Sarek Expedition – Part 3

Sometimes things don’t go to plan…  Not one bit.  Even the most diligent preparation can end in tatters at the drop of a hat.  However, with a rejuvenating cup of tea and firing up of the grey matter, most things can be overcome.

The Heart of Sarek

I had finally reached the Rapa valley where the heart of Sarek unfurled before me; imposing peaks climbing into a dusting of light cloud.  It was day five of my expedition and I was two days behind schedule already, thanks to suffering feet and failing equipment.  Despite the trials encountered, the views up the valley reminded me exactly why it’s worth the mind-boggling effort to be out here alone, in winter; nothing can quite compare to being surrounded by the remote, untouched canvas of mother nature in her snowy cape.

The day was waning, so I continued across the frozen mouth of the Rapa, breathing in the splendour of Sarek as I went, aiming to make camp on the far shore.  An even stronger storm was predicted for tonight, so I sort shelter in the woods, putting the ‘HillePalace’ through its paces another time.  After making camp and tucking into a well-spiced freeze-dried curry, I settled down for the night with another topical horror film, awaiting to be kept awake by the fierce howling of polar winds.  As it turns outs, Arctic weather remains unpredictable and keen to surprise in every sense of the word; the great storm never materialised and only a thick layer of snow left any trace of any weather having occurred at all.

Day 6 – A Tough Decision

Having had no gusting morning to contend with, and aided by diligent night-time preparations, I managed to set off in excellent time.  As well as being a calm night, the temperatures hadn’t dropped off the scales for once, so the night was more pleasant than most and water boiling proved to be rather straightforward in the morning.  The huge, laden snowflakes continued to fall from a smothering opaque sky as I started out with my pulk, heading north in search of any tracks or trails in which to follow.  After navigating a short trail through the woods, I came out again onto the expanse of the Rapa ice, where I would follow the snow laden mountains for the next couple of days.

The valley was shrouded from view as I slogged through the deepening snow, absent of any respite.  Again, the deep snow was slowing my progress, but it was my dissenting feet that were of most bother.  Aside from the impressive blisters on my right foot, the moulded insoles were causing throbbing aches to the balls of my feet; all things ski-boot related weren’t going well for me this trip.  After a couple of hours of less-than-inspiring and distinctly painful progress, I slumped onto my pulk for a pit-stop, while having to remain in my skis to avoid sinking up to my waist in snow.

“I slumped onto my pulk”

My vigour and eagerness from the previous day were now replaced by a sense of drudgery and longing for a chair.  However, as it turns out, my luck that day had only just got started.  When I reached into the pockets of my pulk bag to retrieve some meaty snacks and a revitalising flask of tea, I discovered to my horror that the pulk bag was soaking wet!  The lid of my devious Nalgene water bottle had managed to unscrew itself partially, releasing nearly half of its contents into the bag containing my down sleeping bag.  Having just dealt with the crippling effects of a damp sleeping bag in deep-freeze conditions, to have this occur was a crushing blow.

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Having hurriedly brushed off the remaining free water and removing the offending item, I opened the bag and surveyed the damage.  Much of the water had already frozen and an area less than of a couple of square feet of the sleeping bag was affected; not as bad as previously, but certainly enough for a huge cold spot in the night.  I determined the cause of this unfortunate event to be due to ice build-up on the seal area of the bottle lid.  When this ice melts due to the filling of warm water, it leaves the lid without sufficient compression onto the top of the bottle.  Each day I had been diligently checking for this problem, knowing the potentially devastating effects of any significant spillage on such a trip, but on this particular occasion the problem had slipped through the net.

