Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Thunder on the Tundra - Day 3

"Let's salami the situation" - Jorgen Johansson

I surfaced from my dreams. I strained to sense if the storm was still raging outside. I couldn't feel the tent bucking. I couldn't hear the fabric shredding (although it later occurred to me that this may have had something to do with my earplugs). It must be safe to venture out. I pushed the over-quilt off, wriggled an arm free and blinked in the 'wasabi' green light of my nylon womb. Snow drifts had reduced the floor area of my tent by approximately half. A quick peek outside my door revealed a calm world capped by a huge cornice sitting over the narrow ravine we had climbed yesterday. Maybe if I had seen that yesterday I would have suggested to Jorgen that we found another way up onto the vidda. Ahh yes, we were still stuck on the side of a hill...

After the usual morning chores (digging a cat hole in 3 feet of snow on a 30 degree slope was interesting) Jorgen and I put out heads together on how best to extricate ourselves from this hillside that was threatening to keep us mired for another day. First task was just getting to the next 'step' in the snow, where the gradient seemed to slacken off. Breaking out the Snow Claws we took it in turns to hack away at the snow drifts, inching our way upwards and stomping down the snow under foot. We'd aim for the next clump of birch. Then the next one. Breaking down the hillside into bite-size chunks. Eventually we made it to some flatter ground below a crumbling rock band. We trudged back down our new trench to our camp and ferried the Rulks up one at a time, one person pulling, the other pushing. Then back down again for the skis and poles. That had taken us another hour. Jorgen scouted a way up over the rock band. More digging, more stomping, more ferrying. Another hour and Jorgen's feet were getting cold again. We finally heaved the Rulks onto almost entirely flat ground and I couldn't help but smile, whoop and stick two fingers up at the slope below us. Jorgen had been right. Salami the problem and trust that there is an end.

While I went back down over the rock band one last time to collect the last of our chattels from the hillside from hell Jorgen set up his tent for lunch. Out of the wind Jorgen could strip off his still sodden boots and get some heat back into his toes with the aid of his quilt and a hot water bottle. Despite the condition of his feet Jorgen was in good spirits and there was plenty of banter in that tent, especially when he managed to spill the water he was boiling in my direction. At least it wasn't piss...

We were still off map but were now almost on the vidda proper. We could also now put our skis back on. It had been nearly 24 hours since we had last travelled any distance on our skis so it was with much swearing and frustration that I struggled to get the bindings on my borrowed skis to actually bind. When I finally got myself connected to my planks we moved off through the birch that slowly thinned as we headed to the wide open expanse of the plateau.

And what greeted our triumphant exit from the grip of the god-forsaken gradients below? Wind. So much wind. Thin snow cover and sharp rocks. And the sastrugi. The hard edged, wind blown snow formations made skiing awkward. Also greeting the conquered heroes was a whiteout that we actually watched in real-time roll in from the north. One minute we were in-line, following each other in our own hooded bubbles, the next we needed to travel side-by-side to stay in visual contact with each other. I couldn't see a damn thing. With no reference point for speed I had a weird moment when I was sure I was moving along slowly on my skis. When I looked down I saw my feet stock still on the ground. My brain took a second to catch-up and I suddenly felt dizzy. Whiteouts are no fun. Jorgen suggested digging in for the night right there but the winds were biblical and the snow not deep enough to drive the skis in as anchors. For the first time I told Jorgen that I didn't agree with his thinking on this. We took on more calories and thought about it. We agreed that we would keep skiing, at least for another hour to see if the winds would die down and visibility improve further into the vidda.

We skied on for the other hour, took another break for snacks and then skied some more. The winds were slowly abating and the air-born snow reducing too. Ptarmigan exploded from behind a rock. Searching for deeper snow we eventually found a spot where we could drive our skis and poles at least halfway in. I felt safer here even though there was nothing around to protect us from any wind that might spring up during the night. Jorgen showed me the best way to set up the FirstLight in windy conditions, driving the Rulk deep into the snow and attaching a guy line to the windward corner of the FirstLight. We gathered snow in our stuff sacks and settled in for the night. My tent was an oasis of calm. As I zipped up my front door I looked south across the plateau. Mile upon mile of whiteness. The endlessness. I was glad to finally be free of the ravines of the first two days and hoped for good weather tomorrow as we headed out into the frozen wastes.

Don't forget you can read Jorgen's version of today's events over at Fjaderlatt


Hendrik Morkel said...

That hill sounds like a job for...


Make sure to bring him next time ;)

Anonymous said...

its 5am in sunny florida and i have been procrastinating, dreading my school work. Unable to sleep, randomly surfing the net, safe, warm, looking for something new. reading your blog i am inspired, amazed and in complete admiration. you have given me much food for thought concerning the small dragons i slay. I applaud your courage and wish you strength on this journey.

Andy said...

Fabulous stuff, Joe. And very humbling too. I think I'll borrow Jorgen's quip about sausages, that's a great one.

You say you'll talk gear in a further post. I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts about the BD tent in those conditions. I've been considering shelters of that kind of design (like the Rab Summit and the ID ones) but I've always been put off by two things: the lack of a porch and the internal poles.

Didn't you get a lot of snow entering the tent any time you got in and out of that door? And how easy is it to fix the poles at the other end of the tent when you're still wearing your boots and wet gear?

Probably in the circumstances that was the last of your worries but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


And stay safe!

David Lintern said...

cool trip reports, enjoying immensely.

''ice flow, nowhere to go'' ;p I always think of the Boosh when I'm having a grisly hill day, there a great pep

Fraser said...

This is epic, keep them coming.

Joe Newton said...

Hendrik - I was actually thinking about your legendary snow levitation powers when I was literally 'swimming' in powder on that god-damn hill!

Andy - I will review the FirstLight next week sometime. A porch is available for it but I coped fine without. Yes, you get a bit of snow inside but it's easy to manage. With temperatures hovering between -10C and -20C for most of the trip I didn't really have to worry about things being damp. They were either dry or frozen ;) Fixing the poles inside was easy. Jorgen can get the FirstLight up and storm-worthy in just a couple of minutes.

David - thanks. Yes, the Boosh always bring a smile to my face too.

Fraser - more tomorrow!

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Dave Hanlon said...

Must have felt great to get out of the pit and out into the open...for a while at least.

Joe Newton said...

Dave - There was a moment when I was stood in the gale on top of the vidda that I longed for the relative calm of the Hillside from Hell. The feeling passed rather quickly though.