Felicity Aston is a polar explorer and Antarctic scientist. In 2012 she became the first woman to ski across Antarctica alone (!) and now travels the world leading expeditions and speaking about her work in the polar regions. When she’s not on expedition, she lives between Kent, England, and Reykjavik, Iceland, with her husband and toddler son. Here, she shares what she’s learned about fear, the strongest lip balm, and the old-school drugstore moisturizer she brings on every trip…
So, what IS a typical day like for a modern-day polar explorer?
If I’m on an expedition, my day starts by waking up in a tent, in a sleeping bag next to someone who starts out a total stranger but very quickly becomes not so. Then you spend an hour getting dressed, melting snow for water to make breakfast, and getting your stuff sorted for the day. Then you pack up your camp and supplies onto a sledge, and move on. Then about 12 hours later, you unpack, build your home, make food and do everything as quickly as possible so you can get to sleep before doing it all over again the next day. You spend some time looking after yourself — your feet in particular. Your feet are the most important part of your kit.
That makes sense. How do you take care of them?
It’s amazing how many people arrive with their feet in a pair of socks and don’t see them again until the end of the expedition. But it’s so important to have a good look at your feet every day, to see if you’re getting sore patches or blisters, what’s going on with your nails, etc. If they’re in socks, they’re always going to be a bit damp, and won’t be able to heal properly. Some people spend a lot of time putting creams on their feet, but I just make sure I give them time in the open air each day.
I have to admit, I feel slightly ridiculous asking about your “beauty routine” on a polar expedition. But then again, skin care must take on a whole new meaning in that environment.
Yeah, it’s really important! In the morning, I slap on generous amounts of the highest factor sunblock that I can find. Doesn’t matter what brand, but I often wind up using children’s sunblock because it has the highest SPF, and it’s thicker on your skin (so it also helps protect from the cold, wind and extreme dryness). You have to remember, in places like Antarctica, there is no ozone protection. You’re under the hole in the ozone layer, so you burn quickly and severely. I’m constantly putting on lip balm because you wouldn’t believe how quickly your lips suffer. I like Labello with a high SPF.
Okay, your skin is amazing. Let’s talk moisturizer.
In the evening, I clean my face with my luxury item: a wet wipe. I give it a good rub to get off all the excess sunblock, snot, and god knows what else I’ve got on my face by the end of the day. It’s always a little bit frozen — everything is — so it’s a bit like using a cold compress on my face. Then I put on a generous dollop of the thickest, strongest moisturizer I can get.
You know the old-fashioned Nivea? That comes in a tin? It’s BRILLIANT. I slather it on and it really moisturizes my skin overnight. On many expeditions, I’m the only woman, or one of just a few, and the guys tend to laugh when I get out my big pot of moisturizer. But when you’re in a really dry environment like Antarctica, if your skin is sore and your lips are cracking, you’re much more susceptible to cold injuries and serious problems. Sometimes I’ll convince the guys to try some and they’ll dip a tentative finger in and dab some on their forehead — and I’m like, ‘No no no, you’ve gotta get a good handful and rub it in until your face can take no more.’ And then at the end of the trip, they come back looking like they’ve been dipped in a vat of acid, with skin peeling off and lips massively swollen and cracked — and my skin’s generally all right. I feel vindicated!
As an explorer, what drew you to the polar regions, specifically?
I’ve been on expeditions in desert and jungle environments, and they were wonderful, immensely rewarding experiences. But there’s something about the polar environment that keeps pulling me back. I wonder if it’s something to do with where I grew up, in southeast England. Snow was a very rare, exciting event. School was canceled, we went sledding, and this world that I knew was transformed into a different place. Perhaps that’s when I started equating snowy places with adventure. I think it’s also something to do with the fact that these environments are at the edges of the globe. Looking at a map, my eyes always wander toward the fringes — the places I don’t know anything about. I’ve always been driven by that strong sense of curiosity: Who’s there? What would it feel like to be there? And then you suddenly realize the only way to answer these questions is to go there and find out.
You’ve spent much of your career in Antarctica — a place most of us can only imagine. What did you learn about that place that you’d want others to know?
