It has taken me a good old while to get around to writing up this post, no doubt for a few reasons: post challenge blues, working like a crazy person and attempting to tackle my MSc dissertation (which I am now trying to avoid by writing this) you know all the things that real life brings. But it is finally time to give you an insight into my adventure of a lifetime to raise as much mula as I could for Orwell Mencap Genesis. Maybe go get yourself a cup of tea, or my personal preference would be some Ribena and fruit and nut, and read what is likely to be a rather indulgent post on my behalf, I have no doubt it may be a little waffly in places and I make no apologies for that.
and so it begins… sATURDAY 21ST FEBRUARY 2015
After a night spent at the hotel near heathrow, well I say night, I got there around 9pm on the friday, briefly met some of the great people I was about to spend a week in the wilderness with, and then proceeded to try to sleep, which wasn’t hugely successful as I was full of nervous excitement. My alarm went off at 3:15am and off to Heathrow we went, we were ridiculously early (there by 4.10am), and met the Charity Challenge rep close to 5am where we learnt a boy was joining our trip… a boy! Most of us had been in contact via a closed facebook group so that was a bit of exciting news to start the day.
Once we checked in we headed off to have a hearty breakfast during which I spoke with Luke Deal at BBC Radio Suffolk (if you weren’t up at 6:10am that day to catch it you can listen again here).
No sooner had I stopped talking to Luke then off we went to the gate… oooeee it really was about to happen! Next stop Stockholm.
After a brief stop in Stockholm, where I had a pretty delicious chocolate muffin, we boarded the plane to Kiruna. I was in an aisle seat, reading the airline magazine, looking at the map and wondering when it actually was that we crossed into the Arctic Circle. I was sat next to a couple who were about to do a skiing challenge, it felt as though I was on a plane with kindred spirits of all ages all about to embark on an adventure, luckily they didn’t get annoyed at me constantly gazing in their direction to the snowy landscape beyond the tiny airline window. I was hoping for some kind of announcement when we crossed into the Arctic but unfortunately that did not happen. I cannot deny my excitement at seeing the white landscape below, and then landing on a snowy runway! As soon as the plane had parked up and as we walked out, I had an instant sense of ahhhh… snow all around.. crisp frozen air.. and nervous excitement of what was to come, I was pretty much in my element.
Kiruna airport was teeny tiny, we were met by the wonderful Jordana, Kent and their little dog sledder in waiting Jack (9 months). We spent the afternoon exploring the centre of Kiruna and then had a briefing in the evening at the pub of the B&B we were staying in. The de-brief made me really quite nervous, the ‘Brain and Brake’ was mentioned by Kent numerous times, he had recently won a Scandinavian dog sledding championship (and after our challenge came 26th in the World Championships) so we were definitely in good hands. Little did we know at the time but Kent was definitely asking us specific questions to gauge our abilities, match our personalities with the dogs, and even figure out what sled we’d need and which order we should go out in (I was second to last, I don’t know if that was a good or bad thing).
Sunday 22nd february 2015: day 1 of challenge
After a breakfast of porridge and another briefing off we went to the kennels, here Jordana and Kent have 90 dogs and they look after them amazingly, and all of the dogs are incredibly well trained.
After acquainting ourselves with the dogs Kent talked us through the sled itself. He then matched us to specific sleds and dogs, mine were Buck, Balder, Tamok and Cooper, the last two being some of Kent’s racing dogs. Then it was time to collect the dogs, harness them up and get ready for the off. The dogs are sooo strong, you had to make sure the sled was well anchored prior to getting them. There was a specific technique to harnessing them up and which dogs to attach first, once they were attached to the sled they were so keen to go. Then my heart really got pumping, I was pretty nervous, was I going to be able to hold on, can I stay on the sled, will the dogs and I work well together? So many thoughts racing through my head.
