After hearing how she voluntarily spent 59 nights in a tent in Antarctica with just a pot of peanut butter for company, mere mortals may suspect Felicity Aston of being a little mad. But when you realise this estimable explorer gets her kicks from undertaking challenges she fears impossible, the stories start to make sense.
Awarded the Queen’s Polar Medal in 2015, Felicity was not only the first person to ski solo across the Antarctic (without assistance from machines or kites), but also part of both the first all-female team to complete the Polar Challenge (skiing to the North Magnetic Pole), and the first team of British women to cross Greenland.
We spoke to Felicity about her love of the Antarctic, that one time she had a conversation with the sun and her advice for successfully travelling solo.
Where was your last trip?
Oman. It sounds odd, but I was in the Wahiba Sands training for my next polar expedition: the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition. Trekking with a sledge across sand dunes is surprisingly similar to sledge-hauling with skis in a polar desert.
What is your first travel-related memory?
Being bribed up Helvellyn in the Lake District by my parents. Each time I reached another cairn on the way up I was allowed another sweet. I remember it was pouring with rain and when we got to the top there was no view, just cloud as far as the eye could see, but I was allowed the rest of the sweets in celebration so I was elated.
Aisle or window seat?
Window. I like to see out. But the most exciting flights I’ve ever taken have been the ones with no seats at all where you're strapped in the back with the cargo! Being squeezed in alongside the reserve fuel tank in the back of a Twin Otter was a particularly memorable flight.
Favourite city or country or region?
It has to be Antarctica, but my adopted home country of Iceland is a close second.
You’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the Antarctic during your life – what is it about this part of the world that keeps drawing you back?
It is awe-inspiring. Nowhere else is so vast, so ancient and so empty. The human race has turned its attention to other planets, but there are still parts of Antarctica where no one has ever been. There is still mystery there; still the unknown.
Wouldn’t you rather spend a week relaxing on a beach in Spain?
When I got married, many expected that I would spend my honeymoon camped on some remote mountainside – in fact, we went to the Maldives and had a week of bliss.
Arguably the most famous of your many achievements has been your pioneering solo ski crossing of Antarctica – what made you want to take on this challenge?
There was something about the completeness and the simplicity of crossing the entire land mass by myself that appealed to me. I wanted to know what it would feel like to be alone in Antarctica and what my reaction to that experience would be. By that stage I’d spent a decade making journeys in the coldest parts of the world, so it was a kind of homage to a continent I find endlessly fascinating. The enjoyment comes from setting out to do something that you honestly don’t know is actually possible.
What was your daily routine during that trip?
Wake up, lure myself out of my sleeping bag with much angst, melt snow to make breakfast and coffee, strike camp, ski for at least 12 hours, pitch camp, melt snow to make dinner and hot chocolate, sleep. And repeat that for 59 days!
What was the lowest point of the expedition? Did you ever want to quit?
Every single morning the very first thought to cross my mind would be quitting. The toughest challenge of every day would be convincing myself to get out of that tent. It never got any easier.
What was the highlight?
Often on my trips, the worst of times and the best of times are the exact same moment. I remember skiing through a particularly wild blizzard. Half my brain was thinking, ‘this is miserable!’. The other half was saying, ‘this is incredible!’.
What was the first thing you did after getting home from that trip?
A very long, hot shower… we’re talking at least an hour.
Do you carry any luxury items with you during your expeditions in Antarctica?
Peanut butter. I took a big pot and allowed myself one spoonful each day before sleeping. I ate it with a spoon like ice cream. I love peanut butter.
The South Pole is arguably one of the loneliest places on Earth – how did you cope travelling in this region solo?
I started talking to myself the second the plane left me alone on the far coast of Antarctica. I’d give a running commentary aloud to myself on whatever I was doing. Over time, I stopped speaking aloud and instead directed my internal monologue at the sun. It got a little crazy when the sun started talking back.
Having worked as a climate scientist, are you worried by the effects of climate change on the Antarctic region?
Worried is the wrong word. It is too late to be worried. In my opinion, our focus now should be on adapting to climate change and on preparing ourselves for the new reality. It is very depressing that many people are still behaving as if climate change is a myth.
What is the best piece of travel advice you’ve received?
‘Any fool can be cold.’ It was advice given by an Antarctic veteran during my first season working in Antarctica. What he meant is that those stoically ‘toughing it out’ are not very clever. Those that take the time to make themselves comfortable are the ones that thrive. And that is the skill.
What is your favourite travel souvenir?
I met a ‘mammoth hunter’ in Siberia who gave me some woolly mammoth tusks that he had found preserved in the permafrost. They must be at least 10,000 years old.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
Missing flights. I think I have missed flights through every possible set of circumstances: oversleeping, wrong airport, wrong country, mistaken identity, items stuck in security conveyor belts, seat taken by sack of turnips…
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfill?
To see the Himalaya. Or to swim with sperm whales. I’d be torn between the two – but then if we have a week before the asteroid hits, surely there’s time to do both?!
Given your vast experience of – extreme – solo travel, what advice would you give a first-time lone traveller?
Make sure your camera has an adjustable self-timer. Mine was limited to 10 seconds which, as it turns out, is not long enough to press the button, ski away a decent distance and pose heroically.
...oh, and to ‘just keep getting out of the tent’.