Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Last Post

Well, for the time being anyway.

We have finished fundraising for this event with a total of £9,392 raised - THANK YOU ALL.

And there is a short clip reel here: You Tube

Till next time...

verycoldclaire x

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The A Team

One of the unexpected joys of the trip has been the pleasure of being with a great team of humans, as well as the stars with four legs. It's been a privilege to have had such an amazing team of friends to travel the arctic wastes with. They were all on the wish list for different reasons, but what was so reassuring was how well everyone got on with each other and how quickly we all fell in to living in challenging spaces and environments together so easily.  


My tent mate and trusted friend, we've done two trips together now and it doesn't end here.... we are already plotting, watch this space. Laura's boundless enthusiasm and calm in the face of snow, wind, extreme sledding keeps me sane and she's always 'up for it' even when 'it' involves a bikini in a blizzard. We just slotted in together, even down to the design of our luxury girly latrine. She's practical, caring and can colour co-ordinate thermal underwear in a tent 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, how does she do it? Our very own Brown Owl, the girls has class.


Seasoned traveller and expert in all things airport, we worked out that Steve has a micro chip embedded in his passport, which allows the queue masters to recognise that he means business and the waves part as if he's Moses. You might think that this would put him above mucking in and getting down and dirty but nothing could be further from the truth. Steve's the first to offer his services for the tricky jobs, digging dogs out of the snow, finding vodka on the snow, keeping the sauna stoked and bringing up the rear of the line with the constant call of "Come on BABE!" and the team wouldn't be the same without him, I'm so glad he came.


Mark's a star, pure and simple. We knew his training in the RAF would come in handy but it didn't just give him the skills to build a habitable ice hole for two, it clearly gave him the ability to take the Micky out of us all just enough to keep us amused but not annoyed, a fine line.

Mark is a Doer with a capital D, trips like this need doers. Not many people would have thought of bringing a blow up beach ball to the Arctic - Mark did, few would have dressed as a life guard on a frozen lake - Mark did, only a fitness fanatic would have offered to carry all the water back from the lake so that he could "get a work out" after 60km on the back of a sled - Mark did. How many would have admitted to being chuffed that his girlfriend had sent a letter with him, which exploded with glitter hearts all over the tent? Mark did, and we love him for it.
Andy did say I should use this photo - mmmm.... pancakes! If positive energy could give you wings, Andy'd have flown all the way home. He's got such a great attitude to life and I know a bit of it rubbed off on all of us over the 9 days. The grin on his face after the first training session on the sled had to be seen to be believed, I though he might pass out. We discovered his talent with the guitar too, such an unexpected bonus. I knew he played but had no idea he had such a great ear and could just listen to something and play it, we were all silenced by his music and I thought that Britt Marie might try to steal him when she heard him sing. I also have him to thank for getting me out of some pretty tricky situations in deep snow, I might have just melted if it hadn't been for him (but I could have done without his rendition of Chumbawamba's  "I get knocked down, but I get up again").

In Andy's words: "Man he so cool, without even trying to be". I've known Rob for nearly 30 years, so I knew he could do this without having a hissy fit and I guess I expected him to be able to handle a sled, care for his dogs and produce pretty good food - but not to restaurant standard in a log cabin, using a wood burner. Cool? Yes, but human; he loved his dogs, missed his family and snored enough to keep all the bears in in Northern Scandinavia away from camp.
Although Gaynor will tell you that she's forgotten how to be a girl and is now a "farmer's wife, with dog meat on her trousers" we all beg to differ. Gaynor could look beautiful in a bin bag, which is pretty much what our outer layers look like, but hers is trimmed with Artcic fox... We're all here because of Gaynor, it's her generosity that allowed me to put a team together to do this trip, which she never taken anyone on before. She's the boss, and now even the dogs know that. It's been so great to spend time with her and Milos together too, if I had a fiver for the number of times I've heard "My Man's a real man Claire" I'd probably have reached our fundraising target!

