A cryptic email containing a map and some places I hadn’t really ever heard of. It was the start of a fun little adventure: to ski across the national parks of Yllas and Pallastunturi in northern Finland on cross-country skis. We would be carrying all necessary provisions for the traverse and follow the marked trails where possible. At the time I was travelling elsewhere, so it was Manu and Greggy who looked after most of the logistics. Thanks guys!
Now I’d never really been a cross-country skiing fan, but having discovered it properly in Jokkmokk (see Lapland Paradise) I’ve come to really enjoy it. Although in no way as adrenaline filled as ski-mountaineering, it is a great way to cover long distances and explore the beautiful forests and countryside of the northern lands. Over the course of the trip our technique was to progress substantially; going from barely being able to descend the pre-cut trails (heavy back-packs don’t make things easier) to actually going through powder and sort of managing the turns without falling over.
Once the initial decision was taken and the rough maps printed off it was just a question of jumping on a night bus to Paris. Two flights later we had met up with Greg and Thomas, who were joining us from Brest and Berlin respectively. All we had to do was hike into town and do the food shopping (more of this later) before some sauna and very expensive beer. Next day we hiked back to the little airfield and caught a bus to Äkäslompolo, at the entrance of the parks and the beginning of the traverse. As mentioned above, the start was a little bit wobbly, as we balanced our heavy backpacks and tried to brake on the downhill. I think we all managed some good wipe-outs before we got onto the frozen lakes and started to make way. Well, they were frozen, but not much. I was end of April after all, and spring was clawing it’s way all the way to the Arctic circle. As we glided along we could see the ice beneath, and large cracks were already forming. We passed several groups of fisherman, drilling the ice and jigging all day long. We could not help but notice they would sit just out of hearing distance from each other! Getting back into the forests we continued on towards the first cabin we had marked on the map.
This would be the first of the several huts we would be staying in over the days to come. They were all great. We could complain as much as we wanted about the long distances and the melting lakes, but the cabins were always waiting for us at the end. Built of wood, with a metal stove and several bunks there was a huge supply of wood and an axe ready to keep the fire going. Looking out though the little windows, the glow from the coals and the flickering candles made us feel safe and at home in our little refuge.
As the days went by the rising temperature made the snow softer. We encountered several lakes that we had initially planned to cross but found to be thawing quickly. Strangely, it seemed to get worse the further north we went. Not wanting to find ourselves dragged into the freezing water with our heavy backpacks we contoured several of the more dubious stretches. If the detour was too long or impossible, a first scout would be sent out before the rest of us followed. The “will it hold?” question was repeated multiple times.
Halfway through our traverse our food-reserves started to run low. Our hopes of being able to resupply were dashed upon arriving in Torassieppi. The one restaurant had closed for the season. This meant contemplating not having enough food to finish. The only possibility seemed to be hitchhiking into Muonio and getting supplies. But this would put us way behind our schedule. After arguing for some time about abandoning the traverse and trying we voted to keep going. This meant that we had more bottles of alcohol than kilos of food. We therefore had a choice of Chartreuse or Whisky to go with our soup and no breakfast for a couple of days. But the good team spirit more than made up for this, and we had a great time advancing through the infinite forests. After several hours of being closed in by the proximity of the firs it could feel quite oppressive. But as we neared Yllas, the terrain stared to rise and we were able to see above the tree tops, across the huge extensions of the Lapland landscape.
For our last night we would be staying in the Pyhakerö. We had discovered that with a lot of space and a lot of trees translates into a lot of small buildings. This meant that every refuge had its own outhouses, toilets, log room, dog kennels, etc… In the case of Pyhakerö ir felt like a little village. The five or six buildings wooden buildings look onto a large water pump in the middle. We felt like we had walked onto the set of a far-west film rather that a cabin lost in the Finnish forests.
Because our bus would be leaving Hetta (the town at the end of our traverse or “the end”) in the early morning, we only made use of the cabin for a few hours. Getting up at 2 am, we put on our skis one last time. Clipping into cross country skis under a sky that was already quite bright didn’t feel very epic! Even so there was still the concern we could encounter some impassable lakes and be forced to make a long detour. But a few hours later we could be found carrying our skis by the side of the road. It might be flat, but we were quite exhausted. Collapsing at the bus-stop I munched my very last chocolate bar. We could finally all fall asleep.
Heading back to Kittila, we saw the hundreds of kilometres of fir trees we had traverses fly past . It had been a fun journey, and it was nice to enjoy it with good friends. The only challenge had been the objectives we had set ourselves, and albeit the lack of food and melting lakes we had taken the time to enjoy the silence and calm beauty of the region. My only regret was that because of the late date, the landscape was not at its best. I think that the same itinerary in the heart of winter must be just that little bit better. I would definitely like to try. Maybe with a sledge and some more supplies! (just not salty licorice…)
One last night of sauna and feasting and it was time to say goodbye to Lapland. Due to a long flight connection times we were lucky enough to enjoy the Vappu festivities in Helsinki. Hundreds of people were roaming the streets drinking and partying to the end of winter. Joining in, it was a great way to the end of a great and varied ski season!