Monday, 4 April 2011

Thunder on the Tundra - Day 1 & 2

Jorgen and I have decided to synchronise our diary posts that resulted from our ski tour trip of Finnmarksvidda, way up in the far north of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. It will, I hope, be interesting to read our separate recollections of the same trip. If there are discrepancies then I put them down to cold, hunger and the adventurer's ability to tell a good tale. You will have to forgive me for the lack of place names and generalised navigation in my account but Jorgen has the maps! After reading today's instalment why not head over to Fjaderlatt and read what really happened.

Day 1

"Everything has an end. Except sausages. They have two" _ Jorgen Johansson

04.00 and the alarm on my phone belted out it's tinny rendition of The Lovin' Spoonful's 'Summer in the City'. The halide lamps on the construction crane across the street from my Bergen apartment gave a sickly hue to the rain that was falling. Sideways. I swapped the righteous feeling of walking to the bus station for the guilty opulence of the back of a warm, smooth Mercedes taxi cab. Like the fast cut sequence of a Guy Ritchie movie I flitted from taxi to coach to one airplane and then another. Along the way I was joined by Jorgen Johansson and we landed in the town of Alta, inside the Arctic Circle, just after lunch. Our plan: spend 7 days skiing across part of the Finnmark mountain plateau, from Alta to Kautokeino.

We proposed walking to the centre of town but a few kilometres later and after asking a local we decided to catch a bus. A quick pit stop at the first sports store we could find had us loading up with some slightly less than optimal gas canisters. We probed the store owner for advice on the best way to access the plateau but, like the DNT office we had e-mailed previously, he pointed us in the direction of the hut-serviced marked ski trail to the east. He didn't like our plan to travel off trail. It didn't sound like fun to him. Undeterred we grabbed a 'last supper' in the greasy diner next door and hit up the tourist information office who were kind enough to call us a cab and fill up our water bottles.

The taxi driver didn't seem impressed with our plans either but dropped us off far down a snowy lane, deep in a valley marking the northern edge of Finnmarksvidda. As we pulled our skis and Incredible Rulks! from the boot of the taxi we looked south towards the rocky ramparts. No problem. Head south for 7 days. How hard could that be?!

The early skiing was easy. A road, then a track to a ski hut in the forest. When the obvious man-made trails petered out at a remote house we simply dropped onto the valley floor and skied along the frozen river. Soon though we were not only off-trail but off-map too. From looking at a large scale map we had been sent by the DNT office we knew we were heading in the right direction but we lacked the topographic detail we would need to make informed choices over the next 24 hours before we got ourselves back on track. Jorgen didn't appear concerned. An opportunity would present itself. Periodic waterfalls offered small obstacles to our smooth forward progress, complicated by the Rulk's desire to find their own way over the icy rocks. A couple of hours later and the light levels began to dim.

First camp was made on some flat ground on the inside of a bend in the river. The wind was low. The temperature tolerable. I settled into my tent and laid my gear out around me. It was all clean, dry and in perfect working order. I didn't feel like I'd really earned my dinner of game stew and a large bar of chocolate but I wasn't complaining. Across the short space between our tents we discussed our plan for tomorrow. Continue following the valley until we could turn south. I blipped the 'OK' button on our SPOT tracker. Burying myself into my down bag and over-quilt I fell asleep quickly and with a grin on my face. Our adventure had begun.

Day 2

We decided we would utilise daylight hours efficiently so we woke up at around 05.00. Porridge and coffee was first order of the day. I tried to think about packing effectively, making sure any items I might need during the day would be at the top of my pack. Jorgen and I kept tabs on how we were progressing with breaking camp to ensure we exited the tent at the same time, minimising the amount of time one might have to wait for the other in the freezing morning air. Rulks loaded there was only one more thing to do and that was peel off the puffy jacket, stow it in the top of our rucksacks and get skiing.

The morning started as the day had ended yesterday, following the frozen river and slowly gaining altitude. The wind was a little fresher today and periodic snow squalls reminded us that this was still winter, in the far north of Norway.

I was following Jorgen when he appeared to sway, seemingly rocked by some unseen force. What was going on? My brain couldn't or didn't want to process the information that the snow bridge he was crossing was slowly collapsing under him. Jorgen was soon wallowing in the icy river, trapped by the awkwardness of his skis. Finally my brain caught back up with me and I reacted to the unfolding situation. Digging the edges of my skis into the suspect snow bank I edged towards the hole and grabbed his hand. Together we managed to extricate Jorgen from his icy bath. He promptly began rolling himself in the fresh dry powder, like he was trying to extinguish some invisible flame. "It soaks up the excess water" Jorgen informed me. Another lesson in winter skills. I had much to learn. Stripping off his wet gear Jorgen pulled on pile socks and leggings before concentrating on wringing out the worst of the water from his clothes.

Back into his damp clothes we got moving again quickly, Jorgen keen to get some warm blood flowing into his feet as soon as possible. We came to a fork in the narrowing valley. Only one way headed south. The terrain got steep and icy. In front of us, at the end of the ravine, rose a blue waterfall, frozen in time until the Spring thaw. The only way out of this canyon and onto the vidda was by climbing the birch forested slope on the eastern wall. We looked at it. It didn't look too high from here. Sure, the slope dropped away in a vertical wall of rock to the valley floor below but the birch trees should stop us falling to our deaths in the highly unlikely event of us falling...

Skis off and Rulks shouldered we started post-holing.

