Scandinavian Arctic Cross Country Ski Trip

Charcoal Farmhouse, Kurikko, Torne river, Arctic Sweden

Feb 2025 – Looking for a Team Mate. If interested, use the Contact Form

The Beast

A Scandinavian Cross Country Ski Trip

1.

How to Find a Team Mate

(This is one gnarly trip!)

Northern Lights, Sweden
Northern Lights over the Torne river, Sweden. Photo: Hans Olofsson

The Torne river runs from the mountains of Norway, through Sweden into the Bay of Bothnia on the Swedish/Finnish border, mainly within the Arctic Circle. It’s a non-dammed, pristine waterway, perhaps Europe’s last river wilderness with an abundance of wildlife. In summer, it’s a swift flowing river, but in winter it’s frozen white, cold and desolate: perfect for a winter trip.

I had planned to ski upstream on the frozen Torne from its estuary in the Bay of Bothnia to its source, any one of the many tributaries winding through icy forests, until the landscape becomes featureless and indescribably white. That was the idea until, on a reconnaissance trip, I fell through the river ice. It could have been disastrous, a classic textbook scenario: the noise of cracking ice before disappearing into black freezing water, pulled under by the river current and lost forever. I was in snow shoes, in the middle of the wide river, with ski poles and a small backpack; not a soul about. It’s the noises I heard that set alarm bells ringing: a vibrating whooshing noise with a simultaneous shudder that went right through my snow shoes and into my feet: time to get off the ice. Close to the river bank, my legs just disappeared, my feet in water. I was now just waist and arms above the ice, the rest of me lost below. I pushed down with my arms and ski poles, belly flopped, sunk some more, my whole body flat and disappearing. I edged along and quickly had my feet out, crawling until the ice felt hard again. My life hadn’t flashed before my eyes or anything like that, I just reacted fast, in order to save myself. I had walked over a fast moving creek that joined the main river. Between the fast moving water and the ice is an air gap, a weak spot where an unspecified weight can crack the ice, potentially making it collapse. Sometimes a truck can be driven on the ice, other times it can crack for no apparent reason. If in doubt, take the long way round!

I had only been on a few hundred meters of frozen river; the entire length of the Torne is well over five hundred kilometres. The risk was great and, as I didn’t want to be pulling a sledge loaded with gear and supplies along the densely tree covered river bank during times the ice was questionably thin, I changed my plan.

The Torne runs fairly close to two large towns, Lulea and Kiruna, and a few villages, scattered here and there along its course. That meant shops and supplies. A better plan meant no villages, perhaps an occasional shop or gas station somewhere along the way, but I actually had no idea.

The plan was to start on the banks of the Torne river in Sweden, well within the Arctic Circle, head north overland to the point where Sweden, Finland and Norway all meet, turn right, or east if you are that way inclined, and head across Finland or Norway, perhaps both, to the Russian border. That was it: vague and simple. There would be scores of creeks, lakes and rivers to cross, but it wouldn’t be the Torne, where I would have to nervously ski along a frozen river all day, huge volumes of water pushing fast and hard beneath the ice, under my feet.

Now to find a Team Mate or two.

I put a request to find a Team Mate on a well known British explorers website: Explorers Connect.

I wrote the request off the cuff, without much thought, my only inspiration being Ernest Shackleton’s mythical and possibly fake (so the story goes) polar advert from 1913.

Team Mates Wanted, 1913

My advert in Explorers Connect (with contact details removed) was as follows:

I would like to find a Team Mate or two for a cross country skiing adventure across Arctic Scandinavia. Nothing really planned as yet and it would be for late 2023 (dark and cold!) for about 2 months give or take.

This would involve pulling a pulk and camping. Stopping off at the odd shop if there is one would be fine: this is not an against nature trip -just an adventure outdoors.

I have experience in doing cross country skiing in extreme cold. Looking for someone who would like to plan and get it together with me, trying to make it viable and as cheap as possible without compromising on gear safety. I’m Old School Outdoors, which means if the mobile breaks, I won’t cry (good luck keeping that thing charged!). The trip will be slow with moments of ‘why am I doing this stuff…’

Experience to endure might come in handy; the rest, well, you learn on the job, right! This is a very non-commercial Trip.”

And the emails flooded in: how the hell do I now sort this out!

I just can’t get the measure of person on a video call. Whatever platform or app that’s used, it’s always the same: a two dimensional image saying all the right things, never having bad days, let alone a crisis, and often looking fabulous. Meeting someone in person is completely different; even if I’m not one hundred percent sure, a real sense is there, an abstract measurement that yells: you’re in or you’re not. There’s no other way for me. Besides, how do I, myself, come across on a video call to a total stranger, what prejudices do I trigger and which fuses do I inadvertently light?