The Gentleman Explorer

By this point my mood had taken a serious tumble; with my feet at their worst yet and another episode of ‘soak the bag’ having played out, I gazed into the falling snow and weighed up my options.  If I was to continue now, I would be committing to at least another seven days of sled hauling, likely more if the snow continued to lay as deep on the route ahead.  Faced with the prospect of cold, sleepless nights combined with the suffering from my deteriorating feet, my enthusiasm to push on was spent.  The plastic boots had taken too much of a toll on my feet to risk the additional days required to complete the route, and the compromised sleeping bag was the ‘icing on the lake.’  With a heavy heart and a tear in my eye, I came to the sinking realisation that the only sensible option would be to head back to Kvikkjokk by the shortest route, which was the way I had come.  Having suffered so much to get this far, only to turn back just before reaching the most spectacular part of Sarek, was a feeling that to this day I cannot describe properly in words.  The bitter pill of failure is hard to swallow at the best of times, not least when one puts one’s heart and soul into something.  However, with the situation and conditions as they were, particularly when solo, self-preservation to try another day was the only course.

The Gentleman Explorer

“The bitter pill of failure is hard to swallow at the best of times”

I recharged my battery with tea, chocolate and reindeer salami, before sending a downbeat message to my family to inform them of my decision to turn around.  It was a hard message to send.  As I finished preparing to set off in retreat, I clipped into my pulk and looked up at the path that wasn’t to be.  At that moment, as if moved by my plight, the mountains of Sarek took pity on me and lifted their veil of cloud to reveal their beautiful forms against a rich blue sky.  I was gracious to at least have one chance to observe them in full splendour, but it did nothing to ease my heartbreak of having to turn my back on them.

“The mountains of Sarek took pity on me”

With the low sun now breaking out behind imposing dark clouds in the distance, I donned my glacier glasses and started the long march home.  Skiing was awkward due to the breakable crust covered in a deep layer of soft snow, but the dramatic sky and superb contrasts of light provided sufficient distraction, broken occasionally by regretful glances over my shoulder.  By the early afternoon I had reached the old trail head at the southwest of the Rapa valley, exhausted by the knee-high snow of the last few kilometres.  As I rounded the edge of a bay, I see a familiar shape ahead of me at the tree line; a sled and rucksack laden Swede.  This was my third and final encounter with the cheery Paul and his vintage equipment.

Surprised to see each other once again, we pulled out some snacks and got chatting.  Paul had his own route difficulties as well, having had to turn back while attempting to cross the Rapa further north.  Along the west bank he had found a thin, breakable secondary layer of ice, sandwiching a foot of icy water between it and the thicker ice below, so was forced to turn back into the forest, unable to safely cross to the east bank.  I shared my own woes, before listening to some fascinating stories of his adventures past.  Once we had got onto the topic of equipment, Paul mentioned that he admired my pulk set-up; in particular my use of a pulk bag to store my (now damp) sleeping bag and mats, which he wanted to replicate.  It’s nice to know that even an amateur adventurer such as myself can have something to share with an old hand like Paul.

Rapa Valley Sarek National Park

Once the chill started to set in, we said our goodbyes and headed off in opposite directions; Paul heading out across the lake and me starting the long slog uphill.  After an hour of steady climbing up the gentle, tree covered slopes, and the light starting to dim, I found a flat area that looked like it was only missing a tent.  The snow here was particularly soft and uncooperative, so it took a long time to harden sufficiently for me to stake out the tent and load it properly.  This patience was another trick that I had learned from the helpful Swede; prior to this expedition, I had found that normally a good stomp down of soft snow was sufficient, or perhaps waiting 10 mins further for snow to harden.  However, with the heavily windblown snow we were experiencing here, at least forty five minutes was required after stomping down for the snow to be sufficiently hard to walk on.  Even then, ginger steps were needed to avoid punching through to the bottomless snow below.  A further thirty minutes would be required before I could even think about loading up the tent pegs with some tension.  With this in mind, it’s no surprise that I had so much trouble to get the tent set up on the first day!

