Skiing with the Silent Killer
Last November 25, British explorer Felicity Aston unloaded her gear onto the Ross Ice Shelf, thanked her pilot, then watched as the plane disappeared into "a dark blob (in) the sky." Looking around herself at the pristine landscape—with nothing but whiteness to the north and the wall of the Transantarctic Mountains rearing up in front of her to the south—she knew for the first time ever that she was absolutely alone, and it terrified her. As she pitched her tent on the ice, her heart was pounding, her breathing labored and her hands shook uncontrollably. "I realized I was absolutely terrified," she told CNN. "And it wasn't because I (was) scared of dying or injury, it was just that level of aloneness that was instantly frightening. Just the weight of the amount of time on my own."
The next morning, she'd set off on a record-setting, 1,700-kilometer (1,056-mile) journey in which she'd become the first-ever woman to solo ski across Antarctica. There was plenty to be frightened about—whiteouts, subzero temps and crevasses—but the biggest dangers she faced as a solo explorer were hypothermia and the constant mental battle with crushing loneliness.
Hypothermia is a gradual lowering of the body's core temperature. Polar adventurers call it "the silent killer" because its first sympton is a progressive clouding of the mind that makes a victim quiet, confused and incoherent. While expedition partners can recognize these symptoms, the victim herself cannot. If she's not careful, she'll lose control of herself, her core temp will drop too far and she'll freeze to death. In the end, it's a mental battle as much as a physical one. For the first two weeks, Aston burst into tears every day. Later on, she started hallucinating, smelling fish and chips hundreds of miles from anything and anyone, and having full-on coversations with the sun (picture Tom Hanks and his volleyball, Wilson, in the film Castaway).
In the end, though, Aston succeeded in her crossing, finishing up the journey in 59 days. Read the CNN story and check out her expedition site for more insight into the strange, hazardous trip that is solo polar travel.