|An Arctic Experience
Finnmark 8-18th Feb 2007
What a start! Mike, Josie and I were scheduled to depart Mike’s house at 5am for a 10.30am flight from Heathrow to Copenhagen, then Oslo and Alta. Due to the dire weather forecast we decided to leave at 3am. Josie and her pal picked me up at 2.45am and took me to Mike’s where all the kit was stashed into the Kia Sedona taxi.
Arrived at Heathrow just before 6am after driving through sleet. Got all the kit sorted. Galia and Alin arrived from Mexico City and Lizz arrived from Bristol, so far so good. Mike was really chuffed as we checked in all the kit without having to pay any excess baggage.
We were in good time and started to get to know each other a little over coffee. Quite amazing, Galia and Alin are twins that share the same birthdates as Lizz. Alin and Lizz met on a project in Patagonia, which explains how the twins came to be here, they followed Lizz.
The flights to Scandinavia were all delayed by 35 mins due to snow, so we chatted and chatted, another delay more chat, delay chat delay chat. We decided that we had missed our connection in Copenhagen so off Mike went to sort it.
The more we heard from the Mexicans, the more amazing they seemed. Alin and Galia are pint sized 4ft 10 inches tall which makes their achievements and ambitions all the more impressive.
Alin lives in Montana and spends 6 months of the year cross-country ski-ing, and does a 12km route in 50 mins. She has also done a full Ironman in 13 hrs 22 mins along with countless triathlons and half Ironmans. Both were gymnasts. Alin preferred the isometric bars, Galia the beam. Montana sounds idyllic, beautiful landscape, everyone is into the outdoors and the area is sparsely populated.
Galia is the first Mexican to sail solo across the Atlantic (April-June ‘06). In doing so, she linked in with a large foundation that agreed to fund the building of new houses for poor people. Her journey enabled 684 houses to be built in Mexico -¬ quite astonishing.
Galia was given a high media profile and is famous in Mexico with sponsors queuing up to back her next project, even this trip to Finnmark. The girls are serious now about becoming the first Mexicans (m/f) to reach the South Pole and are looking for help from Mike.
They are very accomplished and have just dropped it out that they also fly light aircraft. I am in awe and am full of admiration, as they want to use their achievements to promote social projects backed by the same foundation.
Oslo airport is super; clean grey steel with wood and glass fittings throughout. Nordic efficiency oozes from every part of the airport. Trouble is, in their quest for efficiency they have picked out the fuel bottles and pump assemblies for the stoves and say we cannot take them -¬ our expedition looks doomed because if we are unable to buy new kit in Alta, we have had it.
After much discussion SAS offer to rinse out the pumps and if they do not smell of fuel afterwards, they will allow them on board. After 15 tense minutes they say ok to the pumps but confiscate 2 bottles saying we can collect them on our return to Oslo. Illogical as we would also fly SAS back to Heathrow!
Galia was granted a meeting with the Mexican President, akin to an honour from the Queen, for her solo Atlantic trip. Alin has presented papers on sports science and is very knowledgeable. These girls are 32, not so tall, slim as anything but are very focused, capable and determined ¬- and very personable too.
Lizz met Alin in Patagonia and works in Bristol as a wig maker. (I’ve already asked for help). She used to run 800m for an athletics club, dropped it while travelling and is back training. She also has a degree in Fine Art.
Josie lives in Nottingham, fosters children, works in school admin and has done Mont Blanc. She gets up at 6am every day to tend to her horses and dog, a black Labrador. She has two grown up daughters.
Just worked it out that I have paid £12.70 for lasagne and water at Oslo airport and have elected not to buy anything on this flight to Tromso/Alta.
Well we arrived at Alta after a short 20 min flight from Tromso landing just after the water ¬ interesting landing, probably made by the apprentice! Our log cabin is excellent, warm with kitchen/diner downstairs and lounge upstairs. I sleep downstairs next to the shower, toilet and sauna. We have been going for 19 + hours since leaving home, the Mexicans for much longer, time for bed.
