highs and the scary moments of her exploration than her stupendous success.
One such scary moment occurred when she had to cross two crevices on 22nd January; in the last leg of her journey. Another fearful moment occurred earlier in the trip, when her lighter stopped working.
She had to clutch on to her remaining 46 matches and had to count them time and again while spending them extremely frugally as her journey progressed. Thankfully, the lighter started working again at a lower altitude.
Her honesty not only heightens her greatness, but also proves to us again that true courage is not the absence of fear, but the sheer grit to conquer it. And true strength is not the absence of vulnerability but the ability to persevere despite it.
In extreme adventures like this, the thin line between fear and euphoria, challenges and opportunities gets blurred. “It is strange that often the most difficult experiences during the expedition were also, in retrospect, some of my most treasured memories because it is when times are hard that you really find out about yourself,” states Felicity.
Humour and Food
Having a great sense of humour too helped. The fact she is able to see the funny side of an extremely grim situation helped her to relentlessly carry on her journey against all odds.
Despite the loneliness and the desperation she sometimes felt, she also felt that there were lots of funny moments too, during those 59 days and ‘day-like nights.’ “It was important to keep laughing at myself and recognising the absurdity of my situation.
Crawling around on my knees to put up my tent in the evening because I was so tired, or attempting to wash my underwear and ending up with it being frozen solid, could all have been demoralising if I had not been able to see the funny side of those situations,” she admitted.
I was extremely curious to learn about the diet that facilitated her courage and strength to reach supreme heights during the expedition.
“For breakfast I would eat porridge or instant noodles followed by coffee, and in the evening I would eat a freeze-dried meal high in carbohydrates and protein, along with lots of chocolate and a protein drink. During the day I couldn’t stop to eat and so would snack on chocolates, nuts and sweets as I skied.”
“I also used carbohydrate powders in my water and took a number of vitamins and minerals each day including magnesium, zinc and antioxidants. My daily rations contained around 5000 Kilocalories,” she says.
Her calorie intake during the trip was just double the calorie intake of an otherwise healthy man. Considering her enormous physical challenge, it was surprisingly low.
A Date With Antarctica
“I wanted to explore alone across Antarctica to explore my own mental and physical limits and also to satiate my curiosity to see more of this wonderful continent,” said Felicity when I asked her what induced her to undertake this momentous challenge against such huge odds of nature.
“I was also keen to see whether I was capable of completing this challenge that I first set up in my mind, and that kept me going,” she elaborated. Despite such insurmountable odds, she describes her latest journey across Antarctica as “an amazing privilege.”
Felicity is no stranger to Antarctica. A seasoned meteorologist by training, this veteran explorer who has taken part and has also led many successful expeditions across challenging geographies, began her date with Antarctica when she was barely 23.
“My first job after leaving the university was with the British Antarctic Survey. At 23, I was sent to Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula to be a meteorologist. I arrived at the base in December 2000 and didn’t leave again until April 2003.”
“So I spent three summers and two winters continuously in Antarctica, at the early part of my career. After that, I was hooked to adventure,” she said as her engaging laughter resonated through my mind.
In fact, this record-creating trip was her fourth visit to Antarctica. “The first time I stayed in this wonderful, lonely and icy continent for three long years, the second time I led the Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition, comprising the largest and the most international team of women to ski to the South Pole, and the third was an expedition to drive to the South Pole in modified 4×4 trucks,” she explains.
A Born Explorer
Besides her adventures in Antarctica, Felicity has to her credit the success of leading expeditions to Greenland and Siberia. She has also taken part in adventures in the Canadian Arctic.
That is not all. She has searched for meteorite craters in Quebec, traversed the winter ice of Lake Baikal, and completed the infamous Marathon Des Sables across the Moroccan Sahara.
“I have been extremely fortunate to travel to some incredible places in the world but my heart lies in the colder regions,” states Felicity.
She is a pilot too with a private pilot license to her credit, though she doesn’t fly much these days. She is also a prolific author and an inspiring public speaker.
Her globally acclaimed book, “Call of the White: Taking the World to the South Pole” is about selecting, training and leading the Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition team in 2009. It was an eight-member all women team.