It was then time to lift up the anchor, I raised my leg off the hard break and held on like hell, the dogs were certainly ready to go and I had to do a lot of counterbalance leaning and braking to make sure I stayed upright but I survived the first trip, and didn’t fall! My dad popped into my head on our first outing, all those years of off-roading done on quad bikes and in 4×4’s, (not your fancy Chelsea tractors, proper farmers ‘shed-on wheels’ 4x4s that were often caked in mud) skills taught to me at a very young age by my dad on the farm unexpectedly came in very handy for sledding. It was the kind of adventure I know dad would enjoy. At the end of this first run we suddenly went incredibly fast, that was apparently due to a drop in temperature, the dogs work best in around -15ish, we were then suddenly back at the kennels and it took all my might and body-weight to stop the sled with the hard brake.
After feeding the dogs and carefully removing my hat (as it was frozen to my hair, first lesson learnt, tuck your hair out of the elements) and overalls, we made our way to the traditional Sami Teepee at the kennels which was our home for the night. This teepee is made of wood, and was made with Kent’s fair hands, there were reindeer skins all over the floor and a big fire pit in the middle. We had dinner and then sat around the fire telling everyone what our reasons for doing the trip were. Even prior to hearing their stories I must say I was feeling a little emotional, not only because of all the anticipation leading up to the trip and my reasons for doing it, now we were here and I was sat on a reindeer skin.. around a campfire.. in the teepee… in the Arctic Circle… pretty overwhelming.
People were doing this challenge for very personal reasons, some had lost people close to them, had family that had been in life changing accidents, or were on their own personal journey and many were raising funds for a variety of fantastic causes. Then it was my turn to say why I was here… I have told many people about my reasons for doing this trip, and have been far more open than I ever have been before about something so personal, but when it came to me all of a sudden I went all high pitched and squeaky and started to cry when I spoke about Abby, Mandy and Natalia. I felt particularly silly, as I often do if I get upset, but was determined to keep talking with my helium like voice even if only the dogs could understand me. Everyone was super lovely and although I felt silly for crying, it was not silly at all. That openness around the camp-fire was a really important part of the trip, for the duration of the trip we were all part of each other’s challenges and worked as a great team the whole way through.
We chatted for a good while and then popped out around 10:45pm to look at the sky and see if there were any northern lights, the sky was super clear with an abundant amount of stars, there was a strange white cloud, which at one point went into a V and I saw a shooting star. I think that night we saw a white version of the Aurora, clouds definitely don’t behave like that.
We all settled down to sleep on the reindeer skins, or at least try to. I put the last log on the fire and got myself into my fleece liner, sleeping bag (supposedly ok down to -31), and zipped up another sleeping bag on top of that (provided by Kent & Jordana, so a really really good Arctic one), pulled my neck gaiter up over my nose and hat down over my eyes (I also slept in my 100% wool socks, long johns and thermal top). I put the Go-Pro camera and two spare batteries in the bag with me as from my investigating pre-trip I was told keeping them near your body heat helped to prolong the charge (although not hugely comfy). With my head on my backpack and coat it was time to try to sleep. Now I say try to sleep because I think I probably only got around 3 hours sleep. This was for a few reasons, firstly I was paranoid every time the fire made a noise as I was the last person to put a log on it (log was placed nearest me) I kept thinking the noise meant it fell on my sleeping bag, and I had to keep checking that I wasn’t on fire. Secondly when the fire started to go out there was so much smoke I found it hard to breathe. Thirdly, the bobble on my hat meant the two sleeping bags kept falling off my head and I felt pretty claustrophobic with all the 3 things I had wrapped around me. And fourthly, we had a choir of snorers, and if anyone then stopped snoring I worried if they were, in fact, OK. I never over-heated, and the only thing that felt cold was occasionally my nose if it’d managed to escape or due to condensation building up inside my scarf. That night was definitely one of my biggest challenges.
Jordana in the morning informed us that it reached -25 during the night, we survived it and that was a great feeling.
Monday 23rd fEBRUARY: DAY 2 OF CHALLENGE & ABBy’s 42nd Birthday
Today we set off from the kennels in -17 and bright sunshine, off we went into the Arctic wilderness to head to the basic hut which would be our home for the next few days. I had the ski-sunday track in my head everyday, sorry Ben for also putting it in your head everyday and for those of you reading this now who may find it difficult to get rid of this sneaky, and particularly catchy, earworm. We went through a frozen forest and wide expanses, over rivers and across lakes until we got to our final destination.
