CHASING WINTER

By: Jane Borges

In 2000, when climate scientist Felicity Aston was posted at the Rothera Research Station in Antarctica to carry out meteorological research in the region, it set the ball rolling for one of her longest affairs with the cold.

She would only return in 2003 after having spent three summers and two excruciatingly-long winters in one of the world’s coldest continents.

But that three-year stint in the icy wilderness changed everything for Felicity. While homebound to the UK, her mind was already itching to go and find out what lay ahead, in the northernmost part of the Earth. “I was bitten by the polar bug,” the 37 year old confesses.

Soon enough, she began charting out her next expedition – this time to the Arctic. Fifteen years on, Felicity is still navigating on ice, only now as a full-time explorer, having covered the vast stretches of Greenland, Russia and Canada.

Onward, she’s had moments of extreme isolation in the cold, which she trumped with astounding feats – most impressive was skiing solo across Antarctica in 2012, using only personal muscle power. The journey that covered 1,744km and lasted 59 days made her the first woman to cross the icy landscape that is Antarctica alone.

Felicity, who was recently awarded the polar medal and an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honour list, made a brief visit to the sultanate last week on special invitation by Outward Bound Oman.

During a private gathering at the British Ambassador’s residence, the polar explorer regaled the audience with stories from her adventures in the bitter cold, her never-ending romance with the winters and the foremost question that has been central to her polar quest: How cold could it possibly get?

That’s how the British scientist landed in Oymyakon, a tiny little village in the northeast corner of Siberia, in January last year. “Imagine a place so cold that things that are familiar to us, start behaving in unfamiliar ways. Metal becomes brittle as plastic; fuels and oils become hard as wax and you can’t leave your skin exposed. It’s so cold that the moisture is frozen out in the air around you, and your breath freezes as you breathe out,” she said.

“It would seem like I am talking about a place of science fiction or may be, the surface of another planet. But am describing Oymyakon – a place right here on Earth, unarguably the coldest inhabitable place in the world today.”

The annual winter temperatures in this Siberian village of 300 families is –60°C; in the 1920s, a temperature of –71.2°C was recorded here. Yet people survive, and almost comfortably in such shockingly freezing temperatures. Little wonder why the place is popularly known as ‘The Pole of Cold’.

For an explorer with a curiosity

for wintry holes, Oymyakon became the destination that she would seek out by road in late November 2013, along with her teammates Gisli Jonsson and Manu Palomeque in a Land Rover Defender 110, that had been given as a grant by the Royal Geographic Society, London.

Understanding the science behind Oymyakon’s cold was just one aspect of undertaking the arduous journey. Felicity was mostly interested in knowing what winter meant to the people of this village.

“From my past expeditions, I had learnt that one really needs to build up a certain skill and confidence to be able to cope with extremely cold temperatures. So I was just staggered when I found out about Oymyakon, where people go to work and children go to school in temperatures colder than anything I had ever experienced. And they don’t have any specialised equipment to survive. I started to think how their perspective of winter and cold differs from mine.”

This initial curiosity extended into a plan to set out on a journey to chase the onset of winter as it occurred, from the UK, right across Siberia. The 36,000km round trip saw the trio travel the length of Norway to northernmost Europe, traversing Finland and Russia to the far northeast of Siberia, before they reached the Pole of Cold six weeks later in January 2014.

Their most demanding journey was the drive down the Road of Bones, where the skeletons of the labourers forced to build the highway had been buried. Apart from the fact that it was eerily cold, the team almost choked on its own breath due to the chill.

But reaching Oymyakon was a heartening surprise. “They live fairly ordinary lives. They only don’t go to school when the temperature drops to -52°C,” she said, trying hard to make it sound very normal. “They also live quite modestly. On the one hand, they still prefer sledges to vehicles, but they also use satellite phones and GPS trackers. So, they cherry-pick technology that suits them,” Felicity said. “But mostly, they are resilient and self-sufficient. They don’t have garages or repair stations. They have their own tools. People rely on the system of a Good Samaritan. So if a lorry breaks down, it is your duty to stop and see how you could help. And all of this just works perfectly fine for them.”

Felicity and her team returned to London in early March last year, having documented the cold in a series of photographs and audio clips that are currently being exhibited at various venues across the UK. “You have to be very respectful of the cold, because it can kill you, injure you. But you can’t be scared of it. You must look at the cold, not as an enemy but as a friend,” she said as a parting thought.

With a brief trip to the Sharqiyah Sands on her itinerary while in the sultanate, there was a suggestion that Felicity next document the scorching heat across the Middle East. Felicity is open to the idea.

But would it in anyway diminish her love for the cold? That is still uncertain.

SOURCE: Muscat Daily