The infamous 'bear ski' trip, a 9 day self supported solo skiing trip to Hammastunuri wilderness (northern Lapland).
As mentioned in my previous post, I was beyond nervous and excited about this trip. In a way this was one of the big reasons I wanted to do the IWG course. To prove to myself that I was capable.
It was a loooooong drive up north, 934km to be exact. We were bashing it out in one day in order to get a nice early start on the first day. Jacked up on petrol station sugar and some questionable German techno I was overexcited for a remarkably uninteresting journey. After arriving to our destination in the early hours of the morning we spent some uncomfortable hours in the vans then woke at 5am to unpack our gear and load our sleds.
Running through the gear list in my head as I tetris packed my sled to perfection I was ready to go, even with my skis prematurely on. Then as I go to switch on my trusty little Nokia phone my heart sinks as I read 'Enter pin number'. I felt physically sick, that number was on the back on the sim card packet. Which was of course 934km back down south. As part of the planning group for this trip I knew the importance of having a phone that would last the whole trip. After the initial panic reaction thinking I wouldn't be allowed to go, I set about sorting the problem.
A few hours later and I got the best text ever. '3651 - enjoy the trip' I spent the next 2km repeating that number...I'm pretty sure all the other guys in the group could tell you what my pin number was. But I didn't care. It was happening, I was freeeeeee.
After a short lunch stop we were free to leave, it was around 10am and already pretty warm so those of us that had quite a way to go to our first spot headed off. One last salute to the group then it was just; me and the forest and a whole load of silence.
Each of us had drawn a route plan, at first I planned some big ski distances - figuring I would be happier skiing all day than sat in my own company. But a few factors made me scale it back, the reminder that we I'd still have to setup my camp each day; setup the shelter, collect firewood, chop firewood, cook dinner. So I shortened my distances down a bit.
Literally 500m after leaving everyone I came to a downhill section. As always my slight over confidence towards the situation landed me on my arse. Well actually it was more of a downward dog yoga pose, with a fully loaded sled wedging into my back. As I grappled for some support off my ski poles which just kept falling deeper into the snow and with one boot now completely off I worried that this was a bad sign of what was to come.
Thankfully that was actually one of the only times I fell over. However the next one would be much worse. But i'll get to that later.
I followed the river which was heading into a valley, it looked quite tempting but my compass needed me to go a different way. That direction happened to require me to go up quite a steep slope...and with my big fat sled I avoided biting the bullet for as long as possible. When I saw the faint lines of an old snowmobile track I decided this was the best it was going to get. I started my accent with 'speed' hoping I could get quite far up with a bit of momentum. But the slushy snow wasn't having any of it. So I turned 90 degrees and started side stepping my way up, awkwardly dragging my sled behind me.
Half way up, dripping with sweat already, wailing ' I regret my decision!!!' an unexpected reply came from Maria who was skiing down below 'Perhaps it'll be worth it' - she was forever an optimist. And at that moment I really hoped she was right.
After getting to the top, and taking off all my layers I ploughed on towards my first camping spot. I did a lot of talking to myself on that first ski stint. A mix of excitement and nerves were swirling around in my belly.
The snow has gotten really slushy in the afternoon, large sections of it would just drop when you were skiing so it made progress pretty slow. I reached my first camping point after a sweaty day of skiing, I chose my spot because it was right next to a huge dead fallen pine tree, so firewood wasn't a problem.
I set up my camp, trying to position it so I'd get a good sunset. Then collected a big pile of firewood and whipped myself up some dinner. I was surprised how much firewood I was going through. The huge pile I'd collected barely lasted me the evening. The combination of lack of sleep from the previous nights, the relieve of finally being off on the bear ski, and that sense of calm that sleeping outdoors gives you meant that I was asleep by 7pm.
For the first few days I got into the routine of getting up super early and skiing in the crisp morning hours. The flashbacks of trying to drag the sled through slushy thick snow were enough to deter me from snoozing the alarm every morning. The only problem with this plan was that I was reaching my next camping spot really quick. I was easily covering 5km in a hour or so, which resulted in a lot of down time. Being the type of person who doesn't sit still for very long I kept myself busy finding/chopping/splitting firewood. Digging myself intricate tunnels and extravagant extra things in my camp.
But each day I would learn a few key lessons:
- I hated having to collect firewood in the morning - so making sure there was plenty in the evening ready for the morning was a good way to start the day.
- Food that you don't like 'normally' doesn't taste any better when its your only choice.
- Spending extra time levelling out the camp/ my bed area is worth the time and effort for a good nights sleep.
- All you need is marshmallows.
The first few days had been bliss, nice cold temperature in the morning - the forest skis were gliding like skates on the big open bogs. The navigation was fine, it was easy enough to just read the map and not rely on the compass. Then I'd spent the afternoon skiing around my camp collecting firewood and then relaxing in my sled in the sunshine. It all seemed a bit too cushty.
After the success of the first few days I thought I could add a few more km's to my route. So decided to take the longer route to camp 4. Barely 100m into the forest I regretted my decision. Every few meters I skied a big layer of snow would completely drop - not just scaring the crap out of me with the noise it made - but then i'd struggle to haul myself and the fully loaded sled out of the hole that had been created. It was exhausting.
The weather had also turned, it was very grey and cloudy and I could feel the wind was really starting to pick up. I sang a bit of Bob Marley to keep the spirits high and trudged on.
