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Felicity Aston - Explorer, Scientist, and All-Round Badass

Felicity Aston is the kind of person you could chat with all day – I almost did. She is warm-hearted, extremely bright, and utterly fascinating. She is a woman that has had brushes with polar bears and has trekked through the Peruvian jungle; Felicity Aston is a role model in the purest sense of the term.

Her first trip to Antarctica was in 2000, when she travelled with the British Antarctic Survey as a Meterologist. She stayed in Antarctica to monitor climate for 2 and a half years continuously at the Rothera Research Station. In 2005 she took part in the 'Polar Challenge' (a race across Arctic Canada) and was part of the first all-female team to complete this race; coming in 6th place out of 16 teams. 2012 marks her most famous accomplishment, Felicity was the very first woman to ski alone, unassisted, across the entire Antarctic continent. The journey took 60 days, and covered over 1700 kilometers. Felicity has also been appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and awarded the Polar Medal in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to polar exploration.

Corissa: So, we’re a student-led magazine and I have to ask the stereotypical question of how you got started, what was your path from UCL and Reading?

Felicity Aston: At UCL, I was studying physics and astronomy, which I loved, but by my third year I realised that, that the romantic dream I had of being an astronomer, stranded on a mountain in Hawaii somewhere with a telescope, probably wasn’t going to happen! I really wanted to do something more hands on, so I went to Reading to study meteorology, and particularly climate. At that point, people were becoming more aware of climate as a subject, and the issues surrounding it – and climate change, of course! This was back in 2000 and my dissertation for my postgrad was about climate change in the Antarctic peninsula, which, at the time, was the place where it was becoming more apparent.

That led to a job with the British Antarctic Survey. I was a meteorologist on Rothera Research station, which is the largest of the UK’s two research facilities on continental Antarctica. I was there as a meteorologist for two and a half years. It was the standard ‘tour’, if you like, at the time. The standard contract was for thirty-nine months – you spend some time training in Cambridge, but then you went to Antarctica for summer, so you completed a summer season, a winter, a summer, a second winter, and a third and final summer before you came home.

I got there in December 2000 and left in April 2003. What was daunting was that you didn’t go home for a break! Now they’re able to be more relaxed, but it was too expensive and took too much time to get backwards and forwards. You could leave if you wanted to in the summer time, but then it was understood that your contract was over so you couldn’t come back again. So, in that middle summer it was a question that all the “winterers” (as we were called) asked themselves: do I stay for that second winter or do I go home? I’m so glad that I did stay for my second winter because it was a totally different experience to my first winter. Obviously, now, in retrospect, I think the experience was very fortunate for two reasons: firstly, you get to see Antarctica in so many different guises. You get to see it in the dark of winter when you really don’t want to be there, and you get to see it on those wonderful days where there’s nowhere else in the world you’d rather be; secondly, it gave me a really good grounding in the dynamics of small groups of people. You know when people are feeling vulnerable and afraid and it’s all very raw, you see how people pull together and pull apart – that was brilliant!

Corissa: Yeah, all kinds of human psychologies are at work.

Felicity Aston: Yeah, so kind of patterns. The biggest of which is that you know people never behave in a logical way. When you look at it on paper, you’re like there’s this and this and this and the outcome should be this and so, if we do this that would make you feel like this and everything will be fine. No, it never works like that!

Corissa: So interesting!

Felicity Aston: You know, logistics are building blocks. The way my brain works is in patterns – I love seeing patterns and so logistics is really great for me, but then human beings, they never worked the same patterns they always throw something into the mix. It’s always the hardest bit of any expedition, getting your team to work.

Corissa: So next question is: what on earth made you want to take that solo expedition? Normal people look at that and go ‘what’s wrong with her?’.

Felicity Aston: (laughs) It wasn’t out of the blue. At that stage, I’d spent the previous—so that was 2011 and 2012 and then my first visit to Antarctica was in 2000—I’d been a part of some expeditions before that. Once I got back from Antarctica in 2003, I started putting together my own solo expedition. So, it was more than ten years of putting together trips and going backwards and forwards to the Antarctic. It was something that evolved gradually. I don’t remember where the initial idea came from because it feels like it was always rolling around in my brain somewhere, but in 2011 I reached the point where I felt that I had the confidence, the experience and the knowledge to be able to do it safely.

I think a point that is often missed is that when you’re putting yourself out there, is people have to come and rescue you. Antarctica’s still a dangerous place: just a few years ago there was a helicopter that crashed and before that, there was a light aircraft that crashed. So, you know these people that come out to get you, they’re putting their lives at risk really.

