An interview with Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski the Antarctic
Felicity Aston was the first woman to ski the Antarctic. As she prepares to speak at the upcoming Adventure Travel Show in London, we had a little chat with her about her amazing feat and why she did it.
The story of your first expedition is amazing can you tell us about it?
My first ever expedition was as a student. I travelled to Greenland as part of a 6-week summer expedition organised by the youth development charity British Schools Exploring Society (now British Exploring). In small teams of 12 we undertook baseline surveys of a remote fjord which would later be used to assess the impact of growing tourism – but the most exciting part for me was that we accessed the inland ice of Greenland. I remember looking over the white horizon of the Greenland ice sheet and knowing that I wanted to go back. I did eventually. I crossed the Greenland ice sheet in 2006 leading the first British Women’s crossing.
Apart from this how did you get into the world of exploring?
I was always looking for opportunities. I was lucky in that my local guide group was quite adventurous allowing us to try rock climbing and sailing. I also took part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and the expedition section of the award gave me a taste for adventurous journeys.
Did your love for exploring influence you in your choice of your post graduate degree?
Definitely. My first degree was Physics and Astronomy but I wanted something that would lead more readily to outdoor fieldwork. I chose a Masters in Applied Meteorology. Ultimately this degree led to my job in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey.
Arrival at the South Pole
Did you go on a Gap Year?
I didn’t go on a Gap Year but I made full use of the 4-month summer break each year, travelling on expeditions using student associations, university-linked programmes and grants aimed at students. It is a good time to carry out fieldwork as there is quite a lot of support for students if you spend the time looking for it.
What was it like living and working in the wilderness of the Antarctic at 23?
Arriving at Rothera research station in Antarctica was pretty daunting – it was my first proper job, there was quite a lot of responsibility and I knew that having arrived in December 2000, I wouldn’t be able to leave again until April 2003 (that was the length of the standard contract in those days). In that time there was very little contact with my family, no access to the internet and during the long 7-month winters there were just 20 people on base, so it was quite claustrophobic. That first winter I was the youngest on base. The upside was that I got to not just visit Antarctica but to work and live there. It became my home. It was a real privilege – I saw and experienced Antarctica in a way many people never have the chance to.
Did this prepare you for your expedition to be the first ever women to ski solo across the Antarctic?
After leaving Rothera I began organising my own expeditions to both the Arctic and the Antarctic. It took almost ten years before I had gained the experience and the confidence to go out into the polar environment alone. Being on an expedition by myself increases the risks and I needed to be sure that I would be up to it.
Felicity with her Guinness World Record certificate
You have been on many expeditions but would you regard that as your greatest achievement?
Every expedition has been its own challenge and I am proud of them all for different reasons. I think, actually, if I had to chose just one above the others, I would say that the international team of women that I put together in 2009 and led on a 900km ski journey to the South Pole was perhaps the project I am most proud of. Many of the women on the team had never slept in a tent, put on a pair of skis – and in one case – seen snow before! I think that expedition generated a very strong message about what we are all capable of - that there is no magic to success, just hard work and perseverance.
You are an accomplished writer, author and photographer, how did you get into this?
I started small, leaping at any opportunity to get my words and pictures in print and gradually built up a small network of editors that would give me work. I also talked to lots of people to ask their advice. It’s very scary to pick up the phone or to approach people in person but every time I mustered the courage, I was blown away by how generous people were with encouragement, suggestions and in some cases providing contacts that became really important.
You are speaking at the Adventure Travel Show 2015, what will you be speaking about in particular?
I will be speaking about my ski across Antarctica alone in 2012. I talk about not just the physical journey by the psychology of the expedition too. I was on my own for 59 days and it had some interesting effects on the way I thought and the experiences I had.
What advice would you give to any potential adventurers out there?
Make a start. There will never be a perfect time, you will never have all the parts of the puzzle you would like – but it really doesn’t matter. Making a start is the important thing and sooner than you think you will generate the momentum to keep moving forward. Just keep at it.