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The challenge: 14 days solo tramping in winter time and full independence.
Maybe an easy game for any good local tramper but a doubtful adventure for me. Indeed, I'd never been tramping on snow in winter time, sub-freezing temperature, with less than four hours of daylight, rough weather conditions and – probably the most noticeable point – 100% off track. Thus, many unknowns I'd deal with (in one go) and that is what actually motivated me. Why? Whereas the purpose of my previous travels was focused on discovering the world and resulted on discovering myself as well, this adventure was a revival, intended to remind to myself that I'm still alive.Only the kiss of a pretty woman or a kick from Mother Nature could make my heart pounding for real. So for my winter holidays, I found my way in wilderness. Where? Let's keep this virgin wilderness area away from the tourism industry. Don't bother about the location since what really matters is just nature and adventure. What gear? Snowshoes, tent, thermal and wet weather clothes, cooker with two weeks of fuel and food, a personal locator beacon, and many other things carried into my too heavy backpack. How a such trip was made possible? The actual tramp is just one part of the expedition which required weeks of preparation and hundreds of euros in winter gear. The prep time was also helpful to handle anxiety considering the risk and how to deal with it. Typical questions answered, let's tell you what happened on a daily basis.
I flew to the city and took the train going farther north. A book would have been handy during the never ending journey. However, expedition-grade winter gear is at least twice heavier and bigger than lightweight summer gear. So a pocket book was just too much. A camera was also too much. Pictures have been taken with my handheld GPS.
Arrived in town, I found the hotel close and pitched my tent in the park, “easy as”. The sky was thankfully clear for the first time out but the 20°C drop from where I live was a wee bit surprising, just -5°C though.
I took the ferry to be dropped off in the fiord. Not any sign would indicate the ferry for tourists but it was the only roaring boat in port. A young lady and I were the only customers. “I guess you are visiting your family for Christmas! – Yeah, what about you? – I go hiking! – A bit cold now, hum! – Yeah, not too bad.” The ferry was warm and cosy with free coffee and cinnamon biscuits. I got myself prepared, wished the lady a merry Christmas and headed into the bush headlight on, following a snowy 4WD road. I pitched my tent at the road-end under clear sky. Without the disturbance of man-made light, I could stare at the sky full of stars.
I wasn't precisely sure where I should go but I found my way through rivers and hills. I spotted deer footprints and a couple of white birds. No wind, few clouds, quiet, still -5°C, so everything was good until “baoooom!” Probably a layer of ice that just broke underneath me. A loud sound muted by snow that I heard many times without worrying much. It was just a reminder that the white cover is alive, as much as that pine, that rock, you, me.
I found a locked hut which was not on the map, and pitched my tent next to it. Then I noticed two things. Firstly, as if my backpack was not heavy enough, I was carrying a kilogram of ice. Indeed, my aluminium water bottle froze. Secondly, my lighter that worked well in normal temperature didn't in cold temperature. Fortunately, matches always work. Anyway, thank you again Mother Nature for this beautiful day.
The sky at sunrise and sunset was bloody amazing. The red and purple above the white snow was a hell and heaven's show. With constant fantastic weather conditions, I was feeling in heaven days and nigths. I was slow going but not in rush. Short days were good for my feet, legs and knees despite my load, and I was dreaming all nights long. I'd seen all kind of animal footprints and I was one of the very few moving creatures. Each step was loud with the cracking icy snow. Each step moved myself away from civilisation and engaged myself more than ever. Navigation was the challenge and I realised that interpreting topo maps is easier in summer time, when the terrain, vegetation, streams are clearly visible. I used my GPS to know where I was, my paper map to know where I wanted to go, and peaks, saddles, antennas as bearing.
Three hours to get prepared, from the first open eye to the first step, three times longer than during a summer tramp. I wasn't in a hurry though. I had more layers of clothes, cooking was never ending – that consisted in transforming snow into boiled water, and then drop my dried stuff into it to have a yummy porridge and do it again for enjoying a good fair trade organic instant coffee. Also, my expedition tent is complex – with 14 pegs, 2 layers, 3 poles – and I had to warm my hands like every five minutes when I wasn't wearing my mitten. I felt -10°C quite refreshing. The walk was nice, sunny but pretty windy, especially late afternoon. I pitched all my tent pegs not only because of the wind but also to keep the outer wall away from the inner wall, thus reducing condensation.
No stunning sunrise but a whitish sky, it was snowy all night and rainy all day. I found my way down to the motionless river, mostly ice and snow covered. I was doubtful crossing rivers due to some loud breaking ice. I passed many locked hut until I found a wooden bivvy with nothing inside, at least I had a dry night. Temperature increased but my middle layer was humid. I got cold and my feet burnt all night in my sleeping bag – I'd prefer them frozen! That didn't slow me down but took my sweet dreams away.
I left the bivvy to go at higher altitude, where I thought I could freeze dry my clothes and walk on snow confidently. Contrariwise, I fell into snow holes several times while walking up a stream. Getting my snowshoes out was a pain in the ass. Once on the saddle, strong wind and rain was against me. I kept going south, warm enough but wet to the bones. It was getting dark so I walked down a bit, looking for weaker wind. I finally found a well exposed spot for the night.
When I raised my tent, it literally flew away.