Of course, everyone was fabulous on email: rather daunting, in fact. Army personnel, triathletes, experts and superheroes. Some of them were even planning big trips to Antartica and the south pole, had been across Greenland, Alaska and probably the moon (I heard it is cold up there). What the hell did they need with me? Why were they even interested in my disorganised trip? That was a question I asked myself over and over again, until I eventually understood: what I was proposing was completely bonkers. This wasn’t a sponsored trip to the ends of the earth: this was harsh and dangerous and in Europe, an adventure, affordable to most. There would be no flat ground and rock-hard ice to pull a pulk (sledge) towards the south pole or a far-away peak, only questionable snow, which may be hard or complete slush depending on the day, and suspect frozen water, some inclines and descents that may need the use of rope. And, of course, no champagne or a heroes welcome if we ever made it home again. I started having my own doubts now. Was I up to the job?

One thing I learned very quickly when meeting people face to face, was that those who were mega fit, having spent years training and honing their bodies for triathlons or some other super human feat, didn’t want to lose their hard-earned physical prowess. And on this trip they certainly would lose it, fast: muscle loss, exhaustion, hunger, wasting, freezing, misery etc, for two months or more. Those people quickly disappeared and I rejected all super heroes, as I wasn’t one myself.

The list got smaller. I was left with the ordinary: a lawyer from the UK, who had a wealth of outdoor experience, and a Polish nuclear physicist who was also a ski instructor and conveniently lived in Sweden. Not so ordinary in their day jobs, perhaps, but perfect in their mindset, their expectations. Failure was an option I told them, but if that were the case, whatever we eventually did, whatever the route, it couldn’t be called a failure: we would be out there doing it in the freezing cold, alone. Slow and steady, a river crossing may be too dangerous and need a long detour, which meant, as the crow flies, no progress that day. The more I tried to put them off, the more they seemed to love the idea: enthusiasm for the unknown, where success and failure just don’t figure.

The lawyer fell by the wayside and I did have to fly to Northern Sweden to meet the nuclear physicist, but this was a price worth paying. Finding a Team Mate is not easy and never cheap!

2.

The Reconnaissance

(or, How to Lose a Team Mate!)

And then the Nuclear Physicist dropped out. Of course she did, who in their right mind would want to go on such a beast of a trip, especially as there would never be a payout or some kind of shiny medal at the end of all the suffering and exhausting hard work. I didn’t ask the reason, what would have been the point: a no is a no, can’t argue with that.

Back to square one? Or maybe just scrap the whole lubricious idea.

I decided to give it one more shot; after all, these exciting trips, out there on the fringe, wouldn’t be what they are without endless difficulties and obstacles to surmount and hopefully overcome. Back to advertising, back to Explorers Connect, but without the same enthusiasm. The trip itself still excited me; however, the forty odd emails from the last advert which I had needed to scrutinize before any meaningful engagement, let alone face to face meetings, had left me suspicions and somewhat jaded. It turned out that not many people were that serious about joining such a trip, and if they were, they either had no idea of it’s reality or were completely unsuitable, for me.

Between a rock and a hard place, now willing to go it alone if need be, I placed the advert as before.

Additionally, I put this up on Instagram:

Team Mates Wanted 2025

All in all, only four replies. Perfect. And from those, two showed a real interest. Game on.

One enquiry was an outdoor enthusiast from Aberdeen, a feisty sounding woman with the right drive and go getting attitude, but the near 1000km drive between us made meeting near impossible. We kept in touch, but ultimately it went nowhere.

The other, a guy, to whom I will refer as The Lost Team Mate (or just TLTM), had oodles of arctic experience: piloting small boats for The British Antarctic Survey from the ice cap itself and from South Georgia. He had sailed several times from Ireland, where he lived, to Greenland, Iceland and Norway in small yachts and had driven across the Sahara with his sister in a small van. Those, along with other worldly trips, both on land and at sea, made him interesting enough for me to just ask him to visit me in southern England. A few days later he was at my place. That was impressive.

Being a boat person (he had now retrained as a sea bed surveyor), TLTM was well versed in electronic mapping, GPS and Google Earth use; me: paper maps, stars and a compass: a good combination, potentially good team mates.

Bearded, tall and slim, looking like the stereotypical man at sea (he even called himself a sailor), he arrived, stayed one night and left determined to join me on my mission.

But it wasn’t quite like that: all was going well, discussion on gear and routes were positive until he looked at the maps. I knew the terrain but he didn’t, and then he saw the contours and endless creeks that we would have to cross if we were to succeed in navigating through this large, unpopulated and rather disagreeable wasteland. Additionally, I had told him that the ice may well be weak in places, especially where the water ran hard, forcing us up or down stream until suitably hard ice was found; it all depended on the conditions of that particular winter. Looking at a detailed map on the internet, he looked across the table at me and said:

‘It’s too daunting.’

