Rovaniemi, here we come…

Tomorrow, bright and early, we fly. First to Heathrow, then Helsinki, then the town of Rovaniemi, from where our trek begins. Rovaniemi (population 62,000) is the capital of Finnish Lapland. It’s located just south of the Arctic Circle at the confluence of the Kemijoki and Ounasjoki rivers. Blah blah blah. What really matters here is that Rovaniemi is the Official Home of Santa Claus.

Poor old Father Christmas. A man who receives thousands if not millions of begging letters every year, but I’m guessing not quite as many thank you letters. So on Friday, in between acclimatisation, last-minute kit shopping and a spot of dog sledding, I shall deliver two notes written by my girls to thank the big bearded fella for his unceasing generosity.

Speaking of which, there are a few people I also need to thank. Because there is no way I would be ready to take on this challenge if it wasn’t for them.

So here are my own short but heartfelt thank you letters…

To Kayleigh McCallum

For the beautiful illustrations dotted throughout this blog. (

To Pies, Nina, Sam, Cliff and Susan

For the various bits of essential kit including clothes, bags, headbands, glove liners, skin cream and hand warmers.

To Vikki

For the loo brush and the homemade, vacuum-packed, high performance energy balls.

To Christine

For the Percy Piglets and Colin the Caterpillars.

To Gordon at Helly Hansen

For donating the merino base layers.

To Gail Littlejohn

For all the massages – even the ones I needed gas and air for. If anyone is after health or fitness advice or some seriously good muscle ‘TLC’, Gail’s your woman. Ask me and I’ll give you her details.

To my lovely GP

Who didn’t bat an eyelid when I broke down in tears last week because I had a cold.

To Boots Opticians

For rising splendidly to the challenge when I phoned up to ask about wearing contact lenses in the Arctic. The receptionist asked the optometrist and the optometrist asked the contact lens specialist, and they all dropped what they were doing to look up the latest research. They got me an appointment that very afternoon, fitted me with 7-day-wear lenses (that’s the answer), and sent me away with all the tips, advice and spare lens solution they could muster. I was impressed.

To Fi

For lending me her amazing, top-of-the-range expedition kit. Also, for starting sentences with phrases like “when I did the Everest Marathon…”, but still managing to make me feel like I’m in her league – which I am most definitely not. For reminding me that everyone’s comfort zone is different; belatedly taking her English GCSE is apparently as daunting for her as this trek is for me. And for the nuggets of advice only a properly intrepid polar explorer can give you. If it wasn’t for Fi, I wouldn’t be taking superglue for cuts, dental floss as emergency string, or butter for slipping into hot drinks round the campfire.

To Story

For being a brilliant place to work, putting up with my tedious daily training updates, and supporting CHAS so generously.

To Rory

For not minding when I accidentally signed up to do this trek in the first place. For not complaining when I disappeared for long weekend walks. For the early morning planking sessions. For all the words of encouragement. For giving the girls extra cuddles while I’m away. For being you.

To Sarah (AKA Aussie in the Arctic)

While I have doubted the wisdom of taking on this challenge quite a few times, I have never once regretted my choice of trekking buddy. It’s fair to say Sarah and I have covered a lot of ground over the last 22 months – both geographically and conversationally. We’ve debated politics, shared secrets, discussed snacks, scoffed picnics, mapped our futures, got lost, crossed rivers on fallen tree trunks… yet never once come close to falling out. That may all change in the next 6 days, but something tells me she’s way too awesome for that.

To everyone who has sponsored us

When the going gets tough up there, with nothing much to look at except blankets of snow, we will picture each of your magnificent, munificent selves, recall your motivational messages, and imagine all the wonderful things that CHAS will be able to do with the money you have given. If that doesn’t keep us plodding onwards, nothing will.

My most conscientious readers may remember that in blog post 3 I set myself a target:  that by the time I stepped on the plane to Finland I would (1) have raised between £500 and £1,000 for CHAS, and (2) be able to do one full press up.

I’m happy to say that as of this moment our fundraising total stands at £1,968.24. So THANK YOU. (It’s not too late to add via JustGiving if you wish.)

As for the other thing…


Love, Olivia xxx

Can’t walk now, I’ve got a list to write

If you’ve ever dipped into the pages of Who’s Who, you may know that each eminent person featured gets to state their recreations alongside their professional or social importance. My grandfather (a diplomat) put ‘mending things’ amongst his hobbies. My dad (cathedral dean) has ‘playing the piano and looking out of the window’. Barry Humphries (no relation, but it’s my favourite one) says: ‘kissing, inventing Australia, painting beautifully.’

Should my life ever be big enough to warrant an entry in Who’s Who, I think my recreations might have to include ‘writing lists’.

Because I do love a list.

Crossing off
A tent is not all we share: spotted in the downstairs loo of my fellow trekker Sarah (

There are, of course, different types of list. There are the ones that read like collections, inventories or compilations. I keep a few like that. You know, my top ten favourite films, books worth reading, all the boys I’ve ever kissed.

