CALL OF THE WHITE

Copyright © Felicity Aston, 2011

All photographs © Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition unless otherwise stated.

Quotation from Icewalk on p. 35 reprinted by kind permission of Robert Swan.

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The right of Felicity Aston to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

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Contents

Prologue – Swept Underwater
Chapter One – Beginnings
Chapter Two – What is Skiing?
Chapter Three – Pet Gibbon
Chapter Four – The Passport Problem
Chapter Five – Handbags and Snow Boots
Chapter Six – The Ninth Team Member
Chapter Seven – The Exam
Chapter Eight – The Great Storm
Chapter Nine – Louis Poo-uitton
Chapter Ten – Pointing Fingers
Chapter Eleven – Sastrugi Land
Chapter Twelve – The Last Degree
Epilogue – Ripples into Waves
Final Thanks
About the Author

Prologue

Swept Underwater

My eyes snapped open as the tent above me was raked by yet another violent gust. The fabric of our flimsy shelter writhed in the wind like the loosened sails of a yacht in a hurricane. The whole tent seemed to contract with each blast of the storm, like a lung trying to breathe. The wind tore at the tent in a fury from all directions, as if there were physical beings outside, tugging at our refuge, incensed by its presence and intent on its removal. Lying in my sleeping bag on the tent floor, I was jolted violently by the vibration of the squalls. The movement would have kept me awake even if the noise hadn’t already made sleep impossible. The roar of the wind, the clatter of ice blown against the tent and the snapping of fabric filled my brain until I could think of nothing else. It was all-consuming.

Abruptly, there was a change. One side of the tent sounded particularly noisy. Something had come loose. As I strained against the restrictive hood of my sleeping bag to peer around me, I could see the far corner of the tent bulging inwards. One of the guy ropes that anchored the outside of the tent to the ground had come free or snapped. It wasn’t serious but it made me anxious about the other identical anchors holding the tent down. In Antarctica, a tent is more than just a shelter, it is a lifeline. Without the protection of a tent, a person can’t survive in the open. We couldn’t risk our tent blowing away or getting damaged. I wriggled out of my sleeping bag, anxious to get outside and re-anchor the free material. I punched my arms into the sleeves of my down jacket, ignoring the involuntary shiver as the super-cooled lining touched my skin, and kicked my feet into my down booties. Next to me were the worm-like forms of my three tent-mates, cocooned deep in their sleeping bags. I could sense that they were all awake – nobody could sleep through such a storm – but none of them moved as I squeezed out of the tent door.

Outside, I had to push myself away from the tent and I tottered on the spot for a moment as I steadied myself in the gale. The force of the wind felt oppressive, as if the air itself was thicker out here. I glanced around at the brightly lit Antarctic night. As I squinted into the glare of the sun reflected by the flawless white of the snow, it could have been two in the afternoon rather than two in the morning. This far south there is no darkness during the summer. Instead, the sun makes endless circles in the sky, never lowering itself towards the horizon. Despite the sunshine, it was still breathtakingly cold. I readjusted my face-covering to protect the exposed skin that was already burning with the sting of the subzero temperatures.

Our tents were pitched on the fringes of a small base camp. A few hundred metres to the right was a cluster of rigid tents and containers used for the logistical operation that stretched across Antarctica and to South America. We had arrived at the camp from Chile the day before, spilling out of a large cargo plane after a six-hour flight in its windowless belly. The plan was to stay in the base camp and acclimatise for a few days, before being flown by a small ski-plane to the point on the Antarctic coast where we would start our expedition to the South Pole. I ran my eyes over the long lines of small geodesic tents used as sleeping accommodation by the staff running the camp. They seemed to be part submerged in a broiling haze of snow-filled air. As I watched, my eyes grew wider; the snow was being drawn upwards, forming a towering cloud of whirling eddies that looked like a blanched sandstorm. The cloud drew more snow and ice into itself as it churned and swept across the camp, advancing towards me like a tsunami. I watched it till the last second, before turning and crouching low to the ground as my back was pelted with fist-sized lumps of ice carried by the wind. As the violence died down I stood to see yet another icy squall in the distance, rising up a dozen metres into the air, screening the sunlight and creating its own shadow. The noise of the oncoming mass of snow and ice was as loud as a low-flying military jet, but it had a menace to it, as if the storm were alive. My body reacted to the noise instinctively, tensing every muscle; each sense so alert that it was almost painful. Within minutes, the squall had reached me and yet again I crouched low into the snow, lost in a violence of wind and a swirling mass of ice-hard spray that for a few seconds made it hard to breathe. It felt like being swept underwater.

Beside me, our two lightweight tents billowed and bucked in the Antarctic gale. I found the loose guy rope and anchored it deep in the snow, stamping my boot around the attachment to make the powder snow as hard and firm as ice. The restored tension in the tent seemed to enrage the storm even further; the next squall sent the tent into a spasm that looked even more dramatic from the outside than it had sounded from within. Between gusts I shovelled spadefuls of snow onto the sides of the tent, which were already piled high with snow blocks to weigh them down. Still, the tent threatened to pull free. The vibration of the tent shrugged off the larger blocks of compacted snow faster than I could replace them and as I frantically shovelled snow onto one weak spot, another appeared elsewhere. I called for help through the tent fabric to my teammates inside. The first well-covered figure appeared out of the tent door just as another blast struck. Without time to explain, I grabbed her shoulder to spin her against the wind and bring us both down into a crouch on the snow as we were pelted with rocks of ice by the fury sweeping over us.

As soon as the gust passed I ducked my head into the tent to warn the others to watch for the approaching squalls on their way out but, halfway through my sentence, the tent closed in around us. The poles caved inwards, drooping silently while the material billowed as delicately as a falling parachute. Scrambling out of the tent we grabbed at the tent poles, trying to find where they had broken, but we were too late. Another gust hit us and, as the tent struggled, the jagged edges of the broken poles tore through the outer fabric with a sickening wrench, shredding our precious shelter.

We worked quickly to isolate the broken poles, holding them firm through the gusts to prevent any further damage but, even as we struggled, I could see the extent of the ruin and my mind worked rapidly through the consequences. We didn’t have a spare tent so we would need to repair the damage. We had limited repair materials with us that I doubted would be sufficient to piece together all the torn fabric and broken poles. Even if we could scavenge enough glue and spares from the workshops around base camp, the repairs would need to be reliable enough for us to entrust our lives to the restored tent. There was no question of starting the expedition with equipment that might fail and therefore put our lives at risk.

I felt my insides tighten, pulling the blood away from my face as I realised, fully, what I had instinctively known from the moment the tent had collapsed. Without a suitable tent, there was no expedition.

Our expedition was over before it had even begun.