Well, yes, but that’s the idea right: to go somewhere no one wants to go in the depths of a dark arctic winter and do something no sensible person would ever think of doing? Not being funny, but everything everywhere has just about been done in one form or another. Not much is left, especially on a tight budget. Taking all that into consideration, this was the best trip I could come up with the little money I had.

He wasn’t convinced.

I had to think fast.

A reconnaissance, would he like to do that: a hard core survey, staying at a remote cabin, undertaking long day trips, river crossings and experiencing the relentless arctic cold, testing skills and our reserve and, most importantly, finding out if we could get along?

Without hesitation, he said yes to that. Ironically, it turned out, a reconnaissance was not only a good plan but a necessity: this trip would need the most detailed scrutiny. I have TLTM’s hesitation to thank for that.

I had spent years buying and replacing gear: as this is an expensive hobby, any gear purchase errors really batters one’s hard earned finances. Having already made a few of these costly mistakes, TLTM benefited from the knowledge of my blunders. Returning home, he bought a lot of new gear, as he didn’t have any cold weather cross-country skiing equipment of his own, his only cross-country skiing experience being limited to a few jaunts around an Antarctic base and some icy slush in south Georgia.

Well, that’s how it began, anyway.

The Farm

I have a friend, Hans, who owns a remote farm on the Torne river, down a fourteen kilometres single track road. In winter, no one lives along this ice track and, just past the entrance to his farmhouse, it is  blocked off by a bank of hard snow, making it completely impassible. The occasional municipal snowplough stops and turns around here, leaving it as the road to nowhere, except to Hans. This is where I usually stayed, had learned to ski, where nearly all my knowledge of Arctic Sweden accumulated. Any direction, in the dead of winter, endless forest, frozen creeks and ponds; one’s only company, the biting cold of a soft and hissing arctic breeze.

Having stayed there many times, it was the perfect spot for training and reconnaissance.

To call it a farm is not quite accurate. Hans’ grandfather had run a charcoal making business, utilising the thousands of hectares of birch forest around the farmhouse. Hans had joined the family tradition, except there was now a huge three phase electric burner with something like four hundred large solar panels rather than the antiquated and near obsolete charcoal burning pit. In fact, one might call the place: a solar charcoal farm. But the charcoal business, not having fared well during the pandemic was on hiatus, and, during the long, harsh, dark winter months, the farm property usually remained empty. He was happy for me to use it, give presence and help the house from freezing up, and, most importantly, to stop the cellar water pipes from bursting with the ice; the water source, a well, seventy meters deep, right beneath the cellar floor. To do that we needed to ensure one tap was running all the time, and keep an eye on various heaters and the cellar temperature.

To give an idea of the remoteness, the winter isolation of this place, Hans’ mother, when she was a child,  had to ski across the Torne river to catch the school bus every winter’s day. The river is very wide here, a fair sized island sitting right in the middle with about four ramshackle summer houses. Even after crossing it a hundred times, I still feel intimidated and err on the side of caution, sometimes near to panic when the ice creaks or gives a sudden shocking shudder, even if I know it’s some six feet deep and most unlikely to break. And when the ice was beginning to freeze in autumn or breaking up during the late spring melt, she and her sisters would have to stay with friends in a village near the school. In summer, she canoed across the Torne’s powerful flow. I wonder what near misses she may have had.

Now, these rural areas are near empty of children and some village schools permanently closed.

Different times: different types of isolation.

The island on the frozen Torne river that Hans’ Mum had to ski to and then around to catch the school bus from the other side. Hans’ farm can be seen 180 degrees back at about 1m.10sec. (drone footage by TLTM).

TLTM and I arrived at Kiruna airport on January 6th. It was a particularly cold winter, the car hire desk telling us that the during the previous days the temperature had dropped below minus 43C, minus 45 in some places, and some fifty odd hire cars were stranded, stuck in snow or just unable to start. We had hired a cheap bog standard estate car. At least it had studded snow tyres. We unplugged the heater cable from it’s terminal and put it in the car. We would definitely be needing that; starting the car without heating the engine first would have meant our car would have quickly joined the other abandoned fifty.

Being a boat person TLTM knew and told me that the EL Nino weather pattern this year meant the cold arctic air was being pulled down South. But it didn’t feel that cold to me.

