"Should this be found I want these facts recorded. [...] He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning - yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, 'I am just going outside and may be some time.' He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since."
The story of Scott's failed expedition to the South Pole has always been one of my strongest childhood memories. Couched as it is in the last days of Empire, redolent with that peculiar mix of heroism and absurdity, representative of an era in which there were still untouched corners of the globe, when men were real men, women were real women (and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri etc. etc.), Nevertheless those last words of Captain Oates - "I'm just going outside and may be some time..." - must surely haunt anyone who hears the story. Knowing that in order to save others, Oates went out and gave himself to the blizzard... For me, at least, this was true heroism.- From the journal of Robert F. Scott, March 16th/17th 1912
I only discovered, by the coincidence of happening to spot a tweet from Jaakko as I was packing my backpack, that March 17th, 2012 was the 100th anniversary of Oates's death. Don't worry, I'm not about to compare an overnighter hiking in Lapland with weeks of nightmarish polar exploratory heroism (or misadventure); but thoughts of Oates, Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton were forefront in my mind.
I've been reading a lot of outdoor blogs recently. There is a popular theme which goes something like this: "Ah, winter is over, the snow has all gone (or it never arrived), the temperatures are rising, the rivers are open, time to put away the crampons and inflate the packraft."
And so I give you Lapland, "the end of winter", and the beginning of my trail:
I'd already spent several hours (perhaps even days) mulling over whether to go by ski or snowshoe. Even on the morning of departure, having made up my mind (snowshoes) I started to reconsider. Would it be better to head to flatter terrain and take skis? I put it to a vote on twitter, and received a resounding singular vote for skis from the Morkmeister. And yet and yet... I wanted hills and a view, and I knew that in the current snow conditions, snowshoes would beat skis by a very slim margin. So, distance vs. desire? Natch. Desire wins every time. Plus, the 'shoes were already in the car. Less packing. More hiking.
Still, I felt that snowshoeing would be a bit of a cop out. The distance I'd be hiking would be so short (maybe 3km) that it could hardly be considered a hike, let alone a backpacking trip! Knowing there was an adjoining trail nearby that would add another 4km, I decided to start there and enjoy the longer walk. When I arrived I found that nobody else had ventured into the 120cm deep snow. When I took my first steps and immediateluy post-holed up to my thighs, even with my maximum floatation MSR snowshoes, it was clear why.
Maybe 3km will be enough after all. I jumped back in the car and headed to the mid-point trail head.
Apparently I wasn't the only one thinking this way, as attested by the tracks of an Amundsen who had broken trail before, kindly compacting a path for a far-less-heroic Englishman.
As long as I stuck to the trail, the going was relatively good. One step off the beaten path, and I was waist deep in schmuckery. The forest was fine. Only when crossing the frozen mires were the open spaces remotely "Scott of the Antarctic".
I stomped past the return branch of the lollipop, and started the climb toward a kota which, according to the map was about halfway up Sortovaara (or the charming translation: "Oppression Hill"!).
As kota are originally Sàmi tents, I was (perhaps ignorantly) expecting some kind of canvas tipi, and was a little surprised – even a touch disappointed – to find it was in this case a much more solid construction.
Not that I was complaining. There was even a small spring nearby – always a bonus in winter.
The kota differs from a typical Finnish laavu in that the fireplace is enclosed inside the hut. I took a quick look inside – pretty cosy. And there was a nice stash of wood...
It was quite tempting to stay there, but I wanted to soldier on. This was a trip where I wanted to sleep outside, under my DuoMid, so I could test out a new sleeping mat. Oates didn't get to sleep in a kota, so nor would I.
Onwards and upwards then.
Near the top of the hill, the snowshoe tracks disappeared. I was left with a solitary pair of ski tracks to guide me from one trail post to another. They were a reliable guide, but the less compacted snow started to get annoying as step after step I sank deeper and deeper.
At least the air was fresh. Lengthy beard lichen, high up and out of the reindeer's reach, it's sensitive fronds proof of the excellent air quality. I take a couple of deep lungs full, and battle on.
But soon enough was enough, I was getting tired. I needed to make camp. I'd been hoping to find a spot with a stunning view over the fells, but the trail seemed to skirt the lower flanks of the hill, and from what I could see through the trees, the view wasn't so spectacular after all.
So... making camp. Long hours spent in the cold waiting for the snow to sinter. Time spent melting snow.
Suddenly the kota and its spring started to sound like a very attractive idea after all.
But that would be turning back, and turning back would be giving in! Would Captain Oates have turned back??
I let the angel and devil on my shoulders argue away for a while. In the end it was up to me. I could make camp here. Or I could go back to the kota and spend the night in the Lapland of luxury.
Ever the diplomat, I tried to find a third way; one that would make the most of both worlds. It was a surprisingly easy resolution: I'd head back and make camp somewhere in the vicinity of the kota. That way I could make the most of all the Finland has to offer... Beautiful nature, a spring, and a wonderful (and free) wilderness hut system!
I backtracked toward the kota and hunted for a place nearby where I could set up a nice sleeping spot.
After 15 minutes stomping the snow down, I roughly staked out the 'Mid and headed to find the kota for a sit down and cuppa while the snow sintered.
As befits Finnish tradition, I left my shoes outside.
