What Arctic / Antartica reveals about human beings | Interview Felicity Aston

Felicity Aston

British polar explorer Felicity Aston MBE is an author, speaker, expedition leader and former Antarctic scientist. In 2012 she became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica. It was a journey of 1744km that took 59 days to complete and which gave her a place in the book of Guinness World Records.

You went ALONE through the Arctic, how you deal with panic?

Especially when I was on my own, there was a real heightened sense of fear that was brought on by the fact there was no one around me. So that sort of shock of isolation and shock of being so alone, it caused a really heightened level of fear to the point where my hands shaking uncontrollably and I was breathing hard and I would definitely say that was panic. And I don’t know if I ever really found a way to get rid of that.

But my technique if you like for trying to deal with that was to allow it to happen.

I thought – actually, I can’t stand it sort of pretending that I’m not scared or try to make it go away. Instead, I’m just going to accept, yes, OK. I’m absolutely petrified. And yet, I’ve got to carry on regardless. And so, taking it sort of one step at a time – I found routines really useful.

So I sort of lived by routine.

I had a routine for getting up and out the tent in the morning. I had a routine for getting to sleep in the evening. And by sort of sticking to those routines, it kind of took the emotion out of what I was doing particularly in the morning getting out of the tent. That was really perhaps the hardest part of my day was just getting started.
And so by having a routine, it meant that I moved from one task to the other without really thinking about it. And so before I knew it, I was already on my skis and on my way. Before, I always had a challenge to have a sort of emotional reaction. If I sat in my tent and started thinking about what it was I was going to do that day, I probably would never go out of the tent.

So by having this sort of routine, it got me through that difficult part of the day and took out some of the emotional response.

So I guess for me trying to reason myself out of it and just taking one step at a time so that I wasn’t thinking of the whole and thinking of the real scary stuff. I was just focusing on exactly what I was doing at that moment. That helped me keep the panic under control. But also, admitting to myself that, so I wasn’t trying to prove that I wasn’t scared or using up energy on trying to deny that fact that I was scared. It was like, OK, I’m absolutely terrified.

Admitting that those fears are there is an important part of the process.

I think if we’re constantly denying that we’re scared and pushing that under the carpet, I think that makes it a lot more difficult. I think admitting that we are scared at least to ourselves is an important part of getting past it.

What is your biggest learning about yourself through expeditions?

I think – certainly after the expedition that I did on my own, it made me most self-assured. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way but there is just this old quiet self-assurance that I don’t need to prove anything to myself anymore.
I hit moments that were pretty bad where I was pretty low and yet, I found a way to work through them. And so, I think it has made me more – it has given me reassurance that whatever challenges I find myself up against in the future, I will find a way to work through them. There was certain amount of satisfaction out of pitching myself against the hardest thing I could think of doing and then coming out the other end.

Trust is powerful.

And I didn’t realize I was lacking before and there was only – once I came back and thought actually, I do trust myself a lot more and I didn’t realize that that had been missing before. And that’s quite nice to know.

What is your biggest learning about human beings through expeditions?

People feel very vulnerable when they are on expeditions because they’re far from home, they’re under pressure, they’re really digging deeper into their own motivation and you feel very vulnerable and you feel very small.
But that’s also why when you go around expedition, you get to know people very well very quickly because all that sort of stuff that we surround ourselves with in our normal lives, all our gadgets, all our clothes, all our trends and hobbies and things that makeup us in a normal life, none of that is there. It has all disappeared. Instead, it’s just you in a tent wearing the same clothes as the person next to you, doing the same things as the person next to you.

And so suddenly, you see more clearly who you are and what makes you, you.

But the brilliant thing is, that more often people are astonished by just how wonderful human beings are than anything else. People usually rise to the occasion and surprise you by just how brilliant they can be.

You don’t just get to know people by sitting down and having a conversation. It’s about the way they respond, the way they react.

And those little moments of kindness that come out of these situations are perhaps some of the things that taught me the most in life.
I remember I had a really terrible day on an expedition and at the of the day, I was outside the tent just doing some last jobs with another team member whose job also was to stay outside the tent and finish up the last things. And I was really struggling. And I remember, she just came out and just said, “It’s all right to have a little whimper, Felicity.” And she just gave me a big hug.
And I had just 5 minutes of just being a bit pathetic and then I was fine. And I thought, “How wonderful that someone not only picked that what I needed right then was a hug but also that I just needed to be able to admit that yup, this is really awful and my feet really hurt and I’m really cold and I don’t know how I’m getting through this to the last.” And then 5 minutes of that and then I was right again.
And that’s one of the reasons I really love expeditions.

You come back really feeling like people are brilliant.

What is your biggest challenge walking through the Arctic / Antarctica?

If I’m going with the team, the biggest challenge as a leader is keeping everyone together. And the human dynamics of a group is almost unfathomable.

You can do as much training, have as much experience and yet people just don’t react or respond in a way you expect them to.

It’s totally unpredictable. And so, I think the hardest challenge when I’m leading an expedition to the Arctic or the Antarctic is the team management. It’s keeping that group together, keeping everyone happy and functioning as a group rather than as individuals.
And then more generally, the biggest challenge for me is before even you hit the ice is just getting the funding together to make these things happen in the first place. It’s incredibly difficult and that it never gets any easier. I’ve now been doing expeditions for nearly 20 years and yet, finding the funding for the next expedition is just as hard as it was years ago when I was setting out with my first independent expeditions.
So getting the plan off the ground is the real hard bit.

Once you get into the Arctic or into the Antarctic, everything seems easier.

Your upcoming expedition is a kind of experiment – experiment for what?

I’m currently putting together following expedition – I have a team of women from across the Middle East and across Europe. So they come from countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and united Arab emirates, as well as Slovenia, Germany, France, Sweden and the UK. And the idea is that we are going together in April next year to ski the last degree to the North Pole up in the Arctic.
And so, this is a polar expedition but it’s also a bit of a cultural experiment as well for all the reasons we’ve been talking about earlier, bringing together these two cultural groups that I think traditionally haven’t had a very good understanding of each other and bringing those people together and just seeing what happens, to see whether we get any insight. Maybe we don’t. But maybe we do. And I hope that we do because everyone will now be on a sort of level playing field where we’re not comfortable with our surroundings and you’re feeling very vulnerable and we’ll see what kind of perspectives come out of that.
I think these two groups of women, culturally, the two cultures have lots of – made lots of assumptions about each other. And so, it would be an interesting way to find out how many of those assumptions are wrong.

You really get to know people and what their values are and what’s important to them. And so, what has struck me so much more often is how similar people are rather than the differences.

And so, I think this might be the case on this expedition too that we’ll come back with the realization that we’re a lot more similar than we realized despite the culture differences. But maybe – I don’t know. That’s the interesting thing about this expedition is that I don’t know what the answers are going to be. I don’t know what we’re going to find. It’s a true exploration in that sense.

Felicity Aston
Explorer| Author| Speaker
www.felicityaston.co.uk

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