After the Arctic, the Beast from the East

The following statement will do absolutely nothing for my street credibility, but here it comes: I like going to church.

Not any old church of course. I like going to aesthetically pleasing church with soaring Gothic vaults, stained glass windows and lots of candles. Where the clergy wear glittering robes and move from A to B in a procession, ideally featuring incense. I like going to church when its choir sings soul-stirring anthems with scrunchy chords and old-fashioned hymns with descants. I like church with coffee in the hall afterwards where nice people talk to other nice people wearing a similar ensemble of corduroy trousers and beige knitwear.

It must be my Anglo-Catholic upbringing. (You can take the vicar’s daughter out of church, etc.)

I suppose the same goes for the Church itself. It can easily get complacent. Turn inwards not outwards. Settle into a pattern that’s all very cosy and familiar.

But then a few weeks ago, the Beast from the East came along and kicked the church I go to into a far less comfortable zone.

Out of the cold…

There’s nothing like a distinctly challenging night in the Arctic to change the way you look at people sleeping rough. (I say ‘sleeping rough’ deliberately, rather than ‘sleeping on the street’ or ‘homeless’. Sleeping rough doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s horrible. It might equally be called sleeping cold, or sleeping scared. If you can get to sleep at all.)

Like most people, I don’t relish the thought of anyone suffering a night on the streets in any circumstances, never mind sub-zero temperatures. But now the horror is a little more vivid. It was bad enough for me when I was wrapped in the security of being amongst friends and trained guides, and the comfort of knowing that I only had to get through that one night and the ordeal would be over. So when the Beast loomed, I couldn’t help thinking of all those rough sleepers I see in Edinburgh’s west end and wondering what would become of them.

I wondered, but I did nothing.

But St John’s Church on Princes St did.

In response to the extreme weather, the clergy decided to open the doors round the clock for anyone – homeless, hungry or stranded – to come in, help themselves to a simple meal and a warm brew, and find a place to sleep.

The call went out and volunteers came from charities, social enterprises and the church congregation itself. Local businesses donated food. Bundles of warm clothes appeared at the church door.

One evening I dropped by for a meeting and saw what was going on. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since.

… and into the warm

I was greeted at the door by one of the volunteers from a nearby kirk. Dressed in bright colours and a broad smile, she joked about her “various mental health problems” in a way only someone with various mental health problems can, before peeling off down the south aisle singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, thank your meds…”

I wandered on up the nave. In the low light of the church there was a hum of activity. It was warm. It was calm. A lady was serving food and drinks from a table in the back corner. There was a rail of jackets and jumpers that anyone could help themselves to. Small groups huddled in pews all around the church, clutching cups of warm soup. Church pews aren’t very well suited to sitting and conversing, so people sat in contorted positions to talk to each other over the wooden barriers.

Most of them were men under 40. There was a handful of women.

Sleeping bags had been laid out on the carpets at the front of the church, in the children’s corner and in the chapel. The long cushions from the communion rail were being used as mattresses in whatever space people could find.

I stepped into the sanctuary. One man was sitting on the steps to the pulpit, head bowed. Another was sitting in the choir stalls, staring up at the vast organ pipes, lost in his own world. I don’t know if he was having a moment of spiritual enlightenment or in a drunken stupor. The thing is, it didn’t matter. This was his home for the night and nobody was judging.

A man staggered down from the high altar shouting something incoherent. He wasn’t angry, he was just shouting. Everyone ignored him.

No part of the church was out of bounds. There was no sense that anyone could come in as long as they tucked themselves away in a corner. It was as much their church as anyone’s, and they were asked to make themselves at home. So they did.

When it was time for a church service, nothing changed. During choral evensong on Sunday night, the congregation doubled as the usual church-goers joined the homeless community. Prayers were intoned. The congregation mumbled along. Some of the guests joined in, others moseyed around with cups of chicken broth. The choir sang the regular canticles, responses and anthem to a harmony of snores and random yelps. They sang the Magnificat: “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

The uncomfortable truth

I had wondered, but I had done nothing – paralysed by indecision and other excuses. So now all I can do is tell the story of what I saw that week, and hope it reminds people that churches can do very real, courageous and important things.

