Arctic persistence

A ski tour journey across in the Arctic circle. All journeys have a destination and ours was the summit of Sarek, with the aim to fly back down to basecamp. A journey shared with my wife and friend, it's about waiting and patience to find the right time.

We sat on top of our sleds waiting for our train, which was now 5 hours late. Staring across the tracks at the landscape. A man-made mountain of spoil. Kiruna is a mining town, and everything here revolves around the iron ore mines. This was the reason for our late train. A mining carriage took priority of the single track, and we had been waiting for it to pass, slowly watching the sun set over the black artificial mountain. It was -10 degrees Celsius, and we were well within the arctic circle – an imaginary line that shows the extent of 24 hour sun and 24 hour darkness.

We waited, and finally the train came. 

The human powered leg of the journey started at Kvikkjokk. It is the start of the King’s trail in the Sarek National Park. That evening we covered as much ground as we could before setting up camp on the edge of the trail. We would have over 50km + to travel to our base camp over the next couple of days. 

The frozen lakes gave us easy passage to cross large distances. Easy to navigate and flat, which meant we could almost turn off and go into autopilot, putting in the hard work without much thought. Later in the day ponds would form on the surface then later refreeze, forming a thin layer of ice that would easily break. Occasionally we would break through these layers of ice. We would freeze with dread for a split second before realizing there was still plenty of ice beneath our skis to support us. Yet it was still enough of a shock to remind me of the ice breaking drills. My time deployed in Norway as a Royal Marine mountain leader had been good training for this expedition. 

The scenery was much like a large-scale Scotland: rolling mountains, pine trees stretched as far as we could see, it was all very familiar, until we came across Skierfe. A huge granite outcrop with an opposing cliff on the other side of the valley. A huge 600m wall, nothing like that exists in the UK. Camp was set up on the edge of the frozen lake, next to a jetty that would serve as our kitchen. The jetty also served as a convenient dry and flat location to pack our parachutes. 

As always, our alarms go off early. An alpine start. The snow should be firmer and it gives us maximum daylight to mitigate unforeseen circumstances. We calculate a four hour hike to the exit point. Trudging through deep snow we carried on a bit further, to the next tree, to the rock, to the ridge. Until we were too committed to turn back. Our boots were wet through, we might as well continue. On the ridge we could see the summit, which was now cloaked in thick clouds. To warm up we spend 30 minutes making a rock wall windbreak and within 2 minutes of sitting behind it Ewan is asleep. Ewa put her cold feet in my armpits and tried to dry the socks in the wind. 

We waited, and then finally the clouds lifted. 

I’ve never put this much effort into a single jump before. Ewan had joined me on Mount Kenya to open the first wingsuit exit in the country. He now wondered why he just joined me for the toughest, longest or hardest jumps. We had made it to the summit of Skierfe. 64km from our start point. I peered over the edge, finding an exit was obvious; the whole face was a sheer drop to the valley below. By now the sun had plenty of time to heat up the black south facing wall, the thermal updraft would be great for inflating and pressurizing my wingsuit but unpredictable for Ewa’s parachute to open so close to the wall. Fortunately we were not in a race against the sun. It’s light pretty much throughout the night and the longer we waited the calmer the air would be. 

Ewa suggested I jump without her, but we had traveled so far with the aim to jump together. It would feel like the goal of jumping Skieffe mountain would be incomplete if we didn’t manage to both jump. This jump wasn’t technical or challenging, it was more about the journey to get here and the incredible scenery, it was something to share and not overshadow individually.  

From our carefully selected rock we shared body warmth and waited for a lul, we stayed geared up in order to grab the smallest opportunity we could. We couldn’t feel the wind from where we were so I made a makeshift flag out of a compression sack and a walking pole, to hang over the edge of the cliff. It was another waiting game.

We waited, and finally the wind subsided. 

The sun was only a couple of hours from setting, casting long shadows across the frozen delta below. The rock cooled and the air became calm, presenting us with a window of opportunity. Ewa stood on the exit and I held her bridle, she quickly lept into action, she knew there might only be one chance. I held her bridle in my finger tips, enough to pop the pins holding her parachute in the container. At line stretch the canopy is now fully above her head, the bridle slides out of my fingers and the parachute near instantly pressurizes, on heading and flying away from the cliff. I knew seeing my wife jump would be more satisfying than my jump itself. Having made so much effort to get here, this was the moment we had been waiting for. 

I want to take the same window of opportunity and as I zip the wings up on my wingsuit I shout to Ewan to radio Ewa and ask the wind direction. I walked over to my exit point but it seems the window has closed. The katabatic winds now fiercely whipping down the valley. I stay poised on the exit, my right foot in front of my left, the rock is grippy and I’m sure of my footing. Minutes pass as I’m in this stress position. The wind steadied and I jumped. The cold air was dense, inflating my wingsuiting and giving me a good glide. I took a turn down the delta towards the lake, away from the setting sun. 

We flew as far as we could back to camp. It would mean less trudging through the wet snow. I landed on some ice, hoping it would hold. Ewa shouted from within the woodblock. I followed her footprints on the frozen estuary until we embraced each other. Tracks of reindeer and wolverine littered the river banks back to base camp where we sat on the jetty boiling water for Ewan’s return. 

We waited, and finally Ewan appeared.

The waiting game is just part of it, a small obstacle for the committed. 7 hours of waiting exposed in the arctic circle is a small price to pay. Our Arctic persistence paid off. 

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Text and Images by Tim Howell

Images by Ewan Harvey

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