Finnmarksvidda Day 1&2 - slow going

Here is the first installment about Joe Newton's and my skitrip up on the Finnmarksvidda, or Vidda, at the northernmost corner of Europe. We started at Alta, which at 69 degrees latitude is slightly north of Inuvik in the Canadian Northwest Territories and slightly south of Point Barrow in Alaska. All way north of the Arctic Circle. Our goal was the town of Kautokeino some 120 kilometers south. In between the arctic plateau of Vidda (which means 'wide open area, expanse').

Joe and I have decided that it would be fun, both for ourselves and our readers, if we publish our separate accounts of the same trip on the same day, without having had access to the writings of our trip companion. So if you want to read a good story and see some nice photos (btw all photos are by Joe or Jo), go to Joe's blog at Thunder in the Night.

By Jörgen Johansson

Day 1 Tuesday March 22

Before I fell into the frozen river everything had been going smoothly.

Arriving in Alta on the same plane as famed Norwegian outdoorsman Lars Monsen (who among other things has spent three consecutive years crossing Canada, from the Alaska border to the Atlantic ocean), we stacked up on Beaver gas for our canister stoves and grabbed a taxi.

The taxi took us up the Mattis Valley for as long as the taxi driver felt confident to drive on the semi plowed tertiary (or something) road. From then on it would be rulks and skis for a week. After packing things up we 'girted our loins' and started pulling our famed and incredible rulks. Our respective loads weighed in around 17-18 kilos each and slid almost without effort behind us on this cloudy afternoon.

After about one hour we passed the last houses. They looked more like a professional establishment, a sort of a lodge, than somebodys home away from home, this was obviously where the road ended. Pretty soon we found ourselves skiing on the Mattis River, surrounded by fairly steep hillsides with birches and deep snow.

Going on a river is almost always the best solution for travelling through the forest in winter. Going upstream, as we did, the incline will be comfortably gradual and the snow cover is usally well packed and hardened by wind and sun this late in the season. Now and then on a fast moving river one might encounter stretches of open water, deep, black holes in the snow, that usually are welcome since they give access to fresh water. This is always preferable to melting snow, which takes a lot of fuel and inevitably seems to produce a semi transparent liquid with an assortment of 'floaters and sinkers'.

After a couple of hours, around when the sun was setting according to our research, at 1730 hours, we decided to camp. On a piece of flat land where the river meandered around us on three sides, we tromped some platforms for the skis in the deep snow. Skis and poles in the four corners had our tents pitched in the proverbial five minutes that every tentmaker boasts and few deliver.

Day 2 Wednesday March 23

The morning greeted me with -11 C in my tent. With all sleeping gear dry; down sleeping bag and synthetic quilt, I had slept without puffy Cocoon pants or puffy layer #2 (#1 was a BPL Cocoon smock and #2 a WM Flight jacket) and been very comfortable. But the first night is seldom any problem in winter. Later on I suspected I would need all the clothing I had.

Today we had to find our way up on top of the Vidda. From what we knew this should be possible by following the dwindling Mattis river and its canyon upstream and keep to the left all the time. A problem was that sofar the canyon sides had been steeper than expected and we were now going outside our 50 K map.

What we now had as tentative guidance was a 250 K map that showed little detail and also had different names on most features than the 50 K map. This presumably because the 250 K map showed most features in Norwegian and the 50 K showed most features in the politically more correct Sami language. Actually it was a Sami language that did not correspond particulary well with the Sami names on features shown on the maps on the Internet that I had also consulted. There are several Sami languages and since it has never been a written language there are also different versions from different scholars trying to convey the spoken into the written. At least that is the way in Sweden, and I suspected we had ran into something similar here. So it might be PC, but these differences do not really help anyone trying to use the map as a route finding tool.

No matter, we felt confident that once we had swung up onto the Vidda we would be able to take cross bearings using GPS waypoints that I had collected beforehand and that we were collecting on the way. This would make sure that we knew were we were. So, somewhere after an hour of skiing on the river that was getting smaller and smaller we passed over the edge of the detailed map. Little did we know that there would be dragons.

A couple of hours of skiing brought us to narrow ravines and a river that was now more of a creek. The rulk proved a bit difficult to handle as a pulk at this point, so I carried it on my back instead. Passing a couple of meters beside a hole in the snow with running water at the bottom I felt the whole side of the hole separate from the snow cover. A big crack appeared running parallell to my skis. This block of snow was more than a meter thick I had time to notice on my way down into the water.

