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Explore Antarctica With Felicity Aston MBE (And How To Plan Your Trip)

Felicity Aston MBE is a polar explorer with countless expeditions to her name (no, really, there are so many she’s lost count). She’s been recognised with an MBE, the Polar Medal, and most recently named Godmother to Silversea’s Silver Endeavour cruise ship, which journeys through Antarctica.

Aston has solo-skied across the south pole, visited places you won’t find on a map in Siberia, and led intrepid journeys traversing Greenland, Alaska, and more. On a recent – winter but somewhat warmer than the poles – Monday morning in London, we spoke to Aston about her life of exploration.

She tells us about her first polar expedition, why the regions are so special to her, the responsibility she feels as a female explorer, and much more. The conversation was inspiring and educational – and had us looking up cabins on Silversea’s next Antarctic adventure.

Taking it back to the beginning; when was your first polar expedition, and how did it come about?

My very first polar expedition was at 18 years old. I went to Greenland with an organisation that was then called the British Schools. It was a revelatory experience, and my first awareness that you could be an explorer. One day we went up onto the very edge of an ice cap and saw the flat white horizon – I remember feeling a longing to keep going. My first job after leaving university was with a UK research programme where I was posted to a research station in Antarctica for two and a half years. That was what set the trajectory of my career.

How did it feel being stationed there for so long?

There were days when there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather be, such as when we took flights across parts of Antarctica that barely anyone has seen. But, of course, there were also days that I would rather have been anywhere else in the world: days when it was permanent darkness, there was only a skeleton crew of 20 people, and you had to deal with the isolation. But, I got to see the region in all its wonderful variety. Perhaps that was why I had such a strong sense of curiosity. When I left Antarctica, my very first thought was ‘how can I get back out into the polar environment’?

What makes the regions so special for you?

Antarctica is unique because of its size, its age, and its lack of human footprint. When you’re there, looking out at sweeping, empty, ancient landscapes, you can’t help realise how tiny we are compared to the forces of nature on our own planet, never mind everything that lies beyond. Simultaneously, you’re struck by how incredible that makes us – we’re these tiny, insignificant things, and yet we’re finding a way to not only survive, but to understand places like this. I think, now more than ever, we need to be reminded that we are a brilliant species that is capable of so much. 

How many polar expeditions have you undertaken, and in which regions? 

I’m not sure. We’re stretching back a quarter of a century now. I’ve been privileged to make a lot of journeys to Antarctica, and also to the Arctic region: not only the frozen Arctic Ocean, but Greenland, Siberia, and Alaska. Pretty much all the cold places. I’ve also visited many parts of Siberia and am heartbroken that it’s not likely I’ll return anytime soon, because of what’s going on in the world. Siberia is a bit like Antarctica in that there are whole mountain ranges barely marked on a map, and it’s always quite exciting when you’re going somewhere that only the locals know. The one region I haven’t seen much of is Central Asia. I’ve been to parts of northern India and the Mongolian border, but Central Asia is somewhere I feel that I’ve yet to go and experience.

Do you have a similar passion for hot places? 

When my husband and I got married lots of people expected that we would spend our honeymoon in a tent perched on a cold mountain range somewhere. But we went to the Maldives and stayed in an over-water villa, and had a lovely time swimming around the coral. I enjoy all sorts of environments. I’ve spent time in the jungle, the desert, and more, and have been blown away by the experiences I’ve had. But there’s something about the polar environment that I find endlessly fascinating. It keeps drawing me back.

In 2012 you became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica – tell us about it. 

I was the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica using no external propulsion (this means I didn’t use machines, kites, or anything like that). I did use resupply – so I picked up food and fuel along the way. I made the journey, first and foremost, because it was a journey I personally really wanted to make. It was in homage to Antarctica more than anything else. I found the idea of seeing an entire-cross section of the environment – and of being out there alone – incredible. It’s an experience I still feel very grateful for.

How did it feel to break this boundary?  

I was very conscious of being the first woman to make the journey. I had a responsibility to complete it with integrity, and to be very honest about it when I got back. I wrote a book about it which focussed on the psychological journey, including what became my coping method – crying. One review of the book was titled: ‘Weeping her way across the Antarctic’. I found it very disappointing, the idea that you’re a woman so therefore can’t admit the fact that you cried. 

Months later, I gave a lecture about that journey, and Sir Ranulph Fiennes was in the audience. When I sat down next to him afterwards he turned to me and said, “I cry on my expeditions too. I just don’t tell anyone about it afterwards”. I’ve since learned that crying serves a very specific function; it’s the most efficient way for our body to rebalance layers of stress cortisol. I wish someone had told me that in my teenage years. 

You’ve since (2015) been appointed MBE for services to exploration and awarded the Polar Medal. What do these awards mean to you?