The first job at camp was to sort out the dogs, unharness and put in their kennels, and feed them their snacks. I made a bit of a mistake when feeding my first and biggest dog, Balder, I didn’t realise how much slack he had on his lead and I went to feed him the raw meat as if I was feeding a snack to one of my parents dogs. Suddenly I felt Balder’s teeth on my right thumb, these were pretty damn sharp teeth! I quickly whipped off my gloves fully expecting to have a bleeding thumb and luckily it was all fine, I stuck my thumb into the cold snow to stop the throbbing. These dogs are taught to take food quickly especially when in a pack of 90, and I had definitely learnt a quick lesson.
After feeding the dogs their snacks we went onto the lake where Kent showed us how to drill down for water. We then found out the lake we were standing on was one metre thick and we collected water to be boiled to make the dogs food.
I hadn’t made a big thing of it being Abby’s birthday to the others but I definitely thought about her through most of the day, and had the odd thing reminding me of her (cauliflour being one). In the evening I settled down to write my journal, every year on Abby’s birthday I write a birthday card for her and put it in her room, this time I wrote to her in my journal whilst sat by the fire, reflecting on the journey I had taken in her memory. I had these pictures of Abby, Mandy and Natalia with me throughout the trip, in my coat pocket so they were with me always.
Tuesday 24th february: day 3 of challenge
It had snowed a fair bit overnight and was still snowing when we got up, the temperature was around -2 much, much warmer than we had anticipated (or prepared for). This warmer temperature meant it was much harder for the dogs, and fresh snow meant it would be trickier to find the tracks we needed to use. We sorted the dogs with food and then ourselves, then sorted our sleds and harnessed and attached the dogs. Today I was pretty much certain that as soon as I pulled up the anchor on the sled I would fall off as I had to negotiate a slope with a sideways lilt in order to get out of the camp, so my heart was-a-racing, but somehow I managed to lean the correct way and use enough of my brain and the brake to make it out of camp.
Today was slow going, and as I had a strong team I felt bad using the brake in such soft conditions but needed to in order to keep my distance. We had only been sledding around 20 minutes when I felt myself overheating (so much so if I kept going I could’ve fainted… not good), never did I think I would over-heat in the Arctic but I remember some advice I had read from polar explorer Eric Larsen about hypothermia and layering. Even in cold climates you can overheat and then the best thing to do is to remove a layer as otherwise the sweat can then freeze and cause all kinds of badness, that’s why layering correctly and removing a layer if needed is so important. So I signalled to Ben, he also had the same problem and we managed to stop the convoy in front whilst we delayered, very good use of the brain in this instance.
After a while we came across a really tricky spot of soft snow which caught many of the group out, here we had our first lot of falls. Some couldn’t keep hold of the sled when they fell, and yep the dogs just keep running, luckily Kirsty managed to stop one runaway sled. If you have watched Arctic4Abby the Movie you will have seen these spectacular falls, none more so than Lee’s ‘dolphin’, it really was incredible that Lee didn’t let go of the sled for around 10 metres! That not only takes skill but a great deal of guts. Us at the back had the fortune to learn from those in front and made our way through OK.
After around 3 hrs of sledding we stopped and fed the dogs and then ourselves. After which we did one of my favourite sections, a really challenging bit of what I liked to call ‘off-roading’. This involved going through the forest around sharp corners, up steep hills where you needed to lift up the soft brake to be able help the dogs with the sled by running with it. Followed by getting to the top to see that it was then straight down requiring an immediate flick down of the soft brake (maybe even hard brake) to get your foot/feet on it and control the downward speed to ensure the sled didn’t run into the back of the dogs. Definitely time for the brain and the brake and the fitness that we’d trained for. I really enjoyed the challenge of that section.
Once back at camp as usual we sorted the dogs out before ourselves, and had a great night chatting over dinner in the cabin. Around 10:45pm we decided to go out on the lake to see the stars, not expecting at all to see the Aurora as it had been a cloudy day with much snow, but to our surprise we got an incredible light show. From the right side of the sky to the left side, above and all around us were waves of green light forming all different shapes. At one point 3 vertical lines appeared, Carly said the words 3 angels and for me that meant Abby, Mandy and Natalia. It was an incredible sight to see. Thanks Jordana for the photos.
