During the last week of January, our MD Claire was a long way from Hertfordshire – she was 150km south of the Arctic Circle in Ostersund, Sweden. Not content with the typical wet British winter, Claire was getting ready to take on an Arctic Survival Challenge, heading off into the wilderness to live off the grid, test her survival instinct and learn all about life in this challenging environment.
‘But why’, we hear you ask?! Well, despite Sweden being a very beautiful country with fantastic stargazing opportunities and miles of open space, a few miles closer to home is an amazing charity called Home-Start Hertfordshire.
All for a good cause
They help families in difficulty by putting volunteers into homes for a few hours a week to act as mentors, helping to prevent issues from becoming bigger problems. Claire’s mission was to raise much-needed funds for Home-Start Hertfordshire, setting herself a target of £5,000 to donate to the charity. Thanks to the generous support of friends, family, colleagues and total strangers, she has, to date, raised a whopping £4,665.00, just shy of her target.
One thing’s for sure, Claire never shies away from a challenge. She completed a trek in India back in 2010 and Vietnam in 2015, raising funds for local causes on both occasions and with the same company as her Arctic Challenge, ‘Different Travel’. She’s very grateful to her team of colleagues who continue to “keep the Austin’s ship on course” in her absence, enabling her to embark on these adventures and help so many in the process. In fact, Home-Start Stevenage (as it was called) was Austin’s first ever Charity of the Year back in 2002.
Ready for the off
With an emergency whistle, camping mat, toilet tissue and her “very expensive but very worthwhile” duck-down jacket all safely packed, Claire flew out to Sweden ready for her challenge to start. She met with her fellow adventurers on arrival and had a few days adjusting to life in this environment, from learning how to get around on cross-country skis, to finding food, lighting fires and building shelters.
“There was a real mix of ages,” says Claire, “from 23-67. It was a test of personality because you quickly worked out who you would work well with and who you probably wouldn’t!”
Given the harsh environment, with temperatures dipping to -11 degrees, teamwork was going to be key once the three day survival challenge got underway.
“We spent the first few days in a log cabin,” says Claire. “There was no electricity so everything was by torch or candlelight and we spent our time lighting fires and keeping warm!”
“I hadn’t realised how inhibiting the darkness would be,” she says. “It was only light between 9.30am and 3.30pm everyday. Although the skies at night were just spectacular.”
Let the challenge commence
The ‘luxuries’ of the log cabin were soon a distant memory as the team set out into the wilderness with their bare essentials, camping mats and sleeping bags, which would keep them warm down to around -50 degrees!
The first night was spent in a traditional Scandi tent with a log burner in the middle. “We had to keep the log burner going, so took it in turns to get up through the night. We also had to melt the snow for water,” explains Claire.
“It was cold that night but I did sleep. I’m lucky that I can sleep anywhere!” And it was a good job Claire did sleep, as the team had spent some of the day starting construction on the ‘quinzee’, or snow hole, that would be the final night’s accommodation.
“We had to start building it two days before to allow the snow structure to freeze solid,” she explains.
The second night’s accommodation was a little more rustic than the tent – and took the whole day to build. It was an A-frame shelter made out of the surrounding trees, complete with a trench in the middle for a fire.
“We spent the day collecting, sawing and chopping wood. We had an open fire and a window to the stars!
“This was my best night’s sleep – I got 10 hours and had to be woken up! We didn’t have to keep the fire going that night so we all got a good rest.”
By now, all that fresh air and hard work was starting to take its toll. Claire and the team were living on sachets of food that they just added hot water to. Each one provided around 600-700 calories per person. “They weren’t too bad!” says Claire, “we had all sorts including pasta dishes!”
As Friday night came around the snow hole was ready for occupation.
The team had been tunnelling the hole with spades and ice axes to carve a domed ceiling. They then made a couple of entrances and put a ski pole up into the roof for ventilation.
Once inside they had to light a candle to ensure there was enough oxygen present for all eight of them sleeping inside. Of course this meant it was back to ‘candle watch’ with Claire on the 4.30am shift!
On Saturday morning the team returned to the log cabin where the sauna, hot tub and a proper meal were ready to greet them. And by Monday morning Claire was back in the Austin’s office!
If you’d like to make a donation to Home-Start Hertfordshire you can still do so via Claire’s Virgin Money Giving page at https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/ClaireAustinHope
Thank you so much to everyone who has already donated and offered Claire so many words of support.