You think your mum is invincible

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The Independent Culture
Sue Riches, 52, teaches English to foreign students and lives near Wolverhampton. She has three children including her daughter Victoria, 28, who is a primary school teacher living in Oxford. They joined the first ever women's polar expedition walking to the North Pole last March. They talk about the dicey moment when Sue fell into the freezing waters of the Arctic, swiftly followed by Victoria, and how they both managed to survive...


It was Victoria's idea - I'd never dream of going to the North Pole but at that point I was ripe for adventure. I'd just had breast cancer and a mastectomy. The breast cancer was a catalyst; something like that makes you get on with things and think, "Never say no". We went last March and flew out for a fortnight of training in Northern Canada.

Victoria and I have always been very close, although it was the first time I saw her not necessarily as my child but as a team member. I hadn't lived with Victoria in such close proximity for years. I could suddenly see her as this real person - not as an appendage of myself.

I think the drama of falling into the Arctic did bring us a lot closer. It happened quite suddenly. We were walking along and then the ice collapsed beneath me. I fell in up to my neck. The chunks of ice were held together by two giant ice islands which split. Then Victoria fell in trying to save me, probably thinking: "Oh my father will kill me if anything happens to mum."

So there we were, both sitting in the middle of the Arctic ocean on two lumps of ice, with more and more water rushing in around us. Eventually - we were incredibly lucky - I held out my ski to Victoria who pulled me over to her ice island and a guide threw a rope to us.

That was the most frightening day of my life. The sea is about 2.5 miles deep and you're 14 hours from help. But in the Arctic, you can't escape. You just have to keep going.

We talked about it afterwards and we both knew that the two of us had been in a potentially dangerous situation. I think it was the shock of being there with Victoria trying to save me and not the other way round - it was the whole process of role reversal. I was meant to be the strongest but she was in control.

I've always been in control of my life but I was sitting on my lump of ice and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I found that very upsetting. The only other time I haven't felt in control was when I had breast cancer and Victoria was a great help with that. As another woman, she was a great rock and knew what would comfort me.

We know how each other's mind works, which helped on the expedition. Initially, one of the guides said that she never liked family members in the same team because they're too worried about each other. But she took that back when she saw how we could be aware of others. I think she meant husband and wife, because mother and daughter is a different sort of relationship. A daughter wants to be independent and the mother encourages her child to get on with it, which is why we worked well.

Looking back, I almost feel guilty that I wasn't more protective of her. People would say afterwards: "Weren't you terribly worried about Victoria?" No, I wasn't. She was far more worried about me.

At points, she drove me mad because she's terribly tidy and neat, and I'm not. I kept losing my tea bags and she'd get very cross with me. But the most touching thing was overhearing her say to someone on the expedition: "Mum isn't my mother, she's my best friend."

Victoria is a very strong person. I know she wants to go off to the Pole next year and I'm not worried. I've seen her on her worst days and how she's got herself through them. I can picture her every step of the way and I know she can do it.


I'd never dreamt of going to the North Pole - I was working in recruitment at the time. But then I saw this advert in a newspaper and thought: "This is it." I thought it could give me a chance to reassess both my love life and work.

I phoned up mum for a gossip and she claims I invited her. I claim she invited herself. We had to go through two selection weekends and then two weeks' training. At the beginning, dad wasn't for it, especially because she'd just survived cancer. But he was terribly proud of us.

What happened on the expedition made me realise how much my mother meant to me. One minute we were walking in front of the rest of the party and suddenly the ice gave way under mum. I very carefully trod on what I thought was a good bit of ice and that gave way as well. We had ice breaking away and the stretch of water around us getting wider and wider. You're taught to climb on to an ice floe and float to a bank. Eventually mum and I were on separate floes but by this stage she was in a dreadful state. All she was saying was, "Shit, shit, shit", which isn't like mum at all - she never swears.

There was this funny look in her eyes like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I knew that I had to take control. They say you can only survive a matter of minutes in the Arctic - we must have been in there about ten. Finally, I got mum on to my ice island and then someone got a sledge for us to climb from the floe to the bank.

Mum was terrified she had frostbite in her foot - she didn't in the end. Then, because the ice had split, we were separated from the rest of the party. That's when what seemed like a miracle occurred; the ice suddenly joined together and we were able to walk across. And more incredible, as soon as we were on the other side, the ice separated again.

After that, we were far more protective of each other. I was actually worse two or three days later. I went into shock - every bit of ice we climbed over I'd burst into tears. I was more pathetic about the whole thing - perhaps mum had faced up to dying more after her breast cancer experience.

We were good at comforting each other, though, and it definitely brought us closer together. I realised how much I really rely on her - she is my best friend. I've got millions of friends but mum is the one I call every night. Looking back, the biggest shock was thinking: "Mum's not supposed to be like that. Mum's always in control." Even if she's driving in the rain, I feel more concerned about her now - it's after seeing her minutes from dying and thinking, "I don't want to lose you". I'd feel absolutely empty without her. That's fine at 70 or 80 years of age, but not now.

I do still have nightmares of that day, of the ice closing over mum. You think your mum and dad are invincible. Mum always gets on with things but that time she didn't - she had the wobbles . I'd never seen her like that before.

Sue and Victoria have written about their experience, `Frigid Women', published by Travellerseye at pounds 7.99

Interviews by Emma Cook