|Page Type:||Trip Report|
|Lat/Lon:||68.45031°N / 22.48335°E|
|Date Climbed/Hiked:||Feb 8, 2015|
|Activities:||Hiking, Mixed, Skiing|
I am some 150 miles up inside the Arctic Circle , mired in a snow-drift – in the freezing blackness of a February night in northern Finland. My transport – a snowmobile – is tipped on its side yet again. With extraordinary difficulty I am trying to struggle to my feet, a near impossible task in waste deep snow – and with blazing pain from the osteoarthritis in my lower spine, which is now also setting fire to my left leg.
This is all made OK (but only just) by the fact that there is the most incredible display of the aurora borealis 50km above my head. There is barely time to stop and admire it, because I have to turn my attention to getting my mired snow-mobile unstuck – which is beyond me to manage unassisted. But nonetheless I steal a bit of time as Darren, one of our two 25 year old Irish guides hurtles up in a flurry of white powder, partially illuminated by his headlight. The aurora (or northern lights) has for the last couple of hours just been a subdued greenish glow on the horizon, below an inky black sky pin-pricked by myriad stars – many more than I accustomed to seeing in the light polluted skies of the UK – 1500 miles to the south. But now it has metamorphosed into a great swirling Chinese dragon right above – and it spans half of the black dome overhead. In photos I have seen the aurora looks static. But in reality it moves – great organ pipes of green light playing a symphony in the sky, which I somehow seem to be able to hear as well as see. What I am seeing now is one of the main reasons I brought my wife here for her 60th birthday. We have wanted to visit the arctic for a decade – and now finally we are here. As well as seeing the aurora, I had also wanted to photograph it. But my bulky DSLR is buried in my light back-pack. After about the second headfirst plunge into a snow drift, many hours and about 60 miles ago, I realised it perhaps wasn’t a good idea to have it out – and got it safely stowed away, to just take out on the rare occasions we stop for a proper break. I have managed a few opportunistic photos with my mobile phone – but there isn’t time to even whip that out – and besides it is too dark.
Leila is a point of white light a few hundred metres up ahead, with David, the other client on this trip – and Sean, the other of our pair of tough, laconic Irish guides. Both Leila and David are doing better than I am on these infernal machines. Leila’s horse-riding skills seem to be of some use, riding these bucking temperamental beasts. But from the ‘fixed’ nature of the light up ahead, I think one or both of them is probably mired as well.
Our two young guides had warned us earlier that this section would be tough. I had smelled trouble when they stopped us an hour or so back and took the time to actually come down and speak to each of us individually, above the snowmobile roar… I had learned by then that whenever they did that it was not going to be good news…
“Might have a little bit of trouble this next bit… bit of a crust on top of the snow and there’s a few holes… but just really gun it if you start to go in – and you should bash your way through…”
Well, I did really gun-it and got through a couple of the man-traps barely illuminated in my dim headlight. But then a particularly lumpy bit got me. My spine is not bendy enough to permit me to resort to the sort of saddle gymnastics our guides (and to a more limited extent Leila and David) can manage to keep upright – and I went in hard and sideways – flung out of my seat to land on my back, half buried in powder snow, upended helplessly like an overturned overgrown tortoise. Because this is at least the 100th time it has happened today I have taken to bellowing a single abuse of the English language every time it happens. I don’t know, but it seems to help a little bit somehow. Besides nobody can hear me above the roar of the engines anyway.
Leaving his engine running (mine had stalled) Darren climbs off his machine and wades towards me through the snow, silhouetted by his headlight. He climbs onto my ditched machine and with a violent jerk hauls it semi-upright. Wordlessly he reaches out a hand to help me to my feet. But I haven’t quite been reduced to that. Besides – I have now managed to rotate face down, getting my mouth, eyes and nose full of icy powder – so at least my limbs are underneath, to give a little impetus towards re gaining my feet.
“I’ll pull you!” he shouts above the roar of his snow mobile – gesturing that he wants me to climb up on top of mine again. This is the tricky bit. I have to climb on the running board of the trail side of the now only half mired machine. Next I have to re- start the engine, whilst Darren crucially clears snow from under the front skis, which he angles in the proposed direction of travel with another hard yank. And then he grabs a handle on a front ski and gestures again…
I have started the engine by now and with yet another prayer that 1) I get straight out of the hole 2) that I don’t take Darren out in the process, I do as instructed and gun the throttle. I am prepared to stop immediately if he gestures stop… if snow piles up under the front again, all the motor would do would be to dig a much deeper hole…
But with a brutal jerk, the machine leaps forwards, almost throwing me off again. Somehow Sean rolls out of the way. With another bellow of pain, I wrench a stiff leg over the saddle and yank my mount straight before it buries itself in a hole on the other side of the barely discernible track. I am at an angle – but pointing in roughly the right direction – and with another blast of throttle I surge erratically towards the distant headlights far up ahead…
I did the unprecedented for this holiday and booked it through a travel agent. Holidays arranged by me are usually climbing trips and as I have been doing these for around 40 years, I kind of know what I am doing… And as for holidays with my wife having been a PA for quarter of a century and thereby a ‘professional organiser’, she can do all the research and bookings in her sleep, without assistance. But to organise a holiday for my wife, for her 60th, which was to be a sort of a surprise – up in the Arctic… well, that was a little out of the ordinary - and I walked 100m from my home and went to SpaTravel to seek advice.
“You could try the Davvi Arctic Lodge – one of the Transun packages.” said Holly, one of the assistants, after tapping on her key-board in response to my enquiry, before continuing: “And you should speak to Paul, my boss – he’s actually been there…”
Much later, having made my booking, I did speak to Paul - and the holiday started to take shape: cross-country skiing, which neither of us had done before… a night in an igloo… and the star prize, which I was sure would be Leila’s favourite: dogsledding Leila loves animals of pretty much all descriptions. She is poetry in motion on the back of a horse. I had seen her go a little bit misty eyed at TV documentaries showing husky’s at work – and I rightly assumed she would take to dog sledding. I didn’t really think about snow-mobiling…
Although Leila had wanted to go on an arctic holiday for some years, the trip was still supposed to be some sort of surprise. But you can’t take someone 1500miles up into the Arctic with temperatures potentially in the minus 30’s and not tell them what to pack.
“I hope you are not planning on making me go climbing" she warned darkly, as I started to explain how she would need to pack thermal underwear and down jacket. Leila had been on climbing holidays with me before. I had taken her up Mont Blanc and several other alpine peaks – but this was all years in the past. She had long since reverted back to her passion for horse-riding – and had generally gone on a riding trip whenever I have gone climbing nowadays.
We flew from Manchester to Kiruna, up in the far north of Sweden just a week after Leila’s 60th birthday. Having left a dark, grey and wet English February behind it was astonishing to pop down below the clouds to find a totally alien world of endless snowscapes – infinite vistas of low pines and frozen lakes - illuminated by stray beams of muted golden arctic sun. A red neon sign proclaimed it to be minus 12°C at Kiruna airport, just after we had landed. Back in England the temperatures had been a dismal plus 1-2°C over the previous week, so it felt exciting to be stepping out of the plane to feel a definite bite in the air.
In no time at all we were hurtling up a snowy highway – heading even further north, our destination 2 ½ hours away being Karesuvanto, about half a kilometre into arctic Finland. We discovered that an added driving hazard was posed by stray Reindeer getting onto the carriageway – and then not having the intelligence to jump off either side. They behaved with comparable stupidity to sheep in this respect. After a noticeably very long slow sunset we reached the Swedish village of Karesuando in darkness. We then crossed a long bridge over a frozen river into Finland, and the Finnish ‘half’ of the village of Karesuvanto. Just on the other side we left the main road and a narrow lane led us half way up a low hill to our destination. Wording carved into a block of ice proclaimed this to be the Davvi Arctic Lodge.
The Davvi is a wide low building with a terrific outlook across the frozen river into Sweden. Many stay actually in the lodge, but we were staying in one of a number of little cabins scattered in a half circle within 100m of the uphill side of the main lodge. When we came to explore in the daylight, we found it possible to walk up a track to the top of the top of the hill – where there is a pretty view-point – albeit marred by the presence of a large radio mast – but you didn’t have to look in that direction. Astonishingly for such a remote area, mobile reception was good everywhere we went, including miles out in the middle of nowhere – and the mostly flat terrain paired with the presence of numerous similar masts at the top of the scarce bits of high ground, would seem to explain this convenience. Either side of the main track there was forest composed of low pine trees, with a network of little cross country skiing trails. Anywhere else and the terrain between the trees was buried under deep snow – impassable on foot without snow-shoes.
Less than an hour’s drive away from the Lodge and down in a hollow by a frozen lake is the place where they take you dog-sledding (‘Mushing’). The place seemed to be run by an attractive red jacketed middle aged lady with a team of bearded assistants. The first impression on arrival was one of controlled and noisy mayhem. Despite the odd TV documentary I had seen, my impression of huskies were of great slavering wolf like brutes… undoubtedly ill-tempered and as liable to nip off the odd finger of an incautious bystander as the ear of one of their fellows. I was completely wrong. The huskies turned out to be scrawny curs, totally friendly – and completely mad. And part of the madness is they just love to pull a sledge.
“Whatever you do” said the red jacketed lady in accented English “don’t fall off! They don’t stop once they start!”
“And whoever is driving” she went on “don’t let the dogs catch up with the sledge in front! They are very friendly but the passenger might not like having their face licked – or being peed on! So driver you must use your brake!” And she demonstrated how the ‘musher’ (or driver) standing on the back of the sledge had to hop around standing on insubstantial footholds on the sled runners, projecting behind – whilst simultaneously depressing a sort of horizontal lever, driving a metal edge into the snow – to(hopefully) slow the careening brutes down.
After further instruction we gingerly approached our allotted sled. Our five dogs were already leaping up and down, yelping and – testing the strength of a sturdy metal post to which they were tethered. It seemed the order of things was a pair, then a singleton – then another pair in the lead, to make up the five. Leila was to take first turn at the helm so to speak. Apprehensively I settled myself onto the sledge – essentially helpless, in terms of control. “Don’t forget the brake” I said suddenly sceptical of my wife’s ability to follow the instructions “And do not fall off – I don’t want to end up in Norway!” Leila fixed clear plastic goggles in place and looked at me wordlessly.
A thick set bearded person unclipped our dogs from the post. The bucking and straining intensified as the mad brutes recognised that their only impediment was now Leila and her mastery of the sled brake. The sleds in front abruptly careened off into the far distance. It only got slightly quieter – what with the din our own dogs were making. Decisively Leila took her foot off the brake – and it was like releasing an elastic band…
With a scraping sound our sled was momentarily catapulted into the air, before landing again with a crunch – and then belting along the trail after the last departing dog team. Low snowy shrubs and little pine trees flashed past either side in a blur. The dogs hurled themselves eagerly forwards in their traces, looking surprisingly ungainly, with legs all over the place. Every so often one would try to take a nip of snow and I even noticed the right hand cur at the rear trying to cock a leg and have a pee. The others cut him not the slightest slack and he ended up hurtling through the air looking ridiculous with one leg at 3 o’clock and the others flailing ineffectually in the slip stream.
The avenue through the low forest continued for a kilometre or two. Every so often Leila’s skills would be challenged with a minor bend – but she had obviously been listening to the briefing and presumably leant in the desired direction, since we negotiated the corners uneventfully – and even well. It was a little unnerving not being able to see what she was doing. The best I could manage was a view up both her nostrils.
At some point we burst out into open country. The bends became more challenging, but Leila clearly had the bit between her teeth and we sailed round them in fine style. In fact the problem now was that we started to gain on the sled in front. Somewhat superfluously I shouted instructions about braking. But my wife was on it. She smoothly eased us back – and the gap widened again.
Our convoy reached a frozen lake – and between 30-40 minutes out from base we became aware that the lead dog teams were slowing – and stopping. A steady grating sound told me that Leila was applying the brake – and after a few dirty looks from our dogs we ground to an uneasy and impatient standstill. The thick set bearded person appeared from a snow mobile and told us we had reached half way and that it was time to change driver. “Remember” he said seriously “whatever you do in the changeover do not let off the brake!”
