Our first IWG winter expedition would be a 6 day ski trip to Syöte National park. Syöte sits in the centre of Finland just below Lapland, but the area is known to have some of the most snowfall in Finland.
The lead up to the trip was all a bit hectic, with lots of other school work plus a overnight customer gig the week before packing wasn't its usual organised self...well that was my excuse for the 3am 'Where the hell is my.....' insert most essential things for any trip here. To be honest however organised I am there's always a late night panic the night before. It's all part of the excitement.
For this trip, not only myself but the rest of the group seemed to be much more relaxed about it all. Yes, it would be colder but we'd learnt a lot in Russia, we knew the drill now and we were staying in Finland so it didn't seem as tense I guess beforehand.
The art of the forest ski
For our trip we would be using the schools forest skis. Now for most people, even some Finns these were a new thing. The ski type have been around for years, they're perfect for Finnish landscapes (forests!) They're super long around 280cm, pretty wide and have a super soft tip which always floats on top of the snow. We use old school bindings which needed a specific boot to fit into. This lead to my second purchase of a pair of rubber boots in less than 4 months...but these aren't your bog standard wellies. These are the heaviest, warmest, clunkiest but somehow magnificent pair of rubber i'll ever own. Like the forest skis the sceptical opinion soon turns into a secret love affair.
With a lot more gear than the last time, skis, sleds, big cooking gear. The packing and unpacking was a mega faff. Sometimes with around 16 of us all hustling around it gets so chaotic but it does get smoother each time.
We created a basecamp for the week just off Kouvanjärvi (a lake) but we as we arrived pretty late the first night we just pitched our shelters up in the forest next to the vans. By the time we'd unloaded the trailers it was pitch black, so my camp setup was of the 'it'll do' variety. As I melted further into the ground discovering small spruce trees under my so called bed I was fairly happy when my alarm went off at 5:30am. I would be the daily guide with Maria and It was our job to run the whole day...starting with breakfast.
Daily guide duties
5:30am Wake up the rabble (never with a whistle...it will provoke too much anger)
5:45am Start fire get breakfast on the go, on the menu was porridge, eggs, bacon, bread and of course tea and coffee. That doesn't sound so bad, but then you realise you have to feed about 15 people, get it all ready on time, at the same time, clean up, take down your own camp and pack ready for the day...which you are leading so you should probably be prepared and early.
- oh fuck.
6:00am the pots don't all fit on the rack! how much porridge does 18 people eat? where has my knife gone? Shit burnt my gloves again! Is this vegan...Maria this is in Finnish is this butter vegan? Ahhh shit the eggs are burning...and were running out of firewood.
So yeah lets just say breakfast was just a tad crazy. What makes it worse is that every few minutes the group around watching you gets bigger and hungrier and your 'kitchen' gets smaller and smaller.
Miraculously just after 9am were all washed up, packed and ready to go. The first stretch was a nice ski along the lake. For this trip we had a number of different sledges that we would be using to haul all the gear to our basecamp, and test out during the week to get used to the different sled types.
9:30am Unzipping every vent possible on me, chucking off my hat, buff and gloves. Anything to cool me down. This was tough going. Maria was guiding the first section of the day so I offered to take her backpack in my sled, as well as numerous other gear for the basecamp. It took me 4 attempts to even get the thing moving, so despite my usual competitive nature I was trudging slowly at the back wondering how the hell I was ever going to drag this thing up a hill. If it was this hard on a flat frozen lake then maybe this week wouldn't be a walk in the park!
11:30am We arrived at our basecamp, a beautiful lakeside spot with a laavu we could treat as our kitchen for the week. We loaded the gear and soon it was time to make lunch. Thankfully it was less of a nightmare than breakfast, and as everyone was up setting up their camp we had space to prepare everything.
12:30pm With lunch over It suddenly dawned on me, 'crap I'm guiding us somewhere now and I haven't even seen the map!'
1:00pm Map in hand, everyone back on their skis and ready to go we set off for our 8km route to a hill just south of our basecamp called Rytivaara. Being the first guide is always a bit hard because everything is completely new, you've got no experience yet so a lot of mistakes are made.
