Interview by Britany Robinson
Felicity Aston was the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica. She tells us what fuels her adventures.
The connection crackled when British polar explorer, Felicity Aston, picked up our Skype call from Reykjavik, Iceland. But when her voice came through it was clear and enthusiastic.
I’d been worried that reaching someone like Aston, who is often on expeditions in corners of the world that wifi doesn’t reach, would be difficult. But the scientist/writer had just returned from working on a Russian icebreaker in the Arctic and was enjoying time at home.
A big boat — even one that’s carrying a nuclear reactor through one of the most extreme climates in the world — seems almost cozy compared to her previous endeavors.
in 2011, Aston became the first woman to ski across Antarctica solo, and the first person to do so without the assistance of kites or machines. For 59 days and 1,084 miles, she powered her way across barren space with nothing to look at but the white of the arctic sky and the barely decipherable line at which that sky met frozen ground.
The expedition was an extraordinary physical undertaking, but an emotional one, too. In her book, Alone in Antarctica, Aston describes the devastating isolation of having only herself to depend on for survival. It was only after nearly losing herself to self-doubt each morning as she forced herself out of the safety of her tent, that she completed her journey, reaching the Ronne Ice Shelf just in time to catch the last flight of the season.
But it wasn’t the first or last time Felicity has pushed herself to extremes. She’s also led a team of women across Greenland, driven across Eurasia to the coldest inhabited place in the world, and completed the infamous Marathon des Sables, considered the toughest foot race on Earth.
I caught up with Aston to discuss challenges, both personal and physical, from writing a book to conquering some of the most extreme adventures known to humankind.
BR: What was it like working on an ice breaker?
FA: It was quite the experience to look out a tiny glass window at a nuclear reactor. This energy source has a lot of fear and terror wrapped around it. I had to sort out how much of that was irrational fear and how much was a genuine admiration for this power source.
BR: As someone with a science background but also the author of several very personal books, what would you say you were first, a writer or a scientist?
FA: I would love to say I was a writer first, but I don’t think I’m qualified to do so. I find the challenge of writing something well, really rewarding. I’m so grateful that I’ve had experiences that I can write books about.
The feedback you get from people after writing a book is just incredible. I’m really proud — and I mean that in a very humble way. When something you write can have an effect on somebody else -- I’m not sure that anything does that quite like the written word.
BR: Can you remember the first adventure that got you hooked on pushing yourself physically?
FA: It was more of a gradual development rather than a particular moment. I’ve always, even as a kid, wanted to do everything everyone else did.
I remember rock climbing for the first time and being taken out on a sailboat for the first time. I just found it all so exciting. I wanted to have as many experiences as I could.
When I left university and got a job in Antarctica I thought “Yes!” I really wanted that job. So, I guess that was the tipping point. Once Antarctica was a place that I had spent time in, I couldn’t really get it out of my bloodstream. I wanted to see more. I wanted to go to more of those places on the fringes of the maps and find out what was there. It became an environment that I was familiar with and kept returning to.
BR: After working in Antarctica for a few years and being there with other people, what made you want to experience it alone?
FA: Curiosity. Two years before I went alone, I led a team of eight women to the South Pole and we’d always ski in a single file. The person in the front would navigate and set the pace. You’d do that for a few hours and then you’d cycle back.
When it was my turn to be up front, I’d try to imagine that the women weren’t behind me. What would it be like to be out there with no back up and no company? What would it be like to be in this terrifying landscape completely by myself? Would I be able to do it?
When I got home and started thinking seriously about whether this was a trip I wanted to do, the thought made me excited, but it also made me really scared. I’d have sweaty palms just thinking about it. I think that’s why I knew it was something I had to do.
When you have an idea that won’t go away and it keeps coming back, that’s when you know it’s something you need to act on.
BR: You wrote an essay for The Guardian about almost being left behind when you were skiing at the back of the line with that group of women. Was that the first time you realized how terrifying that would be?
FA: My first independent expedition was across Greenland. We were four British women and I was leading the team. There were so many frightening situations — we were very naive and unprepared.
There were instances in that experience where that could have easily been catastrophically bad. When you’re in the moment of those experiences, you think “Wow, this is really bad,” and then you find a way to get through it.
That experience of being left behind was one of those moments. In retrospect, it’s a small part of the overall experience. But at the time, it was genuinely quite terrifying. You suddenly realize how vulnerable you are.
