Meet the Queen’s cousin who cut off two toes with a penknife
Now Arctic explorer Rosie is set to cross a 600-mile desert called the Sea of Death. No wonder Her Majesty says she’s mad!
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 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, 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.
Meanwhile, her grandfather-in-law, Sir James Wordie, was chief geologist on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 transantarctic Expedition.
THEroyal side of the family has been a bit less adventurous.
Her grandmother — a legendary beauty who turned down more than two dozen proposals before marrying Earl Granville — and the Queen Mother were sisters, making her late mother, Lady Mary clayton, a first cousin to the Queen.
rosie, who at one stage lived with her mother in a grace-andfavour apartment in Kensington Palace, insists she is ‘ only a cousin’, but there is a close connection. Prince Philip, she says, is ‘terribly funny’, while in her sitting room there is a large photo of the Queen Mother holding rosie’s then baby son Jock, and beaming.
‘He was howling but you’d never know. She was a good aunt, a good egg, a good everything and totally with it right up to the end.’
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.’
He is the source of lashings of Highgrove fudge and Duchy Original biscuits for her ration box.
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.’
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.’
Despite her pedigree, rosie was not an obvious candidate to follow in the footprints of Scott and Shackleton.
She was expected to become a debutante, but says she was ‘crossed off the deb list’ after she and Bertie jumped into the thames during the Henley regatta because, she once said in typically blunt style, ‘it was hot’.
So she went into Pr and loved to party. She wasn’t the sort to baulk at skydiving from a plane or doing Britain’s first bungee jump.
Her first expedition in 1997 came about after she listened, while lying in the bath, to a radio programme about a planned allfemale venture to the north Pole. ‘I jumped up and told William I needed to go on that expedition,’ she says.
‘It was as if a thousand million flashbulbs had gone off.’ and that was that. She is not the sort for ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, yet 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.
In 2003-4, when she skied solo to the South Pole, hauling a sledge more than twice her bodyweight for more than 600 miles, her son Jock was a toddler.
She says she missed him so much it hurt.
One day, when the ice was disintegrating beneath her and she was certain she was going to die, she took her poem and a photograph of Jock and focused hard on them until she was able to push on.
By the time of the 2007 expedition, when she lost her toes and then had to abandon the attempt just before the end because of breaking ice, Jock was at the heart of things, running a school project on it and bursting with pride.
‘Of course I feel guilty. all the time. But I have to do this. I have to go and he’s brilliant. He just gets it,’ she says simply.
Husband William is equally understanding and next week, on their 25th anniversary holiday to the Greek Islands, will be perfectly happy reading in the shade while she spends hours hauling tyres around in the heat in training for her assault on the Sea of Death.
Just so long as she never, ever thinks of revisiting that unfinished business at the north Pole.
True grit: Rosie at home and, inset, on a polar expedition