All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Alone In Antarctica by Felicity Aston

on August 21, 2019

Alone In Antarctica: The First Woman To Ski Solo Across The Southern Ice
Felicity Aston
2014, 320p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

In the whirling noise of our advancing technological age, we are seemingly never alone, never out-of-touch with the barrage of electronic data and information.

Felicity Aston, physicist and meteorologist, took two months off from all human contact as she became the first woman — and only the third person in history – to ski across the entire continent of Antarctica alone. She did it, too, with the simple apparatus of cross-country, without the aids used by her prededecessors – two Norwegian men – each of whom employed either parasails or kites.

Aston’s journey across the ice at the bottom of the world asked of her the extremes in terms of mental and physical bravery, as she faced the risks of unseen cracks buried in the snow so large they might engulf her and hypothermia due to brutalizing weather. She had to deal, too, with her emotional vulnerability in face of the constant bombardment of hallucinations brought on by the vast sea of whiteness, the lack of stimulation to her senses as she faced what is tantamount to a form of solitary confinement.

Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Felicity Aston’s Alone in Antarctica becomes an inspirational saga of one woman’s battle through fear and loneliness as she honestly confronts both the physical challenges of her adventure, as well as her own human vulnerabilities.

For quite a few of the prompts in my Reading Women Podcast Challenge, I’ve been eternally grateful for the Goodreads group and the members who have suggested a number of options for even the most difficult sounding of prompts. One of them is a book about/by a woman athlete and nothing was really grabbing me interest wise until I saw a post for this, about the first women to ski solo across the southern ice. Regular readers would know I have a serious fascination for Antarctica and also the Arctic Circle. Antarctica is, relatively speaking, quite close to where I live but it could not be more different. I will watch any documentary, read any book set in either location and so when I saw the recommendation for this, I knew I had my book for the prompt.

Felicity Aston, some years before, put together a team of women from different parts of the globe who had very little skiing or trekking experience and did a similar trip as a team. However to challenge herself she decided that one thing left was to try it solo with no aids. Others had done the same journey with parasails or kites, both men. Unlike the early explorers Scott and Armundsen, Felicity would have the opportunity to drop supply packs at strategic points in her journey before beginning so she could limit the amount of stuff she had to carry at any given time. She also had quite a tight timing schedule in which to complete this trek as the weather is only forgiving for a portion of time and as her start is delayed by weather that doesn’t allow the plane to fly her to her start point, she’s already stressed she won’t make it before she even begins.

Although this does talk about the physical journey – the amount of distance she can cover in a day, the terrain, the landscape, the fitness levels and how her body changes on the way, it’s really very much about the mental journey. Felicity is mostly completely alone for the entire 70-something day trip. She does briefly stop at the South Pole to restock supplies and she also encounters 1-2 other parties on their own treks but apart from that, she’s alone. She makes a call each night with a satellite phone to reassure of her continued survival but that’s it. She can tweet from the satellite phone as well but it’s a one way thing. She cannot see replies or interaction with the tweets or respond to them.

The mental toll on Felicity was very interesting to read about. It’s situational, which is to say the way that the brain reacts to being in such a location, as well as the actual isolation itself. For example, I didn’t realise that given a complete lack of stimulus (like a white landscape for weeks on end) the brain will create its own, with vivid hallucinations. Aston was aware of the possibility or likelihood of this and she saw a psychologist before undertaking the journey (probably for various reasons) but one of the things they discussed was how to cope with hallucinations and recognise that they were in fact, hallucinations and not real. And as she gets deeper into the trip, you can actually see her grip on reality beginning to slip in a way. She starts off talking to herself, saying out loud what she needs to do, what her tasks are, what she has to complete, what she sees, what is next. But as the isolation settles in, she stops doing that and can go days without speaking a word except on her check in, which she comes to resent as intruding into her silence. She also begins to talk to the sun as though it is a sentient entity, able to understand her and even read her thoughts about it. A lot of her progress relies on the sun’s appearance and this is a large part I think, of why she comes to view it in such a way, almost feeling she has to bargain with it or appease it in order for it to make an appearance each day.

I enjoyed this because it’s really focused on someone setting themselves a really difficult challenge and then doing whatever it takes to complete it through some pretty tough conditions. However, for me, I was looking for more about Antarctica itself, about the physical journey, more about her surroundings and what it was actually like to be there. I know she’s been there before both working as a researcher at a station and also doing the team trek (which she also wrote a book about, but I haven’t read that one) so perhaps she feels as though that’s been covered. It’s what I’m interested in regarding Antarctica but the mental aspect is a very important part of it. It’s definitely not a place many people could cope with, especially under those conditions. And Aston is very honest I think, it felt very genuine. It’s a no holds barred kind of thing with the mental aspect, it didn’t particularly feel as though the physical aspect of it was much of a challenge.


Book #125 of 2019

Alone In Antarctica was read as part of my participation in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019. It’s the 15th book read for the challenge.

One response to “Review: Alone In Antarctica by Felicity Aston

  1. […] About a woman athlete – Alone In Antarctica by Felicity Aston. My review. […]

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