Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov 18: Reaching the end of the Earth has become almost routine these days: One hundred years after Norway's Roald Amundsen beat Britain's R.F. Scott to the South Pole, more than 30 teams are trying for it this year.
Some will kite-sail over the vast Antarctic ice and snow. Others will drive in from the coast. A wealthy handful will be dropped off at one-degree north latitude, for relatively leisurely guided treks to the pole.
But Felicity Aston has been there, done that. Weather and her own considerable stamina permitting, the 33-year-old British adventurer will only pause at the pole long enough to pick up more food and fuel. Her plan is to keep on skiing, by herself, all the way to the other side of the frozen continent—and become the first person using only muscle power to cross Antarctica alone.
If she manages to complete this journey of more than 1,000 miles (1,700 kilometers) in late January, she would also set a record for the longest solo polar expedition by a woman, at about 70 days.
“This is my first solo expedition, the first time I will have spent this length of time without company,” she said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. “It's part of the challenge of the expedition, to see how I'll cope with it.”
Aston spoke from Punta Arenas, Chile, where she was boarding a charter flight Friday after losing a precious week waiting for weather to break. From a base in Antarctica, she'll then take a second plane to her starting point at the foot of the Leverett Glacier, where the Ross Ice Shelf meets the rocky coast.
Already, she was “channeling down,” getting her mind set on what would be a grueling routine.
“Your life reduces to eating, sleeping and skiing. It's a form of meditation. You get into a rhythm, and all you can hear is your own breathing, your own heartbeat, the sound of your clothes and your skis. It's kind of an altered state,” she said. “A trip like this is all about keeping going—the stamina, endurance, keeping going day after day after day.”
Aston has plenty of experience in long-endurance expeditions. She spent nearly three years as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey, and in 2009 led an all-woman group from the coast to the South Pole. Her long list of travel adventures includes skiing across the Canadian Arctic, crossing the Greenland ice sheet and trekking over Siberia's frozen Lake Baikal. She's also run across Morocco's Sahara Desert and tracked jaguars in Paraguay.
“I've been preparing for 10 years and only now do I feel capable of this. Every trip teaches you something: how tough you are, what your personal limits are, how to wrap up a blister better, how not to get sick,” she said. “Particularly on the psychological side, each journey I've had has taught me something about how to feel better about a situation, how to react, how to behave.”
The 5-foot-11 (1.80-meter) Aston weighs around 170 pounds (77 kilos) and she'll be hauling up to 187 pounds (85 kilos) of gear on a sledge. It includes freeze-dried food, fuel and a camp stove for melting snow. She's also bringing along a solar recharger and two MP3 players—one has music donated by her friends, everything from peaceful ska tunes to heavy metal and “fluffy pop songs;” the other has mostly audio books from her father on “the whole of British history ... 300 hours of it!”
Antarctic Treaty rules require private support teams to be able to pull people out in a pinch, and Aston is carrying two Iridium satellite phones and a GPS beacon to keep in touch with hers.
“She has to have the beacon, because it's so easy for a solo person to get in trouble,” said David Rootes, a veteran polar guide who runs Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. The company is supporting most of this year's trips, making about 20 flights into Antarctica and moving about 500 people around the continent in all. Most are traveling in groups, hoping to make it in time for a polar party on Dec. 13, (South Pole time), the centennial of Amundsen's achievement.
“What Felicity is doing is not routine at all,” Rootes said. “Until she hits the pole, she's really out of contact with anybody at all.”
Rootes met Aston years ago at a Royal Geographic Society function in London, and has followed her exploits in the clubby world of adventurers ever since.
“She's a very substantial woman. You have to have a hell of a lot of drive and single-mindedness to do this, because everything in the world will get in the way to stop you,” he said.
Once Aston sets off, climbing thousands of feet (meters) in altitude through the Transantarctic Mountains and onto the continent's vast central plateau, she'll be utterly alone, with no other living thing in sight. Then, she'll have to push through fierce headwinds for more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) as she follows a route along 132 West Longitude to the pole.
Her way out—skiing along the 80 West Longitude line to the company's base camp on Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice Shelf—would presumably be easier.
“The West Winds, quite notorious. That's the bit I'm most worried about in terms of weather, but once I'm past the pole, I've got the wind at my back,” she said. “So in the scheme of things, it works out pretty good this way!”