I climbed carefully off the sled and between us we managed the carefully choreographed sequence of moves required to make the swap without letting the brake off. Leila, now veteran expert dog sled driver started to fire a rapid fire sequence of instructions to me – starting with a further lecture on not letting go of the brake. I made sure I was standing on the brake with both feet – and the sled still bucked and heaved as the dogs scenting imminent departure, started testing my level of conviction. The sleds in front vanished again. I let them get something of a lead, squared my jaw – and stepped off the brake, whilst simultaneously grasping both handles in a death grip. We careened off – and were soon rounding the end of the lake and starting the long haul back to base. I thought it a little unfair to be landed with a tricky turn so soon in my mushing career, but still on the receiving end of a terse stream of instructions from Leila, managed the challenge – though I say so myself – in some style. But there was a lot more to controlling the sled than I had thought. If you didn’t move your weight appropriately the sledge would leave the track and most likely would topple over. Knowing they were on the home straight the dogs clearly thought a little more speed in order and we kept catching up the sled in front – and I kept hopping on the brake – making the brutes turn and give me the look…
The return to base would have been uneventful had (this time) the left hand rear cur not taken it upon himself to lay some cable – although that is perhaps not such an apt description, since the end product was a bit on the squirty side. He was very close and I could see Leila visibly flinching as the brute just adopted the position and as with his neighbour trying to have a pee, he simply got on with the job whilst flying through the air. It was all a bit undignified and could have ended in tears. But somehow everything bar the smell ended up flashing past underneath the sled – and without any unfortunate pebble-dashing effects.
We arrived back at base, well pleased with our hour and half’s adventure, especially when the thick set bearded person complimented us both on our driving skills. “You are both naturals” he said generously. We spent 10 minutes or so thanking our team – confirming that these animals really are very friendly and enjoy a scratch behind the ears just the same as our dog back at home. And like him many of them were partial to a bit of a roll – which could get a bit complex when attached to neighbours and metal posts. I realised that one more thing that made them seem so mad was that most of them had quite extraordinary pale blue eyes, which gave them a more than slightly crazed look, complementing the crazy antics.
We spent our second night in the arctic in an igloo . Having spent weeks in total living in snow caves, including on the very summit of Mont Blanc, this wasn’t a particular novelty to me. But it was pretty strange and new to Leila. Our home for the night didn’t exactly fulfil what I had come to expect of an igloo: one of those little VW Beetle shaped dwellings cleverly built of snow blocks; with a little entrance tunnel. And the setting didn’t exactly fulfil what I expected in terms of where an igloo should be: say, sat on a frozen lake somewhere miles from anywhere out under the stars…
Our igloo was more of a sort of house shaped construction and far from an entrance tunnel it had a normal door made of wood. It appeared to be one of two at the end of a cul de sac in little housing estate on the outskirts of Karesuvanto. Perhaps it was so constructed to fit in with the more conventionally built houses next door – one of which we were shown had a ‘warming room’, in case we couldn’t hack it during the night and decided to go and sleep somewhere warmer. As a veteran snow-cave inhabitant I didn’t pay attention to this part of the briefing – but Leila did.
This was also supposed to be a ‘northern lights’ experience. However being in a little housing estate there was too much light pollution including from a log fire obligingly created just outside our dwelling. So we walked about 1km out of the estate and onto the wide frozen river which forms the border between Finland and Sweden. Having crossed the international border we turned round and scanned the northern horizon… and with the help of a bit of imagination you could just make out a slightly mottled effect in a very dim glow on the far horizon. The glow was whitish and not unlike the first sign of impending sunrise long before the dawn brings some colour. However whatever it was did appear to be moving and quite un-dawn like beams were appearing and disappearing along the span of it. It was much too dim to photograph with my mobile phone and not worth trying to capture on my DSLR – besides which I hadn’t brought my tripod. Well, at least we could say we had seen the northern lights – albeit only just. We knew that many came out here and saw nothing. We trudged back to our home for the night. This was the point in the evening that we were supposed to sit on a big heavy log in front of our fire and sing Lappish folk songs. However, whoever had placed the log had not allowed for the stiff westerly breeze which was carrying smoke and sparks all over it. If we tried to sit on it we would suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning before catching on fire. To move the log would have needed a
better spine than mine so we decided on an early night – and went inside our igloo.
The ‘bed’ was a sort of a box construction made from slabs of ice, cut from the river – and filled with snow – but overlaid with reindeer skins. So far so good… but the finishing touch was two somewhat ordinary thin synthetic filled sleeping bags, which looked more suitable for summer use. Being a modern day housing estate igloo there was electric lighting, cunningly buried in our ice bed, so that we stripped down to our thermals illuminated by blue light. We climbed into our sleeping bags and I took a quick ‘selfie’ on my mobile – to show anyone interested, that yes, we really did spend the night here. And then Leila turned off the blue light via a sort of Christmas Tree light switch she found buried under her reindeer pelt. I drew up the drawstrings of my sleeping bag as tightly as I could and turned over to go to sleep.
Given the thinness of my sleeping bag I slept quite well. But I was dimly aware at a few points during the night that although I wasn’t cold, I certainly wasn’t toasty warm. I noticed that condensation forming around my breathing hole was water and not ice – so it certainly wasn’t that cold. I have had much colder nights…
At some point I woke up and although it was utterly dark in the igloo I had the feeling it could be morning. Leila was apparently silent lying next to me, so I presumed she was still deeply asleep. I therefore didn’t try to use my headtorch and squinted at my watch. There was just enough illumination in the figures to hazard a guess at about 6.30am… and we were due to be picked up at 7.30am, to be taken back to the Lodge for breakfast. Aware that it annoys Leila if I am restless and that she doesn’t like being woken early I tried to lay as still as she appeared to be – and resisted the temptation to fidget. In the sepulchral silence of our ice room I marvelled at how silently she was sleeping – I couldn’t hear her breathing at all. When a squint at the dying tritium glow of my watch suggested it was 7.15am I could stand it no longer…
“Morning Leila” I finally spoke. No answer.
“Leila – its 7.15 – time to get up!” Still no answer. My god – what if she had died during the night? I sat up abruptly and reached across in the pitch darkness… and I felt a tangle of empty sleeping bag and reindeer pelt… She wasn’t actually there.
Still fuzzy with sleep I fumbled in the depths of my sleeping bag and came up with a headtorch. Definitely no Leila. I checked on the snowy floor. She wasn’t there either. Not having paid attention to the warming room part of the briefing the night before I had forgotten about it and for long moments was utterly mystified. Where the hell had she gone? I dressed quickly and having noted that Leila’s clothing and boots had also gone, I excited the igloo into the dim light of just before arctic dawn. Then I remembered the warming room… A few sporadic street lights illuminated some of the nearby buildings. I crunched over frozen snow along the street. Some of the houses were lit from inside and were clearly occupied. Now – which was the one that housed the warming room? I discovered that I had no idea… I marched along the street, rounding bends and peering hopefully at the buildings. Nothing rang any bells.
At 7.30am our transport arrived. Two occupants from the neighbouring igloo appeared – ready to go. Still no Leila – and I had some difficulty explaining to the east European driver that I had mislaid her – and needed to find the ‘warming room’. Eventually he understood and showed me the right door – and sure enough there she was. It transpired that Leila had been too cold to sleep – and this was aggravating a sore shoulder from the mornings dog-sledding. She had finally given up at about 3am and had managed to get up, get dressed and exit the igloo all without waking me. She hadn’t slept much better on the floor of the warming room. We returned to the relative civilisation of the lodge for breakfast.
One of the objectives of the holiday was to learn the gentle art of cross country skiing. I had done a lot of down-hill skiing and a little ski mountaineering over many years – neither of which was familiar to Leila, who had been exposed to a mere few days of skiing as a teenager – and nothing since. So we had never tried to have a skiing holiday together, assuming the gap between us would be too wide. Cross country skiing however was unfamiliar to both of us. On this holiday I looked forward to getting the basic instruction – and then being able to hire equipment for the rest of the week – striking out on trails out in the outback as and when we felt like it. In the event there turned out to be obstacles. The first one was that Transun only seemed to offer brief cross country skiing experiences and weren’t really geared up for more independently minded customers with a bit of a pioneering spirit. Nevertheless, a deal was brokered through Peter, leader of a tough band of laconic Irish adventurers (who will be featuring again shortly). Thus by Day 2 of the holiday Leila and I had been duly instructed – and were in possession of a set of ski’s, poles and boots each. We were good to go.
But, the next obstacle was that Leila didn’t really take to cross country skiing.
“You know I hate things that make my feet slide” she had said miserably after crashing onto her butt for the umpteenth time, out on the trails behind the lodge. To be fair to her, she did fine poling along on the flat and even gently uphill – but true to form she couldn’t get the hang of anything approaching sliding downhill. I have to say I found the downhill a little tricky on Nordic skis – but my past experience on down-hill skis most definitely helped - and I was as far ahead of Leila skiing down any slopes, as she is of me riding a horse (well, maybe not quite that far…)
On Day 3 of the holiday we were supposed to be hitch-hiking with the main party of customers on a coach trip to Hetta, led by Will, our cross country skiing instructor - a young Englishman and aspirant RAF pilot. The objective was to view a museum and then an Ice Castle before returning to the Lodge for lunch. However, again through the services of Peter, we had contrived to sneak our skis on board the coach – and peel off from the main party to belt round some cross country skiing trails. And now Leila wasn’t really up for it.
“Why don’t you ask David if he wants to go?” Leila was referring to one of couple of semi-retired English Psychologists we had befriended. David’s wife Judith had felt even more strongly about skiing than Leila had – and had walked round the trails with us when we were being instructed. But David was one of the star pupils in the group and seemed to be very fit. He was up for it – and further negotiations with the Irishman successfully transferred Leila’s skiing equipment deal to David. Everything fell into place thereafter. Armed with a very rough map, again courtesy of the Irishman, David and I found that, as luck would have it, the museum in Hetta and first objective of the coach excursion, was right at the start of one of the ski trails, which turned out to be just exactly the right length to manage in the narrow one and a half hour window we had before the party moved on.
Having had overcast for the first two days of the holiday, the weather was perfect for our little trip. The sky was nearly clear – and everywhere sparkled under the soft light of the low angled arctic sun. Despite the clear sky it wasn’t that cold. Temperatures were somewhere between minus 5° and 10°C – which were given to understand was a heat wave for this time of year.
David and I went for a route which according to the map was of ‘medium’ difficulty, involving some ascent and then a circular route round the 6km perimeter of a hill just to the north east of Hetta. Looking at an enlarged map on a board close to the start we reckoned that we had about 2km to do to reach the circuit part – so about 8km total. We reckoned we could manage this with time to spare – just. Will had told us that the deadline was 12 noon – and that if were late, they’d have to leave us – and we’d have to wait for a much later transport with the afternoon party. So we set off at a brisk pace up what quickly turned into groomed cross country skiing trail, heading into the wilderness to the north of the village, in the bottom of a very shallow valley – bounded at north east end by the low hill we expected to be climbing. I keep reasonably fit and getting increasingly used to the technique of using skinny ‘fish scale’ soled skis, found myself enjoying the ‘kick – glide, kick – glide…’ of our forward movement. David was clearly a fit man belying his 65 years. I decided he must be a runner – and indeed he was, modestly acknowledging that he could still get round a marathon in substantially under 4 hours at my inquiry.
Not having been on a groomed cross country trail before we were interested to note that there were two sets of twin grooves, one either side of a very smooth track: a far cry from the lumpy irregularities of the trails around the lodge. For some inexplicable reason it did not occur to either of us that one was an ‘up’ route and the other a ‘down’ – and we kick-glided our way along side by side in companionable manner, chatting as we went. Fortuitously we didn’t meet anyone coming the other way – yet. The initially horizontal trail smoothly started to rise and about 2km out we encountered a T junction up on the hillside. To the left went downwards. To the right went further up. We presumed this to be the start of our loop – and picked right. I noted that our direction must be just east of south, since we were facing into the low golden orb of the sun.