Only a few hundred meters from the lake I learnt one of the most important lessons of the week. The sleds have the turning circle of a small truck, so whichever route you choose you've really got to consider the sledges because they're a bloody pain in the arse to move so the straighter you can go the better.
3.00pm The going so far had been pretty slow, the sledges really slowed down the pace and any sort of hill really was quite a challenge. The skis are great on the flats but on any sort of incline you really had to try and find the grip on the skis. Using a combo of your leg and arm muscles to power your way to the top, swearing and grunting normally helps.
4.30pm It had taken us about 3 hours to go about 3km, it was getting dark and we still had the hill to climb... judging by everyone at the back of the group hauling the sleds they weren't too impressed with me at that moment.
6.00pm We reached the top of the hill, greeted by a friendly Finnish couple who were staying in a cabin at the top, after reluctantly refusing their offer of a sauna we turned round and started our 4km journey back.
7.00pm Head lights on, we followed our tracks the 4km back to our basecamp. It was so awesome to go downhill, after such a gruelling climb up it's funny how you easily forget the struggle and the smile spreads across your face. The track was nice and hard, and being the first person at the front I was enjoying the ride a bit too much because as I looked behind the only light I could see was of my tutor Mikko behind me. So we turned our headlamps off and enjoyed the silence whilst we waited for the rest of the pack to join us.
8.00pm With it being mostly downhill we were back to the basecamp in half the time. Happy that i'd gotten everybody to the intended destination and back safely, it was time for dinner!
9.00pm Time to setup my camp....
10.00pm... In winter this takes quite a bit longer. Stamping the snow down so its not just fluffy power.
Thankfully we were fairly lucky with the weather, it didn't get colder than maybe -25 during the week and although it wasn't quite wall to wall blue skies it was pretty nice. The 3 weeks in Lapland has helped build my 'cold weather tolerance' but it did take a bit of getting used to not having a nice warm cabin to go back to at the end of the day.
Before going I tested my setup a few, I was a tad worried about freezing my ass off during the nights. So I had my down winter sleeping and thermal liner, with my bivy bag to try and hold in the heat. Then for insulation from the ground I would be using 2 camping mats, a thermarest AND a reindeer skin - my secret ingredient would my hot water bottle (some credit also goes to my Mum who is a big fan of the hot warty...even in summer!)
The first two nights were both a disorganised mess due to having little time to really set them up, but on the third day I finally had time to sculpt my bed from the snow. Fire roaring, I organised everything perfectly making sure to remember all my different layers. I did my 10 jumping jacks before getting into my sleeping bag, then with my hot water bottle filled I jumped inside.
....after a slightly disrupted nights sleep I awake to find my trusted hot water bottle - FROZEN!
As I sat that morning by the communal fire, tea in one hand and melting my block of solid hot water bottle in the other Markus joins the camp 'Sophie - you've never looked more British'
Well as it turns out, hot water bottles don't help keep you warm in -25. At least we all know that now - it also takes an incredibly long time to melt said bottle! Nightmare.
One of the best views we got was during our first full skiing day. It was the one of those views that just about makes up for the struggle made in order to get to it. For those few of us in the back of the pack that day pulling the slightly dreaded ancient wooden sledges we had a morning from hell. Dense, winding routes over countless ditches, it felt never ending. Just as you thought you'd dragged yourself over the worst of it you were greeted by a narrow climb just around the corner. Although I used every swear word under the English, Welsh and odd Finnish sun towards those damn wooden sledges I started to enjoy the struggle they created. The ridiculous moments they created were some of my highlights during the trip.
During the trip we had one rest day, we spent the morning moving our camps but the afternoon was dedicated to the creating a quinzee. So incase you don't know a quinzee is its a shelter that is made from a large pile of loose snow which is shaped then hollowed. This requires a shit load of snow...aka a shit load of shovelling. As a few of us wanted the chance to sleep in it we decided to make two. That was the first mistake.
