Sue Stockdale quit her clerical job to join an expedition to the North Pole. Sandra Dick finds she has now returned to the office as a boardroom guru
POOR old Kenneth Branagh, poor old Ernest Shackleton. Lives hanging by a fraying thread in a sea of ice, all around is white, white and then more white, food stocks are dwindling fast and there’s no Sue Stockdale to be seen.
No doubt she would have braved raging gales, blizzards and -40C temperatures in her T-shirt, gamely rounded up the ship’s crew - a blustering Shackleton included - and had them swapping survival tips, sewing therapeutic magnets into their sleeping bags and fricassee-ing freshly slaughtered seal meat before they could say "Has anyone seen my woolly gloves?".
Those who happened to tune into Channel 4’s two part Shackleton adventure and felt the chill wind of the Antarctic seep from their television set could not fail to have been awestruck by the pucker explorer’s spirit of adventure, true grit and sheer bloody-minded determination to succeed.
But who among us switched off, dreamed wistfully of freezing temperatures and icy waters and thought, ‘Cor, I wish I could do that?’
Sue certainly didn’t. Skiing across icebergs, dragging a sledge packed with life-saving supplies and wondering if she’d ever get home are pretty much old hat to her. Indeed, she has been known to pop up to the Arctic circle for a quick life-or-death expedition with less fuss than many of us make booking our summer holidays.
The former Firrhill High School pupil turned motivational speaker risked her life to become the first British woman to walk to the Magnetic North Pole at the age of 29. Then, barely before the ice on her boots had started to melt, she was off to Patagonia leading a Raleigh International expedition before jaunting off on a 350-mile trek across the Greenlandic Icecap.
Recently she was talking about her latest ambition: to be the first British woman to walk to the Geographic North Pole from the last point of land.
Given that Shackleton was filmed in the familiar territory of Greenland - even if history sets the drama firmly in the Antarctic - it’s no surprise that Sue tuned in with more than a passing interest.
So did it bring back happy memories of almost freezing to death while buckling under the weight of packets of dried soya mince and spare underpants?
"I felt it gave a good account of all the background things that have to be prepared before one ever steps foot on the ice: the fundraising, managing family fears, getting all the equipment and people sorted, and coping with sceptics," she declares.
"The media complained it took an hour to get to the ice, but in reality it can take a year to prepare for a month-long trip. Most people never hear about these things. Athletes take four years to prepare for ten seconds in the 100m at the Olympics - we all forget this!"
Sue doesn’t really need a C4 drama to remind her of her thrilling Greenland adventure of three years ago. When you’ve tasted death on the tail end of a 70mph wind, you don’t tend to forget it.
"We encountered a major storm," she recalls. "It really was the only time I felt in danger during the Greenland expedition.
"We were paranoid that the tents would blow away, and it was impossible to breathe if you went outside because the snow crystals were being blown up in the wind - there was literally no air.
"We all stayed in one tent for 36 hours, with little food or drink - it’s all rationed for the days you still have to ski - and just prayed that the wind would die and the tent would remain upright.
"It did and we were lucky to survive."
It was Sue’s own personal Shackleton moment. And there were others.
"I sometimes felt I could not go on during the first few days of the same expedition, when our sledges were heavy and we were having to climb uphill and also through a crevassed area. We were all roped together for safety, and therefore you cannot slow up or stop because we all have to ski at the same pace.
"It requires a lot of mental toughness to get through. I just said to myself: the others can’t be feeling this bad, therefore I must just grit my teeth and get on with it."
Shackleton would have been proud of her. She laughs: "I did question why I was doing this - and the answer was always the same.
"I’d remind myself that there were loads of people who would give their right arm to be in my position on an expedition. I’d been given the chance, so just get through this day/hour/minute and it must surely get better."
It was that same determination and never-say-die attitude that drove the former British Gas clerical assistant - special duties: photocopying and making the tea - to claw her way up the business ladder.
Today, as well as listing adventurer on her CV, she is one of the country’s leading motivational speakers and has just finished a self-help manual which draws on her own polar experiences to illustrate how to succeed.
The books she read as a girl were about Sir Edmund Hillary and Chay Blyth - not for Sue girly tales of soppy princesses in castles and boarding school midnight feast shenanigans. She dreamed of becoming an adventurer, even if all the explorers in the books were men.
But it was a woman who really inspired her. One of her Firrhill teachers, Margot Wells, wife of Olympic gold medal winner Alan, encouraged her and others to test themselves to the limit. Whether Margot really intended Sue to pack her ski boots and head for the Arctic isn’t clear, but that’s just what she did in April 1996.
Sue had already spent three months with Operation Raleigh in Kenya and a year in war-torn former Yugoslavia working with the United Nations when she spotted a plea for men to join the ten-strong expedition to walk 350 miles to the Magnetic North Pole - "Are you man enough?", it asked.
Outraged, Sue reckoned she was more than man enough, and applied for a place.
The former international cross-country runner took psychological tests, survived assault courses, walked 28 miles and convinced the organisers she could raise the necessary 15,000.
She trained by staying overnight in a supermarket freezer and then set off to spend every day for a month navigating ice-covered seas, pulling a tent, a stove, a sleeping bag and ghastly powdered food behind them.
She wore four layers of thermal and waterproof clothing. The threat of frostbite was so severe that she was warned to rest only for five minutes each hour.
But that was then. And today Sue is firmly in business mode. At 35, she has left behind the action girl image for the time being and traded it in for sophisticated boardroom guru.
Now her job is to ensure she passes on those team-building skills which helped her survive two gruelling expeditions to the likes of you and me - without us having to get our feet wet.
In a shrewd business move, she has merged her motivational training company, Mission Possible, with another called The Human Dimension and now tours the country from her Oxford base, inspiring workers to make their own dreams come true - even if it is just taking a break from photocopying and making the tea.
Soon she’ll be back in her native Edinburgh, dropping in on the family and running motivational courses with The Human Dimension.
She’ll be drumming home her inspirational message that we can all achieve what we want to. We just need a little of the Shackleton-cum-Sue Stockdale spirit to make our dreams come true.
Kick Start Your Motivation by Sue Stockdale is published by Wiley, price 9.99. A series of Human Dimension courses are planned for Edinburgh in early March. Human Dimension website: www.thehumandimension.co.uk.
It was the point which proved Sue Stockdale was human.
Halfway through a gruelling 350-mile trek across Greenland with two Norwegians and a German she had met only days before, Sue realised she really couldn’t go on.
"I was struggling with the weight of my sledge," she admits. "I was finding it hard to go on when one member of the team offered to take up some of the weight. It worked and we were able to progress much quicker."
It’s just one episode that Sue uses to illustrate her workplace motivation talks aimed at encouraging staff and bosses to see their weaknesses, deal with them and drive together as a team to become more effective.
Shackleton showed skills which are also crucial in the workplace, she says.
"Shackleton’s leadership qualities were also noticeable - he saw one crewman had read a letter from a family member on Christmas Day and was emotional. He took time to notice that and to help the guy through it. He was willing to get stuck in and just work with the team to get things done.
"He was authentic and that came through strongly."