Felicity Aston: The first woman to ski alone across Antarctica

British Polar explorer, Antarctic scientist and author, Felicity Aston is an established expedition leader who has successfully organised and led numerous global missions. As an ambassador for the First Women project, Felicity has led international teams of women to some of the most remote places around the world. Her expeditions have included the first British Women’s crossing of Greenland, The Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition and The Pole of Cold Expedition.

In 2012, Felicity skied 1744km in 59 days, earning her a place in the Guinness World Records book as the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica. Also awarded The Queen’s Polar Medal and the National Geographic Traveller UK Special Contribution Award, Felicity is a successful scientist and professional explorer.

In this exclusive interview with Champions Speakers for Startups Magazine, Felicity talks about her upcoming book ‘Polar Exposure’ and the all-female B.I.G North Pole Expedition she is currently organising for 2022. Also touching on topics such as global warming, the importance of diversity, how she manages isolation and why all-female expedition teams are still vital in the fight against inequality.

Could you tell me about your upcoming book ‘Polar Exposure’?

“In 2018, I put together an expedition team of women from across the Middle East and Europe. We came from countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, as well as Russia, Sweden, France and the U.K. Together we trained, prepared and built skills, because the majority of women on the team had never done anything like a polar expedition to the North Pole before.

“That was a two-year journey we made together until we were at a place where we could take on the challenge of skiing some 80 kilometres across the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole. The book, ‘Polar Exposure’, is us writing about our experiences. But in order to reflect our expedition accurately, we decided that rather than just have me writing about it, all of us would write about it in our own words.

“This is a very different polar narrative because it gives a very diverse perspective and there aren't many polar narratives out there that actually deliver the female perspective. It's also different because you get to hear the same story from lots of different viewpoints at the same time.

“It's amazing and very insightful, but also quite humorous. Two people talking about exactly the same moment, same event or the same conversation, and yet those two people have come away with a totally different impression of exactly what happened, how it happened or what the result was.

“I’m in the middle of putting this book together at the moment and it's really brilliant because you learn a lot about how teams work and don't work. You really get to lift the cover off that.”

As an ambassador for the First Women project, how important is it that we continue to encourage women to lead and achieve?

“I think it's still really important for lots of reasons, one of those reasons is representation.

“Even though in the polar environment you are as likely to meet women working there as you are men, I still get asked regularly, ‘how do you find working in an all-male environment?’ or I hear it quoted ‘the polar regions, the arena of men’. So there is obviously still a lot of work to do in terms of making people aware that there are lots of women doing great stuff in the polar regions, as there are in all sorts of different industries and areas.

“Recently, I was contacted by a school who asked me to give a talk to their sixth form. It was an all-girls school and the teacher contacted me because a lot of the girls in a year group had expressed, for various reasons, they didn't think that science and engineering were particularly a job where women could succeed, and she was devastated to hear that.

“On another occasion, it was a teacher that was running Duke of Edinburgh, but was finding it very difficult to recruit the girls in the school to take part because they were worried about how they would be seen and how they would cope in a group of more boys than girls.

“Those teachers were obviously upset to hear that, and I was upset to hear that, too. It's very worrying to hear that these problems still exist. And so, the bottom line is, every time I put out information suggesting I want to put together an all-women team to do something, I am overwhelmed by the response.

“There is definitely a need out there. There are lots of women who want to have an experience like this or contribute in this way, and yet feel unable to do that in a mixed environment. They want to have the reassurance that comes with an all-female scenario.

“I still get pushback every time. I can guarantee there will be responses from men saying, ‘why do you need an all-female team? Isn't that just sexism on a different level?’. If you cannot understand why this is still necessary, then you are part of the problem. While that still exists and people are still surprised and interested, there’s still a need for these expeditions and clearly there are still minds out there to change and perspectives to enlighten.”

How important is a diverse team on an expedition?

“It is as important on an expedition, as it is in every area of our life. I am so fed up of seeing expedition teams that present themselves as a ‘British team’, and yet they're not reflecting the Britain I'm familiar with. It's not just a problem in expeditions, it's a problem in other areas as well.

“You go into a bookshop and look at the adventure travel section, you'll see most of the authors represented there are White and male – we need to change that. Speaking at events where all the speakers are White and male, I really feel that there is very little excuse now for that.

