Inspiring Individuals: Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski across Antarctica alone
It’s often said that young girls don’t have enough decent female role models to look up to, and I have to agree. The sad reality is that the only women that young girls see in the spotlight are reality TV stars, singers and actresses. Where are the real independent and successful female leaders for them to admire and aspire to be like? There are some seriously impressive women on this planet, but we just don’t hear enough about them. This January I attended the Adventure Travel Show in London and, while I loved hearing the tales of adventurers such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Monty Halls, there was a distinctive dominance of bearded male adventurers. (To be fair to the organisers, the gender balance of speakers at the 2015 show was a great improvement on the 2013 show).
One of the female adventurers I was really struck by was a British woman called Felicity Aston, who spoke about her most testing expedition, her 2-month solo trip skiing 1,744km across Antarctica. However she’s also completed plenty of other incredible feats. She has raced in the Canadian Arctic, led a team of women across the inland ice of Greenland, led a record-making international team to the South Pole, searched for meteorite craters in Quebec, skied along a frozen river in Siberia, traversed the winter ice of Lake Baikal, driven 35,000km across Eurasia to the coldest inhabited place in the world, flown in an airship across America, completed the infamous Marathon Des Sables across the Moroccan Sahara and spent three years living and working in the Antarctic… Oh and she’s been awarded an MBE by the Queen. Has your jaw dropped too?
While each of these must have been unimaginable endurance tests, I can’t help but seriously admire (and envy) her for leading a life so full of excitement and adventure! I’ve managed to interview her and am sure you’ll be just as inspired by her as I am. If you’re interested in finding out more, then she’s written a number of books, which you can find here, and you can watch her TEDx talk here.
Q: The expeditions and adventures you have had are unbelievable achievements, especially as a woman among such a big crowd of male adventurers. So my first question is: who were your female role models growing up and how did they influence you?
A: It’s funny, I get asked a lot who inspired me and I never really felt that way about things, there wasn’t a person that I wanted to be like. It never really occurred to me to think “I can’t do this because I’m a woman” or “it’s unusual for me to be doing this because I’m a woman”. It was only afterwards on reflection that it was pointed out to me that I was quite unusual doing this as a woman. Antarctica itself was my first inspiration. I wanted to get to Antarctica and see that environment. I’d heard about it as a kid, I’d heard the stories of the explorers Scott and Shackleton, so a lot people ask “Were you inspired by them?”, and not really, because when you read the story of Scott and Shackleton, they were characters from the opposite end of the 20th century and I found it difficult to see them as real human beings. They had a different world view and set of values to anything I could identify with, so it really was just how can I get into this environment and experience Antarctica.
So then I started looking for opportunities to take me into the polar environment, first I went to Greenland on a youth expedition and then I got a job with the British Antarctic Survey as soon as I left university, and there’s a whole range of adventurers out there that I read about at the time. People like Ranulph Fiennes in the early 1990s, and I was thinking about whether it was possible to do that. You think these explorers must be superhuman and that it’s not possible for me to do a similar sort of thing, but then I started getting involved in endurance races and events and suddenly everything seemed a bit more plausible. I met a lot of people who were doing expeditions and then I started wondering why could’t I too? It was a gradual process of asking lots and lots of questions.
In the decades since, I’ve read a lot about adventurers and a lot of the early adventurers were actually women, so now I collect stories of women who have done adventurous things and I read about the lives of these women. Some of the stories I love most are of women who have obvious frailties – they were married to abusive husbands or fell in love at the drop of a hat – things that could be perceived as a weakness, but I think it just enriches their stories and makes their characters human. An enormously helpful book that I read early on when I was setting out on expeditions was Ellen MacArthur’s ‘Taking on the World’ because she writes a lot about her struggle to get her expedition off the ground, about her making the opportunities, about her sleeping in a portacabin on the docks while she was doing up her boat and living off of cheese sandwiches because it was the cheapest thing she could find to eat. At the time when I read that book, I was in the middle of trying to scrape together funding for my first independent expedition to the Arctic, so I was living on a shoestring and sacrificing pretty much everything in order to make this dream a reality, so it was comforting for me to read about someone else who’d been through that, got to the end of the tunnel and it had all been worth it. That was a very influential book to read when I was first starting out.
Q: You’re a sciences graduate but when you were studying, did you ever envisage giving up the scientific side to become an adventurer?
A: I loved studying. I started off with Astronomy and Physics and my first thought was that I wanted to be an astronomer and I had this romantic idea of living a solitary life on the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii in a big observatory. But throughout the course of my degree I realised that I probably wasn’t in that top percentage that was going to find one of the very few jobs there are in astronomy. There’s part of me that wishes I’d pursued it, but exactly at the moment when I was working out what I was going to do I saw the advert for the British Antarctic Survey job for a physicist / electronic engineer / meteorologist. I was a physicist but didn’t know anything about meteorology, so I did a Masters in Applied Meteorology at Reading University and I then applied to the British Antarctic Survey, and that set my course. I spent three years in Antarctica as a meteorologist and I really loved looking at weather and climate every day. It appealed to my inner geek.