I was humbled and awed by the speed with which the church responded to that crisis. No creeping decision by committee, no bureaucratic implementation process. Just a human response to need.

They could, so they did.

The life of St John’s looked very big that week. I’ve never been prouder of the place I go to church – however uncool that makes me sound.

 

The crushing disappointment of being right

I always said I didn’t like camping. Not for a summer holiday. Not at a music festival. Not even in my back garden. The mere thought of that small, enclosed space was enough to make me shudder. So when I did finally go camping, on a frozen lake in -34°C, it should have come as no surprise that things didn’t go too well.

Here’s what happened.

PART 1: TREK

Day 1 of our Arctic trek could not have been more glorious. At 9am, rigged up with harnesses, pulks and walking poles, hand warmers in our mitts and a spring in our step, we walked from our hotel down to the frozen Ounasjoki river. The sun was coming up and the sky was blue and clear. Not a breath of wind. It was bloody cold, but as we were marching at a decent pace I soon started to feel the warmth in my core working its way out to my extremities.

Everything was covered in snow. As the sun lifted, the landscape glistened as though laced with tiny crystals. The wide river was lined on both sides with delicate snow-covered birch trees, the minimalism punctuated by the occasional wooden summer house; daubs of falu red, ochre and turquoise on the otherwise white canvas.

We strode along this river for 13km, walking side by side and chatting amiably. Dry snow underfoot made the going quite easy. The pulks slid along behind us and we quickly forgot they were even there. Every hour or so we stopped to rehydrate and grab a handful of snacks. The men peed at the side of the track. The women looked away, but enviously. That was a hurdle we too would have to face before too long…

Just as the river setting might have started to get a little predictable, we turned off to join a steep path into the woods. The pulks were suddenly weighty behind us, but the scenery was so picturesque that we didn’t care. We passed through a silent village where the roofs were iced a metre thick, then on up through a forest of fir trees laden and drooping with heavy clumps of snow. At the crest of each incline, we were rewarded with the sight of the low sun slanting across unspoilt quilts of white, making the trees and even the air itself sparkle.

snowscape

On we ploughed, delighting in the dazzling views. The going became trickier as we descended the wooded hillside, the track only as wide as our pulks with deep, soft drifts on either side – about thigh deep, as I found out pretty quickly when I stepped off the path. No matter, the snow was dry and brushed straight off. Here the trail undulated through the sapling firs, so we held the fronts of our pulks to navigate the steep drops while pushing through low branches poised to pour their snowy load on the unsuspecting trekker.

Eventually we emerged onto lake Sinettäjärvi – the home straight, just 8km to go. We had walked so well as a group that we’d made it to this point in record time. Legs were tired, but spirits were high. I know mine were.

As the setting sun turned the sky purple and pink before dipping to indigo, we pressed on until we saw the light of a campfire flickering within a clearing on the wooded shore. On the frozen lake itself, a row of tiny tents.

PART 2: CAMP

“Dump your pulk, grab your down jacket, spork and mug and get yourself warm by the fire!” came the instruction, and who were we to argue. Soup and stew were served. We sat around the roaring flames recounting our favourite parts of the day, with much patting on backs for such a well-walked trek.

By about 9.30pm we were ready to turn in. And this must be where something went awry for me. We had already inflated our roll mats and shaken out our sleeping bags. Nobody had more extreme-rated kit than me – thanks to Fi who had lent me her top dollar RAB expedition sleeping bag and down jacket. So, as bitterly cold as it was on the lake, all I had to do was get into the sleeping bag as quickly as possible and all would be fine.

tents on the frozen lake

The trick with bedtime, when you’re camping in severely low temperatures, is to get into your sleeping bag while your body is warm. It’s a total faff, especially when you have little experience of getting in and out of tents. And it’s dark. And your headtorch has suddenly decided to die.