“The snow here was particularly soft and uncooperative”

With all of this waiting around for snow to harden, I dug myself a small footwell and cooking station, and began to get started on dinner duties as the last of the light scurried west.  While I sat in my open-air kitchen, I wondered why I had not been cooking outside before!  The lack of freezing condensation in tent was rather welcome and handling all the water transfers outside, away from all my down and equipment, was certainly more practical.  Of course, when you’re not getting pelted with high velocity snow by an angry Norse god, al fresco dining in a million-star restaurant is a pleasant proposition, even if one’s fingers are slightly numb.  The sky displayed a stunning canvas of starlight that evening, despite the Northern Lights continuing their shyness.  As with all things in life, everything comes with a price.  The price for my dinner with a view would be another night at the bottom of the thermometer with no blanket of cloud to retain what little warmth there was in the day.

Sarek National Park

Day 7 – Beany Boots and Frozen Feet

Despite having the best camp of the trip so far, the chill of the night had crept through my frozen sleeping bag by 3am and I got no sleep beyond that.  My thermometer in the morning was off the lower end of the scale yet again, and it made for a rather sluggish start to my awakening.  My brain was clearly addled with the cold and my fingers frozen stiff, as such, the morning was somewhat of a disaster.  While melting snow for tea, I managed to pour water over the lit stove and put it out.  After much cursing the stove restarted and tea was on the go again.  However, I had of course not checked the fuel volume so it then promptly ran out of fuel; cue some classic slapstick as I proceed to aerially distribute partially frozen kerosene all over my pulk bag and faithful down boots.  Not content with stinky fuel everywhere, for the encore I sprayed my ‘posh pork and beans’ breakfast over my gloves and, of course, my down boots.  Poor buggers!  If dealing with my feet wasn’t enough, these heroes of the expedition had to endure kerosene and beans as well.

“My brain was clearly addled with the cold”

Needless to say, my mood wasn’t the cheeriest when I set off rather late; my feet as ice blocks from the sub minus thirty degree boots and my music player dead from the cold.  The silver lining on this icy cloud was the fact that I could no longer feel the pain in my feet due to their general numbness.  Perhaps total numbness isn’t quite the way of describing it, rather a slightly different kind of pain for a change.  Sometimes you have to take what you can get!  I used this opportunity to make some good miles while I could, and it was only at lunch time that my feet began to thaw and the pain returned in waves.  After a solemn lunch on a familiar windswept lake crust, I set off again on an agonising slog, dragging my decrepit feet with me.  The scenery that afternoon could have been from anywhere; I bared noticed as the miles dragged on and I counted down the minutes until it was a reasonable time to stop for the night.

Arctic Expedition

“I set off again on an agonising slog”

The Gentleman Explorer

At the end of a frozen lake, I spied out my campsite.  With the winds having scoured this area, the snow cover was unusually thin, meaning it was difficult to get the tent pegs to stay put in their designated homes.  However, after a few repeated attempts and some mild cursing under my breath, I had the tent set up and I was sat outside for another episode of ‘outdoor winter kitchen.’  That evening things ran quite smoothly and I really felt like I was starting to get the hang of camping out in such brutal conditions.  It’s all about having the right ‘system.’  However, one does not simply come up with a system that works off the bat; it needs to be developed through trial and error and honed with experience.  A system that works at 5500m on a mountainside is not necessarily one that is going to work at -30 degrees in an Arctic wilderness.  Each environment has its own nuances that throw the previous rulebook out of the window.  One of the key learnings from this expedition was that camp activities, whether setting up a tent and making dinner, or simply removing boots, get exponentially slower when it gets this cold.  It’s a degree of organisation that I am not used to in life, but was hard fought for here, alone in this freezer.

Day 8 – Ride of the Valkyries

For various reasons on this trip, though mostly related to inhumane temperatures, I slept poorly, or simply not at all.  Despite my love of camping, I have never been one for getting a great night’s sleep in a tent.  However, on the morning of the eighth day I woke after one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.   I was well and truly out for the count and there simply wasn’t enough whisky consumption to account for it.  I racked my brain that morning to think what I could have done differently that night, but alas, I could not explain it.  I sorely wish I could so that I could replicate my successful slumber, but it was not to be.  Nonetheless, I was not complaining about being sprightly in the morning for once and I enjoyed my new-found energy to actually do the endless morning tasks in a surprisingly efficient manner.  Thus, I set off on what would be my penultimate day alone in the snow with conflicting feelings.