Recognition in any form is a huge boost, isn’t it? It means other people have noticed what you’re doing, and think you’re doing a good job. And what can be better than taking your parents to an MBE ceremony at Buckingham Palace? I don’t think it matters how old you are, if you see your mum and dad looking proud of you, it’s lovely. My husband came too, he’s Icelandic and had never experienced anything like it. My medals were given to me by the now King Charles which is nice, as I can tell my little boy that I got my medal from the King. 

The Polar Medal means a lot, too. It’s an incredible list of people to be one of. I had my impostor-syndrome moment but in the end, I’ve earned my place. At the time there were very few female names on that list, but they’ve since come to realise that there are a lot of women who were active in the polar regions in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s – people like Myrtle Simpson – and are adding them to it retrospectively. It’s important that when the next generation looks at the list, they see the female names. 

Most recently you’ve been named Godmother for the cruise ship, Silver Endeavour. Tell us how this came about. 

It was a huge honour. It’s wonderful that Silversea considers me a good choice as Godmother for their exploration ship. Again, it’s this idea of recognition and of making women more visible in exploration. Many people still assume that science, and polar exploration in particular, is a male dominated area. But there are many, many women doing amazing things. I’m willing to bet that there’ll be just as many women as men as part of the Silver Endeavour team, and the expedition leader for its inaugural voyage is female, too. Part of the next step of gender equality is making women more visible, and making sure everyone is aware of the fantastic stories that have women front and centre.

For those who don’t want to or can’t undertake long expeditions in Antarctica, why do you think a cruise is a good way to see the region? 

Not everybody has the inclination to see Antarctica in the way that I have in the past. One of the many unique things about travelling to Antarctica is the change of perspective. Nobody who visits comes back the same. You come back with a new perspective, and feel different in some way. It’s such a powerful thing. 

I think the value of the ship is that it’s going to allow more people to experience this part of the world. People will return home caring about it in a way that perhaps they didn’t before, and are likely also the sorts of people that will become an ambassador for the region when they return, which will be of huge value. We’ll probably never be able to pinpoint exactly where those ripples of influence end, but it will make a difference in lifestyle choices – everything from energy decisions, to who they choose as their next politicians and representatives. The future of our planet will become a bit more front-of-mind. 

What advice would you give someone taking a cruise through Antarctica? 

I have so much advice. Make the most of it and appreciate where you are. My suggestion would be to get up in the middle of the night (there’s no darkness which will help), take a cup of coffee, and find a place on the ship where there’s no-one else. You’ll have the most special, precious experiences and memories. Maybe you’ll see a whale, or a colour in the sun, and you’ll know that only you and the officer on watch have seen it. This is one of the real highlights of travelling by ship. It’s a special, one-on-one experience with Antarctica. I like to find a spot where hot air is coming out of a vent.

Also, it might sound obvious, but bring your camera and binoculars. There’ll be so many things you see that you’ll want to take photos of so that you can remember – because as soon as you get home, you’ll start questioning your memory. Was the iceberg really that big? Were there so many penguins? And of course, everyone will want to see your photos. Although the experience is becoming more accessible through ships like Silver Endeavour, there are still very few people who have had the opportunity, and you’ll likely find yourself sharing memories – and photos – with your children’s school, your family, your friends, your colleagues, and more. Also, bring sunscreen and sunglasses.

You mentioned you’ve written about your experiences, what is it about the journeys that have inspired you to do so? 

Yes, I’ve written five books now. The fifth, called Polar Exposure, is about a team of people from across Europe and the Middle East that ski together to the North Pole. It’s different to my previous books as the team wrote it together. Each chapter starts with me, but branches into different team members talking about their experiences. It gives a level of insight into how a team operates, as well as witnessing their interpretation of the experience. You get a better sense of how a team works together. 

Have you lived all your dreams, or is there more to do and discover? 

Yes to both of those. I feel I’ve lived my dreams, and I’m incredibly grateful and proud of this, but there’s still lots more I would like to do. With each year that passes, the nature of my dreams change. I think everybody’s the same: as you go through life and have different experiences, it influences what you want to do next. I’m focused on getting back to the North Pole, specifically to the Arctic Ocean to collect snow, ice, and water samples to analyse for anthropogenic pollution. I’ll also be looking for micro-plastic content and heavy metals. Data from polar regions is really scarce: it’s hard to come by because the environments are so demanding. And yet it’s never been more urgent. The better our level of understanding, the better the chance we have of finding effective solutions. 

If you can share one lesson from your training and expeditions with others, what would it be?

It’s hard to pick just one, but I’d say: it’s never a perfect time to do anything. The number of times I’ve heard people say, ‘I’ll do this when that happens’, or ‘ I’ll visit Antarctica, when the kids have grown up’. My advice is that there will never be a perfect time so do it now, because we don’t know what the future will bring. I think we all got taught that lesson quite vividly in 2020. If you’ve got the opportunity to travel to Antarctica, do it now. Don’t put it off because there’s no better time than the present. 

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