Ski report from winter camping in Lappland, April 1998

Also available translated to German.

If you want the background to these stories, see the introduction.

Photographs are included in this text, but if you prefer you can look at the photos separately in the gallery.

If you read the introduction to these reports you may remember that I asserted that winter campers are crazy. This was a heart-felt belief, but deep down inside me there is a little scientist that likes to have evidence on which to base beliefs, and so this year I found myself (or was it that little scientist ?) inviting myself on a winter tent tour with some friends that I met last year in a cabin in Nallo. They live in Kiruna, and are out in the mountains every weekend, so I felt totally confident that with their experience they would somehow see to it that I came back alive. Or at least came back. But still I found myself sleeping very badly the night before they picked me up and drove me off to Katterjåkk, where we parked the car and loaded our stuff, the others with 20kg packs, me with my home-made sled.

We headed north over the lake in -10C sun, and just enough wind that we stopped every 10 minutes to put on or take off our jackets. In the south were ominous clouds that pretended not to be advancing on us.

It was Easter Thursday and we were 5km from the Norwegian border, which explained the heavy scooter traffic. Not only were a lot of Swedes on holiday, but all the Norwegian riders were escaping the heavy restrictions on scooter traffic in their country. There have always been scooters around when I've skied up here, and it's never really bothered me, indeed it is quite comforting to have the odd responsible rider go by. But this day was something else, with dozens of recklessly-driven machines circling aimlessly. One missed Åsa by about a metre as it came round a blind bend on a hill.

Our goal was Japmajaure, 15km due north, still in Sweden, and our route took us over 2 steep hills, which were only a slight problem on the way out but I dreaded to think what they would be like after 3 or 4 nights in a tent. As we topped the first one, Åsa revealed that she'd never winter camped before, and as we topped the second the ominous clouds arrived with a delivery of snow for us, and visibility dropped to a few metres. I had trouble following the track, and wondered if I'd lose the others. I hoped there was no third hill. But then it cleared again, and by the time we reached the lake it was a beautiful evening.

First night camping at Japmajaure First morning camping at Japmajaure We set up two tents on the north west corner, hoping for some protection from the wind there, and also built some walls from blocks of snow. I learned that positioning these walls is a bit of an art form, because if the wall is too close, it will cause a drift to fall on the tent, and if it is too far away the wind can get around it. The optimal distance depends on the strength of wind expected, the height of the wall, and the colour of your underwear that day. Over the weekend I spent a lot of time extending the walls in order to keep warm when otherwise immobile around camp. I also spent a lot of time checking that my water bottles got emptied before they froze, as the only practical way to make them usable again would be to sleep with them. Brrrr.

Anders and Johan cooked us a wonderful dinner and then the four of us squeezed into one 3-man tent for a cosy evening with thermos-cocoa. My anxieties started to subside as our body heat took the temperature in the tent above zero, and I relaxed with these lovely people whom I hardly knew except for what I had gleaned from one day in Nallo and irregular email exchange.

Towards Naevertind Towards Naevertind, looking back to Isvatnet I was still wearing the same clothes that I'd been skiing in because they would have frozen if I'd taken them off, but I was surprised to find that even relatively inactive at -10C they had eventually dried on my body, and even my boots seemed to be dry enough that I didn't need to sleep with them in my bag.

I slept lightly, more because I was uncomfortable on the hard mattress that I'd borrowed than because of the cold, and I was very glad when nobody stirred until 10 o'clock, by which time I was well rested and the sun had warmed up the tent a lot.

I was very glad for the sun as I'd discovered that you shouldn't dive down your sleeping bag to keep warm when it's below zero, as your breath condenses and freezes in the fabric of the bag. A couple of hours under the sun on the dark green tent in the dry air dried it out well. I'd got lucky. We had a quick breakfast, which takes 2 hours on a winter camp. Melting enough snow for tea, porridge, and thermoses for the day for 4 people takes a loooong time even with 3 stoves of various efficiencies. To keep my toes warm I built up the wind walls while the others did more skilled tasks.

Towards Naevertind 100m under Naevertind At 12 we set off for Naevertind, 900m above us and 10km away. I felt strong and confident as we climbed the first, steep, 300m up to Isvatnet. It was -10C again, still and cloudless, with 20cm new snow. Conditions couldn't be better. The couple of kilometers across the lake was sheer pleasure, with the magnificent twin peaks of the tind luring us on.

Then it was a long, slow, 4km to gain the next 500m, but no-one minded since everything was so perfect. And for me it was the first day of the season that I wasn't dragging a sled behind me. I savoured the thought of being able to put all of my telemark training to use in the first real tele conditions I'd ever seen - kilometers of 10-15 degree slopes covered with untouched new snow. Wheeeee!

On top of Naevertind Ofotfjorden from Naevertind We lunched under the first peak at 4pm, and realised that we would have to hurry if we were to get back and eat dinner before it got dark (and cold). I almost backed out of the last 50m climb, wanting to save my now minimal energy to practice my downhill technique, but then realised that I would never forgive myself if I did, and followed up to the top. And what a view - east to beyond Låktatjåkka, west to Rombak and the Ofot fjord, north to something impressive that was off our map.

Unfortunately we couldn't afford to linger there, nor could I take the perfect slopes home as thoughtfully as I would have liked, but it turned out that I still haven't got the hang of the technique anyway, so I left wide, vacillating arcs alongside my friends' neat little S's. View from Naevertind The camp site after visitors I must remember to move to Kiruna. We got down in 1 1/2 hours, to find our camp site had been visited by dozens of scooters that had meticulously ravaged every square metre of beautiful new snow. It was such a pity when we should have been able to sit by our tents and contemplate the beauty and peace of being 15km from the nearest road, but that was hard to do with all the vestiges of aggresive driving around us.

I added to the wind walls while the others cooked, slightly peeved that we had not yet had any wind. That night I stuck my face out of my sleeping bag to avoid the frost problem, but the air was uncomfortably cold to breath, and by the morning I felt tired and weak, though that might just as well have been due to too many exhausting days in a row. Anders' hand was swollen too, so while Åsa and Johan bagged the top of Päivektjåkka, we stopped half way and took a very long and pleasant lunch, trying to identify Hunddalen 30km away.

The view south from Päivektjåkka Towards the top of Päivektjåkka Then I dozed in the tent for an hour and felt stronger. We had another fun evening in the tent, and realised that we had to leave the next day if I were to be sure of catching my train the following day. When we went back to our own tent I found that my boots had frozen solid, presumably because I had been less active that evening, and I had to shuffle across with just my toes poked in the tops. But still I chose not to get a worse night's sleep through the discomfort of sleeping with them, and prayed for another sunny morning. And since we were heading back to civilisation, I let myself curl up in my sleeping bag again, since it could dry back at their flat. The sun came up around 6, and by 9 my boots were usable again and I could potter around camp with no hat or gloves. At 10 I idly looked at the thermometer, which read -20C ! How cold had it been at dawn ? It must have been at least -25, and we later heard that it had been -30 in Nikkaluokta. It was good to have survived such temperatures in a tent, but I realised that the clear, still air meant everything, and I still can't imagine how awful winter camping would be in damp or windy conditions.

The trip home was unremarkable except for the incredible weather, which turned to damp, grey and miserable the very next day. Nice timing. I survived the hills, and I didn't get hit by any scooters.

So do I still think winter campers are crazy ? Yes. We had a great trip, but only because we were lucky with conditions. I have still to find out what real winter camping is like...

© Mark Harris 1998

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