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 as low as -35oC, only the fluffiest mittens will do.
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From Hardangervidda to Sarek
Polar expeditions had long been on my mind, so, I started investigating polar training courses; many of which are held in Hardangervidda in March or April. However, with a general allergy to all things guided, it wasn’t long before I was making plans to do my own self-training course. Nothing beats getting out there and getting stuck in, if suitably prepared of course. Despite my usual propensity to approaching things solo, there was no way I could ignore inviting the majority portion of the terrible-trio. A meeting was set up with Guy and Ian, my friends from the London Mountaineering Club who I climbed Aconcagua with, and it didn’t take much persuading to get them on board, though Ian did take some convincing that starting out with kite-skiing across Greenland might be a little too bold as a first step. Team set, but not quite. The thought of me having a tent to myself as I filled the Vidda with my snoring was clearly too much to bear; for the sake of balance and adding a little sanity to the trip, we quickly settled that we should try and get Richard, a fellow club member, to join us. Though in reality, it was only his very understanding wife who required persuading, as he was quickly on board.
“The combination of 2020’s two biggest cock-ups plotted together to ruin our plans“
In the style of our Aconcagua trip we commenced with our usual bi-weekly video call sessions to update on logistics progress, equipment planning, training tips and general banter to get each other thoroughly aroused for the trip. For a few months progress had been going well, then, the combination of 2020’s two biggest cock-ups plotted together to ruin our plans; Brexit and Covid. With the threat of mass pandemic at our doorsteps, and a spectacularly short-sighted decision to leave the EU upon us, this meant that Norway was blocking the fjords to anyone without 27 star paperwork. From the 31st of December 2020, this unfortunately meant the little island of Britain. While I was saved with my dual British-Polish nationality, my friends were not so lucky. It looked as though the group trip would have to be postponed…
However, with so much anticipation built, I couldn’t set things aside for another year. The opportunity for something even more adventurous had just presented itself; I would continue with the expedition, but I would go solo. My mind was swiftly awash with all the myriad of elements that need to be considered; no relying on someone else for part of the planning, no replying on collective warmth in the night, no relying on someone else’s equipment in case of failure, no relying on someone going for help in case of an accident.Just me, alone, isolated in the cold. I felt the rush of excitement, mildly tempered by the fact that my next few months were going to be busy planning! Unlike most of my previous trips, I would be potentially days away from rescue so I would have to be more self-sufficient than ever before; nothing left to chance.
“Just me, alone, isolated in the cold.“
Over Christmas I discovered that the Norwegian government no longer considered mandatory isolation in a tent as sufficient, even if that tent is in the centre of Europe’s largest alpine plateau. A swift rethink lead to Sarek in Sweden; a region known for its beauty and remoteness. However, with beauty came more treacherous terrain, and with remoteness came harsher conditions. Sarek sits comfortably within the arctic circle, in Sweden’s portion of Lapland, which means in February the temperatures can be bitterly cold and daylight is limited. Sporting an impressive one hundred glaciers, Sarek is Europe’s oldest national park and is part of the area that the nomadic Sami herd their reindeer in the summer.
If I am totally honest, I didn’t know about the existence of Sarek until my research into Hardangervidda, at which point my old climbing chum Guy pointed it out as an option when it still looked like the rest of the team could join me. A simple tap of the keyboard will show that Sarek is a wonderfully carved and photogenic landscape, rarely captured in full winter dress. Situated in Sweden’s part of Lapland and within the Arctic Circle, Sarek is one of the most remote and northerly wildernesses in Europe. While I have no doubt that the eye watering scenery will comfortably outdo Hardangervidda in the viewing stakes, the now present avalanche risk from the towering slopes and the additional logistics certainly up the ante.
“Sarek is a wonderfully carved and photogenic landscape, rarely captured in full winter dress.“
Luckily, planning a route in Sarek, rather than Hardangervidda, is less freehand and more constrained by the natural lay of the land. The Rapadalen cuts a vast inviting entrance into the peak-strewn park, while a labyrinth of smaller valleys provides numerous options for navigating back through on the return. Getting to a suitable starting point can be a challenge due to the remoteness of the area. However, even in February there are a few cabins that one can rent, just a couple of days ski away from the entrance of the park. This makes for starting out, especially the final repacking, significantly more comfortable, but perhaps leaving my girlfriend beside a warm roaring fire a little more difficult.
Day 1 – Finally Heading out
After months of equipment research, pulling tyres, single-minded focus and general expectation, here I am standing in a parking area at the edge of the tiny village of Kvikkjokk, with a large blue pulk strapped to me. It can be a strange feeling to finally be at the crux of something that has occupied your mind for more than half a year. There is that niggle in the back of one´s mind, much the same as when one shuts the front door before going away on holiday; did I prepare everything properly and was nothing forgotten? I´ve read more than one account of people who´ve headed out into the wilderness, only to find three days in that they brought just one half-empty lighter. There is also the anticipation and excitement for what is to come. Was this finally happening? Was I really going to be setting out into Sarek, alone in winter? Aside from the odd long weekend hiking in Germany with my tent, I hadn´t got the solitude I occationally crave, for some time now. Covid had changed our lives in many ways, but for me it was really only the lack of travel and adventure that had got to me over the last twelve months; time to rectify that.