I now think of this moment often to help me get to sleep, it works pretty well.
Wednesday 25th February: dAY 4 OF CHALLENGE
Today I got up pretty early and awoke to a beautiful morning, I had only just missed the sunrise.
I haven’t mentioned so far that I managed to put contact lenses in my eyes every single day of the trip so far this was an absolutely huge achievement for me (take a look at Training My Eyes for more info why), and it was the most days I’d ever worn them for. By now though I was getting a little concerned about how clean my hands actually were in order to touch my eyes (we’d been using wipes or alcohol gel or just the snow to clean our hands) but I cleaned them as best I could and it never caused a problem. None of us had had any type of wash since we left the B&B, that’s also another reason to take wool base layers they don’t smell like the polyester or man-made fibres and was one of Jordana’s many top-tips. But enough about the lack of washing, which when in the wilderness is a 100% over-rated and rarely needed, that was pretty liberating.
After the usual routine of sorting the dogs out and then ourselves, we embarked on our longest and most eventful day of sledding yet, going along the river. We had a fair bit of soft snow to contend with again as the temperature was around -2. At one point I needed to stop because one of my dogs had come off the main line so I needed to re-attach him, but that problem was easily solved. It was a really beautiful route, we did have a stark reminder of what was beneath as there was an exposed section with flowing river water, which was little scary to say the least but Kent always took us along the safest path.
After that was another great bit of off-roading, this time we also had to duck under trees in addition to negotiating hills and sharp corners, once again brain, brake and fitness played a part. I didn’t have the camera on the clamp to take photos or videos the first time we did it, and I definitely needed both my hands on the sled, but captured it on the GoPro on the return journey back.
We crossed back over the river, and made our way to the spot for lunch. Then, for the very first time, us at the back saw some wildlife. Usually by the time the message had been relayed to us that there were some animals in the area they had disappeared by the time we got there. However this time in plain view we saw 4 reindeers galloping across the frozen river.
Next.. my first fall. This happened going uphill in a tight circular loop. Many people had difficulties (it wasn’t just me!), when it was my turn I gave it a good run up and I so very very nearly made it around the bend but at the last minute I fell sideways. I managed to keep hold of the sled but couldn’t get out of the snow to reach up for the anchor, somehow I lifted the sled upright but the snow was too deep to stand. The sled kept moving dragging me along, these dogs really are that strong, somehow I managed to lunge with my right knee and kneel on the hard (metal) brake and eventually stopped the sled enough to stand up and put in the anchor. I’d survived my first fall! It’d certainly got my heart pumping but it felt like such an achievement when you managed to get yourself out of it, with dogs, sled and you all fine.
We stopped for lunch, and fed our dogs the snacks, it really was a beautiful spot. I went to put the leftovers on Kent’s sled and had a classic Bridget moment when I’d stepped with one leg off the hard snow into the deep stuff, I was in above my knees and landed face first.. in front of everyone giving them a good reason to chuckle. After lunch we had to complete the downward section of the steep circular loop, again this was super tricky. The instructions were don’t put the brake on, use the speed to help get the sled around and lean into the corner to stop it tipping. Once again the adrenaline was pumping and I was nervous. Many of the group before me had come off. Then my turn, I whole-heartedly listened to Kent’s advice… I went for it, downhill, no brake, lean, lean, lean… wait … oh no… my lean wasn’t enough, I landed on my side in the deep snow.
I managed to get the anchor in whilst holding onto the sled, but the snow was too soft for it to take, so I had to lift it up and move it. With the anchor then firmly stuck in harder snow I lifted up the sled… then I realise the anchor is too far away. When you pull the anchor out you have to not only hold onto the sled but also have to have one foot on the hard brake to stop the dogs from running, they ALWAYS want to run and can feel when the sled is ready to go. So I’d managed to put the anchor too far away from me to be able to do this skilful manoeuvre, and doing the splits isn’t a skill of mine. Somehow I managed to pull the anchor closer and then pull it out, all without the dogs escaping. Again the sense of accomplishment was huge, so falling wasn’t so bad after all. Those were my only falls of the trip, and I managed to make it to day 4 before I fell, not bad! Oh and its all captured on film you can see it here.
