Jouni Laaksonen 29.1.2018
This is not going to be very good advertisement for hiking in Finland… but this once-in-a-lifetime tour was so absolutely memorable I thought you might be interested to read it. And if you would happen to plan to come to Finland for hiking in January, you need to know it is sometimes very cold.
On my first January post I briefly mentioned a nine week skiing expedition. I’ll describe it at some point in the future, but now some background to it.
Near Christmas 1998 we (me and my friend Markus) got the idea to carry out our idea to ski from eastern end of Lapland to western end so that we would be on top of Finland, Halti fell, exactly when millennia changes. That would mean we would be skiing through November and December, both of which are months of difficult snow and ice conditions, little daylight time, and probably very cold temperatures. We were young and confident and did not see these as obstacles.
We recognized them as challenges, though. We were both experienced hikers with lots of experience of this season, too. Still we thought it would be good idea to practice winter camping in windy conditions some more. This is why we headed to Lapland’s largest lake, Inarijärvi, in the end of January 1999.
Well, we got only some little extra experience in winter camping, and none in windy conditions, but we got an experience of a lifetime.
Hardest hiking day of my life
Weather forecasts predicted steady –25°C, which is normal January weather. However, when we stepped out of the bus in Ivalo town, it felt colder than that. We skied for some kilometers and pitched our tent. It was so cold that every single thing had to be done with thick leather mittens. We had done this before, but this is always a useful exercise.
We had two sleeping bags per person, and all that insulation was needed that night. I don’t recall being cold when sleeping, but waking up and getting out of the bags was not easy. Our thermometer had stopped working, which means it was colder than –39°C!
That day we skied over 20 km. Almost all the way along marked snowmobile route, on completely even ice of first river and then lake. Easy going? No, it was the hardest hiking day of my life. Because of the extreme cold the friction of snow was quite nearly the same as friction of sawdust, so skiing was physically harder than you would think. But above all it was hard mentally.
We knew that today we cannot afford to make any mistakes. As long as we were skiing, movement kept us warm enough. Well, we had to improvise face masks, but otherwise we had enough clothes on. But if for any reason we would need to stop, we would be in trouble. We had both hiked in temperatures colder than –40°C, but we felt this was more. All the time you had to be aware (read: seriously worried) of all parts of your body, is nose or are toes or fingers feeling too cold? What about in ten minutes or after an hour? What about partner’s well-being?
Jääsaari wilderness hut. –50°C.
After a long day we arrived to Jääsaari wilderness hut. To our big surprise the hut was not empty! The huts usually are in January, and especially as the conditions were now so extreme. Usually it is nice to find an empty hut, but this time it was a very pleasant surprise to find two hikers in the cabin already, for as they had kept constant fire in the oven since last evening, the hut was rather warm. Mauri and Jorma were as astonished for the temperature as we were.
Jorma had a small radio with him. It is good behavior to keep radio, cell phone etc. switched off at a wilderness hut, to let everyone enjoy the quiet and peace without electrical devices. However, this time Jorma kept his radio on almost constantly and we urged him to do so. There were weather forecasts and special news every half an hour, and every time they silenced us. In the beginning they predicted in the radio to our region –30°C, but we knew that was not nearly true. During the evening the predictions jumped to –35, –40 and finally to –45°C.
Next morning they told in the radio that it is –50°C, a serious threat to all-time temperature record in Finland. And they told that many people in various parts of Finland had had to be evacuated from houses that were heated by electricity only. The extreme cold caused power failures.
Most of Finnish homes have some kind of wood heating system as primary or secondary heating system, and at times like these you really appreciate wood heating! We had woodshed full of firewood and the small wood oven kept the wilderness hut reasonably warm. There was ice in the inside corners of the cabin, and throughout the floor it was probably under 0°C, but at bed and table height it was warm enough.
The rule is that anyone may spend a night or two in a wilderness hut, no longer. But as the saying goes, in emergency situation normal laws do not apply. In the end we spent five days in the small cabin. So much for our windy winter camping…
Every day we visited outdoors for many occasions, but half an hour or 45 minutes at the most. By that time toes got so cold we started to be afraid of frostbite. Torso was okay, and even face and hands, though we had to take extra care of them.
It was very beautiful, cloudless and windless. Polar night had ended just a short while ago, and sun made a short and low arc on the southern sky. The southern horizon blazed in yellow and orange colors, sky above us was immensely blue, and the lake was pure white. There were fine halos around the sun on many days.
On our third evening at the hut we were totally dumbfounded: a man skied from the inner parts of lake Inarijärvi to “our” hut! We had been sure no one else was as crazy as us, but Jyri was, and even more. He had stayed in a wilderness hut in the middle of lake Inarijärvi for couple of days, but today he had decided he had to move nearer civilization. If the extreme cold continues and continues, or even gets still colder, his food storage will at some point get empty.
Jääsaari wilderness hut is meant for four persons, but naturally we had no problems to fit a fifth man into our midst. Weather made a strong bond between us, total strangers.
In the end the official cold record, –51,5°C went to Pokka village, one hundred kilometers from lake Inarijärvi. After our ski tour we heard in the grocery store in Inari town that everywhere around lake Inarijärvi people had measured with their own, non-official thermometers much colder temperatures than that. I am confident that I don’t exaggerate when I say that it was at least –50°C in lake Inarijärvi.
When -35°C feels warm
After five continuous days of –50°C, one morning it was only –35°C, and every one of us moved on. That is the only time ever –35°C has felt warm, but now it did.
Now it is “only” –35°C. On the upper pic Mauri and Jorma are heading towards civilization from Jääsaari wilderness hut. On the lower pic: lake Inarijärvi has large open areas without islands in the middle section. This pic is taken from near Petäjäsaari wilderness hut, from Petäjäsaari island.
Mauri, Jorma and Jyri continued towards civilization. We had still food for many days and we continued deeper into lake Inarijärvi. We had planned to ski across all the lake, over hundred kilometers, but as we stayed in Jääsaari island for five days, we did not have time to proceed all that way any more.
Instead we made a four day half circle in the western part of lake Inarijärvi and ended via two wilderness huts to Inari town.
We did not seek this extreme experience. Had we known it would be –50°C, we would not have headed out to ski tour just that week. But now that it happened, I would not give this experience away for any amount of money.
BTW, I wrote my very first magazine article about this experience, so it can be said my journalistic career started right here.
My article in magazine Erä.
This January 2018 has seen so far temperatures mostly only around 0…–15°C. The temperature record for this winter is –36,8, in Inari, just a couple of days ago. It is usual to face –30 in January in Finland, but normally only for some days. Sometimes it drops to –40, but I don’t expect to see –50 during my lifetime any more.
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Next week I will discuss skiing from another angle – naturally, as we are now in the middle of snowy winter. 🙂