An hour later and we hadn't made much progress. The snow was either hip-deep powder or an icy crust that required steps to be kicked before breaking through as soon as you put weight on it. Eventually we hit a band of hard snow that just wouldn't be kicked into submission. Spearing my skis into the snow I tried to use them as stepping stones from the relative safety of one birch trunk to another. Suddenly the skis gave way. Instead of a rapid slide-show of the pertinent points of my life flashing before me all I got was a dizzying sky/tree/snow/sky/tree/snow blur. My brain was also bereft of anything intelligent in the way of final words and I slid towards my doom shouting 'oh SHIT!'...

Thankfully I clothes-lined another birch tree that arrested my fall and my skis luckily wedged themselves into a near-by sapling. It took an hour to get myself back to the point where I fell, needing to make another trip down the hill to rescue my skis, in which time Jorgen had put his skis back on in an effort to use the metal edges to step across the hard snow band. Balancing on his skis, he edged himself across the gap but met the same fate, losing traction and cartwheeling down the hill. As with my tumble his was stopped by a clump of birch but he maintained enough cool not to blurt out expletives. He was however stuck in an awkward position that required my assistance to get him out of his skis and up-right. Both of us clung to a birch tree, sucking in air while we took stock of our situation. We were tired, I was cramping from kicking steps all morning and Jorgen's wet boots were causing him to start suffering from numb feet again. We needed to stop, have a late lunch and get Jorgen's feet warmed up. We decided to work together to ferry our Rulks one at a time, followed by our skis and poles to the one piece of the hillside that was slightly less steep than the rest. We hooked our loaded Rulks to a solid birch by their hip-belts and while Jorgen got on with trying to thaw his feet out under his quilt with a hot-water bottle I tried to scout us a better campsite. With the rest of the hillside looking even steeper and an Arctic storm sweeping up the ravine below we decided to pitch our tents and have an early night. I cut two platforms in the snow and put up both the tents. We got Jorgen into his tent so he could get on with the laborious tasks of melting snow, drying his gear and warming his feet. Just in time. The storm hit.

Despite our sheltered pitch the storm buffeted our tents for hours. The winds raged down the two ravines that passed below and in front of us and roared past the cornice that lay a few feet away. At one point I was started getting concerned about the FirstLight's ability to cope with this constant battering and packed some essentials into my pack in case we lost one of the tents and had to share one shelter like some desperate alpinists! Snow was drifting around my tent pushing the walls in until there was only room for me in the middle of the floor. A couple of hours later Jorgen's voice appeared just outside my tent door, enquiring if I was ok and sounding perfectly calm. I unzipped my tent door just enough to see Jorgen's face and the storm behind him. He was just checking the skis and poles that acted as our tent stakes and added a guy line to the Rulk he had embedded as a snow anchor. My nerves salved I settled down into my sleeping bag, pulled the quilt over my head and shut the tempest outside with the aid of a couple of foam ear plugs and exhaustion as my sedative.

12 comments:

Hendrik Morkel said...

Looking at your buried Firstlight, I wonder if any of the UL shelters aka DuoMid/ TrailStar/ SpinnShelter/ 3x3 Tarp/ tanzPALAST would have been able to cope with that kind of weather. I think not. Good that you weren't trying anything like that.

Robin said...

Serious stuff. I'll read the rest when I get back from Dartmoor.

Thomas W. Gauperaa said...

Exciting read! can't wait for the next installment

Mark Roberts said...

It's the beginning of an epic. Those Norwegian plateaus are surprisingly hilly!

It's good to see the Firstlight getting some real action. I'm sure you 'could' get a decent pitch with a DuoMid, but in those conditions i wouldn't want to try. Much better to get a quick, stable shelter up and get inside it fast.

Yeti said...

Epic story and a good idea to synchronize it with Jörgen's.

Joe Newton said...

Hendrik and Mark - the conditions we faced on this trip were exactly the reason why the FirstLight is a great shelter for winter ski tours aove the timberline. Roomy, super fast to put up, no need for pegs or stakes and spindrift can be kept at bay easily. At 1.2kg they are not too porky either and can sleep two people in an emergency.

Robin - the whole story will be here waiting for your return!

Thomas - next installment tomorrow morning.

Yeti - thank you. It has already been good to read our different versions of the same two days.

Dave Hanlon said...

Keep it coming!

Martin Rye said...

Superb stuff. Reading both accounts at the same time is superb. Looking forward to the next instalment Joe. Do like that tent you took.

korpijaakko said...

Great (?) start for an interesting story! And the synchronization is great idea too! I managed to find some spare time to read it...

It is very interesting to read your experiences as my style and gear for winter camping is totally different as it is adopted from very harsh environments and conditions that are quite rare in mainland Scandinavia in March/April. I think I should lighten up a bit for winter trips in mainland Scandinavia in the future so your experiences are very welcome.

Fraser said...

This sounds like a step up in terms of seriousness for you. A great read so far!

Anonymous said...

"Everything has an end. Except sausages. They have two" - Now that's a very, very, very old Scandinavian saying.
Now made more international by the intrepid ravine travelers Jörgen and Joe :-)
/ Karl

Joe Newton said...

Dave - more tomorrow, and the day after!

Martin - thanks, it's been exciting for me to read Jorgen's account each morning too. The FirstLight worked a treat in it's home environment.

Jaakko - your expedition is in a completely different league than our wee ski tour. As soon as you start carrying guns and ammo to protect yourself from Polar Bears you can forget worrying about saving a few grams here and there. We could have gone even lighter but not by much. I stayed pretty well warm and comfortable for the whole trip. Our two layer sleeping system was a little heavier but ensured our down bags stayed lofted.

Fraser - it was a step-up in many respects but Jorgen's experience meant I never felt completely out of my depth, even when things were a bit shitty.

Karl - Jorgen is one of the most quotable people I know! More will follow.