A pioneer endowed with unlimited curiosity
Laurence de la Ferrière is an out-of-the-ordinary explorer. Her love of freedom has driven her to explore the planet’s highest summits and its largest polar desert, the Antarctic. In 2000, she became the first and only woman in the world to make a complete solo crossing of the Antarctic. A look back at a life of all extremes…
How did your passion for mountains and ice first reveal itself?
I had my first taste of high mountains around the age of 18 when I did a mountain climbing course on the Italian slopes of Mont Blanc. It was a revelation, and a passion against which it was impossible for me to resist. The ice came a lot later! The intensity of my expeditions was proportional to the discontent I deeply felt. I fought and struggled in the mountains in order to gain my freedom to exist as I understood it.
How do you go about taking on the challenge of a solo Antarctic crossing?
The high mountains are a “living” world, as there are populations of animals, insects… The Antarctic, by contrast, is the world’s largest desert, the most extreme in terms of temperature, coldness, ice thickness… Life is impossible deep in the middle of the continent.
The key is to be aware that it is not a question of imposing oneself but rather of attempting to tame this environment for as long as it takes to cross it, and of putting life in this place where there is none. You have to very quickly forget everything you think you know in order to learn differently – in complicity with elements so violent they seem cruel – and establish an improbable harmony, of infinite richness.
How did your relationship with this environment change during the crossing?
For the first few days I counted my steps. Ten strides, then I’d stop to regain my breath before carrying on, then ten more strides… With 150 kg to drag and 3,000 km to cover, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to consider it mission impossible. The wind was against me, the temperature horrendously low (-55°C). I took it all brutally right in my face, without ever doubting that I was in my right place. I put the final objective out of mind in order to appreciate every metre travelled, every hour that passed as end in itself – intermediate victories that would one day take me to the goal. By accepting the cold, I learned to live with it. The wind filled my sail and the kilometres went by one after the other.
Light as a feather
“Reading is one of my favourite activities, but I had to keep the weight as low as possible. I even cut the labels off my clothes and other equipment to save a few grams, so I had to count on my imagination to compensate…”
How did your body react?
Very often I had zero visibility. The first days I experienced a white-out, I felt like I was smashing myself against a white wall. Then I heard sounds I’d never paid any attention to. I looked beyond sight in order to understand the terrain I was advancing across, and against all expectations, I managed to feel safe. By fusing with the natural environment, I became that animal of the Antarctic I often refer to.
I never felt tempted to give up, including at the most difficult moments. By being conscious of my limits, I learned to go beyond them. In the world’s largest desert, solitude became an opportunity for an internal journey of unparalleled intensity…
What did this crossing teach you?
When I began the crossing, I thought I was perfectly prepared and trained. In reality, the first week was one of incredible violence. The weight of the sledge, the immense unknown before me, the solitude, the first frostbites… I had no other choice than to accept the inadequacy of the knowledge I’d accumulated over the years. One day, I sat down on my sledge, screaming in despair, tears freezing behind my mask, hopeless at feeling so weak… This is how I liberated myself from the stress associated with the idea of what the expedition ought to have been, instead developing a different way of looking at the progress I was making on the ice.
Was there a moment you lived through that particularly illustrates this sensation?
One day, with the conditions (almost) perfect: little wind, manageable snow, the sun lending the ice a magical luminosity… I had the sense of being part of a whole, in intimate contact with the universe – an extraordinary powerful spiritual dimension through which I understood the meaning of freedom and the right to exist without having to justify myself or comply with diktats that didn’t suit me. It’s the path I chose, and I’ve never regretted it.
How has this changed the way you view the world?
I’ve gone from initial egocentricity – constructive and necessary – to the joy of altruism and sharing…
To find out more
- Seule dans le vent des glaces, published by Robert Laffont in 2000
- Alpissima, published by Robert Laffont in 2007
- Au coeur du continent blanc, published by Gallimard Voyage in 2020
Photo credits : © Laurence de la Ferrière
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