We slept in till 9.30am and woke to a nice cold day with deep crunchy snow everywhere. After a lazy start we sort skis out and practise cross-country style. Josie had never been on skis before but does well. Lizz is fine, Galia’s hands suffer with cold, Alin is an expert cross country skier and gives us some tips. I have trouble with the skis toe-ing in and my heels slipping off the ski ¬- poor Mike spends a frustrating hour trying to sort the bindings and we agree he’s got them as good as thought possible but they are not right, perhaps it’s the skier.
We go into town for provisions, fuel and kit, come back, do stove training and look at the route alternatives. Due to the heavy snowfall Mike decides on plan B to reduce the time spent in deep snow, it will still be a challenge and I think we are all getting keyed up.
Back into town for a mega pizza called Burning Fire ¬- very tasty but not “Bonanza map”
Fascinating conversations about Galia’s sailing, her motivational support from Alin matched by Mike’s motivational support for Fiona’s solo unsupported walk to the South Pole. Both supporters wrote motivational messages to be read by the expeditioner and put them in strategic places e.g. written on the tent walls or slipped in between ration packs. It all proved vital.
Alin, Mike and I talk about cycling and Alin describes her bike and her skis as her babies and apart from a few clothes, she owns nothing.
Mike did the UK’s first Ironman in 1984, no wet suits for 58°F water, just grease! Lizz dislocated her shoulder in Patagonia and needed elephant strength anaesthetic to get it sorted. Josie has teeth removed without any anaesthetic. This lot are a bunch of nails!
More snow is arriving and settling onto the 5 inches we had yesterday evening. I guess this confirms the choice of route B which itself will offer plenty of challenges crossing the plateau with deep snow.
Mega problem! The new fuel bottles that we had to buy to replace the ones confiscated in Oslo airport have seals which have melted while in contact with the petrol ¬ unbelievable as that is what they are designed for. We need to find replacement seals and fast as its Saturday am and no shops will be open later. I suggest a plumbers merchants but Galia offers a brilliant solution of using the fuel pumps as stoppers. That means that we need 2 more and we reckon they should be free.
Yet again our whole expedition is in jeopardy, as we cannot function without stoves. Mike will go into town to try and resolve. The rest of us sort out our kit.
After a while Alin and I dig a new path through the snow. It is snowing all the time and another foot has fallen overnight. If it carries on snowing we are going to have one hell of a hard trip.
Josie and I have packed an example fuel sledge and an example food sledge, dividing up the rations and distributing the weight correctly on the sledges.
Afterwards Mike returns in triumph with two new pumps ¬ the trip is back on, thanks be. The faulty fuel cylinders would have exploded like bombs in the tent with awful consequences. Both retailers in town agreed the faults were incredible and offered any kind of assistance. The good old boy from Alta Strand camp drove Mike into town and back, as he turned into the camp he said “Its snowing much harder now and I cannot see where I’m going”, then buried the car into a snow drift so deeply that he had to get out of the passenger door, hey ho!
All of us novices had a go at erecting the tent in the snow as it continued to fall heavily. Doing a demo and doing a tent erection while going slowly to explain it means we all get cold and wet. We make for the log cabin and hang up all the kit to dry. A bowl of cereal for everyone goes down well; we look at maps a little and listen to Mike’s advice. His knowledge is vast. He also describes how he broke the front two vertebrae in his neck in a horrific fall in Glencoe with his pal Ian; they fell 700 ft and 550ft respectively. Incredibly they survived.
Another pizza and beer evening. The ride into town is amazing as the snow is so thick, metres deep where snow ploughs have been, trees are thick with it and everywhere is a picture postcard ¬- a night time one ¬ and we are amazed by it all. The locals have not had so much snow in years.
-9°C, 7am. It has finally stopped snowing and looks as though it could be a very nice day, just what we need except colder. Ideally we need some thaw, freeze and wind action to compact the snow otherwise its too deep for good progress.
