Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

First woman to cross Antarctic solo: I've never felt so alone

By Ivana Kottasova, for CNN
updated 3:30 PM EDT, Fri October 5, 2012
  • British explorer Felicity Aston became first woman to ski solo across Antarctica
  • She says the biggest challenge was coping with the long-term solitude
  • Aston had to deal with hallucinations and frustration to complete the expedition

(CNN) -- When Felicity Aston started smelling fish and chips, she knew something was wrong.

The unmistakable aroma of the classic British pub food, deep-fried fish and french fries, could only mean one thing: She must be hallucinating. After all, there are no pubs in the middle of Antarctica.

The British explorer was skiing solo across the great frozen continent and had not seen another human being for weeks.

"It drove me insane," said Aston. "It was like I was skiing along a huge row of fish and chips shops, the whole day."

Read more: Global warming hits Antarctica, study finds

I realized I would go a whole day and really not think about anything at all. My head was completely empty.
Felicity Aston

But, she says, she kept wiggling her fingers and toes to check for hypothermia, gritted her teeth and kept going, eventually crossing Antarctica in 59 days -- becoming the first woman in the world to make it solo.

Despite being a seasoned explorer -- she previously led a team to the South Pole; raced across Arctic Canada and traversed the inland ice of Greenland -- this was her first solo expedition. She says she has never felt so alone.

"The first time it really struck me was when the plane dropped me off (at) the beginning of my journey, and I watched it disappearing into a dark blob (in) the sky."

As she started putting up her tent and organizing her equipment, she says she realized her heart was jumping, she was out of breath and her hands were shaking.

Read more: Ship spends 10th day stuck in frozen waters off Antarctica

"I realized I was absolutely petrified," she said. "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."

Being alone in the Antarctic means being on a high alert all the time. There is a danger at every step: Crevasse fields; whiteouts; sharp-edged grooves and ridges; temperatures below -40 C and hurricane-speed winds.

Among the many physical impacts this environment has on the body -- exhaustion, malnutrition, frostbite, cramps, sunburn -- one of the most serious is hypothermia.

Among polar explorers, hypothermia is known as "the silent killer" because its first symptom is a progressive inability to think clearly, recognize the problem and do something about it. "The first warning signal of hypothermia is abnormal behavior -- being very quiet, confused, incoherent," Aston explained.

Every single morning, the first thing that struck me was, 'Oh my goodness, I can't do this, I don't want to be here, I've made a terrible mistake.'
Felicity Aston

These are things that other members of an expedition pick up on, but, in a team of one, there's no one else to raise the red flag.

Read more: Patient from Antarctica flown to New Zealand for treatment

"If you're alone, you have to make sure that if something goes wrong, you can get out of it," she said. "I had to always make sure that I would be able to put up a tent and look after myself at the end of each day." That's why she constantly wiggled her fingers, to make sure they weren't becoming numb, as the inability to use her hands would have been fatal.

Despite the endless physical dangers, Aston says the real challenge is winning the mental battle with solitude.

"It became the biggest struggle of the whole trip," she said. "Every single morning, the first thing that struck me was, 'Oh my goodness, I can't do this, I don't want to be here, I've made a terrible mistake.'

"I realized that the real (trick) of this would not be how strong I was or how much experience I had, it would literally be getting out of that tent."

But each day, she would get out of the tent and repeat exactly the same routine. After 40 days, she says she started noticing changes.

Read more: Scientists: Japanese tsunami produced Antarctic icebergs

"I realized I would go a whole day and really not think about anything at all. My head was completely empty," she said.

Hallucinations and strange sensations came next: "The sun became really important to me," she added.

During the polar summer, the sun circles in the sky, never going down. It became Aston's constant companion and she began greeting it in the morning. "This developed into me having full-blown conversations with the sun in my mind," she added.

Crying also became part of the daily routine and she says it wasn't until day 15 of her journey that she managed to go a whole day without bursting into tears.

In pictures: Stunning undersea panoramas now on Google Street View

As an experienced explorer, she knows they are part of the experience. "The men do as much crying as the women do," she said. "And the women smell as bad after six weeks without shower."

While bodily functions don't make the difference, it's the attitude that sets man and women apart.

She says that even the most experienced women tend to suffer from a lack of self confidence and sense of vulnerability.

"When I take a groups of women out into the cold environment, they are a lot more unsure, their default position is 'I can't do this,'" she said. Her job then becomes to convince them about the opposite.

With men, it's different. "Usually they'll fling themselves at it and their default position is 'I already know how to do this, I know exactly how to do this,' and it's a matter of bringing them in and telling them that they need to think more and watch out for certain things."

After days of skiing alone, in extreme cold, these differences disappear and men and women have to deal with the same issues.

Apart from one, which Aston has yet to find a solution to: Going to the toilet.

During the coldest days in Antarctica, she was deliberately dehydrating herself to avoid the need to get undressed in the bitter frost.

"It's the only time in my life I've ever ... wanted to be a man," Aston said. "You see the guys just turn around and have a quick pee in the snow and you go, 'Arrghh, I have to get undressed in this cold!'"

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed at her desk. Suffering from a broken cheekbone, the editor-in-chief decided to change her workaholic ways.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
updated 6:59 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
The Facebook COO's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy."
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Meet Gail Kelly, the woman who started as a bank teller -- and now runs the banks.
updated 12:46 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?
updated 11:50 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
updated 10:25 AM EST, Tue February 25, 2014
Cast your eye across a line-up of world leaders and it might look a little something like this: Man in dark suit, man in dark suit, man in dark suit, Angela Merkel in fire engine red two-piece.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
Meet Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the chairperson of French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus Holdings, with a net worth estimated at an eye-watering $6 billion.
updated 6:38 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
YouTube has a new boss and she has a "healthy disregard for the impossible" -- according to Google CEO Larry Page. Here are five things you didn't know about her.