I was holding it with my mitten and did the mistake not to pitch it before – when the wind just blow over – because it is faster to proceed that way – in normal conditions. I quickly put my snowshoes back onto my boots while watching my tent literally rolling through the icy tarn like a tumbleweed, ran toward my tent flying up hill and... caught it, walked back to my spot, and pitched all the tent pegs and guy lines. I spent the next two hours taking the water out with the quarter of a brand new sponge I cut to save space and weight (don't laugh! I do regret the cut!) I realised later on that a brand new synthetic sponge doesn't work and that snow absorbs water more efficiently anyway.
I managed to cook a yummy couscous in my tent and sleep in my still dry sleeping bag.
I stayed in my tent all day, waiting for the gale to calm down. My living space was flattened by the wind, and I could even feel the wind pushing my mattress from below. Perhaps it would have been wiser to stay in the bivvy but that was the game:
Dealing with an unknown environment.
The wind weakened, so it was high time to resume the adventure. The temperature was -5°C and humidity seemingly high. I found my boots and mittens frozen. I had to defreeze them... with my cooker... in my tent because of the windy and snowy weather. I had to stand my mittens above the cooker like I would do with a marshmallow, smell fresh air in the vestibule, and repeat. I felt my eyes burning during the process, one symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning. The inside of my tent was frozen. That helped me to remove water. However, the wind and fresh snow put my tent pegs deeper. I bit the icy snow with my trekking poles, and repeated for all 14 pegs. Then I also found my backpack frozen (the whole frame.) Four hours to get ready, and no make up!
I kept my GPS on due to low visibility and walked down toward a shed I found on the map. The changing vegetation when hiking downhill is always appealing in summer. But vegetation is reduced to pines in winter time. What actually changes is snow: ice and frozen snow on tops to deep powder in the valley, and all kind of snows in-between. Moss, leaves, shrub, scree in summer, snow, snow, and snow in winter. But after a while, I noticed the changing texture and pattern, the shades of white, I learned to appreciate snow in the same way than clouds when I sailed the Pacific Ocean the first time.
The shed had been destroyed, or completely covered by snow, or not where it should be, or – but I couldn't believe it... – I was lost. I could not find it and made up my mind that the three large pines would be my shed. Not super flat but better than nothing. I had the best mashed potatoes ever. The secret is to simmer for 3-4 minutes and let it cool so the dried mushrooms are soft and tasty. Not bad for new year's eve! I was in the valley (elevation: 370m), with less wind and more streams to get water from, more human friendly temperatures.
I had a few ideas to go back to the road but I waited the morning to make a decision, based on the weather conditions. It was rainy for the fifth day and I had decided to follow the true left side of the river requiring several flooded side stream crossings. I was already all wet and temperature was positive. My New Zealand tramping experience with river crossings were handy. The end of the river looked gorgy from the topo map. So I walked up, stayed on the same elevation a wee bit to reach a low saddle (405m.) Thanks to the forest, I was quite sheltered from the severe gale I fell into. Yeah, it became crazy as, bro! The wind put me down a few metres before the saddle. Standing up was impossible. I put my hood in a way to protect my face. Consequently, my narrow view angle didn't help. I first tried to walk like a dog, belly on the ground.
The wind rolled me like a tumbleweed.
If I didn't manage to stop myself, I would have crossed the saddle much faster than expected, through steep rockies. I continued moving my body metres by metres. The rain was falling almost horizontally, hitting me in smacks in my face. Once the saddle passed, I could stand up as if the wind calmed down. It actually didn't but that was the last pass and last kilometre of my tramp – the most challenging one though. I have torn my gloves and pant on this saddle.
I walked along the road, toward the highway and got picked up by a local who dropped me off at the hotel. We had coffee and he left me in the warm and dry place. I had a hot shower, a pizza, watched a typical American movie on TV to relieve my mood, and I had a comfy night. I do enjoy the return to civilisation, from nowhere to town, from my small tent to the busy hotel, stars to street lights, rain water to espresso, simplicity to complexity.
To sum up this tramp in a single world, I would say “engaging.” One step in the rough tundra is worth many in the idyllic grassy valley. I haven't seen any wildlife except a few white birds, no insects, no humans, not even a single human footprint but mine, no open huts, no poled routes. On one hand, I got cold in the middle of nowhere, almost lost my tent in a windy dark night, I almost flew away. On the other hand, I've seen an amazing wild part of the world that could only be seen in winter time: the bloody sky and the never ending white landscape, icy lakes surrounded by misty hills. I also heard silence and noise like never before.
When no creature appears, when trees don't have a leaf to agitate, when streams are snow covered and icy lakes still, complete silence overwhelms the peaceful environment. Wind can shake everything in a second and transform the most silent place into terrible noise. With my steps rhythming the cacophony, I shut up and just lived the moment. Listening to silence or wild noise is a pleasure and a treasure that could be enjoyed in one way – being in remote wilderness – or another – with a good mood.
That was a real adventure – type II in the fun scale – I would consider only half successful since my intention was to spend fourteen days non-stop in wilderness – I only spent eight days (plus two later on off the record) – but I had warmer weather conditions than expected. I finally got my gear all wet because of the showers and no hut to dry myself. There is no serious hike without rough weather but continuous rain for a whole week is not for me. It was a successful initiatory game though.
Therefore, I spent more days in town discovering the local culture and food. This story wouldn't exist without the untouched wilderness and a considerable amount of local coffee.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed! Before to read more stories...
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