At -35°C the Right Equipment is Rather Essential

Armed with a sled, 60 earl grey tea bags, and 6 months of preparations, one gentleman decides to seek solitude in the icy heart of Sarek National Park, within the arctic circle.  With the mercury dropping below -35oC, only the fluffiest mittens will do.

Prepared spares kits and MSR stove components

With temperatures below -35oC often found during February in Sweden’s National Park of Sarek, equipment preparations for going solo would had to be rigorous.  While this ski expedition was different from anything I had done before, I could draw on my mountaineering and winter hiking experience and combine this with endless hours of research behind the screen.  A key focus was reducing the amount of work required to result in tea, water and hot food at the end of a long, cold day; this could potentially be a lifesaver.  Thus, three main tasks needed to be optimised: pitching the tent, erecting the ‘bed,’ and firing up the stove.

“At the end of a long, cold day; this could potentially be a lifesaver”

To speed up the pitching of the ‘HillePalace,’ as we have named our Hilleberg Keron 3, I leave the poles in the tent sleeves, half folded back with all other joints taped together, and the snow stakes tied to the guy ropes ‘deadman’ style (this is where the peg is tied off from the middle and buried horizontally, rather than slid in vertically).  The whole assembly is stored rolled-up together into an arctic sausage, which slips perfectly into my ski bag as if designed for the purpose, ready to be rolled out and staked at the drop of a hat.  Once in the HillePalace; my Thermarest NeoAir mat is immensely comfortable but a true pain in the backside to inflate, my stupendously warm (when dry) Mountain Equipment Redline sleeping bag takes time to re-loft after being compressed, and the whole thing needs to be fought with in the morning to return to its packaging.  Thus, the clever Scandies came up with the concept of having a large mattress-shaped bag, which is strapped to the top of one’s pulk, filled with the already prepared collection of sleeping mats, pillow and bag, waiting for you to flop onto immediately once dragged into the tent.  It even contains handy pockets for stashing daytime essentials while on the move, such as a flask of earl grey or a handy map and compass.

The final barrier to replenishing tea supplies, aside from harvesting some local snow of white variety, is getting the stove roaring; with such low temperatures, this requires liquid fuel stoves which are hardly ‘fire and go.’  To reduce the time spent assembling the stove, while each time risking the o-rings, I mounted the whole assembly ready-built onto a special insulating board.  This can mount either of my deafening, but normally reliable, MSR stoves (XGK-EX and Dragonfly) with any size of fuel bottle, ready to be pulled straight out of the cooking box and into the porch for lift-off.  Having everything nipped up also means the working stove, complete with fuel bottle, windshield, heat-exchanger and pot, can also be moved easily; extremely helpful in preventing tent shaped fires when things get a little flarey.

Curled up in my Redline world-of-down, feeling the cold during the night should have been very low on my list of worries; it’s rated to a chilly -45oC (oh how wrong I was!  Read more about this in Sarek Part 1).  When actually skiing I produce so much body heat, that nearby glaciers will retreat.  However, when stationary outside of the tent, such as on a snack & drinks stop or while milling about camp, the arctic cold can quickly chill my bones; especially if I am drenched with sweat from previous skiing exertion.  During ski breaks I have a light but effective Mountain Equipment jacket with synthetic insulation at my disposal to try and capture some of that working-heat, while full merino-on-skin ensures that sweat is quickly wicked, at least away from the skin.  For around camp at night time, such as when northern light viewing, I have my pillowy North Face Himalayan ´summit mitts´ for toasty hands, while I also treated myself to a set of huge, moon-rated, down expedition boots from Western Mountaineering.  Outside on cold nights, I can be wearing so much down, I could be mistaken for a goose.

I can be wearing so much down, I could be mistaken for a goose.”

Dinning on purely dried foods for almost two weeks can get tiring quickly if not addressed with sufficient variation and enhancement.  My usual selection of eastern focused freeze-dried meals is very tasty, however, a couple of mini bottles of in-house spice mixes add some much needed punch and burn that keeps the food exciting, even in repetition.  One bottle, aptly labelled ´Asian,´ is particularly Indian focused with lashings of cardamom and coconut, aside from the usual Indian spices, while my ´Western´ bottle is heavy on the cumin, chilli and smoked paprika, amongst others, to compliment both Central American and North African cuisines.

For breakfast, I blend four different flavours of porridge into individual ‘brekkie-bags,’ complete with powdered milk.  Chocolate and coconut feature heavily in this menu, the latter being inspired by a lovely girl in Argentina who would sneak us the left-over coconut porridge from one of the organised ´full board´ expeditions at a lower camp on Aconcagua.  Finally, I throw in a few pork ‘n’ bean portions into my breakfast menu to break-up a lifetime of porridge.  I am yet to discover a company which does a full-English breakfast in freeze dried form, but if any such company does exist and is reading this, I will be more than happy to be your brand ambassador; just don´t expect high mileage the days after eating your breakfast!

Making the various porridge portions for my expedition breakfasts

One of the conditions for me getting ´permission´ from my general manager and partner, Alexandra, to go on such a trip alone is that I am able to call for help if something unmanageable should occur, and mobile phones are no use so far from civilisation.  With a parallel need to have a sane backup to my usual map and compass, I opted to invest in a Garmin GPSMAP 66i which, aside from being a top end GPS navigator, is capable of worldwide communication & SOS via InReach and the Iridium satellite network.  It might seem a little nostalgic to revert back to text messages limited to 160 characters, but as I am currently not spending months away from loved ones crossing the Antarctic plateau, there is scant need for a full-blown satellite phone.

The 66i is an incredibly tough and capable unit, but unfortunately the in-built ‘topo’active maps are about as much use as an empty wine bottle.  They display no contours or any other indicator of slope, which is clearly of importance in mountainous terrain, and is frankly the whole purpose of such a device as a map replicator.  However, this is swiftly solved with the addition of some genuinely topographic maps from the comically named, but deceptively professional ‘Talky Toaster.’  In a terrain such as Sarek’s, when the visibility is good, route finding can as easy as following the guide of the flowing valleys.  Conversely, when everything whites-out in Sarek, keeping off the wrong slopes or unfrozen lake sections can be extremely critical.  One other handy advantage of my Garmin 66i is that it can leave a virtual breadcrumb trail that Hansel and Gretel would be jealous of; handy for search and rescue, should something happen to me where I can’t activate the SOS, and also for followers to track my progress via my map-share page.

With all this diligent equipment preparation and training, one might be lulled into the false sense that nothing could possibly go wrong.  However, nature is unpredictable and infrequently tackled challenges such as this are tough for a good reason.  Curious how events panned out?  Read my Sarek Expedition post to find out.

Other posts you might be interested in

Canyon View with binoculars

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