Articles tagged with "snow"
I’d been up the Valle de las Arenas before and it had been awesome. I’d wanted to go back for ages, and this weekend some friends were in the mood for a hike, so we decided to head up there.
It was incredibly different to my last trip. In late autumn, the valley was barren and we could drive a long way up it, so that we only had a couple of hours to hike to get to the glacier. Today we had to start from a lot further back, firstly because after a very rainy winter, the valley was still full of snow. And secondly because there was now a huge building site at the foot of the valley. There had just been a few portacabins there 18 months ago but now the road was blocked, and a sign said that cars needed permission to pass. We didn’t, so we parked and hiked up the valley from there. It was a fantastic hike in the thick snow.
I got up early the next morning, and was on the way up the trail to the top at 6.30am. It was a cool morning and I knew I’d made a good decision stopping for the night instead of climbing in the hot afternoon. I made fast progress, and by 8am I was at the only difficult bit of the climb, a rocky section over a narrow ridge. It wasn’t always easy to see the best way over, and I was really glad I had gone down to San Carlos de Apoquindo last year instead of continuing in the dark. It would not have been nice trying to clamber over the rocks by torchlight.
On the other side, it was a short and easy walk to the summit. I got there before 9am and felt happy to have finally got here. It had been my target for four years.
I headed down. By 11.30 I was back at my camp, and I packed up. At 12, three friends passed by – they were climbing in the one day while I’d preferred to spend a night camping. I said hi to them and carried on down. The way to San Carlos was steep and dusty, and with only one pole it was miserable going. I kept on slipping and progress was slow. Just after I’d slipped yet again and put my hand into a thorny bush, I met another friend who was heading to Alto del Naranjo. I feigned enjoyment, and carried on down. I ran out of water before I got to San Carlos and was incredibly thirsty when I arrived. Luckily there was a tap there and I drank several litres before heading home. I drank many more when I got there.
The day after the Tongariro Crossing, we drove to Whakapapa, and stopped for a coffee with a good view at the Chateau Tongariro.
From Red Crater we headed down. If we’d have been coming this way in summer there would have been colourful lakes on the way but they were all frozen and buried under snow.
It was good weather again at the top, and we relaxed in the sun on the edge of Red Crater, which last erupted in 1926.
It had been sunny at first but then we had a complete whiteout for a bit. The sun started to come out again as we were nearing the highest point on the crossing.
The storm passed before night fall. We talked to the other climber, Sixto, who was incredibly well prepared and was carrying enough kit for at least three other people. He even had a hot water bottle with him. He’d climbed El Plomo a few times before. He wore incredibly thick glasses and told us that he was actually virtually blind, with a prescription in the -20s. His retinas were damaged, and any head injury would probably make him lose the last of his vision.
It was cold in the hut. I was warm enough and acclimatised enough to sleep well, but my water bottle was frozen solid when I woke up. We got up at 4am to see if it was worth climbing, but the summit was covered in thick cloud and it didn’t look good. We decided to abandon the summit and head down. A lot of snow had fallen and the path was totally covered. If we hadn’t had a GPS record of the way we’d come up to follow, we’d have had a hard time finding the right way down.
We stopped at Federación for some lunch then carried on down the valley of the Cepo to Piedra Numerada. Up until now I hadn’t felt too tired, but the last leg from Piedra Numerada back to the car at Tres Puntas was horrific. I’d forgotten how much the path had dropped on our way into the valley, and now we had to climb back out. I was exhausted and walked painfully slowly. Getting back to the car was the hardest part of the whole trip.
Weather forecasts for the weekend hadn’t been great, but until now we’d seen no sign of particularly bad weather. It was getting cloudy as we stopped at La Hoya, and as we continued up towards Agostini, things got worse. It began to snow, and visibility began to drop. Then, in the distance, we heard thunder. At first I was not sure if it was an avalanche on the glacier or a storm brewing, but very quickly it became obvious that it was a storm.
The snow got heavier. I wanted to head back down, but Neil was sure that we were more than half way to the hut and persuaded me to carry on. We tried to go as quickly as possible but at well over 4,000m, that’s not very quick. And then suddenly we were in the middle of the storm, with lightning striking terrifyingly close by and thunder shaking the ground. I dived behind a rock. Static electricity was everywhere, everything was crackling, and I could hear my ice axe sparking.
