Mountain ski tours for non-skiers

Also available translated to German.

People have been trying to persuade me to write up reports of some of my skiing tours, but being pretty new to the sport I wondered what I could possibly have to offer compared to all the good advice available out there from experienced outdoorsmen. Then I realised the edge that I have - inexperience. 18 months ago the longest I had skied in one day was 3km to work and back, and before making the big step to skiing to a lake 10km away I checked the bus timetable in case I couldn't make it back. But last month I skied 300km in northern Lappland, and already have ideas for next year's tour. I am no great athlete, have a desk job, and didn't really touch sports until I was over 30. So, perhaps what I can offer is encouragement to people who are intimidated by the idea of mountain ski tours by describing my transition from sceptical non-skier to rabid arctic-trail enthusiast. If you like the outdoors and hike in the summer, then you will almost certainly enjoy winter cabin tours. Winter camping is something else, and in order to establish my credibility I'll tell you that I think winter campers are crazy. This year at least. Maybe next year I'll be extolling the virtures of snow caves, but somehow I doubt it. I don't like the cold.

I am an Englishman transplanted to southern Sweden, and my first experience of cross-country skiing was a few years ago when I visited a forester in Lappland who lent me a pair of his skis. Imagine a huge Swedish forest worker. Imagine his skis. Now imagine a 170cm chemist with these on his feet. Funny, isn't it ? Not for me, it wasn't, as they were so stiff that I couldn't tramp down hard enough to reach the ground and use the grip wax to propel me forward, so I had to use 'skating' technique, except that they were incredibly long too, so I just trod on the other ski each stroke. I ended up propelling myself with my poles, which is extremely tiring and painful. My final memory of that day is losing control down a slight incline and straddling a tree in a way that I learned from cartoons. Again the skis were too long to manoeuver them both to the same side of the tree, and each attempt ended in another hugging of the tree. I'm sure my friend would have helped if he could have stopped laughing. My first lesson - get skis with the right length and stiffness for your body. This I did a couple of years later with the intention of skiing to work once, just so that I could drop the phrase "while I was skiing to work" to my friends back home. But then it became a challenge to master the rhythm of track skis, and I continued to clock up the kilometers because I never did. But I did discover that skis could take me places that would be difficult on foot, and that especially with a heavy pack one doesn't really need to ski so much as walk with skis on one's feet. My second lesson - Skiing well is reasonably difficult, and not really fun in its own right, but even bad cross-country skiing is a useful transport form.

A dream started to develop - could I one day do the unthinkable and go on an overnight ski tour ? No, surely not, but maybe I'll keep pushing the envelope just in case. I skied 10km in a day, repeatedly, and seemed to survive. I skied to the lake 10km away and didn't take the bus back. Wow ! That's further than the distance between the cabins on the trails. OK, it was one isolated trip with a minimal pack and a nice comfortable house to come back to, but it was a breakthrough. I asked my Swedish friends what they thought about the idea of me doing a mountain tour. "You will probably die" said half of them; "Oh I wish I could join you" said the others (I don't know if there was an implicit "because otherwise you will probably die" in there). I felt that this was my only chance to break into this sport - I was unemployed and had the time and energy to train and plan properly. It was hard to imagine finding the dedication I would need in later years with a job, so it was now or never. I read everything there was to read on the subject, pestered my friends for information, and one night slept out in the snow with just my sleeping bag, cover and foam pad to convince myself that I would survive if it came to that. With a winter bag and balaclava it was no colder than many nights I've spent summer hiking with light equipment. It certainly wasn't toasty, but if you've any experience of camping, I'm sure you've been colder some nasty night. I've hardly ever been cold skiing either, nowhere near as often as I've been cold in the summer when for some reason I've not had down jackets and balaclavas to hand. My third lesson - with appropriate equipment and behaviour cold need be no more of a problem on winter tours than on summer tours (unless you're reading this in Hawaii). And you have to be very unlucky to meet that worst of heat sinks, rain. Things stay dry in the winter, except when they are close to your body. OK, so I know that people freeze to death in the mountains every year. I don't mean to imply that this is a risk-free activity, just that if you think carefully about the risks you're taking, and behave sensibly, you're safer than if you stay home and drive on the motorway. Temper this encouragement by reading the tour reports that follow, which also describe some of the tougher conditions that I experienced. There's no doubt it get's nasty out there, but if you are prepared to sit it out when the weather is bad or threatens to be bad, you'll be fine.

But still I was unsure, until I called a friend up north. "Will I die if I ski in Lappland ?" I asked. "Tarredalen" said Brita. Swedes often make funny noises when you ask them questions (it's called Swedish), but this one I hadn't heard before. She explained that death was easy to avoid in Tarredalen, as it's a deep valley on Padjelantaleden, protected from the worst of the weather, with closely-spaced, manned cabins, and to get lost I would have to accidentally climb several hundred metres in rather less horizontal distance. The first 40km are below tree line. Better still, I could stay with them a bus ride away from the starting point in Kvikkjokk waiting for an appropriate weather window for my 4-day trip.

I was convinced. I started assembling my kit, thinking through eventualities and throwing in extra stuff until I reached 15kg, my personal weight limit for a pack. Amazingly that kit turned out to be perfect for me, and my current equipment list is hardly altered from that original. The extra 5kg you will find quoted in the list is accounted for by such things as filling my water bottles and stocking up on chocolate on the train. Some macho types travel with 10kg; listen to them too and decide how much of my extra stuff you're prepared to do without. Equipment lists are so personal, but I think it's worth a few extra kilos to not worry about being caught out by unexpected bad weather or equipment failure, and to be able to safely carry on moving while the 10kg-guys get stuck in a cabin for another day. There is no virtue in being miserable and uncomfortable on the trail, and looking after yourself and carrying 'luxuries' means that you can travel that much further before reaching your limits, wherever they may be. It also means that you don't end up scrounging stuff of your better-equipped friends, and leaving them without their planned margin.

My track skis were too narrow for deep snow, so I bought a pair of beautiful wooden army officer's skis from a second-hand shop for $10, and had a quick education in taring and waxing such antiques.

I was ready. 15 hours on the train and I was in Jokkmokk, practicing falling over in deep snow with 20kg on my back. No-one tells you about this - I read every idiot's guide to skiing available, and not one mentioned that recovering from being upside down in even 1 metre of snow is difficult, and even when you are the right way up, getting your skis up to waist height and continuing is amazingly hard. I have no secret answer (though I bet someone out there does), but a tight-fitting backpack is essential for stability, and if as part of your recovery you take your skis off, don't let them glide away, as walking or swimming in such snow doesn't get you far. I learned a little more. Now all I needed was a good weather forecast before hitting Tarredalen.

© Mark Harris 1997

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