So with about 4 of us on each quinzee we started the shovelling, we needed to make a pile about 2m high. It took us a fair few hours, even after trying to recruit a few others. By 7pm that night me had decent pile of snow, but we had to leave it for a few hours to set. After a big meal dinner everyones enthusiasm for the manual labour diminished and with only Jere, Sirpa and I still keen on trying to complete it we set about hollowing it out.
It was quite a tough job, we took it in turns to be the one going in to shovel, whilst the others tried to remove the snow from the door way. But the deeper you got the harder it was to get the snow out. A few hours passed and we were making some progress but with a mega ski day on the cards the next day both Sirpa and Jere thought it was best to get a decent nights sleep. Then there was one.
As it wasn't really safe to be hollowing out the quinzee on my own I sulked back to the fire to see if I could convince any one else to join me. Thankfully I bumped into Miia who said she's help for for an hour or so - the digging continued. It was quite sweaty work, and as half of the snow just seemed to land right down the back of my neck, I was pretty damp all over. Around 10pm Miia's headlight gave up, and it got fairly impossible to continue. But I vowed to myself that I would finish it the next day....even if it followed a 20km ski day.
The longest ski day ever!
With a big 20km route planned we knew it was a long ski day ahead of us, we took all of our cooking gear this time incase we needed to make our own lunch spot. So that meant pulling all the giant pots, firewood and food for 16 of us in our sleds.
After a day off It was nice to be back on the skis, even the sledge didn't feel too bad. Our skiing was improving quite rapidly so we were tacking the hills together well as a team. Although Jere's 'help' giving my sled a big shove normally resulted in me face planting the snow because of the unexpected jolt forward.
Suddenly after a few hours of undulating climbs, we were greeted with a beautiful landscape of snow covered trees. It was amazing, massive open snow fields, then winding through the fairytale trees.
The whole place was magical, you could just tell the mood of the group lifted. Everyone was just in awe of how stunning this place was. Landscapes like this have the ability to just make you feel very aware of how lucky you are, the silence and complete untouched essence of the nature is overpowering. We didn't care anymore how tired, or hungry we were or even if we were a bit lost.
A few hours later than planned we found our lunch spot, and it was one of the best spots I've ever enjoyed my lunch. I'm pretty sure anything tastes that good after 7 hours of skiing but the chicken cous cous we had just tasted incredible. We treated ourselves with a nice long lunch break, so as we went to leave the daylight was just about gone.
Some of the best skiing of the week was coming down from that cabin, big open snow fields lit just enough by our headlights. Skiing through the fresh snow, just going with the flow and floating on top. Hour after hour went by and slowly the thoughts of 'should we not be close now?' or 'ah it must just be about 30 minutes longer'. This went on for quite a few hours, I checked my watch 11pm...hmm we'd been skiing for 15 hours. I demolished the last of my snacks, and flask of earl grey tea thinking that we can't be far from our basecamp.
It wasn't until around 1.30am till we eventually got back to our basecamp. What a day. It had been long, and the base of my feet felt pretty sore but It was such a good day. The strength that each person has inside of them to just keep going is amazing. When you have no choice but to keep skiing you do - the body just keeps going. The only thing that makes it harder is your head, there was one moment when I let my head take over for an hour or so and everything just became so much heavier. But once I changed my mental attitude towards it, I sang my favourite song and learnt some good french phases for our current situation I was back on track. We learnt more on that single day, that probably the trip altogether.
I love these guys - all 14 of them. Although we only met 6 or so months ago the things we've experienced together has been so amazing. I've just had the most fun with them all and I am so lucky to get to share this year with such a lovely bunch of people. Each one of the expeditions have a completely different feel to it, and this one will forever just be the most enjoyable.
Unfortunately my poor quinzee never did get 100% finished, after about 16+ of skiing nobody seemed too keen to help me finish it. Instead we got to spent the final day jumping on the roof of it, it hurt somewhat as I thought about all the hours of shovelling, digging and stamping we did in order to even get to that point - but as we all fell simultaneously through the roof of my incomplete master piece I didn't care so much.