It is the 24th of February and I am waking up to the news that Russian troops have started to invade Ukraine.
At the end of my second stay in Sundsvall I had taken a few days off to travel to Åre, the country’s most famous alpine skiing destination, to enjoy both downhill and cross country skiing and to write about my “two months skiing holidays” in this diary, but that seemed suddenly inappropriate and decadent.
Ignoring the ski pass I had purchased, I decided to take my backpack and a pair of skis that I had not used at all during my entire time in the North and to head for a remote mountain range on the border to Norway.
The skis I took were heavy, slow, fitted with steel edges yet still terrible on downhill sections, but designed to lay their own track where ever I wanted to go.
Before I departed from the hotel, I paid the monument a visit which I had noticed on a hill in the middle of the countryside. The Karoliner Monument told the story of the failed attempt of an army of 10 000 Swedish soldiers to conquer the then Danish owned neighboring Norway. During their retreat over the mountains back to Sweden over 3000 of them perished due to starvation, illness and exposure on New Year’s day in 1719.
Leaving a short while later the main road behind me and after traveling for a further 20 kilometers past high snow drifts, I arrived at the mountain station were the conditions were far from inviting.
A strong wind was coming over the hills exactly from the direction where I was heading. In addition to this the station team informed me that Blåhammar, the cabin I wanted to go to, was closed at the moment.
However there was a fair amount of blue sky and no new snow was forecasted until the next day. Relying on all the equipment I had with me, I decided still to go ahead with my plan and started on the well signposted track.
Right from the beginning the going was tough as the trail went constantly uphill and against the wind with very few areas of shelter. After 10 minutes I stopped and took a first break (which is a good routine to have when skiing in the mountains) as despite the weather I was starting to sweat. At -6C this is something to avoid and I drastically reduced the layers of clothes I was wearing to reach a comfortable temperature.
The journey then continued at a perceived snail pace and being on my own, lost in my thoughts, I slowly adjusted and became one with the world around me and just followed the red way signs ahead of me……
Although at the moment devoid of other human beings, these mountains had played a significant role in history, not only in the destruction of the Swedish army, but also as a thresh hold between life and death for many Norwegian resistance fighters during the second world war for whom the crossing to neutral Swedish soil meant salvation.
Heroes of this time like Max Manus or Claus Helberg lived and survived under these conditions, often having little or no food, sleeping in snow holes, without – unlike me – GPS navigation and under constant threat to be killed. Yet despite (or because of ?) this constant strain, they not only survived and they carried on becoming successful businessmen and social leaders.
I carried on walking and leaving the last small trees behind me, I entered a large plateau.
Once again I had to stop adjusting my clothes as the skin on the wind facing side started to freeze underneath the fabric. I was grateful for all the equipment I had with me – not only did this provide me with a range of different clothing alternatives, but it also gave me the certainty to survive – at least for a considerable time – in case of an accident.
In addition to this, walking uphill and against the wind had the advantage that once I decided to turn, the way back would be much easier.
It is 12 km from Storulvån where I started to Blåhammar. I had a good night’s sleep, was well fed and in reasonable physical condition and yet every meter was a challenge and my thoughts wandered to Scott and his comrades when they returned beaten from the South Pole. Some biographers point out that they eventually died “just” 18 kilometers from their next food and fuel supply (“One Ton Depot”) and I was wondering how long these “experts” would have lasted just at these conditions, with a much higher temperature and at just a third of the altitude the expedition was traveling at.
After 6 km I passed a small emergency shelter which made for some good photos and which gave me the re-assuring certainty to be able to make an additional stop if needed on my way back , but I decided to carry on to my main destination, especially as the trail started to rise again and I wanted to avoid returning to the mountain station in darkness.
I took out a pair of skins and fitted them underneath my skis and thankfully their was a fine layer of snow providing them with a fair amount of purchase so that there was very little backwards sliding, but still I felt every kilo additional weight from my back pack.
Finally the land around me plateaued again and in the far distance I could make out a large arial that was standing next to my destination. A last final push and I was standing in front of the entrance to the cabin, where I against my expectation found out that in a neighboring building an emergency shelter room was open. I was even more delighted when this even turned out to be heated.
This, together with some chocolate and some warm tea from my thermos flask was enough to feel fully restored after a short while, but it was very tempting to have a lay down in one of the fully prepared bunk beds.
I looked through the window and while looking at the snow drifting at speed between me and the next building, I realized how little was needed to be happy : a warm and dry place and being sheltered from the elements plus something to eat and to drink went already a long way…..
On my way back I was pleased to find that the wind hadn’t turned and progress was now much easier. With the sun slowly starting to set behind me, my thoughts traveled to a conversation I had with an Oslo police officer while crossing Hardangervidda, a mountain plateau in the South of Norway some years ago.
The previous night she had shown me images of her recent past when she had been working as a police instructor in Central Africa. Despite being a Norwegian kick boxing champion she was constantly aware of the potential threat she was under and often had to carry a fire arm for her personal safety.
While being pretty impressed by the images and by her life story, I became somewhat thoughtful about the complexity of the interpretations of threat and safety. By being familiar with the mountains and with the harsh climate, we both agreed that this at the moment was probably one of the safest places on Earth, where one was the least likely to be attacked or even killed and yet we completely ignored the fact that we were traveling through an environment that in case of an accident without immediate help would mean certain death. One of her African colleagues would have considered this as extremely threatening but in return would have felt far more at ease than us in an African urban setting where he would have been a far better judge of threatening or safe situations and places.
With other words, safety or the feeling to “feel safe” was nothing else than the ability of understanding and calculating the level of threat and to prepare for it – unless the threat was becoming too great…..
I soon arrived back at the small timber shelter that marked the half way point. Here I met two men with their snow scooters and we started talking.
It turned out that they were restocking the emergency boxes at all the local huts and shelters. I had read about this in the local newspaper and about the fact that most things had been taken by casual visitors to the shelters who had been in no distress at all. The older of the scooter drivers confirmed this, but then added, that following the newspaper article so many people had donated voluntarily to the scheme, that they in the end had so much money that they theoretically could have hired a helicopter to replace all the boxes.
While chatting a bit longer it also turned out that this man was already 76 years old and yet he drove at sub-zero temperatures with a snow scooter through the Scandinavian mountains doing a good deed for mankind and I felt that I had hardly met a more full filled and happy human being.
I carried on and I was pleased that I hadn’t given in to the temptation to turn around and to return earlier to the mountain station when the going was so tough and I realized that despite all the effort today, I felt tired but at ease and deeply grateful that I had had this experience and that it was entirely my own choice to decide how much I had to endure.
When I finally arrived at my car, I found that the wind had been far more forceful than I had thought and that because of this the access road had been closed to all traffic which meant that I was grounded.
Although I was now missing out on my already paid hotel room in Åre, I wasn’t too upset as there was still plenty of room in the mountain station and I had the great pleasure to finish the day with a lively conversation with some Swedish mountaineers over a glass of Chilean white and a beautiful dinner of locally caught mountain char followed by homemade cloudberry pastry.
While listening to the latest skiing adventures of my new companions, my eyes caught a large painting on the wall on the opposite end of the room and I realized that it was a depiction of some struggling soldiers of the Karoliner Army that was defeated not by war but by the forces of nature at this very spot some 300 years ago….
When I finally went to bed, I was deeply grateful not only for lying in a dry and warm place, but also for the food, the drink and for the company I had, but most of all for being safe, which hadn’t been the fate of the Swedish soldiers then nor was it the reality of the people in Ukraine today….