News from WAN: First woman to ski Antarctica; only person to do so on muscle power alone!


WAN celebrated Christmas with a networking event, and an inspirational presentation from Felicity Aston, MBE.

Felicity started her career as a Senior Meteorologist working with the British Antarctic Survey. When she started in Antarctica (having completed her MSc), she knew that she would not be returning home for some time – she spent three summers and two winters at the station, as is typical for staff. Her love affair with a snowy landscape went from there….

Felicity shared some of her subsequent experience, including:

  • The Polar Challenge – in 2005, she was part of the first all-female team to complete the race across Arctic Canada to the North Magnetic Pole coming 6th out of 16 teams
  • In 2006, she was part of the first all-female British expedition across the Greenland ice sheet
  • In 2009, she was the team leader of the Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition. The team comprised women from six Commonwealth member countries and they skied to the South Pole to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Commonwealth.

However, most of her presentation was about the motivation and endurance required to complete her most extreme journey, crossing the Antarctic, by herself, using muscle power alone – an accomplishment that was truly astounding.

She started by asking the audience: “When were you last actually alone?” This prompted the audience to think about how little time any of us spend completely by ourselves; who we are is very often a product of those around us. Would we want to experience ‘self’ in a period of long isolation? Could we do so without any other human reference points? What would be the cognitive dissonance?

It was good to hear that Felicity is very human (rather than a super warrior) – once the intrepid achiever had been dropped off and her transport had departed the first thing that Felicity did, was to sit down on her sledge and cry! Being reduced to tears when a hurdle seems un-surmountable is a common experience for many; hearing that this courageous woman did likewise, was heartening.

She experienced physical anxiety, including breathing difficulties, a raised pulse and actual shaking. But then she pulled herself together and just got on with it, although ‘getting on with it’, required more endurance than any of us can imagine! She was pulling her supplies in two sledges, weighing approx. 85kg, in temperatures of -22F (-30C), on a journey that would take 59 days, many of which were complete white-outs.

She became anxious about losing kit, or things not working. Her broken lighter left her with just 46 matches to light her stove. She had panic attacks at times and had to focus on her breathing. Her mask to protect her from exposure froze like iron against her face each morning. She had to remember to break her food into postage-stamp sized peices to pass through the small gap in the mask during the day. She started thinking that “if you think something will go wrong, it probably will – so take action”. She spent ages one day, securing her one and only spade, as the thought of it falling off the top of her sledge without her notice, had occupied her thoughts.

As days passed, it became harder and harder to motivate herself. The little voice inside her head would say “just stay in your tent another hour” but another voice would come up with incentives to continue: “if you get up and go, you can eat all your chocolate in one go.” In the end, common-sense prevailed and the over-arching ‘mantra’ became “just get out of the tent”.

Just get out of the tent” was a powerful message – once the first step is taken the next one follows.

She spent Christmas and New Year alone. Eventually after so little visual stimulation, she started talking to the sun; eventually the sun spoke back. She then had hallucinatory episodes where she saw dismembered floating hands pointing the way, and a gnome-like man who rode off on a small dinosaur. She shared her photos, made jokes and laughed at herself. She spoke with frankness about her weaknesses, demonstrating true humility and lack of ego – something that is uncommon in male achievers.

The audience were endeared to her!

In conclusion, it now makes applying for promotion, submitting that publication, going for that award etc., seem like an easy step in comparison. So, as Felicity would suggest, “just get out of the tent” – achievement begins with that first easy step!

Finally, big thank you to Sara who had organised the event but was off sick – get well soon and a very Happy Christmas, to our WAN community from your co-convenors – Heather, Chris and Sara.