We interviewed Stephanie Solomonides, who recently completed the incredible Euro-Arabian North Pole expedition, lead by Felicity Aston, making her the first Cypriot to travel to both the North and South poles.
Interview by Tessa Deterding and Esther Rosewarn
Could you tell us a little bit about the expedition? How and why did you get involved?
This idea was initially conceived by Felicity Aston, who is very well known in adventure circles. She has a serious love of the Polar Regions, is also really passionate about women. Felicity and I met for the first time when she was organising her first South Pole expedition in 2009, of which I was very lucky to be a member of. As with South Pole, it was the same concept of putting together a group of ordinary women – 12 women from different backgrounds to achieve something extraordinary together. Having been on the South Pole expedition and knowing what Felicity was capable of, when I heard she was putting together another expedition to the North Pole I thought I’d absolutely love to be a part of that. I started off being team manager, helping on the administrative side and then luckily became a fully-fledged team-member from there, which was fantastic.
My motivation was that I’d not done North Pole, and if I were to do it I’d want Felicity to be organising it, because I have absolute trust in her and her capabilities, and completely believe in her vision – she’s so passionate about empowering and showcasing women, and it’s just a great story to be part of.
The story aside, it’s such a crazy thing to do, what drew you to the Polar Regions?
I’ll talk about my South Pole trip as that was the first big polar expedition I went on. I’m from Cyprus and I really hate the cold! Yet one hot August day, something drew me to this link about Felicity’s expedition to South Pole. I knew it was going to be hard, I knew it was going to be out of my comfort zone, I knew it was a mad idea, but I think what drew me to it was the opportunity to challenge myself in such an extreme way. I’m not a gym bunny, I don’t enjoy running, so I couldn’t envisage myself as one of those individuals that runs marathons or anything like that, so this trip was an interesting concept because it was skiing, and took place in such a random and extreme environment that would really push you.
How did you prepare for both these expeditions?
I won’t go to the gym when there’s no reason behind it. I’ll go to the gym when I have something specific to work towards. For the South Pole it was much longer and required working on stamina and strength, so I couldn’t avoid the gym-element, but I always knew in the back of my mind that after the expedition that it would end! It was the same concept for the North Pole. I knew I needed to prepare by working on stamina and strength to get me to the level I knew I needed to be at again.
Getting into the expedition – the North Pole that is – do you have any highlights or lowlights you’d like to share?
I can only speak from personal experience, but two days stand out for me. Day one I found very brutal. It was -38’C. We’d all just come off a plane at 6am and were starting a full day. I could not for the life of me, despite being experienced, get manage my body temperature. It was just brutal. I was petrified of getting frostbite.
Day six also stands out because not only was it a really tough day, but also one of the most interesting days. We came across this massive field of ice rubble – which we’d come across before – but this was particularly large. We sent three people out for a recce in three different directions. Finally when they got back, we’d found one trail we could all get through. It was really tough because you couldn’t ski through it – you had to take everything off! Skis came off, sledges had to be taken off and we spent the whole day in a chain, passing things through this ice rubble. It was tough because you don’t make much progress and it takes so much time. But on the other hand it was one of the most outstanding days because it was the epitome of teamwork. Everyone pulled together, fell in line and made it work.
The other most amazing thing was the terrain. Whenever you speak to anyone who’s been to the North Pole they always talk about these ice fields, and we hadn’t found one up until then. So in a way, even though we all knew it was going to be tough, we hadn’t really had that true North Pole experience. I was really grateful that we had that day, because I now have a truly complete experience of the North Pole.
Could you tell us a bit more about the team?
We were a team of women from 11 different countries, all with their own unique perspectives. It was very interesting having so many Muslim women on the team, because it was a great opportunity to learn more about the religion and about their trials and tribulations. After sharing stories with each other I think we all came to the understanding that, at the end of the day, we are all the same. Everyone wants to succeed, everyone wants to be happy in life and enjoy what they’re doing. Religion was a very important aspect for many in the team, and it was so fascinating to hear how they look at it as a kind of meditation, a sort of centring moment through prayer. I found that really interesting.
Did you all speak English?
Absolutely. There were a few prerequisites to being a member of the team and one of them was being able to communicatein English. You also had to be able to swim, and, of course, have the willingness to participate, to give 110% and to truly believe in the story of this expedition. I had some absolutely amazing teammates.
How did your community react to the fact that you’d done this amazing expedition?
Having done the South Pole, a lot of people saw it coming! There was no internet or phones when I did South Pole, so that was very cut-off, making it hard for my family because there was such a lack of communication. This time round I was only offline for 9-10 days, which wasn’t too bad. That said, there are still risks and things that could go wrong, so my parents, particularly, did worry about me. My friends were so happy that I’d got this second opportunity and received so much support from them.
Being Cypriot and in London there’s a bit of distance between myself and my community. There was a bit of coverage at home, which was great, but not quite the same impact as when I returned from the South Pole, which is understandable, with me being in the UK.
We’re so excited that you’re coming to speak at our Women in the Polar Regions event this summer. Is there anything in particular you think our attendees have to look forward to?
Ultimately, through our Q and A, Felicity’s talk and the IceMaidens, I just hope everyone gets excited about travel and about pushing boundaries. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to the South or the North Pole to do it, but it could alert people to the idea that an opportunity might sound so outlandish, and so random, and so extreme, but that we shouldn’t shy away from it, because it might be one of the most rewarding things we ever do. This can come from anything – just taking part in a hike or meeting new people or going to new places can push your boundaries. All you have to do is look at our team – look at how different, even physically, we all are, and we were all able to achieve something like this.
It might take one person two years to train for it, it might take another person one year, but the body is an amazing thing and it responds. It’s all about the mentality – the willingness to participate and being in the right frame of mind.
I’m sure you guys will be such great role models for so many women after your achievement
A lot of my Arabian teammates will have a massive impact on women back in their countries and that’s what I’m most looking forward to seeing – how their stories evolve and what comes out of it. Their message is just so powerful.
It was the same with my team when we went to the South Pole; it’s a very powerful message for countries that don’t have a history in Polar Exploration. I think we often underestimate what these kinds of stories can do.
Do you think there’s anything else that can be done to encourage women to go beyond their comfort zone?
I think the key thing is for us to all be supportive of each other. Women need to support each other. The culture needs to change in which we see each other as competition as opposed to support. We need to learn more from that and I think that that will bring change. And you are seeing it slowly. You can tell that things are shifting for women and we’re getting a stronger voice in a variety of sectors and various parts of life. But I think we can always do more in our daily support of each other.
Which hopefully WAExpo will continue to do! Do you have any plans for any more adventures?
I think I’ve run out of poles! We’ll see how it goes. An expedition 2009, an expedition 2018, we’ll see what happens in the next nine years!