When you’re alone with your thoughts in isolation for weeks on end, it takes its toll. Boredom is one thing, but a lack of social interaction can start to wreak havoc on your sanity and heighten feelings of unease and self-doubt. It’s something thousands of people worldwide have struggled with as COVID-19 hit its peak. In order to get some sage advice on dealing with psychological challenges such as this, we spoke to Felicity Aston, a British polar explorer, expedition leader, and former Antarctic scientist. In 2012, she became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica as she journeyed 1,084 miles over 59 days, earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Here, she talks about the mental toll of that experience. — as told to Wesley Grover
I thought I had prepared really well. Then in the first few seconds of my expedition, certainly the first few days, I realized that I hadn’t prepared at all for the psychological challenges of being alone in that particular environment. The thing about Antarctica is that it’s very otherworldly. It’s absolutely huge and it’s completely empty. When you get away from the coast, there’s no life at all. You’re not going to come across birds or penguins. It does strange things when you’re in that environment day after day, week after week. You feel as if there’s no existence apart from right where you are. That sounds odd to say, but very quickly you start to doubt things you remember.
When I was skiing into this white landscape, the majority of days were pretty shocking, weather-wise. A real, proper Antarctic whiteout is almost blinding. You have no sense of up or down. You have no sense of scale. No contrast, shape, or form of any kind. When you’re staring into that nothingness—and this is not over a matter of hours, but over a matter of days, or occasionally it would be a week or more—your brain isn’t getting any data. You’re not really hearing anything other than the sound of wind in your hood, which is like white noise. You’re not smelling anything. You’re not speaking. There’s just no data at all and your brain starts to fill in the gaps with past experiences. It starts to show you what it thinks you should be seeing. It was probably day 30-something of my expedition when I started to have little hallucinations. I would occasionally hear my name being called, for example. I knew there was no one there, but I would hear a voice calling me. When things like that start happening you think, “Okay, this is a bit concerning.” But what can you do? You just sort of carry on. You’re a bit sleep deprived, you’ve been on your own for a while, and you’re dealing with a level of fear that goes up and down. The fear never goes away, but some days it’s more prevalent than others.
One of the big differences I’ve found between traveling with a team and traveling by myself is that by myself there was constantly a voice of temptation on my shoulder that I had to find the energy to defeat. Every moment of every day, there’d be a voice saying, “You can pitch your tent now. You can call it a day now. Just get in the warmth for a few hours.” It was always tempting me to take the easy option and do things that I knew weren’t good ideas. Overriding that voice of temptation took a lot of energy. It was exhausting and yet, when you’re out there with a team, that voice just isn’t there. That was one of the biggest differences going alone.
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