Opposites week 51, part II

Jouni Laaksonen 19.12.2017

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About as challenging as hiking can be in Finland: complete whiteout in treeless fell area, midwintery cold and short day. You see only a couple of meters ahead of you, and sky and land are the same grayish white. Orienteering is… interesting.

Ski touring in Käsivarsi Wilderness Area (December)

December is a harsh month. I told that already, didn’t I? Activities I described in Moday’s post are easy and nice in December, but if you want to head deep into a wilderness, you should rather choose another season than midwinter.

But if you know what you are doing, of course it is always possible to go for a longer trek. Let’s see the most challenging conditions Finland has to offer: midwinter, treeless tundra, off any trails, bad weather. (Compare to forested terrain, week 49.)

By a distance most of Finland’s surface area is forests. There are also lots of bogs and lakes, and of course fields, roads and habitation and so on. Only 4% of Finland is treeless fell area, tundra. However, when we examine the most interesting destinations for a hiker, especially one who is enthusiastic about large wilderness areas, the percentage of tundra grows significantly.

Every one of the 12 official Wilderness Areas in Lapland, and also the three largest National Parks in Lapland, include treeless fells. This is very natural: the treeless fell areas are of no use for forestry, so when the age was finally ripe for conserving large wilderness areas (1990’s), the untouched areas left were the ones farthest away, and the most unproductive ones.

From the point of view of a trekker, destinations with visually striking treeless fells with old-growth forests and mysterious river valleys in between, are the most compelling. I.e. just those fifteen areas mentioned above.

But all in all, there are only two or three larger treeless fell areas in Finnish Lapland where you may be days away from nearest forest. The largest of these is Käsivarsi, the north-western corner of Lapland.

 

White-out is not a laughing matter

Now, Käsivarsi is one of the few destinations in Finland where telemark or touring skis are a good option. The area is near totally treeless, and in treeless tundra the wind whips the snow hard, and you do not sink even with those two meter skis. Steel edges and more rigid skis and footwear make downhills easier.

However, I am a big fan of metsäsukset, the traditional Finnish off-track skis with almost or even over three meters of length. They are a must in forested terrain when you head off the tracks, but also here they were helpful for the first kilometers from the road through downy birch forest. Between the birches snow was soft and sinking, but when we climbed higher we quite soon reached treeless tundra.

The day is very short in December this far north. Me and my wife, we stepped off our bus in the afternoon, and it was already dark. When we arrived to Aatsa wilderness hut, the moon illuminated our way. First thing we had to do was to dig the door visible from under a big load of snow.

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Dinner at Aatsa wilderness hut.

We were not searching challenges, only a week long respite from everyday stress and hubbub, in a place where we would with a high certainty see no one else, and where scenery is breathtaking. We had a tent in my backpack, in case of an accident or getting seriously lost, but the plan was to ski from one wilderness hut to another and so on.

Naturally avoiding huts and relying only on your own tent is a lot more challenging. I’ve done that a lot in my youth, but nowadays I mostly like to stay in wilderness huts in midwinter. In springwinter I sleep also under a tarp, if I’m skiing in forested terrain, or in my tent, if in treeless area.

In my youth I faced many times white-out in fells and just continued skiing as planned. Nowadays I am wiser. In the morning we found everything around the hut was inside a cloud. Visibility was very near zero. We decided to spend the day by skiing in the nearest vicinity, and to try again tomorrow.

The next day did not bring change. Temperature was about –25°C, it was totally windless, and the clouds hang tightly to the ground. Our plan was to ski to the next hut in north-east. We skied five kilometers that way, gentle uphill all the time. Then we reached the highest point of our planned daymarch and I called a halt.

Our route would now take us downhill. According to map the downhill would not be too steep, but as the visibility was about two meters (the first picture of this post is from this moment), I decided we cannot go further. If there is a small cliff, say one or three meters of drop, not shown on maps, we glide over it before we even see it. I remember vividly some dangerous situations from my youth when we did not think this much ahead of us in white-out.

We followed our tracks, as much as we could see them, back to Aatsa.

 

Blue moment

During the evening we explored the map and our timetable. We decided to ski tomorrow to the next hut, Ropi, north-west. That way the only downhill would be at the end of our daymarch, and there would be downy birches on that slope. When there is something other than white, like birches or an occassional snowless rock, it is much easier to fathom the steepness of a slope.

In the morning the weather was perfect. We started our journey under a full moon, in a blue moment, as we tend to call this midwinter colour.

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Blue moment in Käsivarsi Wilderness Area.

When I took the picture above, I noticed there is a mass of clouds coming from behind me. 13 minutes later I took another picture:

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Clouds covered the moon, and everything else for that matter. Horizon can still be seen, but in a couple of minutes we are in a complete white-out.

So long for the good weather. But we had a good plan that did not rely on seeing far away. In white-out in treeless tundra the most important orienteering instruments are compass bearing and clock. Also contour lines give some help sometimes, but for example lakes, rivers or bogs you cannot find in a winter white-out at all.

Of course a satellite navigator is a very handy tool, if you use one. I don’t like relying on electrical devices. They don’t fail often, but they can fail. If I would always use GPS, I’m sure my orienteering abilities and my self-confidence in my abilities would lessen. And I rather like the challenge that orienteering with compass, map and clock gives.

Our orienteering went quite as we had planned. And before we reached this Ropi valley with its downy birches, the clouds parted. We saw Ropi, the highest fell in the nearhood, and found the wilderness hut as planned. Map.

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What a joy it is when white-out clears and you can see!

At best the landscapes in treeless fells are absolutely superb. But especially in winter you can find yourself in white-out for many days. That may mean you have to shorten your planned trek considerably. We enjoyed Käsivarsi area for as many days as we had planned, but covered a lot less kilometers.

Of course we could have chosen the more popular part of Käsivarsi Wilderness Area, the marked route from Kilpisjärvi village to Halti fell. But I’ve seen that area already many times, and I like to explore new places.

(Merry Christmas to everyone! On Monday let’s forget winter and see what June looks like!)

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