Driving down to Kurkkio (Hans’ Hamlet that is split in two by the Torne river, his house being the only real dwelling on the south side, hence the school bus only leaving from the north side, which itself has maybe four occupied residences) with TLTM at the helm, I reinforced that studded snow tyres on hard white ice roads doesn’t necessarily mean things are safe or anywhere near to driving on roads at home; it’s so easy to lose control and hurtle off the road. I had seen many vehicles that had done that, buried deep in the snow or crumpled around a tree trunk. Back seat driving, even if it saves the driver’s life, is never much appreciated!

At Lulea airport, I had once hired an expensive car, never thought for one moment it wouldn’t have studs. At the first roundabout and still in the airport complex, I broadsided, near spun around whilst doing something like ten miles an hour. I sat there stationary right in the middle of the roundabout, just staring out the windscreen at the gently falling evening snow. Fortunately, there was no other traffic. I immediately drove back to the airport and demanded a change of car. No questions asked, I got my fully studded replacement. I dread to think what may have happened if I’d been on the motorway, broadsiding at speed across the carriageways.

Our first stop, the supermarket, as our three week reconnaissance would need good fuel and plenty of it, and, as neither of us wanted to eat meat, it was quite a tricky task to fill our trollies full of food. The good thing about being in the Swedish arctic is that there’s never need for a freezer: anything that needs freezing is just left outside the front door. TLTM bought so many tins of fish that I couldn’t quite believe it. In the arctic, for some unfathomable reason,  I find  the smell of tinned fish repulsive. He obvioulsy didn’t and went through a tin a day, and then, after many days of cold gruelling ski and Tooq work, ate two a day.  As two guys sharing a room, on a mission together, we didn’t ask each other too many questions, kept it simple, and from that point, all went well. Steady as she goes: why rock the boat with invasive questions or probing comments. All I really knew was that his toes easily froze and his protein intake went ballistic. I guess the going was steady but also pretty damned tough and ultimately taxing. Three weeks can be a very long time.

After nearly two hours of driving, we turned into the single track road to the farm. Thankfully it had been plowed and we drove the fourteen milometers on hard white ice set between a forest of dark trees. On passing a verge, a big moose lounged in the deep snow, completely disinterested in our presence.

The farm complex consists of a small single storey farmhouse, two well equipped but empty cabins, a large barn with an adjoining animal pen, like a pig pen, a charcoal warehouse next to the burner with a frozen office, a few outbuildings used for storage, some ancient outhouses and the all important solar shed. There used to be goats in the pen, which I had often fed, never understanding how they could survive the winter. Every morning the water buckets would be frozen solid and I had to bash them, often denting and damaging them, to empty out the solid one piece ice. The barn was full of overturned bucket ice sculptures that never melted: not while I was there, anyway. And, believe it or not, there had also been a feral cat that lived in the barn during winter months; I fed that too, although I rarely saw it, as it was truly feral. I felt sorry for it: it should have been a thousand miles further south, where at least it would have had some outdoor warmth. Apparently, it had just turned up one early winter’s day and never left, not even after all the snow had gone and the sun still shone at midnight on warm and endless summer days.

Having run snow leopard surveys in Nepal, I find the indifferent and solitary nature of cats quite intriquing.

On the evening of our arrival, looking out the kitchen window into the snowy front yard, I saw a hare, completely white with black tipped ears. In north America they are called arctic hares, but here in northern Sweden, mountain hares. Abundant, I had often seen their tracks criss-crossing the snowy forest floor. However, being nocturnal, I had never actually seen one. Then another appeared. Both were eating leaves from some flowers Hans had thrown out. After that, I made a habit of leaving carrots out the front; there wasn’t a night I didn’t see a hare or two.

Mountain Hare, Arctic Sweden
Mountain Hare, Arctic Sweden

It didn’t take long for TLTM and I to organise ourselves as we had everything we needed: the gear, the food, a car in case, and the right spirit and determination. From my side, the main tasks were to get TLTM skiing and understanding the terrain; test our gear and ourselves on long days in extreme temperatures; work out a route, plan the trip and, all importantly, for me anyway, was to become adept at crossing frozen ponds and creeks, which is always nerve-wracking and, quite frankly, a terrifying feat. But I had a plan for that.

The Polish Nuclear Physicist, had told me that whilst working in Greenland, the locals, before crossing suspect sea ice, used to test its strength and thickness by striking it hard with a long sharp pointed pole to see if it fractured. They call that pole a Tooq. No matter how much I searched, I couldn’t find that word anywhere. Eventually I found similar tools for ice skaters and ice fishermen, mostly home made or from Canadian hardware stores. I watched videos of them being used, some very technical, scientific explanations of ice layers and freezing processes. That’s all I had to go on. I found poles to break up concrete that were perfect but way too heavy. I turned to my friend Ricky, who could make anything, and if not, he’d find a way. We made a Tooq: hollow steel with a small hollow T-handle and a welded-in steel shank, machined into a very sharp point. If I could work out the process, understand the ice, it would be the perfect tool.

