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The Woman Who Skied Antarctica Solo

Adventurer Felicity Aston on her 59 days amid ferocious wind storms, treacherous glaciers, and breathtaking white solitude.

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
That white patch at the bottom of the Earth.

The meteorologist-turned-adventurer Felicity Aston has had a soft spot for Antarctica ever since she learned of the ill-fated British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who loomed as large for her growing up, she says, as characters like King Arthur and Robin Hood. But unlike most of us, Aston never abandoned her dream of emulating her childhood hero. In January the 34-year-old became the first woman to cross Antarctica alone and the first human to traverse the 1,084 mile-long continent without dogs or snowmobiles—although, because she had two food drop-offs, Guinness World Records won't credit her for a solo crossing.

In any case, the trek took her 59 days of pulling two sledges behind her on skis, securing her tent against ferocious windstorms, navigating glaciers, and rationing a small tub of peanut butter—her only luxury. In the process, she fell even more in love with "that white place at the bottom of the globe." I spoke with Aston last month, two weeks after her return from the Hercules Inlet, where her journey ended.

Mother Jones: When did you first become interested in Antarctica?

Felicity Aston: I've always had this appreciation that Antarctica was somewhere where you went to prove yourself and where all these kind of legendary people were made. After university, I got a job with the British Antarctic survey and was sent to a research station for three years as a meteorologist looking at climate and ozone. And that kind of bit me with the bug, really. How do you follow that up? Certainly not a 9-to-5 in a London office somewhere.

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MJ: You first landed there at age 23. What surprised you about the experience?

FA: As a wintering team, there were 21 people, and I was one of three women. During my second winter, it was just me and one other. So you have to learn a lot about the group dynamics and the psychology of small communities very, very quickly. On top of that, you're learning how to drive the Skidoo, you're learning how to guide planes in. Because the thing is, once everyone leaves, there's no IT department to ring. Once something goes wrong, you've got a manual and what's in your head, and that's it. I think everything was a surprise.

MJ: What do people do for fun in Antarctica?

FA: I can only speak for my base, but we had pretty much every sort of wacky fancy dress theme you can think of. I remember at one point we turned one room into a curry house and we all had curry that night. And somebody else rigged up a bungee rope where you had to run down a corridor hooked up to a bungee where you had to get hold of a beer. An ice cave was made. But also you've got Antarctica as your playground, so you go skiing, ice climbing. Even if it was a popular local peak, you knew there were only about two dozen people who had been up there before you. You really were adventuring.

MJ: Why'd you decide you wanted to ski across Antarctica alone?

FA: I'd skied to the South Pole as a team before, and I'd read about other people doing solo expeditions, and the question I always asked myself was "Would I be able to do that? Would I react in that way? Would I be up to it? Would I be capable?" So it was curiosity. And I wanted to know what it would feel like to be in that amazing place by myself, to effectively have it to myself. The psychological dimension was really interesting.

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