A real man
A real man opens tins with a knife, a real man can start a fire in a blizzard, he walks to the sauna in nothing but boots and chops dog meat with an axe. A real man leads a team of rookies across uncharted territory, up vertical drifts and over roads, lakes, mountains and rivers. A real man tells stories in a language not his own that have us all doubled up, he charms Sami women, hardened to the world and turns them into giggling girls. He says the right thing at just the right time. A real man knows where to find clear water (almost all of the time) and can drill through ice a meter thick. A real man wins 900km sled races and gets the award for being the man who cares most for his dogs. He loves his dogs, he loves his girl.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Final Day

I wimped out. I couldn't face the tent after realising that Milos was preparing to bring the short haired dogs into the cabin and that there was still the relative comfort of Scuzzy Sofa free so I left Mark and Rob to brave the elements and just managed to get on to the sofa before 4 very cold and very grateful dogs ran inside. They snuggled up with whoever would have them and eventually Laura, Andy and Steve climbed into their cosy roof space, Milos had the sofa to himself whilst Gaynor encouraged the dogs to lie on a mat on the floor by lying with them and Cute and I fought for space on Scuzzy Sofa. She soon worked out that if she made herself long and thin she could lie in the space behind me and not be seen and we stayed like this till there was movement from Balto.

We all got some sleep, however disrupted for our various reasons and began the day with the laborious task of packing up after a relatively laid back day, when pretty much everything had been unpacked (including the beach ball). There was little food and drink left once we'd eaten breakfast so we all had light sleds, but the dogs were not as eager as they had been so the first few miles were good sledding across icy wastes. No features at all for some way and slowly the wind got up and the snow blew in horizontally from nowhere and gave us a disorientating white out. Again the team separated and Milos kept us all in sight by stopping regularly but it was a good final run nonetheless.

 The terrain turned to tundra as we dropped down from the high ground and soon we were back in the kind of land that we had camped in on the first night, surrounded by tiny, stunted birch trees. I've been reading all about these trees in my wonderful book 'Cold' and in some sub zero regions other trees can survive but in miniature, bonsai willows grow a few inches high, but in perfect proportion.

Finally we came out by a road, where we we met by Jan, not a very salubrious end to the trip, it rather hit us like a train, but we made it and we are all in one piece. The journey in the van back to Per Nils house was silent, and I was very grateful to Mark for lending me his iPod, filled with 80's music to keep me from slipping into the abyss, although I have to admit to letting a few tears run down my face staring out into the snow, listening to Depeche Mode.

Thursday, 28 April 2011


I did finally get up, having the dogs on my mind. I know that they are working dogs and their coats are used to being snowed upon but they make a pitiful sight, especially those who had clearly been ousted from their snow holes by their teammate. One of the first jobs was to dig them out again and Steve made a head start. As I joined him I realised it was quite a job; first you have the heartbreaking task of getting the dogs out from under their layer of snow so that you can remove the straw and dig a deeper hole, whilst making a higher wall around the side. The wind was coming in from the lake and the snow was falling into the hole because the walls were not high enough. Digging into the snow was easy but making cube shaped bricks and lifting them out to build up the wall proved harder. Within an hour they were all back in their cosy holes, relined with straw and seemingly happy to stay there, whilst the wind blew.

Once they were all protected and newly bedded down the team set about their day. Ice fishing was the priority as we were looking forward to the chance of some fresh fish for supper.
 Andy's a veteran fisherman and Miloš has clearly got it taped so they lead the guard down to the lake and soon Laura, Steve, Andy and Mark were settled on the ice with their reindeer skins.
Our very own gnome

Having spent time together in Norway when we were at college, Rob and I decided to walk there, Rob had been plotting the route on his GPS and it claimed we weren't that far from the border so we set off into the wind, in sight of the fishing team, which was reassuring bearing in mind that our journey was across a lake and the temperatures are rising. It had also been reassuring to watch Miloš drilling through the ice with a meter long drill and only just reaching the water.

Off to Norway
The Norwegian shore, being much the same as the Swedish one, held our attention for a while but as we hadn't thought about taking any celebratory food or drink, we returned, finding the route back warmer with the wind behind us but still hazardous as we kept breaking through the top crust of ice into the snow beneath. 

Mark had found his special snow when we got back and was well on the way to completing a double ice hole. It's very impressive, even my claustrophobia couldn't stop me trying it out. He'd built them before in the RAF, over the border, but we were all very impressed. 
Snow hole expert
Anyone there?

Somehow Rob had conjured up a reindeer stew from the leftovers of last night's feast which was warming and so tender. Andy was still guarding his fishing hole so I took a bowl down to him, trying to keep it warm by covering it with bread. He said he was fine and not really hungry but I've never seen stew disappear so fast! He'd had no luck and had been there for about 5 hours, he's done  a72 hour wait before so I wasn't expecting him to go back to the cabin with me.

As well the ridiculous photo Mark had to take of himself in his Speedos as part of a fundraising bet, he decided (in his wisdom...NOT) that we should take a series of 'Arctic Madness' photos to make into a charity calendar on our return and somehow he managed to persuade Laura, Andy and I to put our beachwear on and cavort about in the snow... fortunately most of the photos are quite dark as we were in the middle of a snowstorm, so I'm not sure that they are quite print quality.

I really don't know where the the day has gone, I went to my tent for a rest and before before long the dark was looming and the wind was getting more and more powerful. We've all taken refuge in the cabin now and I am seriously thinking about making the scuzzy sofa my bed for the night. I've been to look at my tent and it's got snow half way up the outside and it's bouncing up and down like  jack in the box. No doubt the boys will tough it out and I'll feel like a wuss.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

And rest...

The cabin is tiny, enough room for a stove, cooking shelf, a table with 6 chairs and two wonderfully scuzzy sofas in 1970's browns and oranges. One even has a fake fur Bambi cushion on it. There is a ledge above for sleeping on but Rob decided he'd rather sleep in his tent, Mark and I exchanged glances, realising we'd be jealous and it was soon agreed that we'd pitch 3 tents for us and the others would sleep inside, unless Mark could find the right snow to dig a snow hole.

We sit on the eastern edge of a vast lake, with shores in Sweden and Norway, surrounded by hills. The sun sets over the western shore and as we unpacked the sleds, secure in the knowledge that we'd be camped here for more that 24 hours, we were treated to a spectacular sky.

Mark and I began to pitch the tents whilst Laura, Steve and Andy set up and helped Gaynor and Miloš with the dogs. Although the weather was calm they sensed a change and as we are to be here for a while it was important to dig out holes for the dogs to sleep in and line them with straw that it kept in the long-drop shed for that purpose. 

Cosy now

Rob took over the kitchen and was in his element. Once the fire was lit in the wood burner he could start on the culinary highlight: reindeer steaks and 'brown sauce' with Gjetost/Brunos and Aquavit, potatoes, peas and spinach. Quite how he managed to cater for us all with such an ambitious meal using a wood burner and a tiny camp stove is a mystery to us, must be the Norwegian ancestry. It's certainly a step up from the hot dogs from a can and now we're keen to keep him tied to the kitchen during our stay at Kamaz, in fact Gaynor and Miloš are thinking of offering him a job as expedition chef.

Miloš got the sauna lit and we brought water up from a hole, which had been left in the ice, close to the sauna hut. The hut is not the most efficient of saunas, being uninsulated and full of holes, but any opportunity to get clean was most welcome and once camp was set the girls took first crack. When you haven't undressed for a few days and your hair has been under a hat and hood, we discovered that even the sound of someone else washing their hair can be a joy as we took turns to pour the cold water over our hot, sweating bodies. We toasted Elsie, our companion of last year, who always screamed "it's divine" at the top of her voice when dousing in the sauna.

The boys were desperate to get in and hurried us out by stamping on the doorstep as we all tried to get dressed in a space no bigger that a cubicle. We made our way up to the cabin determined to have a 'girlie chat' before they returned, we talked shoes, shoes and shoes. Gaynor got a shock about an hour later when she thought she saw the boys retuning through the window but realised it was time for a their naked snow roll.

 By the time we all retired to our various sleeping areas the wind had really got up. I've lined my tent with skins and have all my kit inside but once I was in my sleeping bag I discovered that my tent, being the most westerly, was acting a both sail and windbreak for the others and felt as if it might take off at any moment, I felt like Dorothy. By morning it was snowing and so I've grabbed my warmest clothing and am back in my sleeping bag, after all there is no schedule for today and this is an interesting way to have a lie in, in a blizzard, in fact I might just stay here...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Friday - the northernmost point

Despite the good rest last night everyone is showing signs of tiredness, and where my team of dogs are concerned this is a relief. Having Rune and Refat again has been reassuring and yet challenging as they are so strong and have such stamina. Uno, my single dog just keeps and going and the wheel dogs, Zero and Brenda appear to be looking for promotion, always pulling as if they want to overtake the rest of the team. Today they slowed slightly, which meant I wasn't standing on the soft brake all day.

Zero and Brenda
Brenda is so endearing that I am afraid she has rather stolen my heart from Rune and Refat, this and the fact that the boys will not kick their bad habits. They have one particularly disgusting trait, which seems to be paying them back today as they eat that which has already been eaten and are both now suffering with bad guts. Brenda is perfectly behaved at all times however and runs so tidily, tucking her feet up beneath her and her ears back against her head. She is built like a tiny wolf, big strong shoulders and a wonderful thick coat. She and Zero have a great relationship and constantly look out for each other, helping each other out of the thick snow. She's affectionate without being clingy, independent yet supportive, sensitive to those around her, strong, fit and gorgeous to look at, what's not to love.
Rune and Refat
Gaynor ran into trouble as we set off this morning as she and Steve became entangled and she battled to free the dogs. Babe was badly caught up and was in pain, whimpering and nipping at Gaynor as she finally managed to free them. Laura's team also struggled today, they found the long climbs, as we headed north, difficult and Rob had to battle to hold back as his team gained speed behind her. The climbing was constant all day, and even though we stopped for quite break at a fishing camp it is clear that we will need our rest day.

Fishing camp

The fishing camp was intriguing, snowmobiles came and went as we arrived, some of them stopping to take photos of us and it appeared to be well used. Gaynor told us they'd stopped there before to try to buy milk but had no luck, this time Miloš had a better idea and he disappeared, returning with 2 carrier bags full, apparently the only thing they sell is beer - that'll be interesting on our breakfast cereal...
Andy's team really began to struggle in the afternoon and as he was behind me I was very aware of his frustration as he tried to encourage them onward with whistles and calls. Those of us in front of him stopped occasionally to allow the second part of the line to catch up. Andy found that he was doing lots of scooting and running to support the dogs and as a result he needed to drink a lot of water, and as a result he needed to pee. Being behind us by some distance, and feeling confident, he decided to keep going and risk sideways relief off the runners, this coincided with a post and some indecision by his dogs, should they go to the left or the right? Whichever way they ended up going didn't really matter, Andy had to turn suddenly, with disappointing results.

Gaynor sporting the arctic fox trimmed coat

In the final stage of today's run the team separated into 2 with Miloš leading us onwards and upwards until eventually Laura, Rob and I lost sight of him and the group behind, making it seem as if we were on our own adventure. Then suddenly there he was, waiting for us at a lonely fingerpost, pointing off the trail. Here we pulled off the track and into deep snow, holding back till we could see the others coming over the brow of the hill. This was to be our last journey for a couple of days and we are now at our rest place - Kamaz, Per Nils's cabin, where we will stay for a day.

Thursday night

Gordon and Heston
It's time to set off again after a great night's sleep. We reached the camp area by 6 last night and this time it all went much more smoothly. No runners. Andy built a dining table from snow and we warmed up the Gulaš that Miloš had prepared at home. Laura and I dug a really deep hole for our tent and the combination of the soundless depths of our camp and exhaustion saw is all retiring by 9.30. We woke to silence, no dogs howling for their breakfast, and so we assumed it was early but when Laura checked her phone we realised everyone had slept in. It was 8.55am! We must have all needed it.

I felt as if I'd been run over by train though and the bruises are already coming through (note: copying this from my diary a week later I am still black and blue). Before we leave I am going to make sure that I have a good breakfast, that was my mistake yesterday - forgot to eat...