But after three years, it was the polar environment I loved most of all and so I didn’t consciously leave science, just every time I think about getting back into it, something else comes along to distract me, another project or expedition, and so 15 years later I’m still doing expeditions, but every now and again it raises its head. A lot of the outreach I do with schools is based on the science that happens in Antarctica, and for example the BBC invited me to fly an airship across America looking at cloud physics and atmospheric science and I really enjoyed dabbling back into the science of it. My master plan is to one day go back to science and research and maybe do that PhD I never did.
Q: Your list of achievements and expeditions is endless. How do you choose the different projects and expeditions you embark on? How do you decide what to tackle?
A: It sounds like a cliché, but they choose you. Projects that just won’t go away. I have 100 ideas vaguely in my head but out of those 100 there will be a handful that just keep coming back that get into your daydreams and your musings, you find yourself thinking about them again and again and again until it gets to the point that you just have to do something about it. And similarly the opposite might be true. An opportunity might present itself but perhaps there’s something that just isn’t right and it hasn’t gripped me heart and soul. If you’re going to dedicate your life or one/two/three years to something, it’s got to be something that you feel you can contribute to that is going to contribute something back to you – you’ve got to get something out of it as well. And it has to hold your attention absolutely to maintain that level of commitment for that level of time so it’s worth waiting until you have the right project before you take the jump.
Q: I think that’s excellent advice for anyone, adventurer or not. It’s a really good way of looking at it. Of all of the expeditions you’ve done across the world, which one scared you the most and why?
A: All of them scared me but for very different reasons! Being on my own was obviously terrifying because I didn’t know how I was going to react to being that isolated. What scared me was that in past experiences I had seen other people start to succumb to the onset of hypothermia and they’re always the last person to realise, in fact it’s often quite hard to convince them that something’s wrong. They’ll say that they’re feeling fine and that they’re even too hot and want to take some clothing off, even though to everyone else it’s obvious that they’re on the slippery slope downwards to hypothermia. So being on my own really scared me because who’s going to notice if something goes wrong with me? What do you do when you can’t rely on your own good sense anymore? The most frightening experience is when you start to doubt your own sense and you can’t rely on your own brain. Everyone feels they can rely on their own decisions and good sense, but when that starts to be undermined you ask what frame of reference do I use now?
But equally, taking the expedition of eight Commonwealth women to the South Pole was so frightening because I was ultimately responsible for everybody and I put my neck on the line professionally and personally in every way possible, saying that the team could make it safely. Not to mention the fact that I was up to my eyeballs in debt for the sake of that expedition, but that’s so usually the way with trips – I feel responsible with sponsorship that I’m not taking the mick and I only ask for exactly as much as is needed for the expedition, nothing extra. So I’m usually on a shoestring financially when I embark on a trip and you take a gamble that you’ll make some of that money by speaking about it afterwards.
But other trips have scared me. I did a drive to the Pole of Cold and was really worried about the road conditions and the right fuel supply. Imagine one of us had had a serious injury on the remotest parts of that journey? I’m not sure how we would have got out of there. We had insurance and global rescue scenarios, but in reality there weren’t airstrips near us, there was nowhere for rescuers to land. But I always think the responsibility for other people is far more frightening than one’s responsibility for your own wellbeing. When other people have confidence in you to keep them safe, there’s a huge weight of responsibility. When I look back at my first independent expedition crossing Greenland, it takes my breath away about how naive we were in many respects, and some the risks we took back then would be completely unacceptable to me now.
Q: And which expedition did you enjoy the most?
A: I’ve enjoyed all of them. It’s impossible to choose, as each one of them has had a special something. If I was to ask which did I physically suffer the most on it was probably running the Marathon des Sables or that expedition to Greenland actually (our feet were in a state after that). But which one did I enjoy the most? Crossing Antarctica by myself was an amazing thing to do and I thank my lucky stars for that experience but can I say that I enjoyed it? Like when you go for a run in the rain and you come back inside feeling like a million dollars and really rough and tough and hardy, but did you really enjoy it? Maybe the one that was the most fun was the Commonwealth trip just because spending time with that group of women was just so amazing! I’ve spent a lot of time in guy teams that I’ve really enjoyed, a big convoy of us drove to the South Pole and back and those guys are still my friends. As it turns out, one of them is now going to become my husband shortly! But there’s something special about being among a team of women. Maybe it’s because I spend most of my time in the company of men, that I particularly enjoyed being surrounded by women. There is a special energy that I really love and we all had so much fun, as well as really pushing hard.
Q: How did you develop your self-confidence and your belief in yourself and your own abilities? You’ve spoken about all the research you do prior to each expedition, but what advice would you give to others who hesitate to push themselves outside of their comfort zone like you have done?
