It is 1st December late in the evening. After a long 19 hour travel from Dubai to Buenos Aires we are now in our hotel, a new and nice Holiday Inn. I am sorting out pictures to go with Sarah’s blog and sending it to GulfNews. If all goes well you can read it on their website tomorrow.
On Friday evening the 30th November the breast cancer survivors and members of the Jewels of Antarctica team, gathered at the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel to celebrate their last night in civilization, and the beginning of what will no doubt be an experience of a lifetime for every one of them
After my husbands alarm went off this morning at 6:00 am, I slowly but surely started to surface. Just as I was about to exit my sleepy haze, it suddenly dawned on me that there were only 3 days to go. My eyes shot open like catapults and I sat up, as a bit of anxiety started to claw at my stomach.
I didn’t get a terribly good nights sleep last night because I couldn’t put my mind to rest. I kept on going over the things that I still need to do before I leave. Not just that, I kept thinking about what I still have to put in my kit bag. This has been a source of angst for me. Considering the fact that we can all only take 15 kg with us, the whole team is acutely aware of how carefully they have to pack. The good news is that most of my things are in, with just the last minute things to throw in like pyjamas, toiletries etc, and I am currently sitting at 10.5 kg. I don’t think I’ll go over 12 kg’s but you never know.
In the mean time, I have been running around like a rabid chicken with it’s head cut off. My husband the dear person that he is, is not exactly the domestic type. This has forced me to resort to cooking myself to an absolute standstill for days on end, making Lasagne’s, Spaghetti’s, Chicken Biryani’s and Macaroni Cheese in these foiled containers that you get in the supermarket, and them putting them in the freezer so that my family doesn’t starve to death while I’m off sailing the seven seas. Although my husband does at least know how to operate the washing machine, tumble dryer, dishwasher and oven, for safety measures I’ve transformed my 15 year old daughter into a domestic goddess who is now very well versed in operating home appliances…in fact it’s coming out of her ears. She also has strict instructions to switch certain things off after they’ve been used, otherwise it won’t be a matter of starving to death, but burning to death.
There is also the issue of looking after the animals, as the end of my expedition on the 14th of December runs straight into a 4 week holiday visiting family and friends in South Africa. This means that the animals have to be booked into a shelter. I have to make sure my husband remembers to do this. I have written a reminder on a post-it note which I’ve stuck to our home computer screen so that he doesn’t forget, as I won’t be here in the UAE to do it for us. Then there is also the issue of packing not just my kit bag for Antarctica (as if that isn’t enough). There is also currently a huge red suitcase sprawled open on my bed where I now have to change my mindset and pack for a summer getaway. How surreal and contradictory is that?Anyone’s head spinning yet? Mine certainly is!!!
In between all of this bedlam, I also somehow by some small miracle have to fit my training in. This week my three daughters have been in the throes of exams, and apart from tensions and emotions running much higher than usual, their school days have been ending at 12:30 pm instead of the usual 3:00 pm. In short right after fetching them from school, they walk in through the front door and my time and sanity flies out the back door. This week so far I have managed to squeeze two sessions in. Lets see how the rest of the week goes.
I lie in bed at night and also wonder what is going through the rest of the team members mind’s. Do they share the same anxieties I do? Are they also having sleepless nights wondering whether they are remembering everything and ticking off in their minds what they still need to pack in?
What I do know is that excitement is reaching fever pitch and so the questions remain. How much sleep will any of us get in the next three days? How many of us will be restlessly circling our kit bags at 1:00 am making double sure that we haven’t forgotten anything? That remains to be seen.
Although some of the team members couldn’t make it yesterday, six of us did manage to squeeze in one last training session on the slopes of Ski Dubai before setting sail on Saturday. It’s amazing what a big difference 1 day can make. Yesterday we were all marvelling at how time flies and that this trip is now suddenly only 1 week away and looming on top of us. Today however, marks 6 days. ONLY 6 DAYS TO GO!!!
