Felicity Aston - Explorer, Scientist, and All-Round Badass

Felicity Aston is the kind of person you could chat with all day – I almost did. She is warm-hearted, extremely bright, and utterly fascinating. She is a woman that has had brushes with polar bears and has trekked through the Peruvian jungle; Felicity Aston is a role model in the purest sense of the term.

Her first trip to Antarctica was in 2000, when she travelled with the British Antarctic Survey as a Meterologist. She stayed in Antarctica to monitor climate for 2 and a half years continuously at the Rothera Research Station. In 2005 she took part in the 'Polar Challenge' (a race across Arctic Canada) and was part of the first all-female team to complete this race; coming in 6th place out of 16 teams. 2012 marks her most famous accomplishment, Felicity was the very first woman to ski alone, unassisted, across the entire Antarctic continent. The journey took 60 days, and covered over 1700 kilometers. Felicity has also been appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and awarded the Polar Medal in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to polar exploration.

Corissa: So, we’re a student-led magazine and I have to ask the stereotypical question of how you got started, what was your path from UCL and Reading?

Felicity Aston: At UCL, I was studying physics and astronomy, which I loved, but by my third year I realised that, that the romantic dream I had of being an astronomer, stranded on a mountain in Hawaii somewhere with a telescope, probably wasn’t going to happen! I really wanted to do something more hands on, so I went to Reading to study meteorology, and particularly climate. At that point, people were becoming more aware of climate as a subject, and the issues surrounding it – and climate change, of course! This was back in 2000 and my dissertation for my postgrad was about climate change in the Antarctic peninsula, which, at the time, was the place where it was becoming more apparent.

That led to a job with the British Antarctic Survey. I was a meteorologist on Rothera Research station, which is the largest of the UK’s two research facilities on continental Antarctica. I was there as a meteorologist for two and a half years. It was the standard ‘tour’, if you like, at the time. The standard contract was for thirty-nine months – you spend some time training in Cambridge, but then you went to Antarctica for summer, so you completed a summer season, a winter, a summer, a second winter, and a third and final summer before you came home.

I got there in December 2000 and left in April 2003. What was daunting was that you didn’t go home for a break! Now they’re able to be more relaxed, but it was too expensive and took too much time to get backwards and forwards. You could leave if you wanted to in the summer time, but then it was understood that your contract was over so you couldn’t come back again. So, in that middle summer it was a question that all the “winterers” (as we were called) asked themselves: do I stay for that second winter or do I go home? I’m so glad that I did stay for my second winter because it was a totally different experience to my first winter. Obviously, now, in retrospect, I think the experience was very fortunate for two reasons: firstly, you get to see Antarctica in so many different guises. You get to see it in the dark of winter when you really don’t want to be there, and you get to see it on those wonderful days where there’s nowhere else in the world you’d rather be; secondly, it gave me a really good grounding in the dynamics of small groups of people. You know when people are feeling vulnerable and afraid and it’s all very raw, you see how people pull together and pull apart – that was brilliant!

Corissa: Yeah, all kinds of human psychologies are at work.

Felicity Aston: Yeah, so kind of patterns. The biggest of which is that you know people never behave in a logical way. When you look at it on paper, you’re like there’s this and this and this and the outcome should be this and so, if we do this that would make you feel like this and everything will be fine. No, it never works like that!

Corissa: So interesting!

Felicity Aston: You know, logistics are building blocks. The way my brain works is in patterns – I love seeing patterns and so logistics is really great for me, but then human beings, they never worked the same patterns they always throw something into the mix. It’s always the hardest bit of any expedition, getting your team to work.

Corissa: So next question is: what on earth made you want to take that solo expedition? Normal people look at that and go ‘what’s wrong with her?’.