On the first of January we left Abisko for the King’s Trail, loaded with 22 days of food and fuel, enough to reach Sulitjelma in a single push. On January 4 we were back in Abisko, defeated by a wall of snow, having had a storm over our heads yet again, disquieted by signs of unstable ice and open water on the rivers, and not in the least disheartened by it all.
We were both pretty nervous when we set out. While getting our equipment ready in Abisko we learned from the guides that conditions had improved only to the eye. Snow mobiles had sunk into chest-deep waters covering the ice on the lakes, many trails had not been opened yet, there was slush everywhere. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s as much snow had fallen as during the entire past season, making for very unstable slopes. We left on the morning of the new year, entirely unsure of what we were heading into.
It was only my fifth time on mountain skis and this time it was for real. During the first half an hour of pulling that 50+kg pulka I intensely cursed myself for starting this. But after a while I got the hang of it and really started enjoying being on skis. We arrived at Abiskojaure in the deep twilight of dusk, surprised that it was not dark yet at 14.30. It lifted my spirits even more. The sun had risen in Ritsem today, which we should reach in a week, so it was only a matter of time before we’d see it again.
We were also surprised to find another person at the cabins: a 29 year-old Swedish man came to greet us upon arrival. There are only two beds in the one cabin open outside of season so we pitched our tent and then joined him by the stove. At first he indicated that he was sick and therefore refrained from continuing to Aleajaure. After a while though he clarified that it was so hard to get through all the fresh snow that his thighs cramped up entirely and he was forced to turn. “I’m so disappointed in my body.”
I looked him up and down. The guy looked incredibly strong and fit. He was nothing but muscle. If he didn’t manage to push through, could we?
The rest of the evening we made jokes about ‘going and climbing the big hill to Alesjaure tomorrow’, but I already knew our chances of success were slim. Yet we had to give it a try. Like the guy foretold, outside of Abiskojaure we hit a wall of snow. The immense snowfall left 50cm of powder on the ground, without any hard layer to grip on. After ploughing on for three hours, changing lead every few hundred meters or so because breaking a trail, or rather a trench, for the pulkas was really hard work, we realised we had only come two flat kilometres. We were still moving, sure, but after some quick math calculated that at this rate it would take us 6 days just to reach the next cabin at Alesjaure, 60 to Sulitjelma and a year-and-a-half to Lindesnes. In other words, the effort to continue would be futile.
We returned to Abiskojaure, resolute to go and try on the Norwegian side of the border instead, a route we initially refrained from due to the sinister avalanche warnings for the mountains around Narvik. Even without crossing any avalanche terrain it would have been like playing Russian roulette with the snow. But wouldn’t it still be, now? And what about the ice? We had seen open water more than once in the 20km we made.
Even if we continued, what would be the result? All that new snow was unstable, in the Swedish as well as the Norwegian mountains. And then there was the ice. Upon making it to Ritsem we would be faced with Akka, an enormous lake we cannot cross, for the ice there is thin and a fall through could lead to a 10m plunge into its icy waters. The lake can lie far below the thin film of ice as its water levels fluctuate, dropping in early winter when less water flows into the lake but an equal amount spills down into the turbines of the power station. There would be no way back up.
The way around Akka and into Padjelanta leads into a myriad of swamps and dense woods, which would be hard to navigate through all that powder snow. Much more important though is that a major river, Valldajåkhå, a fast flowing current over 100m across and deep enough to swim in, intersects the route around close to the south shore of the lake. Rivers too easily have a gap of a meter or two between the water and the ice. Going through could mean being dragged underneath the ice bridge and down into the depths of Akka. Both breaks would mean certain death.
During the past few weeks I’ve been reading Krakauer’s Into the Wild (upon which the film is based, though much more in-depth than the motion picture). While going through the book I found, unsettling, that I share quite a few character traits with the boy who died in Alaska: rash, impulsive, passionate, stubborn, idealistic, not without certain disdain for society. But maybe most dangerously ambition to push boundaries, to challenge myself to try things of which I’m not sure if I could pull them off.