Relatively flat, with only two abundant species of tree, the giant Tal fir, which takes a hundred years or more to grow, and the silver birch tree, the landscape is indescribable: endless white, carpeted with endless tress, set under a remarkable pale blue sky, that often turns an eerie blanched translucent violet. Barely rising, the sun smears the horizon with a bright orange shimmer all the day. The trunks of some Tal trees were so coated in frosted ice that they looked as if covered in thick set icing sugar. That’s all I can say, that’s what we experienced, skied through everyday, the snow so deep in places that without skis I sunk to my hips and, on occasion, my waist. With skis, the going was still pretty tough: sinking and plowing, pulling and cutting as the skis surfaced from the deep snow before taking another sliding sinking step. Slow moving, the temperatures frigid, we took turns to lead; the one behind, not working half as hard, really felt the cold. This was demanding and exhausting work.

Our daily routine, to leave at dawn or when the sun had just appeared, ski different routes each day, find small creeks and ponds, abandoned cabins, anything to motivate and keep us out all day. As said, three weeks can be a very long time indeed.

TLTM had a very specific task: to ski two hundred plus kilometres, as that was the approximate distance from Kurkkio to the Apex of the three countries. In fact, after looking at maps, the changing terrain, and understanding how much power and reserves our bodies would need to have in these low temperatures and conditions, we decided that getting to the Apex would be quite enough.  That now became our final destination: probably two hundred and fifty kilometres, with deviation around hills, lakes and dangerous creeks. It was looking complicated, and possibly impossible. Additionally, we would each have a loaded pulk to pull.

Such is the nature of The Beast.

The Tooq Experiment

Attempt 1.

For me, Tooq work was paramount. The first exercise was on a pond just behind the farm. In fact, there are two ponds joined together by a small channel that has a wooden makeshift bridge over it. Hans had called these ponds bottomless pits. A small ditch exited from the pond nearest the farm, and we walked it’s surface, shovelling and clearing the snow before whacking the exposed ice with the Tooq. I had read that there shouldn’t be any water showing after the first hit and on the second, if water shows, then it mustn’t well-up and run over the ice. That was a very poor and vague description of how to test the ice, but I just had to somehow muddle through and find a way. Fortunately, after 3 hard stabs at the ice, no water showed. It was slow and cautious, shovelling and then hitting the ice hard with the Tooq and, after many checks, we arrived on the edge of the pond. Here, we did expose water but nothing welled up and over the ice, until we reached the channel. We cleared the snow and hit the ice. Without much resistance, the Tooq went straight though the ice, the hole exposing black muddy water. We sharply back tracked and changed course to the centre of the pond. Hard ice all the way, and before we reached the other side we called it a day. I can’t say I was confident in any way, as there was still so much to learn. Four inches of hard ice is needed to safely hold a person’s weight, but without using a hand turned ice drill and some kind of tape measure, there is really no way of knowing how thick the ice is. Using a Tooq had to become an art. At least we had made a good start.

Digging out the snow on a frozen lake and whacking the ice hard with a pointed steel Toog several times. Scary business, but essential for expeditions The ropes and prussick are an adjustable carry sling for across the back. Jeez it was cold....The things hanging off my wrists are ice awls: spikes in case you fall through, you thrust them into the ice and haul yourself out...not sure what happens after that...hyperthermia probably unless someone’s with you...
Digging out the snow on a frozen lake and whacking the ice hard with a pointed steel Toog several times. Scary business, but essential for expeditions The ropes and prussic are an adjustable carry sling for across the back. Jeez it was cold. The things hanging off my wrists are ice awls: spikes in case you fall through, you thrust them into the ice and haul yourself out.

Attempt 2.

The next Tooq exercise was once again close to the farm, along the snow blocked single track, down a short hill to a tiny, yet fast flowing creek that joined the mighty Torne river, no more than six feet wide at its widest point. TLTM was keen, I certainly was not. I had seen this flowing under the road, nothing still, deep or sedate under its suspect frozen surface. I stretched out and whacked the ice where we had cleared the snow: rock hard, but I didn’t take a step. My feet were standing on frozen marshy ground, abundant stalks of yellowed grass poked out the ice all along the creek’s bank edge. The water where I stood was probably less than a foot deep. I shuffles forward and went through, over my boots, my gaiters saving me from wet feet. Always trust your gut; if in doubt, never try and cross. That was the end of that brief adventure.

Attempt 3.