“I'm not complacent with myself either. It takes a conscious relook at what we're doing with new awareness that we need better representation, and we need it really desperately. The Black Lives Matter movement that happened this year has just demonstrated this is a problem that needs sorting out and it needs sorting out desperately soon.

“Representation is something that we need to worry about now. We need to reflect on our own little bubble, our own lives, to ask ourselves what we can do to further representation in terms of minorities, but also in terms of gender.”

Could you tell me about The B.I.G. North Pole Expedition 2022?

“The B.I.G expedition stands for ‘before it's gone’. We’re going to the North Pole to collect data to fill in some of the data blanks about Arctic Ocean Sea Icebefore it's impossible to do so.

“The last time someone made a full distance journey from land across the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole was in 2014, and it’s largely believed that is the last time it’s possible. They started on dry land and skated over the Arctic Ocean to get to the North Pole. It's still possible now to ski a partial distance to the North Pole, but that's only because there's one logistics operation that is still willing to take on the hazards of the Arctic Ocean.

“In less than 10 years, it likely won’t be possible to ski to the North Pole anymore. And while maybe the world doesn't care if people can't plant their flag at the North Pole, I think it serves as a very vivid demonstration of just how quick and how fundamental the changes taking place in the Arctic are.

“It's important to note this is not a hypothetical change in our future, this is something that's already in our past. This has happened, and there's no combating this change. So, the journey in 2022 is very much focused on science because this is our last chance to get out there on skis to collect data that isn't easily collected in any other way.

“This is important because a lot of our ability to work out what change might happen in the future, as well as to unpick the changes we're experiencing right now, depends on computer models. Computer models are only as good as the data you put in, so if you don't have that data, then you can't rely on the computer models for the same degree of accuracy or precision.

“The two areas that we're focusing on in particular is black carbon and microplastics. It’s an all-female team and it's very much rooted in citizen science. So, we are not a bunch of career academics going out and doing this, the team are everyday people who really want to challenge themselves, see an amazing part of the world, but also do it in a way that contributes, because everyone's very conscious of the fact you need a strong justification to visit these fragile environments.

“The team is enthusiastic about the fact that we're contributing to really important, meaningful science, as well as the journey itself.”

Can you describe when you have seen the effects of global warming first-hand?

“The increase in extreme weather events, the flooding, the droughts, all of these things, we are all witnessing massive climate change - You don't have to go to the North Pole to see it. So, that is my answer, I've seen it exactly as everyone else has seen it. When the town down the road floods, that is climate change.

“For example, what is being seen right now here in Iceland is a complete collapse of puffin colonies. This is driven by changes in sea temperature, which moves the fish that they feed on to somewhere else. So, in the south of Iceland which used to have really dramatic populations of puffin, now there's none, there’s literally none.

“Back in 1969, the first man to reach the North Pole did just a few months before the first man stood on the moon, which I think is very poignant. In 50 years we've gone from the first human to the last human to get to the North Pole. What further dramatic evidence do you need?”

Of all the places you visited, what is the most memorable?

“They're all memorable for different reasons, but there is a special place in my heart for Antarctica, I think because it was such a fundamental experience in my life.

“I first went to Antarctica when I was 23 when I was posted there. It was my first proper job after university, so it was quite an instrumental period in my life. I knew when I arrived there in December of 2000, that I wasn't going to leave again until April 2003 because that was the standard length of the contract at that time.

“I got to see Antarctica on really wonderful days when there was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been. And I got to see Antarctica in the middle of a very dark winter when I was with a skeleton crew of just 20 that I didn't get to choose. Having breakfast, lunch and dinner, working with them, socialising with them, everything.

“There were days when I would rather have been anywhere else in the world, quite frankly, than in that situation. So perhaps that's why Antarctica has embedded itself so deeply, and is still a part of the world that I have a very special place in my heart for.”

How do you manage loneliness and isolation whilst you're away?

“Before I went to do ski across Antarctica, which was 59 days on my own, I went to seek out lots of sports psychologists who specialised in aloneness. They taught me lots of tools and techniques for dealing with isolation and a lot of the problems that come along with that sense of aloneness. And to be honest, some of those tools and techniques worked, but often I just fell back on having a good cry.

“The response I received to that was interesting. When I got back, I spoke and wrote about that and I got quite a lot of negative criticism. I remember there was one review of my book, in particular, the headline was ‘Weeping Her Way Across Antarctica’ and it was very disparaging of the fact that I talked about crying. I didn't quite know how to take that.