I didn’t want to move. We were in huge danger and I was thinking that literally any moment could be my last. So we lay on the ground in the snow for a while until there seemed to be a lull in the storm. Then we got up and ran uphill. This was savagely tiring but fear of imminent death spurred us on. Then lightning struck close by again, the sky roared and we hit the ground once more.
In the gloom, another climber appeared, heading downhill quickly. He told us we were 20 minutes from the hut and then disappeared. So we decided to keep on going up, and actually we were more like 5 minutes away. I felt massively relieved once we caught sight of it. The storm continued and we kept on taking what cover we could when lightning struck nearby. We ran the last few metres to the hut and dived inside.
The hut was empty when we got there. Another climber arrived not long after us, shaken by his experience in the storm. It was snowing so heavily that he’d lost the path and thought he wasn’t going to find the hut. Then later on, three people coming down the mountain appeared, and told us that there were more people higher up, badly equipped, one of whom was having major altitude problems.
The snow had stopped but the air was still electrified. We stayed in the hut and I worried about the people higher up – it sounded like there was a serious possibility that there would be fatalities. We were relieved when they arrived at the hut a couple of hours later. They rested in the hut for a few minutes, the one with altitude sickness falling asleep straight away. We shared food and drink with them, and they headed down. They were much better equipped than the first group had said, and with the storm now passing, it looked like they would be OK.
I had 8 hours between flights in Paris. I’d been thinking of buying a cheap flight to London to go and see my friends there to fill the gap, and at the very least I thought I’d go out into the city. But I hadn’t booked any flights, and when I got through security I found a part of Charles de Gaulle airport that was filled with large, comfortable beds. I was tired, obviously, after a 14 hour flight, so I thought I would lie down for a bit. Just a little bit, and then I’d go out and explore Paris.
5 hours later I woke up, to find this bit of the airport completely deserted. I had about enough time to find my way through the labyrinths to where my next flight, to Amsterdam, would go from. Then from Amsterdam it was just another 12 hours to get to Taipei.
Back in 2001, on my way back from Australia, I’d flown over Siberia. It had been one of the most amazing flights I’d been on, with incredible views of the empty vastness covered in snow and ice. So I was looking forward to flying over it again. Flying east, it got light pretty soon after we’d left Amsterdam at midnight, and I wanted to look out of the window but I didn’t want to disturb everyone else on the plane. So I covered myself with my blanket and tried to cover the window too whenever I opened it to look out. I am not sure it worked. I think probably all the other passengers just wondered why there was a guy with a blanket on his head which was illuminated from the inside. But, whatever they thought, I liked the views.
I spent my first few days in the Falklands in a state of destitution. There was just one bank, and it didn’t have a cash machine, so visitors arriving on a Saturday like I did would have to wait until the bank opened on the Monday before they could get any money out. Except that the Monday was a public holiday, on account of the Queen’s birthday apparently having happened. And on top of that I’d only managed to get hold of 40 pounds of sterling in Santiago before I arrived, and those 40 pounds turned out to be old bank notes that were no longer valid. My first few days in the islands required me to impose on the charitable nature of the Falkland Islanders.
The Queen’s birthday is something that we would never dream of celebrating in the UK and it certainly isn’t a public holiday. But here, before I’d arrived on the Saturday, there had been parades and ceremonies, and most things were closed on the Monday. Fortunately I was staying at Kay’s B&B, and Kay was very kind and lent me enough money to last until the bank finally opened on the Tuesday morning. I would have been in dire straits without her help.
I had booked a flight to Saunders Island for the Tuesday. Flights in the Falklands don’t follow a fixed timetable – they just go where and when people need to travel. They normally fly at 8am, but luckily today there was a second flight, which meant I had time to get to the bank and get some money, at the offensive cost of 4.5% plus a sickening £1.50 for a phone call to the UK to validate the transaction. If I had wanted Sterling instead of Falklands pounds they’d have charged me an outrageous 1% extra.
Angry but financially independent once again, I headed to the airport. The Falklands Islands Government Air Service aircraft are tiny eight-seater planes, they fly low over the rugged landscape, and our journey out to Saunders was spectacular. We stopped at Port San Carlos, Port Howard and Pebble Island on the way as we chugged over the snow-covered hills in the tiny prop-engine plane.
