If the title isn’t shocking enough, the subtitle is “The First Woman to Ski Solo Across the Southern Ice.”
Felicity Aston, a British physicist, meteorologist, and polar explorer set out to do what only two people have done before, except she would forego the parasails and kites that helped those Norwegians along. She wanted to cross Antarctica on cross-country skis, by herself. When I first heard that was the premise of this book, documenting and reflecting on her journey, I thought, “wait, is that even possible? Can you just go to Antarctica? What about the mountains? What about ravines and waterways? Who will save you if something goes wrong?”
Aston answers those questions pretty quickly. First, yes, it’s possible. She did it. Can you just go? Why not. Yes, there are mountains and ravines. You’ve got to go around them. Who will save you? Who knows.
While I was anxious in the beginning of my readerly journey about natural, exterior, risks, like temperature, lack of food, inclement weather, it quickly became clear that Aston’s major challenges would come from within. The challenges of being alone, completely alone, in a landscape of white, as far as the eye can see, for two months. Keeping going, keeping sane. Not losing touch. Not losing herself. Deep into the journey, she says, “The simple pleasures of my day-to-day life back home seemed so far from my present reality that it felt barely possible they could be real and not some vision of an imagined paradise.”
Before she left, she consulted a friend and fellow member of the Royal Geographical Society about her plans; the friend’s reaction was sharp:
“Oh no, Felicity. Don’t go alone. I’ve seen so many wonderful people set off by themselves and they are never quite the same again. It is hard to explain but they always come back different and it is never a change for the better.”
I sense from the text that Aston didn’t want to be changed, necessarily. She wanted something that a career of being on teams, on expeditions, had never given her. But, yes, that thing, that unnameable freedom and simultaneous fear in isolation, comes with a price. Indeed, a good deal of the book is about what that means. And being alone in Antarctica is different than being alone anywhere else; Aston’s account makes that clear. Antarctica, in itself is a sort of hyperbole, or even metaphor for emptiness, aloneness. The openness and lack of distraction in the landscape “allows important questions to float to the surface,” allows for meditation, or, that rare thing, allows for no thinking at all. Clarity. A priest in Italy wrote to Aston about his belief that ‘everything must be stripped away in order to truly hear again.’
[bctt tweet=” Antarctica, in itself is a sort of hyperbole, or even metaphor for emptiness, aloneness. “]
That’s what draws Aston to this place. It’s otherworldly. It both puts you in your place and takes you out of it. In making this journey, she sought to delve in and explore her limits, physical and mental. Aston writes, “But in exploring those extremes we pay a price. I may have covered every mile in Antarctica from coast to coast but there had been mornings on the ice when I had felt in real danger of losing my mind, times when I had felt more desperate and desolate than at any other time in my life and I never wanted to experience that kind of despair again.”
Amazingly, Aston emerges from these dark places somehow braver, “more resilient,” and, perhaps most importantly, alive. This account, part adventure log, part explorer’s memoir, part cosmic meditation, is written in prose as straightforward as the tundra, but also like Antarctica’s landscape, it’s punctuated by moments of startling beauty that reminds us, yes, this is why we risk.