Thursday, 7 April 2011

Thunder on the Tundra - Day 5, 6 & 7

Day 5

"Three knuckles to the left" - Jorgen Johansson

Poor nights sleep. It had taken me a while to get warm. Probably more tired than I realised after ploughing through that headwind all afternoon. I'm warm now and I can see what looks like sunlight through the nylon. Ha, I won't fall for that old chestnut again! I'll snooze a bit longer.

Time to get up. Hmmm, still sunny outside. I can hear a zip not far away. I sit up and boil the water from the two Nalgene bottles in my sleeping bag. Coffee and porridge. Breakfast of crampons. I then melt enough snow to fill the Nalgenes again, filling one with hot berry drink and the other with hot chocolate with the contents of a Via sachet dropped in there. The choco caffeine combo bomb. I stash one in my Forty Below cosy to be stored in my pack and put the other in my Paramo jacket pocket along with the gas canister and today's snacks. All eight of them.

While dressing and packing I exchange banter with Jorgen. There appears to be a ball of flaming gas in the sky. Does he know what it is? Is the sky supposed to be that blue colour? Yes, the day after we decide to play it safe and head back to Alta the weather gods bestow perfect mountain weather upon us. Even the wind is having a day off. It's so nice I even get to air out my over-quilt for the first time.

We ski off side by side smiling and joking, the stresses and strains of the last few days melt away. Blessed with visibility we're now not sure why we craved it so much. The vidda is desolate. The only thing breaking up the whiteness are small outcrops of rocks and low, subdued hills. This plays tricks on your depth perception and ability to judge distance. What seems like a valley slides by as flat ground. Rock outcrops that we mark as waypoints either never get closer or we reach them after a few metres and have to spot another one. The skiing however is magical. The fresh covering of snow glides effortlessly. The sun behind us highlights each of the diamond-like crystals across endless fields of perfection. The two small valleys we need to cross pass almost without notice. No ravines, no crevasses, no detours, no drama. Just sublimity.

Lunch would be taken outdoors today. We don puffies but lay out on our sleep mats in the sunshine and even a couple of passing snow flurries can't hide the fact that it's a beautiful day. Our mileage requirements are less stressful now so we linger a while. More smiles and laughter. Were we actually enjoying ourselves?!

Water bottles refilled we head on towards the pylon line in the distance. We arc slowly towards it knowing that it follows a long gentle valley back towards Alta. A small steep hill stands in our way but herring-boning on to the top we get a grand view of the big, bold mountains to the north of the valley we had skied up on the first day. Our route however swings east now and I get another lesson in efficient backcountry skiing as Jorgen takes the lead and smooths out some lumpy hills and valleys. It wasn't long before we started to pass tenacious but stunted birch shrubs as we slowly transitioned from the mountain plateau to it's flanks.

As we begin our descent we pass through pockets of birch trees making pulling the Rulks difficult at times. Jorgen perfects the Johansson Turn, his Rulk getting caught around trees effecting an almost 90 degree turn on your skis. Tiring of this Jorgen shoulders his Rulk, lines up an eye-of-the-needle descent through the birch and promptly wraps himself around a tree.

The penultimate camp would be in the birch forests not far from a lake. According to the map on the far shore of the lake is a cabin. We stop this side of civilisation. No need to bury the Rulk as a snow anchor down here. We use dead branches instead of our skis to anchor our tents which is just as well as we need our skis to manoeuvre around the soft deep snow. One step off our work hardened tent platforms and it's FWWWUMP! Up to your nuts in snow. We celebrate our descent off the vidda in Jorgen's tent with a couple of tins of mackerel in tomato sauce that Jorgen had been carrying for a suitable occasion. Somehow this feels like that occasion. Somehow the tinned fish tastes like fresh food. Somehow I had overlooked brining anything to celebrate with. What's the point of going light if you can't bring a wee nip with you?! Lesson learned. Back in my tent I melt more snow and make a couple of hot water bottles to slide into my sleeping bag. The birch forest is eerily quiet. Not quite sure why I put my ear plugs in but I guess it'll drown out the howling wolves...


Day 6

"We're on vacation after all" - Jorgen Johansson

It's snowing again and the sky is leaden. I don't sense impending doom as I had a couple of days earlier however. We're on our towards civilisation and home. Unlike the snow of the vidda though this variety is fat and wet. Jorgen wore his Paramo jacket over the foot of his quilt last night and it's soaking. It'll make an interesting experiment he says. Let's see how long it takes to dry out. We take photos for research purposes. The trail we're trying to follow down towards the lake is nothing more than car width sized gaps in the birch. It's probably only used in the summer hence the lack of ploughing. I'm kind of glad. I don't want to ski on prepared trails until the last minute. We lose the trail and pick it up again periodically. We pass the cabin and begin a sweaty ascent over a couple of small hills.