The next couple of kilometres followed an undulating course still further uphill. There were a few deviations, but overall I thought we continued to follow an approximately southerly course. We were now appreciably above the flat arctic tundra surrounding Hetta – and the views at occasional clearings in the low pine forest around us were beautiful. We stopped briefly several times to take photos during the first half an hour of our little journey. As we had left the T junction, the sun had definitely been ahead. The course we followed felt to me to be approximately straight – allowing for occasional undulations and serpentine deviations. But somehow, we were turning left, around the mountaintop, since the sun was gradually moving off to our right…
About three quarters of an hour out from Hetta I stopped taking photos. The sun was now only about a 45° angle away from where I had first noted it dead ahead of our track. I started to get the feeling that we were circumnavigating a course of much wider circumference than the 6km distance the map had suggested. The map could not illustrate all the twists and turns we had following – and that could have accounted for it. Whatever, we both felt that if we were to get back to the museum for Will’s 12 noon deadline, then we needed to leg it. If the coach left without us it wouldn’t be the end of the world… but we’d end up wasting half a day having to wait for the afternoon party to come.
At some point the tracks became a single carriage way and we kick-glided our way along one behind the other, in silence now, each concentrating on speed. A total beginner at this game, I was pleased to note that the unfamiliar action was becoming even more familiar and instinctive now – and I both enjoyed the rhythmic movement as well as appreciated that it was now easy to move faster than I would have done walking, both up and down hill. Somewhere we lost sight of the sun and with continued bends and twists I became disorientated. There had been a place at which I had decided we must be half way round. But a road had been supposed to come close to our course around this point – and we hadn’t seen it. The vista of thick snow drifts and low pine trees had been unbroken either side. Never mind, I thought, David is bound to know where we are – assuming that a mountain rescue expert would have some sort of in-built GPS which would instantly triangulate our position.
“David” I said as we rounded another minor bend “Are you orientated?”
“No” he replied helpfully “I’m not!”
Temporarily in my own state of disorientation I became uncertain of north and south. Our track was not the only one around and there were potentially wrong routes to be followed. We needed to be sure we came down the right side of the hill… in other words to the south – and Hetta. To the north did not bear thinking about – empty forest and frozen lakes stretched practically to the North Pole. Somewhere again, a misty low angled sun reappeared in view again – but it was now behind us. Either we – or the sun – had revolved through 180°. Strangely it felt as if the sun had, but on the assumption that we had, this suggested that we still had some distance still to go. The sun needed to be back in front of us again for us to have completed our 360° circumnavigation of the mountain top. And the time was now fast approaching half past eleven. In half an hour the coach was supposed to leave.
I plunged off along the track. I kept thinking that we should be able to recognise where we were by now. Why wasn’t that happening? But we surely couldn’t have slipped off route. This one was an ‘illuminated’ official cross country trail, marked by a thin black marker cable strung up between posts. We couldn’t have gone wrong – unless we had strayed onto another route marked in the same way. Another quarter of an hour passed. We reached a sign. It wasn’t the sign we expected to see, at the T junction and didn’t mention Hetta – but it did mention somewhere else which we knew was in the right direction, according to our very rudimentary map. I was now sweating and breathless from the exertion. But I noted my companion seemed to be breathing evenly as if he had just been on a gentle amble. He had been following me but only because I seemed to go faster on the down-hill bits. On the flat or uphill I suspected he could leave me behind.
We set off again in the direction indicated by the sign, still one behind the other – although the tracks were now dual again. It just happened that we picked the left hand of the two sets of paired grooves. The next section smoothly eased into the longest bit of downwards slope that we had experienced thus far. I let my speed build up and the wind began to rush past my face, much as I remembered from past down-hill skiing days. The only problem was that these weren’t downhill skis. In my enjoyment of the speed, I was also still searching for clues as to where we were – and all of a sudden I was off my legs and crashed into an ungainly heap. I picked myself up immediately and carried on – just in time to avoid David. The slope got steeper and veered into a smooth bend, requiring a little concentration… but all of a sudden and at long last, I recognised where we were. There about 100m ahead of us was the T Junction. We would have to turn left – in a right angle. This meant we would have to stop – very soon. There was an added urgency: a lone skier, the first person we had seen in all the time we had been out, was slowly making his way up one of the tracks… our track, the one that we were now hurtling down at high speed. If the tracks were one for up and other for down, seemingly we had picked the wrong one (assuming we were the ones who didn’t know what we were doing…)
This was a bad moment to recognise that in my short cross country skiing career thus far I had never had to brake – as in come to an abrupt halt. We had gone quite fast on some of the shorter slopes behind us, but could always just coast to stop – or use the valuable momentum to get up the next rise. I knew what to do on downhill skis – but these were Nordic skinny skis, to which I was only attached at the toe.
Time can sometimes slow down at moments like this. Somehow I had time to note the incredulous look on the face of the elderly man slowly ascending towards us, his demeanour somehow also suggesting he was a local. I stepped out of the twin grooves of the track. This would perhaps be the moment to whip off a dazzling series of Telemark turns and bring myself to a stop. But I hadn’t been taught how to do a Telemark turn , which is an advanced technique. Nonetheless I did manage to ease to the right, so I was no longer going to hit the old man. I thought back to downhill basics, back to beginner days 40 years before. What about a ‘snow-plow’?
With nothing to lose other than my dignity I managed to ease the two skis, bouncing slightly on the less even snow surface outside the grooves, into a defensive V. I kept up an even pressure and felt resistance back – and ground to a halt just abreast of the man, who was still looking incredulous. I tried to smile reassuringly at him, but a brief wind milling of both arms and involuntary “woa-aargh!’ gave the game away. He wasn’t fooled – and even less so when David made his arrival – crashing into a completely undignified heap just a couple of metres away. David hadn’t managed to get his skis out of the track and so had no choice other than to just fall over. The old man stared at us both wordlessly. His look was still incredulous – and I somehow felt the need to explain – although it seemed unlikely that the man would either understand or excuse us. So I just said the word “English!” whilst raising both my arms and rolling my eyes in a universal gesture of complete helplessness.
Before the old man’s incredulity moved towards outrage David picked himself up – and we launched off towards Hetta. I reflected that the old man’s reaction had been preferable to the one I had experienced the other day, in the woods behind the lodge. I had gone out on a solo exploration whilst Leila slept off the effects of the night in the igloo and I had strayed onto what I think was the cross country skiing equivalent of a black run. I passed an uncomfortable half an hour mostly buried in deep snow and upside down. But I did eventually get out – and hit a little straight bit. The only problem was I needed to do an abrupt right angle turn to the left. I couldn’t do right angle turns – and the inevitable happened. I ended up crashed at the feet of a pair of locals – out with their dog. The look on the woman’s face had been… pitying. David agreed that if the old man had looked at us that way, it would have been much worse.
Back down on the flat and on familiar ground again, we recovered our dignity. We returned the familiar kick-glide movement again, which we could manage – and which, I would venture to say, we could even do quite well. The only problem now was that we still had a mile to cover – in just under 10 minutes. I could run a mile in that time – and David in three quarters of that time. But would we be able to do it on skis?
We did it on skis.
We screeched round the final bend into the museum car park at bang on 12 o’clock. The coach was there, doors closed and engine running. Another 30 seconds and they would have been gone. Will was a punctual young man who was going into the orderly world of the military – and if he said they were leaving at 12, then they were leaving at 12! Breathlessly we loaded our skis and poles into the baggage compartment and joined the mob inside – to go visit ‘the Ice Castle’…
When I booked the holiday I was focussed on cross country skiing and the huskies. I didn’t really think of snow-mobiling, since I didn’t think Leila would like it. She doesn’t like driving a car in the snow, so it seemed reasonable to assume she wouldn’t like driving a snow-mobile either. But we both had our driving licenses with us – and our package included a two hour night time “snow-mobile experience” – so it looked like we were going to be doing it anyway – and to my surprise Leila seemed up for it.
The next thing was that we met Peter the Transun outdoors expert, in the course of our negotiations over the cross country skis. It transpired that Peter was leader of a team of young Irishmen who were all from a particular rock-climbing/outdoors club – who had acquired expertise in hurtling around the arctic on snowmobiles. Legend had it that Peter had originally tried to break into the arctic scene disguised as a Santa’s Elf – and applied to join the Santa Safari team. However, an astute Santa – or whoever was on the interview panel - had spotted that the tall bearded and laconic Irishman was cast more in the mould of his forebear Sir Ernest Shackleton . So they got him to do snow-mobiles instead of Reindeer sleigh rides and even let him bring in some of his mates. So it came about that Peter came to be in charge of a team of similarly bearded and laconic Irishmen – who ran the snow-mobile trips.
Somehow it slipped out in general conversation that for a small fortune we could go on a major snow-mobile expedition, covering some impossible distance, even getting into Norway, before overnighting in some remote cabin in the forest somewhere – and then returning to the Lodge via Sweden, the following day. They didn’t get to put on this trip very often since there were seldom any takers. However one person had put his name down for it already. They needed a minimum of two more to run the expedition… I took a breath in to say sorry not for that price…
“Yes we’ll do it!” said Leila “Where do we sign?”
It seemed that our two hour night time “Snow-mobile experience” was going to be all we had by way of training before setting off on a serious artic expedition.
After dinner on our second night we went out into the darkness, got equipped with a bulky helmet – and found ourselves both astride our machine for the next 2 hours – which we would be sharing. I was in the driver’s seat and listened carefully to the instructions. I was still under the illusion that Leila wouldn’t like snow mobiling and assumed I’d be doing all the driving. A hard pull on a starter toggle reminiscent of that on a petrol lawn-mower, brought the engine into noisy life. On the left handle bar there was a brake leaver, like on a bicycle. On the right there was a throttle: not a rotating sleeve as on a motorbike, but a thumb operated leaver. Gunning the throttle resulted in a blast of louder engine roar – and was also what engaged gear to move off.
Illuminated by headlights from our convoy of snowmobiles our leader did a thumbs up – followed by a vaguely military looking punching movement in the air – which we were all required to acknowledge – as the signal to move off. One by one the signal moved up the line towards us and presumably behind us. The air was by now shaking with the reverberating roar of about eight machines and our nostrils assailed by the surprisingly sharp stink of fuel. Way up ahead our leader moved smoothly off. One by one and considerably less smoothly, the rest of the party followed, helmeted heads jerking with the uneven take off. I let the machine in front get a lead… and experimentally depressed the throttle with my thumb. The engine growled in response but nothing else happened. A couple of increasingly bold squeezes didn’t do anything either. Decisively I compressed the thing using my entire grip – and we felt as well as heard a great clunk – and the machine jolted forwards… too much and I let go – and we jolted to a halt…
In a manner reminiscent of one of several things that failed me my first driving test (I remember my examiners head snapping forwards and back as we kangaroo hopped out into a busy intersection) we jolted off after the receding tail lights of the next snow-mobile. We needed to catch up – and more smoothly now, I applied power and accelerated off out of the parking area and into a dark narrow trail leading off into the woods. Our instructors had warned us that it was going to be ‘a little bit tricky’ straight away, with the trail between the trees being both windy and steep – first uphill then down – and of course we had to negotiate it in darkness, by the light of headlights only a little more powerful than a headtorch. It occurred to me as we hurtled forwards that the track looked too narrow and too steep… but we had the advantage of having just seen several vehicles go up it, so I gunned the throttle with confidence, ignoring this feeling. There was also the new worry that we might lose the tail lights of the vehicle in front if we didn’t get a move on – and end up picking up a false trail… and the good Lord knew where we might end up then.
I began to learn the technique of steering this brute, turning the two skis at the front left and right with harsh movements of the handle bars, at the same time as giving blasts of power to the unseen rotating track underneath. Yes, it was certainly different to turning with wheels – but as we crested the top of the rise, I felt I was getting the hang of it. What Leila thought, perched in another world behind me, I didn’t know.
Our course curved round – and then the tail lights abruptly disappeared as the track plunged back down towards the direction we had come from – but slightly angled away. A steep gun barrel of a route plunged down towards the yellow lit scene which was the main road, about 150m away and back out of the woods. As I crested the top of the rise it looked far too steep, but again, others had been before – and were one by one successfully emerging at the bottom. I flexed my left hand slightly, ready to squeeze the brake lever – but it transpired that just releasing the throttle was all that was necessary to slow and even stop. The traction of the rotating track underneath was that good. Like on a mad nocturnal roller coaster ride we hurtled down what felt like at least a 45° slope (but was probably much less) blasted across some open space at the bottom – and screeched to an abrupt halt in the wide open forecourt of the big petrol station down by the main road.
