Polar explorer aims for record minus toes | Globalization | DW | 15.05.2013
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Polar explorer aims for record minus toes

Rosie Stancer wants to be the first woman in the world to walk solo to both poles. She's already conquered the Antarctic alone. Now she's preparing to take on the Arctic.

Rosie Stancer is showing us around what she calls her "base camp" - a restored farmhouse in the countryside just outside Henley on Thames in south-east England.

"It's very attractive, and then it's all spoiled because here on the left of the driveway up to the house we've got this huge great pile of tires," says Stancer. "It's a tire mountain and they're all mine! You can see I've got huge great white markers on with numbers, mysterious numbers, there's a 15.5, there's a 19, there's a 21. These are all the weights in kilos of the sledges which I use for training."

Stancer, 53, is a woman on a mission. After walking unaccompanied through the Antarctic, she's determined to also reach the North Pole alone.

But she knows it won't be easy. She's been there before. In 2007, she walked alone for nearly three months. The isolation certainly doesn't daunt her.

"I had a message from my base camp manager saying that the Russians, who kept an ice strip over the other side, were giving up and going home because of the appalling weather, all the ice had broken up," she says. "I was the only human being left on the entire Arctic Ocean. Five and a half million square miles of ice all to me - me, me, myself, me. And I danced a little jig. I just thought it was so amazing."

Rosie Stancer

After tackling Antarctica, Stancer is determined to face the dangers of the Arctic alone

Arctic dangers

It was during her last trip to the North Pole that the stark reality of solo polar exploration was brought home.

At one point she was caught in a huge ice quake in which several thousand square miles of ice was breaking up.

"The moving ice was violent," she says. "Fifty-foot high walls of ice and boulders tumbling down and crashing apart. It was biblical proportions. I cannot describe the noise. There are vibrations right under your feet as the ice cracks. There is nowhere safe to run or to hide."

There is little you can do to prepare for such situations, Stancer says.

"I got all my communications and equipment and some spare power bricks and shoved them down in front of my flying suit. And I put on an extra puffer jacket, took out my spare mittens, and then I'd done everything. There was nothing else I could do but wait to meet my fate."

Frostbite and gangrene

Stancer survived the ice quake but faced other extremes, including whiteouts, in which the snow is so thick you can't see anything in front of you, a temporary decrease in her vision - snow blindness - caused by bright sunlight reflected from the snow and the loss of feeling in her toes.

"I'd got frostbite on them on day three of the expedition; it had been horribly and unusually cold. Minus 60 [Celsius]. And unfortunately they turned gangrenous, so I cut away the rotting flesh," says Stancer.

In fact, she cut off two of her toes with her Leatherman pen knife.

"I was instructing myself and talking to myself out loud in the tent, which was very dark and full of steam from the stove. So it was all rather eerie because the voice that came from within me didn't sound like me. I had in my head this surgeon and I thought no whining and no whinging - get on with it. And so I got on with it."

She said she didn't feel a thing until she started to walk again, and then described the pain as "agony on stumps."

Melting ice prevented Stancer from completing her 2007 attempt, and she was airlifted to safety only 89 nautical miles (165 kilometers) from the North Pole.

Intensive training

Stancer plans to leave her husband and 11-year-old son Jock behind to attempt her second solo trip to the Arctic early next year. Between now and then she's preparing herself once more for the cruelty of the northernmost climate.

"My preparation is long, arduous and very assiduous," she says. "The training is tough, hard and rugged. It's not the sterility of the gym. I have to do wet, muddy and clumsy stuff, because that is what it will be like. I have to do firearms training, safety training and swimming because that is one of the ways of propelling yourself across the ice."

A polar bear and her three cubs walk on the ice in northern Canada

The Arctic is a whole different challenge from Antarctica, Stancer says

The preparation doesn't end with the training. At every point in her journey to the North Pole, Stancer will be taking crucial steps to acclimatize herself.

Her first stop will be Baffin Island on the edge of the Arctic Circle, where she will test out her equipment in the cold air. She will then fly on to the high Arctic Inuit settlement of Resolute on Cornwallis Island: "That can come as a bit of a belter as temperatures there are normally minus 40 and it's pitch dark," she says.

Big sister Arctic

The terrain and climate of the Arctic is very different from that of the Antarctic, which Stancer conquered in 43 days.

"They're incomparable; they're like little and big sister. Antarctica is huge and vast and it's a big endurance challenge,' she says. "The Arctic is much more capricious, cruel, whimsical and unpredictable. You don't know from one day to the next what the challenges are going to be that day. Nothing is certain except for the fact that something different is going to scare you witless."

Aside from her will to be the first woman to cross the poles alone, Stancer is also using her Arctic expedition to raise money and awareness for the Special Olympics, the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

But there's more to it for her: "It's not just the glory associated with being the first," she says. "The ice is thinning at such a rate that it will not be passable on foot in several years time. I believe this journey could arguably be a world last."

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