The lists I really like, though, are the type where you can tick items off. Planning lists. Lists of intentions. To-do lists.

One of the best things about preparing for this trek is that I’m surrounded by lists. Checklists, kit lists, shopping lists. Lists of things I need to do, stuff I need to buy, questions I need to ask.

So many lists, in fact, that I’ve had to employ my very best list management techniques to keep me right. In case you’re not versed in superior list writing, I’ll quickly share some of my personal expertise in this area. It’s pretty useful.

The What’s What of list writing
Idealists: lists that begin with one item that’s easy to complete. There’s nothing more discouraging than a great long list with nothing ticked off. On a really busy day, start your list with ‘have a shower’ or ‘write a list’. Getting that first task ticked off will give you a disproportionate sense of achievement.
(Also, there’s nothing wrong with retro-listing: adding an item to your list after you’ve actually done it, then ticking it straight off. In my book, this is another excellent morale-boosting technique.)
Cyclists: also known as rolling lists. This method involves starting a new list every day and rolling over any uncompleted tasks (of which there are usually several) onto the new list. Some of these tasks may be rolled over for weeks or even months. I have a to-do list that has featured ‘get leaky shower head fixed’ since July.
Environmentalists: Tasks and reminders scrawled on recycled scraps of paper / old envelopes / the backs of boring bank letters. Positively encouraged if you’re employing the cyclist method above.
Realists: proper handwritten lists, as opposed to digital ones. I have tried keeping a few lists on my phone, but as soon as I’ve done something it gets deleted. And then I can’t see the thing I’ve done. This is deeply unsatisfactory. The true joy of list-making is seeing what you’ve crossed off, not all the stuff you’ve still got to do.
Vocalists: memos made with the help of an Echo or similar. Doomed to failure, as exemplified by this attempt made earlier today:
Me: Alexa, make a to-do list.
Alexa: What’s the to-do?
Me: Phone the plumber.
Alexa: I’ve added bread to your shopping list.
Me: Add phone plumber to my to-do list.
Alexa: The time is 2.03pm.
Pointillists: lists that feature bullet points rather than numbers. I prefer bullets as they don’t denote priority, so I can write down and tick off my tasks in any old order. They also look prettier.
Mentalists: memorised lists. Completely useless. What were you thinking?


But I have digressed. Let’s look at the most pressing lists I have on the go right now and see how I’m getting on. (Bearing in mind that I leave for Finland in 26 days.)

Today’s to-do list
  • Eat breakfast
  • Buy Arctic kit (see separate kit list below)
  • Phone opticians: can I wear contact lenses in the Arctic without them freezing to my eyeballs?
  • Phone plumber
  • Prune buddleia
  • Iron school uniforms
  • Go on long walk
  • Promote justgiving page (only £117 needed to hit fundraising target)
  • Publish blog post about lists
The kit list
  • Sleeping bag rated to -40°C (extreme)
  • Roll mat
  • Down jacket
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Trekking jacket
  • Micro-fleece
  • Merino base layers – upper and lower body
  • Trail trousers
  • Boots
  • Outer socks
  • Sock liners
  • Thermal gloves
  • Glove liners
  • Hat
  • Buff/neck scarf
  • 120L pulk bag
  • Goggles
  • Sunglasses
  • External charger
  • Headtorch
  • Spare batteries
  • Dry bags (multiple)
  • Walking poles (buy in Rovaniemi)
  • Drinking bottle
  • Nalgene bottle for night
  • Spork/spoon
  • First aid kit
  • Wash bag/towel/toothpaste/baby wipes
  • Hot packs (heat activated hand warmers)
  • Mug
  • Dental floss (acts as string for emergency repairs, spare boot laces etc)
  • Loo brush (for scraping snow off boots before taking them into tent)
  • Snacks (nuts, dried fruit, Haribo)
The bucket list

I suppose the ultimate to-do list is a bucket list.

I’ve never had a bucket list. I wonder why not. Do I think I’ve done everything I ever wanted to? (Spawned two perfect children, swum with dolphins, met the Queen; what else is there?) Is it a lack of curiosity about the world and all the experiences it has to offer? Have I got so stuck in my own little rut I’ve forgotten to dream? Or do I have dreams, but am confidently assuming I will get round to fulfilling them one day, just not now?

Some people write a bucket list when they lose someone close, too young, too suddenly, and they are filled with an urgent desire to make the most of their time on this earth. And they’re right. Why wait? Why assume I’ll be here to enjoy a long, adventure-filled retirement?

I’m going to stop being so complacent. I’m going to start a bucket list. And, according to the rules of good list making, I’ll start it off with a couple of items I have high hopes of ticking off before too long.

It’s by no means finished, but here’s how it’s shaping up so far:

  • Trek across the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland.
  • Camp under the Northern Lights.
  • Drive a train.
  • Go to Jerusalem.
  • Write a novel. (Only the writing of it – no need to get it published.)
  • Dance a tango in Buenos Aires.
  • Keep an orchid alive for more than 3 weeks.