The third exercise was the real deal. Crossing the Torne, the same route that Han’s mother used ski to catch the bus, I had the habit of taking off my skis and carrying them, ice awls out and ready. It was too close to where I had fallen through the ice, so unless there was a well defined snowmobile track to follow, the river spooked the hell out of me. Besides, it was far too wide and the ice so jumbled from the river’s flow that Tooq use was completely useless. A Tooq is for crossing creeks, small rivers and navigating the edge of lakes and ponds.

Once across, a long ski followed the river upstream. Opposite us, close to the other side, were a set of rapids. We saw breaks of open water, heard its rush, freezing spray looking like a morning mist. Leaving the river, up a hill into the forest, where, as usual, deep snow made the going tough, we saw a flock of more than forty black grouse, chattering and flying from tree to tree. Hans and his brother used to own all the land here, they had built a fishing cabin, which they had hardly used, and a substantial bridge across a rather scary and formidable creek to access further land. But the summer journey meant an hours drive just to get to the other side of the river and, even in winter with a snowmobile crossing of the Torne, it was far too cold to make the effort. Here, real wilderness began, the type of terrain one would need to cross to make it to the Apex.

The fishing cabin still looked brand new, but one of its corners, set high on raised blocks had come askew. It looked as if it might topple over any moment. In front of the cabin, down a slope was the bridge, covered in snow and almost lost to sight.  It had no side rails and the edges no definition but, having crossed before, I knew it could be done. Below it, the creek, so fast that the ice hadn’t set solid in many places and where it had, one could hear the gurgle of the rush beneath.  One winter I had snow-shoed along this creek, the water being low and the March sun gently melting the surface of the ice, before the night froze it rock hard once again. This combination of melt and freeze makes for perfect cross-county ski conditions. But, even then, there were patches of open moving water. Now, with the water level so high, it just looked impossible to cross without the bridge; besides, it was still January: all day twilight and zero sunlight warmth. But we had already learned a thing or two, enough I thought, to give one audacious, daring shot.

Acoss the bridge, no more that one hundred metres upstream, was a pool, perhaps thirty five feet wide with midstream reindeer tracks heading towards the bridge, before turning back to land. A good spot to start. I was waist deep in snow, digging out the marshy creek bank. I found the ice, hit hard three times and seeing a tiny amount of water proceed on and out into the creek. We took turns. One went ahead, shovelled to full stretch, the other went forward using the Tooq. We swapped around a few times, nearly got to the opposite bank before deciding that the job was done. The ice was very thick and in layers, so if any water showed and we hit down again, there seemed to be another layer of ice below. I had read about this layering and it gave me confidence. However it was a pretty scary undertaking, one where adrenaline took control.

Only back on the bank, calming down, did we both realise what had happened. We were absolute freezing. The Tooq was steel, the day really cold, perhaps near minus 30, I don’t know, and our finger gloves, now useless. We both had the same gloves. They had given us trouble at minus twenty while skiing for six or so hours. That day, we kept having to stop and warm our fingers up. Guide gloves, dangerously rated down to minus twenty nine, but really only useful for extended periods in minus fifteen, tops. Holding and wielding a freezing steel tube, compressed the gloves, leaching all the stored heat, and we both ended up having ice particles on the inside of the gloves, most probably from where our sweat had frozen, but I wasn’t sure of that. We hardly spoke, both having trouble clipping into our skis in the ridiculously deep snow, changing our gloves to anything other what we were wearing, woolen mitts in my case, as fast as we could, which wasn’t very fast at all. TLTM had frozen toes, his fingers really cold too; I had frozen forefingers and thumbs. TLTM managed to fit chemical hand warmers in his gloves and boots. I started moving, my left-hand forefinger feeling lumpy, as if wrapped in an exceedingly tight bandage and, when I touched it with my right hand, it didn’t feel as if it belonged to me. Having worked in the Nepal’s Himalayas, having experienced frost nip, both on hands and feet, I knew this was fast heading past that point to frostbite. I just kept banging my hands together and, when he could function properly again, TLTM gave me some hand warmers. They kept the frostbite at bay but not the frost nip: on both hands, the tips of my forefingers and thumbs went numb and tingled for weeks. At least it was only temporary. TLTM had the same in all his toes, his big toes suffering the most. We didn’t stop moving and, after we arrived back at the farm some hours later, we could finally afford to laugh at our predicament. We  had already nicknamed the infamous gloves, Dud Diamonds: avoid these imposters at all costs. I have relegated mine to backyard work. Freezer gloves, tested on metal to very low temperatures, is what we needed, along with a pair of heavy down insulated mitts. We had learned something, but almost at a heavy price.

One thing realised: in these conditions, when gloves or mitts come off to do a fiddly task, one’s hands completely freeze. Gloves only retain heat, they don’t produce heat. The rule: never take your gloves off, and make sure you have the right gloves or mitts for whatever task’s at hand. Testing things to the extreme, their limit, is where this obvious knowledge comes from. I did have mitts with me but as they were so clumsy with the Tooq, I had left them at the house. On reflection, I’d take clumsy any day.

