ENDURING temperatures as freezing as minus 27 degrees, three Cork women were among a group of 20 businesswomen who travelled to the Arctic recently to trek through a harsh environment for four days, from a base in a lodge that had no electricity or running water.
The expedition was in aid of Debra Ireland which supports 300 people in this country who suffer from Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB).
EB is a distressing skin condition where the skin is as fragile as a butterfly wing. There is no known cure for it. Those afflicted have skin that blisters and wounds at the slightest touch, both inside and out.
The only treatment is constant painful bandaging of the skin. Life expectancy for those with the condition is quite low.
The women each had a fund-raising target of €5,500, including the cost of the trip. As well as providing day to day help and home nursing support for EB patients, Debra Ireland also funds research programmes to find better treatments and possible cures for EB.
The group of brave women flew to Helsinki and then went to Kittila in northern Finland, 140km north of where the Arctic Circle starts. They were on an adventure of a lifetime, an adventure that was both testing and exhilarating.
Eimer McCarthy, 38, originally from Clonakilty, works as a partner with Deloitte and lives in Dublin. She signed up for the extraordinary and tough trek because she never says ‘no’ to a challenge.
“One of my colleagues, Valerie Daunt, asked me if I’d come along. It sounded like it would be a totally unbelievable experience. For a year, we had been thinking, planning, dreading and becoming excited about the trek. It’s not something you would undertake without a very minimum decent level of fitness. I’m lucky in that I cycle and play hockey. And (to prepare for the challenge) there were regular hikes in mountains around Wicklow. Your core fitness is very important for something like this.”
In the lodge, the women all had chores to do. “We had to physically break through ice in a river every morning to fill buckets with water. Suddenly, water became the most important thing in the world. With no electricity, we had to use candles and head torches.”
On the first night of the expedition, “we got an unbelievable showing of the Northern Lights. It was pure luck.”
The women had to undergo training, learning how to use cross country skis, led by Ronan Mullen of Adventure.ie.
“Not one of our group had ever done cross country skiing although we had a few downhill skiers. I had never done either. While I like a challenge, if you’ve never done something like this before, there’s the fear of the unknown. But it really captured the imagination and we had some really good guides,” she said.
“We were in a really remote place. It was kind of a like a national park way up north. There were these tracks cut out so they gave us a guide for the skis. There were a lot of falls but it was great fun.
“The snow there is like powder. When you fall, the big risk is disappearing under a mound of snow as opposed to hurting yourself.”
The group was split up into two, one learning how to ski and the other learning how to snow shoe and vice versa.
“After a few very basic lessons, we set out on a big trek, seven or eight kilometres across an incredible frozen lake.”
The women had to pull their own equipment in little sledges known as pulks, and start fires without matches, using just tree bark and lichen.
Ursula Beecher, 43, was brought up in Ballynoe, near Fermoy. She works for Amyrt Pharma in Dublin. Her reasons for taking on the Arctic challenge were twofold.
“The company I work for is developing a product for EB patients. It’s in phase three trials at the moment. It’s a tropical cream for healing wounds. All going well, we’re hoping it will be on the market in a couple of years.
“Through that, Amyrt has connections with Debra Ireland. The HR guy at work happened to hear about the challenge and chatted to me about it.”
Because Ursula loves the outdoor life and travelling, she was drawn to the expedition.
“I’ve been to Antarctica twice and I’ve been to the Arctic twice. I’ve been to Africa and all over the world. I love to experience the beauty and wildlife of these places and also to see amazing landscapes.
“From a polar perspective, I have an interest in the history of the polar explorers such as Tom Crean. I was away last November on a Falklands-South Georgia-Antarctica trip and I have walked part of the Shackleton Way.”
Ursula’s previous polar travel involved being on boats and kayaking and disembarking for hikes.
“Once you’ve done it before, you kind of know what’s involved,” she said.
Did she find the recent trek a big challenge?
“Having gone through it, I found I wasn’t pushed to my limit. It was reasonably within my comfort zone.”
Going uphill on a 4km stretch was arduous but Ursula says the women were lucky with the weather.
“Of the women in my group, one or two struggled at times. For them, it was more of a challenge. But we still kept moving with no major delays. We helped each other along the way and had chocolate at every stop.”
Being equipped with the correct clothing gear was obviously important.
“Marino wool was the order of the day. We were told that we’d freeze if we wore anything else. We didn’t want to sweat. We needed to layer up and layer down.
“The base layer is very important because if it gets wet and you stop moving, it could freeze. Marino wool is a type of wool from New Zealand. I think it might have some anti-bacterial properties. it also dries very quickly so it’s a good base for the skin.
“We were told not to wear any cotton so we had to check the labels of our knickers. It was down to that level of detail.
“We had to have thermal underwear, wind- proof trousers and a waterproof layer on top in case we needed it. We were all given the loan of an outer warm jacket which we carried in our backpacks,” said Ursula.
Orla Fitzgerald, 45, is originally from Macroom and works as a product manager in a legal cost accountancy company in Dublin. She decided to go on the trek because she had seen a BBC documentary which featured a little boy who had EB.
A mother of three boys, aged ten, eight and six, the programme resonated with her.
“And a friend of mine was going on this challenge and said it to me. I was looking for a personal challenge anyway. It just sounded very right. I wanted a reason to try something new and to go somewhere new.”
Orla worked at her fitness for the expedition, going to the gym and running.
“The hardest thing was having to acquire very new skills very quickly and progress to a high level very fast. On the third day, I was cross country skiing and pulling a sledge. it was very challenging but very enjoyable.
“The group was wonderful and we were very supportive of each other. I had never skied before. You have a fear of falling. I hadn’t fallen in years.”
Orla’s sons were very impressed with their mother’s adventure.
“It’s good for them to see me do something different and to try a new challenge. Also, it was good to raise awareness of EB. As a mother, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have your child in pain and not be able to fix it.”
For more about the work Debra Ireland does, or to support their cause, see see www.debraireland.org