It’s hard talking to adventurer Felicity Aston without exclaiming, ‘wow!’ every few seconds. The first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, Aston, throughout her adventuring life has experienced the sort of mind-bending risk and isolation that for many of us is impossible to imagine.
Alone for weeks on end in temperatures of -30C and ‘scared permanently for two months’, Aston explains what drives her to these pioneering feats of extraordinary human endurance.
If an idea won’t leave you alone – that’s the one that you’ll see through to the end
‘People often ask me how I keep going during tough expeditions, but once you’re on your skis you have no choice! The hardest part is everything before you start; but what sustains you through that is how the project takes hold of you. You can’t stop thinking about it until it’s happening.’
People read a story and say, ‘ooh I’d love to do that!’ What I want to add is: ‘what is it exactly about that story that inspires you?’
‘What about it is applicable to you and your desires? Do you really want to ski to the South Pole? Or is it the team experience you crave? Or to be the first to achieve something? You’re more likely to see a project through to completion if you are gripped by a dream that suits you.’
Knowing what’s impossible is very useful
‘Very few people hop from one huge success to another.
When I talk to people with awesome life stories, it’s clear that all paths led to their success but at the time they felt tossed about left, right and centre!
Their story will always include self doubt, wrong turns, mistakes…so you can’t let fear of blocks or U-turns or alternative routes deter you.’
The isolation on solo Polar expedition was even more unpredictable than I expected.
‘I got scared when I found that my inner emotions started outwardly expressing almost immediately. Whereas, with a group I would have kept those emotions inside. I went to Antarctica with this assumption that I was ‘Felicity Aston’ and that she was a certain person, but the longer I spent alone, I increasingly discovered that what defines you as you is the society and friends and life you have around you.
Skiing solo in Antarctica, my world had no edges. The shape I knew as ‘Felicity ‘ disappeared and this undermined all I knew about myself. You can no longer trust your own thought processes once you remove your borders.’
Old wounds move you forward
‘When I take on an expedition I think about the people that *didn’t* support me – the under-estimators, the disappointed teachers, the line managers that passed me over. I have no desire to say, ‘I told you so’ but it galvanises me, proving to myself that I’m not who they said I was.’
I’m a very strong feminist – I always have been
‘My next project is assembling a team of women from the West and the Middle East to work together. We assume so much about women from the Middle East. I wonder what they assume about us? How do they wish to change things?’
Choose the best person for the job – not the ‘best gender’
‘I was on a scientific base for 7 months, cut off from the rest of the world, one of only two women and twenty men. The biggest stress? Whenever there was an ‘emotional’ issue, one of the men would come to one of us to talk about it. After a while it got too much. It’s assumed that females are good listeners but it’s actually strength of a certain character – not of gender.
It’s about culture, education and life experience that dictates how your brain works!’
The fear was always present – but so was euphoria
‘Imagine; walking through a storm – a total white-out, you know there’s a crevasse nearby, help isn’t anywhere close. Half your brain is in terror… and the other half is going, ‘wow! Look at this!! I’m in Antarctica and I’m Felicity from Kent and I’m a polar explorer – woo hoo!’
That constant swing often made me think I was on the edge of madness. How did I get a grip on myself? I always went back to the numbers – counting my steps or working out the number of nautical miles to the next line of latitude.’
Women are often portrayed as only being able to get ahead in business by being Alpha and turning themselves into men
‘I talk in schools and young people who want to get ahead in business see things like ‘The Apprentice’ and assume that’s how it is. That show is not teamwork, leadership or tough love. It is generating disinformation and dysfunction in our next generation by presenting an idea of leadership that once you are ‘in’ you know how to lead. It will be a disaster if generations of young women continue to follow this model.’
I most often miss a hot shower – I’ve boiled a flask of water in Antarctica before and poured it over my head
‘Not to wash, but to simply come close that glorious feeling. I’m also surprised by how little I miss…It takes time to readjust to the ‘stuff’ of life when I come back. Having stayed in a tent as wide as my arm-span with all I need, it’s quite a shift when I’m back home to realise that I have to go into a completely different room to fetch something. It’s exhausting.
I’ve stood in supermarkets post-expedition, not knowing where to start; totally overwhelmed by the fact that for a tube of toothpaste I have to navigate a whole aisle.’
Felicity Aston MBE – adventurer and climate scientist
First Woman to Ski solo across Antarctica
To find out more about First Woman Felicity Aston visit: http://www.felicityaston.co.uk/
Follow her on Twitter at @felicity_aston
Interview by Deborah Willimott