I landed on my feet and chest on the snow that obviously had been bridge and that rapidly turned to slush with the river water starting to wet through my Paramo smock. Fortunately my feet and skiis were solidly planted on the rocks at the bottom of the creek and as I straightened out the cheerfully running water found that it reached me to mid thigh or so. Joe, who had been following a bit behind, was already on the edge where the snow bridge had broken away. I undid the belt buckle and the cheststrap and handed him the pack and rulk which slid up easily on the snow.

Using the ski poles as an intermediate Joe tried to pull me out of the freezing hole, but to no avail. The slush floating on top of the water in my impromptu bath tub was so heavy that I could not pull my skis through it. Reaching down in the cold water I undid my bindings and handed my skis to Joe; one at a time. After this I grabbed the doubled poles he was reaching out with just above the baskets and Joe had me out of the water  like a champagne cork on New Years Eve.

First move in a situation like this is always to get rid of as much water from your clothing as possible and I rolled around in the snow a couple of times, knowing the dry snow would suck a lot of surface moisture from my soaked pants and other clothing.

Contrary to what one might expect I had not been particulary cold in the near freezing water. Adrenalin is a powerfull anti-freeze and had probably replaced most of the blood in my veins at the time. However, you do not have many minutes in freezing water before reality kicks in and you do get hypothermic. I had been fortunate to have Joe along. Working together like a well rehearsed stunt team we got me out very fast indeed. Once on the beach my body felt positively warm since it was no longer having to battle ice cold water. This would not last for long either, as long as I was soaked.

I sat down on my rulk and took off my dripping socks and ski boots. Damage assessment showed that my BPL Merino shorts where wet to mid thigh, on the average. On the left side of my torso I was damp, but not soaked, up to my chest. I decided to leave the shorts and the BPL Merino hoody on to dry on my body.

I rapidly donned my mikrofleece long johns ( I had been travelling in only the Paramo pants and shorts) and my warm pile night oversocks and then pulled the wet Paramo pants on top. On my upper body I put on my Cocoon puffy and then the Paramo smock with its wet arms and wet lower torso.

Best way of drying gear in a situation like this would of course have been to get inside and spend a couple of hours in front of fire with mug of cocoa at hand, watching tendrils of steam rising from the wet garments. Second best way would have been to build a fire and dry everything out in a similar but outdoor fashion. These were unfortunately not practical options right . Making a good size fire in the birch forest would entail a lot of snow shoveling and fire making in a surrounding where at least my fire making skills have always been less than good.

Another option would have been to get into a tent and a sleeping bag to stay warm. This might have been necessary had I been really hypothermic, probably in company with a number of hot water bottles. However, this would have resulted in leaving my wet clothing outside of the sleeping bag, to freeze into cardboard. uselessness. Something that would seriously have hampered our chances to go on or evacuate ourselves at a later stage.

So the option I settled for was to keep the body core reasonably dry and warm and dry out the wet outer garments by physcial excersise a k a skiing. After trying to rid my soaking ski boots and the boot covers that were aleady beginning to freeze rather unsuccefully, I put my wet pile socks away, wrung out the merino socks I had been wearing into the drink and donned the whole soggy lot again.   A couple of minutes later we were moving and half an hour later I felt that it all had worked out very well. I felt warm and comfortable. The smock was already dry, the pants were well on their way of becoming dry and we were back in business.

Staying with the river that swung to the left (S), exactly what we wanted, led us into a narrowing box canyon with the dwindling water course less and less obvious among the snow and rocks. At the end of the box, a frozen waterfall. An ever narrower and steeper canyon could be glimpsed swinging away to the left, up towards the plateau of the tundra that now was so close that we could almost taste it. But the two canyon options did look pretty impassable; more like 'Mordorish'.

A step hillside with stunted birches on the left looked more promising. It looked a couple of hundred meters long, fairly steep but not impassable in any way. It seemed to be promising a diagonal traverse towards the narrow, steep canyon pointing towards the tundra. Well up there it should be possible to follow the edge of the ravine up to the Vidda.
I took the hillside option and soon managed to get up well above the canyon bottom. Steep but not impassable on skis and with the rulk on my back, so far. I waved Joe, who was a couple of hundred meters behind me, on up the slope behind me.

After a while the skis would no longer help, sliding on the hard, icy crust that was lightly dusted with some snow flurries from yesterday and today. Sometimes the skis would also break through the crust threathening to unbalance me and my load and topple me down the hillside. Taking off the skis landed me thigh deep in snow, but I floundered forward and got to an open strip among the birches. Here the snow was thin, but underlined with shale and skis seemed to be the best prospect to traverse this piece of ground to the deeper snow and the haven of the birches some 10 meters away.

