IT’S not often that a Cork person will describe March temperatures as almost tropically warm, but when you’ve just returned from an icy -22C degrees conditions, it’s all relative.
Not only was Cork a welcome place to thaw out for businesswomen Karen Fleming and Emma Kenneally, but the simple pleasures of electricity and running water were also warmly embraced.
The pair were among 17 women who undertook the challenge of a lifetime on a five-day trek in the Arctic to raise funds for DEBRA Ireland, in March.
The charity supports 300 people in Ireland living with the hugely debilitating genetic condition EB (epidermolysis bullosa), which makes skin extremely fragile, causing it to blister and wound at the slightest touch. There is no known cure for EB and the only treatment is constant painful bandaging of the skin.
Karen, Sales Director of the Hayfield Collection, recalls her first Arctic impressions: “Beautiful, quiet, anywhere you looked there was snow — and the sound of silence.”
The simpler, quieter life was one Karen thoroughly appreciated during the trip.
“The sound of silence was amazing — and no internet connectivity. I’d never done that before; I’d always checked e-mails while away but this time I deleted the e-mail app on the flight over.”
The women had little choice but to be at one with nature — and not necessarily the kind of nature you’d find in County Cork.
“There was a brown bear and cubs hibernating in the hill behind us. We saw a lot of tracks of hares and foxes. Next to our lodge there was a woman who had a bird-table and we saw something like a large version of a robin, but bigger and furrier”, says Karen.
Accompanied by four guides, including husband and wife team Ronan and Cindy from adventure.ie in Glendalough, the first three days were spent in a remote cabin with no electricity, running water or mirrors, getting used to the arduous conditions and to their new chores. Split into teams, each team would concentrate on their given responsibility, be it water, fire, shelter or food.
“For water we’d have to go to a nearby lake and crack through the ice to bring it back in buckets,” explains Emma, Head of Marketing with VoxPro Ireland.
“For the fire we’d be out getting logs and kindling and it was quite challenging to keep the fire going as the wood was damp. We were helping prepare the food, whatever could be made on a stove; a lot of carbs and some protein with every meal.”
Karen has a specific memory from the ‘menu’. “We did try reindeer soup. It was like chowder.”
Emma recalls: “The first few days we were getting used to the conditions: a lack of flushing toilets, no showers, no water to wash your face, hands or teeth.”
“The outdoor compostable toilets were interesting!” laughs Karen, remembering the ‘facilities’ that were a two minute walk from where they were stationed.
“You’d be going out in the freezing cold and there were no lights except your head-torch,” says Emma.
“Everything you did would become a big mission,” Karen adds. “You’d have to put on the hat, gloves and boots, then come back and take it all off again. What would take two seconds here would take a lot longer there.”
As difficult as it all sounds, it was an environment that brought them all together.
“No-one was a complainer. Everyone just got on with it. I’ve never laughed so much in my life,” Emma says.
Karen agrees: “What was really good — the best thing apart from the incredible cause — was the group of women I was with. Coming from Network Cork (she’s a former president of the organisation), I’m a big fan of women empowering each other.
“Everyone really bonded together and team-work was essential. Women do great things together.”
Getting around wasn’t easy.
“We were snow shoeing — which is a bit like having tennis rackets attached to your feet — and cross country skiing”, explains Emma. “Temperatures were very dry; it was 10% water and 90% air, so the snow was very fluffy, making you sink down easily. It was quite challenging.”
The cold environment was a challenge in itself.
“Karen and I hate the cold,” says Emma. “We had hand warmers; things you break to emit heat. We were wrapped up so much it would be nearly difficult for us to be cold. We were like a comedy act!”
“We had sleeping bags that keep you warm up to -27 degrees”, Karen continues. “We had thermal layers, gloves, balaclavas and snoods; all conceivable flesh was covered. I’m a terrible packer and no amount of travelling has made me any better but this time there was no make-up, no different sets of shoes like you’d usually have on holidays. It was hiking and trekking stuff only.”
The pinnacle of the trip was a two-day trek, which required them to pull their belongings behind them and sleep outdoors around a campfire.
Emma sets the scene: “We set off in the morning, taking the tents, fleeces, water and food. We had a pulk attached to our waist via a harness, which Karen and I had to pull between us, taking it in turns. We had to go up a mountain which was really tough. It started with an incline straight away. I was so focused on the cold I didn’t think of the physicality at first. We were layering on and off to monitor the heat situation.”
For her, it was the most difficult part of the expedition.
“Going up the mountain into the wilderness, pulling a 30kg pulk, my hips felt like balloons about to burst. I was thinking, ‘how long will this go on?’ and ‘can we even do it?’ But we worked as a team and there was a great sense of achievement when we did get to our destination.”
The night before, the women had been shown a video which served as a timely reminder of why they were there in the first place, helping to motivate them during those difficult moments. The footage featured Emma Fogarty, who at 31, is the oldest person in the country with EB.
“We saw her doing her wound dressing and it was so upsetting to watch. The amount of time we were trekking is the amount of time someone with EB has to set aside to get their wounds dressed. We were uncomfortable (in the cold) but so lucky to have healthy bodies. And what was uncomfortable for us, someone with EB would love to do,” says Emma.
The video struck a similar chord with Karen.
“We saw how excruciating it is to change the bandages every three days, taking four to six hours at a time.
“However tough we were thinking it was out there, it was nothing compared to what EB sufferers go through. It was a really good reminder of how lucky we are to be able to do anything we want, whenever we want,” she says.
The women all had their own personal journey on the trip, and both Karen and Emma only see the positives.
“It’s a great leveller. You’re there for a reason and it has given me perspective on what’s important and what isn’t. We were all a bit sad leaving,” says Emma.
“I wouldn’t have regretted it for one second,” states Karen. “There is no negative aspect.”
Still, the comforts of home were welcome when the adventure was over.
“At the airport we all went to the bathroom, washing our hands. We had a nice meal — chips were the biggest novelty ever! It was like the end of Irish College or something,” Emma laughs. “I had three showers the night I came back. And I was making around ten cups of tea. It was a novelty having a kettle and water coming from the tap!”
Both are keen to encourage other women to embark on the trip in the future and Karen reminds me that the booking link is open for next year.
What would be her advice for those taking on the challenge?
“We were told to train a lot and I didn’t have time, so I’d recommend a little bit more training because the fitter you are the easier it will be. And just make the most of it. You’ll get a lot of personal return but try to do as much fundraising as possible because that’s the whole point.”
At the time we spoke, Emma was at €8,500, with the promise of more money coming in, already nicely exceeding the €5,500 individual target set by the charity.
Karen hadn’t done a final tally, as they are hoping to organise one final event before closing the account, but she is hoping their combined figure will come to €25,000.
They are both grateful to friends, family, colleagues, clients and business acquaintances who have donated so far and hope that others may still follow suit by following these links:
For more on the charity see: debraireland.org