As soon as the plane that had dropped her onto the Antarctic ice departed, Felicity Aston sat down in the snow and wept. “I cried from my soul,” she wrote later in her memoir of her solo expedition across the frozen wastelands at the bottom of the world, Alone in Antarctica. Her tears froze on her face and fell into the snow all around her. The panic rose in her chest. She started trembling and couldn’t remember how to erect her tent. Yet somehow, she found the strength to build her shelter and go to sleep. The next morning, she got up, put on her skis, and set off toward the horizon. Overcoming her emotions and the physical reaction to her fear, she says, was almost harder than being the first woman to traverse the entire continent alone.
Felicity Aston isn’t the stereotype of a polar explorer – in the popular imagination, that’s a 1920s man with an ice-crusted beard and a husky-dog companion. Yet this macho cliché couldn’t be less accurate — women have been involved in polar expeditions for centuries, as explorers, scientists, historians, and fund-raisers. “The story of women in Antarctica stretches right back — I think it’s 1775 that the first woman was recorded as going there,” Aston says. (She’s close – it was 1773, though Maori women may have explored the region earlier).
After a decade working as an explorer and researcher, Aston joined the ranks of the great polar heroes when in 2012, at age 35, she became the first woman to cross Antarctica alone. She skied a distance of 1,084 miles in 59 days. She has a string of such achievements to her name: in 2006, she was part of the first all-female team to cross the Greenland ice sheet; in 2009, she led a team of Commonwealth women to the South Pole; and in 2015, she received the prestigious Polar Medal from the Queen for her exploration work.
When we talk over Skype — she is currently based in Iceland, where she is preparing for an expedition to the North Pole next year — Aston says that she is baffled as to why the widespread perception remains that her field is exclusively male. “There are women who have done spectacular things in the polar regions, but nobody’s heard of them,” she says. Aston is a brusque, businesslike person with a very warm laugh. Even over Skype, I can feel that her immense determination is always just beneath the surface.
She cites the example of Ginny Fiennes, who (as far as Aston can determine) was the first British woman ever to spend an entire winter in Antarctica; in 1987, she became the first female recipient of the Polar Medal in recognition of her pioneering work in radio signaling. Yet Fiennes’s New York Times obituary records her as the “muse of a British explorer” and includes almost as many details about her husband, the explorer Ranulph Fiennes, as it does about her own work. “It’s the age-old conundrum, and I don’t have an answer to it,” Aston says. Representation in polar exploration and science is improving all the time — five of the 46 winter residents at the South Pole this year are women, and in 2005 there were 24 out of 86 — but the idea that it’s a male-only field lingers.
Aston is now 40. She comes from Kent, in the south of England, and first moved to the Antarctic Peninsula to work as a meteorologist when she was 23. Over the three winters and two summers that she lived there, the landscape captured her imagination. The colors alone were enough to bewitch her. We may think of the polar landscape as a monochrome stretch of white, but Felicity recalls the pink, orange, and indigo of the sky, and wrote later of the “dusky lilac” and “vibrant ochre” she saw. She has spent the subsequent years raising funds to explore the world’s uncharted territory and research how the human body responds to extreme polar conditions. (There is much more “computer work” involved in being an explorer than people think, she says.)