Alone and afraid at the bottom of the world
Felicity Aston became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica when she covered 2,860km in 59 days last winter
WHEN I LOOK at a map of the world, my eye tends to wander to the fringes – that’s where I want to be. I want to see what’s there. I’m incredibly curious.
The decision to ski alone across Antarctica was about pushing my personal limits to see if I could do it. I’ve always had a sense of adventure, and this seemed like the ultimate adventure. But it’s not an experience that I will put myself out there for again – not alone. I reached my limit.
When the plane flew away and left me, I felt like I was having a panic attack. I was tripping over, breathing hard, doing things in the wrong order. I realised that this was what it felt like to be terrified. I wasn’t afraid of dying, but afraid of this whole new league of being alone.
It doesn’t sound very heroic, but my reaction was to cry. I cried and cried and remember thinking “I’m sure Sir Ranulph Fiennes didn’t sit down on the first day of his expedition and cry.” But for me it was a way to recognise my fear. Every morning, the first thought I had was “I can’t do this”, and every morning I had to face a mental struggle to get out of my tent.
Then I’d think about how I had to get up or else I wouldn’t finish, and think about everyone who was supporting me.
But the most powerful motivator was thinking of all those people who had underestimated me or put me down – I didn’t want them to be right, I wanted to be right. And so I’d get the strength to carry on, to get up and go.
Now when I look at a map of Antarctica, it feels ridiculous to think that I’ve skied across that entire continent. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to knowing that.
In 2009, I led a team of women to the South Pole. They were all beginners; some of them had never seen snow. But they did it. You don’t have to be superhuman – I’m not – you just need the will to do it. You need the mental drive.
Sometimes I work with amazing women and yet I sense they have this lack of confidence in their own intrinsic abilities. Sometimes I do too – and I wonder why we do when men don’t?
On most of the polar projects I’ve worked on, I’ve been in the minority. When I’m talking to a group of men of a certain middle age, it takes a while to convince them of my expertise.
But I believe the gap between men and women is closing when it comes to extreme endurance – Hannah McKeand smashed the record to ski from Antarctica to the South Pole and the guys who have tried since have only managed to shave a few hours off that. When it comes to ultra distances, we’re starting to compete on an equal footing.
I’m 34 now and I’d like to have children in the future, but I don’t know yet how I will feel. What will I do when I have children? Will I be able to leave them while I’m away on an expedition? Will I be able to take them with me? I don’t know. I haven’t found those answers yet.