Two years ago, British explorer Felicity Aston stepped off a plane onto the coast of Antarctica with a pair of Nordic skis, a satellite phone, and two heavy sledges filled with food and supplies. In her bid to become the first solo skier to cross Antarctica using only her own muscle power, Aston had to face unrelenting blizzards, fierce windstorms, and her own fears. She made it safely to the other side in just two months. Aston is a pioneer for female athletes and explorers, but facing an unforgiving landscape and extreme isolation also transformed her personally. Here, Aston describes how the expedition made her reevaluate her body, her confidence, and her thoughts on mirrors.
PREPPING THE BODY: To do an endurance event like this, you don’t really need to be training in a gym, it’s more about low intensity training. I did a lot of long, hard walks and hikes. I would drag tires on a sandy beach to replicate dragging the sledges. I did a lot of lunges, squats, and resistance work. I also had to put on extra weight. I was eating 5000 calories a day—twice the normal limit. I saw it as a real joy. For three months I was able to eat pizza, cake and bread. Eating food with lots of oils and butters is how you put on weight that will stick to your bones. It’s funny though, I met one lady who really wanted to do a polar expedition, but when I told her the amount of weight she would have to gain, she suddenly wasn’t interested anymore.
PREPPING THE MIND: To prepare mentally, I went to see a sports psychologist about how to deal with the isolation. We did a lot of visualization, running through everything in your mind imagining yourself finishing the expedition. It feels like wishful thinking at first but it gives you extra confidence, lowers anxiety and helps you get to sleep.
MALE VS. FEMALE EXPLORERS: A lot of the guys come back from a trek like this with injuries on their face. Their skin is peeling and swollen, with bits open and chapped. Guys see it as a badge of honor. The women, however, come back looking amazingly intact. We’re aware that it’s not great for a woman to have massive scars on her face, so we go to that extra effort to make sure our skin isn’t ruined.
SKIN SAVING ESSENTIALS: In extreme cold, skin dries out and you are more susceptible to injury. You have to worry about things like chapping, chafing, frostbite, and all sorts of horridness. You have to be very careful to use heaps of moisturizer. Every night I would use my ration of one baby wipe a day to wipe my face and my hands. Then I would put on heaps of ultra rich moisturizer, good old-fashioned Nivea did the trick. Outside of the tent, I couldn’t have my skin exposed to open air, so I would wear a full face mask to cover me from head to foot. Even so, I had to have sunscreen since there is no ozone layer in Antarctica; SPF 50 helped protect against poisonous UV rays. Towards the end of my journey I got careless with the hole in my face mask and it let some of the sunshine and cold air get in on my lips. When I got back to the UK and started properly thawing out, my lips completely swelled. It looked like a bad Botox thing. Of course, that was when I was doing all of my press and interviews.
MIRROR AS SURVIVAL TOOL: While I was in Antarctica, I had a small mirror but I wasn’t looking at my appearance. (There’s no one to see how you look which is a bit liberating.) The mirror was simply to check my face for any signs of cold injury. The first signs of frostbite are red or pale patches, the tip of your nose can turn completely white. So if you haven’t got a mirror there is no way of knowing if you have it.
BEING ALONE FOR TWO MONTHS: The truth is being alone felt awful, it felt more awful than I could have possibly imagined. It was really bizarre how the act of being alone and of being that isolated was the scary part. I wasn’t scared of the hypothermia or the frostbite, what proved to be terrifying was that sense of just how alone I was. We hardly ever spend any time being alone. Maybe you go hiking in the wilderness and you don’t see anyone for a day, but even then you’ve got a cell phone with you and you know if you ring 911 someone will be with you. We all have that kind of safety and security net, and I didn’t have that. I had left civilization. There were certain places in the mountains where there is no way a plane could get close to where I was. If something had gone wrong I would have had to travel a considerable distance before I could reach help, and it might even take a week of complicated logistics to get me. When you realize just how alone you are, that there is no one you can call, no one who would come to your rescue—you realize you are totally reliant on yourself and that is terrifying.
FACING FEAR: I don’t think I ever really got over the fear. On a certain level I was scared the entire time. Sometimes my fright was more heightened and other times I was able to suppress it with strict routines that became comforting.
WHAT BEING ALONE TEACHES YOU ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS: It demonstrated to me very forcibly that, we are who we are because of the relationships with those around us. It’s a bit of a cliché to say the most important thing in life are those relationships you have with people, but I would even go further and say they really make us who we are. If you start removing those relationships, then you really start to lose a sense of a person and character. They are what make us and shape us, and trying to live without those relationships and basic day to day interactions with other human beings was so challenging.
A NEW BODY: My body shape really changed. I was getting muscles where I don’t normally have muscles. It was a bit of a shock when I first saw myself naked. I looked completely different. I didn’t like my arms and back, I looked far too muscular and it wasn’t particularly attractive, to me anyway. But I couldn’t be too disappointed because I now had the buttocks of an athlete. My behind had never looked so great.
A NEW TAKE ON HERSELF: The experience gave me so much more confidence, this whole idea that if you just keep going in life, everything will be ok. If you really believe that you can handle whatever life throws at you, and you will find your way through, it makes you much more confident.