We had a great ride back along the river, more off-roading through the forest. We ended up sledding through dusk to dark. Ben called out to me that there was a moose… it was around 400 metres ish away and it was flippin’ huge… HUGE!! I couldn’t take my eyes off it, it was getting dark and it felt pretty eerie but at the same time it was an incredible sight of a magnificent creature. We were told never to get in the way of a moose, as they would always win, so we all concentrated pretty hard. Towards the end of today’s journey the four of us at the back were way behind and became detached from the group, it was dark, we couldn’t see the track, and I’d left my head torch somewhere inaccessible. We had no idea where the track was and couldn’t see the rest of the group, so we just had to trust in the dogs, and trust we did and we made it back absolutely fine.
After such an eventful and long day, whiskey was drunk and stories were shared. I must say Jan is an ultimate adventurer, adventure is definitely not restricted by age, and I look forward to reading her biography one day I have no doubt it will be an interesting and colourful read.
thursday 26th february 2015 – day 5 of challenge
The last day of the challenge, dogs were fed, poo cleared up (I forgot to say this was also part of the routine, keeping the camp and our boots dog poo free). After giving the dogs their breakfast, Ben and I decided to have a go at sledging without the help of dogs by using a children’s slightly broken sledge (I’d say it was probably recommended for children aged 8 and younger), so it was tiny. The wilderness hut was up a steep hill from the dogs, so Ben took the sledge up to the top of the hill and down he went. After Ben successfully sledged down the hill and managed to avoid crashing into the rather precarious tree en route to the lake it was my turn. Off I went at full pelt (absolutely no brake used, I didn’t realise Ben had used his feet to brake), I avoided the tree, phew, then careered over two bumps, caught some air and landed in a heap on the lake separated from the sledge with a subsequent round of applause from Kent and his neighbour. Nothing like a bit of adventure filled child’s play to start the day! Jan also had a go at this which I believe is also caught on camera somewhere.
So onto our last day in the wilderness! Boo. We packed up our stuff, loaded it into the sleds, and harnessed and attached the dogs for the last time. I wasn’t quite ready for the off when the rest of the group quickly filtered out of camp as I was trying to get frozen ice off the runners of the sled, but when the dogs want to go and everyone else is off you have to be ready to go, so with ice still beneath my feet up came the anchor and off we went.
We weren’t on the lake long before we came to a stop… it was poo time (the dogs not me). Now throughout the trip the dogs poo on the run, literally. On the first day I didn’t realise what the frozen ‘mud’ was making it difficult to unattach their lead from the sled, but from the second day it clicked, yep it was poo. Occassionally you may slow down when they were in process of doing their business especially when they give you a look. There was often a big speight of it when we first set off for the day and today it was unlike no other. Ben and I being at the back bore the brunt of it as we go over and through the rest of the group’s. When you use your break snow builds up around your feet especially if it is soft and at some point there is so much you have to kick it out of the way. Today not just snow but poo was literally piling at my feet, I had a mountain of poo-ey snow at my feet and was slightly concerned it may creep up my salopettes and boy did it smell! My experience with dog poo when doing farm fitness seems to also have been good preparation for the trip.
After poo-gate ski sunday was firmly back in my head, off we went over lakes and did more off-roading which was a greater challenge today with down-hills much faster due to our sleds being weighed down with our bags, definitely needing your wits about you. That was a real adrenaline rush.
Suddenly out of nowhere we were back at the kennels, after unharnessing, feeding the dogs and taking them back to the kennels our mushing adventure was over. That felt incredibly strange.
We sat around the camp fire and had a late lunch cooking sausages on giant sticks in the fire, so simple yet so very delicious. I handed out the Arctic biscuits I’d brought with me (a version of a penguin bar or timtam), then it was time to pack up and head to Kiruna. The van broke down and we thought yay we have to stay, we got out and pushed it back to its parking spot, and unfortunately for us they had another van.. dammit we had to go.