The temperature was a cool -20oC; noticeably colder than the previous days spent at the little wooden hut in Kvikkjokk, but the air was still with anticipation. The late morning sun was barely clambering above the snow-laden trees, but in its rays there was still a noticeable warmth. I set off slowly, with Alexandra in tow for the first kilometre as we said our goodbyes and she snapped her last photos of me for the family. The low angled light cast long elegant shadows and bathed the pristine landscape in a wonderful glow. Aside from the track I was on, the only signs of life were faint remnants of animal trails through the trees; some decidedly small, while others clearly belonged to the larger of Sweden´s native fauna.
After a final farewell, I continued up the rising hill at a steady pace, hauling the 35kg pulk up the various inclines of the snowmobile track. The first few hours already started to feel like a trial by fire, or perhaps more aptly, ice. My short ´kicker´ skins, sections of directional fur-like material under the skis to provide grip to move forward, repeated struggled for grip up the slope with my stubborn pulk pulling back against me, and despite the cold temperatures, I had worked up quite a sweat. While working hard in the mountains, even in such low temperatures, I am usually to be found in a state of undress more commonly observed in an Italian bistro. By the time I had reached the top of the climb in the early afternoon, my clothing was decidedly damp and my feet were already starting to ache and rub in the hard plastic alpine touring boots. Furthermore, one of the skins had started to peel away from the ski and my harness, absent of a crotch strap, was repeatedly riding up and causing annoyance. Two more weeks of this still to go, though this was never meant to be a stroll in Hyde Park.
“The first few hours already started to feel like a trial by fire, or perhaps more aptly, ice.”
At this point my route would take me away from the ease of the snowmobile track and into the forests, breaking trail through untouched snow. I hadn´t managed more than the length of a few rugby pitchs through the deep powder, chest high if not for the floatation of my wide skis, before I came to the first short uphill section off-trail. To my astonishment, I simply couldn´t get any traction in the deep snow and was stopped dead in my tracks. A few minutes of trying and not an inch of progress meant that I would most certainly have to swap to my climbing skins; gecko-like grip, but rather energy sucking. Given that it was already 2:30pm with sunset only an hour away, and warming of the skins would be required before regluing to my skis, I decided it would be sensible to make camp for the night and tackle the powder anew in the morning with the right skins.
I back tracked to a suitable flat area and started to stomp down the soft snow with my skis to make an area for my tent. However, the powder was so wind blown and deep that it was like trying to flatten a pit of goose feathers in a wind tunnel. I tried in vain for the best part of half an hour to compact the snow enough to be able to set the tent on it, even trying to dig down to firmer snow, but it was fruitless. The snow was the most unsticky, unconsolidated snow I ever had the misfortune to work with! Disheartened, I headed back to where I left the snowmobile tracks and used the harder snow there as a base for my slumber.
With the tent pitched with the last of the sun´s light, I settled down in my sleeping bag to start melting snow with my stove. Already I could tell that the kerosene I was forced to buy, due to an utterly surprising lack of refined camping petrol in the outdoor stores (it seems the Swedes have a penchant for primitive alcohol-based stoves), was going to be interesting, to put it politely. At these frigid temperatures the kerosene was very difficult to light, and while pre-heating the stove (a complicated necessity for pressurised liquid fuel stoves), it was decidedly flary, with one flare-up reaching an impressive two foot in height. Luckily my home-made stove board was already proving its worth by allowing me to move the stove in and out of the porch of the tent as needed during the flare-ups, keeping my eyebrows and tent very much intact. With the laborious evening camp duties attended to, and a few hot cups of earl-grey down the hatch, I settled down to sleep in my bag of geese, with my damp clothes drying against me.
Day 2 – “Whumph”
After a slightly later start than I would have liked, and my harness modified with some spare straps I had to prevent riding up, I set out into the deep virgin snow of the Taiga pine forests, along my planned route. The going was slow and extremely exhausting, as I swam through the sea of white which flowed between the dense trees. Despite the mercury dropping even further to -25oC, I was yet again soaked in sweat as I fought my way through the forest, and my beard closely resembled the ice encrusted façade of a yeti. By midday my progress through the forest, along untracked trails, was painfully slow and I had the sneaking suspicion that my route would need to be adjusted, at least while the unseasonably deep snow conditions underfoot remained.
At times, even with my broad skis, I was sinking deep, and pole placements in the unconsolidated powder were decidedly unsteady. After some much deserved downhill, which would have been magical without the hinderances of climbing skins and an unwieldy pulk, I came out onto a broad frozen lake and stopped for lunch and a spot of tea on a particularly appealing sun-kissed patch of snow. In my careless fatigue I failed to change out of my soaking gloves into drier, warmer ones for the break, so that by the time I had realised the error and swapped gloves before setting out again, my hands were like a packet of frozen sausages and took a full painful hour to regain feeling.