People tend to think of Antarctica as this tiny place on the bottom of the map. But it’s enormous (twice the size of Australia!), and it has a huge impact on our daily lives. Whether it’s the temperature in New York today or the fact that it’s snowing here in Reykjavik — that can be linked back to what’s going on in Antarctica.
I bet your hands need a lot of TLC, too.
The main issue I have with my hands in wintertime — not just on expedition — is that the skin around my nails cracks. I feel like such a wuss when I come back from a trip and people are expecting to hear about terrible injuries and gore, and I’m saying, ‘The skin on my fingers cracked and it was really sore!’ But, you know, it’s like that paper-cut agony. The best thing is zinc oxide. There are a million different brand names, but any zinc oxide cream will do. You rub it into the skin around your fingers and it works wonderfully.
Okay, this may be super obvious but I’m guessing you can’t wash your hair on expedition, right?
No, you can’t. It stays under a hat. But you know, when I come back from an expedition, my hair is in the GREATEST shape. That whole thing about washing your hair less frequently? It’s true. My hair obviously gets super greasy and horrible when I’m on the trip, but when I do come back and wash it, it’s shiny and thick and amazing. So, even when I’m at home, I try to cut down on washes.
I imagine your beauty routine — and all your routines — are very different when you’re at home.
While I spend part of my life in the outdoors, I’m often home in front of the laptop. It can take years of planning before you get to do the exciting stuff. I also do a lot of speaking around the world, so I’m often working on that (or driving to or from the airport). And I have an eighteen-month-old little boy now, so like most new parents, my days at home are structured around him.
What does your bedtime regimen look like?
I’m actually making the switch to organic products. When I was pregnant, I started looking at the ingredients in products and it freaked me out. So, now I use Dr. Organic for everything: shampoo, deodorant, hand cream. It just makes me personally feel more secure. And I love all their varieties — argan oil, aloe vera, tea tree, etc. I’m a total convert.
In 2012, you became the first woman to ski across Antarctica alone — a 59-day, 1,000-mile journey. Among other things, that’s a long time to be alone. What was that like?
Yes, that part — the being on my own part — was the hardest thing I’ve experienced in my entire life. It hit me immediately. Those first few seconds after the plane left me, I was struck by the full weight of my aloneness, and the responsibility that came with it. That was the most frightening part of the expedition. People often ask how I conquered the fear — but honestly, I don’t think I did. I found a way to keep going in spite of it, but the fear was always there. I learned a lot about myself during that expedition.
Well, I learned that although I’m very grateful for the experience, it’s not something I ever want to do again. With no other people around, every single emotion I had would be immediately, intensely expressed. So, if I felt upset, I would be bawling my eyes out in catastrophic sadness. If I was irritated by something, I would be furious, throwing my poles on the ground and shouting to the sky. If I was scared, I’d be shaking and petrified. My emotions swung so hard and fast that it made me feel as though I was going mad. It did teach me about myself — and about people in general. The human body and brain are capable of infinite resilience. You see that, when people survive huge traumas, and yet go on to lead fulfilling, rewarding lives. You see people in survival situations, going beyond what seems humanly possible, both mentally and physically. The difference with my trip was that it wasn’t survival. It was my choice to be out there. I learned my limit.
What was it like, transitioning back to regular life?
Some things were strangely difficult — like going to the grocery store. After living in a tent with what I needed and nothing more, I was overwhelmed by all the choices. I’d be standing in the bread aisle staring at a million different kinds of loaves and literally couldn’t make a decision! The energy of all those tiny decisions sapped my strength. Social interactions were strange, too. Although I was going through the motions of regular social behavior, it felt like the real me was actually sitting in the back of my brain somewhere, totally disconnected. It took a year before these two parts of me came back together as one, before I felt truly present again.
So, you felt like different versions of yourself?
Before that expedition, I had always assumed that I was intrinsically me. I thought Felicity was a specific, definite thing: this is who I am, these are my values, this is how I react. But out there, I realized that me, my character, is the space between all the people that have huge influence in my life. When those people and outside influences were taken away, suddenly my character didn’t have a form anymore. I felt fluid. It made me realize just how much the people in our lives help shape who we are — and how absolutely essential it is to surround yourself with others that reflect the values and the character that you want to have. People who are good for you.