There is a buzz as we all pack our kit, food and fuel into the sledge bags. The taxi arrives and the pulks, bags, skis and poles are loaded into the trailer. When we close the trailer lid and hop into the taxi the atmosphere changes to that of a pre-match dressing room, where individuals are absorbed in their own thoughts about the challenge ahead and conversations subside.
Approximately 2km before Stilla we stop and disgorge the trailer contents to the roadside and start walking, pulling our compliant charges along the compact snow. Its easy going, the only challenge along this quiet road is getting out of the way of the fast driving week-enders with skidoo trailers passing through the narrow gaps between us all on either side of the road.
Eventually we hit the trail that will take us from the valley floor up into the hills and onto the plateau. The initial section is awkward as we climb up the hillside. Our charges are now much less compliant; in fact they rebel and roll over sideways downhill. Now it is not so easy, not at all. Going uphill at any kind of pace, on skis, while pulling a rebellious 40kg sledge is hot work. I become too hot but cannot stop, as we need to press on and climb to the plateau, perhaps 2km away.
Instead of moving with the grace and steady precision of an elephant hauling freshly felled tree trunks, I am constantly jerked off balance to rear left, rear right or straight back when the sledge stops or alternatively I lurch forwards when the sledge slides forward and the tension in the towing rope is released. So unlike the elephant, I feel I resemble a drunken Thunderbird puppet on a fairground cake walk.
We pressed on, gradually climbing up to more level ground although it was still undulating. Our progress is steady to slow even though we follow a skidoo trail. I struggle to keep my skis from toeing in or out as they are broader at the top than the centre and will deviate from straight according to any ridge that they contact. In untrodden snow they are much, much better and run pretty straight but on the trail they toe in or out every other step adding significantly to my cake walk careering manoeuvres.
After covering 5 miles we select a reasonably level campsite and set about erecting the two tents. The A Team of Alin, Galia and Mike and the J Team of Josie, Lizz and me both manage reasonably well considering a snow storm has blown up and darkness descended.
We follow the routine as instructed by Mike, well almost. Duvet jackets on, mitts off, erect tent, feed in stove box and fuel, kit bags, food and roll mats/Thermarest with sleeping bags. Josie goes inside and arranges the contents, lights the stove with great care and starts melting snow for drinks and the evening meal. Meanwhile, Lizz and I fit the flysheet, dig snow onto the valance and fix the five guy lines using skis to peg them into the snow then generally tidy up outside. Duvets off and into the sledge.
Josie loves being active and with gusto, sorts us all out with hot water for drinks, food and the Nalgene bottles. A lot of chatter and laughter follows as we swap stories and discuss toilet options etc. Once the conversation has hit the basement we get serious for a minute to agree to look out for each other especially with regard to hypo-glycaemia. Although Mike carries a high glucose solution for emergencies we are aware that a Mars bar may also be inserted where the sun don’t shine and the girls put in a special request for chocolate buttons instead! Howls of laughter emit from our tent for hours and we hear some from the other tent too however we later found they were laughing at us. What happy souls we are.
After the meal and the ritual drying of clothes we clear the decks and roll out the mats and sleeping bags. To prevent moisture build up a vapour liner is used inside the sleeping bag or in my case, a plastic survival bag - big mistake. After switching off the stove to clear the decks the temperature drops like a stone. The tents have no groundsheet; our mats are directly onto the snow so I leave my thermal base layer on.
Problem is I’m sleeping on the right but the ground slopes to the left and all night is spent trying to roll uphill inside the survival bag that just slips around inside the sleeping bag. About 4.30am I ask Lizz if she wants to swap places and without any hesitation she agrees, she also has not slept well. Josie is snoring one second and is wide awake the next and the three of us are in fits as we change places. I then find I’m so hot inside the bags I strip off the thermals and try to wriggle back down into the plastic bag. Well at -15°C the moisture on my body and inside the bag makes the bag stick to me like icy cling film. To more shrieks of laughter the other two help pull the bag up my back. YUK! Plus we have inadvertently woken up the other tent!
