Hayfield Collection sales director Karen Fleming was among 17 women who undertook an epic five-day Arctic trek to fundraise for DEBRA Ireland, she tells Helen O’Callaghan.
I was recruited by DEBRA Ireland to join the group — amazing good fortune as I’d most likely not have been brave enough to sign up of my own accord.
When first approached, I didn’t know would I be able to take it on physically — I don’t like to train. My partner Anthony was saying: “you have to say yes to this — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.
We were supposed to do a lot of physical training. I didn’t do huge amounts, except for three days hiking organised by DEBRA Ireland to test our stamina and fitness — long, tough days but immensely enjoyable and a chance to get to know the group. I joined Educogym — I did their 12-day programme.
Going to the gym’s a real struggle for me but they made it easy.
The morning we flew out, my first thought on waking was do I have everything I need? There was anextensive gear list we’d had to get to deal with minus temperatures. I took this seriously — I feel the cold, I’ve very bad circulation in my fingers and toes so I’m an avid fan of being seriously toasty at all times!
I stocked up on merino wool thermals (260 all the way) and loads more layers. I’d got very useful gifts — monogrammed hip flask, ear muffs, hand-knit woollies. One lovely lady lent me ski balaclavas and outdoor gear.
Anything you haven’t done before, it’s very hard to visualise what it’ll be like. We took an internal flight from Helsinki to Kittila — our base was a rustic woodcutter’s lodge 150km north of the Arctic Circle.
The first night, temperatures were minus 22 — it could have been worse! What struck me was just how peaceful it was. I used to live in a Bavarian ski town — anywhere around snow is peaceful, but this was extreme, so quiet and the air so fresh.
It was very dark inside the cabin — there was no electricity or running water — but it was cosy once we’d get the little stoves lighting. We had candles and head-torches, necessary even if going inside during daytime to get your stuff.
It took a while to get used to, as did putting on layers (you were a bit of a yeti walking around!) before going to outdoor compostable toilets.
The top three questions I’m asked are how cold it was, how hard it was, and did I see any polar bears. It wasn’t far north enough for polar bears, but we heard there was a brown bear hibernating with her cub in the mountains behind us.
Human beings are very curious – you wanted to see her but you didn’t! One day, out trekking, we saw a reindeer pulling sleighs. There were loads of birds and you could see animal tracks in the snow.
One of our guides was very good at identifying the tracks – hares’, foxes’.
We were put in teams and given duties — water, firewood, kitchen, shelter.
First I was on the water team, going to the frozen river just behind the lodge and dunking the bucket in. There was a pick to open the water hole if it froze overnight. We ferried water to the sauna cabin next door to fill three tanks, a big one connected to the stove and two barrels of cold water.
On shelter duty, you had to replenish sawdust troughs for the toilet (and ensure there was enough biodegradable toilet paper) and brush the cabin steps so they wouldn’t ice over.
The heat of the sauna cabin with its concrete floors and wooden lathes was luxury at the end of each day.
The sauna helped you stay clean and sweat everything out. You’d fill a bucket half-and-half with cold and hot water and you helped each other — if you were washing your hair, the other girls would throw the water over you. For many women, the biggest thing was going outside in the middle of the night to the toilet.
They’d wait to hear someone else stirring and go in pairs.
One of the guides cooked for us. We had porridge every morning. Out trekking one day, we had reindeer soup — it tasted like chowder. We’d been told to bring loads of sweets and treats to keep us going, so there were tons of goodies – we definitely over-prepared for that!
We spent four days learning snowshoeing (like attaching tennis rackets to your feet) and cross-country skiing. You’re moving muscles you wouldn’t normally so you’re pretty wrecked. Each day was about four hours trekking, preparing for the long trek on the fifth day.
The snow’s very fluffy (difficult to build a snowman as it doesn’t clump together). You have to be careful you don’t go flying down through it.
The main trek was six hours on snowshoes and cross-country skis.
The first incline was really tough, dragging the sled with all our camping gear, tents and equipment.
We were in teams of two to share pulling it. My team-mate Emma (a fellow Corkonian from VoxPro Ireland) got the toughest stretch: a serious incline pulling 30kg along behind on heavy snow and in awkward snowshoes. It was a very long, full-on physical day — I definitely wished I’d spent more time at Educogym!
Everything was very quiet — the area was more remote than other days.
In the unspoilt snow in the woods you could see birds’ tracks. I thought of poet Robert Frost’s line: “the woods are lovely, dark and deep/but I have promises to keep/and miles to go before I sleep”. In some parts we cross-country skied over frozen lakes.
Just before the trek, we’d watched a video made by EB sufferer Emma Fogarty. It was a real reminder of why we were there.
The trek took six hours, the time it takes some EB sufferers to change their bandages every three days. The trek was a struggle, but in comparison with EB it was going to pass, it was temporary; you were going to manage.
That night we camped out in tents. It was a “leave no trace” area. You couldn’t leave anything: no human waste, no toilet paper. ‘How’s that going to work?’ we wondered.
Thankfully, where we set up camp, there were compostable toilets — who knew that could be such a treat? Sighs of relief all round! It was three to a tent and adventure.ie had given us sleeping bags for up to minus 27 temperatures. Waking up next morning, a light dusting of snow covered our tents — that was really cool.
They’d warned us we’d be off the grid, so I deleted my email app on the flight over. I’ve never done that, even on personal holidays. It was scary as I like to be contactable. Evenings we were in bed early. I brought my kindle and finished Rob Delaney’s autobiography.
There was great bonding. The chats in the sauna were very entertaining; you hear the most random stories when you’re getting to know people. Sometimes we’d run out and make snow angels in the freezing snow, then run back in again — such fun!
The first thing I did on getting home was have a hot, hot shower — buckets of water and some shower gel isn’t quite the same thing.
I’m grateful for the friends for life I made on the journey and for the very generous people in my life who donated to the fundraising.
I feel enhanced appreciation for being free to move, go, travel, work, contribute, make new friends and largely do anything I’d like.
Karen Fleming raised €13,500 for DEBRA Ireland. Visit debraireland.org.