Skiing the Kingstrail

The most well-known poets already had the idea that it is not beauty we seek most in Nature but something which evokes more powerful emotions and is therefore worth writing about. They called it the Sublime – a state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. Looking at Mt Blanc or the darkening lakes of the Lake District, they would relish experiencing a pleasing fear, a pervasive darkness and infinite emptiness.

 

You don’t have to be a Byron or a Wordsworth to have this kind of experience.

 

Our guide, Jamie, had already shared his insights on the first day – ‘I hope we get sunshine and some bad weather. People always remember the bad weather days the best.’ We were doubtful then, but with a bit of hindsight, he was right, of course.

Starting from this premise, the worst day of the expedition was also the best. I still remember every moment of it vividly –  the freezing cold, lashing winds and darkening sky. But instead of writing an ill-phrased Ode, I’ll share what I’ve learned from this experience – and let Lord Byron do the ‘flowery’ lines:

 

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

 

(Darkness, Lord Byron)

 

This sounds about right for the moment we emerged from the white clouds and spindrift on the frozen lake and skied towards the huts on top of a small hill, faintly silhouetted against a darkening sky. To the left were a few distant lights of a small Sami village.

Before that, we had edged our way across a sloping traverse whilst spindrift and relentless wind battled us and caused the sides of our faces to go numb. Philippe was proud of his icicle-covered balaclava and frozen beard, but the state of his face got more worrying as time went on and the wind did not cease. We had already spent a good four hours in temperatures of minus 20 and high winds.

The lake stretched out for miles in front and it was hard to make out the scale of it as the edges were blurred by darkness. It may, in fact, have been the promise of ‘infinite emptiness’ that lured the 8 people in our team to come out here into the cold of Northern Sweden. This was the second day on the Kingstrail and we were making our way to the Alesjaure hut.

I had seen many bad weather days as a child as my parents used to take us to a small wind-blown island in the German Sea and I had clung to my father’s hand, head down, drifting sand lashing our faces. ‘Give me more’ I thought defiantly as we left the side of the mountain and emerged onto a wide open plain, probably a frozen lake. We could see white fog lingering in front of us, whilst the light was dimming all around. ‘Let’s get to the huts before the dark’ had been Jamie’s urging instruction. I watched as the two figures in front and their pulks got swallowed by the cloud and rushed to catch up.

The temperatures were so low that my skins did not stick properly to my skis and we had to stop and try to put them back on twice. Not an easy task in the strong wind. The skins were snapping in the gusts like a whip and I desperately clutched on to them. Adjusting layers was nearly impossible, re-fuelling with energy was limited to sticking a hand in my trouser pockets and producing some frozen jelly sweets, and when I stopped to put on my big down jacket it was flapping behind me in the wind like a big orange bird before I managed to stick both arms in and close the zip. The thought of losing an essential item of equipment in the wind was terrifying. It’s great when a piece of kit is really working, I thought happily, as the gloves were tugging at my arms trying to get away but held firmly by the wrist loops.

By that time, I had produced a micro-climate behind my face mask which I kept from freezing by blowing warm air into it. The humidity around my face was as high as in a rainforest, sealed in by three layers of firmly zipped hoods. Jamie, skiing in front was an expert in micro-climates – his Fjallraven hat and fur-lined jacket hood protected his whole face and his breath warmed up the inside. For my next polar expedition I would definitely invest in a proper furry hat.

After 23kms and a solid 10 hours of skiing we reached the cold deserted huts. They had an air of ’30 days of night’ about them, or any other dystopian film you can think of. One room we nicknamed the ‘Rain Room’ since, as we lit a fire in there, the ceiling starting dripping as a crusted layer of snow and ice slowly melted.

All is well that ends well – with some effort Jamie managed to heat up our bedroom so much that the chimney was sending red sparks up into the air and the heat melted the snow on the roof around it.

‘Managing yourself in the cold’ – I had read this phrase a lot before this expedition and until then I did not fully grasp its meaning. Surely, you’d just wear warm clothes? Nope – it actually means wearing warm clothes at the right time. You have to operate just under the sweat level, as any sweat will make your layers wet and in the worst case ices up the insides of your jackets. So, a lot of time is spent managing your body temperature relative to the work you do and the temperatures outside.

It’s also not just your jackets which you have to adjust. I discovered that hands and head require a lot of work and the same rules of moisture and warmth apply to them. I struggled the most with my hands as they got cold really quickly. Some tasks I could perform wearing big mitts, like zipping up the pulk and eating biscuits, but for others I needed bare hands. It’s essential to know how long you can freeze your hands for before you have to stop what you are doing and devote some attention to warming them up again. Whilst skiing, and once my core warmed up, I found that the big Hestra gloves I was wearing quickly got too hot. I had to take them off every few paces to avoid moisture building up inside, as you don’t want your big emergency gloves to be wet! The other gloves I had were too tight as Jamie pointed out – you need gloves that allow more room for air to warm up inside. So – better gloves are also on the list for the next expedition.

Operating in the cold also means picking the right moments for re-fuelling with food. We could often predict the bad weather patches on our route, as it was possible to spot the white spindrift long distances ahead of us. It made sense to stop before we entered those valleys and have a lunch break in better weather, even if we didn’t feel that hungry yet.

We also picked up quickly that our bodies were a heat source for keeping essential items of kit warm. The skins for our skis would be stuffed down the front of our base-layers to make sure the glue remained sticky. Same with any food that you did not want to freeze.

So – operating in the cold is about more than just putting on an extra jacket…!

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