-15°C. We wake before sunrise to a beautiful light shining across the vast snowfields that surround us. Yesterday was grey but today is crisp and the mountain scenery all around is just marvellous. Not a soul in sight, no signs of civilisation and a quick toilet break gives time to look around at the amazing scenery. The air is still and dawn is breaking giving the snow a slightly blue glow. Fresh snow has fallen and covered our tracks, which are typically 4-6 inches deep. Pristine snow surrounds us, it’s wonderful. At -15°C the cold is quite bearable, even pleasant perhaps the excitement of having camped in the conditions and the anticipation of the journey puts the cold out of my mind.
To make breakfast we have to reverse the procedure from bedtime i.e. sleeping bags away, wrapped with the roll mats and the whole roll secured with a bungee cord. This pack is used to sit on and a small mat is placed under the feet, the stove box is retrieved from the porch and the Whisperlite stoves placed on the inverted box in the centre of the tent, under the central vent in the roof. Before setting up like this we have to carefully move around brushing off the ice from the tent inside, this is to avoid moisture build up once the stove has been lit.
At the morning and evening camp there is much to do and from waking to walking a team in the groove will still take 2½ hours. There are a minimum of two hot drinks to have, a cereal or porridge breakfast too, snacks and lunches to be prepared and distributed, Nalgene bottles to fill, kit to dry, kit to pack, ablutions to perform (the speed of which is closely governed by the temperature outside, the colder it is the faster the task is performed), then the team need to kit up which could be a form of gymnastics, emerge from the tent, dismantle it and pack the sledges.
All the above sounds perfectly straightforward; indeed when we had tried it in a village hall before leaving the UK it was a doddle. Cover everything in snow, wear unfamiliar clothing and gloves, introduce wind, uneven and slippery conditions underfoot, allow the tent pole joints to freeze together and the poles to freeze to the tent, make the poles a couple of centimetres too long to fit into the fixings points and of course introduce cold air that nips the face and ears, numbs the fingers, numbs the brain, freezes breath onto headgear and suddenly it’s a very different experience. To set up or break camp it requires teamwork, concentration and an awareness of self and others. Preventing the fingers from freezing requires prolonged and energetic bouts of wind milling the arms; it’s the only way.
This is most definitely unlike pitching up in summer at a leisurely pace while stoking up a barbeque, oh no. This is about survival in the Arctic and while we travel in relative comfort, one misfortune could easily mean disaster, we are all learning this first hand from this journey and second hand from Mike with his countless and fascinating accounts of journeys to the South and North Poles, its quite fantastic.
Setting off from this camp we move enthusiastically, trying to pick up the pace a little but again its stop start stuff rather than continuous efficient travel with the briefest of stops to re-fuel our bodies with chocolate bars, isotonic drink, salami and pitta bread.
We are passed by the occasional skidoo or dog sledge, which provides compacted snow on which we can travel. Before the trip Mike worried that there might be too much snow, which would impede progress especially on the remote part of the plateau, off track. Now he seems concerned about our progress on track so we crack on during the day and descend onto a lake. The lake is about 3½ miles long and would be much colder to camp on so towards the end of the day we push on a little more energetically for the last 1½ hours to try and clear the lake. This backfires and results in splitting the group, those left behind are understandably unhappy. I feel sick for leading off assuming everyone was right behind, I know better and can’t believe I’ve allowed it to happen.
We make camp, it really is much colder and we set about the two tents in a somewhat quieter mood than last night. The temperature drops and Josie starts to be affected, her blood sugar level must be low as she exhibits slight confusion and denial of the situation. Shortly afterwards she is fine and we discuss it over dinner, agreeing to keep a close eye on each other especially to ensure we are taking in enough food and drink during the day. Mike had already explained that people are more susceptible at the end of the day and that the downturn can be quite sudden, we have experienced it first hand and dealt with it.