On top of one hill we get a view of a lake below. The snowmobile trails that carve across it are obvious and unwanted as they signal our integration back into the modern world. But here, between us and reality is a beautiful hillside. Studded with widely spaced birch trees and paved with the most delicious untracked powder snow I've ever seen. Jorgen goes first and I fire off a couple of frames before pulling on my mitts and dropping in. The snow is soft enough to control the speed of the Rulk nicely and I cross over or follow Jorgen's tracks as my heart desires, zigzagging our way to the valley below. There is a steeper section at the bottom that requires me to short-line my Rulk but as I emerge from the trees onto the snowmobile track I'm grinning from ear to ear. I could have happily skinned back up and done that all day. The snowmobile track is the first prepared trail we've been on for six days. It doesn't feel right being told where we can and can't go so we turn off towards the lake to make our own way. As we reach the banks we spot two people sat on some logs next to a hytte. We skirt around them and head towards the middle of the lake but Jorgen changes his mind. Maybe they could offer us some crucial local knowledge about the trails ahead and our camping options tonight and tomorrow? He was right, they did.

We wanted to spend one more night in the wilds before heading to a campground just outside town for much needed showers and cooked food. We planned to camp near a lake in the pine forests further down the valley but our stomachs told us that lunch was due first. Back on our skis we went to cross the lake to sit in the sunshine on the far shore. Unfortunately my skis broke through the softening midday snow and into some icy over-flow on top of the ice. Panicking slightly I flailed around trying to drag my skis out from under the water and snow and just ended up unbalancing myself. Looking very cool, swearing and on all fours in the slush I hoped we were out of sight of our friends sitting on their log by the shore. Nothing the Scandinavians like more than watching Englishmen making idiots of themselves on skis.

Thankfully our planned long lunch in the sun gave us time to not only dry out my boots and gloves but also our quilts. The synthetic over-quilts had been a stroke of genius on Jorgen's part protecting the down sleeping bags from collapsing and providing rugged, moisture-resistant insulation whilst lounging around in camp or at lunch. Over the course of a week they had picked up some moisture and an hour in the sun and wind while we cooked food and melted snow did them wonders. Jorgen even had time to have a ski-esta while I got itchy feet and practiced my tele turns on a small hill.

We packed up again and headed off along the snowmobile tracks, bombing several short, sharp descents down through the pine trees as the valley narrowed again. After scaring a dog senseless we turned off the main trail towards a lake. We followed the trail all the way down a valley and onto the ice, feeling the temperature drop sharply in the katabatic air. We turned around and headed back up the path to a slightly warmer altitude. The snow was deep in the pine forest so we flattened a couple of tent platforms and left them to sinter while we dug a fire pit and collected wood for a celebratory camp fire that would mark our last night out in the wild. As darkness fell we told stories and watched the stars wheel across the inky sky. With little cloud cover the night got cold and despite sitting in front of a fire I cooled quickly. I left Jorgen to finally dry out his frozen footwear and called it a night. It was late. It was almost 9pm...


Day 7

"Like we said in the army, it's like half an intercourse" - Jorgen Johansson

I didn't sleep well that last night. I had gone to bed cold and I had to get up in the middle of the night to make a couple of hot water bottles. And to wolf down a big bar of chocolate, for the calories you understand. I checked the night sky for Northern Lights but didn't see any. I felt sure this would have been the trip where I got to see them. Jorgen had a great idea in the morning. Breakfast 'on the porch' at -10C. We sat in the early morning sunshine and made our last breakfasts. My food bag was looking very empty now. After breakfast we skied unburdened and wrapped in puffies down to the lake and back up to our camp. After packing up for the last time we skied down the steep and packed trail to another ski trail and finally a road. Still several kilometres from Alta we picked up the floodlit ski trail that ran all the way to town.

The trail was very pretty. Tall rock faces towered above us and snow covered pine trees lined our route and saved us from thumbing a lift on the road but there was no sense of adventure for me anymore. I've skied plenty of trails like this at weekends and with friends and enjoyed them immensely but it all felt a little tame after our adventures over the previous 7 days. We were on the trail for about 2 hours before we stepped off the deep snow and onto the rock hard, thin snow and ice cover of a ploughed road. We followed road signs instead of our map now and bombed one last hill towards the 93 route road. Snow-ploughing on ice to a stop at the t-junction we watched trucks and cars speed by. The adventure was now over but our flight wasn't until tomorrow.