Back at the B&B I had my first shower since I’d embarked on the adventure, I very much enjoyed it, in addition to having running water and a flushing toilet. I must’ve spent ages in the shower trying to get the bonfire smell out of my hair, but that shower felt great. Although I must say it was very easy to spend 5/6 days without washing, all I smelled of was bonfire, wool is definitely the fabric to wear in the arctic wilderness. It was the first time I’d noticed any bruises I’d got during the challenge, there was definite evidence of use of my knee on the hard brake. All clean, changed we barely recognised each other at dinner. Kent and Jordana said a few words about our challenge and presented us with a certificate and a medal! I never knew we were going to get a medal, the only other medal I had ever got was for coming second in a tennis tournament, only two of us entered… so this medal I felt I well and truly deserved.
We chatted, laughed and had a cheeky little tipple to celebrate our achievements. Stories of Kent and Jordana’s end of season special tundra trips for themselves totally made me want to do more sledding. Sweden is so easy to get to also so it’s nice to know that the Arctic wilderness that I definitely fell in love with is only around 3 hrs away.
Friday 27th February – ice bar & home we go
I had crazy dreams during the night, I kept dreaming I was on the sled and needing to brake, the red light on the TV in our room made me think that the GoPro was recording on my sled, it was definitely going to take me a while to get used to reality!
Today we were going home… boo. We did a little more sight-seeing and went to see the famous Ice Hotel. Jordana used to work there so she showed us around. We took a look around many of the beautiful rooms and then had a celebratory drink in the Ice Bar.
Then the time had finally come to say goodbye to Jordana, Kent and Jack off we went to Kiruna airport, two planes later and we were back in London, with reality fastly approaching. I’d spent the last year preparing and looking forward to the challenge, so reality was a tough prospect.
I got back to Heathrow late on Friday, then on my train journey back I had a lovely random chat with a slightly tipsy gentleman, seeing my big backpack and no-doubt smelling the hint of bonfire, he said it didn’t look like I’d come back from the usual commute and I couldn’t resist but tell him where I’d been and what I’d done.
Saturday 28th fEBRUARY – BACK IN BLIGHTY
Before even speaking properly with my family I was up early and spoke to Luke Deal on BBC Radio Suffolk. I loved the fact they played ‘Cold as Ice‘ just before my interview.
So that’s it 200km of mushing completed, this challenge has added more fuel to my Arctic/Antarctic fire, I definitely have one of the poles, and specifically Antarctica, still firmly on my list. Although that will need a lottery win, I really must start to remember to play.
This an adventure I will never forget, not only the wilderness, dogs, challenge itself, not washing and rarely changing my clothes, but also the wonderful people I met all on a similar physical and emotional journey. I cannot thank Jordana and Kent, at Husky Tours Lapland enough for trusting us with their dogs and letting us into their world for one week and Charity Challenge for organising the trip. I’d definitely recommend it. If you want to see what the challenge was like take a look at Arctic 4 Abby the movie.
I simply cannot believe the generosity of all those who have donated. The total currently stands at £7,323.68 way beyond my target of £2,500, just wow… WOW! There are only a few more days to go until my fundraising page closes (27th May 2015) but I am not sure we will get much more, so thank you all for your donations you have been the absolute best part about Arctic 4 Abby. I know Orwell Mencap are also bowled over by the amount that has been raised, I am visiting them next week where I will meet those who attend the centre to see how they would like to spend the money, I will let you know what they decide to do.
A huge thank you also to QMKit for providing me with some equipment, Jack Lynch for getting me Arctic fit, The Gibson and Bruce families for all your support, fundraising and for also letting me do this challenge in Mandy and Natalia’s memories.
And last but no means least my amazing family – the Ramsey Mafia, thank you for all of your support, encouragement, putting up with my crazy ideas, all of the incredible fundraising you have done, and for letting me do this in Abby’s memory I love you millions xxx
Life sometimes throws unimaginable curve-balls in our path, I would give absolutely anything to have my sister still with me, unfortunately I cannot change the past, but what I can do is life my life to the fullest, and if you have any dreams or ambitions my advice to you would be go for it, don’t wait, always dream big.
All photos, videos and content © Danielle Ramsey and Arctic 4 Abby, 2015, except where stated.