“It’s precious, this life. I hope I’ve made the most I can of it.”
This week, we journey to Iceland to visit the intrepid, incredibly inspiring Felicity Aston — polar explorer and the first woman to ski across Antarctica alone, traversing a distance of 1,084 miles in 59 days. Among her other accomplishments, Aston led the first all-women of team to cross the Greenland ice sheet, and the largest, most international team of women across the South Pole. In 2015, she received the Polar Medal from the Queen for exploration work. Born in Kent, England, she currently resides in between expeditions with her family in Iceland — this fall, we were honored to have the opportunity to visit Felicity and have a conversation with her about the ideas, passion, and trailblazing courage that fuel her.
Photos by Katrina Jane Perry
+ Exploration photos courtesy of Felicity Aston, Interview by Glenn Mendonsa
Can you tell us about your upbringing? What led you to lead a life of exploration?
I spend quite a lot of time trying to pinpoint why it is that I feel driven to do these things. Why do I want to explore? Why do I want to travel? It feels that a lot of people's first thought is to ask what my parents do — as if I've inherited this in my DNA somehow. In the 70’s, my parents were traveling around Italy and Greece with me as a young baby, which then would have been considered quite adventurous even if a bit tame by today's standards.
I do [also think about] growing up in the Southeast of England. When it snowed, that was the most exciting event of the year. You get days off school and you get to go sledging and build snowmen, things you didn't get to do often. I wonder if some kind of nascent connection was made between the winter environment, the classic snowy landscape, and this idea of adventure and excitement. I remember going outside and witnessing the complete transformation of the place I knew so well.
I remember meeting up with someone I went to school with years afterward and she said to me: “Don't take this the wrong way, but of all the people we were at school with, you would have been the least likely to have done this!” I wasn't a tomboy. I wasn't particularly into sports. I was the one who would hide in the toilets to get out of gym class. So for me, I think the motivation is curiosity about the place itself. It's not about bravado, it's about seeing these places. The motivation to go to Antartica is to see Antartica, to know Antartica.
Can you speak to how imagination fuels exploration? What keeps you in pursuit of situations you might not have complete context for?
None of my expeditions are the same. If I've read a book, I will not read it again. If I've seen a film, I hate rewatching it. Each expedition is slightly more challenging, in one way or another, than the last. In my first independent expedition, the challenge was putting it together myself. Then it was taking on the responsibility of leading a team, and then broadening those teams to include people who had never done anything like this before.
It’s one of the reasons I like going on expeditions with people who are not necessarily experienced, with people who have a new perspective. They look at things through fresh eyes. Whatever it is you do, especially regularly, you risk becoming a bit complacent. You start thinking that there’s only one way to do something. Then, when someone with a new perspective comes along, they question you: “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you do it like this instead?”
That’s happening all the time, particularly as I try to put together [expedition] teams with people from different cultures, different backgrounds, and with different perspectives, precisely so they can bring fresh insight, so they can ask new questions. I remember having team members from Southeast Asia for the first time. I was trying to give them oatmeal in the morning and they asked why we weren’t eating noodles. I thought, "Why not? High carbohydrates, lightweight, just as good as oats – let’s have a mix.
What have you come to learn about presence and focus from your travels?
When I was on the expedition by myself, I knew I was going to be on my own and I thought I had prepared really well for that. I had gone to see sports psychologists who specialized in aloneness. We practiced tools and techniques to deal with the feelings of loneliness we expected would come up. Within the first seconds of that expedition, I realized I hadn't prepared at all. And that this was totally different than what I thought it was going to be. Through the course of that expedition, I saw very clearly that I'd gone there thinking that I was intrinsically “Felicity," that my character was a stand alone product. When that human connection was taken away, I felt like I had no substance. If I had an emotion, it went from being an internal feeling to an outward expression of it, just like that. If I was angry, I was furious! If I were upset, tears would be streaming down my face. I would swing from total euphoria to absolute despair. It was that kind of swing that made me feel like I was going mad. It's quite scary when you feel like you can't rely on your own brain and you're having to second guess yourself all of the time. I realized that we are the sum of all the people around us; we are the shape of the space in between. I came home with a renewed appreciation: that the people you choose to surround yourself with and the connection that you have with others, is what makes you who you are.
How do you maintain perspective when balancing the realities of a life “at home” versus when you’re out on an expedition, given how contrasting the experiences seem?
It is difficult. You go out on an expedition and they can be very extreme experiences. That is part of their benefit, their advantage, and in a way why you go out and do these things in the first place. A lot of people find themselves dreaming of the next expedition and then suddenly, home life becomes difficult for them. They fill that void by planning for the next trip or planning to be away longer. I've witnessed a lot of friends and colleagues who have followed this route, who spend their life on the treadmill. I made a very conscious decision early on that I didn't want to do that. For me, it was really important to have a family life and a home life that I valued and enjoyed. So it's about finding the harmony there, avoiding a situation where you're at home dreaming of the next horizon and equally, on an expedition dreaming about being at home. I try and remind myself that not too long ago I was in a tent thinking about buying myself a glass of wine and a nice meal, which seemed to me like the epitome of privilege. It's trying to keep that balance, realizing the value and importance of both of those facets of your life.