I was never as heedless (or intellectual, for that matter). Yet until Nepal, I don’t think I could really grasp what it meant to die in the mountains. Surely, people do, I just figured I wouldn’t be one of them. I didn’t grasp the finality of making that one fatal mistake, not until I knocked my head on a mountain at 6100m of altitude and knew that if I would lose consciousness, that would be the end of it. For a long time I believed I’d become scared afterwards, even felt weak at times, but I see now that I’ve just come to understand much more what the consequences of my actions might be. I don’t have the feeling of being invincible anymore.
Upon returning to Abiskojaure a storm swept the mountains for a day. Temperatures fluctuated from -20 to -1. It rained. The instability of the weather worried me. The fresh snow on the slopes turned into slabs. Nothing could be trusted, nothing could be relied upon.
As I lay in my bunk pondering over all these things I felt my resolve diminish. The risk for pushing on was too great, the price that might be payed too high. I have no desire to seek the edge of my own mortality again and peer over it. We made an ambitious plan. We failed. It is not possible to cross Norway during this late, volatile, violent winter. Not without taking too many chances.
I always say that to survive out there you need to play on the same team as the mountains. It seems that currently they don’t want us on the team, so we turned our backs on them instead and headed down to Abisko instead. One learns a lot from success, but one learns a lot from failure, too.
The easy solution now would be to simply skip over this section and start anew from Sulitjelma. But we both know that it won’t feel as if we’ve made it when we reach Lindesnes. We’ll just jump in the car and drive north again to finish it. So we’ll be patient and wait. Wait for the ice to settle, for the snow to stabilise and for the safe route that is marked across Akka in the end of February.
4 thoughts on “Polar Night”
The risk versus reward game is a hard one to play, but really only with yourself. It is admirable how you push your limits. I only wish I had half your ambition! Glad you made the “safe” decision once again, and hopefully you will find solace in waiting it out.
Thank you Patrice! We are currently working in a nice hotel in Abisko, so it’s very much alright. We actually have to be careful not to get too comfortable around here… ;). We’re planning on starting again in the beginning of March. I hope all is well with you and Justin!
You will be in Abisko until March, and working too and earning money? Well done!
Decisions about when to stop and when to go are really the hardest thing. You have to listen to your inner voice. Usually hindsight is when you find out if you did the right thing!
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Hi Eef and PJ,
Here I am, ‘ Mission Controle Hove’, and I say it with a smile, ‘ well done, that savety frist’ ! It’s not about, it’s how……and yes you both made the most difficult but most important dessision….
Jullie weten het als geen ander , Moeder Natuur zij blijft baas , overal en altijd…
Voor de Sherpa’s zijn ‘omstandigheden ‘ ook steeds heilig en zij gruwelen als anderen er mee sollen en zoals je zegt ‘ you need to be team with the mountains, if not stay away from them’.
Het siert jullie Eef en PJ te beseffen dat jullie al meer dan het onderste uit de kan hebben gehaald…geluk ligt soms op een héel klein plaatske, in een fractie van een moment…
Ik zie de beelden al voor me ploeterend , trekkend, hijgend met die slee in die sneeuwhopen…uitputtend moet dat zijn. Waar blijven jullie die krachten halen??
De tocht is en blijft memorabel, starten-vechten-ondergaan-nadenken, véél nadenken-overleggen-beslissen….Wat jullie tot hiertoe hebben doorstaan, respect, diep diep respect!
Mij komt het over als meer dan meesterlijk, al wat jullie incasseren, al wat jullie trotseren , al die barre omstandigheden, heb er geen woorden voor.
De nieuwsberichten staan hier vandaag vol van koud en guur weer dat op komst zou zijn omdat er boven de Poolcircel meteorologisch een en ander rommelt…in gedachten zetten we ons schrap. Laat staan als je er midden in zit.
Dus lieve mensen, goed gedaan opnieuw een break in te lassen en te wachten op betere condities, knap gedaan!
Kruip maar tegen die stoof aan, kom op krachten en geloof dat het keren zal….
Heel veel liefs en dikke knuffel
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