On the way back from Volunteer Beach we drove back past Mount Kent. The hills near Stanley were the scene of fierce fighting during the war, and even now, 30 years later, relics still remain. We made a stop at the wreckage of an Argentinian helicopter. Keith told us that in the later stages of the occupation of Stanley, when British forces were shelling the town, senior Argentinians would leave at night for safer refuges in the hills. This helicopter had been ferrying officers away from Stanley for the night when it was attacked and shot down by a British aircraft.
For the last six months I’ve been enjoying Santiago’s incredibly stable weather. More or less every single day has seen clear blue skies and temperatures in the thirties. And when I haven’t been in Santiago I’ve been in the Atacama. Between early October and last week’s incredible downpour, the only rain I’d seen was literally a few drops which fell in January.
So I knew, really, that it was going to be cold in the Falklands, way down south just a few hundred miles from Antarctica. I knew that. But I had forgotten what cold really was. I rediscovered the phenomenon as soon as the plane door opened after we’d landed at Mount Pleasant airport. By the time I got to the terminal I was shivering. I’d seen snow on the high ground from the plane as we descended, but much worse than the snow was the wind, a wild icy blast which sapped my body heat and swept it away over the hills. I suffered on the day that I arrived in Stanley, and I suffered much more the next day, when the snow had come down from the high ground all the way to sea level.
I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn’t left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I’ve still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country.
With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I’d long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight.
And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was going to the Falklands. “There’s nothing there, right?”, he asked. True enough, I said, but I was in the mood for getting away from it all and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. More or less my whole life these islands have been in the news every now and then, but I had no idea what they actually looked like, didn’t know anyone who’d been there, never met anyone from there.
The flight took off just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten, and we had spectacular views of the country as the sun rose. As we got down to Patagonia the weather was amazing and the landscapes below were mindblowing. I’d been to some of those places, six years earlier, and looked down nostalgically on the Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine.
On the altiplano, snow melts in strange ways. It forms peaks and valleys, and the valleys deepen until you’re left with large snow pillars called penitentes standing in the red desert landscape.
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.
It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.
But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.
At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.
We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.
We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.
Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.
That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.
From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view.
It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.
I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.
We climbed the road. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before too long we were 700m above sea level, and there was snow on the ground around us. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up.
It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.
I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.
Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.
Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.
Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.
In the morning I had to rush around Tasiilaq. I needed to buy a helicopter trip back to Kulusuk, so I hurried down to the helipad. They turned out not to sell tickets there, but they told me I could get them at the bookshop. I hurried to the bookshop but it wasn’t open, and it wouldn’t open until after the last helicopter had left. So I hurried back to the Red House and used their internet connection. It cost me more than 6 pounds for 15 minutes, but I booked my ticket, then walked back down to the helipad, told the guy at the desk my reservation number, and waited for the helicopter to arrive.
In the departure lounge there was a middle-aged Inuit listening to loud tinny music on his mobile phone. His tastes were very cheesy. A young Greenlander started speaking to him and I wondered if the young guy was going to ask him to turn it down. But as they spoke, I heard the older guy say “Bluetooth”, and they started swapping tunes.
I got the helicopter back to Kulusuk. As I was walking from the airport to the village, a Greenlander offered me a lift, and I chatted to him during the short journey. He was 47, and he’d always lived in Kulusuk. He said that the first tourists started coming here when he was still a boy. He was going out seal hunting later in the day, and told me that whale hunting would start later in the year. Apparently the whales were too far off shore at the moment but when the sea ice melted more, they’d come closer to the shore.
He dropped me off in the village. I was hoping to stay in a hostel but it turned out to be full. The hostel owner, an Icelander, gave me a lift out of town to a camping area, and I set up my tent there. He warned me to look out for polar bears, and I laughed, but he was actually serious. Apparently one had been seen near the airport only a month earlier.
Not long after I set up my tent, two small children came over from a nearby house. By means of sign language, they indicated that they wanted to swap residences with me. They moved themselves into my tent and pointed me towards their house. They played for a little while, until it started raining. They left me to my small patch of grass and headed back to their nice solid dry warm wooden house.
The temperature dropped and the rain got heavier. I tried to cook some noodles in the porch of my tent, running a serious risk of setting the thing on fire. Ice formed on my gas canister, and the water never got hotter than a hot bath. “I love camping”, I said to myself as I chewed the crunchy noodles and listened to the rain battering on the canvas.
