On 6 March, Rosie Stancer stepped off Ward Hunt Island and on to the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean. With temperatures sinking past -50C, her eyelashes elongated with ice and every millimetre of exposed skin burning with the cold she pulled her sledge over serried ranks of 30 feet high barriers of ice stretching before her for miles and miles. The Arctic, still shaking off the hold of winter would make each night a concert of shivering limbs and chattering teeth as the lightweight stove strove against the world with its rationed fuel and thin blue light.
The cold took no prisoners this year, and the toes of Rosie’s left foot were hit the worst as they froze, thawed, refroze, rethawed and frostbite took hold. As the temperature crawled up through the –40s and into the more temperate –30s, the sun became a fixture in the sky, no longer rising or setting but simply circling Rosie as she pressed north. However, the sun became a fleeting visitor as the rising temperatures brought burnished clouds each staking a claim to their piece of the horizon before enveloping the world completely in a deathly white.
As the clouds fell, Rosie’s senses became almost redundant. What use are ears when there is nothing to hear, what use eyes when all around you is white, what use touch when its only function is to remind you of the pain in your feet? There is no up, no down, no far away, no close up, no sky, no ground, just white and the dead weight of your sledge behind you as your only comfort against complete isolation.
At least as Rosie hauled, climbed, pushed, pulled, levered, smashed and at times dug her way north, the ice conditions began to improve. Then came the storms. Whipping across the Arctic, the snow was coerced into vortices around Rosie, burrowing into every crevice as the wind fashioned the encircling ridges into sails taking her east and south, away from her desired route and course.
The storms were not finished there. The flat pans of ice, already weakened by a mild winter, were pulverised into rubble. Some remained firm beneath and merely presented a challenge of agility and fitness, others hid the black water below and invited falls through and wet clothing that began to stiffen with ice. Rosie’s highways to the pole were gone.
Whilst the whiteout remained, the temperature began to rise yet further and suddenly Rosie was having to negotiate a spaghetti junction of open leads, sometimes swimming across in her stiff orange immersion suit, smashing the thin layer of ice on top with her elbows as she went, sometimes leaping from island to island as they drifted past, praying that she would be fast enough to bring her sledge along with her. Several times Rosie fell in and with the water leaching the life from her, had to clamber up the sheer walls of ice to relative safety with only minutes to act before any action became pointless.
Rosie fought her way north, never giving up, never losing heart or her sense of humour. On the 85th day, less than ninety miles from the Pole, the pilots due to resupply her for the final push took one look at the ice ahead and knew that this would be the last day it would be safe to land on the ice. If Rosie ever wanted to come home, she would have to do so now. Bundled into the back of the plane crushed between the fuel drums and her battered sledge, Rosie flew over the pole that had been her one dream for so many years and turned south for home.
Rosie didn’t reach the North Pole. She cannot claim the record of being the first woman to reach the North Pole solo, but she took away a greater prize. Those who embark on expeditions merely to collect baubles, to boast of records achieved and to stand at dinner parties with puffed out chests retelling their suitably embellished stories will never truly understand that the true prize is the journey itself not the destination and the record that counts is the record of your days, your decisions and your determination, not the record stamped into the appendices of little-read books.
Before Rosie, no solo woman had lasted more than five days and a handful of miles on the Arctic ocean, Rosie trekked more than 300 nautical miles and spent 85 days alone among the ice. She recorded a furthest north for a solo woman and no longer can it be intimated that this journey, this challenge is beyond the capabilities of women. Nansen and Shackleton were both proud to claim furthest north and south respectively, and like these two greatest of men Rosie has shown the way, she has shown that the prize can be reached. Rosie may not ever become the first woman to reach the North Pole solo, but one day one woman will and it will be in part because of Rosie.