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‘I was first UK woman to ski to the North Pole – the hardest part was going to the loo’

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Sue Stockdale became the first UK woman to ski to the magnetic North Pole back in 1996, but she said the hardest thing about the gruelling journey was trying to go to the loo

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Sue Stockdale skis across Greenland ice cap in 1998

An arctic explorer who was the first UK woman to ski to the North Pole has said the hardest part wasn’t the physical or mental challenges – but going to the loo.

Sue Stockdale, 56, was on her feet for hours each day, and could only cover 12 miles in 24 hours as the terrain was so tricky.

She would sleep in a tent on the ice and could feel it shift beneath her, reminding her that the threat of falling through was ever-present, as was the risk of being eaten by a polar bear.

But despite this, Sue, from Marlborough, Wiltshire, said the hardest thing was going to the loo in the -41C temperature – as all the specialist equipment at the time was made for men and not suited to her needs.

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

Sue Stockdale)

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Sue, a motivational speaker, said: “Adventure is a mindset rather than an activity. If people are willing to follow their curiosity and have an inquiring mind, be willing to take risks and step into the unknown – then they’re an adventurer.

“It was in 1996, 26-years ago now. It was hard, very difficult and satisfying.

“It was relentless, relentlessly tough because you don’t get a moment to sit back and relax and say ‘I’m safe now’. Maybe normal people get discomfort for 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 that can move and crack, so it’s not entirely safe, and a polar bear could appear – so there are many challenges.

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

Sue Stockdale)

“Despite those challenges, you have to stay upbeat and know you can do it.”

Sue said that she had never done any cross-country skiing before her trip, the Ultimate Challenge Expedition, for which she had to raise £15,000 in charity funding.

She continued: “I could have bought a house with that money at that time.

“I’d never done any cross country skiing until that expedition, they presented them to me and said, ‘this is your mode of transport, learn.’

“In Denmark where the snow is smooth I’m sure cross country skiing is enjoyable, in the arctic it’s like skiing across a building site – there are huge slabs of rock and ice.

Sue said she faced constant danger
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Sue Stockdale)

“You wear the skis to distribute your weight evenly so you don’t fall through. If you were just walking in boots your foot could go through the ice or into thigh-deep snow.

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

“The average temperature was -12c, the lowest was -46c, it was like being in a deep freeze all the time.”

Sue, who is married and has two step-children, said the low temperatures provided her with the biggest challenge and that every day she battled extreme discomfort.

The temperatures were so low that she had to stay wrapped up in protective clothing all day, and the wind would burn her face as it whipped past her fur-lined hood.

But despite this, she still had to brave the elements and expose herself each time she wanted to go to the loo.

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

They had to sleep on the ice, and were at risk of falling through
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Image:

Sue Stockdale)

“You have your hood up and you have fur around your hood to protect yourself from windburn, and you’re almost gritting your teeth the whole time. You’re fighting against the natural phenomena of nature, and it’s a battle for who survives.

“You have to remove parts of your clothing to make it able for you to go to the loo, that’s easier if you’re a man, but a woman?

“And the clothing we’re wearing wasn’t designed with women in mind because they hadn’t thought women would be on the expedition.

“It was like a one-piece coverall item. It’s only easily removed if you take it down off your shoulders, to do that every time at -40 is quite difficult.

“There were zippers on the side of the legs, side zips, and because the suit was big enough I found a way of moving it to create an aperture, but what that meant was if you’ve not tucked 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 difficult to stop – it’s easier to be uncomfortable.”

Sue said it was like trying to ski across a building site
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Image:

Sue Stockdale)

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“It’s a unique challenge that women face, these days the clothing is designed with women in mind and it’s easier to negotiate. Being the first British woman it’s easy to understand why they wouldn’t have considered that issue because no woman had done that type of expedition before.

“That’s similar to many women in all works of life today – they experience challenges because nobody has thought about the particular needs of women doing their job.

“It might be the gloves they’re wearing aren’t designed for women’s hands, or the uniforms they’re wearing are designed for men – but we get on with it, women just get on with it and adapt.

It took Sue 30 days to cover the 350 miles of the arctic tundra, but just three and a half hours to fly back to base camp where she celebrated becoming the first UK 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 UK woman to get there that I discovered that to be the case.

“I’m still an adventurer… I think it’s more inclusive now, there are a lot more opportunities for men or women to have adventures and bespoke equipment designed for their purposes.

Sue recently released her first book, titled Explore: A Life of Adventure.

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