We all arrived at 7:45 am and after donning our gear, made a dash for the slopes. After doing our usual warm-ups we started our climb to the very top. As we arrived at our destination huffing and puffing (well, some of us anyway) we looked to our right and immediately felt a rush of empathy hitting home. A small camp of two tents had been set up and marked off. This had been us not long ago and we all knew only too well, as one bleary eyed face made an appearance at the entrance to one of the tents that these poor people had probably not got much sleep the night before.
They were however there for a very worthy and admirable cause. The motto they go by is ‘Climb for cancer’, and they are a group of people who are tackling the 7 summits in order to raise funds for cancer research. They work alongside the King Hussain Cancer Foundation and in 3 weeks time they will be bravely taking on the slopes of Mount Akoncagua in Argentina which will be for the sole purpose of raising funds for childhood cancer. Some of the members of this amazing team reign from Lebanon and Jordan. I don’t think we need to wish them any luck in conquering this next summit, because they already have all the motivation and reason in the world to reach the top. You go guys!!! We’re cheering you on every step of the way!
After walking up and down the top slope several times and posing for Astrid in between, Julie decided to pull out a little surprise from her backpack…in the form of several black plastic packets. It took me a few puzzling moments of wondering what the purpose for them was. She soon showed me when she methodically spread one out on the ground at the top of the slope, sat down on it and grabbing the front went sliding at a rate of knots on her behind right to the bottom of the slope. Like a virulent flu virus, this very quickly became contagious as Taghrid, Frida, Laurie and Astrid followed Julie’s example. Each grabbed a black plastic bag and swiftly got in touch with their inner child once again, sailing down the slope with feet in the air like there wasn’t a care in the world, whilst shrieks of joy and exhilaration could be heard. What incredible fun!! Astrid decided to go one step further, as she completely reverted back to her childhood and proceeded to slide not only down the top slopes but all of them…right to the bottom, which she did much to the rest of our amusement. Thanks for the entertainment Astrid!
By that time it was 9:00 am and time for us to hot leg it off the slopes as Ski Dubai doesn’t want a walking team on the same snow that the skiing and snowboarding public are using. But an early skier took the opportunity to show off his skills and gave us a scare, as he whooshed past Taghrid, missing her by inches!!
Right before I exited the slope I turned back to savour the moment. In my minds eye I witnessed us all warming up, putting snow shoes on and walking on the rope, trekking up and down the slopes, posing for photographs and on some occasions slipping and falling on our bottoms as we posed for Astrid on one of those benches. I looked to the very bottom where the fun park is and saw out tents all pitched up as we hunkered down for that very cold and sleepless night. I could hear the talking, the laughter, the joy and could literally reach out and touch the excitement. So much has gone to pass for all of us here in Ski Dubai as we’ve spent months preparing for this expedition and in the process, have gathered so many happy, joyous and precious memories that none of us will ever forget and which we will no doubt always hold very close to out hearts. The moment of truth is 6 days away, with some uncertainties for all of us to deal with but what I do know in my heart is that no matter what the upcoming two weeks throw at us, we will get through it with ease. We’ve already been through the worst of it. The rest is a walk in the park.
We had coffee after we’d all got changed where we discussed last minute concerns and where Fatima very kindly gave all of us a lovely wrap/skirt/dress to wear whenever, where ever. So kind of you, thank you Fatima! I know exactly when I’ll be using mine. With that, we all bid each other farewell and went our separate ways. Before I left I turned back and shouted ‘Happy packing’. With just 6 days to go, lets hope there are no hitches on that front.
Living with the knowledge that you still have breast cancer in your body after all your treatments have finished, and there are no more doctors and nurses fussing over you and providing a safety net, is a very delicate psychological and emotional balance. It takes time, practice and a colossal effort to keep your thoughts in check whilst keeping a lid on your emotions and not letting them or your imagination run away with you. What can become an all-encompassing fear needs to take its rightful place in your mind, otherwise it takes over every facet of your life and prevents you from living the way you’re supposed to. Simple existence takes over and you are no longer in control and consciously living your life the way you are meant to, or want to for that matter.