There is well over a foot of snow on the frozen lake and Mike shows Alin how to fix ice screws. In our tent we ponder the options available to Mike as expedition leader to help speed our progress. I’m still really annoyed with myself and decide to be the back marker next time out. We sleep much better despite being much colder and hoping the lake stays frozen!
-31°C first thing today, we’ll be travelling into the wind and the wind chill takes the temp down to around -43°C. There is a sharp nip on the face as we travel heads down, into the Siberian wind towards the end of the lake about 1½ miles away.
At the end of the lake is the Jodka Hut, the temp is -27°C and the wind makes it feel quite bitter. This is the end of the journey for Galia, she has not particularly enjoyed the conditions and knows herself well enough to realise that this is not her favourite environment. Arrangements are made for her to overnight at the Hut and to be transported back to Alta by skidoo.
As with everyone else that we have encountered in this part of Norway, the people are extremely helpful and totally trustworthy, Galia will be in good hands. We study the chart on the Hut wall and it becomes clear that we need to make up a considerable distance to get back on schedule. It is two days to Molosjok Hut and from there it is 2 days across the most remote part of the plateau where the snow is likely to be much deeper and the temperatures much colder.
Mike decides we should go forward as a group of five in one tent so food, kit and fuel is reduced and the residue left with Galia. I, like Mike, miss a golden opportunity to take Galia’s vapour liner! Mike too has a crummy plastic bag to sleep in however, he also has a sleeping bag rated to only -12°C, and either he is nails, nuts or both.
Leaving Galia, we crack on through the valley working a little harder to stave off the biting cold as we are in shadow for a mile until we climb higher and turn the corner into the sunlight. We are moving better and have a determination about us. The land is undulating despite a long stop at Jodka Hut we put in a 7 mile day, which is better but still insufficient to enable us to catch up to schedule. It’s hard to see an outcome other than arriving at Karasjok, the original destination across the plateau, perhaps a day late and having a furious scramble to get back to Alta to catch the plane. I concentrate on the cake walk.
The campsite selected is quite flat and we are now a 5 man team erecting one tent. It should be easy but the cold does have an effect as in the Force 5/6 winds the chill is estimated at -43°C. Mike explains that at -37°C people go into self survival mode as it’s too hard to help others much, also materials fail. For example the elastic cord in the tent poles loses its elasticity and it becomes fiddly just to joint a pole, feeding in unco-operative cord into a small tube, and it’s windy. Tent fabric can snap, stoves are harder to light and so on.
To increase the inner height of the tent, Mike instructs Josie to dig the floor 6 inches deeper and she does an excellent job, relishing the task. Alin is feeling the cold and joins the Josie inside to get out of the wind. Mike, the irrepressible Lizz and I continue working outside to secure the tent. Lizz is supremely happy no matter what; she always has a cheery smile and a laugh. Whenever I lead out the group at any kind of pace Lizz is right behind, typical of the 800m athlete that she is, just waiting to pounce on the last bend.
The five of us squeeze into the tent around the stoves, it’s very cosy! Being in one tent is good for group morale; we all enjoy the banter and stories even managing to make a pretty good job of tent life given the conditions. Mike declares this is definitely a “3 stove night” and we crank up the heat by lighting the old faithful and fairly noisy XGK stove in addition to the Whisperlites. During the evening meal Mike pumps the fuel bottle for a Whisperlite and we spot petrol leaking from the bottle/pump joint. Bad news indeed.
The lit burner is only a few inches from the fuel bottle and every time we use the stove there is a real fire hazard. Losing a tent has obvious consequences so everyone takes great care around a lit stove. In theory the flame and fuel bottle presents a potential bomb and now we have a leaking fuel bottle and flame, jeeeez.
It’s made safe immediately and we are back to two stoves which is fine except that we left two fuel bottles with Galia and now have three left. We now only have one spare bottle for the rest of the journey and the margin for safe travel is reduced but its still worth the risk.
