The polar explorer Felicity Aston is the first woman to traverse Antarctica solo and the first human to do so under her own muscle alone. I met her recently at an event hosted by my university’s Polar Center. In her riveting presentation, drawn from her book Alone in Antarctica (which you must read, and not only because it has a foreword by Joanna Lumley, aka AbFab’s Patsy Stone), Aston talked a lot about how she managed the psychological challenges of her isolation while skiing 1744 km (1083 miles) over 59 days through a continent routinely characterized as barren, blank, empty. We might say (at least, I say) that the most consistent and visible outcomes of travels and expeditions are narratives. These narratives take the form of published voyage accounts, yes, but they also comprise the stories that make up the inner lives of expedition members, the stories adventurers tell themselves, however fragmented. Aston’s Antarctica was populated by shadows and hallucinatory hands and framed by parcelized narratives. What does the mind do in the face of unremitting solitude at the end of the earth? What stories does it tell itself, what connections does it make? And what do we learn from these stories, as they reach their spectral hands toward us?
In the polar summers in which most expeditions occur the sun never sets and never declines–it just circles the sky. In skiing longer than usual one day Aston was terrified by a sudden motion, a dark shape beside her in the Antarctic blankness. It was her shadow, swinging unexpectedly next to her by the lateness of that day’s leg. From then on she skied later into the day in order to have that companionate shadow travel with her. This evoked for me the phantom fourth man on Ernest Shackleton’s final push toward rescue on South Georgia at the end of his Endurance expedition; as he describes it:
[D]uring that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.–Shackleton, South
Who is to say with what shades Antarctica is peopled? What language is sufficient to that description? The community that Aston found in her own shadow has a distinguished Antarctic history of at least a hundred years.
In her journey Aston hallucinated. Her first hallucinations were of disembodied hands. Hands to point the way, hands to grasp. Later these hands became less gestural and more embodied: at one point a bald man jumped from behind some sastrugi (ice dunes carved by wind), shook his fist angrily at her, jumped on a mini triceratops and rode away. Aston had conversations with the sun, and the sun spoke back to her. She said that for months after returning to the UK she felt terrible guilt for not conversing with or acknowledging the sun beyond a raised hand–would the sun understand her coldness?
Her conversations were also with herself. Every morning Aston had to rally herself to leave her sleeping bag after the awakening voice in her head insisted “you can’t do this.” Daily she bargained with herself–extra chocolate if you get up now, extra sleep tomorrow if you get up now-in vain. Daily she invoked her supporters and friends and patrons to spur her to action–in vain. The only way she could get out of the tent, daily, was to think of those who opposed her, who thwarted her, who disbelieved her, who said she couldn’t succeed. She would build up enough rage to propel herself out of the bag and out of the tent and into the winds of the 3000m high, -40˚ Antarctic plateau. “Keep getting out of the tent,” Aston told us. It was the primary realization and lesson of her voyage. “Keep getting out of the tent.” I wondered, in turn, has daily-stoked oppositional rage been a driving force for many male explorers? If so, such narratives have circulated only in the minds of the men who have traveled to the polar regions–in my extensive reading in written polar narratives rage does not make it to the page.
When I present my research on the small, private newspapers created by nineteenth-century polar expeditions, audience members often observe that the newspapers sound like social media–the C19 version of Facebook or Twitter. When the poet Elizabeth Bradfield visited my university and talked with students recently we had similar conversations about social media as the new logbook of adventure travel. Here is where the mental challenge Aston faced as a solo venturer met the medium of the social: she had with her a satellite phone, but no matter how painfully, violently alone she felt many nights, never called her mother or a friend or a loved one. Instead she sent SMS messages to her Twitter account: enough, she said, to leave a skeleton record of the voyage and satisfy a need to reach beyond the ice. (Aston did not carry a full-sized journal because it would add too much weight for her to haul.) These tweets were not the only patchwork narratives of Aston’s time in Antarctica. She had an mp3 player with her, loaded with music as well as audiobooks, including a lengthy history of England from her father and an Agatha Christie mystery. But as the audiobooks were divided into chapters, and those chapters listed alphabetically, they did not play in narrative order: thus the murderer was revealed before there was a body, the reigns of the Jameses and the Henrys and the Charleses all disassembled and reassembled in Aston’s mind along the long nightless kilometers. Antarctica thwarts linear progression.
The brief, unidirectional messages from the ice and the randomized book chapters–like the disembodied hands, the conversational sun, the shadow, the tiny triceratops–served as Aston’s imagined community. But such communities cannot be sustained in the mind alone, no matter how vivid its capacity to multiply affiliations. It seems to me that Aston’s survival was contingent, perhaps, on her externalization of this community, her recognition of the real presence of the shades of expeditionary history and doubt. She honored these elements of Antarctica on their own terms, as much as she did the terrain’s crevasses and her fuel needs. “Keep getting out of the tent,” Aston told us, and this I will venture, even on the days when it feels like the ability to emerge from rage into light is just a story we tell ourselves.