That practice and effort that I mentioned came in handy last week Monday when I had to have one of my four monthly re-evaluations. I went in and had a CT scan done plus two vials of blood taken. As it turned out, it had been five months since my last check up, which is the longest stretch I’ve ever gone through without some sort of test. For the first couple of days afterwards I handled it the same way I have always done…with a ‘what will be, will be’ attitude. On Monday morning (1 week later) however while I was waiting outside my doctors office to hear the verdict, my heart was pounding in my chest and my mouth and throat were as dry as the desert…I was holding on by a thread. This time around there was a lot more at stake and it was more crucial than ever that my body hold it together. If something was wrong now and my situation were to change drastically with the doctor having to review my treatment options, I really didn’t know how I was going to react or handle it. A million thoughts and possibilities were tumbling around in my head like a tumble dryer stuck on an endless cycle. What if my doctor told me I had to do chemotherapy again and as a result, I couldn’t travel to Antarctica right now.
I put my elbows on my knees with my head in my hands and tried to slow down and quiet my thoughts again. One thing I did know without any shadow of a doubt was that if the doctor told me I couldn’t go anywhere, I was going to defy him and refuse treatment…for now anyway. I had invested too much in this expedition to back out now. There was no way in hell that I was going to allow my body to let me down AGAIN!
In the meantime, with just 10 days to go before we leave for Antarctica, I am very pleased (and relieved) to announce that after a last-minute scramble in the sports shops of Mirdif City Centre over this last weekend, I have finally scraped together everything that I will need for the trip. I managed to source the much coveted pink, non-slip inner gloves that I had been searching high and low for, as well as a fantastic pair of boots. After walking around with them on in the sports shop for five minutes, I knew that they were the one’s for me. Toasty and comfortable, there is no doubt that my feet will be warm and well taken care of even after hours of hiking.
My kit bag is now sitting on the floor in the corner of my bedroom, half packed. Every time I look over at it, a surge of anticipation and excitement wells up in the pit of my stomach. It’s as if it is beckoning for me to just run over, grab it and make a beeline for the door. All I need to do now is just add the last bits and pieces to it and then I’m set. We are going to use the opportunity to put a last training session in at Ski Dubai this coming Saturday 24th, and then it is officially only 1 week before we leave. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m going to savour this last week and every exciting moment that it brings in the build up to it, especially after my doctor has told me that everything is absolutely fine, and that my test results were very good! Nothing has changed and everything is as it should be. I have the full go ahead to travel and live my life to the very fullest. My kit bag sitting on the floor in my bedroom is no longer beckoning, it is screaming!
We resembled pack horses as we all lugged our bags into the frigid environment of Ski Dubai. Following hot on our heels was Sama TV and Abu Dhabi TV who filmed us setting up camp and spreading out sponsorship and various country flags in the ski park at the foot of the slopes.
Morag had generously brought along a pink plastic champagne flute for everybody, each with a pink ribbon tied around the bottom of the stem, which we drank sparkling fruit juice out of. That was followed by a photo shoot with awesome Astrid behind the lens as usual, with each of the photo’s including the banners of our sponsors. Once that was over, I started feeling tired. When I looked down at my watch I realised why. It was 11:45 pm. Luckily everyone had decided at that point that it was time to try and get some sleep, but first is was time to pop up to Starbucks and fill out Thermos flasks with hot chocolate and as was the case with some of us, our tummies too.
Right after that we all climbed into our tents and hunkered down in our sleeping bags and closed our eyes. Mmmmm. I don’t know about everybody else there, but I at least expected to sleep in relative darkness. Julie had after all told us to bring torches along so we could find our way if nature called, but luck was not on our side. Those light didn’t go out…they didn’t even dim. On top of that, there was the noise of the snow machines. At first it wasn’t so bad, but after an hour they started sounding to me like something out of Texas Chainsaw massacre. So after closing my eyes for 2 hours, I was still no closer to going to sleep. I slept in a tent with Taghrid who turned out to be the best room mate ever. Every time I opened my eyes, she would open hers and all we could do was burst out laughing. Was this some kind of sensory overload experiment?
