“I was the first British woman to ski to the North Pole – the hardest part was going to the toilet”


Sue Stockdale became the first British woman to ski to the magnetic north pole in 1996, but she said the hardest part of the arduous journey was trying to use the toilet

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Sue Stockdale crossed the Greenland ice cap on skis in 1998

A polar explorer, who became the first British woman to ski to the North Pole, said the hardest part wasn’t the physical or mental challenges, but going to the toilet.

Sue Stockdale, 56, was on her feet for hours every day and was only able to cover 12 miles in 24 hours because of the difficult terrain.

She slept in a tent on the ice and felt it shift beneath her, reminding her that the danger of falling through was ever-present, as was the danger of being eaten by a polar bear.

Despite this, Sue, from Marlborough, Wiltshire, said the hardest part was going to the loo when the temperature was -41C, as all the specialist equipment at the time was made for men and not suited to their needs.

Sue paid £15,000 to take part – enough to buy a house at the time


Sue Stockdale)

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Sue, a motivational speaker, said, “Adventure is more of a mindset than an activity. When people are willing to follow their curiosity and have an inquiring mind, are willing to take risks and venture into the unknown – then they are adventurers.

“That was 1996, 26 years ago. It was tough, very difficult and satisfying.

“It was relentlessly, relentlessly hard because you don’t have a moment to sit back and relax and say, ‘I’m safe now.’ Ordinary people might feel uncomfortable a few hours a day, but they can always escape to the comfort of their home or safe space.

“There were four of us in a tent and we were camping on frozen sea ice, which can move and break, so it’s not entirely safe, and a polar bear could show up – so there’s a lot of challenges.

She said it was so cold she could only stop for a few minutes at a time


Sue Stockdale)

“Despite these challenges, you have to remain optimistic and know that you can do it.”

Sue said she had never cross-country skied prior to her trip, the Ultimate Challenge Expedition, for which she had to raise £15,000 in charity funds.

She continued, “I could have bought a house with that money back then.

“Up until this expedition, I had never ridden cross-country skis, they presented them to me and said, ‘This is your mode of transport, learn.’

“Cross-country skiing is definitely fun in Denmark where the snow is smooth, but in the Arctic it’s like skiing over a construction site – there are huge slabs of rock and ice.

Sue said she was in constant danger


Sue Stockdale)

“You carry the skis to distribute your weight evenly so you don’t fall through. If you only walked in boots, your foot could go through the ice or in waist-deep snow.

“You only ski four miles an hour max, we would ski maybe 12 miles a day. It’s slow progress.

“The average temperature was -12 degrees, the lowest was -46 degrees, it was like being in a freezer the whole time.”

Sue, who is married with two stepchildren, said the cold temperatures were her biggest challenge and she struggled with extreme discomfort every day.

The temperatures were so cold she had to remain wrapped in protective clothing all day, and the wind stung her face as it swept past her fur-lined hood.

But she still had to brave the elements and expose herself every time she wanted to use the bathroom.

She said: “At -46 you don’t want to be in it for more than a few minutes. You don’t even really stop during the day, you try to keep moving – it’s bitterly cold.

They had to sleep on the ice and threatened to fail


Sue Stockdale)

“You have your hood on and you have fur around your hood to protect you from windburn and you pretty much clench your teeth the whole time. You fight against the natural phenomena of nature, and it’s a battle for who survives.

“You have to remove parts of your clothes to go to the bathroom, it’s easier when you’re a man, but a woman?

“And the clothes we wear weren’t designed for women because they didn’t think women would be taking part in the expedition.

“It was like a one-piece jumpsuit. It’s only easy to take off when you take it off your shoulders, doing that every time at -40 is quite difficult.

“There were zips on the side of the legs, side zips and because the suit was big enough I found a way to move it around to create an opening, but that meant if you didn’t tuck your clothes in properly and you let the cold in, it’s very uncomfortable – you have to live with that for the next hour of skiing as it’s too hard to stop – it’s easier to get uncomfortable.”

Sue said it was like trying to ski across a construction site


Sue Stockdale)

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“It’s a unique challenge that women face. Nowadays clothes are designed for women and it is easier to bargain. As the first British woman, it’s easy to see why they didn’t consider this issue because no woman had done anything like this on the expedition before.

“It’s similar to many women today in all walks of life – they experience challenges because nobody has thought about the special needs of women in their profession.

“It could be that the gloves they wear weren’t designed for women’s hands, or the uniforms they wear weren’t designed for men – but we get on with it, women just go on and adapt.

It took Sue 30 days to cover the 350 miles of arctic tundra but just three and a half hours to fly back to base camp, where she celebrated becoming the first British woman to complete the journey.

She said: “I’m really proud, I never set out to achieve that success – it was only when the media asked me if I was going to be the first British woman to do it that I discovered I was the case.

“I’m still an adventurer… I think it’s more inclusive now, there are a lot more ways for men or women to adventure, and bespoke gear designed for their purpose.

Sue recently published her first book entitled Discover: A life of adventure.

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