Felicity Aston's Commonwealth Challenge
PUBLISHED: 12:30 19 October 2009 | UPDATED: 16:18 20 February 2013
Felicity Aston leads a group of women to the South Pole this month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth. Kent Life meets our very own Scott of Antarctica...
One day, you'll read about Felicity Aston in the history books, but the extraordinary thing about this dynamic 31-year-old is that she doesn't realise just how extraordinary she is.
This month, Felicity leads an all-woman group skiing to the South Pole to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth - arriving on New Year's Day 2010,
100 years after Scott set out for the South Pole. The concept is remarkable in its own right, but the eight women undertaking the Challenge from the Commonwealth countries of Brunei Darussalam, Cyprus, Ghana, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Singapore and the UK include some who had never even built a snowman, let alone strapped on skis for an 800km walk.
It's even more remarkable when you realise this is an expedition that unites five continents, six faiths, seven languages - and, for reasons of religion, it's also the first vegetarian expedition to the South Pole.
"The idea had been rolling around in my head for ages, but it clicked into place last year when I started looking into what the Commonwealth does," explains Felicity, as we drink coffee in her airy Birchington flat, where she is finishing off last-minute preparations for the trip ahead.
"A lot of people think it's old-fashioned and are almost embarrassed about it, seeing it as harking back to colonial days. But when you look at how the Commonwealth brings everyone together and shares ideas, it's incredibly useful."
How does Felicity feel about working with an all-women group, and how is her team shaping up? "The most catastrophic thing about any expedition is if the goal becomes lost and everyone has a different agenda," she says.
"There is a tendency for all-male groups not to admit weakness, but with an all-female team, you'll get one team member who has a good cry, gets a hug, then everyone just gets on with it."
And they are no longer raw recruits, having now trained with their leader in Norway and New Zealand: "When you see people cold, tired, hungry and vulnerable, you really get to know them," smiles Felicity - who is the only really experienced member of the group.
Her past expeditions read like the adventures of a fictional character, not this incredibly grounded young woman from Kent. She's raced in the Canadian Arctic, led a team of women across the inland ice of Greenland, searched for meteorite craters in Quebec, skied along a frozen river in Siberia to find a herbal cure for leprosy, escorted a group of young people with Acquired Brian Injury to Iceland, traversed the winter ice of Lake Baikal, completed the infamous Marathon Des Sables across the Sahara (which she describes as "the most painful and hardest thing I've done") and lived and worked in the Antarctic as a meteorologist for three years, where, in winter, the sun never comes out and the nearest human being was 75 miles away. Phew!
Felicity's first 'expedition' involved being bribed up Helvellyn at the age of nine by her parents with a packet
of Opal Fruits. The sense of achievement on reaching the top was slightly lost in the pouring rain, but something about the experience stuck.
"It feels like Antarctica has always been in my imagination and on my horizons," she says. "When I was growing up, there were always books around with pictures of men with husky dogs. I had this idea it was somewhere where you went to prove yourself - a very British idea, and this must have stuck in my psyche.
"All my expeditions have had this element of seeing how far I can go. I've not reached the point at which I've thought, this is my limit."
Felicity was born in Sevenoaks, grew up in Hildenborough, where her parents still live, and went to Tonbridge Grammar School for Girls. She moved to east Kent in 2006 for her partner's job - she met Pete when they were in Antarctica and he was her electrician, but he now works on the windfarm off Whitstable as an electrical engineer.
"I've enjoyed moving here. We used to holiday as a family at Westgate and I learnt to fly at Manston airport. I was given an RAF flying scholarship, and had a fantastic couple of summers learning to fly and getting to know the coast from above," she says.
"From a training perspective, it's perfect as I can run along the coast. When I run to Herne Bay, it takes two hours. I know that if I can run to Reculver and back and it goes OK, I'm in good shape. When I'm training, I'm building up endurance - I'll be skiing and pulling a sledge, so the heart rate is raised all the time."
She and Pete, a New Zealander, have loved discovering their new 'patch'. "I have enjoyed exploring and getting to know places like Broadstairs and Margate, and seeing the fantastic regeneration going on," she says.
After finishing A-levels, Felicity read Physics and Astronomy at University College London. At the end of her first year, she joined a British Schools Exploring Society expedition to south-west Greenland.
Having spent three weeks mapping the archaeological remains of Viking settlements, her team was supposed to spend a week exploring Greenland's inland ice, but they made it to the fringe of the ice-cap before having to turn back. Felicity remembers looking over her shoulder at the ice as they left and vowing that she would make it over that white horizon one day.
After completing her first degree, Felicity went on to gain a Masters in Applied Meteorology from the University of Reading before landing her first, and indeed ideal, job - a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey.
She spent two-and-a-half years in the Antarctic, living and working at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. As well as monitoring ozone depletion and climate, her job involved looking after a small outpost and aviation re-fuelling depot during the austral summer. This meant that, at times, Felicity and a colleague were the only two people on an island roughly the size of Wales.