My time on Ammassalik was over. Before I’d left London I’d booked a ticket for the ferry back to Kulusuk. The helicopter ride over had been fun but I really fancied a little sea voyage off East Greenland. It was the first scheduled ferry journey of the year – the sea ice had only recently melted enough to allow easy sailing. I packed up my things and wandered down to the port under gloomy skies.
The boat was supposed to leave at 9am, but there was little sign of any activity. I hung around on the dock until 9.30 and then vaguely wandered on board. I showed someone my ticket, and then watched dark shoals of large fish speeding around in the water. At 11.15, we chugged away from the dock, and set off for Kulusuk. The only passengers were me and five Danes. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze, swaying with the boat and watching icebergs drift by. The seas were mostly clear. The boat didn’t even need to avoid most of the icebergs – it was quite happy to ride over them.
After a couple of hours I imagined we were not too far from Kulusuk, and I started to think about what I would do there for two days. Suddenly, a crew member asked to see my ticket again. He looked a bit worried and I wondered why. I soon found out. The boat was not two hours late but two days late. Its weekly run took it all around the settlements of Ammassalik district, and today it was not actually going to Kulusuk, but to Sermiligaaq, the most remote village on the schedule. My journey was not nearly over – it had barely begun.
I sometimes have crazy dreams about accidentally getting boats or trains to completely the wrong place. This was the first time it had ever happened to me. I felt a slight sense of panic for about 10 seconds, and then realised that this was in no way a bad thing. I would have to spend another 90 pounds on a helicopter back to Kulusuk in the morning, but on the plus side I was in for a 12 hour round trip up the savage coast of East Greenland, to a remote village that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. The crew and the Danes couldn’t understand why I was smiling so much.
We sailed up Ammassalik Fjord. It was nothing like as ice-choked as Sermilik Fjord. It was a dull grey day and the seas and mountains looked gloomy. I lost track of time as we gently rolled along, rising and falling with the swell. I chatted to the Danes, who had travelled a lot in Nordic parts, and I chatted to one of the crew who could speak English. A couple of the other crew had simply said “Kulusuk!” and laughed as I passed them on the deck. It was all meant in a good spirit.
After almost six hours we reached Sermiligaaq. It was a slice of Greenland life that I was incredibly happy to have had this chance to see. The tiny ragged village was the first sign of human life that there had been in all the miles of fjord since Tasiilaq. It seemed unbelievable that people could live here. The arrival of the boat was quite an event – our main mission here was to deliver supplies. The Danes and I left the boat crew to their work. We had an hour to kill before heading back and I wandered around the village. The only activity was at the dock – everywhere else was deserted. In the cold drizzle it didn’t look like a very inviting place.
The boat finished its delivery, and we headed back. I watched Sermiligaaq recede into the forbidding mountains, and we sailed back into the endlessness. It was 5pm, and it was getting colder. I spent most of the return journey indoors, sheltering from icy winds. I’d brought no food with me, naturally, having expected to be on Kulusuk by lunchtime. But the Danes took pity on me, sharing biscuits and sandwiches, and the crew even offered me a share of their cooked dinner. It was very kind but I had to refuse on the grounds of vegetarianism. I probably offended them greatly. I felt bad.
Eventually, at 11pm, we chugged back into Kong Oskars Havn, and the familiar sights of Tasiilaq drifted back into view. The heavy cloud made the Greenlandic evening almost feel like it might turn into a night. I got off the boat and walked unsteadily back up to the Red House, where luckily they had room to put me up again. That night, and for days after, I felt the rocking of the boat as I lay in bed, and I saw icebergs and mountains and stern grey seas when I closed my eyes.
Once I’d recovered from my caffeine deprivation, I was in a position to appreciate just how incredible Greenland is. I went for a walk up Blomsterdalen, a valley running from the fjord up into the hills and mountains of Ammassalik Island. A few locals were out for picnics at the town end of the valley but further up there was no-one. I passed the cemetery, as bleak and haunting as all Greenlandic cemeteries are, and followed a river up to a series of frozen lakes.
On my way back into town I decided to head up into the hills. Hiking here was a dream – no trails, no people, just pure wilderness. I climbed up to a ridge and looked down over the fjord. A ribbon of clouds drifted past the bleak mountains across the water, and icebergs drifted down the fjord.
I camped just outside the town, on an ostensibly organised site that had no facilities bar one horrific toilet. I don’t mind camping in basic conditions but having no running water does make things more difficult. But I had a sheltered spot on a grassy promontory overlooking the fjord, and I was in Greenland, so I was pretty happy. I set up my tent under the cool grey skies. I was severely sleep-deprived after my late arrival in Iceland and early departure to get to here, so I lay down and slept.
When I woke a few hours later, I knew I was in trouble. I had all the signs of imminent disastrous caffeine withdrawal – a slight shaking, a feeling of paranoia and a rapidly developing headache. Groaning slightly, I got up and stumbled into town. I’d heard there was a book shop where you could get coffee, but it was already closed for the day. So I staggered on towards the largest supermarket in town, hoping in a crazy way that they would have some kind of cafe in store. They didn’t. Luckily I found some instant coffee, and now all I needed was water. Could I find any bottled water in the whole shop? No, I couldn’t. I found apple juice, and considered what kind of brew that would make. My symptoms were severe, and I seriously contemplated this option. Then, I found some soya milk, and decided that might work better. Unable to think about anything else, I shuffled back to my campsite, staring wildly and clutching my shopping like an eccentric OAP. I lit my stove, heated up some milk, made a ghastly, stupidly strong pseudo-coffee, drank it so eagerly that it spilled down my face, then made two more in quick succession.
Sometimes I wonder if I should give up coffee.
My cravings were alleviated, but my enthusiasm for Greenland was limited by the prospect of four days camped here with no running water and no showers. I decided to see if there was space in the hostel which owned the campsite. There was, and they said they had been mistaken in letting me use the campsite because in fact it was not yet ready for use. So I packed up my camping things and headed indoors, found a kitchen, brewed lots of coffee, and felt my enthusiasm renewed.
I went to Grenoble with five friends to go skiing. A few of them were experts but this was my first time. We went to Chamrouse where I learned the basics and fell over lots, and eventually destroyed the camera I’d bought in Paraguay. The next day we went to Prapoutel, where I fell over a bit less. Skiing was fun and even if it hadn’t been, it would have been worth going just to be out in the mountains.
I got back to Rovaniemi at about 10pm and picked my way slowly through the icy streets to the centre of town. The youth hostel was supposed to have a sauna so I got myself a room there. Weirdly, the hostel itself was unstaffed and I had to get keys and things from a hotel about 10 minutes walk away. That just made it an even greater disappointment when, after I’d pulled yet more muscles in avoiding falling over during the walk to the hostel, there turned out not to be a sauna. Not only that but there appeared to be no-one else in the hostel at all.
So, short of things to do, I went for a walk around town. If I couldn’t have a sauna I was at least hoping I might see the northern lights, for the first time since I was in Iceland seven years ago. There were some breaks in the cloud and the moon was appearing occasionally so I thought I might have a chance. But it wasn’t to be and I couldn’t see anything that looked like even a hint of aurora. As I walked slowly back to the hostel, holding onto walls, trees and street signs and still only barely keeping my balance, groups of girls in high heels strode past me on their way out for Saturday night.
The next day I woke up at 9am to find it still almost dark. Once the sun had risen I got up and set out to explore. Rovaniemi is no beauty, but then it was completely destroyed by the Nazis at the end of World War Two, as they retreated across northern Scandinavia. Apparently almost every town in northern Norway and Finland was razed to the ground, and it’s incredible that anyone even returned to rebuild their homes, so I didn’t mind the concrete wasteland too much.
I walked down to the Kemi River, not frozen here like it had been at Kemijärvi. Even at midday it was gloomy. A cold wind was blowing and it was beginning to drizzle. If it had been nicer I might have gone for a walk in the forest but it seemed more prudent to return to town and get a coffee. I spent a while warming up with a few espressos, chatting to friendly Finns and thinking I’d really like to come back here in the summer.
It was a Sunday and everything closed at about 4pm. My train back to Tampere wasn’t leaving until 10pm, and it was now that I realised that finding something to do for six hours in a small town on the Arctic Circle on a Sunday evening in the middle of winter is basically impossible. I saw as much of Rovaniemi in the dark as anyone would ever want to, then had a long slow evening meal, then spent an hour walking back to the station.
Finally it was time to leave. I got the train back to Tampere, arriving at 6am. I had slept terribly on the train and got a bit more terrible sleep in the waiting room on Tampere station, waiting for the coffee shop to open. It began to rain heavily as I got the bus to the airport, and much as I’d enjoyed the trip I decided I was not going to come back to Finland before June at the earliest.
I found my way from the train station to the bus station. It was only a short walk but a thick layer of ice covered the streets and I slid wildly along, probably causing much amusement for the few Finns who were out and about. They seemed to have no trouble keeping their balance and leaving the streets icy seemed to me like a cruel way to spot outsiders.
It took me a while to work out the bus timetables at the station – I thought I’d cracked it but a couple of buses that should have turned up didn’t. The mystery was solved when I found out the Finnish words for ‘arrivals’ and ‘departures’. I got the right timetable, found a bus going to Kemijärvi, bought a snack and headed north.
It was 1.30pm, and the sun had just set. The small but comfortable bus rolled out of Rovaniemi and headed north. Snow was beginning to fall and before long we’d left the city behind and were in thick forest. The ‘official’ home of Santa Claus is a major tourist attraction here, and his home lies right on the Arctic Circle, so there was no mistaking the moment we crossed the line. Signs had been counting down about every 100 metres, and a giant garish shopping complex and an arch across the road marked our entry to the polar regions.
It was slowly getting dark. We left Santa behind and the road narrowed. The scenery was nothing but endless snow-covered pine-trees, fading into a wintry mist. The uniformity was soporific, and I was beginning to doze off when we slowed sharply. A herd of reindeer had emerged from the gloomy forest and was crossing the road. We waited for a few minutes as a column of bulky bodies and towering antlers trotted across, then as they disappeared into the forest on the other side of the road, we drove on.
By 2.30pm it was night, and another half an hour saw us reach Kemijärvi. I was the only passenger left on the bus by now, and the town was empty as I set out to explore. I wanted to go to an idyllic-sounding hostel, on the shores of the lake, with a sauna, and my dream was that I would be able to spent a couple of days in the sauna, watching the northern lights. But after a lengthy walk along the shores of the frozen lake to the hostel, it turned out to be closed. The only other accommodation in Kemijärvi was far too expensive for me, so I had to reconsider my plans. In the end I decided I’d have to get the evening train back to Rovaniemi and hope to find a sauna there.
With the rest of the day to spend in Kemijärvi I went for a long walk, out of town to the shores of the Kemi river, frozen solid and stretching away into invisible inky blackness. I walked back into town and along the shores of the lake, enjoying the strangeness of 6pm feeling like the middle of an endless night.
At 8pm, a bit upset that I wasn’t going to manage to have a sauna in the Arctic, I headed for the station and got the train back to Rovaniemi. The train was about half full, and I looked at all the other passengers, wondering if they thought it was at all amazing that their normal day’s routine involved getting a train across frozen wastelands where the Sun barely rises for several weeks in the middle of winter. They probably didn’t, but I did.
After a long walk in the forest it was time to head back to Riga for my flight home. I got the cable car back across the valley.
The train back to Riga took almost two hours but only cost 70p. Latvian trains were cheap, but also ancient, and an icy gale howled in through windows that wouldn’t close. Back in Riga, I began to feel just a tiny bit bored of feeling seriously cold all the time, and spent some time in warm cafes and record shops.
I headed back to the milder climes of London. My flight was supposed to arrive at Stansted just in time for me to get the last train home, but it was diverted to Luton because of fog. Luton was chaos, and it took almost an hour for them to find steps to get us off the plane. I ended up getting home at 5am, shattered, but at least pleased that it was 25C warmer in London than it had been in the Baltics.
On my last day in Latvia I got an early morning train to Sigulda, and walked to the Gauja River valley. I’d heard good things about this place, and I was not disappointed. I got a cable car across the valley over the frozen river, and arrived at the ruins of Krimuldas castle on the other side. On a bluff upstream stood Turaidas castle.
I walked around the ruins and into the forest. I was the only person there, and whenever I stopped, the silence was total. I felt much more intrepid than I actually was being as I hiked through the knee-deep snow.
Not far from Riga is the site of the Salaspils concentration camp. Here, 100,000 people were killed during the Second World War. I can scarcely take in the fact that such a huge number of people died in one place, and it’s unbearable to think that was only a tiny part of what went on.
I got the train to Dārziņi, the nearest station to the site. It cost me just a few pence for the short journey, and I almost got more value for money when I nearly missed Dārziņi station. The stations on the line out of Riga were just halts in the forest, and I didn’t realise we were even at a station when the train announcer said “Dārziņi”. I jumped up but didn’t make it to the door in time. At the next stop I got off, and was relieved to find that they had been announcing the stop we were going to and not the one we were at. I headed off into the silent forest, and found the path to Salaspils.
At the site, there was a small museum overlooking the fields which are all that remain, with a few huge memorial statues where the concentration camp once stood. In the pale wintry evening light it was very sombre. I was the only person there.
I walked back through the forest as the sun set, and caught the train back to Riga. I accidentally got off the train one stop too early, fooled again by the announcement of the next stop. I heard them say “Riga” and thought I was about to get whisked off to some part of Latvia I didn’t want to go just yet. But I was at a stop a few miles from the centre of the city, and I had a long cold walk home.
On my journey to Vilnius, the skies had been grey, and when we stopped at a small roadside cafe just inside Lithuania, snow was falling. On the way back, the skies were blue, and the endless expanse of snow shone brightly under the wintry sun. We stopped at the same cafe, and this time I had Lithuanian currency and so I could eat, which was nice. As I walked back to the bus I slipped on some ice and skated along for a metre or two, arms flailing, but luckily I held it together and survived without falling and only feeling slightly ridiculous.
In the morning I headed back to Trieste. I got a train to Opcina, and as we sped through the Slovenian countryside, the grey skies were gradually breaking up. As we descended there was less and less snow on the ground, and the air was getting warmer and warmer. At the Italian border it was a bright sunny day.
I got a bus from Opcina to Trieste, and then bought a ticket for the airport bus. I waited at the station for a long time, before someone came to tell us the bus had been cancelled. There were five other people waiting for the bus, and after we’d been refunded for our tickets, we headed for the station to get a train to Monfalcone. We were all on cheap Ryanair weekends, and we still had plenty of time before our flight. But at the station, confusion set in. We needed to get the train at 12.15pm, and by the time we’d all got our tickets it was 12.14pm. We rushed onto the platform, and there was a train there which half the group jumped on. But this train was on the platform next to where ours should have been, and I reckoned it was going to Udine. If it was the Udine train, it would not be stopping at Monfalcone and we’d miss our flight.
I told everyone what I thought, but no-one seemed convinced. I was sure enough to jump back off the train, though, and now that I had infected everyone with my paranoia, the group suddenly decided to follow. But disaster struck – the train doors closed before half the group could get off. A couple were divided – a girl got off the train but her boyfriend didn’t, and she was carrying all their money.
Luckily, the train driver noticed the panic, and opened the doors again. Our reunited group had now failed with the bus and the train, and our only option was a taxi. We got two taxis between us and made it to the airport with a few minutes to spare before check-in closed. We flew back to the London winter, relieved not to be stuck in Udine.
We got to Ljubljana at four. Srečko pointed me in the right direction to walk into town, and then headed off for the radio studios.
The streets were virtually empty and the city felt like a ghost town. Someone told me that everyone heads for the ski slopes each weekend in winter, leaving the city in the hands of the old, the infirm, and the travellers who don’t carry skis. I walked randomly, eventually finding my way to the foot of Castle Hill just as night was falling.
An icy path spiralled up the hill, and I walked slowly up. I stopped half way to look out over the snowy roofs, and could see the dark silhouette of distant mountains on the skyline.
By the time I got to the top it was dark. I headed into the castle, and bought a ticket to visit the clock tower. A short climb up a narrow staircase led me out onto the roof, and I was the only person up there. I stayed for a while, feeling like I had the view, the castle and the city all to myself.
In the afternoon I got a train to Ljubljana. I shared a compartment with a Croat called Srečko, who was a journalist on his way to do an interview in Ljubljana. He said his German was better than his English, but my German wasn’t up to a conversation so we spoke in English. About half an hour out of Zagreb we arrived at the Slovenian border, and Srečko said that even now, eleven years after independence, he was still surprised by how close the border was to the capital.
