100 First Women - Felicity Aston

13th April 2019

A few weeks ago the British polar explorer Felicity Aston MBE visited Palace House where she delivered an inspirational talk at one of our evening with events.

Felicity’s photograph is included in Anita Corbin’s fabulous 100 First Women exhibition which is currently on display at Palace House.

Our latest blog features a Q & A with Felicity about her incredible and dangerous adventure when she became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica, the world’s coldest environment.

When did you decide to make the expedition and had you been to Antarctica before?

My first trip to Antarctica was at the age of 23 as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey. That was in 2000. I spent the following 10 years putting together polar expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic. The idea to go alone and to make a crossing had been rolling around in my head for so long that I don't recall exactly where it came from or when it arrived. I just knew that it was an idea that would never go away unless I did something about it!

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What were your immediate feelings when you arrived at Antarctica?

I was struck by just how vast, how empty and how ancient this continent truly is. It is impossible not to feel vulnerable as a tiny human in this immense landscape and to be struck by the awesome power of nature on our own planet, never mind everything that lies beyond. It puts everything into a kind of perspective.

Felicity’s expedition began at the end of November 2011.

What were the logistics of your journey and what did you take with you?

I was flown to the far coast of Antarctica to a point on the Ross Ice Shelf beneath the TransAntarctic Mountains. My route took me up the Leverett Glacier through the mountains to the South Pole which sits roughly at the centre of the continent and then out to the coast of Antarctica on the Ronne Ice Shelf at a point called Hercules Inlet.

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The journey was a distance of 1,744km which took me 59 days. I started off with 85kg of supplies and equipment in two sledges attached one behind the other. I picked up a supply of rations and fuel at the South Pole and another some 500km further along my route which together weighed an additional 25kg or so.

Is it correct to say the pilots left soon after landing because they didn’t want to stall the engine?

I would have to ask the pilots to be sure, but my understanding was that they were worried that if they stopped the engine it might get cold or have a problem and not start again, and they didn't want to be stranded so far from safety.

Had anyone undertaken this adventure before?

At the time there were only two other people who had ever crossed Antarctica alone - both Norwegians. They had both chosen much longer routes than me and been completely unsupported - meaning that they had everything they needed for their entire journey in their sledges right from the start. They also both used kites and/or sails.

What was a typical day like?  How many hours did you usually ski each day?  It must have been very physically demanding.

I found the mental challenges far more demanding than the physical side. On my worst day I progressed just 5km in 12 hours of skiing - but on my best day I covered nearly 60km!

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From the moment I stopped skiing to the moment I crawled in the door of my tent was extremely quick. Quicker the worse the weather got. I guess less than 10 minutes on most days, but could be a lot longer for any number of reasons. And yes, once in the tent my main priority was getting to sleep as quickly as possible!

What was the typical temperature?

I didn't carry a thermometer, so I don't know what the temperatures were. When I arrived at the South Pole, staff there told me it was -38C that day and it had felt a lot colder over the previous three weeks...so I guess I must have been down in the minus forties somewhere for part of it. But there were relatively warm days too when it must have been hovering around freezing perhaps?!

Were you aware of the dangers and what was your emergency strategy?

I was acutely aware of the dangers. My emergency strategy hinged on the one satellite phone call I was obliged to make every day. I would report the location of my camp at the end of each ski day, the theory being that if they didn't hear from me in any 24-hour period they would return to this last known location to start to look for me.

Felicity completed her trek across Antarctica on 22 January 2012.

In Felicity’s book Alone in Antarctica the polar explorer summarised the secret of her successful expedition in a simple phrase. “Keep getting out of the tent.”

She continued. “If I can do that each and every day, no matter the challenge, who knows where the next day will take me.”

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What did it mean to be asked by Anita and to be included in First Women?

I was very honoured when Anita asked me to be involved in First Women. It is such a fabulous concept that sends a really important message in a very positive way. The portraits themselves are beautiful and seeing the collection together, I feel it creates a really striking historical record of where women are today.

For more information on this special exhibition please visit the 100 First Women website www.1stwomenuk.co.uk

 

Felicity is also the author of Call of the White, Alone in Antarctica and Chasing Winter and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (London) and The Explorers Club (New York).  www.felicityaston.com 

 

Blog by Stephen Wallis, Visitor Services.