“The book describes how the project came about, my travels to each country to select the women and how we trained together before travelling to Antarctica. It then describes the ups and downs of our journey together across Antarctica; to the South Pole,” describes Felicity. The book is available online through both international book sites and India-specific sites.
I asked her about the Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition team in 2009 and learned that her eight-member women team comprised members from the Commonwealth countries of Cyprus, India, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand, Jamaica and the UK – many of whom had little or no previous expedition experience.
In fact, before joining the expedition many of the team members had never been in sub-zero temperatures, put on a pair of skis or spent the night in a tent – a fact which made the challenge they undertook even more remarkable and challenging!
Felicity led the international women’s team who skied through 900 km across Antarctica, and on 29th December 2009, she and her team reached the Geographic South Pole.
“The aim of the expedition was to demonstrate the potential of greater inter-cultural understanding, raise awareness of the work and value of the modern Commonwealth and to highlight the achievements of women around the world. The 900 km journey from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole took 38 days, with us arriving at the Pole in time to celebrate the 60th anniversary year of the Commonwealth,” explains Felicity.
Reena Kauchal Dharmshaktu was the member of the team from India. By taking part in the expedition she became the first Indian woman to ski to the South Pole from the coast of Antarctica.
Despite achieving legendary status, Ms Ashton denies having any superhuman quality that propelled her to successfully undertake this near impossible solo exploration.
“I don’t think that I have any superhuman quality. I am no more special than anyone else; I believe we all have great potential to persevere and to achieve,” she states enthusiastically, adding, “The only difference is that I have chosen to test myself in this way whereas others might choose business, academic achievement, the arts or another field of their interest and passion.”
Felicity has great advice for mankind too. “As human beings, I don’t believe we give ourselves enough credit for what we are capable of. We can all do great things and each of us needs to explore her/his own talents and get the most out of herself or himself,” explains the great lady.
Her inspiring words made even a person like me aspire to something great, even if in a dream. Despite her superwoman strengths and achievements, Felicity came across as an extremely down-to-earth person.
As the interview was winding up, I realised an iota of her inspiring power transmitting within me too. I asked her to come to India in the near future.
“I would dearly love to come to India and have some memorable adventures; you have a thriving adventure community here already. I would love to make some journeys with my ex-team mate Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu in the Himalayas that she knows so well,” she expressed.
Her Adventurous Self
The adventure bug bit Felicity quite early in the day. At the end of her first year at the University College London (UCL), where she studied Physics and Astronomy, Felicity joined a British Schools Exploring Society expedition to South-West Greenland.
There, she and her team members spent three weeks mapping the archaeological remains of Viking’s settlements, which was supposed to be followed by spending a week exploring Greenland’s inland ice.
They made it to the fringe of the ice-cap before having to turn back. Felicity remembers looking over her shoulder at the ice as they left and promising herself that one day she would make it over that white horizon. She did fulfill that promise in her Arctic Foxes Greenland Quest, in 2006.
Two years later, on her first expedition to Greenland, Felicity travelled to a remote part of northern Quebec in Canada with a small group of students to search for evidence of meteorite impact craters.
Though the findings of the expeditions were inconclusive, the experiences, which included the team’s hired boat being decimated by lightning, taught her a great deal about being prepared for the unexpected.
After completion of her degree, Felicity did her Masters in Applied Meteorology from the University of Reading. Then she got her first job as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey. The rest is history, sorry HERstory…
During her maiden stint in Antarctica, Felicity spent two-and-a-half years at a stretch in the ‘bottom of the world,’ living and working at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, between 2000 and 2003. Besides monitoring ozone depletion and climate, her job involved looking after a small outpost and aviation re-fuelling depot during the austral summer.
It is simply amazing that at times, Felicity and a colleague were the only two people on an island whose size was approximately that of Wales!
Since 2004, Felicity has established herself as a freelance travel writer and professional speaker besides continuing to organise and lead her own expeditions.
Felicity’s projects have been awarded the Captain Scott Society ‘Spirit of Adventure Award’, the Wilderness Award, and Timberland ‘Make it Better’ Scholarship, as well as earning support from the National Geographic Expeditions Council in the US and the Transglobe Expedition Trust.
In the UK, she has been made a Churchill Fellow by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and an honorary member of both The Commonwealth Club and Rotary International.