Someone had kindly left a few logs with curling slivers of wood cut away to make nice firestarters. It would have been rude not to use them, so I started up a roaring fire. It wasn't long before I was warming my toes. By luck I happend to find a rogue teabag of Russian Caravan tea from the organic supermarket back in Minneapolis, so I sat down, put my feet up, and reminisced about the new world with the fire crackling before me.
Outside, the light was fading, and there was still work to be done. The snow should have been ready so I headed out to get the DuoMid up. Unfortunately my giant feet still fell through the trampled patch of snow, leaving great holes exactly where I was planning to sleep. Ho hum. Back to the snowshoes then for a second, more vigourous round of stompery, and another hour waiting for it to harden.
This time it worked – just about. The platform was still soft, but if I was lightfooted it held my weight.
I'm always amazed at how parachute stakes solidify when buried in their holes. They make such immovable stakes even in the fluffiest snow. I was able to get the DuoMid at tight as a drum, so much so that the falling snow brushed out a rhythm on the silnylon as it slid down the sides.
Relieved that I had a nice secure shelter for the night, I set up my gear for the night and returned to the kota.
"What?" I hear you cry? "Returned to the kota??"
Well, yes... I mean wouldn't you? Why wouldn't I enjoy the luxury of a warm fire and some comfy (okay, hard) benches, while I ate my evening meal. It was already there, so why not use it. It would have been stupid not to. It would also give me a chance to dry out my damp boots, hat and gloves.
Plus I remembered seeing some candles, and it seemed only appropriate to set up a little votive memorial to Oates' last walk. The candles wouldn't hurt the atmosphere for another little ritual I was keen to ceremonially initiate myself into.
For the record: Minttu and hot chocolate is pretty damn good. Especially when preceded (and, ahem, followed) by Jaloviina (three star, naturally).
With the necessary respects paid, it was time for bed.
I was excited to try out my new MultiMat Expedition Summit Compact pad, rated to -45ºC. I hoped it would be much better than the chilly night I spent on a POE Ether Elite last winter. It isn't super thick, but at 840g it provides a good balance between weight and performance. But the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding would be a good night's sleep. It's supposed to be self-inflating, and while it did inflate a little, it needed quite a bit of additional puffing – even though the instructions warned against blowing to inflate in temps lower than 0ºC (which is a bit daft if it's rated to -45ºC, frankly). Anyhow, once inflated it was comfortable.
I zipped myself into my WM Antelope leaving the hood off to avoid the irritation I always experience at night in mummy bags, keeping my down jacket hood on instead.
Soothed by delightful twins Jallu and Minttu, I soon slipped away.
Only to wake at 3am with an urgent call of nature. And no pee bottle. On with the tyvek booties, and out into the cold, the dark.
Except... up there in the sky... The faintest of colours. More a beige than a green or red, but still. I wasn't sure if I could believe my eyes, but the camera never lies (it merely exaggerates the truth).
Flickering across the sky, too fast and too feint for me to really see clearly, the northern lights. My GF1 had better luck though.
Okay, not the greatest display ever, but I'll take what I get. I wandered over to the kota for a look.
Now where did I put that shelter? Ah yes, there it is...
Back in my cosy cocoon, I soon drifted off again. When I woke again in the morning, my trusty Core informed me that the temperature had been falling steadily, and yet I felt quite comfortable.
At no point during the night did I feel cold. The MultiMat performed very well. As for my other gear, the WM Antelope was warm enough, but constricting. I've mentioned before my winter side-sleeping/sleeping bag dilemma, and my concerns that a hardcore quilt wouldn't suit me in winter, but increasingly I feel its something I should at least try, if only to determine which of the two solutions is the lesser evil. I shouldn't complain though. Scott and Oates slept in reindeer skin sleeping bags.
My frustrations with constriction of movement were only exacerbated by the incredibly annoying slipperiness of the Gossamer Gear polycryo groundsheets on snow. Perhaps it was excessive to have a bivy and a groundsheet, but I'm paranoid about materials freezing to the compacted ground snow, and getting torn or damaged through movement. Polycryo is excellent at not sticking to anything, which in other circumstances is fine. Perhaps it's time to invest in some tyvek.
Apart from that though, I have no other problems to report. And when you wake up to a view like this, minor complains pale into insignificance...
Time for breakfast then, and another joyous discovery of a bonus sachet of Starbucks Via to get me going. I fired up the Spider, got some water boiling, and prepared a special combo porridge of dates, apple and cinnamon.
Unlike Captain Scott, I ate my oats.*
Reinvigorated after my hearty breakfast, it was time to pack up everything and continue onwards. The sun rose, spectacularly bright through the trees. It's startling how the light transforms the landscape in Lapland, and with every passing day the hours of daylight stretch toward the midnight sun of summer.
With huckePACK loaded, I headed off once again for the trail, passing by the kota woodshed, weighed down deep with snow.
I followed my trail from the night before, back up to the top of the hill. This time, refreshed, I vowed to keep going, but the way was much easier now that the snow had had a chance to settle and freeze again overnight. Snowshoeing is so much easier in the morning.
Soon – too soon – I found myself back on the final climb to the trailhead. I'd made it out – alive! It was one of those gorgeous, crisp, Lapland mornings, so vastly different to the unseasonal melt we'd had two days before that it almost felt like I'd returned to a different country. But as always, it wasn't the country that had changed during my brief time away.
It was me.
*Actually, Oates body was never found, so you never know...