Mike reads a passage from his book “Jonathon Livingstone Seagull” by Richard Bach, its great fun and philosophically interesting. Eventually, we all take toilet breaks outside and stare up at the streaky grey Northern Lights that stretch across the sky, for as long as our bare butts can stand then dash back into the tent to have someone brush the ice off that one accumulates getting back in.
Mike needs to re-fuel the good remaining fuel bottles and needs the stoves off for this delicate operation. The temp drops considerably and after re-fuelling a free for all breaks out as we all unfurl our roll mats and sleeping bags together. Josie and I have very good bags and are forced to take the outside positions; I get the cold end of course and start wishing I had built a much higher snow wall outside at the windward end of the tent!
I also have the pleasure of less bed length, the slope of the roof immediately above me, get regular little ice showers and I have Mike next to me. Not only is he the largest in the tent, he is also the most accomplished at getting sorted then taking the rip out of everyone else as they fumble around.
Finally we settle top to tail and I’m asleep before I’m horizontal, cold bliss. I hear nothing apart from Mike’s snoring (obviously I don¹t hear my own), at about 3am we are all startled into sitting bolt upright in unison by a strange stilted wheezing ¬ its Josie choking! “Whack her on the back!” we shout to Lizz, her first attempt is genteel but with resumed encouragement she lands a forehand that Roger Federer would be proud of, don’t mess with Lizz. Josie is fine and although we are unsure of the reason for her choking we pretty quickly get back to the task in hand, sleep.
Day 7 (Valentines Day)
At 5am Mike lets out a hearty wake up call. Its -36°C and very icy inside the tent. The temp is one degree above the magical -37°C where things go wrong quite effortlessly and when one thing goes wrong the domino effect kicks in and before you know it the whole shooting match goes belly up. Why wake at 5am? We need to make up 13 miles to reach Karasjok in time, quite a task as the temperature is likely to fall much further, we have to commit totally to the route, there is no escape route, the snow will be deeper, the capabilities of the group are unknown and most importantly we are on the limit with the fuel bottles.
Mike has been understandably a little worried for the last day or so and rightly voices these concerns to the group. While emotionally it is very disappointing, logically it is the right decision to turn back. Beyond this point we would be totally committed to the full journey and given that we are here for an Arctic Experience rather than achieving a journey goal at any cost, Mike concludes that the group think the logical option is the right one.
The palpable tension in the group before “The Decision” is released. Mike too seems very disappointed but also relieved. It would have been a grinding slog to reach Karasjok from this point and with no margin for error; it would have been too risky for the whole group.
About half an hour later, as if by divine intervention or by Sod’s Law, another fuel bottle was found to be faulty; vindication of “The Decision” to turn back. We head back the way we came and Mike finds a positive for himself in that he doesn’t recognise the scenery from this direction.
After a bitterly cold start we make good progress and having the cold SE Siberian wind on our backs the wind chill is around -40°C. We reach Jodka hut around 1.30pm to find that Galia has gone however her mini ipod has not. We learn from the guy at the Hut that Karasjok is -45°C, and with wind chill its -70°C! Further vindication of “The Decision”.
We continue back to the lake and choose a nice flat area, in the middle of course, to make camp. We must be getting into the groove now at setting up the tent and we spend a cool but cosy evening fighting over the pasta Bolognese as the beef and mashed potato is dense enough to plug any leak in the Colorado dam. We follow Jonathon Livingston Seagull’s journey through the afterlife, I read out a verse that my father-in-law sent last month, show the cartoon drawing from my son and we all get an almond slice.
We start to cheer up again, the banter is flying and no-one is spared. Talk follows about breaking off the trail tomorrow after crossing the lake and trying to reach the top of a hill for the next camp ¬ sounds good, a new goal.