Another big thing that you don’t talk about much is that Antarctic expeditions aren’t in a catalog; you don’t just flip through and choose which one you want to do next. You have to find the money to support it. You have to be able to give something back that is worth that kind of money to be suddenly out there. All those things kind of came together for me, I felt, in 2010, 2011 and we started putting it together. It happened at the end of 2011 and 2012.

Corissa: What was the backing like? How did it come together?

Felicity Aston: I was sponsored by a company called Kaspersky Lab, who had sponsored an expedition I had completed the year before and it had worked really well for them. They just happened to be producing—well releasing—a product that was called Kaspersky ONE. It was all about digital pollution and living in a sort of landscape that was free of digital pollution and it was one product to do everything. The picture of a person walking alone across a landscape like Antarctica worked perfectly for them. They were a big support of female role models in cybertech and the fact that I was a woman doing it, kind of worked well for them and the values they were asserting at the time.

Corissa: I was going to ask originally if you faced any forms of sexism, but I’ll just ask what kinds of forms of sexism did you face?

Felicity Aston: It’s still going on right now. There’s been a lot of discussion recently about two guys that have crossed Antarctica using a shorter route than I used, but unsupported, so they have everything they need with them for the whole journey and not using kites.

Corissa: Is this the New York Times article?

Felicity Aston: Yeah, there’s been a whole lot of media. In most of those articles, I’m not mentioned at all. That might just be because they don’t feel that my journey is relevant to what they’re talking about but it is hard not to see that as maybe you feel that this makes what they’re doing appear less worthy? It’s hard not to come to that conclusion. But in terms of sexism, people have been very supportive. I think the whole point of this is to try and create a world where people are judged on their individual merits and not through their gender, their sexual orientation, their religion, the colour of their skin – all of these things that have been used in the past to stereotype people. We’ve got to shake that off.

So, what I’ve experienced is part of all of that, but luckily, I don’t feel that its particularly held me back in any way – it’s just more in the league of slight annoyance! When, for example, jobs are being divvied up and you’re standing there with a couple of guys who haven’t got the same technical experience that you’ve got and yet, you’re told to go do the meet and greet roles while they’re off doing the whole technical roles, or when you’re stood next to a guy who hasn’t got the same amount of experience as you and someone asks them a question about their opinion rather than yours because the assumption is, they must know what they’re talking about more than you. It’s those kinds of low-level everyday sexism moments that are still out there. I think that is perhaps what the kind of “me too” and “times up” movements have made women today think ‘we shouldn’t have to put up with this anymore’ or it is time for that to be put to bed and recognised for what it is.

Corissa: That is well said! The other question is about the expedition: how did you train for it and what did you miss most while you were on it?

Felicity: I did a lot of preparation. I mean, I did some physical training, but what was different about that expedition was that I tried to prepare myself psychologically for it. So I, sought advice from a sports psychologist, who specialised in theories of aloneness and things like that.

Corissa: Interesting.

Felicity: Yeah, it was all really interesting, but I have to say (laughs) within the first few seconds of that expedition it became really apparent that even though I thought I had prepared really well, I hadn’t. I’d totally underestimated how it was going to affect me, and a lot of those kind of formal tools and techniques that I’d been taught went out the window and I just ended up trying to deal with it very instinctively.

Some people go on big solo expeditions and they have very different experiences – they love it – and in a way, I did love it, but I also found it very difficult. I found the actual aloneness to be, perhaps, the toughest thing of the whole trip. It wasn’t physical exertion, it wasn’t what some people see as the deprivations of living in a tent in Antarctica, it wasn’t any of that. What I found really terrifying – and I use that word with its full meaning – what I found terrifying was being so far away from human help, to be utterly responsible for my own wellbeing. There were parts of that expedition, quite some distance away, and you’re just realising that there is no safety net – that really affected me. I think that’s the first time in my life that I’ve been terrified in that way.

Corissa: Did you grow to be fond of aloneness?

Felicity: I remember when I got home, I found I was used to living in a space that was this wide – the width of my tent was the length of my body – and I only had in that tent what I needed, nothing more. Then, I came home to my (albeit) small flat and suddenly, I had to keep moving into the next room to get what I wanted; or going to the supermarket and needing toothpaste and suddenly there’s a million different types of toothpaste, and it was almost overwhelming. I felt the energy expenditure of having to make constantly all these meaningless decisions, all day every day. It felt so frustrating and overwhelming. So, in a way the loneliness…

Corissa: Was convenient!

Felicity: Yeah. So, in terms of fondness for the aloneness… time away gives you a rosy glow, doesn’t it? I’m very grateful for the experience, but I’m not sure it’s one that I’ll ever repeat.

Corissa: So, in the Call of the White expedition—I found that one to be the most interesting—but, I imagine, taking a group of women who hadn’t seen snow or skied or anything before would be equally rewarding and challenging, so I was wondering what were the best and worst moments of that?

