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Felicity Aston: Ice queen

‘‘There were different levels of fear but fear was always there,” says Felicity Aston. This year, she became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica – and the first person to do so alone without using kites or machines – travelling 1,744 kilometres in 59 days. Despite the topic of conversation, Aston, in London for a gala dinner to celebrate, is all smiles as we sit in the restaurant of her hotel in Waterloo.

With numerous polar expeditions behind her, Aston was well acquainted with the “relentless” environment she was entering. To travel light, she did not take any spare skis or ski poles. She wore the same clothes for the entire two months (“It’s not so bad. You’re not sweating”).

Though she made contact with base camp on her satellite phone once a day to update colleagues on her location, there was little back-up if it went wrong. A rescue plane can be sent, but finding one person in the vast expanse of Antarctica is not easy. If she had fallen down a crevasse, it would have been nigh-on impossible.

“How often in our day-to-day life are we really alone?” she asks. “We’re social animals. We are used to having people around and taking that away had a lot more effect than I’d expected.”

Here comes the sun

Not seeing another human being for two months would be enough to send many people mad. “[Now that I’m] home, people are a little disappointed that I’m not crazy. They’re looking at me expecting a twitch or for me to start talking to the pepper grinder but I’m pretty sane. My only nod to insanity was developing this relationship with the sun. It felt protective and it was always there. I’d have internal conversations with it.”

Aston explains that she can’t feel her fingers or toes because of the prolonged impact of the ski poles. “It’s a slow degrading of your body. It’s odd – you get fitter but you’re getting weaker at the same time, because every day is taking a little bit out of you.”

She gives a graphic description of the “tiny” discomforts: “Your skin must be covered all the time, including your face. When you breathe out, your face covering freezes, so it’s a solid encasing. It’s all slightly wet in there and your nose is running but you can’t get to it. You have a tiny little gap in your face covering that you have to try to post food through, so you end up with food all over your face. Not very glamorous.”

Eating only porridge, chocolate and freeze-dried meals, she spent a whole day hallucinating the smell of fish and chips (“How British can you get?”). I muse what would make a person want to do this at all. Aston says it comes down to pushing herself but it is clear she has a strong attachment to Antarctica. “Standing as a human being in that vast landscape, you just think: ‘Wow, this planet is huge and we’re the only speck of conscious life on it.’

“If I could take everybody [there] just for an afternoon . . . When you see this place, this talk about why we need to protect it suddenly makes a lot more sense.”

Felicity Aston’s diary of her trip:

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue