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Skiing in the Arctic Night

In midwinter there is light for only a couple of hours a day in Lapland. We decided to go for a two day skiing trip in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, to get a proper feel of the darkness during the shortest days of the year in December.

The route was marked on the map, starting from Koivarova parking lot, and went around Keimiötunturi and Sammaltunturi fells in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park. The plan was to stay the night in one of the three open huts on the route, depending on how quickly we could move in the snow with sledges.

Packing in the parking lot. Me and my friends Pipsa and Salla had long skis, forest skis, special for deep snow. Our sleeping bags and food was packed in two sledges, inside waterproof bags.

The weather was not on our side

It was just above zero degrees of Celsius, around +2 C, when we started the journey. This is bad news for skiing. Snowflakes melt too much under the ski and there is absolutely no traction whatsoever. The skis glide very well, but without traction there is literally no way you can pull a sledge behind you.

We added some grip wax on all skis after the first 20 meters but the effect was minimal. I wished I had hairy skins to put under my skis. They would have worked.

So the first couple of hours our journey proceeded very slowly. It was nearly one meter ahead and two backwards, if there was even the tiniest hill. Our spirits were still high, but we started thinking maybe we have to stay the night at the first open hut only 4 kilometres away at lake Keimiöjärvi. At least there was a lovely sunset to enjoy, and the great Keimiö fell on our left side kept us company.

Me pulling the sledge. Luckily the track was visible, it was cleared by snowmobile. In deep powder snow we would have been exhausted in no time.

When finally reaching the first hut, Keimiöjärvi autiotupa, it was lunch time. We went to sit inside. There was everything one needs for perfect camping: firewood, a stove, some buckets to fetch snow in and pans so you can melt the snow for drinking or food. Sleeping places for 3 people, more if you squeeze. A dry toilet outside. Someone had left many candles on the big table which made me very happy.

Across the frozen lake and into the darkness

After lunch break it was only 2 pm, so we decided to keep going. It was always possible to return to this hut if the journey wouldn’t proceed at all due to non-existent grip. The second hut, Mustakero, we had to forget as it was situated on top of hill. No way we could climb up in this snow.

It was getting dark already so we wanted to cross the lake as soon as possible. You never know with frozen lakes, if there is a current or underwater spring that prevents the ice from properly freezing over.

This route was marked though and I felt pretty trusting there wouldn’t be any soft spots in the ice. Still, there was nervousness in the air. We had forgotten to bring ice claws. You should never cross unfamiliar waters without them, ice claws literally save your life if you fall in. You smash them on the ice and pull yourself up.

Crossing the lake, leaving the Keimiöjärvi open hut behind.

After crossing the lake with no casualties (phew), our path continued in the dark. The funny thing about darkness is, it never really is pitch black when there is snow on the ground. I didn’t even want to turn my headlamp on. I could see shades and trees, the fells around me. And I could see the amazing sky with a zillion stars!

What you don’t see, is depth. Downhills on our way were not steep, but all three of us managed to fall many times! Luckily snow was soft and there was a lot of it. The sledge is funny when coming downhill: first you have to pull it for the initial glide. Then gravity takes over and you feel a push on your back, as the sledge gives you extra speed! I wouldn’t dare to slide down a steep big hill, the speed would accelerate so fast I wouldn’t be able to do anything but yell.

Mustavaara hut

After the last rays of light were gone by 2.30 pm, the temperature dropped below zero, just enough to get some grip back. Our expedition managed to actually ski ahead now! Before no time we had travelled 5 km from the first hut to Mustavaara, an old reindeer herders’ hut. It has been estimated that this hut was built in the end of 1800’s, making it the oldest hut in the whole Pallas-Ylläs National Park.

Melting snow for drinking water.

In summer time there is drinking water practically everywhere. The waters in Lapland are so pure. In winter, you melt it from snow. But snow takes quite a while longer to bring to boil than liquid water, as you might recall from chemistry lessons. Still, it took surprisingly long, I thought.

For dinner we made avocado pasta, not the most traditional of Finnish dishes, but very quick to prepare and absolutely yummy!

The cute and old hut Mustavaara. Imagine this too is complete free for everyone to enjoy! Many thanks to Metsähallitus, the Finnish Administration of Forests, for the maintenance and firewood.

The next day

Our expedition team didn’t sleep too well as there were mice rattling (don’t leave food laying around) and wind howling in a snow blizzard. But we were more than happy to have experienced this old hut. After breakfast it was time to get going as daylight would last, again, for only a couple of hours.

Today it was about -2 C, just enough to get a decent grip of the snow. The way back around the fells was 15 km so it was going to be a long way – or not, depending on the path. The first 7 km were in great shape with hard path made by snowmobile. There were even proper ski tracks all the way from Mustavaara hut to hotel Jeris, 7 km leg. Our forest skis were too wide to fit the tracks though, they were meant for normal cross-country skis.

Skiing in deep snow

The last 7 km leg was something else. This part of the route hadn’t been opened, I don’t know why. Or perhaps it had snowed so much the track had been covered. It was quite a struggle as we had to cram in unbroken snow, in the dark. The benefit of tall, wide skis is that they glide better on top of snow. That is, IF the snow is hard enough to carry your weight. This snow was powder fresh fluff and we sank right through. We took turns in opening the route.

Also the terrain changed to very hilly. It was ever-changing uphill – downhill for at least 3 km. The last leg goes next to a reindeer fence so you can’t get lost. You just need to find the gate where you started off.

Obviously it’s hard to take good pictures when it is dark, but most of the time our skiing trip looked liked this.

It was fine with a good headlamp, but my friends had very dim headlamps and couldn’t see where they were skiing. Imagine skiing down at high speed in complete darkness without knowing where you will end up! They took it well though, and by that I mean, they landed softly when falling in the snow – with head first, butt first, sideways, you name it. I fell too, even though I had a good lamp and thus, no excuses…

Finally we recognised the gate in the fence and yelled out of excitement. It was a fun, challenging trip, I learned a lot about skiing in snow that keeps changing its form.

Starting point on the map

coordinates: lat:67° 55′ 18,488″ lon: 24° 9′ 35,108″

Ylläs is heaven for snowshoeing

Hiking up fells with snowshoes is fun and good workout. Ylläs has around 50 km of marked snowshoeing routes to keep everybody happy and fit. You don’t need prior experience, just good spirit and a camera to capture the breathtaking nature around you. My first encounter with snowshoes was sweaty but left me infatuated.

snowshoeing2

Tuija attaching boot to the binding. It is around -10 degrees of Celsius and we are feeling a bit chilly as we should. It’s going to get sweaty! My choice: Merino wool base layer, T-shirt and a windproof softshell.

Marking routes for the winter season

In the early December days I tagged along a friend who had a task of marking a snowshoeing route next to Ylläs fell in Lapland. The route is 3–4 km in length and takes you up through a magical forest on top of a small fell “Pikkulaki” for some striking views and back.

We stuffed a big bunch of blue poles in our hiking backs and started the journey. Tuija needed to mark the path to follow specific route, so that it follows the same route as on official maps.

Tuija marking the official route with blue poles. Elli the dog is helping.

Tuija marking the official route with blue poles. Elli the dog is helping.

Snowshoes prevent sinking in the deep snow

There are many different kinds of snowshoes but they all work with the same idea: You place your shoe in the binding so that your toes point to the shorter end of the snowshoe. Tighten the cords and go!

The point of snowshoe is that it is easier to walk on top of loose deep snow when your weight is distributed on larger area the your feet. The larger the area, the more it allows you to float on top of snow. The same applies with skis: the longer your skis, the better they will hold you on top of snow. This effect was the reason skis and snowshoes were invented in the first place – to help people move in deep snow.

Harder than I thought

So we embarked upon our journey and within 50 meters it was clear it is going to be rough. Even the dog Elli knew it and wisely saved her energy by stepping only our tracks. The snow was powdery but packed tightly by wind and there was a lot of it, 40–50 cm on average, sometimes much more. So the snowshoe didn’t really do the magic and let me glide on snow as I was expecting, but rather I had to work really hard in knee deep snow to take steps forward. But Tuija was reassuring that conditions on this particular day were harder than usual. Onward we went.

The first hill was very small but steep. I felt I was sliding back and couldn’t get a grip. Then Tuija pointed out there are metal “teeth” below the shoe that allow you to step on you toes and get a proper hold of snow when climbing a steep surface.  So I changed my step to tiptoeing, with success.

Forest is just magical now. Trees have piles of snow on them, some of them are bend as the snow is so heavy. The scenery is from a fairy tale, and as the day light gets fainter and fainter I start to see all kinds of mystical creatures in the tree silhouettes.

Finally on the top, just in time to see the last beautiful rays of light! On the way back headlamps were needed.

Finally on the top, just in time to see the last beautiful rays of light! On the way back headlamps were needed.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the top, Pikkulaki. It was 2 pm, the sun had only been up for two hours and had already set. Polar night will begin here soon. The colours were breathtaking.

View from Pikkulaki mini fell. Sweating up was totally worth it. I haven't enhanced a single colour on this pic. On the other side of Pikkulaki there is the grand Ylläs fell, boasting the largest skiing resort in Finland.

View from Pikkulaki mini fell. Sweating up was totally worth it. I haven’t enhanced a single colour on this pic. On the other side of Pikkulaki there is the grand Ylläs fell, boasting the largest skiing resort in Finland.

Snowshoeing down was an easy ride as now we could follow our own tracks. On the way down we made sure there are enough of blue poles, so you won’t be puzzled or have to worry about getting lost. A map is a good friend though, so you see how to get to the starting point by car or bus.

What to wear?

Tuija had her Sorel Caribous, I had my hiking boots plus gaiters to prevent snow from wetting my pants. Hiking boots or the like work as they feel comfy but robust, and they are somewhat waterproof. The rental places often have a variety of shoes if you don't own suitable ones.

Tuija had her Sorel Caribous, I had my hiking boots plus gaiters to prevent snow from wetting my pants. Hiking boots or the like work as they feel comfy but robust, and they are somewhat waterproof. The rental places often have a variety of shoes if you don’t own suitable ones.

Snowshoeing is proper workout, make no mistake. Don’t overdress or you’ll be sweating like a pig. Well, I was anyways. But it’s important to have extra clothing in a backpack so you can add a woollen layer or two if you get cold during a break or when descending.  A good advice is that you should feel slightly cold at the start. Your body will soon heat you up.

Map – how to get here 

Coordinates: (ETRS-TM35FIN) N=7494364.526825563, E=382855.67971687607

Check these out:
Snowshoeing routes in Ylläs
Snowshoe rental places