We had other cold day epics, but nothing as extreme as this number three Tooq experience. I also knew I’d have to have a new Tooq made, one of carbon fibre with a hardened steel tip; now, that does sound complicated. another job for Ricky.

Attempt 4.

On our very last day together TLTM and I headed to the fishing cabin creek, except this spot was further downstream, towards it’s confluence with the Torne. We had come across this spot on a long day’s ski trip, noticing ropes coiled around a tree branch right next to the creek. Although the creek was wide here, it also had a cleared path right to the water’s edge. In summer, it transpired, a small barge was hauled across, probably only to access a cabin, as there was nothing out there except for trees. I figured that the water here was slow and deep, perfect for thick strong ice to form, yet there were no signs of any snowmobiles or animals having crossed. We crossed the creek, our fourth experience, successfully. The temperature had warmed and we had no trouble with our mitts (the Dud Diamonds having been banished, abandoned at the farm). Although the snow was very deep and insulating, the ice was near hard as concrete. In fact, it actually started blunting the steel tip of the Tooq. Even after three substantial whacks no water showed and we barely dented its surface. On the other side the snow was soft. Sinking to our knees, progress was at a snail’s pace. It was here we decided that to pull a pulk in such conditions would necessitate cutting a ski track beforehand; going ahead without the pulk for a kilometre or more, returning to pull the pulk through this ready made track. Ease the suffering somewhat, we thought.

Daunting indeed.

The Apex

During our time of skiing and crossing creeks, we understood the gear, equipment, food that we would need and, most importantly, the actual route itself. Not an easy task because we couldn’t actually do the route on a reconnaissance, just get a feel of what was possible. TLTM was an ace with mapping and between the two of us we devised a pretty good route, avoiding as many creeks as possible, although there would still be plenty, and minimising the uphill struggles and steep descents, which I knew a rope would come in handy. But, although a route was finally mapped out on Google Earth, we had no real idea of what it looked like, might entail. The map was fantasy; we needed to have a look.

We decided to visit the Apex, a long isolated three hundred kilometre drive on desolate snow roads through Sweden and Finland. That would be a very long day with stops. We left early, wanting to visit Lannavaara, a village we would encounter about ten days into our proposed route, that had a shop for possible resupply, but, more crucially, a wide river crossing on the Lainio that we wanted to see. Could we get across?

The shop was perfect, we could drop off supplies and fuel before the trip. The river crossing was a total shock: the river had a crossing point, just like the fishing cabin creek, with ropes, but the barge sitting on the bank was huge, cars could be taken across. And now, in dead of winter a sign read that a maximum of seven tonnes could be driven across, yes driven across! The river ice had huge tyre tread marks. And we had been worried!

We worked out our proposed route through the village heading north, before proceeding on our way. It was very cold. The car needed the heater on full blast, not only for us but also to keep the windscreen clear. As the car warmed, the engine temperature dropped until the needle went down to absolute minimum. The car was bound to stall, cut out at any time, so we turned the heater off, waiting for the engine temperature to rise to normal once again. We froze and wiped a misted screen, until we were able to turn the heater back, watching and waiting for the needle to drop back down, yet again. We repeated this for the whole six hundred kilometres, but at least it worked.

The outside temperature reading in the car, that day.

The drive was flat, endless white with tree covered verges. We saw nothing. Stopping by the entrance of a small well plowed track, a track we would have to ski along, we read some important information from some pristine looking signs: Esrange Space Centre. A government rocket launch site, only accessible during rocket launch free days. Fortunately, that’s most of the year.  It a semi-restricted mountain wilderness where a satellite launch might fail and crash. Certainly no one lived here.

So far, so good, but we had yet to get a view.

Before driving off, we witnessed two fearless ravens, relentlessly harassing a large, red bushy tailed fox, warily scuttering across the road. Both interested, no doubt, in the same reindeer road kill; it’s always about the food.

Being used to seeing dense forest set in white, when we did get the view we had been hoping for, it was quite a shock; in fact, a splendid shock. Nearing the Finnish border, where the desolate highway turns north towards Kilpisjarvi, our final destination, we had unrestricted views of the mountains, their tops and slopes devoid of trees, and a vast flat expanse covered in birch trees, the only tree that grows at these latitudes. We started to understand the maps, the committing length of this arduous journey. TLTM was worried about the density of the birch; I was more concerned about the creeks. I needed to become friends with this Beast, take a slow approach and not push luck in any way. The Beast and I would have to have an otherworldly understanding.

