It’s a small world, or more likely the Tough Girl Tribe is big! Waiting at Oslo airport for transfer to Kvitåvatn, I caught the eye of another woman and we clocked we were waiting for the same bus. Turns out we are also fellow tribees and spent a lovely hour chatting over coffee. All troops gathered the bus set off and, after a brief stop to collect Helen plus all our kit for the week, we wound our way up to our base at Kvitåvatn Fjellstoge for the week. Kit unpacked, stories were swapped over dinner and we settled into our dorms.
A hearty breakfast started the day well and we gathered for a briefing over tea. The basics covered, we headed over to collect skis and boots for our first lesson. We are all at different levels and I think I was the one with the least experience in snow, which in some ways had its advantage as I had no preconceptions. The morning was spent on the tracks around the lodge and weaving through the lovely wooden huts, ending with downhill and surprisingly few falls. Lunch and coffee set us up for an afternoon heading away from the lodge and across the frozen lake. My promising start faltered as I struggled to control my skis; a combination of poor skill and realising my feet didn’t fit the boots well. My feet moved far too much inside the thick, polar boot resulting in my skis not always following what my feet attempted to make them do, resulting in a few hissy fits. A post-lesson chat and a plan B for boots was formed and I took some time with Helen to review my kit for Svalbard.
Day two started with another big breakfast and making up a plate for lunch. I swapped boots from the big Baffin ones to an old but more adjustable, smaller pair of Alfa boots and we set off to explore Skipsfjell, a neat 1,100 metre peak overlooking the ski centre. We tried different uphill techniques, traversing the deep snow to the summit then finding our own routes down through the deep snow. I felt much more in control and hugely enjoyed the glorious sun and sparkling snow; fuelled by a celebratory Tunnocks my confidence grew. The afternoon brought the next new skill, meeting the pulks which added a whole extra dimension which resulted in lots of new ways to fall over. Back at the lodge, it was kit sorting time. First up was getting to grips with the stove, an MSR expedition, taking it in turns to pressurise the fuel and light the burner and learning, importantly, how not to set the tent on fire. Next up was pulk packing. Like all good systems, there is both a science and an art to packing a pulk, ensuring quick access to things like snacks, water and warm gear, and dividing shared kit so weight is distributed fairly but also so if you get separated, you have tools to keep you warm. Packed and ready, we had another good dinner in the lodge and attention was turned to the worsening weather forecast.
As anticipated, high winds resulted in a change of plan. Hardandgervidda is a mountain plateau with little shelter, battling the wind to pitch tents for the first time would not have been the best introduction; the bus was cancelled and we had another cup of tea. Instead, we stayed closer to the lodge and more sheltered peaks. We climbed steadily up the cut tracks, weaving through the trees and a slightly nerve-wracking traverse of the pistes with laden pulks. We stopped early to get camp set up in daylight, finding a spot tucked behind a wood close to Longetjønn, a lake at about 1000m altitude. We dug out a base, pitched the tent and stated the stove to melt snow. Being under the trees, the snow was full of needles and lichen giving the water a very foresty taste. Although I’m sure fancy cafes would have paid a fortune for it, with the cunning application of a hairband and an emptied tea bag, a filter was fashioned and the water was no longer full of tree.
The wind was high during the night but it was a comforting sound, sung in my sleeping bag. After the best night’s sleep in a long time, the alarm went off and the process of melting water began. It took 2 ½ hours from alarm to ready to go: a lot of room for improvement in our camp craft. With the weather clearing we set off for the bus following the freshly cut tracks, my downhill had not improved over night resulting in a walk down the final stretch to the ski centre. A hot bus ride followed by a cable car found us at the foot of a winding track up to the plateau. The track was rutted from snow mobiles so rather than slog up on skis we packed them onto the pulks and walked. As the track opened up we put our skis back on and with the beautiful ridge of Gaustatoppen across the valley we skied on uncut tracks searching for a camp for the night. The perfect spot was found and, with tents pitched we set about building snow walls against the wind to protect our tents. Stoves burning to melt snow, the temperature dropped and the sky turned pink behind Gaustatoppen providing a breath-taking view while eating dinner. I was getting slicker at organising myself in the tent, the faff factor reducing. Socks drying and celebratory Tunnocks consumed another good night’s sleep was had.