There was a brief delay whilst our guides at front and back of the party counted us all in and turned to the task of getting us all safely across the main road. This was not very busy, but when there was traffic it tended to be great big juggernauts hurtling up and down the icy surface, presumably servicing the distant Norwegian port at Tromso, about 250km to the northwest. The skies had been overcast all day and there was uniform blackness overhead. So we weren’t going to see the Northern Lights on this trip. Out of the sky and illuminated by the yellow glow of the garage forecourt, snow was beginning to fall…
In the next stage of this little expedition we were to cross the road one by one – and then drop down into the uneven and lumpy terrain leading about half a kilometre to the frozen river which was the boundary between Finland and Sweden. Once on the river the game plan was a fast hurtle up river 2-3km to the east – and then back west again doing all the same in reverse – and ending up back at base. Progress to the river bank was slowed by at least 3 snow-mobiles tipping over at tricky parts of the trail. At the time it was hard to know what was going on – just that the convoy stopped for a long time as ghostly snowflakes fell around us lit up by our headlights. In later discussions in the bar, everyone was very excited by these seemingly major dramas. Little did we all know that actually, snow-mobiles tipping over was just a normal part of snow-mobile life…
Belting up and down the frozen river was uneventful – other than it was near impossible to see with a combination of spindrift kicked up by the vehicle in front and by now large snowflakes being flung against the scratched visors of our helmets. Leila had taken over driving at the furthest extremity of our journey. With nothing to do other than hang on, I sat apprehensively behind, hoping she wouldn’t go too fast (she did) and how she would manage the tricky stuff where the snow mobiles had tipped over (she managed fine). The last obstacle proved to be getting out of the petrol station forecourt and back up the hill to the Lodge. We all had to surmount a steep bank – which seemed a very big deal at the time – but didn’t a few days later, when we returned from our major snow-mobile expedition… The two snow mobiles in front each tipped over at the crest of the bank and plunged sideways into drifts alongside, spilling their riders. It took the instructors some time to get them upright and on their way. And then it was our turn...
“I think I want them to tell us how to do this!” I bellowed at the back of Leila’s head.
A helmeted figure came across and I heard a male Irish voice bellowing above the engine roar about keeping to the left – actually going straight at the U apparently cut into the crest – rather than trying to angle round it, as the first snow-mobiles had done… and really gun it was the final touch. Leila doesn’t like doing out of the ordinary manoeuvres driving a car – and definitely not on snow. I waited for her to ask me to take over. But then I sensed her flexing her shoulders... She was going to do it. And then I began to understand… of course, this temperamental and infernal beast was more like a horse than a car to her - and she was going to use all her powers of persuasion to make it behave. I gripped my handles and resisted the temptation to close my eyes…
With a harsh blare of noise and a waft of diesel stink we blasted across the forecourt. Peering reluctantly over my wife’s shoulder I saw we were on target, aimed straight at the middle of the U. The machine bucked like one of Leila’s quadrupedal friends as we abruptly met the steep gradient – and in a flash we were over the obstacle and barrelling off up the hill. We followed the serpentine obstacle course through the trees uneventfully – and soon the entire squad was parked up back at base. The engines were now silent – but our heads still reverberated. We had been out for about two hours and covered maybe 8km in total. My arms felt tired from wrestling our brute over the lumpy terrain and my back ached. I thought ahead to the voyage planned for two days hence… supposedly doing over 100km in a day. I presumed that it would have to be on a well groomed track, much easier than what we had just done to be able to cover that kind of distance – and besides, we’d be doing it all in daylight…
Led by our two laconic Irish guides Sean and Darren we did start out in daylight. Aside from me, Leila and our guides the other member of the expedition was a man called David, from Barnsley, England. He looked to be in his late thirties and seemed to be reasonably fit – although his snowmobiling prowess was an unknown initially. He had done the same two hour taster as Leila and I had, but afterwards Leila had thought she had heard him saying that he hadn’t liked it…
Although we started out in daylight on what would turn out to be an epic voyage, we might just have well have set out at night, the way conditions were for us at first. We headed due north away from the Lodge – round the back of the hill and off into the empty arctic tundra beyond. There was heavy overcast and it was snowing – and the temperature around a sultry minus 10°C as we left the Lodge. As such the light was flat and the white snow rendered featureless to such an extent that it was near impossible at times, to see the trail made by the lead snowmobile. Leila and I were wearing the clear plastic glasses I had learned from mountain experience to give eye protection without obscuring vision – and clearer than the scratched visors of our helmets. But in the flat light it was still very difficult. Added to this Leila has poor long distance vision and normally wears glasses for driving. For the first 15km of our journey Leila went from one crash to the next, as she strayed into the deep snow just to the side of track and tipped over.
“Sorry I’m so useless at this!” she said miserably and for about the 10th time.
“You’re not useless at it” I said remembering her performance from two days before “You just can’t see in this flat light – and it is no wonder you keep going off track!” But I still worried as to how we could possibly make enough progress. Far from easier, the terrain was evidently a lot tougher than even the worst of our taster experience. If we had over 100km to go, we would surely never make it. I wondered at what point our two guides would say sorry but we have to turn back…
And it wasn’t just Leila. Both David and I had spills as well, just at this point not quite so often. But Leila had a further burden to bear – her machine kept over heating – and we discovered that the treatment for this was to open the bonnet and pack blocks of snow around the engine.
We learned about recovering ditched snow-mobiles. This is a very strenuous business – and somewhat punishing to a normal back never mind a dodgy one like mine. But the first thing our guides taught us was around prevention: how not to follow the leader if they went into soft snow for a start; but then if you did, how to throw weight across, steer and really gun it with the throttle – and then mostly, you could stay out of trouble – or they did anyway. But they told us that they did get stuck, it was just that we hadn’t seen it happen - yet.
“When we get stuck” Sean said, referring to himself and Darren “we really get stuck! It’s usually a lot easier to get you-s guys out!” This was partly because they had bigger and more powerful machines than the ones we were driving, but also because they could happily put themselves in much more dire situations – such as when scouting out the route. Little did we know that before the day was out we were to have the truth in this statement confirmed to us. In the mean time, when we ditched, they showed us how to try and straighten the machine if it was on its side – and how to yank the two skis at the front so they pointed in the direction you wanted to go i.e. back onto the trail. But then something of vital importance:
“You’ve got to dig the snow out from under the front between the skis” they said “or then if you gun the throttle the snow just acts like a wall – and the engine just digs you an even bigger hole!” I could see what they meant – the rotating track under the machine just spun and became in effect an overgrown drill head. The other rather alarming thing that happened when we inadvertently did this was that the engine howled like a demented chainsaw to the accompaniment of billowing clouds of noxious part combusted diesel fumes pouring out of the engine casing. This event was one of the few that could result in something approaching irritation from our otherwise laconic guides.
The order of our little convoy was Sean first, followed by David and then Leila. I was behind Leila – and Darren behind me. So we greenhorns were sandwiched between the two experts. Every time Leila went in I took it upon myself to climb off my machine and go and try to help her. Soft snow or not, Darren generally was quick to blast his way up and direct operations – as well as provide his own considerable muscle power. Nonetheless, I was ending up doing an awful lot of heaving and pulling and having suffered a prolapsed disc followed by osteoarthritis of my lumbar spine, this started to become increasingly painful. And just normal riding of my snowmobile between Leila’s crashes was hardly therapeutic with the constant jarring movement. I noted that the two guides generally rode standing up. They told us this helped to relieve their own back discomfort as well as making it easier to shift weight quickly to get out of trouble. Sean said snowmobiling was causing him problems – and periodically he had to get signed off work due to back pain.
The terrain we were powering our way through was a little monotonous in the flat light of the low overcast - and with near constant snowfall. We seemed to be in a colourless black and white world of endless clearings and low sparse forests. Some of the clearings had small shrubs and bushes poking up. Others were just flat and empty – and were in fact frozen lakes. The route was an official bit of ‘Arctic Highway’ – which was marked by 6 foot wooden posts with crosses on top, spaced every 50-100 metres or so. In some places trail was visible between the posts. We were told a pair of snowmobile experts had gone round the route two days before. But in many places blown spindrift had completely covered the tracks – and Sean, sometimes with Darren’s help (with the three of us parked up) would blast through and create another track.
An hour or so out from base and still heading due north, the monotony of the terrain was broken by the appearance of a modest hill off to our right. This was called Lavivaara, all of 550m high and a popular view point for snow-mobilers. In fact Transun put on a Lavivaara excursion as a much easier and shorter alternative to the big trip we were doing – and also as a slightly more challenging trip compared to the nocturnal ‘snow mobile experience’ we had done two days before. We were supposed to have taken a half hour detour to visit the view point. But with the overcast and snow severely limiting any view – and with our slow progress thus far - we didn’t need any persuading to miss this out. We were told we would be going to be climbing up even higher a couple of hours later anyway, when we ascended to a high plateau somewhere out of sight up in the gloom up ahead.
About an hour beyond Lavivaara and a little over two hours out from the start we reached a junction on the trail. I was very pleased and even relieved when we stopped. The going had got a little better as the snow stopped falling and the light improved and I felt we had surely covered a good bit of distance now and deserved a break. It was also getting close to midday and I began to look forward to a bite of lunch. We had been told that lunch would be a burger at a remote truck stop on a major highway we would eventually be crossing – and I hoped that it wouldn’t be too long until we reached this, after this current stop. I stretched my aching back and luxuriated both in the comfort of not moving as well as in the peace and quiet once all five engines were silent. The pungent aroma of tobacco smoke drifted back. Oh – maybe that was another reason why we had stopped. Both our guides and David smoked… and I made a mental note that this may mean regular similarly welcome stops later on. There were potential advantages to having smokers in the party.
Back to the thoughts of burger and chips – yes, that was an attractive prospect and hopefully not more than an hour or two away – surely? My gaze fell onto a sign at the junction, pointing back the way we had come: Kaaresuvanto 20. With at least 80km to go it began to dawn on me that we were still barely past the start line on what was shaping up to be a very long day…
Fag break over we mounted our machines and yanked on our starting toggles. The five engines shattered the peace once more and once again, the clear air was pervaded by diesel stink. Sean led off up the right fork of the T junction. We were no longer heading due north but northeast now - although there was still no sun to provide reference. We started what became the most beautiful and for me, enjoyable part of what would indeed turn into an incredibly long day. Initially it was of the same endless clearings and forests, clearings and forests over and over… but it had stopped snowing and the black and white began to be softened by occasional hints of gold as stray beams of low angled sunlight slipped through thinning clouds. So it all looked prettier – and another bonus was that we could all see the ground much better, especially Leila, who stopped crashing.
The terrain started to become more undulating and in due course, as promised, we started to ascend. It was never steep but nevertheless we began to gain height – and low forest started to give way to sparse skeletal bushes and scrub. Probably around 1pm – having been on the go for approaching four hours – we emerged on the so called plateau at over 500m – and as desolate and yet beautiful a wilderness as I have ever seen. The soft arctic sun was now shining even more boldly through the fragmented clouds and the landscape was definitely no longer black and white, but a study in shades of gold. The price to pay for the clearer sky and altitude was it got colder. At the start the temperature had been no higher than minus 10°C – and this was one of the reasons Leila’s snowmobile had kept overheating. But now the temperature sunk to around minus 15°C. This was far from cold by local standards and in fact still counted as a heat wave. Nevertheless hands and toes now felt the nip. The two guides had told us that two little buttons on the left handle bar of the snow mobiles, were controls to handle bar heaters. I experimented with mine as the cold bit, but they were a little erratic and my hands varied from being scorched to chilled as the temperamental heaters cut in and out.
Still approximately on a plateau our course nonetheless undulated a little as we negotiated more but smaller frozen lakes with rounded bars of land in between. On average we continued to inch higher in terms of altitude, with each flat lake surface being like step and slightly higher than the one before it. And now we could see the golden orb of the sun, I noted that we were still inching further north with our continuing east of north track. In my much more familiar element of climbing mountains I have to confess I have a bit of thing about altitude. Without getting too obsessional about it I do admit I like collecting four thousanders in the Alps, where I have now climbed the highest six times – and of the highest summit I ever reached, Aconcagua, it irks mildly that it didn’t quite top the magic barriers of 7000m and 23,000ft. But now, in the totally unfamiliar scene of The Arctic, I had found myself getting interested in how far north we were going to get, since every centimetre of northerly movement represented a new record for me – and Leila also.
