4.17.2012

Troms Day 3: Break and Make

Look Up

Another cold morning after another warm night. The Norwegians have got wood-burning stoves down to a fine art. A moments over enthusiasm with the firewood leads, in half that time, to a sweat lodge. Perhaps its the contrast but this morning it seems colder. I'd been later to bed. A trip outside to answer a call had revealed a brief glimpse of the Aurora. Almost too faint to see but after a few moments of screwing up eyes and disbelief definitely there. Thereafter, some time had been spent outside, stamping feet and blowing on fingers, waiting for the next hole to appear between the fast scudding clouds.




Morning High

This morning the reluctance to leave my bag is greater than usual. The most important room in the house is not in the house. Nature always prevails. Not able to hold out any longer it's on with the down and out of the door. On occasion a walk to the pan has it's advantages. Once outside the air's crisp. It's colder, perhaps a few degrees under zero, but the only thing obscuring the view is the steam from my breath. For the first time since arriving in the snow storm I get a good view of our situation. It's stunning. Left and right of the hut lie high fells, behind, Tromsdalstinden pokes it head through the clouds, to the front stretches a long view under a sky with drama. There's a lot more snow on the ground. None of it apparently where it landed it's piled up to left and right of patches scoured clear by the wind. The long, soft light reveals form and throws shadows that catch my eye and keep my attention. The bog run takes me a good twenty minutes.

Skarvassbu

I look back at the hut and, for the first time, really see it. The dark walls and red door powdered with yesterdays snowfall, the cables holding down the roof just in case, one cable just a little slack like it's been put to the test. There's a story right there in one glance at a simple wooden building. Another glance around and beyond the hut tells the story of why I keep doing this.

    Photo Courtesy Willem-Maarten van Haaften

The morning plays out as did the previously one. Hot breakfast, strong coffee and packing bags. Routine has kicked in. As I step outside I'm taken by surprise. The clear views of an hour ago have been swallowed up once more and, wherever I look, fine hard snow is streaking horizontally across my line of site. Googles and buff, carefully stowed high in the pack, get immediately retrieved.

Leaving Skarvassbu

Being first out, I stand around in too few layers, waiting for the others to lock up, strap on snow-shoes and cover their faces. After a few minutes fidgeting and last-minute-adjusting we're back on the stick-marked route, this time travelling in the opposite direction. I look back at Skarvassbu and feel an unexpected reluctance to leave this fine little hut in it's dramatic situation. Looking forwards again I'm met with a familiar site: I'm at the back of the row again and my companions are disappearing into a swirling wall of white.

Pole to Pole

The first part of the route is simple enough. Visibility extends just far enough to see the next stick so we hop from one to the other for a couple of kilometres, until we're back in the head of the Tonsvikdalen. As we move the snow fall lightens and the sky begins to clear. As we cross the stream that marks the bottom of our descent Skarltinden comes into full view.

Under the Top

Our loosest plan yet allows for a side trip to the top of Skartlinden. At 857m it´s a modest top with an easy approach along it´s North West spur but a glance at the map suggests that the view from the top should be far from modest. On it´s South-Eastern face the contours merge into a nasty brown mess, the valley lies almost all of those 857m straight down, and across the other side lie bigger, pointier tops of a different calibre altogether. Not a bad deal for 500m of toil. As we stand at it´s base, having walked through two days of shit, we can´t believe our timing. After a quick discussion of the best route up we head off slightly left of straight up.

The climb is toil from the first step. The unexpected ruts, dips and energy sapping drifts add flavour. As we climb the wind strengthens but, being at our backs is tolerable. As I move I keep throwing glances up the slope. Sometimes I see the peak sometimes cloud obscures. If we´re to get our view our lucky streak will have to hold out. As I trudge up, trying in vain not to sweat, I consider dumping my pack and picking it up again on the way back down. The thought hangs in the air for a second before I shoot it down. I´m not going anywhere in this landscape without shelter and a sleeping bag.