Felicity: Last year, I took a group of women from the Arab world, and from across Europe, to the North Pole. Obviously, there are difficulties with taking people who’ve had no previous experience: you have to do a lot more training; you have to reassure people all the time, keep up their confidence, trying to spot when confidence is dipping. But, there are also some benefits: people arrive with no expectation, and if you say ‘right, we’re gonna do a week and we’re gonna learn everything we need to know in this week’, then they will do that, because that is the goal you have set them and they’ve got no expectation that that’s at all unusual, or that they’re doing anything different. They also bring fresh eyes to it. Particularly in the polar world – I imagine it’s the same in any kind of area of expertise, you do get very attached to your own way of doing things, and I think it’s very healthy to have relationships—working relationships—where people challenge that and you think ‘yeah, that’s a really good idea, why not do it like that?’ Those are benefits as well as difficulties.

Corissa: What is one thing you want people to know about you, or about the Antarctic?

Felicity: It’s never really been about me, it’s been about the place. I guess on my expeditions the message that they’re trying to send is if you really want to do something, you know, you can do it and I think the worst sin out there, if you like, is people spending their lives doing nothing. We have this wonderful opportunity to do and be and say anything we want.

Corissa: Wow, so inspiring!

Felicity: Well, you know, we need to just do it! And whatever it is that you feel strongly about, you have to go and do it. Someone put it really well once, I mean it’s a totally different context, it’s an Icelandic woman who did an amazing TedTalk in conjunction with the man who raped her ten years before and they’re on stage talking together about what had happened and the affect his actions had on both their perspectives. Incredible – I mean, you should look it! She said something in her TedTalk, ‘with our freedom to have a voice comes the responsibility to use it’, and that really struck me in so many different ways. That for me, I think, is the one life principle I’ve gone to the whole time is: we are given this amazing opportunity, we have to make the most of it.

Corissa: What’s one of the most dangerous situations you’ve ever been in—besides being alone?

Felicity: In the Arctic, what gives me sweaty palms is polar bears—I’ve kind of had a few polar bear encounters—and crevasses, because you never know where they’re going to be. But I always think when things happen to team members that you are responsible for, that’s always worse. I remember crossing Greenland back in 2006 and one of my teammates fell into a pool of melt water – it was refrozen, glacial melt. We were crossing these pools all the time, and she was at the front of the line and taking a turn at navigating and went through some thin ice – she was still attached to a sledge and to her skis. I remember I managed to get hold of her, but then I realised the ice I was on was cracking so I had to let go of her and move up to safe ground. I’d said to her ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you’, and then I had to let go of her, and she told me later that she was fine – well, she told me later that if her head had gone under, she would’ve lost it. Luckily, she was able to get out and it was all fine, but I think that was possibly the worst incident I’ve ever had, because it wasn’t happening to me, it was happening to someone else.

Corissa: Wow, that is horrifying. I have a few more questions but I don’t want to take up too much time. What are you going to do next? What’s your next plan?

Felicity: There’s loads of things I would love to do, but it’s always a matter of finding the money. So, the project we completed back in April—the Euro-Arabian expedition—that was two years in the making and there was a huge amount of money to find. When you have these sponsorship relationships, I certainly feel a huge amount of responsibility to make sure they get a massive return on their investment and their support. So, that’s a lot of work to make sure that happens.

The next few trips are quicker, shorter, easier, less painful! I’m going to Northern India at the end of this month to do a trip I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s called the Chadar, it’s an area of India called Zansakr, which just sounds brilliant, doesn’t it?

Corissa: So interesting!

Felicity: It is in this isolated culture and their only link to the outside world is a route on a river that passes through a gorge in Tilat, in Northern India, and this river freezes solid in the winter time. Traditionally, they slept in caves in the gorge wall above the waterline and now it’s becoming a more and more popular trekking route and you can hire localised pilots. This area (there's now a road being built, so probably this culture that’s been so isolated for a very long time) has already changed enormously. It seems to be a place to go sooner rather than later!

I’ve put together a group of women, just from Facebook. There was quite a lot of criticism that came back, such as ‘why are you doing all women trips?’; ‘surely this is just sexism in reverse?’. But, for whatever reason, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm.

Corissa: There’s a sense of camaraderie…

Felicity: Yeah, and there is something special. I mean, I’ve done lots of trips in mixed teams, I’ve done lots of trips with all females teams, and I’ve also done lots of trips where, I’ve been the only woman amongst a group of men, and there is something really great for me about being amongst a group of women. I find it really inspiring, and it makes me raise my game a bit. I like it. I kind of think: ‘come on guys! You’ve had the rest of eternity where it’s been men having all these opportunities!’

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