On Skis across the Finnmarksvidda - by Corinna Leenen
We spend the night on the frozen expanse of Lake Lesjavri. The Northern Lights build up in an arch above our tent and we watch for several hours how they magnify into rippling curtains on either side of the lake and finally flow in a curling and waving stream right above our heads and into the distance. The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted. Out on the lake, surrounded only by snow and mountains, we are far more susceptible to this legend than to any geophysical chart showing collisions between particles. Through most of the evening, commands of “Don’t move” and countdowns for exposure times echo across the lake as we try to capture the lights on camera.
Two days earlier my partner, Jamie, and I had packed our pulks and set out from Jotka Fjellstue to cross the Finnmarksvidda plateau north to south-east. The Finnmark region lies at the very top of northern Norway. The Finnmarksvidda is in the interior part of this county and covers an area of about 22,000 square kilometres, stretching from Alta in the west to the Varanger Peninsula in the east for about 300km. We planned a rough route from Joatkajávri (south of Alta), across the frozen Lesjavri lake, to Ravnastua and finishing at Karasjok. We bought four Nordeca maps in Alta and did most of the day-to-day route planning in the evenings in the tent.
Daily going with the pulks is tough. They are laden not only with our camping gear, fuel and food, but also with the technology needed to capture our journey – camera, tripod, solar panels. The waxes aren’t working properly on the first days, there is a lot of backslide and not a lot of winning ground. Despite the cold we slowly shed layers of clothing as our bodies warm with the effort. “Twenty minutes and we’ll take a break” – Jamie’s words keep repeating in my head and this break is now overdue. He wanted to get to the top of a little hill first – for the views. I had read somewhere about the Inuit practice of walking frustration out on the tundra. They would walk until their anger subsided and lay down a rock on the ground to mark how far the burst of anger had propelled them. It gets me all the way to the top of the hill just fine. I sit down on my pulk, unclip my bindings and search for the green dry bag in the front of my pulk which has our food in. I am half in a mind to take my frustration out on Jamie, but think better of it and make room for him on my pulk. He sits next to me.
What happens next, very unexpectedly, is a marriage proposal, a minute of admiring the sparkling ring on an ungloved hand at -12C and panicky questions, uttered daily, about the whereabouts and safety of the ring as it was stashed away at the bottom of the pulk. We ended up dragging an engagement ring 130km across the very north of Norway.
Every evening we look for a good spot to call home for the night. We pitch the tent in deep snow that would hold our pegs, and dig the entrance pit which serves as a cold air well and cooking area. Arriving at the chosen spot on Lesjavri we find the snow layer is too shallow and the pegs hit ice instantly. A strategic use of some ice screws solves our problem and the tent is pitched. I unload the pulks and store the drybags at one end of the tent while Jamie shovels the snow in the other. I blow up the Thermarests, prepare our sleeping area and wait for Jamie to boil the first round of water for our soups. Then follow dry-ration main courses and desserts.
Everything in a polar tent is practical – we are careful not to waste energy or warmth. Filled with boiling water and stuffed into the front of our down jackets, the ration packs make for a nice addition of warmth. We try to keep our gloves on as much as we can as warming up cold fingers takes a long time. Long metal spoons are dangling from the tent ceiling, clipped in with carabiners. The tent light next to them sheds light on our little domestic scene; our breath clouds the air between us. Conversation is short, only single words, repeated, as we can’t hear each other very well through the hoods covering our ears and wind blowing outside.
Red bottles are our pee bottles, blue for water, and every liquid is frozen solid in the mornings. We stuff the things we don’t want to freeze into our sleeping bags: water bottles, face wipes, gloves, chocolates. It’s rather crowded. I don’t sleep the first night, kept awake by the cold. I turn on the tent light – it’s 3 a.m. and the watch dangling next to the light shows -12C. I shuffle deeper into my sleeping bag and close the zipper over my head. Sleep in general is rough and I am lucky to catch a few hours every night. I lie awake pondering about the darkness around the tent and imagine I could hear the ice cracking underneath. When I wake Jamie with a whispered warning he says some calming words and goes back to sleep. I envy him.
Morning routines take us one and a half hours from waking up to clipping our bindings and setting off. It’s the same as the evening but in reverse – Jamie boils water for breakfast, I pack away the sleeping stuff and everything else we used in the night – hut booties, electrics, maps. Breakfast is dry ration strawberries and rice pudding, which is my preferred option. I throw the dry bags out of the back entrance into the snow near the pulks and we brush away any snow that’s got onto the tent floor, take down the tent and pack the pulks. The last thing we do is fill in the cooking hole with snow.
We see the Northern Lights on two other nights, but we are soon too tired to look out for them. After crossing the lake, we make our way to Ravnastua, a mountain hut three days from us. The last leg of the journey is uphill and the snow cover is deep, making for slow travel. We battle hard drifts of snow until we reach our goal at Ravnastua. The hut keeper at Ravnastua looks after us with hot chocolate and coffee poured from a large metal kettle. It’s tempting to think about staying at the hut for the night but we press on and set camp on the edges of a small birch forest. From there it’s another day to reach Karasjok. Dropping down from the plateau through the densely wooded sides of the valley below is a tough battle. The rope system we are using with our pulks offers less control than the rigid shafts we had used on previous trips. On steep sections the pulks keep sliding past us and pulling us off our feet if we don’t catch hold of the rope, or running us down from behind. After taking several falls and praying that the ground will level off after the next bend, it finally does. We’ve reached the valley bottom. Twenty minutes away from the road leading into Karasjok, we unceremoniously call a taxi and double-check they have enough room for two people with two pulks.
Despite the tiredness at the end of every day, there were so many moments that took our breath away. As the plane takes off from Lakselv airport we’re in silent agreement – we must come back!
Exped Adventure runs this expedition in March 2018. For more information visit expedadventure.com
Any questions or enquiries email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Jamie on 07854 197584