Monday, January 23, 2012
Felicity Aston skis across Antarctica
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- British adventurer Felicity Aston became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica on Monday, hauling two sledges around crevasses and over mountains into endless headwinds, pushing onward and onward for 59 days in near-total solitude.
She made it to her destination ahead of schedule, using nothing but her own strength to cover 1,084 miles (1,744 kilometers) from her starting point on the Leverett Glacier on Nov. 25 to Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice Shelf.
The most surprising thing about her journey, she said, was how emotional it proved to be, from the moment she was dropped off alone, through every victory and defeat along the way.
Felicity Aston, in a self-portrait days before she traveled to her starting point, crossed Antarctica in 59 days, pulling two sledges more than 1,084 miles.
"I'm not a particularly weepy person, and yet anyone who has been following my tweets can see me bursting into tears," she said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday while waiting for a plane to pick her up.
"When I saw the coastal mountains that marked my end point for the first time, I literally just stopped in my tracks and bawled my eyes out," she added. "All these days I thought there was no chance I was going to make it in time to make that last flight off Antarctica, and yet here I am with three days to spare."
Aston also set another record: the first human to ski solo, across Antarctica, using only her own muscles. A male-female team earlier skied across Antarctica without kites or machines, but Aston is the first to do this alone.
Aston, 34, grew up in Kent, England, and studied physics and meteorology. A veteran of expeditions in subzero environments, she worked for the British weather service at a base in Antarctica and has led teams on ski trips in the Antarctic, the Arctic and Greenland.
But this was the first time she traveled so far, so alone, and she said the solitude posed her biggest challenge. In such an extreme environment, the smallest mistakes can prove treacherous. Alone with one's thoughts, the mind can play tricks. Polar adventurers usually take care to watch their teammates for signs of hypothermia, which is easier to diagnose in others than yourself, she said.
She thought she was done for when her two butane lighters failed high in the Transantarctic Mountains, where it got "really very cold."
"Suddenly I realized that without a lighter working, I can't light my stove, I can't melt snow to make water, and I won't have any water to drink, and that becomes a very serious problem," she said. "It's quite stressful. It was just a matter of every single day, looking at my kit, and thinking what could go wrong here and what can I do to prevent it?"
She did have a small box of safety matches, and counted and re-counted every one until the lighters started working again at lower altitude, she said.
This Antarctic summer has seen the centennial of Roald Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole, where Britons still lament that R.F. Scott's team arrived for England days later, demoralized to see Norway's flag. Scott and his entire team then died on their way out, and some of their bodies weren't found for eight months.
Aston had modern technology in her favor: She kept family and supporters updated and received their responses via Twitter and Facebook, and broadcast daily phone reports online. She carried two satellite phones to communicate with a support team, and a GPS device that reported her location throughout. She also had two supply drops -- one at the pole and one partway to her finish line -- so that she could travel with a lighter load. Otherwise, her feat was unassisted.
While others have traveled farther using kites, sails, machinery or dogs (now banned for fear of infecting wildlife with canine diseases), she did it on her own strength.
She had to fight near-constant headwinds across the vast central plateau to the South Pole. Then she turned toward Hercules Inlet, pushing through thick, fresh snow, until she reached her goal, a spot within a small plane's reach of a base camp on Union Glacier where the Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions company provides logistical support to each summer's expeditions.
With skies clearing Monday, Aston tweeted that she's been promised red wine and a hot shower after she gets picked up. "A very long, very hot shower," she emphasized. "It's something I haven't had in quite a long time now!"
From there, she'll join dozens of other Antarctic adventurers on the last flight out, a huge Russian cargo plane that will take her to Chile. Then she will fly home next week to Kent, in southeast England.
There, after two months of little but freeze-dried food, she can look forward to chicken pie, her mother said.
"I think there will be lots of cuddles, lots of hugs, it will be quite emotional," said Jackie Aston, 61.
Felicity Aston, pondering her last hours of solitude Monday, told the AP she felt both joy and overwhelming sadness at finishing.
"I'm still reeling from the shock of it that I've made it this far. I honestly didn't think I'd be getting here," she said.
What remains, she hopes, will be a message about perseverance.
"If you can just find a way to keep going, either metaphorically or literally, whether you're running a marathon or facing financial problems or have bad news to deliver or it's tough at work or whatever, if you can just find a way to keep going, then you will discover that you have potential within yourself that you never never realized," she said.
"Keeping going is the important thing, persevering, no matter how messy that gets. I mean, for me, sometimes I'll be sitting in my tent in the morning bawling my eyes out, having tantrums. It's not been pretty. But I've kept going, and that is the important thing because at some point in the future you'll look back and just be amazed at how far you've come."