When we meet, Felicity Aston is delighting in the memory of when she and the party of women from very different Commonwealth countries, now crossing Antarctica with her, came together for the first time. It was in Norway where they were to do preliminary training, and as Felicity recalls: “There was a blizzard, and there were several women who had never seen snow. I hadn’t imagined quite how amazed they would be. They had all the awe and excitement of children. We had a journey on a snow-plough, we walked in deep snow – and at the end of the day we made a snowman and had a snowball fight. It was a magical firstday getting to know each other.”
This occasion was also an initiation into the extreme challenge the eight women representing four continents, six faiths and six languages, would embark upon: skiing across Antarctica to the South Pole.
Felicity, 31, a climate scientist and intrepid explorer for most of the past decade, has invited me to her home in Kent in England where the first thing that strikes you is the whiteness. The walls gleam white, the furnishings are white, there are white objects. You sense that, even at home, Felicity cannot be too far from the bright paleness of the polar regions she so loves.
As we drink tea and dunk biscuits, Felicity – engagingly girlish and still “star-struck” at being able to live by doing the thing she loves most – explains that the idea of a women’s expedition to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the birth of the Commonwealth took root a few years ago. There was plenty of enthusiasm but she was struggling to get enough funding when Kaspersky Lab, a Russian computer security company, offered their support.
“That meant a great deal to me,” says Felicity, “because I felt this was an important expedition, a unique opportunity. I wanted it to be all women because I feel passionately that in the 21st century there is no reason why women shouldn’t be out there exploring the globe, showing what it is possible to do. Yet the majority of women are not free to make their own choices, or do as they might wish, and a lot of it is down to culture. So I decided the expedition should be about giving women an opportunity where, apart from achieving something for their country, they would take part in an exchange of cultures. I wanted women from very different worlds to come together and share ideas, beliefs, philosophies.”
For two years Felicity planned what the expedition would involve and put in place the detailed organisation that you need when going into the unknown. (Although she had been to the Antarctic she had never gone as far as the South Pole.) Selecting the women, though, proved particularly difficult.
Eight hundred responded to her online advertisement. This was then reduced to ten from eight Commonwealth countries. She visited all ten with funding from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. “I found it very hard because for every woman the expedition was a life’s ambition. I had to decide who would work as part of the team, but also who would see it through and understand the wider aims. I had to see grit and determination, not ‘Oh I want to see penguins’. But so many of the women were hugely impressive that it was not easy.” Apart from either her or her fellow Brit Helen Turton, everyone going will become the first woman – and in some cases the first person – from their country to ski to the South Pole.
During training in Norway the team that Felicity eventually chose learned how to cross-country ski, to build up the strength they’d require and to pull a sledge loaded with equipment. They learned, too, what it is to survive on dehydrated food and melted snow,to sleep in tents on the ice, and how to treat frostbite and hypothermia.
But along with the physical preparation was the mental training Felicity knew to be essential.
“It was important that those women who’d never known really cold weather be psychologically prepared for possible temperatures of minus 40oC. There is a syndrome called Arctic shock where people have prepared for months, but once they arrive they feel the cold and think they can’t cope, and then it becomes mental as well as physical and they can’t go on. I had to help the women understand what it would mean to face 130km/h blizzards that last for days, and where you can’t see anything. There may be unanticipated crevasses. All of this can be frightening and people may panic.”
Then there was the fact that it would be the height of summer in Antarctica with 24-hour daylight, the sun going round and round above them.
But while inner strength and forbearance were obviously vital, Felicity did not want the women to be “frightened off” from mentioning problems through a fear of being seen to fail. “As wellas not wanting to let the team down, they have the pressure of nationalexpectations to live up to, so during the training I included a time for talking about how the day had been and getting people to air any problems.”
Clearly a good deal of the mental training is about coping with fear and not panicking. So does Felicity herself ever get frightened? “I think that you have to live with a level of fear and that it is protective. I let anyone coming with me know that I cannot guarantee there is no danger.”
She learned this in what she describes as “my most terrifying moment”. It was when she took the first all-women expedition (known as the Arctic Foxes) across the Greenland ice sheet in 2006, and one went into a crevasse. “The sun had melted the top level of snow and formed puddles that had re-formed as thin layers of ice. One woman went about six metres ahead of me and I saw her fall into the ice and go up to her ankles in water. I wasn’t worried at first because I thought she’d be able to find a stronger piece of ice to pull herself onto. But then she went down to her knees. By the time I reached her she was up to her neck and finding it hard to keep her head above the slush water.”
Taking hold of the back of her neck, Felicity realised that the woman was about to panic. “But then the ice under me started cracking and I knew in that moment that if I held on to her we would both go under.” She stops for a moment, her voice quiet: “I had to say to this woman with whom I was closely bonded from our travel together that I was going to have to let her go.”
Felicity stepped back – but then, in what she now describes as a moment of “superhuman strength and determination” the drowning woman managed to roll herself onto a piece of thicker ice and was out of the water.
Felicity cannot remember the exact moment she got bitten by the exploring bug, but after reading physics and astronomy at university and getting a master’s in applied meteorology, she was offered a job with the British Antarctic Survey. So, from the age of 23, she spent nearly three years at the Rothera Research Station with a team of 20, almost all men, monitoring ozone depletion and climate.
She then helped organise scientific expeditions for young people and was trained by former Royal Commandos for a race across the Arctic. (“I was taught to go to the edge.”) She’s looked for meteorite craters in Quebec, skied a frozen river in Siberia in search of a herbal cure for leprosy and completed the infamous Marathon Des Sables – a six-day, 251-kilometre “ultra-marathon” across the Moroccan Sahara.
But there is one expedition that has particular poignancy for Felicity: when she took her brother Spencer and three other young people on an expedition to Iceland. In 2004 Spencer, a bright, energetic and musically talented 15-year-old, was the passenger in a car involved in a crash. He suffered severe brain injury and was expected to remain in a vegetative state. Instead he made a remarkable recovery and on his 16th birthday was able to walk, haltingly, into his own party.
“Spencer had always been interested in my trips,” says Felicity, “and had always really wanted to go to Iceland. His accident and all it took from him made me very aware how incredibly lucky I am to have a healthy mind and body. I decided I would take him, and his friends from a Yahoo! social group in Kent for young people with brain injury, on an expedition.”
It took Felicity and the other adult helpers a great deal of organisation, but she was determined it would be a proper expedition. “So we camped in tents, and took the young people ice climbing, trekking on glaciers and swimming in warm pools. We got them to do their own navigation – which they managed with a bit of help. There were tricky moments. A couple of them found it hard to get in and out of sleeping bags and were scared they would be trapped. We had to carry a commode because they found crouching in nature difficult when going to the loo. And unexpected things would frighten them. But they still managed, and we truly had the trip of a lifetime. It was very special for Spencer to have his dream come true.”
Felicity successfully led the Commonwealth expedition to the South Pole, which the seven-women team reached on 29 December last year. Felicity knows that her biggest expedition so far is fulfilling more dreams. “I organised the expedition,” she says, “but it is these women who will return home and be wonderfully inspiring role models.”