Adventurer Felicity Aston talks to Wanderlust about her inspiring expedition to the South Pole with a group of novices from the unlikeliest of countries
At precisely 23:09 on 29th December 2009, adventurer Felicity Aston stood at the geographic heart of the South Pole having successfully led a team of ‘ordinary’ women from across the Commonwealth on a 900km expedition.
A veteran of a number of polar expeditions, Felicity was used to tackling sub-zero temperatures, but the women certainly weren’t – hailing from countries as diverse as Ghana, Jamaica and Brunei, some had never even seen snow before embarking on the challenge.
But what her team lacked in experience, they made up for in spirit, battling blisters and boredom to ski for 38 days in a bid to inspire women across the world to follow their dreams.
Idealistic? Yes, but also pretty remarkable. Wanderlust caught up with Felicity to talk about their feat.
Lara Brunt: How did women apply to be part of the expedition and what were you looking for?
Felicity Aston: First they applied through a website. Literally anyone could apply; there were no restrictions on age, previous experience, education or background. Obviously you had to have a reasonable level of fitness, but I was looking for underlying determination because it’s really tough, not just when you get to the ice, but all the preparation beforehand.
After people applied on the website, I went to each country and interviewed a shortlist of ten candidates. Then I asked two women from each country to come to a selection event in Norway about eight months before we went to Antarctica. That’s when I could really see how people got on with each other, and I picked a team of eight out of those people.
LB: Why did you want the expedition to be made up of women from the Commonwealth?
FA: To start off with, I wanted it to be an international women’s team but that’s a really huge area to cover. By chance, I took part in a project organised by the Commonwealth and the more I thought about it, the more interesting it seemed. It is a really eclectic mix of countries that, for one reason or another, all have this kind of commonality.
LB: How many applications did you get?
FA: Over 800 which was absolutely flabbergasting. I got a better response from some countries than others; in India I got 200 applications, whereas in Ghana, it was a bit more difficult to get my message across.
When I did my first radio interview in Ghana, the first question I was asked was ‘what is skiing?’ followed by ‘where is the South Pole?’. But in the end I had 35 women from Ghana apply, so I was really proud because I worked hard to find those ladies.
LB: What was their inspiration for wanting to be part of the expedition?
FA: It was very different for each woman. For example, Reena from India had fought very hard to be able to be a trekking guide in the Himalaya – her parents told her it wasn’t a suitable occupation for a woman. She comes from a very poor area of India where women don’t have a lot of choices and she sees the outdoor industry as a huge opportunity for economic freedom. She wanted to go back to India and say to women ‘hey, this is a viable career for you’.
But then Sophia from Singapore had three children and when she filled in the application form her teenage daughter said ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering; it’ll be a miracle if they choose you’. She said her motivation then became ‘right, I’m going to show you that it’s OK to have big dreams and sometimes they come true’.
LB: How did you manage to whittle it down to just eight women?
FA: That was really tough. All of the women who went to Norway deserved to go to Antarctica. But it really did come down to who was working better together as a team.
LB: What did the women then do in terms of physical preparation?
FA: Everyone had to adapt their training to their local environment. Reena went back to the Himalaya and had an amazing training ground on her doorstep, but then others went back to tropical countries where there’s not a lot of accessible wilderness.
Era from Brunei ended up getting an old wheelbarrow, cutting off the wheel, filling it with rocks and dragging it up and down sandy beaches because it replicated dragging a sledge over snow.
In Singapore, again where they don’t have wilderness areas but they do have a lot of high-rise buildings, Sophia trained by putting her youngest child on her back and running up and down 20 flights of stairs every morning.
LB: Where did you set-off from?
FA: We all met up in the UK and then flew to Punta Arenas, right at the bottom of Chile. From there, we flew into Antarctica and had a week at a base camp to acclimatise and make sure we were fully prepared before we set off.
LB: What was the lowest point of the expedition?
FA: On our second night in base camp, there was a massive storm that literally blew apart both our tents and destroyed quite a lot of the camp. We had to spend the next 12 hours desperately trying to patch our tents back together because it could have, quite literally, put an end to the expedition there and then.
We then took them out on a test-run, and Kim from Jamaica got frostbite. We hadn’t even started the expedition, both of our tents were destroyed, and one team member was going home with frostbite.
That was possibly the lowest moment because then there was a question mark over whether we should go any further, as we were being flown from base camp to the start of our expedition on the coast of Antarctica. Once the plane left us there, we were absolutely on our own – we couldn’t just go out in the hope that we’d be alright.
LB: What else did the women have to contend with?
FA: Polar expeditions are like a war of attrition; every day your body gets a little bit weaker. You're out in such a hostile climate – it’s really cold and windy, the sun is really strong, and it’s very dry – so that just takes its toll on you.
A lot of the girls got blisters quite early on. If your feet are painful with every step, and you’re taking 30,000 steps a day, it becomes a real mental game.
On top of that, it’s the monotony of the environment. There were times when you would look around and be filled with exhilarating euphoria, but most of the time it was a grind.
LB: How did you maintain morale and keep everyone’s spirits up?
FA: We had to keep a sense of humour because we were living so closely with people that, really, we didn’t know very well before we started the expedition.
We had two people in particular who were just brilliant at turning embarrassing, upsetting situations into something really funny and it immediately lightened the mood.
LB: What was it like when you finally reached the South Pole?
FA: As we approached the South Pole – which is marked with a kind of barber’s pole with a big silver sphere on top, surrounded by all the flags of the Antarctic Treaty nations – we skied in single file. I remember glancing back at the girls and I noticed that all their goggles had steamed up because every single one was having a private weep.
We stopped a few steps from the South Pole and made the last few steps together. I felt such affection for those women because they’d gone through so much.
LB: You wanted the expedition to inspire other women. How did the team do that when they returned home?
FA: At the moment, Reena is cycling across India, accompanied at each stage by teenage girls from the local area to inspire them to get more involved in the outdoors.
Sophia was mentioned in the Presidential New Year’s speech last year; he held Sophia up as an example of the direction he feels Singapore should be going in as a nation.
And there are plenty of real, tangible examples of where people have decided to take action on that dream or ambition they’ve held for a long time. It’s not all about skiing to the South Pole; it could be learning a new language or starting your own business.
I think every woman who read about our expedition could identify with at least one member. We ranged in age from 24 to 43 and there were teachers, journalists, people that were unemployed, mothers, wives – they weren’t super-athletes, they were just ordinary people.
LB: The importance of the Commonwealth has dwindled over the years. Why do you think it’s still worth preserving?
FA: A lot of people think the Commonwealth is anachronistic and there’s not really a place for it. I don’t know how I personally feel about that, but what really struck me was that it was a way of very different countries talking to each other which I think is something really valuable.