Arctic explorer Rosie is now off on a 600-mile trek across a desert in Western China known as the Sea of Death.
By Jane Fryer in The Daily Mail,
abridged by Lasha Darkmoon
THE QUEEN THINKS HER MAD
“I had three badly affected toes on my left foot. I chopped off the big toe and the one next to it but managed to salvage the third little piggy.”
Rosie Stancer, a cousin of the Queen and epic polar adventurer, is a vision of petite femininity as we stand chatting in the front garden of her exquisite country house.
Her waist is childlike and her arms so slender that I fear a warm embrace might snap her in two.
And then, with barely a grunt, she hoists a vast, muddy 20-kilo Land Rover tyre high above her head (pictured) and holds it there with her twig-like arms for, well, quite some time as she grins her enormous grin.
Of course she does. Rosie, 58, is the woman who in 2007, calmly and with no anaesthetic or painkillers, sawed off two of her toes with a penknife when frostbite threatened to scupper her solo trek to the North Pole.
Oh yes, then promptly bandaged them up and walked on their throbbing stumps for another 83 days and 400-odd miles, in minus 50-degree temperatures. Alone.
Now, this veteran of group and solo assaults on both Poles is back in training for another epic expedition — as ever, with the blessing of her husband William, a marketing consultant.
This time she will attempt to cross the 600-mile-wide Taklamakan Desert in Western China, known as the ‘Sea of Death’ for its endless rolling dunes.
Departing in October for ten weeks, and sponsored by CATA, the Chinese Adventure Travel Association, she and three other women explorers (two Chinese and a fellow Brit) will walk for ten to 12 hours a day for ten weeks, leading a mile-long train of 20 Bactrian camels laden with food, bedding, desalination kits and research equipment across the sand.
Each evening they will spend hours digging 6ft holes to find water for their camels.
Temperatures will top 40C, plunge to freezing overnight and fall to a steady minus 20 towards the end of the trip, as the terrain and altitude changes.
‘Only one expedition leader has ever completed this and lived to tell the tale,’ she says, referring to another Brit, Charles Blackmore, in 1993.
‘But adventuring is part of me. It feeds the soul. There’s a pull that I can’t resist.’
It’s certainly in her blood. Her grandfather, the Earl Granville, was deselected at the last minute from Captain Scott’s fateful 1910-1912 South Pole expedition. At 6ft 4in, he was deemed too tall to fit in the tent and would have needed too many rations.
Before and after every trip, Rosie checks in and out (by letter and phone call, usually) with the Queen. She has also rung Prince Charles from the polar ice on her satellite phone to say ‘Happy Christmas’.
Do they think she’s mad?
‘They say so but I suspect they don’t really think so,’ she says. ‘In fact, I think Prince Charles (who was patron of the polar expeditions) would have really enjoyed something like that himself.’
Rosie with her distant relative Prince Charles
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Over the years, Rosie has whittled expedition packing down to a fine art.
No shampoo, just the teeniest sliver of soap, a tube of toothpaste (‘it’s vital to keep standards up), no luxuries, no moisturiser — just Vaseline — endless high-calorie marching rations, a shotgun, a penknife and barely any clothes.
How do you decide how many pairs of knickers to take? She looks at me as if I’m mad.
‘I don’t take any undies! None. I just take layers of clothes and I never take the bottom layer off, because I modify all my kit to give myself a split crotch for easy access — I can’t be doing with zips and stuff.’
LD : Rosie suggests elsewhere the need to be innovative with very simple equipment. No need to buy heavy padded thermal jackets or bodysuits in extremely cold weather. Just wear many light layers, which will do just as well. Line your shoes inside with cardboard. Wear plastic bags over your shoes and pull socks over the plastic bags; this will keep your shoes snug and waterproof.
The treasured possessions she always packs are a poem, which is ‘very personal’ to her and was copied out by hand by her elder brother Bertie, and a photograph of William and their son Jock, now 17 and at boarding school.
Yes, there are low points on her trips, she says, but the ‘toe business’ wasn’t one of them, just a blip (though the impact on her balance has caused awful back pain). ‘I’d rather have chopped them off than be evacuated on day three and let down so many people,’ she says. ‘So I did.’
There was no anaesthetic because she couldn’t risk fainting. ‘I might have knocked myself out on a sharp bit of ice. So you just sort of disembody yourself. I pretended I was a surgeon and started talking out loud.’
Pass the scalpel, nurse? ‘Yes! Easy does it! All that.’
While cutting away dead flesh doesn’t hurt, it hurts afterwards when you start moving. And Rosie had a lot of moving to do.
‘Agony on stumps,’ she says. ‘I didn’t cry, but I howled like an animal and then I got on with it.’
Rosie’s family are all acutely aware that one day she may not return. ‘I believe wholly that if you die during an expedition, your spirit is quite happy. And I would hope others see that too,’ she says.