Surviving Loneliness: 4 Things I Learned by Crossing Antarctica Alone
1. Deny Denial.
The plane that had brought me to the coast had become a tiny black blob in the sky. With every breath, the drone of its engines became fainter. I closed my eyes to focus my ears on the noise but it was slowly, and inevitably, blotted out. When I opened my eyes again, all I saw was blue and clouds.
I was alone.
To my right was the flat expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf, a featureless divide of snow and sky; while to my left were the Transantarctic Mountains, which extended in an unbroken line as far as I could see. In all this landscape, in all this space, I was the only human being and quite possibly the only living thing whatsoever. The sense of absolute loneliness was instant, overwhelming and completely crushing. My heart thumped, I felt out of breath and my hands were visibly shaking. I didn't immediately understand what was happening to me; then I realized that this is what it feels like to be terrified. It wasn't that I feared for my life or for my safety, it was the aloneness itself that scared me.
I slumped onto my knees, held my head in my gloved hands and sobbed. It was only once I had accepted the fact that I was scared of being alone that I was able to find a way to cope with that fear. Denial wasn't going to help me.
2. Channel Your Inner Norwegian.
While skiing out in the open, across the endless ice of Antarctica, I could fool myself temporarily into thinking that I wasn't alone. I imagined I was skiing at the head of a team and that if I turned I would see a line of teammates behind me.
This changed as soon as I crawled into my tent at the end of the day. The confined space made it impossible to escape the reality. With no one to confide in, laugh with or even get annoyed at, my mind felt clogged with despair. I even found it difficult to eat.
I began spending my days full of dread about the moment I would enter my tent. I would ski for a few extra hours just to put off the experience I knew waited for me when I stopped to pitch camp. Then I remembered a phrase written by Norwegian polar explorer, Erling Kagge. “Let routine command feeling,” which perfectly distilled the idea that strict routines often lessen the emotional response to a situation. Inside my tent, I willed myself to focus only on my routine. I'd repeat Kagge's phrase under my breath over and over as I tried to think of nothing except my chores of melting snow to make water and preparing my dinner.
It worked. I felt more in control of my emotions and that gave me the confidence that I could, with time, overcome the fear that came with my isolation.
3. Listen to the Sun.
During the Antarctic summer, there is 24-hour daylight. The sun never dips toward the horizon, but instead makes circles overhead. After 33 days alone, the sun seemed to be watching my progress, hovering above me like a guardian. I clung to this faint semblance of company; I needed it. All by myself, with no one to urge me on, I was becoming emotionally indulgent. If I felt upset, I cried. If I was annoyed with myself, I got visibly angry. I allowed my inner emotions to flow into outward expression because there was no one to witness my outbursts. Lurching from one outburst to another, and experiencing such intensity of feeling, wasn't helpful. I found myself in floods of tears one minute, and the next, I would be filled with euphoric joy at the wonder of my surroundings. Swinging from one extreme to another was unnerving, and it made me doubt my sanity. It undermined my faith in myself.
One day, I emerged from my tent to find the sun blazing in a spotless sky overhead. It felt like it was a friend waiting for me. I began talking to the sun, and not long after that, the sun started talking back. At first, the sun was a supportive voice encouraging me to push a little harder, reassuring me that I was doing well. But over time it became demanding. It complained that I was whiny and threatened that if I didn't cheer up, it would leave me floundering in bad weather.
I know it sounds crazy, but in retrospect, my mind had created the coach I needed, ready to dish out a pat on the back or a kick up the backside, in equal measure. A little tough love prompted me to implement some emotional self-discipline and regain perspective.
4. Walk Through the Logic.
In Antarctica, I was obliged to carry a satellite phone with me. I could have called anyone in the world directly from my tent. Yet despite my struggle with being alone, I chose not to.
This was partly because although I craved to speak to my loved ones, I was all too aware that eventually I would have to end the call. I worried that after a brief respite from the loneliness I might feel more alone than ever. Furthermore, I was barely able to digest and understand the thoughts running through my own brain, never mind translate them into words and package them into sentences. I didn’t feel I had the capacity to share what I was going through with anyone.
In preparation for my expedition I had been to see a sports psychologist Dr. Stephen Pack at the University of Hertfordshire School of Sport and Exercise Science. He introduced me to a technique called Resilience Thinking, which requires you to walk through the logic behind an emotion, reducing the pain and confusion around that emotion. Resilience Thinking enabled me to view loneliness in a new way. When I sensed the despair begin to build, I would force myself to analyze my feelings. The reason I missed humans so acutely was because companionship represents support, assistance and safety. Skiing across the Antarctic ice exposed me to risk every day, so it was natural that I craved safety, and didn't have it. There was nothing crazy about my feelings at all. They were rational.
Recognizing this put me in control and restored my faith in myself. Though it's vital that we respond to life with our emotions and feelings, it's how we channel those emotions that shapes who we are and gives us the strength to keep going. That's a lesson I'll take with me wherever I go...next.
Felicity Aston is a 37-year-old polar explorer who splits her time between her native England and her home in Iceland. She is the author of three books, including Alone in Antarctica: The First Woman to Ski Solo Across the Southern Ice.