In the most beautiful and desolate spot yet we stopped by a route marker, which also appeared to mark a vague summit. It was time for another fag break – and once again I found myself welcoming the lad’s filthy habit. Having got my DSLR stowed away and used my mobile phone to take all the pictures I had snatched thus far, with a longer stop and in such a beautiful place, I quickly shrugged off my little day sack and hauled the big camera out. We were in the highest and most remote spot on our journey, which deserved recording. We were also nearly at the most northerly extremity, up at the border with Norway, although I didn’t know it then. Just at that moment the feeling of complete isolation and remoteness was shattered somewhat by mobile phone ring tones. Leila started slightly – and reached in her pocket. It was an important call – and she took it, up there in the remotest place she had ever been. We were now between 40-50km away from Karesuvanto – and with the terrain being so flat I presumed we must still be ‘line of sight’ with the big mast on the low hill above the Lodge.
Enjoyment of this section of the journey and of the views at our stop had gone some way towards compensating for the fact that by this time, approaching 2pm, we had expected to be sitting down to our burger and chips lunch, in this arctic burger joint the lads had told us we would be visiting. (I was curious – was there a MacDonalds up in this frozen wasteland? Would we be sitting down to a McArctic burger and fries?) Just how far away this promised land now was, our leaders were not really saying, beyond that we still had ‘quite a long way to go’. All good things must come to an end and my spine (as well as my stomach) groaned as we climbed astride our infernal machines – and with sharp right handed pulls, shattered the peace again. Sandwiched once more between our intrepid leaders we cast off into the wilderness – and started a very gradual descent. The sun was now perceptibly more to the right of track as opposed to behind – and I determined that we were now only just inching further north.
In terms of snow-mobileness the track was still good. Nobody was tipping over and I hoped that the horrible terrain of two hours before was not to be repeated. Despite hunger and a nagging ache in my back, I was still enjoying myself and made the most of not having to concentrate furiously on every inch of the track, to opportunistically taking in the sights and trying to imprint them in my memory, for future reflection. I regretted that our guides didn’t stop more for photo-taking – but then of course they were the ones who knew just how far we had to go…
There started to be a more holiday feel to things when our guides brought us to a halt again in as little as only half an hour after our stop up at the summit. After all it was a little early for another fag break. But we had reached our most northerly extremity. We had just traversed a particularly attractive looking frozen lake in a long, long series – and this one had the first sign we had yet seen of habitation - a tiny little dwelling was on the far shore. This was a hut for both summer and winter out-door goers at a place known as Salvasjarvi – and so far as I later made out, at 68°42’ N – so similarly to my Aconcagua irk of not quite making 7000m, I didn’t quite make 69° N. But it was another beautiful place. The little hut was of timber construction and positively glowed in the soft golden sunlight. Inside was remarkably clean and comfortable – and could accommodate two in comfort, four with something of a squeeze. The equivalent in the Alps would be one of the high bivvy shelters – of aluminium construction. And in Scotland; one of the mountain bothies – of drab stone construction. Neither would likely be as attractive and clean as this pristine little shelter up on the remote arctic border between Finland and Norway.
We soon moved on – and I felt slight regret at leaving this little bit of winter wonderland – but mixed with a contradictory sense of urgency about the proximity of that McArctic Burger and Fries. We crested a rise just beyond the hut and both the hut and gorgeous lake dropped out of sight but not out of mind, behind us. Now the gradual descent continued and I noted that our track was now tending towards the south – as the sun was starting to be to the right of ahead. Our course was actually ESE as we tracked along the border and even back and forth across the unmarked border with Norway. Unheard above the racket of the engines some mobile phones were ringing with in-coming text messages – since we later discovered that we had picked up those automated messages you get when you cross an international border into another country, effectively saying ‘Welcome to Norway’… well, I’m bloody well counting that – and I am claiming the privilege of having visited another country! Such was the nature of our journey I believe we all earned that prize – although in truth I don’t think even our leaders could pin-point our exact position as we motored along the boundary.
The gradual descent soon put us back down in that world of low trees, little bits of sparse forest and clearings/frozen lakes etc. The track became much lumpier and a little trickier – albeit not as bad as several hours before. It was getting late in the day now and the already low sun was getting distinctly lower. Added to this the clouds were coming in again and soon shut it out altogether, so we were back to flat light and poor visibility. Leila, now following me and with Darren following her, must have gone back to having spills again since I became aware she had fallen behind – and Sean halted our convoy on a couple of occasions to allow them to catch up. As we crested each rise and rounded each bend I was now immediately scanning the next horizon for signs of the promised burger joint. I was getting seriously hungry now, as I presume we all were.
Something after 3pm and approaching six hours out – and with one ten minute break on the top and two five minute breaks – we finally rounded a bend to find a few hundred meters ahead was a building, with hopeful looking steam billowing from a vent on the roof. It wasn’t a MacDonald’s after all – but it would do. After a few final twists and turns we reached a main road – Route 93 heading from God only knew where (but in Norway) to the north – and to the Finnish town of Hetta some 40km to the south. Hetta had been where the museum had been – and I had gone off on the cross country skiing trip with other David. I would later work out that we had covered about 60km total distance since leaving the Lodge – but at the time I had no idea. The building was a service station, minimarket and restaurant – in the vicinity of somewhere called Palojarvi. The first thing I did on settling inside was to take 2 paracetamol and 2 ibuprofen tablets for my aching back – and I noticed Sean doing the same.
The burgers and chips when they arrived were very good and well worth the wait – and better than MacDonalds (some might say that isn’t hard – but I happen to like them). The holiday feeling came back as we sat in the warm thawing out fingers and beards. Not having any idea how far we had come, I presumed we would be well over half way – and with an easy coast to wherever the cabin-in-the-woods was, where we were due to stay for the night. But as post prandial lethargy came over me even that seemed like too much…
“So how much further have we got to go?” I asked Sean, hopefully.
“Oh same again – and a bit more probably” he replied evenly. Oh bugger.
“But easier surely?” I asked – but uncertain whether I wanted to know the answer.
“Well – a bit harder to be sure. There will be some drifted over bits with a crust that’ll take some bashing through. You-s may have to wait whilst we break trail – but there’ll still be soft spots…” Bugger again.
“I guess we may be finishing in the dark” I said half thinking out loud but holding out for something positive to cling too…
“Well, it’ll be dark in less than an hour!” Darren chipped in with a look that suggested he was stating the very obvious.
I decided to try denial. Doing what we had done much earlier in the day, but worse – and in the dark!
Something after 4pm I found myself astride my infernal machine again. Leila wanted to go in front of me so I was last – with Darren behind me again. I tried not to think about how far we had to go. My back was slightly eased by the medication I had taken, but I ached in various other places, not least being my right thumb – unused to the abuse of being exposed to an icy slip stream towards the end of operating the throttle hour on hour.
We cast off to the east so away from the sunset, now partly visible as the clouds were thinning again – so straight out of the carpark, angling away from the road – and straight back onto wooden post marked trail out in the sticks again. The terrain was bumpy and led into fairly dense pine forest. By the light of advanced sunset it was very pretty, but the bumping and grinding soon undid the good work of the pain relief I had taken. The trail became increasingly narrow and harder to stay on – and with impossibly deep banks of soft snow either side I wrestled hard with the handle bars to avoid a spill, whose consequences looked to becoming increasingly painful.
But spill I did – and although the other two did too, they were doing better than I was. On the few occasions now when Leila spilled, I let Darren help her out on his own. Despite the deep snow, riding his more powerful machine and with infinitely greater skill, he could overtake me and blast through carving a great trench in the drifts – to come alongside Leila – to either direct her to steer out or climb down and give her a pull. I felt somewhat ungallant no longer helping my wife. But I was getting more than a little worried that I was going to become completely unable to manage my own spills – or worse… I had ruptured a lumbar disc lifting lesser weights than a snow-mobile in 2011, coming down from Aconcagua. This had resulted in sciatic nerve compression and left leg weakness and numbness – and I had been seriously incapacitated for about six months. Although I made a reasonable recovery and lost the weakness in my leg I had been left with a legacy of chronic sciatica and back pain, which were increasingly becoming an issue. The other worry apart from the pain was that once a back is weakened by a ruptured disc at one level, the next one up becomes more vulnerable to injury. If I went and prolapsed the next disc up I would end up having to be rescued.
Some 10km out to the east of our late lunch stop we turned to head due south. By now it was completely dark – and we were bouncing our way along by the limited yellowish light of the snow-mobile head lights. I was keeping up with the party but it was getting harder to do so – and every so often when Sean paused to work out the route I was finding myself up to 100m behind – and having to catch up. At some point I was given to understand that we were going to have to make an unscheduled fuel stop in Hetta. The terrain had been even trickier than even our guides had anticipated – and what with trail bashing and belting up and down to help dig us out of holes their bigger machines would need a top up – especially considering the unknown ground up ahead. We hadn’t even reached the bit they thought would be difficult….
So we took an 8km detour to reach a service station on the outskirts of Hetta. As we parked up in the forecourt, alongside the fuel pumps I was grateful for the stop. It was now nearly 6pm – and we were approaching nine hours out from base, two hours since the lunch stop. Then David bless him, had a totally brilliant idea…
“Why don’t we stop for a coffee?” he suggested – eyeing up the café at the service station.
Once again and for the last time until we arrived at destination, we were thawing out fingers and beards in the warm – but this time over a hot sweet coffee and cake. If I had known that at that particular moment we were only half way there in terms of time, I think I’d have been seriously tempted to stay put. But I was resorting to denial again, not wanting to remember that the lads had promised the hardest stretches of all in the sections still to come. Nevertheless I let Sean show me our route on a wall map in the café. There did seem to be a hell of a long way still to go – but maybe they would be wrong about the conditions – and we’d just cruise on through – and get there in two or three hours. I deliberately didn’t ask him how long he thought it would take. He pointed out what was apparently a small airport a few kilometres to the west of Hetta. Much later I determined this to be Enontekion Airport.
“We have to get round there” he said “and that is where it may get a bit crusty and we may have to bash out the route”.
An hour later we ground to a halt in deep snow. Three hundred metres up ahead in the darkness a solitary building was dimly illuminated by an outside light. This was apparently at the back of the airport which we now had to get around. The snow was impossibly deep either side of our track – and a number of metres either side of the deep snow was impenetrable forest. This was the first of two places our guides thought would be really bad.
“Wait here!” we were told “We’re going to go and check it out”
With a spray of powder snow yellow-ly illuminated by our headlights the two big machines roared off towards the building. And one of them came to an abrupt halt almost level with the building and a little less than 200m ahead. The other machine spun to the right, overtaking – and then that one also ground to an abrupt halt a few metres up a bank of snow immediately below the building. Whoever it was (Darren) had tried to create a track passing below the building on the bank, passing from left to right. In due course the first stuck vehicle (Sean) freed himself, and instead of stopping to help his comrade, blasted on out of sight behind trees to the right – presumably to bash out the route whilst his partner worked on freeing himself. I remembered that the lads had pointed out that when they got stuck, they really got stuck – and could take a while to get out. We turned off our engines and waited.
For us three amateurs it was another opportunity to rest. Low down in the sky the first signs of a display of the aurora borealis were visible. At the moment it was just a fluctuating glow low down – but it was more visible than when we had seen it at the beginning of the week, on the igloo night. It was stronger and now had a greenish tint. Fifty kilometres to the west, people at the Lodge were up on the hill-top by the radio mast – and some were taking photos. I tried getting off my machine and walking the few metres to where Leila was parked, in darkness now that headlights were off. I knew to avoid the snow either side of track – aware I’d be in up to my waist in a second. But right in the middle of the track we had made, the snow was beaten down and had looked firm enough to walk on. It wasn’t! I found myself breaking through and sinking in up to my knees.