The usual bun fight ensues in getting ready for bed, pinching each other’s kit ¬ all right I pinch Lizz’s vapour liner but return it after severe threats, (don’t mess with Lizz) and no-one pinches my plastic survival bag. Someone hides Mike’s sleeping bag and Alin loses the extra 3 inches of floor space that she had blagged the night before ¬- daft but great fun and a welcome distraction from the cold.
When setting up the camp I had dug out 5 toilet holes like an amphitheatre to help everyone enjoy their visit outside watching the Northern Lights, no-one stays outside for too long though in these temperatures.
-28°C in the morning, no wind to begin with but it picks up after breakfast to Force 5/6 giving a wind chill of -45°C. Just as we depart the camp we meet a patrol of Norwegian soldiers, also on skis but carrying large bergens, they join the growing number of people who think camping in these conditions is a little strange. Suggest to Mike that next time he should just fly the Union flag at the camp and on the sledge and then no-one would be so surprised -¬ mad dogs and Englishmen etc plus a loco Mexican. The locals think we are nuts.
We cover about 2 miles to clear the lake and start climbing, the bitter wind is off our left shoulder, the sun is bright and the conditions provide a par hellion for us to enjoy. On the outward journey we had seen two sundogs left and right of the sun another time a purple arc in the sky which is the earth’s shadow. Combined with the clear night skies, partial views of the Northern Lights, the gradual changes in the colour of the snow at sunrise and sunset from blues and pinks to pristine white with dazzling ice diamonds and the beautiful mountain scenery, we felt very fortunate indeed.
We crunched our way uphill, Mike with the considered movements of the elephant, Josie with admirable determination, Alin the Mexican pocket rocket going like a metronome, Lizz with infuriatingly parallel and straight skis and me, the cake walk crusader - but hey on this pristine snow I’m doing ok.
We summit our chosen hill and set up in a Force 5 wind. Not only do we build a 3 foot high snow wall all round the tent we prop the upturned sledges onto the windward snow wall, standing them up like surfboards to deflect the wind (from my end of the tent). We take a calculated risk to camp here but it is meant to be an adventure. This all helps to create a buzz in the tent on this, our final night on the hills.
There is slight surplus of rations from previous days so we all tuck in; there is even a cake and custard sweet. How good can life get? Well, Josie hands round Palma Violets, sweets from childhood, aaaaah. We here the final passage from Jonathon Livingston Seagull and exchange more banter, stories and leg pulling. Outside, the view from the gents is sublime: 360° view of snow covered mountains, clear night sky and our tent with a happy band of “Mountain Men” within. Life really is good.
-24°C, Force 5/6 wind and wind chill of -40°C and life gets even gooder. The night before many of the cameras had failed in the cold and this morning I feel a real need to capture the location on film. My camera fails again, however I use Alin’s for some stills and a 270° video, she is wind milling like fury and our red and yellow tent stands out against the pastel snow. Others emerge from the tent to take in the scenery before breaking camp.
We are aiming to descend from the hills today and return to Alta Strand Camp. Our maps do not cover the area so Mike makes an informed guess on the general direction and gives Alin a bearing to help her practice her navigation. The wind whistles in from the SE blowing the snow across our skis and filling our tracks quite quickly.
In the distance a huge snowstorm swirls around the mountains. The view all around is of snow clad mountains and steep sided pine clad valleys to the forward left and right. Straight in front lays a hill that we need to summit before descending the other side towards the valley.
The wind has packed the snow and created beautiful wood grain patterns, which transform into sastrugi. Everyone enjoys the snowscape. Over our left shoulder shines the bright sun and looking into this light at the drifting snow, Alin likens the scene to a fast flowing waterfall.
From the hilltop we start the descent proper and are soon passing through thickets of small trees, past deserted mountain huts and through pinewoods, all in glorious sunshine and a clear blue sky. Everywhere looks beautiful and it’s a wrench to leave it behind as we descend a track, cross a lake, descend further tracks and encounter a road.
