In December 2009, a unique expedition will set out for the southern tip of the earth. Led by British adventurer Felicity Aston, 30, two teams of four women each will ski to the South Pole from two different points on the Antarctica coastline, reaching their destination around New Year’s Day 2010.
Organized to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth in 2010, the expedition will have one woman each from eight Commonwealth countries—India, Cyprus, Ghana, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand, Jamaica and the UK.
Prior to announcing the names of Aparna Roy and Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu as the two Indian finalists (one of them will join the Commonwealth Women’s Antarctic Expedition) at the British Council in New Delhi in August, Aston delivered an inspiring speech on her experience of spending two-and-a-half years in Antarctica as a member of the British Antarctic Survey, of being a part of the first all-woman team to successfully complete the 580km endurance race in the Canadian Arctic, and of leading a team of four women skiers across 1,100km in the Greenland ice-sheet in 31 days. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How was the Commonwealth expedition conceived?
After the successful expedition in Greenland in 2006, I wanted to do something with an all-woman team on a larger, more international scale. It was then that I thought of an expedition of women selected from the Commonwealth countries. It would bring attention to the organization, which in turn would provide a great platform for cross-cultural transfer of ideas. The year 2010 is the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth and also happens to be the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue.
Why an all-woman team?
So much of what I have done, right from studying physics in college, has been in areas seen as male bastions. In our team of 20 people who stayed in the Antarctic for two-and-a-half years, there were only two women. Outdoor expeditions are seen as masculine endeavours. In the UK, outdoor adventure programming on television is mostly an all-guy affair. There are women out there—climbers and mountaineers, who are pushing the boundaries—but we don’t hear about them or see them on television.
Is there anything that makes an all-woman team different from all-male or mixed teams?
There is a different atmosphere to an only-women team. They approach things differently. And, I think, there are some advantages. For one, they are more ready to admit that they are struggling. It is considered macho not to tell anyone if you are in some trouble.
As the only girl in a team of men you are careful not to be seen as the weak link, and you act accordingly. But there are no such compulsions among women. During the Greenland expedition, at one point my feet had gotten so cold that they were hurting badly, but we still had the tent to put up. I just burst into tears. My teammate Rachel came over and hugged me. Then we just got on with the work at hand. I probably wouldn’t have cried if I was around men.
How many women from India applied to be part of the expedition?
There were 130 applicants. What surprised me was how many already had mountaineering experience, and also the age range—unlike in other countries, the applicants were not all young. Many candidates had inspiring CVs: Mamatha Lala, a doctor, works with HIV-positive children, and Smrithi Rai has made it her personal mission to save the endangered Pangolin. Another thing that struck me was the number of enquiries about the kind of food they would have to eat.
Is India’s predominantly hot climate a disadvantage?
That will become apparent when the two candidates we have short-listed come for training to Scandinavia. With modern clothing and equipment, it shouldn’t be a problem. And there will be a period of acclimatization. With temperatures in the Antarctic plunging to -30 degrees Celsius, everyone is in the same boat.
Do such expeditions—to the Poles or across Siberia or Greenland—serve any purpose beyond thrill and adventure?
Most people don’t know that Lake Baikal, where I went on an expedition, is the deepest and the oldest freshwater lake on the planet. For me, it was so interesting to interact with the people living there. It annoys me when people say that there is nothing left to explore. There is so much out there to explore and discover. Everywhere I go, I learn something new, and I feel that I come back a better person. To see and know what’s out there is a basic human need.