Morning brought a cloudless sunrise behind Gaustatoppen and a reduction in the morning faff by 30 minutes. Breakfast consumed with the addition of left over dark chocolate from yesterday’s rations, we slathered on the factor 50 in anticipation of a glorious day. We weren’t disappointed. We followed a marked trail under blue skies stopping every hour for snacks and water. Our target was a hytt (cabin) some 7km away, the furthest I’d skied in one go. The track wound through the hills, a few good pulls uphill to get the heart racing, and a few downhill with the inevitable fall for me. Arriving at Helberghytt, named after one of the Heroes of Telemark, we stopped for lunch. Sitting on our pulks eating cereal bars and trail mix basking in the sun it was possibly one of the most glorious places I had ever been and a truly perfect moment. Rested, we snuck into the cabin to have a nose; the stove was warm and the debris of evening drinks and a hearty breakfast were on the table. As we left the sound of snowmobiles disturbed the silence two obviously military blokes turned up: clearly relieved to hear that we weren’t planning on staying they waved us off as we set off for the afternoon. We took turns to lead the next leg, cutting tracks through the snow. This time our route took us across a lake where we took some time to practice climbing up and down the shoreline through deep snow with the sun warm on our faces. Camp was chosen in the lee of a small hill, this time we swapped tent buddies and I was one of three in a tent which meant a quick rework of the logistics for getting set up and the stove lit. This was our last night of camp so we set to digging a bench and fire pit, once done we made our dinners and settled around the crackling fire as the sun set behind mountains. We shared popcorn, toasted marshmallows and swapped stories, the highlight being Helen’s talk, with actions, on polar bears.
Overnight, the weather changed. We broke camp as a joint effort in heavy cloud and a rising wind, layering up before we set off for the last time. The snow made visibility poor so Helen lead the trickier navigation back to the track down to the cable car station. For the first time the weather was harsh enough to try my goggles, bought for Scottish winters but never used, the cheery orange contrasting the flat whiteness. We were all tiring and the contrast from yesterday’s sun set a grittier mood to the day, though the promise of waffles and coffee at the café set a determined pace. We picked up the track, which was still heavily rutted from snowmobiles. Multiple failed attempts to descend and I gave up, resorting to walking. My mood at this point sunk very low, I was worried I was not capable of this, if I can’t get down this without spending most of the time on my bum how could I possibly cross Svalbard? The demon of doubt took over and I plodded down the hill where Helen was waiting. With the others inside the café, I had a heart-to-heart with her. The moment she offered the possibility of doing a different expedition, I knew just how much I wanted to make the Svalbard crossing. So, planning to go back out and practice back at the lodge later that day once rested, we headed in. The warmth of the café enveloped us, the coffee was hot and the waffles smothered in jam: my demon of doubt was left out in the cold.
Back at the lodge and partially unpacked, I dug out my food rations from the four days. There was more left than I thought; it was instantly obvious to me one of the reasons my mood dipped so much. I stuffed my face with a cereal bar, chocolate and nuts, drank a mug of tea and got ready to head out. I had been contemplating on the bus back to the lodge how to deal with my continuing boot problem, the liners of the smaller boots were tight so I’d ended up wearing lighter socks which was OK for the conditions we had been in but no where near good enough for Svalbard. Using socks to create ankle cuffs, I adapted the larger Baffin boots to stop my heels from moving and got a pulk. A few times up and down the slope behind the lodge without a single tumble, I loaded the pulk with logs from the woodshed. I skied to the top of the slope, took a deep breath and… skied down with the pulk neatly at my side. Two more repeats to be sure it wasn’t a fluke and I decided to stop while I was ahead, taking mental notes of the subtle differences but also absorbing the clear fact that the real issue was in my head: as soon as I took the pressure off it all came together.
I was ready for Svalbard.
If you want to learn all you need to participate in a polar expedition, this course was with Newland. Helen is a brilliant leader and hugely knowledgeable in all things polar, I can’t recommend them enough!