Event Review: RGS-IBG Felicity Aston, Tuesday 10 March

Young writer Matthew Jones shares with us his review of Felicity Aston’s RGS-IBG lecture, Polar Exposure, The Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition. 

On Tuesday 10th March Felicity Aston, an experienced polar expedition leader, gave an inspiring talk to the audience at Turner Sims Southampton. It was a Royal Geographic event on ‘The Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition 2018’ which was a gripping talk.

On entering, we were greeted by a large screen offering a taste of the environment and conditions Felicity would have faced. A stark flat white landscape, littered with polar ice and pressure ridges as far as the eye can see, providing a sample of what was to come.

From the beginning, Felicity introduced herself, her previous encounters with the polar landscapes, and how that made a massive impact on her life. This provided us with an interesting insight into her past hikes, for example a 565km hike that swiftly turned into 1,174km due to her “naivety in the field.” She also explained and gave examples of how climate change is directly affecting the Antarctic and Arctic, and consequently the impact that this has on the opportunity to explore these remote areas. The slide show presented a range of images to visually explain what this looks like from the sky.  Her explanation really made you want to do more for your planet.

Felicity then began to explain in depth the chain of events for this expedition; the desire to inspire women to do something that they thought they couldn’t otherwise do. Her drive to change women’s lives (even a few) was touching. Felicity described her advertisement for this expedition, and the hundreds of responses she received and the subsequent meetings she had with hopefuls in person.

After the selection process, Felicity had her team of 10 women, who came from a variety of European and Middle Eastern countries, including Sweden, Cyprus and Saudi Arabia. From this starting point, she developed this group of women from around the world into a tighty-knit and effective team of cross-country skiers by means of two training expeditions; one in Iceland and the other in Oman. It turns out that the desert provides very similar challenges for a polar expedition, other than the temperature and the spiders!  Felicity’s drive and commitment was motivating not only to the team but also to the listener – which is impressive when you consider that a crucial part of the training was jumping into freezing water and learning the routine required to avoid hypothermia.

This expedition was unique for a number of reasons. Firstly, Felicity’s team was diverse in many ways; an age range from 27-50; women from different backgrounds and varying levels of experience in outdoor activities; the different religious observances some of them followed during the expedition.  Secondly they were accompanied by a film crew who captured their journey for an up and coming film “Exposure”. And then, as the team were of huge interest to a scientist interested in the effects of physical effort on the body, the expedition team took part in an array of scientific tests – including spitting into a tube several times a day in order to measure the stress levels of the team.

There were also really fascinating parts of the story which were explained with humour – such as the elaborate relay race involving two Russian helicopters, an aeroplane and various deliveries of jet fuel to enable the delivery of two bulldozers onto the ice; one to build the polar runway allowing the team to land and another as a contingency in case the first fell through the ice! And then, when the team finally reached 90 degrees North and staked their claim to it with their ski poles, only to find a few minutes after their celebration that the polar ice had moved and their stake was no longer at the geographical North Pole!

Even after the setbacks this team faced, for example losing a team member on the first day to severe frost bite, the success of the expedition is an inspiration to us all. Many people, after listening to her or other team members talk, have been motivated to ‘go and do that thing that they’ve always wanted to do’.

All in all, what you can take away from this talk is the really interesting story about a trip to the North Pole by a team of women from different cultures, but also an inspiration to do more than you think you can. I very much recommend it and have just bought my Mum a copy of Felicity’s book Alone in Antartica for Mother’s Day so that I can read it afterwards!

Matthew Jones


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