Back in the UK, she became the Expeditions Officer for the oldest youth development charity in the UK, BSES Expeditions, organising the logistics of large-scale scientific expeditions for young people to places like Svalbard, Africa and the Andes.
Over the past four years, Felicity's projects have been awarded the Captain Scott Society Spirit of Adventure award, a Wilderness award and a Timberland Make it Better scholarship, as well as earning support from the National Geographic Expeditions Council in the US. In the UK, she has been made a 2008 Churchill Fellow by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.
She currently sits on the Council of the Young Explorer's Trust, the UK's national association of youth exploration societies, and also acts as an Ambassador for the British Antarctic Monument Trust. The latter aims to commemorate the achievements of the men and women whose scientific exploration in Antarctica has led to a new understanding of our planet, and to honour those among them who did not return.
Felicity believes in the value of the expedition experience to personal development and is keen to encourage others to go in search of their own personal adventures.
"I enjoy visiting schools in some of the poorer areas of Kent, where the kids aren't given much aspiration for the future," she says. "It's great to get them thinking about leadership and teamwork and goals, which can seem overwhelming until you break them down into baby steps."
It's not all plain sailing, however. "Sometimes organising these expeditions is more challenging than actually doing them," she admits. "There have been times when I have been completely strung out - but fighting fires is what it's all about.
"I don't know whether to rejoice or despair of my lifestyle sometimes - I'm doing deals for hundreds of thousands of US dollars, but then I'm pretty much broke myself! I needed a new pair of running trainers a few weeks ago, and I had to do a boot fair to raise the £50 I needed. I bring a bit of money in by travel writing..
"I have a list of expeditions as long as my arm, but it's the sponsorship - so much depends on getting money in place. I've stepped out of the conventional, going-to-an-office thing, but I seem spend most of my time in front of a laptop.
"We need commercial funding. I'm good at doing expeditions on a shoestring, but, unfortunately, Antarctica is an expensive place to get to, and our budget (half-a-million US dollars) is quite eye-watering. A lot of people say should you be taking large numbers of people to Antarctica? I wish I could take everyone, just for one day. How can you get people to care about a place they've never seen?"
And this is an expedition with great appeal, and a lot to offer its sponsors, many of whom, like Kentish firm Pink Lady Apples, have been with Felicity for years. She is delighted to have her main sponsor in place now, in the nick of time: "We are now the Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition, after accepting title sponsorship from Kaspersky Lab, are a leading developer of secure content management systems," she tells me with pride and no little relief.
"The girls are all front-page news in their countries, and we haven't even left yet! The idea is they go back as role models to other young women; some of them will be the first person who has skied to the South Pole, not just the first woman.
"It's such a journey of symbolism and a powerful statement to make in terms of women's rights. In many countries, women are still considered as second class, and that was behind starting this expedition - maybe in a small way we can demonstrate that women can achieve great things."
I am fascinated to know about the fitness levels the girls will need. "We are working towards us all having the endurance to ski for 13 hours a day across 50 days, while pulling sledges that weigh 80-100 kg, containing everything from tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, food, fuel for the stoves, communication equipment," explains Felicity.
"You have to look at every piece of equipment and ask if you really need it? I'm always asked what book I'll be taking. The answer is, I don't want to carry a book! We need to keep the weight as light as possible."
What about the food to supply all that energy? "For expeditions, you need to make the food as lightweight as possible - some look at calories, I look at protein and carbohydrates.
"In the morning, we wake up and have porridge with sugar and milk powder, and a protein hotshake with a bit of coffee. Every 90 minutes we stop and take on fluids and something to eat. In the evening, we will have a high-carb, 800-calorie meal, all dehydrated, followed by a chocolate bar for morale and another hot protein shake.
"We also take supplements during the day, B-vits and magnesium - we used them crossing Greenland in 2006 and not once did we wake up feeling stiff and sore," she tells me.
"This expedition has a Muslim and a Hindu, people with various allergies and someone who doesn't eat pork, so we're totally vegetarian. When I was doing the selection in India, I was asked if they could bring their own spices and food - it's great to bring a pot of spices, if that's going to make you happy.
"If you're enjoying yourself on an expedition, you perform better. I take a lightweight MP3 player. As I'm skiing, I'm listening to music and it makes a big difference."
So what's in her selection? "I listen to a mix. When we did the Polar challenge it was Kosheen and their album Resist, then, in Greenland, we were skiing through the night and the sun didn't go down, it came low; there was an amazing moment with sun and snow and I had Jimi Hendrix playing. I can't hear that without being back in Greenland."
So what lies ahead for our intrepid heroine? "There are still expeditions I'd love to do - I have an idea in my head that refuses to go away, so I know it's a good one!" she laughs.
"My biggest flaw is running with a project, then running with another one at the same time, but the Antarctica project is just too big."