Lemonade In Lapland

By Huw Oliver

Huw is an outdoor educator who likes to practise what he preaches. His favourite thing to read is a map – when he moved to Scotland, the first thing he did was buy one. Bikes are a good way to check that the map wasn’t lying, and with his partner Annie, he travels by bike in those parts of the world that grab your imagination. The resulting trips have taken him to nearly every bog in Scotland, to Patagonia, Nepal and Iceland. In April 2018, they traversed the mountains of northern Sweden on ski and snowmobile trails, camping by night and riding through silent northern spaces by day.

Biker on mountain

When my partner Annie and I decided to go on a winter bikepacking trip, above the Arctic Circle in the far north of Sweden, we were asked more than once why on earth we would want to do it. There were certainly easier things that we could have signed up to do with our Easter. Among all the different answers that I could give, there is a familiar question, simply: ‘can we do it?’ That question has taken us all over the world, bikes in tow. Something grabs your attention, perhaps a story from a friend or an eye-catching photo, and once the fuse of your imagination is lit you know that the hurdles in the way aren’t going to outweigh sheer curiosity.

Fatbikes are the perfect match for a curious mind. The mountains that straddle the Sweden-Norway border are criss-crossed by trails that don’t exist from one year to the next, or even from week to week. The accumulated snow of the long winter changes with every storm, and the tracks of the skis and snowmobiles that make up the normal traffic might be interrupted as the ice of a river or lake buckles and splits under the pressure. Ask any cycle tourer why they do what they do, and they will probably mention ‘freedom’ before too long. The open road is an invitation to dream, but in the frozen expanse of the north fatbikes would allow us to ride unbound from confines of a trail.

We would be subject to the whims of the weather and the snow conditions, but not to any human constraints.

It’s easy, I think, to talk about adventures and adventuring in an offhand way, while forgetting the uncertainty and challenge that makes a good adventure what it is. We travelled to Sweden to challenge ourselves and our capabilities. Not in the masochistic, ‘eat your own boots’ way of the 19th century explorer — we weren’t here to conquer or subdue the mountains. We would rather recognise the challenges coming our way, and see if we could do something about them to thrive and actually enjoy our time spent outside, riding and camping across an Arctic landscape.

Biker in the snow

Unsurprisingly, preparing for the cold was a major focus of our planning and preparation. The thick sleeping bags, insulated boots and pogies (mittens that are permanently attached to the handlebars) all fascinated me, as they spoke of temperatures and places that had always been confined to my imagination. On paper, dealing with low temperatures is easy: wear more clothes.

The reality quickly proved to be less straightforward.

Digging into the snow of our first campsite, the weightless powder on the surface gave way to a firmer, polystyrene-like layer that squeaked in protest as the shovel blade bit. Particles of ice hung in the air like diamond smoke, trapping and refracting the rapidly retreating sunlight. With each stroke of the blade a platform for the tent began to emerge, but as it did so I could feel the warmth leaching out of my fingers and into the growing pile of snow beside my bike. With the sense of denial that comes with knowing the job to be nearly done, I ignored my icy hands and continued digging, while the insidious cold made its way through my boot soles and up into my feet. I really wanted that cup of tea.

By the time I was staking out and tensioning the guy lines, I was freezing, frustrated and doing everything slower than I should have: the pain in my fingers made me gasp and swear, as if the embodied cold was something that I could argue with. I hurriedly tightened the last guy line and flopped inside the tent to where Annie was getting the stove on. Soon after, grasping my hot mug tightly between gloved hands in the tent, I remembered a phrase that my dad used to say often, I suspected just to annoy me:

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!”

Stupid. It was only our first night in the tent, but when cold had tested me it had gotten into my head easily, without much resistance. Even with ten minutes’ hindsight I could feel the idiocy of not having put on thick mittens, but at the same time I was intrigued by how quickly my mindset had suffered, and my judgement had been clouded by impatience. It was something I mulled over as I slowly thawed out in my sleeping bad, tingling as the warm blood flowed back to my extremities. The most mundane of tasks, like leaving the protective insulation of the sleeping bag to get the stove lit and make hot water, took on colossal proportions in the pre-dawn cold. Numb hands and noses were commonplace annoyances, but the satisfaction in watching the sun rise through the door of the tent from your sleeping bag always seemed to trump them. My frozen breath began to crystallise around the sleeping bag hood, and the temperature dipped as we settled in to our first night spent outdoors in Swedish Lapland.

Night sky

As the days and miles accumulate, the physical challenges of moving and living morph into mental ones, against which mindset is every bit as powerful a tool as the right jacket or pair of gloves. As we left the security of the lower forests and lakes, a snowstorm filled in the compacted ski tracks and brought several inches of fresh snow, sinking even the fattest tyres too deep to make forward progress. Where once we had been rolling contentedly along, we could only push into the fog, seeing no further than a hundred metres into the uniform wool-grey of cloud and airborne snow surrounding us.

A day and a half later, and still pushing!

The bikes were heavy and cumbersome, so as we climbed towards Tjaktjapasset, the high point and crux of the route, self-doubt and frustration mixed with exhaustion, until we asked ourselves what on earth we were doing here, taking our bikes for a walk miles from anywhere in the knee-deep snow. Conversation became snappy, and the slightest problem or setback bred sullen silence or mutinous muttering.

Biker in the snow

The night might always seem darkest before the dawn, but even having been in these sorts of situations before, it seemed hard to believe that respite would ever come. We had committed ourselves, and now it seemed like that might have been a mistake. When I recognise that things are getting desperate, I try to tell myself to take it one hour at a time, that in one hour things will be looking better. A little over an hour after we had stopped in the knee-deep snow to seriously consider our options, we were standing at the summit of the pass, looking down into a sunlit valley that appeared below interleaved layers of illuminated fog.

From that point on, the riding became incredible: hard, wind-blown snow that made the perfect surface for rolling tyres; we made more ground in the last hour than we had all day up to that point. A week later, we even retraced some of our steps as our homeward route rejoined the now compacted and smooth-rolling trail. The sky was a deep blue, and the warm spring sunshine had us tugging on zips and rolling up sleeves. The circumstances could hardly have been more different.

In the simplest terms, I suppose we answered the question that brought us to the Arctic in the first place: ‘yes, we can’. That was only the beginning though, because we were changed by the experience, as we all are changed by things we do. It wasn’t the challenge itself that we were looking for, but what came on the other side: the learning, the growth, the broadened base of experience to call upon the next time things became tough, as they always will in life.

There was physical hardship, yes — cold feet, exhaustion and the longing for a warm room to sit down in — but every moment of discomfort was outweighed tenfold by places that we would never have been, things that we would have never have seen, if we hadn’t been able to see past those potential negatives to the opportunities waiting on the other side.

Biker in the snow

When we challenge ourselves, we learn about ourselves, whether it’s a multi-week adventure or riding that hill that’s always looked a little too intimidating in the past. We learn, and we grow. Both Annie and I work as outdoor educators, and as we try to pass these lessons on from week to week, we try to be true to them as well: to practise what we preach. They are simple lessons, but they are by no means easy: nothing worth doing ever was, as the saying goes. What we try to remind ourselves and take away from the adventures that we experience is that adversity can make you, or it can break you; when presented with lemons, we can chew on them, or we can make lemonade. Which one is up to you.