I guess we were the only visitors at the Alta River Campground at that time of the year. We took a small room and immediately festooned the entire apartment with our gear. Jorgen's tent was evicted to the outside on the grounds of good taste after his accident with his pee bag. We finally got to took showers. We gorged on left-over snacks. We caught up with our journals and made that final connection with the outside world. Checking e-mails and Twitter on our phones. We walked into town for a hot meal and bought Cheez Doodles and dark lager beers to while away the evening. In the taxi on the way back to the campground we found out that the weather on the Friday had been severe enough to close the airport and all roads in the area. It felt good that we had endured those conditions and despite not making Kautokeino, which, let's be honest was just a point on a map, we had shared an amazing seven days in the far north of Norway. We looked over our photos and relived the whole trip one last time. Sharing our dreams and fears. Revealing secrets and thoughts. Tomorrow we would take a taxi back to the airport, fly back to Oslo then go our separate ways but right now, just before we go to sleep on real beds, we would keep the journey alive. Just for a few more minutes.

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


Yeti said...

Epic story, I enjoyed it immensely. The tour sounds like one that actually gives more than a perfect tour on perfect snow in perfect weather would give.

Unknown said...

I echo Peter's Epic. Loved every moment of it, and I hope to be part of the next adventure ;)

Fraser said...

Yeah, super enjoyable read. I think I'm going to have to step up my efforts, my overnighters seem hugely anaemic after that.

No point worrying about turning back, I would still kill for a trip like you did do, never mind the one you didn't do!

_ said...

A great read; very inspiring. Thanks for sharing. You've got me planning more adventures now :-)

Unknown said...

A brilliant end. Great story and fine photos. Count me in for the re-match also.

Joe Newton said...

Yeti - I agree, if it had been an easy, sunny traverse then we maybe would not have gained as much from the trip as we did.

Hendrik - so we can count you in for the rematch next year?

Fraser - my winter trips before this have only been over-nighters and as Martin Rye has pointed out before anyone can cope with winter conditions for one night. The real skill is being able to do it day after day.

Paul - that is the beauty of blogs, the inspiration from other peoples trips that you would not get from magazine articles.

Mark - you are on the list!

Anonymous said...

I read the first paragraph before i fell asleep :P and don't blame me for finding out what your blog was :) it's cool though! :D

Unknown said...

Plans are things we make at home infront of teh fire with a hot drink. Reality is something completely different. Good read but is finished too soon. Do tell us about the kit. Particularly want to know how the sleeping system faired!

Joe Newton said...

Anonymous - hmmm, curious...

Dave - fear not, there will be several gear posts coming up both here and on Jorgen's blog. The dual-bag sleep system worked a treat. I'm completely sold.

Martin Rye said...

Stunning adventure. Honest and what a learning curve. The skills gained unlock bigger and better adventures. I am envies of all you who can ski and your winter skills.

I recall Erin McKittrick used a synthetic quilt and down quilt on her big walk with her husband. Seems to work fine. I would dread a collapsed wet down bag out in the wilderness. Looking forward to reading all about the skills and kit used.

Joe Newton said...

Martin - along with the skills learned came confidence. Jorgen was an amazing companion and teacher on this trip and I will never forget the things I learned but I can't rely on him to be there on every winter trip in the future. I have the confidence now to tackle more winter adventures, possibly on my own but more likely with others. Sharing an experience like this with other people is not only more satisfying but infinitely safer.

I have long read about people using similar sleep systems to the one we used over at BPL but this trip really brought the benefits into sharp focus. There is a slight weight penalty to pay but in that environment it's one I'm happy to make.

selfpowered said...

trip report of the year for me so far, hands down - thanks for sharing, hell thanks for doing it!

Anonymous said...

Yeah you should be curious Joey, mwoahaha!

Nielsen Brown said...

Joe, this was a fantastic story, I loved the way the moods changed in your writing reflecting the real life experience. Yes Jörgen is a greta teacher, even in the short time we were in Vålådalen I learnt a lot and the writings at Fjäderlätt provide a wealth of information. I woudl love to see more photos of Finnmarksvidda, in summer it must be a fascinating place.

Speaking of which, do you feel that a summer trip "to get the lay of the land" would have been useful?

Thanks again for a wonderful report.

Joe Newton said...

David - thank you for your kind words

Roger - thanks, the trip really was a roller-coaster of emotions, useful experience for the future.

I am not sure about a sunmmer trip being that useful. Everything changes with a layer of snow and ice. The stream we tried to cross on the Friday wopuld have probably been easy to ford or at least scout a way across. Making judgements about where to cross once winter grips the landscape would be guess work at best and dangerous at worst.

samh said...

Joe, the entire read from this trip was great. Excellent introspection, gear-thoughts, and navigation choice discussion. Some good, humbling events took place and you both came away from it for the better. Thank you for sharing.

* sorry it took me so long to read it but I like to be in the right mood before diving headfirst into lengthy TRs like this.

Joe Newton said...

Sam - No worries! It was a bit of an epic in a lot of respects. I'm glad you enjoyed it.