Thursday, 3 October 2013

When was the last time you were alone?

Having spent a year in Antarctica with three other people, I thought I knew

what being alone was. For seven nights every three weeks I would be alone 

for 8 hours on fire watch while the other three slept. This book by Felicity  Aston is

very much about alone-ness and very much a journey of attitude and determination. 

To me her most powerful realisation was something I discovered many years ago.

"The fact that I had crossed Antarctica, despite the tears and the fear 

and the alone-ness, deepened my belief that we are each far more capable

than we give ourselves credit for." 

Felicity AstonWhen was the last time you were alone?
Before you answer I need to clarify - by ‘alone’, I don’t mean simply ‘by yourself’ when there might be someone in the next room, or in a building across the street. I mean the last time you were somewhere without any sign of another human being. It’s amazing how many people, when they think about it, realise that they have never, in their whole lives, been truly alone. For many sports people, however, it is a little different. Their discipline might involve regular solitary experiences – running back-country trails, hiking in the hills, climbing routes in wilderness locations – but equally any competitive sport can also be very isolating. After all, at the moment of performance there is no-where to retreat except into your own head and your own motivation.
Towards the end of November 2011 I stood on the frozen 
Ross Ice Shelf of the Antarcticcoast. The plane that had 
brought me there quickly became a tiny black blob in the sky.
 I could still hear the distinctive drone of its engines but 
with every breath the sound became fainter. I closed my
 eyes to focus my ears on the noise but it was slowly, and
 inevitably, blotted
 out by the silence. When I opened my eyes again, the plane
 had gone. I was alone.
Alone In Antarctica
I stood motionless for
a second, breathing in
 the cold air.
 Even the smallest of
movements sounded
brutally intrusive in the 
stillness: the rasp of 
brittle fabrics, the 
polystyrene squeak of
 my boots in the snow. 
I turned onthe spot, 
running my gaze slowly 
over the horizon, trying
 to take in my surroundings.
 To my right was the flat 
expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf,
 a featureless divide of
white snow and blue sky, 
while to my left were the
Transantarctic Mountains
which extended in an unbroken 
line as far as I could see in 
either direction. Each peak
appeared intimately close-by
even though I knew that I could
travel for hours towards them and still not touch stone. As I looked around me, 

one thought echoed through my brain: in all this landscape, in all this space, I was 

the only living thing. I could search every fold of rock, every block of ice and not 

find so much as a nesting bird, a minute fly or a single blade of hardy grass. The 

nearest  open water where any wildlife was to be found was more than 700

 kilometres away to the north and the nearest human habitation perhaps as 

much as 1,000 kilometres to the west. The scale of the emptiness was
 almost too much to absorb. 
Panic filled my chest like a slow rising bubble threatening to block off the air to

 my lungs. It burned in my stomach like corrosive acid and I felt choked. It wasn’t

 that I feared for my life or for my safety, it was the alone-ness itself that scared me.

 I have always been comfortable in my own company and often travel by myself to

 remote places but this was a whole new level of isolation; to be so far not just 

from other human beings and any signs of civilisation but from any form of life 

whatsoever. The sense of absolute 
loneliness was instant, overwhelming and completely crushing. Every fibre of my

body was yelling at me that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Ahead of me was a 1700km ski journey across the entire Antarctica continent –

a journey that would eventually take me 59-days to complete, making me the first

 woman ever to do so alone. But, during those first moments of the expedition

 as I stood contemplating the challenges ahead - the cold, the 
altitude, the crevasses, the terrain – it was the alone-ness that

was most daunting.
Felicity Aston skiing pulling her sled
Every morning I would wake up filled with a deadening conviction; I couldn’t go

on. Antarctica was more than I could manage on my own. I knew that it was

 impossible for me to get out of the tent and confront  the remorseless weather 

that waited for me. I could not spend another day battling forward on my skis 
trying to ignore the clammy discomfort of the close fitting material around my

 face protecting my skin from freezing. I could not bear anymore the moment 

I would be forced to expose myself to the cold hastily refastening stubborn

 clothing with painfully numbing fingers, only to repeat the agonising process a 
few hours later. The relentless struggle just to stay safe, never mind move forward, 

was more than I could take. I understood, in that moment, categorically, that the 

distance ahead of me and the number of days to come, as well as my alone-ness, 

was more, much more, than I could face. It wasn’t that I was giving in;it was a calm 

and rational realisation that I didn’t have the physical or mental capacity for the

 challenge ahead. I had found what I had come to Antarctica for. I had found 
my limit.
Felicity Aston And yet every morning I would have

 to get myself out of that mind set and 

find a way to motivate myself. Often it 

wasn’t pretty; it  usually involved a lot of 

crying, a lot of cajoling and a lot of  

painful angst. I found that it was 

remembering those who had  been

 disparaging of me in the past, or events 

that had left m feeling angry and indignant,

 that provided the greatest incentive
. I made old wounds fresh by recalling those who had dismissed
 me, people who had been unjustly harsh in their evaluation of my
 character and my capability, in order to galvanise myself. At first
 I felt a little embarrassed at this way of going about things; but 
perhaps it is natural that the strongest feelings provoke the most
 dramatic responses and hurt so often stays with us longer and
 more vividly than praise.
I realised that the success or failure of my expedition was not going to

 be down to anything heroic; it was not about ploughing through blizzards,

 crossing crevasses or dealing with frostbite - it would come down
 to the simple, fundamental and yet very difficult challenge of getting out

of the tent each and every morning.
When I returned home, having completed my expedition, I found that this

part of my experience struck a chord with lots of people - what is it that keeps

 us going even when we know it is impossible to continue? 
The fact that I had crossed Antarctica, despite the tears and the fear

and the alone-ness, deepened my belief that we are each far more capable 

than we give ourselves credit for. 
Felicity Aston - Alone in Antarctica
Felicity's book Alone in Antarctica went on sale earlier this year - check it out and find out more
 about this incredible, record-breaking, adventurer!


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