© Felicity Aston
Before she sets off on her regional theatres tour, we caught up with polar explorer, author and former climate scientist, Felicity Aston, to discuss her experiences of the Polar Regions, the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition and challenging stereotypes.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you get to where you are now?
My first job after graduating from university was with the British Antarctic Survey. I was posted to the larger of the UK's two research facilities on the Antarctic continent - Rothera Research Station. I was there as a meteorologist monitoring climate and ozone. At the time the standard contract was for 39 months so I arrived at Rothera in December 2000 and didn't leave Antarctica again until April 2003. This meant I spent a summer, a winter, a second summer and a second winter plus a third and final summer consecutively before coming home. The winters spent with just a skeleton crew of around 20 on the station and physically cut off from the rest of the world were a challenge at times but ultimately an amazing and - as it turned out - formative experience.
You describe yourself as a ‘climate scientist turned polar explorer’- what sparked this change?
Returning to the UK after three years in Antarctica, my first thought was to explore more of the Polar Regions. Doing some research I couldn't find the opportunities I wanted so I started trying to create those opportunities myself by putting together my own expeditions. My first step was to go about learning the skills - and gaining the confidence - I would need to lead my own independent expeditions.
You were the first woman to ski across Antarctica alone. Was this something you had always wanted to achieve?
By the time I set out on that journey I had been taking part in and leading polar journeys for more than a decade, so it wasn't a goal that appeared overnight but it was an idea that had been in my head for a very long time. There was something about the completeness and the simplicity of the idea that appealed to me as well as the challenge and the adventure.
© Felicity Aston
Could you tell us about the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition – how did the project come about?
A decade ago I led an international team of women from across the Commonwealth on a ski expedition to the South Pole. Most of the team were either the first person or the first woman from their country to ski to the South Pole. The positive message of this expedition was so successful that it still resonated years later. Ten years on and I was struck by how much of our world politics revolved around the relationship between two cultural regions and I wondered if a polar expedition could be an interesting way to examine that relationship to provide some insight. I wanted to focus particularly on women across these two cultural regions because I realised that I personally had very little understanding of the perspective of a woman living in the Middle East today - and I suspected the reverse might be true also.
What sort of training and preparation is needed for an expedition at this level? Where do you start?
I started by finding the team. I set up a webpage on which any woman from across Europe and the Middle East could contact me to let me know they wanted to be part of the project and why. I had over 1,000 women respond. There was no limit on age, background or experience and I tried to make the final team of 10 as broadly representative as I could. Then anybody listening to the team's story was likely to find someone within our group that reflected something of their own situation. And so that we could challenge as many limiting stereotypes as possible.
What stood out for you during this expedition? Were there any particularly memorable moments?
To experience high latitude Arctic Ocean Sea Ice was unforgettable. We moved and camped not on solid ground but on a constantly shifting patchwork of ice that was forced together in places by the pressure of ocean current and winds to form vast obstacles of ice rubble, while in other places the ice is forced apart to reveal the ocean beneath. The vast forces of nature on display were incredible and yet this is an environment we know to be more fragile and changing faster than ever before. I think every member of the team came away with a greater understanding that change is not something of the future but of our here and now.
© Felicity Aston
What do you think were the factors that allowed the expedition to be successful?
As a team we put a lot of time and effort into our preparation, training individually and together as a group. But once on the ice it was the ability of team members to adapt to the unexpected, to have the resilience to find a way to keep going even when things were not going the way we had planned or facing unforeseen challenges, that was what ultimately enabled us to reach the North Pole.
What can audiences expect from your Regional Theatres talks? Do you have a take home message?
My aim is to share what it feels like to be on Arctic Ocean Sea Ice so that the audience comes away feeling a greater connection to an environment they might not ever get the chance to experience for themselves. In addition, the story of the 10 team members from across Europe and the Middle East from all sorts of backgrounds and world views will remind everyone of the importance of reaching beyond the expectation of others, challenging stereotypes and asking new questions. I intend everyone in the audience to leave freshly inspired!
Felicity Aston’s talk, ‘Polar exposure: the women's Euro-Arabian North Pole expedition’, is part of the Society’s Regional Theatres Programme. Book your seat now to hear more about her amazing journey.
10 March at 8.00pm, Southampton. Book now.
11 March at 7.30pm, Stamford. Book now.
12 March at 7.30pm, Grantham. Book now.
13 March at 7.30pm, King's Lynn. Book now.
19 April at 8.00pm, Darlington. Book now.
20 April, at 7.30pm, Worcester. Book now.
21 April at 7.30pm, Bristol. Book now.
22 April at 7.30pm, Exeter. Book now.