You have to half climb into the tent, then, with your feet still outside, take off your walking boots, clean the snow off them, put them into a dry bag, and bring them into your sleeping bag with you so they don’t freeze overnight. Oh, and you’ll also need your gloves, clothes you might want to put on during the night or the following morning, and extra foot and hand warmers tucked into socks and pockets. Quickly zip up the tent. Then shuggle yourself into the sleeping bag, bring the hood up over your head (with hat), and tighten the cords until there’s just a tiny hole round your face. Then go to sleep.

Except I didn’t go to sleep.

Whether I spent too long dealing with my boots while the tent was open, or I wasn’t warm enough to start with, or I just have terrible circulation, I don’t know. But after three hours of wriggling my fingers and toes, with uncontrollable shivers spreading through my body, I began to feel sick. I realised I needed to get myself warm again, which meant climbing out of this icy cocoon, fumbling in the dark to find my boots and jacket, then stumbling back up to camp to try and rekindle the fire.

This I did at 1.30am, along with another trekker who was suffering from the cold. Thankfully Les, Rick, Jo and Neil (our brilliant trekking guides) came to our aid. They soon had a roaring blaze going and were enquiring into my exact symptoms. They plied me with tepid sweet tea – possibly the most disgusting yet welcome drink to ever pass my lips.

At 3.30am they checked my feet for frost nip and gave me the all-clear.

At 4am they layered me up with extra insulation and took me down to the tent. Now I was wearing base layers top and bottom, a fleece, a trekking jacket, a second pair of thick leggings, insulated slippers, a hat and my RAB expedition down jacket, with hand warmers tucked in every pocket. Jo bundled me into the sleeping bag with my boots, then zipped up the tent.

I had never felt so comfortable, warm and cosy. I shut my eyes and waited for sleep.

But instead of sleep, I got heart palpitations. My pulse was racing, like the beginning of a panic attack. Then the shivers began again. Numbness spread from my right hip to my foot. I bashed at the leg to get the blood moving. I bashed so hard I found a whopping bruise there the following day, but I hadn’t felt a thing at the time.

Sleep never came.

I resisted as long as I could, then reluctantly heaved myself once again from the tent and returned to the camp fire. The worst of it was having to wake the guides only a couple of hours since I’d last left them. They too had to rise and dress carefully, forcing themselves quickly out of sleep and into warmth. I felt so guilty.

I saw them conferring in a huddle and knew what was coming. With no sleep and even a mild risk that I could develop hypothermia, I would have to be taken off trail. “Extricated” they call it.

I was devastated.

I gave Sarah a hug, failing to fight the tears as I thought of her continuing this adventure without me. Then I left.

PART 3: FINISH

Extrication didn’t come without some positives. The crazed snowmobile ride up a steep wooded hillside, ducking under branches and clinging on for dear life was actually a highlight of the whole trip. As was the warm shower that followed. And the relief of knowing I wouldn’t have to face another night in a tent.

But mostly I felt such a failure.

I thought of all those people at home wishing me luck, willing me on and longing to hear how it went. What will I say?

I thought of all that training and planning and prepping. For what? I always thought this challenge would be tough, but I didn’t think I’d ever fail to complete it. And suddenly there I was back in the hotel in Rovaniemi without so much as a blister or a twinged muscle.

I thought of all the others soldiering on out there, completing the trek. How will I face them? The next day, those of us who had left the trek early (I was not alone) would take a taxi up to the Arctic Snow Hotel, stride out across the lake to meet our intrepid friends and walk the last half mile with them to the finish line. For that, I would have to summon a very different kind of courage, to bury my humiliation and enjoy everyone’s elation – graciously celebrating the achievement I had so desperately wanted for myself.

That experience was actually far more joyous than I had anticipated. Seeing Sarah staggering towards me through the snow was an amazing moment, and I felt genuine pride, delight and awe in seeing her cross the line. But I can’t say it wasn’t tinged with envy.

CHAS finnish line.JPG

I knew I should console myself that it wasn’t my fault; that no amount of training could have prepared my body for that cold; that I could not have brought better kit (other than that ruddy headtorch); that this challenge was always about taking myself outside my comfort zone, whether or not I completed it, and that I had done. But in the immediate aftermath, none of that felt like any consolation at all.

The only consolation is that I was right all along: I do not do camping.

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 (aussieinthearctic.com)

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 

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