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Eastbourne blind woman
achieves 60k ‘mush’ above Arctic circle

AN EASTBOURNE woman has become the first blind person to attempt to mush an eight-strong team of husky sled dogs above the Arctic circle. With the help of the expedition leader, Lisa Dainton stood on the sled runners for over half the distance, as her dog team mushed 120 kilometres across the Arctic wilderness.

Lisa, 31, who has been blind since birth, works as a sound recordist for National Talking Newspapers at their studios in Heathfield, East Sussex. Driven by the spirit of adventure, Lisa previously made a tandem parachute jump to raise funds for the audio and computer services provided by the charity, which produces selections from newspapers and magazines in alternative formats for visually impaired people.

“I want to show sighted people what blind people can do, and encourage other blind people to try new things,” says Lisa, who can only identify some colours and outlines. To prepare for her Arctic journey, she worked out to exercise tapes at her home in Leaf Road, Eastbourne, to improve her overall fitness.

On 13 April, she left for Kiruna, northern Sweden, with 52-year-old Maggie Healy, who lives in the nearby village of Bishopstone, near Seaford, and works as fundraising co-ordinator for National Talking Newspapers. Maggie, a skier, took up archery to strengthen her upper body for the rigors of sledding.

After a day’s mushing training in Kiruna, they set out on a four-day trek towards the borders with Norway and Finland with other participants in the Arctic expedition, staying in very basic mushers’ lodges.

When conditions allowed, Lisa travelled on the runners with the leader, using the snow brake and weighting techniques to control and direct their team of huskies. Only when the terrain got tough did she have to relent and become a pillion passenger, shifting her body weight inside the sled, to help negotiate the twists and turns in the trail. “I clung on like mad at times, and only got thrown out once. Luckily, Jason was there to ensure my safety at all times.”

“We’d been warned that the huskies’ excitement at the prospect of a good day’s sledding peaks with a chorus of howling dogs, as they strain on their tethers to get running. Reality was an unbelievable level of noise and enthusiasm, and that first pull away as we left the lodge in the morning was tremendously strong. I even got to put my Swedish mushing commands into practice once we got going.”

The pair kept audio diaries and Maggie filmed every aspect of the trip from Lisa’s point of view. Lisa experienced many firsts: from husky feeding duties to rolling in the snow after the sauna, the only real way of getting clean in a place with no running water. “I’ve never been handed the matches to light a fire, but it was me who lit the stove in the meat-room to prepare the dogs’ dinner, and I was the only one to roll in the snow when the temperature went down to minus 11º.”

Lisa cannot claim the Guinness World Record for first blind solo musher, as safety dictated that she had support whilst driving the team across the icy wasteland. This has not stopped her raising a terrific amount for National Talking Newspapers, and she has already exceeded her sponsorship target of £15,000.