As we climb further I sense something hitting the bare skin of my face. A minute later the lights are out and we´re back in the maelstrom. At the click of a finger visibility has gone from better than we´d hoped for to worse than we ever could´ve imagined. We huddle, pull out map compass and altimeter and confer. Climbing further seems pointless. We decide instead to get back onto our main itinerary and contour North. Easier said than done. Walking with just wind and slope as guide isn´t enough, the irresistible tendency to turn our backs to the now bighting wind means that we find ourselves drifting too far East, not an immediate problem but too far East and it gets steep, so we resort to shuffling forwards on a compass bearing. It takes time to cover ground in this way first moving a few metres then stopping to check the bearing, where possible sighting on visible features, but more often than not sending a human out to act as a marker pole. Left a bit, right a bit, stop.

   Photo Courtesy Thim Zuidwijk

For some time, visibility is so poor that we can´t see more than a handful of meters and we slow to a crawl. Until this moment I thought I knew what a white out was. Now I realise that I´m in the middle of the real deal. The air around us is so impenetrable I loose almost all sense of orientation. I know where down is because that´s where my feet are. Up is presumably still in the opposite direction somewhere up there past my head but left right, forwards and backwards are a cold swirling blur. As Willem-Maarten sets the needle and shouts another muffled instruction from behind his buff and goggles we move off towards the big boulder just visible twenty meters further on. Three steps later I trip and almost fall over the boulder that's both closer, and considerably smaller, than either of us had envisaged. Even when there´s contrast for the eye to lock on the brain can´t compute it properly. I notice Willem-Maarten smiling under his buff. The only sense that still works is the sense of humour.

Cold Lunch

The snowfall slows to reveal that although we're slow we're accurate. A lovely bit of navigation, mostly on the part of Willem-Maarten and Thim, see's us right above the Hesteskovatnet 2km further along the same contour. We stop to snatch at lunch, quickly shovelling in a few calories and swigging some fluid, before moving off again to make the most of the clear air. We make a second attempt to get on top of something; this time a little 600m top along the Bla- Nova ridge. Either the snow fall is making a difference or this slope is holding more of what's already fallen because my feet are sinking deeper. Even though we only have to cross a hand full of contours to make the top it takes real effort. The top, in contrast, is bare and rocky. On another day we'd most definitely sit and enjoy the reward but today we look over the edge, turn back round and head off again.

   Photo Courtesy Willem-Maarten van Haaften

Back off the top and back in deeper snow the lights go out again. Re-goggled and buffed I fall back into line and, a million white micro-ninjas flying around my head, follow the arse of the man in front. The ninjas that don't succeed in numbing what little skin that remains exposed on the left side of my face collect on my goggles and obscure my view. As we struggle forward the snow gets deeper still and we decide we need a little more flotation. In the ultimate gesture of friendship Willem-Maarten attaches my flotation tails as I remain standing. As I bend down to return the favour I hear an audible crunch. On trying to stand again something feels wrong and looking down I see my left snow-shoe is sticking out at an unnatural angle. W.T.F? Bending back down I undo the binding and, after a few moments of struggle, extract my foot. A glance at the snow shoe initiates a major Oh Shit moment; a big crack has ripped through the metal foot-plate and the whole thing is hanging loosely on one pivot. It's totally unusable. The Oh Shit moment is closely followed by the realisation that there's close to 20km left in the planned route and 10km to bail out to the nearest road. 10 to 20 kilometres of post holing is not high on my wish list. Also not high on my list is standing on one foot in a white out trying to rig a quick fix to a broken snow shoe but needs must. I delve around in my pack for my repair kit and look over my options; neither super glue nor needle and thread are going to cut it, it's going to have to be duct tape, dyneema or both. Cold fingers growing colder I fashion Q&DFR (quick and Dirty field repair), offer the god of snow-shoes my soul and strap the offending item back onto my boot. As I move off again my snow-shoe clearly isn't right but it's considerably less wrong. The repair has brought it back to just the right side of broken.

Run for Cover

A few more minutes along the way the now familiar cycle of blizzard and fair spells repeats. We pick up the stick route again and follow it, first upwards around the Northern end of Bla Nova and then downwards, across a wide open North-Eastern slope. We hover a moment around the place I thought might make a half decent camp and then a few steps further my repair gives in. At an average of 2km per repair I'm going be fast through my supply of duct-tape and fancy string. We carry on towards the hut in search of tools and wire. As  we draw near to the hut in failing light and flailing snow I'm one legged post holing and dreaming of skis.

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