I longed to rest my aching blistered feet and lay in a bed that wasn’t half-frozen, yet I did not want this life changing experience to come to an end, despite the trails and tests of my resolve that I encountered.  Finally getting the hang of living alone in the Arctic made it even tougher to be a shade closer to some semblance of civilisation with every painful step.  Yet, the pain in my feet was not as bad as the day before.  Did I play it too safe in turning around?  Could I have made it round my original route?  Perhaps if my feet had improved and I was very lucky with snow and conditions, buts that’s always easy to say with hindsight.  If my feet had got worse and there had been a few more nights with the temperature off the scale, not forgetting my partially iced sleeping bag, I could have been stuck out deep in the mountains in a dire way, many days from potential help.  With the monotony of towing a pulk through endless miles of snow, its hard not to let the mind wander.

“I did not want this life changing experience to come to an end”

While the flat snow carpeting the frozen lakes allowed for much contemplation, the woods between the lakes were another matter.  Unlike my outbound journey, for the return I had elected to take a longer route along the remnants of snowmobile tracks.  This certainly made for easier going for the most part, but the undulations of the forest had caused the snowmobiles of past to carve deep hollows, much like a swarm of skiers will turn a pristine piste into a mogul ridden hell-slope.  While navigating these rollercoaster tracks between the trees was an order or magnitude easier than swimming through waist deep unconsolidated powder, it was taxing to say the least.  It was hard to get traction on the tiny, concave but steep uphill portions, while the inevitable drop afterwards meant that the pulk would try and push me over via the connecting pulk bars.  This would repeat every few metres so the experience was much like an annoying friend grabbing your belt and trying to shake you back and forth, for mile upon mile.  Naturally, the whole thing happened quite out of sync so that one didn’t get the desired push uphill.  I suppose I should consider this mental preparation for dealing with polar sastrugi, which, despite the way it sounds, is not a type of delicious, filled pasta.  It is, in fact, the name for sharp, dune-like ridges carved into ice fields by the scouring polar winds (called skabrram by the Sámi); not so tasty for navigating across.

Aside from a meandering Swede, I had been quite alone in this inhospitable place.  There had been signs of life in the snow, whether lynx or hares, but that life had been shy and elusive.  However, on this retreat back from the front line I bumped into a few species which looks as surprised to see me as I had them.  First there was the obligatory reindeer which had obviously decided that hanging with the herd was a bit too fashionable, so decided to try its luck on a solo expedition.  I ended up chasing it slowly down the track for at least a mile before it vanished from view.  Ironically, land animals in the Arctic love to follow man made tracks because it makes the going much easier.  No doubt they share the same sentiments about navigating through deep snow that I do.  Then there was a rock ptarmigan which shot up out of the snow as I neared its location; a beautiful sight to see.  Finally, I inadvertently terrified a lemming half to death.  Obviously fearing that it’s hiding place would be crushed under the weight of a bumbling human with disproportionately large feet, the poor creature abandoned it hiding place and tried its luck on open ground.  However, the tracks in the snow were deep enough that it was unable to climb out the side, meaning that it could only run in one line, either towards it’s apparent doom, or along the same path.  Obviously, it opted for the latter, but this did result in it being chased for some distance before it could finally make it’s escape from the gauntlet.

“I inadvertently terrified a lemming half to death”

With the light dimming and some ten kilometres still to go before I was back in the clutches of civilisation, I stopped for what was to be my final night under the stars in what was a gruelling but enlightening foray into the wilds of Lapland in the dead of winter.  With the honing of my nightly routine, I had once again made camp and done the snow melting rigmarole in good time.  Bear in mind that, even with things now running as smoothly as a pulk on ice, the nightly tasks were still no snap of the fingers.  Pegging out a tent in unconsolidated snow takes time and endless patience.  Turning bucketfuls of snow into four litres of hot water takes constant meddling… and time.  Priming a stove with gelled kerosene takes care and… magic.  Charging struggling electronic devices that demand precious body warmth, organising the next day’s food, cleaning oneself with frozen baby-wipes, decanting hot water into tiny bottles to defrost frozen gloves, even swapping hard plastic ski boots for comfy camp booties; it all takes an extraordinary amount of time at these temperatures, especially with cold fingers.  So, even when in the groove, these nightly tasks can take many hours.  Thus, it was well into the night before I was curled up in my sleeping bag, sipping some well chilled single malt (15 year Oban, if you’re curious).