I've also realized that there's a lot of things in life we can't control, but there are also a lot of things in our lives that we can. If there's something in your everyday home life that you don't like, think of a way to change it. That's the approach I've tried to make. If there's something I find really boring, I find a different approach to take. Sometimes we forget we actually have the power to arrange our lives in a way that suits us. I've come to realize that the majority of people don't think this way and that perhaps, this is quite radical to suggest...I don't know where that comes from. I wonder if the expedition experience really just strips everything back to basics. When you're out on expedition, you are living with just what you need and nothing more. Everything is pared down precisely. There is no choice or decision involved. There is no complication. I remember when I came home, one of the things that was difficult [for me was] to readjust to the amount of choice we have in our everyday life. I found myself getting frustrated going to the grocery store. I wanted to buy some bread and I just stood in front of this wall and felt so exhausted trying to make the decision. When something should be really simple, it becomes complicated with the volume of choice that we have.
Would you consider yourself a practical or intuitive person? How might such a disposition impact your approach to exploration?
I think I do have quite a good sense of empathy. When I was a little girl I used to like writing stories. Imagining how other people would feel in a situation is something that has been quite intuitive for me. But predominantly, I credit my first experience to the polar world as a scientist. My first job out of university was with the British Antarctic Survey, UK's main research body operational in Antartica. It operates two big research stations and I was posted to the largest of those two as a meteorologist. I was 23 years old and it was my first time in Antartica but also one of my first jobs.
My first posting was 39 months. I knew when I arrived at the beginning of my first summer that I would be completing a summer, a winter, a summer, a winter, and a third and final summer before I came home. I arrived in December 2000 and knew I wasn't going to leave again, not for a holiday or a break, until April of 2003. In the wintertime, the crew of 85 shrinks down to about 20. When you're only 4 or 5 months into that posting, only really still finding your feet, winter arrives. So you develop this very tight knit community, one that has quite a lot of responsibility. And there's quite a lot of pressure associated with that. You've only got each other. You're not only working with each other, you are eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. You're seeing each other in the bar in the evenings. You're watching movies together. You're sharing everything. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was an amazing grounding and foundation for really seeing how people come together, and how they fall apart.
Logistics are straightforward. A+B will always equal C, but with human beings, it’s really difficult to get that right. We’ve tried to define, by science, human behavior and human nature. It always falls short. I think we fail to appreciate just how unpredictable, bizarre, and capricious people are. We don’t behave the way we should even though logic says otherwise – people will surprise you every time. And I hope we start to take that into account more. I think the gut feelings we have about people need to be taken into consideration. Our human intuition is a very valuable tool that I think we should appreciate.
We speak of "north stars" as a euphemism for a higher purpose. What has a life dedicated to exploration taught you about your position and your purpose in the world?
I think it's a human need to have some kind of cause and to feel you are making things better. I think all of us in our way are trying to do that. Many years ago I wondered what an amazingly powerful thing it would be if everybody channeled what they did well into a cause of some kind. I thought: “Well, what do I do well?” That was the start of trying to create expeditions that addressed subjects or causes that I felt strongly about. I guess that is my purpose…
Isn’t it funny? Looking back now, it feels like my life story has taken a streamlined path. Throughout my twenties I remember agonizing about if I was doing the right thing. If I should get a “proper job,” or whether I’d let myself down in some way for not pursuing this and that. It was only until my early to mid-thirties where I felt comfortable being where I was. We change throughout our lives. Each experience changes you. You want different things at different times. Trips that I really wanted to put together when I was 25 are not the same as the trips I want to put together now. There are different things I want to explore. I’m not so worried about where I’m going because just like anything else, you evolve over time. It’s kind of exciting not to know.
My litmus test is always to think about my last day on this earth and to ask if I would feel happy. I have to say, if today was the last day I had, I could look back on my life and think: “Yeah, I’ve had a bloody good time! And I think I’ve done some good along the way.” It’s precious, this life. I hope I’ve made the most I can of it.
What’s next for you?
My passion has always involved women, in terms of being alive in the 21st century where the majority of women don’t have the ability to make their own choices, through reasons of religion, culture, economics, etc. And I feel sort of, in a strange way, responsible for that. This is my world. Today is my world. This situation is my responsibility, too. A lot of my projects in the past have gone about trying to spread a very positive and inspirational message about what women are capable of and have been capable of for a very long time. The projects that I’m putting together for the future will expand on that theme, looking back at women in history.
As a woman who’s an explorer, I often get spoken to, or spoken about as if I’m a rare bread, or as if women explorers are a new phenomenon. I was recently asked to give a talk at the Royal Geographical Society about the heritage of women in polar exploration. People were really surprised when the first story that I could find of a woman in Antartica was from 1773. 1772 is the year Captain Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle. Right at the beginning of the story of Antartica if you like, there is a woman.
It feels as if across the board, people are waking up to this rich female historical heritage and to the idea of airing it out; to making role models more visible. It’s been proven again and again how valuable role models are if you want to change something. My next project will be looking at some fantastic female characters – queens, leaders, leaders of war, generals – stretching right back to antiquity, and going on an expedition to really highlight their stories. I want to talk about what impact that might have on 21st century women, in the way that we see ourselves and our role in society.