School principal takes on gruelling Arctic Challenge for charity

Story by Sally Harding

Tuesday, 16th April, 2019 3:55pm

School principal takes on gruelling Arctic Challenge for charity

The team that travelled to the Arctic Circle and (right) Mary Kennelly and Livina Gilsenan.

 A primary school principal and a teacher from Kells were amongst a group of 30 formidable women who braved the wilds of the Arctic Circle on a gruelling six-day challenge for charity.  

Mary Kennelly, principal of Drumbaragh NS in Kells and Lavina Gilsenan a teacher from Kilskyre last month travelled to northern Finland where they survived an arduous trek in sub-zero temperatures to raise funds for the Debra Ireland Arctic Challenge. 

The women had to source their own water, build their own fires, sleep in tents and ski cross-country extensively, all in freezing temperatures that plummeted as low as -20C.

The teachers took on the challenge for Debra Ireland, a national charity that supports children and families with EB. EB (Epidermolysis Bullosa) is a lifelong genetic skin disorder, affecting about 300 people in Ireland, mostly children. This rare debilitating condition currently has no cure, resulting in blistering, bleeding and unimaginable pain from birth.

Accepting the challenge was the easy part but the realisation of what was to follow quickly set in as Lavina explains,


The group during their trek

“There was a nine-month training schedule to develop fitness, strength, endurance and mental capacity to live without basic necessities. We completed a number of mountain hikes in the Wicklow and Mourne Mountains to assess fitness and develop team building skills. 

“We had to revise our diets to include increased calories for energy and we learned how our bodies react and cope with the harshest of conditions. -34 degrees with a wind-chill of -45 degrees, recorded two weeks before we travelled, meant that hypothermia on our camp out night was fast becoming a possibility. 

 As well as the physical training, the ladies also had another challenge, that of a fundraising capacity. 

“We had to raise €11,000 between us. We organised coffee mornings, 5k runs, Halloween discos, bucket collections, personal sponsors and some local business kindly donated raffle prizes and vouchers. Our biggest fundraiser was our Bubble Wrap Challenge which took place in St. Tola’s NS, Delvin, where I work. This event was aired on LMFM and raised over €2,300 which was a phenomenal success.”


The team that travelled to the Arctic Circle and (right) Mary Kennelly and Livina Gilsenan.

The adventurer says that although it was a large sum to raise they were blessed with the generosity of their local communities and the end goal made them determined to meet their target.

“We wanted to stand in solidarity with the 300 mothers in Ireland who face the gruelling daily challenge of tending to their child’s blisters, bleeding and tears while changing their painful bandages.

“The funds raised go to vital services such as their EB Community Care Programme, which funds nurses visiting patients at home providing care and advice, and their Family Support Worker who advocates on behalf of the family, providing peer support services.”

A poignant moment before they left for their expedition erased any doubt or fear on the challenge ahead as the primary school teacher explains,


Lavina and Mary smiling through the freezing temperatures

“Just before we made the trip, Debra Ireland showed us a video of Emma Fogarty, a patient ambassador for the charity who gave us a motivational talk but just before she did she had to dip her hand into an antiseptic liquid because her blisters were so painful. We were all so emotional. It was harrowing to hear her story and watch her in such pain but it made us more determined to go and complete the challenge.” 

Lavina is no stranger to the outdoor life having trained as a PE teacher and being involved in scout and cub groups but nothing quite prepared her for the unforgiving conditions in the Arctic. 

“The first days in Finland were dedicated to learning the skills needed to stay alive in a harsh environment. It was all building up to the expedition when we packed our sleds and headed off into the wilderness pulling sleeping equipment, food and clothing. Living in an old log cutters cabin with no running water, no electricity, outdoor compostable toilets and stoves fired up in each room to keep the -27 degrees at bay, was definitely out of our comfort zone.”

“The hike was about 15 - 20km and took five hours in freezing conditions wind chill factor. Along the way, we spotted a steep hill that turned out to be a 1km uphill climb. When times got tough and they often did, I thought of the children who are living with EB. 

“We arrived at the camp into snow that was a metre and a half deep and we were constantly sinking.”


Northern Finland

The group had just basic camping equipment, a sleeping bag and ski attire to combat the harsh arctic conditions.

“We were in teams of six, while some of us were setting up tents others were going to find wood for the campfire and others were melting snow so we could have water to add to our dried food. That was a very slow process because there is only 10% moisture in the snow so if you were looking for a half litre per person, there is an awful lot of snow to melt!
 “All we had to keep warm were the clothes that we were wearing, there was no other source of heat. It was all about layering.”

 Despite the freezing temperatures, the group braved the night outside and even managed to get some sleep,


Camping out for the night

“It was -15 when we woke up the next morning and it was a very quiet camp because on the journey to the campsite spirits were high in anticipation and the adrenaline was keeping us all going but now we knew what was ahead of us on the way back. The novelty had gone and you were thinking about having to trek back.

 “A lot of people had a very reflective return trip.  You are thinking about all of the things that got you there and all of the things that happened and how this might change you. You realise that you have greater limitations than you thought. It's quite a surreal time. You are thinking about how you'll never experience this again and be in these sub-zero conditions on a campsite on a frozen lake.

 “It's a life-changing experience and we will forever cherish the memories made there. Knowing that it has made a difference for children living with EB makes it all worthwhile.”