In Greenland, we suddenly found ourselves on this massively crevassed area. We had somehow wandered over a snow bridge and this big patch of snow just fell away and revealed this yawning void beneath it. So I said, “Alright, everyone back up back up!” And we went backward on our skis until we were on solid ground.
You have those experiences and you get past them. We decided to move forward.
BR: How have you acclimated your loved ones to this lifestyle of yours? Do you worry about worrying them?
I was blessed by the fact that I did the worst thing first.
I got home as a fresh graduate, and told my parents I’ve got a job. They’re like, “That’s brilliant darling, what is it?” and I’m like “Oh ya know...it’s in Antarctica! And it means I have to go for three years and you can’t contact me and I won’t be able to come home.”
I’m telling my parents this as a twenty three year old. Only now at the the age of thirty seven, can I appreciate just how tough that must have been, especially on my mum. It sort of takes my breath away, thinking about it now. After that, I don’t think anything I said was quite as bad.
Now, going solo was a progression that neither my sister nor my mum was particularly pleased with. I talked to my mom about it and her response was quite interesting.
She said, “You know Felicity, I see how hard you train for these things. I see how much time and anxiety you spend going through all the details, and I know that you don’t take foolish risks. I have confidence in you."
It was quite reassuring to hear her say that. The knowledge that your family is relying on you to get home is very motivating. And I don’t mean relying on you in terms of paying the bills — I mean relying on you, in the sense of how much heartache and anguish it would inflict on them if you didn’t come home. I’m very conscious of that.
I have a responsibility to them to make the right choice.
BR: So when you’re not off on these crazy expeditions, what’s your day to day life like at home?
FA: Almost the complete opposite. You might think I’ve chosen this alternative lifestyle but really, I spend a lot of time in front of my laptop. Expeditions are great, but the exciting bit is just one part, and two parts are all of the planning and logistics.
It might take a year, two years to put together an expeditions. It’s a lot of permits and spreadsheets. To be an expedition leader, you’ve really got to love spreadsheets.
BR: Well you’ve got to have balance, right?
FA: Yes! I’m actually a bit of a couch potato. I love spending a day on the sofa watching garbage TV. Sometimes it shocks people. They expect me to be this hardcore fitness fanatic. But quite often, it’s the exact opposite. If I can get away without going to the gym, then I will.
BR: Are you planning your next adventure right now?
FA: Yes, always. There are always different projects in the works.
There’s a book I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. I love writing, but I’ve realized that in order to do it I’ve literally got to chain myself to the seat and spend hours in front of the computer. Hopefully, this winter, since I’m not going back to Antarctica, I’ll be able to get it done.
BR: What’s more difficult for you: physical challenges or finishing a book?
FA: Oh, I would say definitely finishing a book. The mental challenge is much harder.
Long endurance expeditions are all about finding a way to switch your brain off. Our bodies are infinitely resilient. Our muscles will keep going and get you up that hill, but the trouble is that we think about it, and that’s when we run into limitations. Our brain tells us we can’t do it.
When you have to motivate yourself to be creative — that’s a challenge. I have a friend who writes on train journeys and on the bus. She writes whenever she has time, here and there. I’m boggled by her ability to do that. My creative process involves staring out the window for at least an hour before I’m able to write anything.
BR: I’m curious how the extreme challenges you faced on that solo expedition — loneliness and fear of failure — have affected your life post-trip. Are you immune to feelings of loneliness now? Is it easier to get through the rough patches in regular life after having been through that?
FA: I've developed a great appreciation for how resilient we are as people. When I hit those moments of despair — when I feel like I’m falling to pieces — I return to those days in Antarctica, when I hit rock bottom.
I always managed to find a way through, and that’s reassuring. It might not be pretty. It might involve crying and falling to pieces for a bit, but that’s OK. Having a good cry is not a sign of weakness. If you’re finding a way through, even if it’s with tears, that’s strength.
I always try to celebrate any kind of progress.
BR: You once said that your motto on the solo expedition each morning was, “Just get out of the tent.” Hearing that really stuck with me.
FA: Yes, that’s a motto I always carry around with me. Even with something as basic as trying to lose some weight — today wasn’t a good day for that, I snacked so much! But instead of beating myself up over it, I remember that tomorrow is a new day and I can start over again. As long as you always start again tomorrow, you’re on your way to success.
But you’ve got to always get back out there. You've got to just get out of the tent.
Britany Robinson is a Portland-based writer and the journey editor of Limbo.