It was, without doubt, the most miserable night of my life.
Flimsy nylon flapped in the wind. I stumbled through the snow in the fading purple of dusk, trying to anchor one corner of the tent to a pannier, another to a bicycle wheel, another to a tree branch; all the while wearing mittens designed for skiing. My hands would freeze if I removed them. It had been -33°C when I’d stopped riding, here, in February, in Røros, the coldest valley in Norway – and the mercury was still dropping.
I fumbled with the tent pegs. I might as well have used toothpicks for all the use they were in the stratified layers of sugary snow. The tent bounced around in the spindrift. Then the tent’s stuff-sack was torn from my hands and within seconds had disappeared across the snow-covered fields. I turned to the wind and roared.
Dinner. Cheap frozen sausages and instant noodles. All I could afford in this corner of Scandinavia where a hostel bed cost a hundred Euros. By the time I’d eaten half, the remainder was solid. A perfect circle of manufactured protein and carbohydrate, embedded in delicately seasoned ice.
I lay down to sleep. The yellow fabric of the tent billowed manically. Deafeningly. And I wondered, not for the first time, if I would survive the night. It would be less miserable, perhaps, simply to die here. At least then the suffering would be over.
The next day I pedalled to the border with Sweden. Like most back-road border crossings in developed Europe it was a deeply anticlimactic arrival: a metal road sign expressing a bleak, emotionless welcome message; a couple of drab-looking buildings; a limp flag; no people.
Then, in a small village a few miles beyond the border, I met Andreas.
Andreas took one look at me, propped up his skis, introduced himself and invited me into a small cafe. Over coffee he quizzed me on my journey as my face overheated and turned bright red in the warmth. I told him about the previous evening’s dramas and the preceding week of trying to anchor a 3-season tent in deep snow every night. He nodded wordlessly. Then he told me to follow him.
Andreas opened the door of his workshop, went inside, and emerged with a set of Hilleberg snow stakes and a vapour barrier liner for my sleeping bag. He placed them in my hands.
Deeply concerned for my safety, the Swedish mountain guide then instructed me in their proper use, giving me a crash course in deep winter camping in the process, advising me to orient my tent to the wind, to trample down the snow before pitching, to do sit-ups in my sleeping bag before bed, and to eat fat, not carbohydrates, in the evenings, as the energy would keep me warm for longer – these among many other things I had not known when I arrived in Norway earlier that month to cycle to the Arctic Circle.
Andreas saw somebody in need, saw an immediate way to help, and acted upon it spontaneously, expecting nothing in return.
He did for me what hundreds of others I might recall from my time pedalling the world’s roads have done. And it is a source of continuing anguish for me that I will never be able to repay the primordial debt I feel I owe to the universe for these experiences. It has inspired me to do my best to help others in need, simply as and when I can, even though those opportunities tend to be disappointingly infrequent in daily life.
There is a point to all of this. For right now, hundreds (if not thousands) of us in the adventure community are in a position to help someone in a very similar kind of need. That someone is unlikely to be known personally to any of us, but that does not diminish their situation one bit.
I am talking of someone who, like I did, faces the prospect of spending the winter outdoors with insufficient equipment to do so safely and comfortably. Almost all of us in the adventure community could spare a fleece, a sleeping bag, an old tent, or some other such item of equipment to make that someone’s winter slightly less dangerous and slightly less miserable.
This someone is, right now, at a moment in a much longer and more complicated story – one which has caused them to leave everything they know and travel to a place they know nothing about, simply because it’s the only way they can imagine a safe and viable future for themselves, their own government not just having let them down but turned violently against them. I personally know several such people, and suffice it to say that there isn’t a political generalisation on Earth – of any leaning – that can do justice to their stories.
But that too is irrelevant. This is, quite simply, about helping someone avoid freezing to death over the coming months as they prepare to spend the winter outdoors.
If you are in or near London, the time to act is now.
Specifically, it is on Wednesday night, when two very experienced world cyclists (also both very good friends of mine) will be holding an evening of talks by seasoned adventure veterans on the theme of the kindness of strangers.
By buying a ticket and turning up – or even simply by making a donation – you will be helping raise funds to collectively do for a vulnerable group of people what Andreas did for me.
By turning up with a spare sleeping bag, down jacket, camping mat, tent, blanket, fleece, warm hat, or any other item of cold weather equipment, you’ll be adding tangibly to the collection of winter gear that will be driven directly from the venue to that someone in need.
I cannot be there myself. But I have collected and donated a bin liner’s worth of equipment from my gear cupboard, as well as from my own friends and family.
If you attend just one night of adventure talks in London this year, please, please make it this one. For the kindness of strangers is something upon which – at one point of another – all of us will depend.