“I experienced my very first ´whumph´ “
Crossing the lake I experienced my very first ´whumph;´ a strange but harmless phenomenon where the unconsolidated snow in the vicinity suddenly compacts, causing the skier to sink slightly, while producing a sound best described by the name. It is something of great pleasure to those who travel in Polar regions, and some Antarctic explorers, such as Ben Saunders, describe even rarer ´chain-whumphs´ whereby a chain reaction of whumphs is set off in a radial pattern, like a shockwave. However, on this particular occasion, I happened to be crossing an un-tracked frozen lake for the first time on the trip, so the reaction was not one of joy, but of my heart skipping three beats as my go-to instinct was that the ice had cracked and I was destined for a bath!
Composure recovered, I continued along the lake until I reached the north-east shore, where I found the faint outline of another snowmobile track trying to hide under the white dusting. Now, it had not been my intention to follow these, but with snow conditions being what they were, and my progress through the white soup being as slow as it was, I decided that there was no point breaking trail for the sake of it and that I should use the convenience if it happened to be available. Thus, I turned east onto the track and followed it for some kilometres, my full climbing skins now proving quite the hinderance to any efficiency, until it was time to stop for camp. By now, my beard was as frozen solid as a Swedish ice-cream and the thermometers on my pulk were at the end of their scale at -30oC; it was not even afternoon tea time! An attempt to capture this on camera was no easy matter either, as I was able to get just a single photo from a fresh lithium camera battery before it protested at the cold it was expected to work in and shut down with a grumble.
As camping experiences go, this was definitely a night most foul. The kerosene in the stove had started to gel up (something that shouldn´t have been possible, even at these lethal temperatures), making the water boiling duties even more challenging than usual, while the stove was on particular form when it came to doing its dragon impression. Most of my electronic items, including camera, phone, kindle, mp3 player and headphones, were not functioning or charging, unless warmed first inside my sleeping bag. With my tops and gloves damper than a British summer, I was left with the stark choice of letting them freeze solid outside the sleeping bag, with all the pain and suffering that would follow the next morning, or, trying to dry them inside my warm sleeping bag. I opted for the latter of course, but in retrospect this decision was no better than the alternative.
The damp clothes wetted out the bag from within, while in the completely windless night, cascades of ice crystals from above, caused by my breath condensing on the inner tent walls, wetted the bag from the outside each time I rolled over. The night was bitterly cold beyond comprehension and with the down of my -45oC rated sleeping bag collapsing under the onslaught of moisture, I lay awake shivering all night with the strange sensation of it snowing inside the tent on the exposed parts of my face. Its no wonder, that with such weather, the Swedes borrowed the idea of the sauna from their neighbour. Only my frozen fingers and the total absence of reception prevented me from looking up how much a sauna tent would cost.
Day 3 – An Unfortunate Chain of Events
The next morning, every water bottle and thermos lid was frozen shut, requiring significant brute force and patience to open again. The best part of a few of litres of ice condensation formed inside the tent, covering all of my equipment, as if it had snowed indoors! With a chill right through to my core, and a persistent headache that clouded my thinking, I checked the stats for the morning. The thermometer outside was well below its minimum scale point of -30oC (though the one in the tent wasn´t much above), and the kerosene fuel for my stove had gelled significantly. At this point I had some serious doubts about going forward with this expedition.
An unfortunate chain of events had conspired against me that previous day; deep snow causing me to sweat a lot, slightly rusty clothing management skills, temperatures at the lower limit of what was manageable for my level of preparation. In the clear air of hindsight this problem would have been solved by the use of a vapour barrier liner for my sleeping bag; effectively this is a glorified plastic bin bag which one sleeps in, inside the sleeping bag, to prevent moisture from wetting out and collapsing the down, either from perspiration in the night or damp clothes thawed out against one´s body. I had considered this of course, and actually was using a version of this for my feet to prevent my ski boots from freezing solid overnight with sweat from the day before (I was placing small plastic bin bags between two pairs of socks; surprisingly effective, if a little uncomfortable at times). However, having never needed one before, and not wild about the prospect of sleeping all clammy in a plastic bag, I had stupidly rejected the idea.
“At this point I had some serious doubts about going forward with this expedition.”
With my satellite weather forecasting having already proved to be next to useless at predicting the local conditions, I had no way of knowing whether this was a one off or if I was in for many more nights of this sort of punishment. I knew that it was a big risk to proceed deep into the Sarek national park with these temperatures if my sleeping bag continued to degrade as a result of moisture-induced down collapse. With my near total lack of sleep, and progress to that point being challenging as it was, it felt like the fate of the expedition hung in the balance. Would pressing ahead, despite the equipment failures, be the sort of bold, courageous resolve that is required to succeed in these unforgiving environments, or would it be the sort of dangerous folly that has led to countless others being remembered for the wrong reasons?
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