Thursday, September 5, 2013

All By Myself: Felicity Aston’s Epic Journey into the Heart and Psyche of Antarctica

Felicity Aston, Arcticnaut
As someone who considers themselves a bit of an Antarctic buff — having written extensively on leading figures from the golden age of Antarctic exploration, I am often asked if it’s a place I’ve ever been. I have not. Well, people ask, don’t you want to go?  Surely, they think, someone with such an abiding obsession about a geographic locale would want to experience it firsthand. The answer is no. Nope. No thanks.

I am in fact horribly sensitive to the cold and don’t think I’d last five minutes on the planet’s bleakest and most inhospitable continent. Oh, they reply, clearly disappointed and puzzled. Perhaps they wanted someone more willing to risk life and limb in pursuit of their topic, because we like to live vicariously through the gung-ho type. That way, we can ponder how an ordinary human being could possibly survive conditions, journeys and self-imposed hardships that beggar the imagination.

They would have a completely different and far more fulfilling conversation with Felicity Aston, an English lass who pluckily decided to become the first woman in the world to ski, by herself, across Antarctica — and lived to tell the tale.

Epic selfie
That tale is told with compelling aplomb in her memoir Alone in Antarctica — a to-the-point title if ever there was one. Not more than a few pages in you realize that she not only accomplished a feat of astounding stoicism and endurance, but that she’s a darned good writer too. As she takes us along on her perilous expedition, she shares details about the unique geographies and weather conditions she encounters along the way with fluid, sensory language. Of the mountains, for example, she says “Those at the back were chiseled into spires that stretched for the sky while at their feet smaller hills and nunatuks crowded together creating an overlapping pastiche of rock and ice. The rise and fall of the saddled ridges and lower summits resembled the regular ridge and scoop of a scalloped shell.”

All frozen up
This memoir is also noteworthy for the intimacy with which the author invites us into her head, which we soon discover is the really dangerous terrain. It was the “isolation,” she says, she found “far more terrifying than the temperature.” The mental landscape and the hazards it poses when one undergoes such a journey alone is a remarkable account of self-examination and discovery. The end of the earth is a long way to go to find the end of your rope, but hanging at the end of it is wisdom that cannot be gained otherwise.

Get it here: Amazon
It was possible to follow Aston’s journey in real time with the internet, as she updated her progress via satellite phone to Twitter. I kept up-to-date through Facebook, and distinctly remember the frustration she expressed as she waited out bad weather before she could begin, and again at the end, when a remarkably moving bit of video footage was posted to let us all know she’d made it to her destination, Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice Shelf. With the camera up close so all we can see is a tight shot of her face, Aston struggles to come to terms with her historic achievement, shedding tears of what feels like sheer relief while she waits for the plane to come and pick her up from the ice.

Aston’s obsession with Antarctica, a place whose allure has drawn her to dwell in its remoteness many times over the years, is one in which her interaction with the land is repeatedly erased. The blank canvas upon which she treads retains no footprint, no physical memory of her passing. This has always been the case. Those explorers who fought to imprint themselves upon the land — Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson, Fiennes et al. — also had to do so from a distance, in ink on paper. Their accounts have inspired me as a thinker and writer, and this book does too.

I will always be grateful that someone else has braved the cold to report back on what it’s like to be truly alone, so I don’t have to be. Aston has taken a page from the old boy’s books and made Antarctica her own.

Felicity Aston's WEBSITE.
Some of my other writing on Antarctica from The Paris Review

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