“Are you warm enough?” I asked when I staggered up to her. She said she was. About another 5m in front we could see the glow from David’s cigarette, as he maintained his own vigil. And looking beyond him just below the building in its little pool of yellow light was the single spill of light we knew to be one of the lads. Of the other we could still see no sign – but we could hear distant enraged snow-mobile engine blasts occasionally, as he battled with whatever was out there. It occurred to me that we ought to go and try to help. But it would be hard just to reach the nearest stuck machine, without snow shoes. It was uncomfortable standing in the deep crumbly snow alongside Leila so I returned to my own mount. Time crawled by. It was getting to the point that it seemed excessive even by the standards of an Irish snow-mobile expert crash. The distant snow-mobile noises had now stopped. Whoever it was that was in sight, 200m ahead, was now working by headtorch light having killed his engine. Presumably he was now hard at work digging. I began to feel a little guilty. Maybe we should at least try and go up there? But if I was a guide and asked my party to wait somewhere, then I’d expect them to wait. These Irish boys knew what they were doing…
David appeared alongside Leila, a few metres to my front. I heard him say that he was going to try and give them a hand. And then he turned and was presently visible as a black silhouette battling his way back along the track. He carefully passed his snow-mobile. I felt even guiltier. One of the reasons for me not rushing to assist was for fear of what any lifting and pulling could do to my back. But after further reflection I decided I could at least help trampling the snow to help enlarge whatever escape route was being created. So I set off after David.
“I’m going to try and help” I said as I negotiated getting past Leila, holding on to her machine for support. David had left deep boot holes in the crumbly snow and I tried to keep to these to reduce my own efforts but also to have the best possible track for getting back… although maybe if we helped the lads out, they would give us a ride, pillion, to save the unpleasant effort of walking in this awful stuff. Even keeping to David’s boot-holes was difficult – plunging in up to mid-calf deep at best and above knee-deep at worst. It took some doing just to stay upright - and forwards movement was very slow. David’s black outline was about 30m ahead. We both laboured in silence, keeping strictly to the snow-mobile track. It would be out of the question to try to cut the corner and take a more direct route. Getting around first Leila’s and then David’s machine had confirmed that it was far worse just off track. There was a crumbly crust to the snow more than six inches thick – firm enough to have been cut into blocks if you wanted to build an igloo, but too insubstantial to hold weight. And underneath was any imaginable depth of powder-snow. The way the lads had tackled it with their big powerful machines was to literally charge it, at high speed spraying powder everywhere. But clearly this hadn’t worked here. They had been stopped by the clinging resistance of the crust. I understood what they had been talking about now. In my much more familiar environment of mountaineering this crust would be windslab – feared for its tendency to result in slab avalanches, when it formed on slopes. Here there was no risk of avalanche – but the stuff just stopped snow-mobiles.
It took about 20 minutes for David to reach the nearest machine, with me trailing 30m behind him. In the darkness I couldn’t quite see what was happening and laboured slowly towards them, ready to give as much assistance as I was able. At some point they must have started the engine since within two minutes of David’s arrival and just before I arrived there was an abrupt snarl of snow-mobile noise and what had turned out to be Darren blasted off out of his crater – and off after the distant Sean, who was now visible as a pinprick of light maybe quarter of a kilometre ahead. David worked his way back to me. He explained that Darren had almost got himself out by the time he arrived – but a timely pull had done the rest. It wasn’t worth trying to reach Sean, so we battled our way back to re-join Leila. Despite our tracks it wasn’t much easier making the return journey.
Finally and with a triumphant roar our two guides burst into view. But then they separated: one returned to us along the track – and the other blasted off making a new track, in the expanse of virgin snowfield off to the right. I felt a flash of incredulity. Was he playing around? Because he was now surging around in a great circle, throwing up great plumes of snow. “He is making a turning circle” we were told “We have got to get you-s guys turned around.” Seemingly they had given up on the route ahead – and they were going to take us on an alternative route they knew. But first we had to complete a 360 to be able to turn back.
Presently we were re-starting our engines and thankfully got round the turning circle. With the aurora still glowing on the northern horizon to provide some directional reference we started battling our way to the west, by-passing the airport. At one point we covered some distance along a frozen lake only to have to turn back again. Despite the lads close attention to their GPS, we had got onto a wrong route. I stopped trying to keep track of the time. I didn’t want to know how far we still had to go. I didn’t want to know how far we had come. I just knew that a lot of hours had passed since that wonderful coffee that David had the brilliant idea to suggest, back in Hetta - and most of those hours had been spent either stationary - or heading either off course or down a blind alley. In other words very little of the time since Hetta had been spent covering actual distance to our destination.
At some point we stopped and I was aware of some sort of carry on up ahead. It transpired that the headlight on David’s snow-mobile had failed. The solution was that David was given Sean’s machine, whilst Sean rode David’s – armed only with a headtorch. So David got to be promoted to a big powerful 500 – as opposed to the more modest 350’s that beginners normally rode. He was later to say how the extra power was a bonus – but the flip side was it was much heavier and more strenuous to drive – and correspondingly heavier to pull out when ditched.
Ever so slowly we inched our way to the west - finally accumulating kilometres which 'counted'. The scene of the 'Battle of Enontekion Airport' slid further into the blackness behind in distance and in time. We had a spell when the going was actually OK – and I tried to forget the cheery Irish promise of more hard stuff to come. If we could just have kept going the way we were for another few hours...
But then we stopped again, in an open expanse of snow field, with the northern lights a flickering greenish glow on the horizon to the right. I got a sinking feeling when I spotted the head-lighted figure of Sean working his way back along our little convoy, to speak to us individually. This had happened a few times before – and what followed was generally not good. The last time had been just before we reached the airport…
The dark figure reached me and leaned forwards to speak. I turned off my engine to be able to hear.
“Might have a little bit of trouble this next bit” he said cheerfully “there’s a bit of a crust on top of the snow and there’s a few holes… but just really gun it if you start to go in – and you should bash your way through…” He indicated the black edge of yet another forest about 400m ahead. He thought that it would become easier again over there. “This could be the last really bad bit!” he said hopefully.
We tackled the section widely spaced to be able to either stop or keep out of each other’s way if we ditched. I set off concentrating furiously on my little pool of yellow light, determined to react immediately the minute I spotted a hole – to fling (so far as I could) my weight away – and really gunning it as our guides liked to say. A couple of times I did just that. I felt the slide start. But before the slide became a fall slamming the throttle down, leaping the machine forwards and out of trouble. Balance was difficult hanging off the side of the machine, but twice I got away with it. A brief glance up suggested to me that I had got half way to the Promised Land up ahead, so just another 200m to go.
Back to my pool of light. Oh no – another roller coaster jumble appeared – all lumpy and uneven. I tried to lean but my un-bendy back stopped me leaning far enough. I tried to yank the handlebars round – again, not far enough. I blasted the throttle but the angle was all wrong and the snow too deep – and the machine slammed hard onto its side, flinging me off into the snow. I bellowed out my frustration with a single abuse of the English language and floundered on my back in the snow.
The story has now gone full circle.
So I am now on my back, half buried in powder snow, upended helplessly like an overturned overgrown tortoise. My machine is on its side – engine stalled. The only positive in this nasty situation is that there is now a fantastic auroral display lighting up the sky overhead with a vast pulsing green Chinese Dragon, which in my disturbed state of mind I seem to be able to hear as well as see. But there is no time to spare more than passing wonder at the extraordinary phenomenon. Darren approaches and for about the hundredth time today helps me out of my hole – a particularly deep one this time. I’m finding it embarrassing as well as painful. In my more familiar element of mountaineering I am used to be being on top of the situation, even when the going has been difficult. But here in the arctic with these snow-mobiles I am definitely out of my element – and I am dependent on our two young guides to be on top of things – and to help me out every time I get stuck.
Up ahead there are signs that there has been some drama with either Leila or David – or both. I will later find out it was David. He had been following Sean and doing well, but hitting the last and worst man-trap of all he felt himself going – and really gunned it as per instruction. But he was astride the big 500 and already moving quite fast…
Leila looked up at that moment to see the extraordinary momentary vision of David spot-lit in his own headlight beam – and apparently airborne, with arms and legs neatly arranged like a sky-diver. The next spilt second he was out of sight and (presumably) head first into the nearest snow bank. It was to be my understanding that it took some doing to dig both David and his machine back out. Inevitably this one, David’s nemesis, gets me as well, although without any airborne stuff. Not moving so fast, my machine just simply falls sideways again and hurls me off into what may have been the crater recently occupied by David’s snow-mobile. On this occasion I do take Darren’s proffered hand and take advantage of a pull to get me on my feet again. Then having all finally made the alleged sanctuary of the trees at the far end of this awful section we stop briefly. The 3 smokers light up. I'm almost tempted to join them!
“I reckon we’ve got about 30 miles to go” says Sean brightly after the two guides consult their GPS. They had been navigating commendably by GPS all the way thus far. I feel a mixture of slight absurd satisfaction that I have just heard confirmation that there will be an end to this otherwise endless experience. But the greater feeling is one of dismay – he said MILES not kilometres – why the hell couldn’t he say the other way round? But in truth even 30 kilometres would feel like too much right now. We cast off into the headlight lit darkness once again. There is more forest in this section. If we could see more, we would be aware that we were now much closer to civilisation than many hours ago, when we were up on the plateau. Every so often a fleeting glimpse of a car headlight shows that we are sometimes within a kilometre of a main road. But most of the time it is just snow filled forest trail after forest trail – but thicker forest than previously and with taller pine trees. There are still the clearings but they are now smaller than previously.
Strangely, because it has become relatively warm again, I am beginning to feel cold, which becomes another worry. It was quite cold up on the plateau but down here and with overcast having now returned again I think it must but up to between minus 5 and even zero°C. What that means is that with my frequent spills and getting covered in snow, my duvet jacket has actually become wet – and my medium weight alpine mitts saturated. Added to this with all the exertion I have been sweating. But the end result is that the down in my jacket is starting to clump in soggy lumps and is losing its insulating properties. The only other layer I have to add is a light-weight and not very good waterproof - which would shut the moisture in and make me even wetter. I hadn't envisaged wet cold in the arctic... So I do my level best not to crash, in what I think will be the vain hope that I may dry out a bit - and warm up. For a long interval I actually succeed – which must be a relief to Darren as well as to me. But the negative spin-off is that I am aware I am getting slower – and all the while Darren is trailing along patently behind me…
At some point we reach a frozen river, which we have to cross. The lads brief us. Seemingly we have to cross one at a time, I don’t quite gather why – but this time we are told not to gun it and again, I don’t quite gather why. When my turn comes I am shocked at how bumpy it is – we are bouncing hard over little blocks of ice and the vibration on my back is horrible. And then I realise why it would be a bad idea to really gun it. With such a hard and irregular surface it would be a serious issue if someone took a tumble here.
On the far bank we stop for what will be the last break. The two Irishman have something to revive flagging spirits and stamina: they have saved a thermos of non-alcoholic Finnish equivalent of mulled wine, known as Glogi. Having been in a flask for so long it is far from hot – tepid even – but it is welcome. Also welcome is the thought that I have been patiently ticking off Sean’s 30 miles in my head. It is still a pretty bad prospect; but I have decided we must be down to about 15 miles to go – 12 even – why not? After all I have not had so many spills and although I have been slower than the others, I’ve not been that far behind. But Sean and Darren are consulting the GPS again. “We’ve got about 30 miles to go!” Again it is Sean who hits us with the news. WHAT? BUT YOU SAID THIRTY MILES AN HOUR OR MORE AGO!
I am devastated, but there is nothing more I can say. Seemingly the extra diversions, starting with the minor one to get fuel in Hetta, but leading to up to the big diversions caused by the conditions, have taken their toll on the distance travelled. It is around 9.30pm now. I don’t really want to think about what time it will be when we arrive.
I don’t think I am a softie. I’ve done some marathons in the mountains. I’ve done marathons when in pain from an injury: like coming down from Aconcagua with a prolapsed disc in 2011; I had a fall on Aiguille du Tour in 2012, which left injuries which took their toll for the next 2 years as well as aggravating effects of my prolapsed disc; then last summer I climbed 3 four thousand meter peaks with a fractured rib. There were moments in all these experiences when it was a struggle. But I am struggling now in a way I can’t remember ever struggling before. The pain in my back is constant and severe – and I am also feeling a burning pain in the outer aspect of my left ankle from sciatic involvement. There is no relief at all from the constant bumping and grinding. I really enjoyed this day up to about an hour beyond our late lunch stop. Then the discomfort started to get the upper hand. But now there is no doubt. I am not enjoying this.