“Years later, a medical scientist told me that crying actually has a very clear physical purpose. Crying is the fastest, most efficient way of lowering the stress hormone, cortisol. So, when you get really stressed, either physically or mentally, and particularly both, you get these higher levels of all sorts of different hormones, but particularly this one called cortisol. And when you cry, that is your body's way of very efficiently getting those hormones back in balance and getting rid of those excess stress hormones that you don't need. Isn't that fascinating, why are we all not told that? - Particularly women.

“There is a criticism that's often levelled at women. There have been plenty of situations where I've been angry or annoyed, but in control and yet, my eyes have started watering. And it's really annoying to me because I'm aware that it's seen as a sign of weakness or a sign that you're not in control somehow.

“If I had known that actually this is my body just getting rid of stress hormones, and it actually means that my body is processing this really well, I think that would just have given me a lot more confidence in those situations and would have helped me a lot.

“So, that's something that I wish to spread as widely as I can amongst the world. I think that is really important information for us all to have.”

What advice would you give to those who are struggling in these unprecedented times?

“One of the most important things that I've learned through expeditions is the value of having a routine. I first saw this on the research station in Antarctica. We were there in the winter, so we were cut off from the rest of the world for seven months, and four months of that we would be in complete darkness, with no sun at all.

“Some people amongst the group decided that they were going to sleep when they were tired. They’d do their eight hours of work a day, but it didn't really matter what time of day they did that. And you saw that the people who weren't having breakfast at breakfast time, dinner at dinnertime and keeping some kind of routine really struggled mentally with it. So that was the first inkling to me that it was important to have some kind of routine.

“Secondly, when I went on an expedition, particularly that expedition on my own, I remember reading Erling Kagge, who is a Norwegian polar explorer. He's the first man to ski solo to the South Pole and there was a phrase he said, ‘let routine take command of feeling’, and that really resonated with me because I had already seen in previous expeditions that having a strict routine propels you through the day, even if your mind isn't up to it that day. Particularly when your mind is exhausted or under pressure, or vulnerable for all sorts of reasons.

“If you just follow a routine, it means you don't have to think about it. It takes the emotion out of it in a positive way, because it means that you don't have to deal with that self-discipline and self-motivation. It just kind of happens while your brain is elsewhere. When I was on my own and the isolation was at its most severe, that's when routine became the most important.

I've seen this reflected in myself during lockdown. It's very tempting to think, ‘I’ll just stay in my pyjamas today and I won't bother having a shower, or I won't bother putting on my makeup or I'll just eat leftover Chinese takeaway for breakfast’. But I think you quickly find that days and weeks start blurring into one, and you start feeling very disorientated and that starts affecting your morale, your motivation - it's a very quick downward spiral.

“So, keeping routine, you feel more positive about yourself, and the situation you are in.”

What got you into this field of work and did anyone inspire you when you were growing up?

“Yes, but it wasn't a person that inspired me, it was the place more than anything else. I wasn’t particularly sporty at school; I was the least likely person to become a polar explorer. But it was a means to an end to experience an environment that I was fascinated by.

“It's not that I don't like the desert or the jungle, I've spent time in all sorts of environments, but the polar regions keep calling me back. It was Antarctica itself initially, and then the polar regions more generally that I would say were my biggest inspiration.

What advice would you give to your younger self if you could?

“Looking back on my career now, it all seems to follow a nice, neat and obvious path. But when you're in the midst of that, it’s not so obvious and it doesn't feel that way. Over time I've become less worried about that and more confident that, even though I don't know precisely where my next pay check is coming from, for example, I am confident that it will sort itself out somehow.

“But the biggest thing I've learned is that you really do have to start. There's always going to be reasons to procrastinate, but there is never going to be the perfect time. You've just got to take the plunge and start, and no time is better than another.

“I've put together expeditions during some of the biggest global recessions in 2007 and 2008. Now I’m putting together an expedition during the coronavirus pandemic. On paper, and your good sense tells you that these are terrible times to try and get something like this off the ground.

“Maybe it will transpire that it wasn't the best time, but the worst that can happen is it will take you longer to get there. You'll always be in a better position if you started than if it's still just an idea in the back of your head somewhere.

“So, my advice to myself would be to just get on with it.”