Monday, March 7, 2011

Thanet adventurer recalls record-breaking all-women South Pole expedition

When British adventurer Felicity Aston led seven women on a unique expedition to the South Pole she guaranteed herself and her comrades a place in the history books.
Not only did the fearless group complete the treacherous 900km trek across one of Earth’s most hostile environments, they broke six world records in the process. And with the women selected from Commonwealth countries as diverse as Jamaica, India, Singapore and Cyprus, some had never even seen snow, let alone set foot on a pair of skis.
In her uplifting book, Call of the White – Taking the World to the South Pole, Miss Aston, from Birchington, recalls the highs and lows of the all-female Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition and how she formed the unusual team. The 33-year-old said while her book tells the story of the unique expedition it also focuses on the challenging preparations.
"I have read a lot of polar expedition accounts and some of them can be quite boring because they are so similar," she said. "This book is about getting the team together in the first place as well as the trip itself.
"Although we had a lot of support there was also a lot of scepticism about taking novices from hot climates to the South Pole. The women involved were from all over the world, there were seven languages and cultures. Some of them hadn’t even seen snow.
"The book shows the characters and camaraderie between us in extreme conditions. I hope it inspires people to do something they have always wanted to do or felt they couldn’t do before."
Miss Aston said for the expedition she was looking for a group of "ordinary" women who wanted to inspire others to follow their dreams.
"It took two years to organise and plan and I received 800 applications from women in Commonwealth countries," she said.
"Two women were each chosen from eight countries and we went on a training trip to Norway in sub-zero temperatures – they were really thrown in at the deep end. This was one of the most challenging things we did."
The shortlist was then whittled down to eight – nine including travel writer Miss Aston – although one of the women was unable to complete the final expedition. Miss Aston said when selecting the final team she looked for women who had a real reason for wanting to be there. "Sophia from Singapore had three children at home. She told me her motivation was to show her daughter – who told her she would never be able to do it – that miracles do happen," she said.
"Reena from India wanted to work in the mountains but her parents told her it wasn’t a job for a woman and she would never get married if she took that path. She is now a trekking guide in the Himalayas and happily married."
Miss Aston started preparing for the expedition in 2007, and the 38-day trek took place in November and December, 2009.
As well as promoting the accomplishments of women worldwide, the trip was to mark the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Commonwealth.
The final line-up included 25-year-old Stephanie Solomonides, from Cyprus, and Dk Najibah Eradah binti P.A.M Al-Sufri Pg M-L Kahar, 25, from Brunei Darussalam, who became the first two people ever from their countries to make the mammoth trip.
Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu, 38, from India; Kylie Wakelin, from New Zealand;, and Sophia Pang, 36, from Singapore, were the first women from their countries to do the same.
Also making up the team was Helen Turton who flew the British flag alongside Miss Aston, who already had 10 years of knowledge under her belt having completed a number of treks, including a 360-mile endurance race across the Canadian Arctic. She also led the first British women’s crossing of the Greenland ice sheet.
"When choosing the team I looked for people that got on well together," she said. "There was a huge element of trust in what we were going to do so that was vital. It was all about dynamics.
"Getting to know each other was harder than in normal situations because we lived in different countries – we used a lot of Skype and a private Wiki website – but there was great camaraderie between us."
• Call of the White is being launched at Waterstone’s in Tunbridge Wells on Tuesday, March 15, at 7pm.

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