“If I’d known it was going to be like this I wouldn’t have done it” I say to Darren in a low moment – and then wish I hadn’t said it. The two guides have been commendable – and I know inside deep down that really I wouldn’t have missed what we saw up on the plateau for anything. Leila sees the expression on my face as I catch up at one of the stops to let me catch up. It crosses her mind that I might not be able to finish – and that some time they are going to have to get me rescued. She is tired and aching in all sorts of places – but is doing really well – and is able to keep up with David and Sean.
I have completely lost track of direction. With the return of overcast we have lost the aurora borealis so there is no reference for north and south anymore. We bump and crash our way on frozen river again – but this time for some considerable distance up it as opposed to across it. I think it might be the same river as before – but having picked it up again after another section of the interminable forest. The lads had mentioned something like this at the glogi stop and about the need to keep close to the left bank – something about thin ice where there are rapids. But I’m past caring. I just keep my numb right thumb on the throttle and battle on…
At some point we are back in forest yet again. Slightly smoother – but more man traps. I desperately try not to have a spill. Against all odds my duvet jacket is light and fluffy again and I don’t want to get any more snow on it. Evidently it has dried out. I can’t really believe it has – but must be thankful for small mercies. It is just as well since from the feel of the icy air in my nostrils I think the temperature has dropped – but amazingly one thing I am not is cold right now. And my hands are fine. I have wrestled with those wretched handle bar warmers all day and alternately had my hands singed and frozen as a result. But at the Glogi stop I made the effort to pull out my Aconcagua grade outer mitts and put them over the top of my thin ones – and my hands are now comfortable – and have also apparently dried out.
We pop out onto a road and belt along before disappearing in the infernal forest again. This is repeated a few times – I lose track. But after a confusing as well as painful hour or two it appears we are in some sort of village – and again on road – or rather frozen road since the surface is completely opaque with ice. But nothing else is moving in this village apart from us. A good reason for this is would be the fact that it is now after midnight and any inhabitants are in bed. Another good reason is that all of a sudden conditions have become quite extreme. Having been barely aware of the wind all throughout this journey a howling gale has sprung up, blasting great billowing clouds of stinging spindrift around. My clear plastic glasses are no match for this stuff – and I have to lower the visor on my helmet. With the visor and the spindrift I can hardly see a thing – and I can’t understand how the others can be going so fast. I let my speed creep up to 35km/hr – and with the machine vibrating like a road drill it feels like a hundred. But I’m so damn tired. I can’t go any faster – I’d be off the road.
Darren asks me if I can try to go a bit faster. Apparently we are not really supposed to use the road. But Sean is evidently having some trouble with the GPS. A couple of times we have to re-trace our steps. I am past caring. I just turn around and carry on. Then apparently we are going to take a short cut for the last 17 kilometres… KILOMETRES I note this time, not miles. I try to work it out in miles – still about 10 miles. On an exceptionally good day I can run 10 miles – so not that far then… but still too far the way things are right now…
At some point we are back on a forest track again. But this one is about the smoothest we have encountered in the last God knows how long. My shipmates are at least a couple of hundred metres ahead – I get the occasional flash of a tail light in the distance through the trees. And all the time Darren is patiently trailing along behind me. I’ve no idea how long we are on this track for. Time lost all meaning somewhere in all the frozen tundra and forest between here and the coffee stop at Hetta, which was so far back it was in a former life. But all of a sudden a fork appears in the track. I look up quickly hoping for a distant tail light to guide me – both directions from the divide look equally well snowmobiled. Damn it – I haven’t the energy for this! Which bloody way? I brake and stop. I try to twist and look back at Darren behind me – but my back hurts too much – so I just raise my arms in what I hope is a universal gesture of helplessness and interrogation.
Then I see it. Twenty metres away up the right fork there is a wooden building, roof laden with snow. There are no lights on, but it is dimly visible in the spill of light from our headlights. A figure steps round the building and makes a sort of ‘what are you doing?’ gesture. It is David.
WE HAVE ARRIVED.
I am beyond even relief - my abused right thumb pushes the throttle one last time and with a last snarl of engine noise I move off up the right fork. Just round the building is where the other snow-mobiles are now parked - and I pull up behind. Ceremoniously I hit the off button. Having deliberately not looked at my watch since the Glogi stop I finally peal back three sleeves to look. It is now 1.30am – the next day. Somehow four hours have passed since that last stop and I have driven that (as has Darren) pretty much continuously. Leila and David got to stop periodically when Sean called a halt to wait for me. The tip of my right thumb is numb from depressing the throttle for all of that time. I climb off the metal brute for the last time – for a few hours – and enter the place I have been longing to reach since the long night first started, over 8 hours ago. I had envisaged a very basic log cabin with the need to use head torches for lighting. But although construction is timber inside is well lit with electric lighting and there is even heating, with radiators around the room, which are about to be supplemented since the lads are already working on firing up a big log burner in the middle of the single room. There are even two beds – apparently for me and Leila. David and our two guides are going to be staying in their own similar accommodation a short snow-mobile ride away.
The expedition program called for an outdoors BBQ dinner at this point. I assume that is going to be quietly forgotten under the circumstances – and we will all go gratefully to bed. But – no… Darren is now bobbing back and forth outside to get a Barbie going. He confirms that ‘The Sled’ had arrived from the Lodge – and comes in with plastic trays laden with chicken breasts and silver foil wrapped par-cooked potatoes. Whoever had delivered the sled presumably turned on the heating. Sean takes some time out from his labours to check the GPS:
“We’ve covered 105 miles today” he announces. I’d question his use of the word today and I note we are back in miles again. A HUNDRED AND FIVE MILES! Bloody hell! At the outset I had picked up that we were supposed to be covering something between seventy and eighty miles. So for those who prefer kilometres that is nearly 170km. Those extra deviations clearly added something.
My last pain relief was at the lunch stop nearly 12 hours ago. I rake around in my day sack and find 3 paracetamol and 3 ibuprofen tablets. You are really only supposed to take 2, but I am on the large side and so a larger dose will do no harm. The three of us clients are now redundant as the two lads attend to the BBQ. So I lay in my back on one of the benches and feel some relief as weight is taken off my blazing lower spine. When I shut my eyes I am not at all surprised to feel a sense of movement and to see a dim lit bubble of light as from a snow-mobile headlight, with a snowy forest trail flowing through it. It is so vivid a feeling it almost makes me laugh - but I know that if I keep my eyes closed I will soon be asleep. So I open my eyes again and groggily participate in the on-going post mortum of events…
“…if I’d known how far it was going to be after that
“David, you saved our lives with that coffee mate, we owe you one… “
“Did you see the lights when we were out in that really bad bit before the forest? Right over-head… “
“Oh – David looked so funny flying through the air!"
“…but those 500’s pack a lot of power you know… “
“…saw your face just then and thought you weren't going to make it!”
“Well I really enjoyed today, but I was getting really too tired at the end… “
“…and then when we got lost in the village I just wanted to knock on the door to one of the houses… “
“Yeah – know what you mean, like have pity on us you know?”
“…got pretty wild when the wind got up… “
“…just never thought we’d be having a barbeque at three in the morning!”
“…so-o-o glad to see the cabin!”
“…those lads have really worked hard you know…”
“…wouldn’t have managed without them…”
“Yeah – I think we’d have been stuck at the very first crash…”
“…half buried in snow…”
At approaching 3am and after more than 15 hours in a snow-mobile saddle Leila is somehow bright and animated. She has really done well today and I am proud of her. She thinks her riding skills definitely helped – that a snow-mobile somehow has a lot in common with a horse. And I wonder about David. He also did really well and I ask him if he rides a motor-cycle. That is the only other thing I can think of with possibly transposable skills. But he hasn’t – and doesn’t ride horses either – and doesn’t know why he took to it so well. I tell him he must be a natural…
Darren comes back in from outside having converted raw into cremated chicken. The steaks are half well-cooked chicken and half charcoal. But never has chicken tasted so good. And the mildly charcoaled potatoes have turned out pretty good also.
After the meal Leila asks about the washing up facilities. Oh, we’ll just rub things in a bit of snow in the morning is the answer. There are no washing up facilities at the cabin… and no bathroom either – we are told the forest outside is the bathroom. Well, that is what we expected – the electric lighting and radiators are something of a bonus.
The party disperses at approaching 4am. David is a little rueful at the thought of having to go outside and drive a snow-mobile again, even if only for a few hundred metres. But I’m glad I don’t have to. I go outside to clean my teeth and have a pee – and then it is outer clothes off and into bed…
Morning after the night before
I wake five hours later. Subdued arctic daylight is pervading the cabin through curtain-less windows. I am instantly aware of my back and turn over very carefully – but it didn’t stop me sleeping. I feel a bit muzzy headed but otherwise not too bad considering the 15 hour day yesterday and then only 5 hours sleep. Still moving very carefully I climb somewhat stiffly out of bed and go and inspect what coffee making facilities there are. There is an electric kettle and in amongst all the things from the sled, there is a jar of instant coffee and some milk. We have some coffee and get up. Outside I rub the worst of the cold chicken grease and carbon off the plates, using a handful of snow and then we wash-up properly in a big metal bowl Leila has found, using water from the kettle topped up with some of the bottled water. There was actually some washing up liquid somewhere after all. By the time the lads arrive shattering the peace on their snow-mobiles, the washing up is done, Leila and I have taken photos of the cabin by the light of the rising sun, filtering through the pine trees – and got the kettle boiled and ready to offer the new arrivals a brew. But Darren soon takes over again – and we find out that breakfast is to be BBQ bacon and sausage. And it transpires that the metal bowl we used to wash up was for the baked beans… but nobody wants beans so it can be retained to do the next lot of washing up.
My back is very stiff but strangely not that much more painful than it normally is, just after I have got up in the morning, say having stacked the logs day before. Perhaps the generous doses of paracetamol and ibuprofen are still helping. But I do keep remembering that it was doing less to it than I did yesterday that caused the original damage four years ago. I have yet to try getting back on a snow-mobile though…
At around 11am the evil hour can be put off no longer. We are all suited up, gauntleted and helmeted once again – and climb back onto our machines. The weather at least is fine – and the temperature minus 15°C – so we shouldn’t have the trouble we had with engine over-heating that we had yesterday morning, when especially Leila’s engine had to be packed with snow several times to cool it down. We are given to understand that today will be a breeze with only 20-30 miles to cover to get back to the Lodge. But in the first 10 miles will be the bit through the forest that we bypassed last night (or early this morning, depending how you think). This will be tricky – and there will be some more bits where the lads may have to bash out the trail. But at least it will be easier to see, in the sunlight. At some point we will cross the border into Sweden and follow in an arc to the south, before swinging back north and re-entering Finland on the big frozen river within a kilometre of our final destination.
This section turns out to be perhaps the most beautiful one of the trip. I liked the austere beauty of the plateau yesterday, but this is winter wonderland Santa Claus beautiful with whipped meringue snow formations both on the ground and hanging from vegetation and trees. The low sun casts a warmth over the scene, despite the nearly minus twenty nip in the air – and everything is a bit sparkly. But – especially out in the clearings – the trail is treacherous. One by one we have our first crashes of the day. Darren is back to patiently helping me out of my holes. But my ability is improved – I am distinctly better at avoiding a crash and at steering out and really gunning it when things start to slide. So some minor crashes I have been able to just get out by wrenching the handle bar round and blasting on the power. But I still can't do the sort of saddle gymnastics needed to avoid a medium crash. And some of those I have shamelessly just handed over to Darren who has kindly, with his saddle gymnastic skills, just climbed on my machine and driven it out for me. But the more major crashes need two. So I have had to grit my teeth and get on with it – but with Darren, bless him, doing the worst of any pulling.
Despite the odd crash I am initially doing better at keeping up with the others, at least through the forest bits anyway. I am thus following fairly closely behind Leila as we get to quite an obstacle in the form of a long steep slope. This is as steep as the bank that caused so much trouble at the end of the ‘night snow-mobile experience’ in a former life, just three days ago. But it is ten times as high – and with what looks to be a left turn at the top. Sean still astride David’s 320 nonetheless breezes up it. David, who has been permitted to retain his promotion to the big 500, shoots up it like a Saturn Five rocket and nearly takes off at the top. I stop to watch Leila take her turn… And she only just makes it… she reaches the top and teeters for a moment, as if about to fall backwards, but just snatches some forwards in the nick of time and disappears from view. A little condescendingly I think to myself that she can’t have really gunned it enough.
