Crossing the Taklamakan – Lunch with Rosie Stancer
Article written by Laura Winter
The Talamakan desert in China is one of the largest and least explored in the world; a daunting prospect the majority of us would shy far away from.
But for polar explorer Rosie Stancer who has journeyed across both the Arctic and Antarctica, the prospect of crossing the untamed beast is wildly exciting. Her eyes glimmer as she thinks of it. Stancer and her team will travel the full length of the desert over giant shifting sand dunes at an altitude of over 5000ft. The nearest support will be more than 200 miles away and the 56-year-old will be raising money for the Special Olympics and Veteran’s Aid.
Temperatures will plummet to -20C at night, before soaring to over 38C during the day. Isolation, a lack of food and water supply and some of the most challenging terrain await while her husband William and son Jock wait at home. Is it any wonder this is only the second international expedition in over 500 years?
Stancer said: “I flirted with the idea some years ago and it was partly because it’s been overlooked and forgotten about, yet it’s huge! I found it even more enticing that there was scant information on it but then when I did find some answers, I found four roads have been slashed across from north to south so that put me off.
“But now I have come back to the lure of the desert and thought actually this is what modern exploration is all about. My team will be crossing the interior which is desperately isolated, all 1000km of it. It should take 10 weeks, depending on the speed of the camels. I’ve never worked with them before but I suspect they are wonderful creatures.
“I always get very scared before but it’s not the physicality of the desert, it’s more about the fear of failure. It motivates me as well. I suspect that is the greatest fear most people have in any walk of life. But I could debate if there is such a word as failure. Shackleton – did he ever reach the pole? No. Scott? Did he make it back? No. I am talking about two polar people who are such iconic figures of inspiration to all sorts of generations globally. It’s the nobility of valour and endeavour and the journey, not necessarily a point on a map.”
When you first meet Stancer, she blasts all stereotypical images of an explorer out the water. She has been described as Tinkerbell vs the Terminator, her diminutive size and shape a mere foil for the steely determination and sheer guts that lie beneath.
In 2007, while journeying across the Arctic Circle in the worst conditions recorded in history, Rosie was forced to amputate two toes due to frostbite and gangrene. The matter-a-fact way she describes the moment she cut her own toes off is striking.
“You do what is necessary to survive, or to achieve your goal. In my case it was both. I knew if the gangrene spread it could kill me and it would almost certainly mean I would lose a foot,” she said.
“I didn’t mind about a couple of toes. I was prepared to make that sacrifice for making progress. It didn’t hurt because of the frostbite, but it was afterwards that it hurt, because there is nothing between the flesh and bone and the end of your boot or your sleeping bag or when you fall over.”
Stancer reinforces we should never assume because you are a certain age, height, and size you are excluded from endurance and endeavour. Her journey across the Talamakan is the first female-led expedition in history and she is aware of the responsibility she has had as a woman in a predominantly man’s world.
She continued: “In part I am a trailblazer but really we are past that now. I think women do so much and are so phenomenally successful in sport and exploration and adventure, I don’t have a point to prove anymore.
“It’s very important – it’s about integrity. This sends out a message to other people, the more unlikely you look. I look a bit small and scrawny but the message I emit like a beacon is if she can do it, maybe I can too, whatever your ambition is.
“Everyone has it within themselves – the key to survival, it’s just a question of if you find yourself in circumstances where you need to access it and whether you’re prepared to.”
Stancer started exploring in 1996. In 2003 she skied solo without resupply to the South Pole with a sledge weighing over twice her body weight, for over 1000km. She smashed the speed record by seven days, completing the journey in 43 days, 23 hours.
And in 2007, she was just 89 miles short of the North Pole and two toes short, before she was forced to abandon as the pilots would have been unable to land to pick her up due to melting ice. Over 20 years later, and despite being an accomplished polar athlete and explorer, the hunger for adventure rages on.
“I don’t think it is something that will die out in me, that ember will always be there. It began having a slightly older brother, and wanting to do whatever he did but do it better,” she laughed.
“If he climbed a tall tree, I would climb even higher. I couldn’t quite understand when girlfriends of mine would never want to go on these adventures. I am a normal girl but nevertheless I must have been a bit of a tomboy. I want to show you can do it all and be feminine, have fun, wear heels and go to parties.”
Follow Rosie’s journey at www.rosiestancer.com
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon.