Polar explorer and solo skier Felicity Aston shares awe-inspiring Antarctica stories
As a guest speaker on one of Cunard’s forthcoming Alaska 2022 cruises, Felicity Aston MBE will be sharing stories with those on board about her incredible life. Vicky Mayer caught up with her at home in Iceland.
On a perfect phone connection from the UK to Iceland, I am chatting with British polar explorer Felicity Aston MBE. Whilst I’m at home in London, Felicity is 3,743 kilometres away on the remote island of Vigur in Iceland.
At 43, Felicity has led an incredible life. She began her career as a meteorologist in 2000, living for two and a half years at the Rothera Research Station on the Antarctica Peninsula, before becoming a renowned polar explorer.
In 2012 she became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica. The 1744km journey took 59 days to complete and gave her a coveted place in the book of Guinness World Records.
Since then, she has become an author, speaker and expedition leader and is one of Cunard’s favourite guest speakers. Here she talks about her incredible journey from Antarctic scientist to living with her husband and four-year-old son on a remote Icelandic island.
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What my solo trip taught me about myself
"Not many people get to spend 59 days by themselves – especially in somewhere so remote as Antarctica. But looking back, I realised I learned a lot about myself on my trip.
"Apart from how resilient I am, my biggest discovery was how you think you know yourself but sometimes that’s just a reflection of what others see in you.
"Once you’re on your own and removed from the people around you, your real character surfaces. And sometimes that can surprise you. The trip was an enormous challenge but I rose to the occasion and proved to myself that I’m tougher than I think."
The world of polar exploration is changing fast – for the better
"Lots has changed since 2000. When I worked at the Rothera Research Station very few women were on the base and there were very few women in polar exploration. A lot has changed since then for the better.
"Now there are many women in all jobs on polar bases around the world. Of course, the challenge now is to ensure we get some diversity in terms of colour and nationality."
Why a trip to Antarctica will change you forever
"Antarctica changes you, there’s no doubt about it. I always find it an emotional experience when I travel there and if you’re a first-timer, it will blow your mind.
"The vastness and the scale of the region has a real impact on everyone who travels there. It’s so empty and raw – a real force of nature. If you are lucky enough to go to Antarctica it will change your perspective on life – you soon realise how small we all are and how mighty nature is.
"Standing on the deck of your ship and looking out to sea and seeing penguins and whales in their natural habitat for the first time is incredible."
Responsible tourism starts in Antarctica
"The advent of tourism in the Antarctic has been a real success story. The Antarctic Treaty was devised in 1961 to protect this part of the world has been incredibly successful. Forty-eight countries have signed up to it and its aim is to protect this incredible part of the planet.
"Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face today and we need to pull together - we can do this if the best minds and scientists work together. Responsible tourism also has a huge part to play in this story. There is no doubt that the future of the Arctic and Antarctica will influence the rest of the world."
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My tips for cruising to Antarctica
"If you treat yourself to an Antarctic cruise you will get to see this wondrous place.
My advice to cruise passengers going to Antarctica for the first time is not to take too many pictures of the first icebergs or penguins you see. You’ll be seeing a lot of them on your trip!
"Make sure you take all of your seasickness pills - you will need these. And remember to take lots of face moisturiser and sunscreen. The ozone in the Antarctic is very thin and your skin will burn more there so stock up before you go. I travel with a lot of men and some of them don’t bother with sunscreen. They soon regret it though when their skin looks like it has been dipped in acid."
Living on Vigur Island in Iceland
"I live on a remote island in Iceland called Vigur with my husband and our four-year-old son. It really is a special place on earth. We’ve been locked down here because of the Covid crisis and it has given us both time to really reflect on nature and its power.
"My husband and I are both polar explorers (that’s how we met) but taking on the island has taken us on a different course entirely and really pushed us to the limits. It’s been a total leap of faith for our family and a new life for all of us.
"To visit the island, you have to make the journey by boat and this can be very perilous. I remember one such journey when my little boy was two and we were heading to the island by boat. The sea was really rough and I was thinking should I be doing this?
"He is four now and he has had an incredible childhood and he is now at the perfect age to really appreciate his surroundings and nature. We see so many seals and whales here and loads of puffins too.
"Our island is known for its Eider ducks. They love it here because they are no predators on the island. We put water out for them and we collect the soft down they produce in their nests, then clean it and sell it. It is sought after all over the world – but especially in Germany and Japan – for its warmth and quality.
Cruising to Alaska with Cunard
"I have worked with Cunard for more than a decade and have been lucky to sail on all their ships so I have a lot of affection for the line. It’s great working on the ships – the audiences really enjoy my lectures and they always ask loads of great questions.
"I will be doing two lectures on my cruise, talking about my adventure journeys to Alaska, its amazing history and also about travelling to the North Pole.
"I have a soft spot for Alaska because back in 2016 I retraced the route of the 1898 Klondike Goldrush across the Yukon, for a BBC TV show with Dan Snow. We followed the journey of the Yukon Goldrush and the families that tried to make their fortune in the area. It was a monumental story. When you travel through this part of Alaska, you still see abandoned carts, shoes, pitchforks and even abandoned railway lines too.
"I am a guest on board too on the voyages so I am always treated very well. I like to find my perfect place on the ship – somewhere quiet and tucked away. I’ll grab a coffee and a delicious pastry and just sit back and enjoy an ocean view. I’ve seen some amazing sights from the ships – big porpoises and whales too.
"In the past I have taken my mum on board with me and like me, she loves dressing up and enjoying all the fine things you can enjoy on a Cunard crossing – amazing food, really comfy rooms and fine entertainment. It’s impossible not to enjoy yourself on a Cunard ship."
Get On Board
Join Felicity on Cunard’s 10-night Alaska Cruise aboard Queen Elizabeth, round trip from Vancouver, BC, Canada, via Mendenhall Glacier, Sitka and Skagway, departing 11July, 2022, from £1, 349 (excluding flights) cunard.com
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