This patch of open ground had a serious disadvantage. It was quite a bit steeper than the slope had looked like originally, and there was nothing to stop a fall, no trees that would keep me from falling into the rocky canyon below. Not pleasant to dwell on, but I crossed it without any trouble.

As convex slopes like this hillside reveals its secrets gradually, as you traverse it. After about an hour on this slope it had been revealed to Joe and me that this particular incline was longer and steeper than could be guessed from below. With a couple of passages of open ground without any birch tree safety rails at the lower end, going back was no longer a particularly attractive option.

Going forward on the other hand was getting to be increasingly difficult. We could not use our skis, as has been described. However, standing buried to the crotch in loose snow, with pack on back, skis in one hand and poles in the other, facing a steep hill which meant the snow we had to pass was at chest level, was also a far cry from a walk in the park. We floundered, crawled and clawed our way up that hillside from hell, slowly.

By now my feet in the soaked boots were getting seriously cold, only the extreme physical effort of pressing on up the slope held them on this side of freezing. One of my boot covers was completely trashed from kicking toeholds and trampling in the snow. This let the snow into that particular boot, not exactly helping with drying it out and keeping my foot warm.

By now we were both very tired and well aware that we were up the creek without a paddle. I imagine Joe could have said a word or two about me leading him into a place like this, but if so, he never let me catch a glimpse of any resentment.

At times we now punched our skis a meter into the snow and then used them as stepping stones to stop our feet  from sliding down the hill; negotiating our way between  the scrawny birch trunks that had become our safe resting places. It was either this, trying to swim and float on the crusted snow or sink to midthigh and burrow forward, that promised any progress. We tended to use those methods intermittently, switching to one when we had become totally disgusted with the hard work an limited progress of the other.

Before long we both had taken falls; slipped and fallen downhill, only to be stopped by the friendly birch trunks. My slide took me about five meters of sliding and tumbling before some of the friendly black and white shrubs and stunted trees stopped my off pist breakdance. Joe slid longer, perhaps ten meters, which in combination with him being younger, gave him the time necessary to envision parts of his life flickering before his eyes, before a friendly tree knocked the wind out of him and stopped further introspective movie watching.

By now we were beginning to see somewhat of an end to this hillside, or perhaps not an end, but at least a area that was not sloping at 30 degrees, and also seemed to be not that far from the top and the tundra plateau. By this time lunchtime was long since gone and I was getting pretty worn, mentally as well as physically. It was not difficult to take to heart the old, running gag from the Lethal Weapon-movies: I'm too old for this shit.

However, wishing you were somewhere else never really got anyone out of trouble and by now I was beginning to realise that I was very glad that there was no one but Joe Newton with me on this hillside from hell. We had now with combined efforts found out that we could move reasonably well by skipping ahead, mostly without breaking through the crust, without pack or skis and by swinging between the three trunks in a somewhat frigid imitation of Tarzan. I slipped up ahead on a recon jaunt and found that there was indeed an open space not too far ahead, not as horridly steep as the rest of the hillside, but maybe a bit too close to a corniche overhanging the ravine going steeply up to the left from the icefall. It was at least a place where we could stop, get something to eat and take stock on how to proceed. By now more and more of my toes were beginning to feel just slightly this side of ice lumps. Not a good sign.

In the end we managed to drag ourselves and our gear up to that shelf by relaying the pulks and the skis on and in the snow. It worked pretty well to sort of kick a path, and then one of us would pull the pulk and the other would push it from behind. We would then go back and get the other pulk, and then the skis and poles. A couple of stints like this had us up on the shelf with all our gear.

My first move was to get frozen and torn boot covers off, then frozen boots. In one instance I had to pull my foot right out of the boot, leaving the sock inside. I then pried the sock loose from the boot with my hand, it had frozen to the inside of the boot in a couple of places. The boots, having been soaked in the river some 3-4 hour ago were frozen solid in places and seriously soggy in others.

I pulled out my holy, dry socks (never ever let them get wet, they are for sleeping only) from my drybag, put them on and then wrapped my feet in my homemade Primaloft quilt. I was munching on some snacks and a soft mini tortilla or two with some sausage, while at the same time trying to massage some feeling back into my toes. After a while I had to ask Joe to melt some snow for a hot water bottle, which was expedited in record time. Getting that bottle down between my feet felt heaven sent.

Heaven sent also, but more literally and less wished for, were the flurries of wind driven snow that with increasing frequency came pummeling up our favorite hillside much more effortlessly than we ourselves had ascended it. I could feel this wind sucking core body heat out of me, even with all my puffy jackets and pants on and the quilt draped over my lower body. It was mid afternoon and they dull leadeness of the sky indicated that the Norwegian Sea a k a the Arctic Ocean were about to dump another shitload of wind and precipitation on our heads.