Half way through the night three of the team members, Frida, Morag and Jayne came to terms with the fact that they weren’t destined to get any sleep and so climbed out of their tents and defrosted as they wandered around the deserted Mall of the Emirates.
I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag in a desperate bid to get comfortable, but the two Yoga mats that I was sleeping on didn’t exactly qualify as an orthopaedic mattress. About two hours before we were due to rise and shine, I noticed that the roof of the tent had gradually been caving in with the weight of the snow until it was just centimetres from our heads, so lying on my back I kicked up as hard as I could with my legs, which dislodged most of it. By that time I was also starting to notice that my toes were starting to feel the cold again and weren’t as warm as they were a few hours back. I needed to start moving around.
Julie’s wakeup call at 7:00 am was most welcome. Dragging our wary bodies out of our tents, we worked as a team to pack up camp. We then hit the slopes to fit in yet another training session where we all climbed to the very top. I remember half way up saying to myself over and over again, ‘You can do this…come on, just one more step.’ Huffing and puffing to the very top gave me, and I’m pretty sure everybody else too a great sense of accomplishment. We topped it off with a lovely hot and comforting cup of coffee halfway up the slope at Ski Dubai’s Avalanche cafe.
Looking back on this camp out, although it was sleepless and undeniably exhausting, there were also some valuable lessons to be gained by it all, and most importantly an incredible sense of anticipation…that it was all starting to come to a head. I think that from a psychological perspective this camp out was just as essential for all of us, as all the months and weeks of physical training we’ve been putting in to prepare ourselves for the expedition of a lifetime.
Gulfnews is the exclusive media partner during our journey to the South Pole. Read the travel blog on Gulfnews.com:
More to come in the next 12 days.
I have always been a bit of a free and adventurous spirit. As a child I needed constant change and there was never a week that went by where I wasn’t moving the furniture around in my room. After having said that, although I have travelled to several countries and consider exploration and curiosity a natural fixture of my character, I certainly have never undertaken an expedition of this scale.
I was pretty certain from the beginning that given what I’ve already been through I could handle the psychological and emotional demands that an expedition like this entails. Being able to handle the physical rigours was another story all together. With that, I rapidly plunged myself into a training routine here at home. Luckily for me I had been exercising for about a year previously, not only to gain back my physical strength from the cancer treatments that had sucked the life out of me, but also as part of a weight loss program that my dietician had put me on.
However the real wake-up call was yet to come when after our first training session at Ski Dubai on the 6thOctober, I woke up the next morning feeling muscles in my legs and other unmentionable places that I’d long ago forgotten existed. Add to that the fact that Julie mentioned at the meeting right after that session, that if we are to stand up to the challenges of going mountaineering, that we need to be able to walk for 6-7 hours straight up some moderately steep hills, and that’s carrying a backpack!! That was when I realised that I needed to step up my game plan and start training even harder.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer once is bad enough, but to relapse 5 years later just as you’re starting to relax and breathe again and think you’re home free, is incomprehensible. After that happened to me, I lost all faith in my body and life. I spent countless hours, days and weeks wasting good energy on cursing God and mother-nature for doing this to me and thanking them for the raw deal that they’d handed to me. As with most traumatic events in life though, I eventually reached the acceptance stage where I had to just suck it up and get on with my treatments and make the most of my situation but I never quite got my faith back, especially in my body.
Training for Antarctica has helped me tremendously in getting to know my body again and for the first time in what seems like an eternity, I am experiencing the joy of movement and strength and just marvelling at the sheer mechanics of this amazing creation…our bodies. I guess you could call it reclaiming my faith, health and life again.
I am now doing incline walking on my treadmill for an hour 4-5 times a week, followed by strengthening exercises like lunges, core strengthening, arm and back exercises and then stretching to finish off with. With just 2 weeks to go before we embark on this incredible adventure there is no time to waste, and I cannot go all the way to the ends of the earth and not participate in all the activities and that includes the mountaineering. With that, I have made up my mind to just work as hard as I can and I aim to conquer those mountain tops the way I have conquered breast cancer twice so far.