For most of the journey to Ljubljana we were travelling down the valley of the Sava River. Out in the countryside there was thick snow, and the green river was hemmed in by steep forested mountains. It all looked pretty stunning, especially when new snow began to fall. Srečko said he often travelled this way, but never got bored of the scenery.
I walked up to the upper town and found the Lotrščak Tower on a hill overlooking the city. It was closed but even from the bottom there were good views over the city. The skyline was a mix of grand old Central European and grim boxy Soviet.
It was a tiring journey. We crossed two borders, spending a few hours in Slovenia, and I looked out at Ljubljana to see it covered with snow. Then before daybreak we entered Croatia, and at 5.04am we pulled into Zagreb.
It was cold and pitch black, so I found a corner of the station near a heater and slept for a couple of hours. Then at 7am I headed out into the city to explore. I walked through the quiet streets to the centre. There was snow on the ground, and a temperature display at Trg Jelačića said it was -3°C. Slowly the city began to get busier. By 9am there were people around and the shops were opening. I took refuge from the cold in a cafe near Jelačića, where I got a burek and a coffee for breakfast.
We saw in 2003 in Sturecompagniet. It was a pretty awesome club, if a little bit more pretentious than my normal sort of place. But at some point in the small hours they played some ABBA, and everyone forgot just how cool they were trying to appear and went crazy for them.
For some kind of licensing reason, many Swedish bars had casinos in them. Sturecompagniet was one, and when we finally decided to leave at about 4am, Dan was at the poker table. “You coming?” we asked. “I’m just going to win back what I’ve lost”, he said, angrily, and we left him to it. I wondered if we would ever see him again, but he appeared back at the hostel the next morning. He didn’t want to talk about winnings though.
It was only -6°C on new year’s day, and it felt warm. With all the soon-to-be-destroyed hope and optimism that a new year brings, we headed back to Västerås to fly home.
It was new year’s eve. During the day we headed through Gamla Stan to Södermalm, and went up Katarinahiss, a lift which allows the lazy to avoid walking up from sea level to the moderate heights. The views of the city from the top were pretty awesome. I finished a film while we were there, and changing it required me to take off my gloves for a few seconds. The pain of the cold was stunning, and as I hurried to get the new film in I could feel my fingers becoming unresponsive. Luckily I did the job, closed up the camera and got my gloves back on before I got frostbite.
We tried to go out on our first night in Sweden, but we came up against savage licensing laws. We were all 25 or over, but not all of us could prove it – Dan had left his passport at the hostel. All the decent-looking places were out of bounds to us, and we ended up in a fairly rubbish bar, that did at least play some ABBA which was quite amusing.
I woke up at 8am the next day, and it was pitch black. When daylight finally arrived we went to look around the city, which was covered with snow. We walked up to Skansen Kronan, a fort on a hill, and endured the icy wind to take in views of the city. We had a bet running: whoever slipped over first would buy a round of drinks. This was no small penalty here in Scandinavia. On the way down from Skansen Kronan, Dan had a major moment, but after a few seconds of flailing he recovered his balance. We were all buying our own drinks, for now.
I went to Sweden with three friends for New Year. John and Dan were feeling wealthy and flew with SAS to Stockholm. Eldrik and I were feeling not wealthy and we flew with Ryanair to Västerås. We were all converging on Gothenburg. We landed in darkness to find Västerås covered in snow, and got a night train to Gothenburg.
The journey from Myrdal took us back to Oslo across the icy wasteland of the Hardangervidda plateau. In the night, on the train to Bergen, I’d looked out and seen huge expanses of snow, and the daytime crossing was awesome. Occasionally in the middle of nowhere we’d spot a couple of cross-country skiers. I listened to “The Sun Always Shines On TV” by A-Ha for some good Norwegian accompaniment. One thing I liked about this bit of the journey was that the plateau starred as the ice planet Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back”.
We got back to Oslo at about 10pm, and made our way to a hostel. We found ourselves sharing a room with an American traveller called Brian, and our arrival woke him up. He’d clearly had a massive Friday night out; he asked us the time, and when we said it was 11, he thought it was 11am on Sunday morning. He was totally baffled to find that it was still the middle of the night. He was too confused to hit the town again, so the three of us left him to recover and went out to check out Oslo nightlife.