So we quickly agreed that we would stay here for the night. With me getting increasingly more chilled sitting in the wind, Joe kicked and shovelled a platform for my tent and erected it rapidly. He then helped me inside and went some five meters higher on the slope to repeat the same process with his own tent.

Once inside the tent I was in a sense 'home safe'. Out of the wind I no longer felt chilled and immediately started up the canister stove and melted snow for a bag of freeze dried Wolfish Cassserole from Real Turmat, as well as hot water bottles for my feet. Pretty soon I knew that my toes were coming back into circulation and they were all nice and warm after about an hour or so.

By then I was sitting in my sleeping bag and quilt with the intention of producing hot water bottles galore, in order to dry out wet merino socks, wet pile socks, wet boots and wet boot covers. However, that was proving increasingly difficult and/or dangerous, since the wind had been gradually on the increase all afternoon. Now it was not only rattling the tent walls to a considerable degree, but now and then a gust would actually make the fabric crack like a proverbial whip. So I simply did not dare to use my Primus Micron more than absolutely necessary.

Instead I dozed in my tent, warm and well fed, and not particularly worried about the tent, since I had seen it take winds like this and more without trouble on several occassions. However, as dusk began to fall I knew that I needed to check poles and put out some guylines before darkness fell, in case the wind picked up even more during the night.

So I put my clothes and boots on and ventured out in the hard wind. It is always tricky to judge the speed of the wind without a wind meter, and to me inflation seems rampant when it comes to the use of the word 'storm' in many tales from the mountains. A storm is by meterological definition when winds exceed 25 meters per second. Windspeeds like that will make trees fall and may blow you off your feet. So true storms are not that common. However, hard winds or gale force winds are usually more than enough to impress most people, and I was impressed by this one.

I have been in the vicinity of hard winds and wind meters, so I think I have a reasonable grip on how different wind speeds affect you in winter. My guess is that the windspeeds that I encountered outside our tents that evening were at least 20 meters per second, and I would not be surprised if it the fabric cracking gusts reached storm level.

However, this type of academic reasoning was far from the reality of digging my rulk down as a snow anchor and attach a guyline to it at the most windexposed corner of my tent, while being buffeted by the wind and having the snow clogg my spectacles. I should have worn my goggles, but never mind. I knew from experience that this was uncomfortable and that the work I had to do would take five times longer than if there had been no wind; but that was really all. I was warm and well dressed and had all the time in the world. I was not going anywhere, that was for sure.

Having finished with my own tent I stumbled up to Joe's and knocked on the door to see if everything was alright with him. He looked out the tent door, snug in his down hood, and I told him that I was just going to check his poles and guylines before turning in for the night. After having done this I returned to the relative peace and comfort of my own fabric womb.

After having had my dinner I bundled up for the night, closed out most of the whining and whipping sounds of the hard wind with my earplugs, and drifted off to a more fitful sleep than I had really expected.

Lesson of the day: Avoid falling into rivers. Avoid climbing steep hillsides.


  1. Avoid climbing steep hillsides after falling into rivers ;)

    Exciting. I do hope your toes are fine, I had a few days after my frostbite incident still rather sensitive toes. Great to read that you took it with humour, though, and that Joe was such a good chap and helped you out where he could.

  2. Wow! Epic. I'll have to catch up with the rest when I get back from Dartmoor.

  3. Hendrik,
    Your frostbite was way out of the league that my cold toes were. In really deep cold like you experienced, you're in much deeper water. What I had was the experience to know how far I could push things, how long I could go with numb toes before the danger of serious tissue damage got imminent. And then get out of my socks and shoes, have nice pair of dry woolies and use hot water bottles when needed.
    And there is no better guy than Joe to have along to pull you out of sundry holes..

  4. I'm so glad you guys went together! Not the time or place for a solo trip (although I'm sure Lars would disagree, with a growl).

    Can't wait for the next episode!

  5. Very nice read, I can hardly wait for the next part.

  6. Thank you guys.
    Next episode will air Tuesday 0800 hours Stockholm/Oslo time :-)

  7. Good start, to the story if not the trip:-)Will be travelling tomorow so won't get the next installment until the evening :-(

  8. Wild adventure and the margin for error seems slim. I am enjoying this and learning about snow travel skills as well.

  9. An interesting read, can't wait for the next installment.
    I've added a link to the Norwegian Mapping Authority's freely available web maps focused on the Mattis valley
    Looks like a very steep climb to get out the valley!


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