Exploring the Arctic / Antarctica | Interview – 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 as an Arctic/Antarctica explorer, what is the kick to go through the white landscape?

I have to say the environment itself. Once, particularly Antarctica, one I saw this place, I guess it’s not the same for everyone but just seeing how vast it was and how pristine it was, that’s the draw that keeps me going back. For me it’s very special and this because it’s not just beautiful. It has a real effect on you. When you stand in an environment that’s so old, so vast and will be there long after you’ve long gone, it really makes you feel quite tiny and quite vulnerable. And so, that makes me personally feel that as a human being I’m very small but it also makes me realized just how amazing us tiny, puny human beings are.

We have so much potential to do so much.

And so, I think it’s interesting when a landscape has an effect like that on your perspective and on the way you think. So that’s why I think this landscape is so special and that’s what keeps me going back. I can’t get enough of it. I feel very privileged to be there.

Would you consider yourself an adrenaline junkie?

It’s funny because a lot of people assumed that I must be one because of what I do. But actually, it’s the exact opposite. If you are going to go to an environment that say, it’s potentially dangerous, it’s the Arctic or the Antarctic, you can’t take foolish risks. You can’t do it rashly. You have to be a lover of spreadsheets. You have to be the sort of person who sits and works everything out and makes sure that you have enough food, enough fuel that you sit down and think, “Oh, what if this happens? How am I going to get myself out of that?” So to make sure that you have enough safety buffers that you’re not going to get into trouble because the ultimate is that if you get yourself into trouble in the Arctic or the Antarctic environment then someone has got to come and get you. Someone has got to come and rescue you. And that someone else putting themselves in danger to come and sought you out. So you have to be really careful. I think there’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with doing these kind of things. So no, I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I’m in fact the exact opposite.

Which dangerous situations you faced in the Arctic / Antarctica?

The big dangers in the Antarctica are the weather and also crevices. A crevice is a big fissure can open up in the ice and they could be hundreds of meters wide, hundreds of meters deep. And the scary thing about them is that you can’t see them from the surface. So you can be walking over crevices and not even know it. So that’s the danger in the Antarctic.
In the Arctic, the danger again is the weather and also the ice. But it’s because you’re on a frozen ocean. So the ice can open up and there can be areas that’s thin ice and there can also be big pressure ridges which is where the ice builds up over each other. And so, you have these big barriers that you have to climb over but they can be very unstable and they can be dangerous.
But the other big danger in the Arctic is the polar bears. Depending where you are in the Arctic, the threat from polar bears is slightly different but that’s the big scary thing for me in the Arctic.
And through our expeditions, I’ve had lots of moments where I’ve been lucky that the consequences haven’t been most scary.

And I’d like to thank that each of those situations, I’ve learned from those, they haven’t happened again.

But sure, there are situations and I think sometimes you don’t realize quite how much danger you are in. You stay quite close to the line and it’s only afterwards or when somebody else isn’t quite so lucky that you look back and you think, “Actually, that could have turned out very differently.”

People who wants to experience the Artic / Antarctica – do they need to have any kind of special physical conditions?

No, not at all. That’s the first thing to say is that absolutely anybody can go to the Arctic or the Antarctic because anybody can be given the physical fitness, anybody can be given the skills and the equipment. The only thing that you can’t be given is the want to do it in the first place. There are lots of people that just don’t get why anybody would want to go to somewhere so cold. Particularly, not on their own.
And so I can’t make someone want to ski to the South Pole. But if they have that desire anyway, if they have that aspiration to do that then you’re getting them physically fit enough to do it. It’s all about stamina and endurance. So that doesn’t mean that you suddenly have to be a 100-meter sprinter or an Olympic athlete. It just means that you have to do some low intensity activity over long periods of time to build up the stamina and endurance. So it might be, if you like taking walks for example, you might start going on longer walks and then eventually maybe start carrying some weight on your back just to make it a little bit harder.
But it’s all about keeping it low intensity. A lot of people start hitting the gym and sweating it out and hounding the treadmill as hard as they can. But it’s not really about that sort of flash fitness. It’s more about endurance and stamina and slow steady fitness.
So the rule of thumb is that whatever activity you’re doing, you should still be able to hold a conversation without being so out of breath that you can’t speak. That’s the best for building up stamina and endurance.

Is there a rule of thumb which people fits best in skiing together?

I think everybody has to start at different levels. And so, everybody sets their own goals. And sometimes it can be quite demoralizing if you are setting a goal, “Oh, I want to be able to jog for 10 kilometers,” for example. When someone else sets their goal at, “Oh, I want to complete a marathon in under two hours.” That could feel very demoralizing.
But the interesting thing about polar expeditions is that you could then put those two people on skis and set them off on an expedition. And depending on where your mind is at will – will have a greater effect on how those two people perform in that environment.
So I’ve had some very fit people come out into the winter environment and really not do very well at all. And it’s because their head isn’t in the right place.
They can’t deal with it mentally.

So the mind has an awful lot to do with it as well.

And so, your physical fitness, although that’s important, it’s certainly not the largest factor on how well you do.

 

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

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