So from where I stopped I let rip – and I do really gun it – but to my surprise find the machine labouring from about half way up – and actually coming to a stop three quarters of the way up. To stop a slide backwards I quickly apply the handbrake… but then I discover that with judicious releases of the break accompanied by some leg work kicking out to the sides, I can slide myself back down…
“Don’t ever do that!” I have earned myself a telling off from Darren, who had jumped off his machine and scrambled up the slope to reach me “If you let it slide backwards the back of the skids will just dig in – and it’s next to impossible to get it unstuck when that happens… here let me get it down”. The machines evidently have a reverse gear which none of us have needed to use thus far – until now. Darren climbs astride my machine and under control slowly motors backwards down the slope. This apparently stops the back of the skis from digging in. He takes it back to where I had made my unsuccessful attempt.
“Do you want me to take it up?” he asks.
“No that’s OK thanks – I think I can manage, but can you take it back a bit further?” I ask. He may have thought I just didn’t really gun it enough. But I had. It is just that I am probably somewhat heavier than everybody else. So Darren backs up another 15 metres – as far as is possible, before a bend in the track.
We change over again. I blast the throttle in a quick on-off to start moving – and then as quickly and smoothly as possible move back to full throttle just as I cross my original start line and power onwards still accelerating. This time I soar up to the top and even seem to take off slightly. But I then have to quickly power-off to tackle the bend – which luckily I manage without tipping over.
We reach some more tricky stuff in another clearing, which is another winter wonderland of sparkling but treacherous snow-drifts with the dreaded crust. But another snow-mobile pitches up from the direction of what looks like a little collection of cabins in the trees. It seems this is a colleague of Sean and Darren’s with whom they must have been in radio contact. He seems to have come out to help blast out the trail. He is with Sean up at point for the next half an hour before disappearing off back into the trees again, back to wherever he came from. I reflect that our two guides made the right decision in not bringing us this way last night. This was the ’17 kilometres’ that we had by-passed, right up at the end. I can’t remember how long we took to do it, going the easier way that we did, but it was something less than an hour – and we arrived at the cabin at 1.30am. Had we fought our way through this way it would have added at least another couple of hours on top, assuming I was even able to keep going… and we’d have got to the cabin at something like 4am... Good call chaps!
We emerge from the trees and onto a great wide frozen highway. “It’s an ice road – like from ‘Ice Road Truckers’” we are told – one of those great temporary winter only routes bulldozed out over frozen lakes and rivers once per year. The lads call a halt and there is time to whip out my camera whilst the smokers avail themselves again. We are also told that “It’s really easy from here – and we’ll be going fast!”
I assume that at some point we entered Sweden and that this is therefore a Swedish ice road. We will certainly be in Sweden from here on, since the route is going to arc to the south as we move west towards Karesuvanto.
The lads weren’t joking when they said we would go fast. Sean sets off and is soon lost in a cloud of swirling ice dust, with David astride the big 500, easily keeping pace – but Leila somehow keeping up as well. But I find I can’t match their pace. Although the surface of the ice road looks smooth it is actually quite rough and moving at speed sets up a jarring vibration through my snow-mobile. I can get up to 30km/hr without too much trouble, which is the fastest we ever got up to yesterday on the better sections, but above that speed becomes increasingly painful… but I still manage to creep up to around 45km/hr – at which speed the vibration is so extreme I can hardly make out the speedometer, it is so blurred – and my lower back is on fire. The others reach speeds of 60-70km/hr.
But not all of the surface is safe to go this fast. Sean slows down in some places enabling me to catch up. Where he can he shows off his skills – the crazy youth takes to belting along on one ski, his machine canted over at a ridiculous 45° angle. I feel a little sorry for Darren, who is having to bring up the rear, looking after me as slowest member of the party.
I come to expect that the big ice road will take us all the way back to Finland and the Lodge. But at some point we leave it, heading south and linking a series of rivers, frozen lakes and minor trails in our arc through Sweden. The terrain is never difficult now. There are no more spills. And at some point I spot a low hill in the far distance with a characteristic radio mast on top. I recognise it as our final destination – the Lodge is right there. We cross a big, wide frozen lake and get onto yet another frozen river, which seems large enough to be the large frozen river. It isn’t – but it leads into the large frozen river, which is even larger still… and there finally is our final destination. There is the bridge. There is the famous Swedish church on the south bank. And off up to the right is the Finnish hill, with tall radio mast on top, much closer now. This close we can see the Davvi Arctic Lodge half way up, showing through the trees.
It seems unreal passing all the familiar landmarks now. We leave the river and cross the bit of terrain which so challenged us a few days before on our night ride – but now is just a breeze. We cross over the road, pass through the service station – and up and over the little bank which had toppled two machines, barely even aware that it was there. Presently we are back in the snow-mobile park. Back where it all began about 30 hours ago. Slowly and ceremoniously I reach out and punch the button which cuts the engine, for the very last time. Darren sees my symbolic gesture and the laconic mask slips – and he laughs.
Back at the lodge we invite our two guides to join us for a quick celebratory drink. But they are still ‘in work’ – with jobs still to do, possibly even retrieving the sled from the cabin – although on a direct route, not in a great arc through Sweden. We thank them - and they hurry off. I buy a drink for David – in heartfelt thanks for the coffee the previous night. But then it is back to the cabin for a hot shower, some more paracetamol and ibuprofen – and a couple of hours of a lay down. Later on Leila and I go on a gentle amble. We don’t join the crowd who go up the hill that night for what has become the nightly aurora-watch.
Next day is Valentines Day February 14th. The long slow dawn is clear and beautiful and outside I notice that the temperature is reading minus 22°C. This is the lowest temperature I have recorded at the cabin – and the big thermometer at the Lodge concurs. The lowest I have ever recorded on my little thermometer was minus 25°C when I remembered to look at it before dawn on my Aconcagua summit day. That had seemed much more severe given that I was at great altitude and camping in it… but nonetheless there is quite a bite in the air, which we haven’t felt since our very first morning here, when I recorded minus 17°C. We have a very slow start to the day. I am taking pain relief every few hours – but am pleased to find my back is still not that much worse than after stacking the logs back at home. Nevertheless, I don’t think snowmobiling is an activity I shall be risking again – although despite the pain of the long night journey, I wouldn’t have missed the plateau and the fairy land journey through the woods on the second day. And I shall never forget the swirling ‘Chinese Dragon’ up in the freezing night sky, when the aurora reached its peak. The hill-top observers at the lodge all concurred that this night had been by far the most spectacular display of the week, although the aurora forecast was for low activity.
We have an easy day, ambling across the river into Sweden again, to visit the famous church on the south bank – and buy some souvenirs, to take home. Aside from recovering from the snow-mobile trip we are saving up some energy for the final adventure of a night husky ride. I booked us on this, thinking it would be a romantic thing to do on Valentine’s Day – and especially since solar activity is predicted to be at its highest all week – so there is supposed to be the best display of the aurora yet.
In the event the Husky trip is neither romantic nor do we see the northern lights. The temperature falls even further and down in the hollow where the huskies are the temperature is a biting minus 32°C. We alight from a minibus in the floodlit white world of Husky bedlam once more – the brutes are as mad and noisy as ever, despite the low temperatures. Once again we are instructed by the attractive middle aged lady in her red duvet jacket – but now also muffled in hat and face mask.
We follow the same route out through the woods, on to the frozen lake and back. It had all been pretty easy in the day at no more than minus 10 or so – and the thick set bearded assistant had told Leila and I we were ‘naturals’ at dog-sledding…
But it is a completely different experience at minus 32°C – and in the dark (and still tired from the snow-mobile marathon). Our exhalations billow around our heads in powdery clouds of frozen vapour, joining similar clouds billowing up from the dogs... Hmmm frozen dog breath! The clear plastic glasses I brought to protect our eyes go opaque with ice almost immediately and there isn’t time to sort them out before we are off, barrelling off down the narrow trial. Once again, Leila takes first stint at the wheel so to speak. I sit on the sled struggling to clear my glasses – and also with my headtorch which freezes in the first 5 minutes – and I can’t get it going again.
At the half way point where we change over, I am still struggling with my headtorch. The same thick set bearded person from the day trip comes over, inspects my torch and pronounces it to be beyond salvage until we get back in the warm. He isn’t wearing a face mask and I notice that his large jet black beard is now completely and astonishingly white. He tells us the coldest conditions he has experienced here was minus 57°C. He acknowledged it wasn’t very nice being out in that. I have to borrow Leila’s headtorch for the return journey since it is my turn to drive. It is a faff pealing back head-layers to get it secured, under the hood of my down jacket. With no glasses, icicles growing from my eye lashes and the same powdery steam billowing around in the light of Leila’s headtorch it is difficult to see and I find it much harder to keep the sled on the track than before, as the dogs go bounding off, their exuberance irrepressible. But at some point we reach an uphill section – which I don’t remember from Monday morning, so maybe we are on a different route. The brutes slow – and start their turning round and giving me the look routine… and I feel like telling them “It isn’t me – I’m not on the brake!” But in deference to them I give a hand – or rather foot, since I stand on one leg on the sledge runner and use the other to kick off – and supply some extra propulsion to get up the hill.
With the much more difficult conditions, plus still being tired, I continue finding it much harder to keep the sled on the track. I feel as if we are being constantly dragged off to the right – and so am constantly standing on my left leg, leaning all of my body weight over to the left. This is not very comfortable, hurts my back and the extra pressure on my left foot, hard up against the metal runner, leads to my toes freezing. We are out for about an hour and a half again – and I am actually a little relieved when we get back. I have a lapse of concentration in the last 100m, when I succumb to the force trying to drag us to the right - and the sledge leaves the track and up on the bank at the side. There is a sharp complaint from Leila – and I only just manage to wrestle us back onto the track in time to prevent a spill. Finally we get back into the floodlit compound.
We never remembered to even look for the northern lights – too busy battling the elements and trying to stay on the sled. However, back at the lodge I trudge up the hill armed with camera and tripod – and join the merry gathering up there. The temperature here is a mere minus 20°C, distinctly warmer than at the dog-sledding place. But the forecast of best northern lights display of the week turns out to be wrong. There are a few muted glows in the sky, some with a greenish tinge to them. I take a few photos but they are not worth the bother. So the best display of the week was still the one that happened on the Thursday night, when we were out on our snow-mobile expedition. At the time David C, the David I went cross-country skiing with, was out on top of the hill with his little compact camera – and kindly gave his permission for me to use the few images of the display that night.
As I write this some four weeks later, the tip of my right thumb is still half numb from depressing that snow-mobile throttle. My back is almost back to normal levels of discomfort - and I don't think any further long term damage was done. One after effect of the 30 hour expedition was it took me a couple of weeks to re-gain strength in my hands and arms. In the first two few days the weakness was that bad as to make me have to use both hands to squeeze a tube of toothpaste. Then back at the gym it took longer to get back to lifting the same weights and doing the same numbers of press-ups. Interestingly Leila seemed to recover more quickly. She is strong for an old girl of 60 - but not as strong as me. I can only conclude that with her horse riding skills she didn't need to use as much power as I did - and was thereby much more energy efficient when driving a snow-mobile. I can recall observing when taking beginners (including Leila!) climbing in the past that they tended to hang on for dear life - using the amount of energy needed to hold several rather than just the one. And as a snow-mobile beginner, without much natural talent, I can only assume I did the same.
One thing is certain though: Leila and I had the best holiday we have ever had together. Our long awaited arctic experience ticked all the boxes we hoped it would - with the added bonus of knowing now what it is like to go on a 130 mile snow-mobile expedition - and the further bonus of some new friends.
Heartfelt thanks to Sean and Darren - and also their similarly laconic boss Peter who not only blagged us into doing a trip of a lifetime, but who also made a great cross-country skiing trip possible. Thanks indeed to both David's for their companionship (and to David C for the aurora photos). And especially thanks to David E for that coffee in Hetta! I don't think I'd have got to the cabin without it! And I like to think that it was the only decent cup of coffee I had in Finland - but the circumstances maybe played a big part in that. And thanks to Hollie and Paul at Spa Travel who pointed me in the direction of Karesuvanto and the Davvi Arctic Lodge in the first place.