On the morning of day four I awoke to snow fall. It was so peaceful lying cocooned in my sleeping bag just watching the big snowflakes gently fall down around me. One thing the past few days had taught me was to enjoy the moment. As mentioned previously It's not in my nature to sit still for very long but with so much time of my hands each day I'd learnt to embrace it more and was beginning to enjoy it. I'd realised that sometimes you can just be - I didn't always need to be doing something.
As I lay watching the snow fall my watch alarm went off - It was time for me to start my morning routine ( start fire, make porridge, try and shove porridge into my mouth, pack camp, head off) but then I began to question myself a bit more. Was I actually in a rush? Did I need to interrupt this moment or could I just get up when I felt like it? For me, although it was nothing spectacular this changed the whole rhythm of my solo journey. I'd spent the last few days as a whirlwind - creating non existent jobs for myself thinking thats what I needed to do/ or needed to prove. But I didn't, it was only me. No one was telling me what to do, I was free to decide myself and in some ways it took 4 days for me to realise that.
From then on I didn't make any plans, I got up when I wanted, I ate when I was hungry, I spent 3 hours building a snow moomin. Although I still kept a bit of a routine, my whole attitude had changed and it felt quite liberating.
I had scheduled a rest day - well by that It was actually just a day where I didn't move my camp. So I spent even longer on this camp. I had two bathrooms, an elaborate kitchen, a small fishing pond - for moomintroll to catch us dinner. (As I write this I realise perhaps my sanity was slightly going...)
It was one of my nicer camp spots, but these things must always have a downside. And for camp 4/5 it was a serious lack of firewood. I had to go on some long hunts in order to track some decent wood down. At one point the distances were so far from my camp I ended up taking my sled with me so that I could load it up rather than ski back to camp each time with an arm full of wood.
Dealing with the silence
The biggest thing I thought I would struggle with on the trip was being on my own. On the first night I had this feeling of 'this isn't bad at all - it's actually nice' and this feeling didn't change, I felt perfectly normal. It didn't bother me that there was no one around to talk to. I realised I'd spent all my life in my own head - so what was there to be scared of? I guess I was expecting to feel this intense loneliness but it didn't happen. I was enough company for myself- if that makes sense.
Before the trip we'd had a few chats as a group about the solo aspect of it all and our tutor had mentioned that the time alone could lead to you dealing with a few skeletons, or perhaps we'd experience a big epiphony or something. I was quite intrigued about this and wondered how I handle it.
What I discovered about myself is that I'm really not very complex. I have no deep inner demons or no great capacity to discover any big revelations. In some ways I'm really quite simple. I don't overthink things, or dwell to much. I also don't have any big profound thoughts. I'm still the same idiot on my own with no one around. And don't take this as some self deprecating statement, as it's not because It's just who I am
....But in some ways me just working that out and accepting it was quite a big deal.
Things were going a bit too well...
On my rest day I went for a short hike up Jypptamaa, it was nice to be able to ski without the sled. I took the long/steady route as it wasn't a very big hill and I was in no rush. It started snowing just as I got to the top so it wasn't the clearest of views, but it was still a good feeling. There were quite a few tracks leading up, so it was quite comforting to know some of the others must have been up here too. It was my job as part of the planning group to sort everyone routes and maps so I could even remember who had planned to hike up here. I started a game of trying to guess by the tracks who it was...I'm sure I got 100%.
Although it was still early in the morning (I'd gotten to the top much quicker than expected) I have a nice early lunch on the top and enjoyed the views. But the wind got the better of me after a while and I headed back to my camp.
The next day I decided to diverge from my set route a bit and add in another hill. I'd enjoyed my hike so much the day before I wanted another go. So I set off early again and headed for the slightly bigger hill Hirvipäät. It was a longer route, but it felt good to have a bit of a challenge. I didn't hang around at the top a it was quite windy and I was sure the snow started to feel like rain...So I just had my usual summit cookie and headed back.
There was only one other set of tracks up Hirvipäät so I decided to follow those tracks down to mix it up a little. The decent was by no means too steep but the forest skis did pick up some pace. Just as I skiing down hill my left pole got caught in a load of branches and sharply pulled me backwards - snapping my wrist back as it went. The noise it made was gross.
It was pretty painful, but I strapped it up using my spork as a split. Finished the rest of my cookies and ploughed on. Progress from there on was a bit slow, as soon as the skis would glide I would try to slow down but this technique was quite stuttered. As the adrenaline from the fall wore off my wrist became really quite painful and the snow was getting stickier - building up huge layers underneath my feet. I had to stop every few steps to bang it off. Having one arm had definitely given me the challenge I was looking for...
I headed to one of the basecamps where my tutor was so he could check it out. A stupid part of me downplayed it slightly because I was worried I'd have to get evacuated and not be able to continue and with only a few days to go I really didn't want to give in. We came up with new plan which had me head towards the final common camp - rather than the longer route I'd originally planned.
The final days
The final days weren't my best. Buggering up my wrist had really ruined the nice, chilled ski trip I'd been enjoying. But hey these things happen. I spent that first night unable to sleep (mainly due to taking pain killers with caffeine in them - bad move) going over it all and beating myself up for being stupid. Now I know I can sometimes be a bit reckless, and I think a few of the guys didn't believe me when I said I wasn't going super fast, but I really wasn't. I was in control, the slope wasn't steep, it was just bad luck. And it's no good trying to rewrite whats already happened - you just have to keep trucking. Thats what I did.