We walk with our skis and poles strapped on top of the sledges and enjoy a couple of toboggan runs on the hills, great fun. As the daylight fades we pass fabulous wooden chalets; they look so cosy with soft yellow lighting glowing out into the darkening night sky. What a view these people would have, what a place to live. We walk along the snow-covered road until the traffic becomes too heavy and pull into a garage forecourt to call a taxi.
We have covered about 10 miles today. The camp last night and the fabulous day today fell like the icing on the cake to an amazing Arctic Experience. Back at our chalet we meet up with the effusive and expressive Galia, just seeing her brings a smile to everyone’s faces, she is great.
We delight in a hot shower then head into town for a humdinger of a celebration meal at the steak house. These Norwegians are so nice, polite and helpful. The waiter patiently helps us through the menu, this won’t be the cheapest meal this side of Texas but it will be one of the best!
Mike can unwind, all the pressure is off and he tucks into a filet mignon, while Josie has a sirloin, Lizz and the twins have large chunks of salmon and I try reindeer. The girls even manage a sweet, with a little help of course. Boy!
After a deserved lie in we sort out our equipment and kit then stroll into Bossekop 2½ miles away. En route we pass many gorgeous chalet homes painted red ochre, yellow ochre, grey and pale blue, even the outhouses look appealing.
At the sports shop we make a shocking discovery. The fuel bottles purchased here to replace the ones confiscated at Oslo airport and subsequently were found to leak fuel ¬ are faulty. We knew that, but why were they faulty? Well, it’s quite simple really. In their manufacture, they had been fitted with a screw top to suit water bottles and not fuel bottles, hence the leaks. Shish kebab! If we had not turned back on our journey we could have been the disaster waiting to happen, but hey ho we made it anyway.
Well if the last camp and the following day were the icing on the cake we were about to get a chocolate button on the icing. At the end of the night walking back to the chalet we watched the pale grey streaks across the sky, stretching from horizon to horizon, imperceptibly change to a pale green the darken to a fluorescent green.
Mike has seen it many times before but Lizz and I stay out to witness the show. Every few seconds something changes in the sky and you have to keep turning round so as not to miss anything. Just as we are going in, the real show starts and we are drawn back to be treated to an amazing spectacle. In less than a minute, a small green glow on the horizon stretches 2/3 of the way across the sky and as though a switch had been flicked on, the green curtain dances, swirling and twisting with hues of green and red, breathtaking stuff if you have never before seen the aurora borealis or the Northern Lights.
This optical phenomenon is caused by energy particles of solar wind interacting with the magnetic atmosphere of the Poles. Alin and I had previously discussed a satellite that is monitoring the massive solar flares from the sun and she explained that this is the source of energy particles that create the aurora.
Before the scientific explanation was found, folklore claimed the lights were the spirits often trapped in purgatory and having ominous implications. Not for us though, this has been a memorable Arctic Experience. To paraphrase Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, we can fix our steely gaze upward, set our chiselled jaws and call ourselves “Mountain Men”.
We reluctantly pack and go, taking in all the last views of this wonderful setting. It has snowed much more than normal, been uncommonly cold even by local standards, we have learned from a great leader how to survive and enjoy such conditions, and we have gelled as a group and worked well together. Everyone has a story but these guys are something else. It’s been a privilege to spend time with such interesting characters and it’s been great fun.
We’ve seen much in the short time spent here so it would come as no surprise that Finnmark had one final ace up its sleeve. On the way to the airport and while looking at the snowy hills sloping into the sea we are treated to the spectacle of seeing large areas of the sea steaming in bright sunlight. The sea is on fire, smouldering away and I think about the verse sent by my father-in-law, he found he had written it into a poetry book while in Ramchi, India in 1945:
“Yea in my mind these mountains rise
Thanks to all in the Finnmark 2007 group, it has been a privilege and a great Arctic experience.
Leader: Mike Thornewill, Polar Explorer
Galia Moss - Mexico
Alin Moss - Mexico
Josie Mason - UK
Lizz Pick - UK
Murray Howitt - UK