Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Thunder on the Tundra - Day 4

"The Alaska Winter Classic? It's not my cup of tea. I'd rather have a cup of tea" - Jorgen Johansson

Dawn on our first full day on the vidda promised much. Up at 03.30 I witnessed a crack of light between the snow covered tundra and the night sky hinting at a better day and improved visibility. It didn't last. By the time I was packed up and we were loading the Rulks the weather had closed in. To be fair it wasn't as bad as the last couple of days. At times the sun was at least trying to shine, filtered by a blanket of air-born snow that seemed only a few metres deep. When the sun could be seen through the murk it was a welcome reference point for balance as well as navigation. The skiing underfoot was actually good, a layer of fresh snow across endless lakes and marshes and the wind at our back made for good travel. At one point we were convinced we saw a troll. We both saw it in the distance, crouching on the side of our route, ready to pounce when we got closer.

The conditions got progressively worse. The wind got stronger and it seemed to be getting colder too. Donning my puffy jacket at every break I found myself skiing in it for longer and longer periods of time to warm up when we got skiing again. Eventually we hit the big ravine that we would handrail south. Jorgen was keen to instil some efficient backcountry travel skills in me and had me concentrating on contouring the intermittent hills and ridges so as not to waste time and energy bombing down and grinding up all the elevation changes of my normal 'point me in the right direction and watch me go' style. Indeed, as well as being put 'on point' for much of the day I was also promoted to CPH (Chief Pole Holder...) who's main responsibility appeared to be holding Jorgen's ski poles during our frequent consultations with the maps and our bubble filled compasses.

Our frequent navigation checks enabled us to start formulating a plan of how to access the next stage of our journey, on the other side of the ravine we were following. We finally found the reindeer fence we wanted to handrail in the distance and the ravine appeared to be petering out into a shallow valley. We set the fence as our lunchtime goal and decided to cross. Effortless downhill powder skiing put smiles on our faces as we descended. Suddenly Jorgen broke into a hard snowplough stop and I immediately felt tense. Extending one ski pole Jorgen pointed to a layer of blue snow and ice. The river in the bottom of the valley was deeply cut into the bedrock creating an almost crevasse-like obstacle. Not deep enough to show up on the 1:50k maps but impassable none the less. Then we realised that we might be standing on a sizeable cornice being on the windward side to we started heading away from the blue abyss, back up through the deep powder. Then Jorgen noticed that he could only see the 'blue snake' when he looked to the side or behind him. It appeared that the gaping chasm was following us, pushing us higher and further away from our goal. Eventually we found some solid ground and decided to put up the tents to get out of the insidious wind and reassess our plan and progress.

After eating a lunch of cheese, chorizio and polarbrod I made my way over to Jorgen's wind battered tent. The mood was subdued. We knew we had spent way too much time on The Hillside from Hell. Combined with this latest setback we were now around 25-30km behind schedule. If everything went smoothly from here on we might jut make it to Kautokeino in time for our flight home on Tuesday. But could we rely on the weather? One more day of poor visibility and low mileage would put us a day short of our goal. It was dawning on us that a new plan was necessary. West? Two huge ravines to cross before we would hit the 93 road. East? Off map completely and we knew what a gamble that could be. That left North. Back towards Alta via a slightly different route. My heart sank. The thought of ploughing into that wind and retracing our steps over our hard won progress was not the kind of 'option' I was hoping to take. We looked at the maps again and our original planned route south. It was still neat and adventurous but just too much to risk. If we'd had another just one more day's grace and half a days more food then we would have gone for it. Our margins were too tight though. Think with our heads, not with our balls. This wasn't the kind of place where you wanted to fuck up. With heavy hearts we packed up the tents, battened down the hatches and retreated into our hoods.

That first couple of hours heading north were the low point of the trip for me. Low visibility, retracing our steps, uncooperative Rulks and that cold, cold wind. We moved in single file and silence except for the howling wind. We stopped for a snack break and Jorgen asked if I was ok. I guess he sensed I was not overflowing with joy. Refuelled, I took my place at the front. I strained to keep the ravine in sight on my right whilst maintaining altitude along the ridges and rises. I selected rocks in the distance as my markers and just kept heading for them. When I reached them I picked out another rock from the greyness and headed for that. One foot sliding in front of the other. Slowly we swung away from our route earlier that day and forged a new route. As the day before the evening wind seemed to drop. The visibility started to improve as well. Now we could at least see the white desolation all around us. We started searching for deeper snow again and when we found some we pitched the tents side by side, buried the Rulks and retreated in solemn moods to our shelters.

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


Hendrik Morkel said...

Sad Panda.

Did you two at any point consider skiing at night, as the weather was apparently slightly better?

Anonymous said...

I found your blog this morning in my google recommendations. I just have to say, this is one of the best trip reports I have read in a very long time. Its just epic. Its up there with my other favorite, i-cjw. I cant wait till you post again tomorrow.

Joe Newton said...

Hendrik - don't worry, I find my smiley face again! Yes, we had considered skiing in the dark, it was a plan we had while we were planning the trip (Tundra In The Night?!...) but we were usually exhausted from our efforts during the day. Maybe next year...

Dani - thank you. High praise indeed. Chris's level of work is something I aspire to.

Anonymous said...

Not the kind of trip you and Jörgen did, but this might contain some seeds for possible improvements on your Rulk. To keep it from sliding too much sideways on traverses.

/ Karl

Mark Roberts said...

Between the wind and the whiteout photos, it really looks as if you could have been skiing in the Antarctic.

Up there, the decision to turn back was no less ballsy.

Joe Newton said...

Karl - thanks for the link. I have been thinking about adding a 'keel' to my Incredible Rulk! since that trip. Icy traverses and a side wind were enough to get the Rulks to swing out downhill and flip over.

Mark - apparently several Polar explorers have used that area as a training ground for their expeditions. I can definately see why!

Martin Nordesjö said...

The decision to turn back was what I call a "Man or Mammoth Moment". Sometimes you have to decide if you want to be just a man or if you want to be strong, impressive and hairy but also thoroughly dead and deep frozen under the tundra.

Joe Newton said...

Martin - ha ha! Very true!