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Meet the adventurer: Felicity Aston MBE

Championing adventures, women and frozen hinterlands, Felicity Aston has travelled far and wide as an explorer and former meteorologist for the British Antarctic Survey. We find out what adventure means to her

Meet the adventurer: Felicity Aston MBE
Image: Felicity Aston

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First up, aisle or window seat?

Always the window.

Difficult question: what’s your favourite place?

This one’s easy for me. It’s a place called Fossil Bluff, which is a place in Antarctica on Alexander Island, which is about the size of Wales. I was regularly sent there when I was a meteorologist working for the British Antarctic Survey and it would often be just me and one other person in this tiny, little wooden hut in the most spectacular part of the Antarctic. It’s called Fossil Bluff because all the ridges around it are littered with fossils of all kinds. There was once so much life there, which is weird to think about because today Antarctica is largely defined by its lack of life. 

Biggest travel fail?

I think I’ve done them all. I’ve turned up at the wrong airport; I’ve turned up on the wrong day; I’ve turned up with the wrong passport; I’ve tried to board the wrong plane in the right airport. But, thankfully, I haven’t made all those mistakes on the same trip or at the same time. The rather depressing thing? I’m still finding new mistakes to make. 

Favourite travel book, film or podcast?

My favourite books are At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette and Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sarah Wheeler. The reason those books stood out for me is they didn’t just inspire me to travel to the countries they were writing about. They also inspired me to write. They got me excited to write about my own travels.

Where have you visited the most and why?

Antarctica. The reason is because there’s still so much to discover there. I still get really excited about the fact that there are huge parts of Antarctica where no human has ever set foot. Everyone is very concerned with overtourism in the Antarctic, but we mustn’t forget that taking people to experience this place in a managed way is enormously beneficial — people will only really care about a place if they’ve visited it or feel a connection with it in some way. It’s a very powerful thing to experience a place like that.

What’s the first thing you do in a new city?

Eat. Whenever I go anywhere new — particularly a city — I just love getting out on the streets and eating everything I come across. Singapore and New York are my two favourite cities for that.

Tell us about the oddest circumstance you’ve found yourself in?

I spent quite a lot of time in the Russian Far East and had multiple bizarre experiences up there. There’s a tiny town called Kyzl-Syr, which is more than 600 miles north of Yakutsk. It took us about five days to ski there. Once we’d settled into our lodgings, there was a knock at the door — it was the town’s mayor, wearing a shell suit and a big gold necklace, wanting to give us a tour of the town. He told us to get in the back of his van with his wife and daughter. We were a bit unsure. When he opened the van we saw he’d turned it into a kind of mobile disco with a glitter ball and a bar. He drove us around the town’s sights; he was most proud of a huge gas pipe that had been lit to burn off the excess gas — basically, a huge flame coming out of the ground. We stood around being very polite and toasting with what I’m really hoping was vodka. He didn’t speak English and our Russian wasn’t particularly extensive, so we spent a lot of time just shouting, “Na zdorovie!” which means “Cheers!”

What’s the most indelible memory you’ve formed while doing what you do?

You see some incredible optical phenomena in the Antarctic because of the air. You get circular rainbows around the sun as well as something called a parhelion, also known as a mock sun. It’s an atmospheric optical phenomenon that consists of a bright spot to one or both sides of the Sun. One day when I was skiing with a team to the South Pole, we had the most amazing display of perfect halos and parhelions. It just showed me there are wonders out there we can’t even imagine, so when people say there’s nothing left to explore, I try to remember that we’re still just scratching the surface.

What are you most looking forward to on your next adventure?

My next trip is to a place called Zanskar, an isolated ancient kingdom right in the mountains in Northern India. Traditionally, the only way in and out has been along a river gorge that freezes in wintertime — it’ll take us about three weeks to get in and back out again. The reason I want to go now is because a road is being built that’s predicted to bring a lot of change to the region. After posting my intention to visit Zanskar on Facebook, I got a great response and have put together a team of eight women, from various backgrounds and places, to come with me. We’re going at the end of January/beginning of February and, because the sun never reaches the bottom of the gorge, it’s going to be freezing — -30C or so, which brings it very much in line with my arctic expeditions. 

Adventure is… excitement via fear.

Interview: Josephine Price

Felicity’s most recent adventure took her to the South Pole with a group of women from across Europe and the Middle East. Check out her latest work and follow her next adventure here: felicityaston.co.uk