The first step to the South Pole
I stood on the snow-covered platform of a tiny station in a remote corner of Norway, waiting. Finally, the tracks began to fizz and a train slid alongside. A gaggle of well-wrapped bodies spilled from the doors and at first it was hard to recognise who was who; all I could see were broad smiles under big hats and fur-lined hoods.
There was Lina from Singapore and Mel from New Zealand, now Alecia from Jamaica and Athina from Cyprus. And Barbara from Ghana! Everyone was here, 16 women from 8 commonwealth countries as diverse as Brunei Darussalam, India and the UK. Each of these women had been selected from over 800 applicants wanting to take part in the Commonwealth Women’s Antarctic Expedition, an ambitious plan to create a team of ‘ordinary women’ to ski 900km across Antarctica to the South Pole for the 60th anniversary year of the Commonwealth.
For many of the women, their arrival in Norway was the first time they had ever seen snow or experienced subzero temperatures and the Norwegian winter had put on a good show. The snow was piled up to the roofs of the few surrounding buildings and continued to fall from the sky in big fat flakes. The group looked hopelessly out of place as they began dragging wheeled suitcases across the icy platform, handbags still firmly in place in the crooks of their arms. It was my job, as leader of the expedition, to turn these novices into polar explorers and to select which of the group would be making the journey with me to the South Pole. The selection wasn’t based on who was the strongest physically but on the ability of the women to work together and on the strength of their motivation as individuals to see the project through.
The next morning the candidates emerged from the hut that was our base on the edge of Norway’s vast and wild Hardangervidda plateau dressed in the new kit they had been issued complete with goggles, gloves and snow boots. They stumbled in the snow drifts and struggled to keep out the wind-driven snow in the air but I soon had them all in groups building snowmen.
‘The snow won’t stick together!’ Aparna from India ranted in frustration as yet another fistful of white powder fell from her hands. She noticed me watching her. ‘I’m trying to make a head for the snowman but it keeps falling apart,’ she told me. ‘This is surprisingly difficult.’
After snowmen came the art of snow angels. Many of the girls paused before falling backward into the snow as instructed, unsure that purposely floundering in ice-cold powder could possibly provide any semblance of fun but, one by one, the whole group was soon flapping in the snowdrifts, pointing and laughing at the angel-like impressions they left behind.
The next day it was time to get the candidates on skis for the first time. The concentration and determination was clear on their faces as they each fell repeatedly in the snow. Kim from Jamaica found the experience particularly tough. Her spectacular dreadlocks were caked in snow from her numerous tumbles and her woolly hat clung precariously to the top of her head, threatening to topple with every stumble. ‘I thought the hardest thing out here would be the skiing,’ she admitted later, ‘but actually the hardest thing is keeping track of three layers of clothing. At home I’m used to wearing one layer and I can’t lose that because I’m wearing it. Out here I have three pairs of everything.’ She paused to pull her hat further onto her head with a tug before pushing off into another shaky glide.
That afternoon the air filled with snow being blown horizontally across the landscape and our world gradually shrank. Clouds of snow blotted out the horizon so that it was impossible in places to tell where the heavy sky ended and the snow-covered hills began. The candidates, hot and tired from their efforts in the deep snow struggled back to the hut through the snowdrifts hampered by their big down jackets and clumsy snow boots. A few stopped midway to gape at their surroundings, incredulous, before putting their heads down in grim determination to continue. As I watched, it was my turn to be incredulous as I noticed that several of the women still clutched their handbags as they fought against the wind-driven snow. I couldn’t help but laugh at this feminine touch being brought to the masculine world of polar exploration but my laughter quickly died as the reality of the task ahead of me sank in. Suddenly, the South Pole seemed a very long way off indeed.
Felicity Aston is the author of ‘Call of the White: Taking the world to the South Pole’ which tells the story of an unconventional team of women from around the world skiing across Antarctica to the South Pole. You can read more on www.felicityaston.com