Camp in Sarek National Park

Naturally, when one makes up for daytime dehydration and then consumes three days’ worth of whisky in an hour, there comes with it an urge to water the pine trees.  So, dressed in my rather fetching merino long johns, complete with my faultless down booties and a big puffy jacket, I clambered out into the snow.  It didn’t take long for me to realise that there was something stirring.  After dark absence, the Valkyrie were now riding from the gates of Valhalla to the skies above Sarek.  I went about my business as quickly as possible before diving back into the tent to don every item of down that I had, and there was a lot, for it was still around -30 degrees.  I thanked the gods that my camera was holding charge in the cold, before grabbing it, and my mini tripod, and dashing out into the deep snow.

“The Valkyrie were now riding from the gates of Valhalla

I had been through a lot this trip, as well as having a string of rotten luck, but there I was, alone in the Arctic night, with the heavens putting on a spectacular display of Northern Lights, known to the Sámi as Guovssahas.  After the disappointment I had felt over the last few days, this parting gift of the gods was more than I could ask for.  Even now, as I sit writing this long after the events have passed, I remember the feeling like it was yesterday and I become a little emotional.  I have seen spectacular Northern Lights before in Lofoten (where I only had black and white film with me!), but these were more special for it truly felt like a reward for having survived the worst winter conditions in recent memory.  Of course, trying to describe the Northern Lights, let alone how they make an individual feel in the moment, your own personal moment, is a fruitless exercise.  Thus, I shall let the photos do the talking on this occasion.

I stayed out on the tent, wrapped in down, until nearly midnight, admiring the spectacle before me and doing my best to capture it on film; in colour this time.  Sometimes the lights can be quite static, as one might see in a photo.  At other times they truly dance across the sky with incredible depth and surprising range in colour.  It is not hard to see how the lights have made their way into northern fokelore, bringing everything from doom to those who see, as with the Sámi, or reflections of the shields of the Valkyrie, to bridging the sky to Valhalla for the warriors fallen in battle.  Tonight, they presented themselves as a great rainbow of the night, red in hue at the ends and deepest green in the centre; a bridge to another world if there ever was one.

“It is not hard to see how the lights have made their way into northern fokelore”

Close to midnight the colours were starting to fade and the cold was starting to creep into my body.  However, with my amazing down booties and my huge high-altitude mitts, I had kept remarkably warm, despite nearly four hours standing knee deep in snow.  The last of the whisky may have helped too.  I gave my thanks to Sarek for its generous gift and made my way back to the tent to get my last night of rest before the fuss of the modern world would envelope me once again.  However, you and I both know that this is not the last chapter in the Sarek story.  That is not who I am.  I will be returning to this beautiful land of the Sámi, for it is their land more than any others’, and complete what I started for there is unfinished business.  However, I shall come only with humility and respect, for one does not battle against the Arctic winter; there is no conquering of the mountains or taming of the wilds.  There is only an insignificant you as a temporary guest of mother nature in her vast and unforgiving wilderness.  If she lets you.

The Gentleman Explorer
Canyon View with binoculars

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One thought on “Sarek Expedition – Part 3

  1. Wow, it took you a long time to get back to writing the last chapter (was it too painful to think about?!). Anyway, thanks for sharing. I would suggest you go back in September, when the autumn colours are fantastic, and the cold quite manageable, or in mid-July to August, when the colours won’t be so good, and the mosquitoes will be hell, but when the mountain tops should be reasonably snow free, so you should be able to reach some of the tops. Keep us informed!


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