A: It’s accepting that you’re never going to have all the answers before you start, and nobody starts with a complete deck of hands, knowing exactly how each trip will pan out, it’s just unrealistic. It’s accepting that you have to start even though you don’t know all the answers yet. It’s very easy to give yourself excuses to procrastinate, “Next year when I get that promotion at work then I’ll be in a more secure position to ask for more time off” or “I want to wait first until there’s a better economic climate before I start looking for sponsorship” or “I’m going to wait until I can lift a certain number of kilograms at the gym and then I’ll know I’m strong enough to do it”. There are a hundred different reasons to put off starting but you’ve just got to bite the bullet and go for it. And you won’t know all the answers before you begin, but somehow the way becomes clearer as you take it. There’s a wonderful poem by Antonio Machado which says “Traveller there is no way. The way is made by walking.” That’s been my philosophy in life and I believe there must be a way for me to make it happen out there, it’s just a matter of finding it. You’ll never see the path until you’re already on your way and somehow it all comes together. The biggest advice I can give is not to expect to have all the answers, but the most important thing is just to start.
Q: It’s definitely something that puts a lot of women off, seeing as we’re often taught as young girls not to take risks. We receive a different upbringing to men and the expectations of us are very different. Your solo trip skiing across Antarctica is a great example of a woman undertaking solo travel, but solo travel is something we’re often dissuaded from doing as women for safety reasons mainly, which is why I particularly wanted to highlight your achievements to other women. But I also wanted to ask you if you’d encountered any barriers because of your gender? Whether that’s in terms of people who didn’t believe in your physical capability to complete these expeditions or sponsors who didn’t feel a female adventurer would fit in with their aims or brand. Have you encountered any gender-based barriers?
A: Yes, I have. The funny thing is it took me a while to work out that’s what was bringing up the barriers. I would encounter people who were hostile or condescending towards me and I couldn’t work out why. At first I took it very personally, before I realised it had nothing to do with who I am, Felicity Aston, this is simply because they’ve made a judgement on the fact that I’m a woman, and it’s very frustrating and infuriating when you realise that’s the case.
Q: And what do you do: do you confront them about it or do you move on and just work with other less-biased people?
A: I’m absolutely a feminist, yet for a long time, if you started ranting and raving about feminism then you were seen as some kind of lunatic and it’s been very unfashionable to talk about women’s rights, although this seems to be improving now. We talk about racism quite openly but we don’t talk about sexism very often and a lot of people assume that we have total gender equality these days, but no we don’t. It’s infuriating. For example, there are a lot of female polar explorers at the moment who have achieved fantastic things, yet nobody knows their name. And when landmark expeditions are organised, they tend to be purely male teams, or maybe there will be one female within that mix, because there’s still that assumption that having a female on your team will make you weaker – that she’s not as strong. If you look at the facts then that’s just not the case. I know that I am stronger and have more endurance than some of the men I’ve worked with, and I know that some of these other female British polar explorers would outstrip some of the guys I’ve worked with in any statistic you care to mention.
But I also see a lot of women who in my opinion are getting it very wrong – they go into a male-dominated arena and try and turn themselves into a man, to put it bluntly, and that just doesn’t work. Even worse than that, it exacerbates an existing problem and defeats the point. So I try to remain true to myself and who I am, and not fall into that trap of turning a man! I recognise what I bring to the team and my own strengths. I also hate it when people pounce on saying things like “women bring psychological strength and understanding to the team”. No, I’m sorry, that is just upholding a sexist stereotype. I’ve worked with plenty of women who are absolute horror shows, the stroppiest, most difficult bitches I have ever come across! Some women are horrendous, and to say that women are all fluffy and understanding and the person to go to when you need a hug and an ego-rub is just as sexist as saying “I’m going to carry all the heavy stuff so that the girls on the team don’t have to”. It’s just rubbish.
Recognising that there is no definite gender stereotype, that you have to look at a person for their own merits and not at the stereotype of them being a man or a woman, being black or white, being from an inner city background or from a privileged background, etc. You have to look at the individual themselves and see what they can bring. Until we’re doing that, this inequality is going to continue and I’m just so bored of the white, male, middle class, military background stereotype that’s put forward for adventurers. You see it on the television all the time. The role models we’re given in the media today need updating and shaking up a bit to reflect what’s really going on, rather than presenting us with stereotypes all the time. Just the other day a lovely, fellow adventurer was highlighting great British adventurers on his website and someone commented to ask “Why are there no women in this list yet?” and he replied “Oh that’s not intentional and I’ll put some more women up, unfortunately there are just more male adventurers out there”. I said “What??” and immediately wrote to him to say he was completely wrong and that there are loads of women adventurers out there! It’s just the perception that there are no women doing this, but we simply don’t hear about them.
Q: What are planning for your next project or expedition?
A: I have a couple of long-term plans in mind, and the next trip I’m doing is in July and August up to the North Pole, however it’s not skiing, it’s on a big Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker called 50 Years of Victory. I’ll be going onboard their summer expeditions to the North Pole from Russia and the reason I’m particularly keen to do it is because this ice-breaker, that can power through the pack ice, is going to become critical to the Arctic question that will become so eminent in the next decade, and the only countries to have access to these vessels are China and Russia. I’m really excited to learn more and it’s quite controversial regarding the strength or weakness of the remaining pack ice. But I’m very much of the belief that if you’re going to talk about something, then you need to experience it yourself. So I’m very excited to have the opportunity to make that journey.