To avoid TLTM thinking I was barking mad, I kept this to myself.

Kilpisjarvi is a small resort set along the eastern shore of a huge lake, frozen solid to five feet thick in winter. All around are small mountains. It immediately reminded me of a miniature version of Gokyo, a village in the Everest region of Nepal. Across the lake and out of view, the Apex, the point where Finland, Norway and Sweden meet.

At the only restaurant in town, taking in the lakeside views, we drank a cup of coffee and ate tasteless veggie burger buns served with over salted sweet potato fries. After our simple home cooked meals back at the farm, it was an affront.

We had driven the route in three and a half hours. With skis and pulk, it may take near a month, maybe more. The hills are high, the forest thick and, no doubt, the snow extremely deep. Add to that, daily creek crossings and ice cold air, we would have quite a task to undertake. Between the Esrange track and a large river running parallel along the Swedish/Finnish border north to south, that we would need to follow to the Apex, were steep and dangerous looking  forest mountain slopes that we would need to get across. But the map had shown a valley that seemingly avoided the worst of them. We weren’t that sure what was out there, but now, at least, had visuals on our rather gutsy plan. With nothing left to do, we drove in darkness back to the farm.

Green Lights and a Broken Boot

Before TLTM concluded this trip and flew back home, he had wanted to see the Northern Lights. For many hours he had stood in the freezing cold, under a black, star studded arctic sky. To no avail. I had tried to watch and wait alongside but the cold always drove me back inside. The times I had actually witnessed these amazing displays were just by chance, as random luck always seems to play its part. I’d seen the sky completely green, from horizon to the top, three hundred and sixty degrees around: nothing but green, as if standing in a green translucent goldfish bowl. Also, dancing pink and green, like strobe lights or the dizzy shimmer of a shifting mirage. Indescribable. But one thing is for sure, if you’re not outside at night, a lot, your chances dwindle down to nearly none. He didn’t see them, but he sure had done his best.

On one clear night under a bright full moon, we skied for hours. With no need for head torches, snow crystals sparkled in the moonlight. The only sound, the slow shuffle crunch of sliding skis. Having already clocked up more than two hundred kilometres of deep snow skiing, this was TLTM’s finest moment, he declared.

Before TLTM left for home, we visited a friend of his, staying in Kiruna. A compression diver, who obviously liked extremes, having won a record for a solo row across the Atlantic, now training on the frozen Torne river, with a pulk, for a one thousand mile race across Alaska in the winter. I asked him how much rowing experience he had undertaken before his heroic Atlantic feat: none, he said. Some people are just the perfect specimen.

TLTM left, and I met a friend who was coming out for a two week ski holiday, with me. She was fresh and I tired, near fed up with skiing, but my friend was fun and I soon felt energised again. We skied many routes that TLTM and I had done, except no creek crossings unless via bridges or the Torne where I knew it safe. Going slow, with no agenda, we saw a lot of wildlife: more foxes; capercaillies, which sat in snow holes, wings spread out, ready for a get away; moose and reindeer; black squirrels and arctic voles that dived nose first into snow to quickly disappear. One treat was a close up of a pair of Siberian jays. An interesting observation were the magpies: they survive in minus forty and, with the ground waist deep in snow, hell knows what they eat.

And a funny thing: lying in bed one dark night, I looked out the window to see nothing but green; it filled the entire night sky. I didn’t bother getting up to have a better look, as it was the perfect view.

Four days before we caught the plane home, my ski boot broke, way out near the fishing cabin creek. The sole near tore off the boot, it held together long enough to get me to the farm. A manufacturing fault: I was later given a replacement, no questions even asked. Now, that meant staying at the farm or following my friend’s ski tracks in a pair of inappropriate hiking boots. No competition, it was slow and hilariously funny, sinking, struggling to get out of deep holes, my toes chilly to the point of numb, but they never tingled. Obviously we never went that far, but we did have fun.

Broken cross country ski boot, Torne river, Arctic Sweden
My broken ski boot.

Hans and his brother gave us a lift back to Kiruna as I had relinquished the car when TLTM left. They said they would help in any way they could to make The Beast reality. In fact, that term was from Hans: he had said this trip would be an extremely tough beast.

TLTM texted me: he was out, this pulk trip was not for him. I don’t know why, he didn’t tell and I never asked. A no is a no, right, but of course he wasn’t coming, he’s not mad or out to lunch and I never heard him howl at midnight.

Back to square one? No way, the reconnaissance was perfect. I had learned a lot and, in part, have TLTM to thank for that.

Now, let’s see what karma blows my way. For the next trip, is anybody out there?

Get in touch by Contact Form if interested – your costs only.

Your Review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Rate this by clicking on a star below: *