Change is afoot

“How’s the training going?”
If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d have raised a fairly hefty sum for CHAS by now. (Justgiving page here if you’re interested.)
Well… I’ve managed a total of three 10+ mile walks since January. I’ve also printed off and thumbed through the 39 page training schedule provided by Breaking Strain Events. Clearly I am not remotely ready for this Arctic trek. But with just over four months to go, I’m sensing a shift in momentum.

The other week, for example, I bit the bullet and went to buy a pair of high performance trekking boots. This turned out to be an unexpectedly emotional experience.

I should probably point out that I am not and never have been a shoe fanatic. I’m just not that into them. From the last 40 years, I can count on one foot the shoes that have lingered in the memory.

There were the sky blue Clarks with a single bar across the ankle. They were the first pair I had without a T-bar, and were so pretty they required me to stare at my feet as I walked.

And the burgundy patent party shoes with cut away sides. I was no 7 year old fashionista, but even I knew that shoes with no sides was completely brilliant.

And that was it really for the next 24 years, until the day Rory and I got engaged. (Exactly 10 years ago today as it happens.)

We were holidaying in Australia and had had a rare tiff about nothing much, so I’d hopped huffily onto the boat from Manley to downtown Sydney to make myself feel better with some retail therapy. I spotted a pair of totally impractical, off-white, suede high heels with diamante-encrusted bows, tried them on, asked the price, calculated the exchange rate the wrong way and discovered too late that I’d spent £250 on them instead of £75. Ouch.

Later, after Rory had proposed to me by the opera house, overlooking the glittering harbour (the romantic devil), those ridiculously expensive shoes took on an extra significance. I still have them somewhere, battered, scuffed and unwearable. They are the only shoes I have ever been remotely sentimental about.

Until now.

What happened in Go Outdoors

Go Outdoors in Edinburgh has an entire wall of serious hiking shoes, boots and trainers. There must be about 50 of them, all pointing northwards like an indomitable right-footed army. To someone like me, this wall is as alien and forbidding as the Eiger, but as my eyes trailed wildly across it I found myself thinking: somewhere in this crowded ballroom is the chosen pair; the boots that will accompany me to the Arctic.

It occurred to me that I was going to form a bond with one (or presumably two) of these sturdy, graceless boots. They would be my future training buddies. My companions on this trek of a lifetime. My sole mates. (Oh come on, you have to allow me one corny pun per post.)

After several fittings and with the advice of the very helpful man in Go Outdoors, I eventually settled on a pair of Mammut Ayako High GTX®. Whatever that means. The product literature tells me that I have opted for supreme functionality, with Base Fit®, Goretex membrane, Feetmap climate regulation, motion control, heel support, 3-zone lacing, Vibram Mulaz outsole and integrated Nespresso machine with milk frother.

They’re going to keep my feet comfy and dry, basically. They’re also a rather fetching shade of aquamarine with magenta detailing. Ooooh.

These boots were made for walking

For the first week, the Mammuts stayed in their box. I’d pop open the lid occasionally and peek at them. Unworn, unsullied, they looked so nice. But deep down I knew these boots had a greater purpose than looking pristine in their packaging. So out they came: time for us to get to know each other.

Unworn, unsullied, they look so nice.

For our first outing I took my boots to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy. (While I admired saintly faces bathed in divine light, my boots preferred the grimy, bulbous toes of dying martyrs.)

Then my boots took me for a muddy walk along the Rocheid Path beside the Water of Leith. Better, thought the Mammuts. But hardly arduous.

Our next excursion will be this weekend’s 30K training walk in Glen Tress with an overnight camp. I’m actually looking forward to it. In fact, I’m hoping for awful weather and punishing terrain so I can put these bad boys to the test. And that’s not something I ever expected to say.

So yes, my friends, change is afoot. Just look at my feet.


I am taking on this Arctic challenge in aid of Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS). If you’d like to donate to this amazing charity, you can do so on my justgiving page. Thank you!