Funnily enough, I’m not tempted to add ‘make a million’, ‘become an establishment figure’ or ‘Get into Who’s Who’ to that list.

I have a feeling my life will be perfectly big enough if I just fill it with small but wonderful things. (Here’s looking at you, kids.)

If you’d like to, you can support me by donating to CHAS via my justgiving page 

The point of the exercise

The phone alarm pierced the silence while it was still pitch black in our bedroom. Rory and I groaned and blinked ourselves awake, then without a word tiptoed down to the sittingroom, deftly avoiding the creaky stairs, like naughty children in search of midnight snacks. Except, this was less about the midnight snacks, more about the early morning squats.

This is what happens when you have no time in the day to train: you’re forced to squeeze it into what I generally consider the night, i.e. before 7am. But perhaps this is no bad thing. No child should have to witness their parents in the act of bird-dogging. Imagine if they told everyone at school that they’d caught mummy and daddy planking together on the sittingroom floor? They wouldn’t understand. Truth be told, I don’t understand.

The thing I don’t understand the most is how anyone could ever enjoy this sort of thing.

On day 1 of the ‘Arctic Trek Training Plan’ we started with the plank. Propped up on forearms and toes, we each held our bodyweight for as long as possible. I managed 37 seconds, Rory 1 minute 28 seconds, before we both collapsed in an exhausted sweaty heap.

Moving on: the bird dog. This involves getting onto your hands and knees, then raising one arm horizontally in front of you (à la superman), while lifting the opposite leg straight out behind you. (I have to assume this is the dog bit. If only we had a lamppost in the sittingroom I could fulfil two early morning functions in one go.)

Oddly, I could do this no problem with my left hand and my right leg, but not at all the other way around. I spent a not-so-good ten minutes wobbling about on all fours, faltering, repositioning, trying to get my balance. I’d like to say this provoked a fit of giggles. It didn’t: it made me remarkably cross. So I gave up.

What’s next? Glute bridges. Modified bicycles. Leg lifts. Side planks. All miserable.

Shoulder alphabets: lying face down on the ground and making the shapes of letters with your arms. That sounded more promising, except they only wanted me to work with the letters I Y T and W. So I went a bit Countdown with it and added two more vowels and a couple of consonants. Now I can spell out SWEATYBITS. This might not be doing much for my training, but it keeps me amused at least.

Why am I doing all this?

Because of the pulk. For those unacquainted with Arctic trekking, the pulk is the sledge that carries the kit, which will be attached to a harness around my waist so I can drag it across the snow. For three days. Have you seen pictures of people dragging tyres across a beach? I’ve got a horrible feeling I should be doing that. For now I’m just concentrating on finding my core, and seeing if it will forgive me for ignoring it for 40 years.

Since our initial training attempt I have to admit some of the exercises have got easier. I can now manage over a minute of planking and perform a glute bridge without my leg going into spasm, so I guess I’m getting stronger. But none of it gives me a buzz. It’s still mind-numbingly boring. And I still can’t manage a single push up.

So that’s my goal. Something to keep me motivated when the 6am alarm goes off. By 1st February, when I hop on a plane bound for the Arctic, I will be able to do a full press up.

I have another ambition. I would also like to have raised between £500 and £1,000 for CHAS.

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of visiting Robin House, one of the two children’s hospices run by CHAS. What struck me on this visit – and I know I’m not the only person to find this – is that even against a backdrop of immense sadness and pain, the hospice is so full of warmth and laughter and creativity. Of life and hope and joy.

And yet, the heartbreaking truth is that CHAS can’t be there for everyone who needs them. They want to be, but they simply don’t have the funds.

Each week, three children in Scotland die from an incurable condition. Three children a week. Right now, CHAS can only reach one of these families.

To reach them all, CHAS need to double their fundraising income over the next five years. Some of it will come through hefty corporate donations. Some from big fundraisers like the CHAS ball. But lots of it will have to come from the generosity of people sponsoring fools who sign up for things like Arctic treks.

So: 1 push up and £1,000 raised for CHAS. If I can achieve both of those things, I’ll consider that this whole exercise will have been worthwhile.

If you’d like to help me with the fundraising bit, here’s my JustGiving page


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 

I’m going on an Arctic trek. Sorry, what?

You heard me. An Arctic trek.

I don’t, as a rule, do the camping thing.

I don’t take much exercise.

I don’t particularly like the cold.

So what could possibly go wrong on a 3 day, 50 mile trek into the Arctic Circle, dragging a pulk through snow and ice and sleeping under canvas in -30°?

I’ve decided the only way to confront this impending disaster is to blog my way through it. Because if I’m actually going to make this crazy journey, you (dear reader) can jolly well come with me.


P.S. The lovely illustrations you will see on this blog are by Kayleigh McCallum 

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