Call me foolhardy. Call me impulsive. Just don’t call me generous.

Since signing up for the CHAS Arctic Trek 2018, I’ve been called generous and brave on numerous occasions. But on the night of the CHAS Rocking Horse Ball 2016, I can safely say I was neither of these things. Impulsive perhaps. Naïve maybe. In truth, I was mostly a bit sozzled and highly emotional. But generous and brave? Not a bit of it.

So how did I accidentally sign up to trek across the freezing Arctic wilderness? I will tell you.


24 June 2016, Prestonfield House Hotel, Edinburgh. A steady stream of taxis delivers guests to a gin and champagne reception. Summer sun glows across the lawns. The hotel’s resident peacocks, so accustomed to the chirrup and chatter of excited ball-goers, sit in the branches of stately trees and don’t give us a second look.

I partake of a glass of fizz. Somebody tops it up. I suspect this happens quite a few times. I’m too busy air-kissing and giving small whoops of delight as I greet friends and we slowly make our way into the big, circular, twinkling room that is Prestonfield’s Stables. We gather around our table. Another glass of bubbles? Don’t mind if I do. Well, isn’t this splendid.

After a while, a mum walks onto the stage and tells us the tender, funny, devastating, uplifting, gut-wrenching, heartwarming story about her involvement with Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS). I’m helpless in the face of her heroism. And while I’m at my most awe-struck and vulnerable, they get the auction underway. Before long I hear, “Item 3: a once-in-a-lifetime trek across the Arctic Circle. Who will start me at £1,500?”

I glance at the auction catalogue. This is what I see:

  • A blanket of untouched snow stretching out beneath a vast glimmering Arctic sky
  • A pleasant amble across said snowy paradise
  • The glittery green spangles of the northern lights
  • A 5* snow hotel

This is what I don’t see:

  • 70km of packed ice, frozen rivers and freezing wilderness
  • -30°
  • Tents. (I don’t camp. It’s a thing of mine. Four solid walls, a floor, a roof: that’s where I’m at accommodation-wise.)
  • Pulks. (I don’t know what a pulk is.)

I am sitting next to my friend Sarah. Sarah keeps sticking up her hand as the bidding goes to and fro. But the prize is for two people, and her husband isn’t there. She isn’t sure if he’d be up for it. The auctioneer points at Sarah – are you in? She hesitates. So I mutter into her ear, “I’ll go with you.”

“You sure?” she says, and I nod. Before I can further consider that answer, her hand is back up. And just like that, we ‘win’ the prize.

So you see, that’s not brave. That’s rash. The mum who stood up to share her story and bare her soul – she gets the medal for bravery.

And the medal for generosity? At a charity auction, that surely has to go to the donor of the prize, not the bidder. It’s the donors who are really giving something away. The bidders, after all, get something for their money. Consider the artist who donates a painting. That could be two months’ work, handed away right there. I bet it’s pretty rare for the bidder to spend two months’ salary buying it.

In my case, I casually blasted my auction budget on this trek. In front of all those people I looked like I was splashing lots of cash for a brilliant cause. Which I was in a way – but look at what I got for it. Six days in a part of the world I would probably never get to see, doing something I would never get to do otherwise. The chance to challenge my comfortable, cosy, middle-of-the-road existence with a once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless I love it so much I go back, but I currently doubt that). As the brochure says, I’ll always be able to bore people at dinner parties with my stories of “when I was in the Arctic…”

Put it like that, I got a bargain.

A company called Breaking Strain Events donated this trek. They won’t make a profit from my ticket. So let’s raise a glass to them, because they deserve the generous accolade, not me. And they deserve a little promotion off the back of it too. So now that you’ve finished reading this, go and check out Breaking Strain Events. You never know, you might accidentally get yourself signed up for a chilly stroll across the Arctic.

If you’d like to, you can donate to CHAS via my justgiving page 

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