On Skis Across the Baltic Sea

The idea was to make a Baltic Sea ski crossing, from Oulu (Finland) to Piteå (Sweden) straight ahead completely unsupported. No one we knew had done it, so we started the planning stage with a huge amount  of questions. Most of them would remain unanswered by the time we actually set foot on the ice

The Harbour Master’s Offices in Sweden and Finland were clear on the matter: “We strongly discourage such a trip: there are ten main harbours, six icebeakers and over a hundred chargers operating in the Northern Baltic area.” Attached to the note was a rather dramatic picture of one of the mentioned icebreakers, followed by a troop of chargers capable of crushing the entire Baltic Sea with their keels. Under such conditions, the expedition would depend more on external factors than on the trip itself. Despite the warnings, there was no hesitation: we had decided to cross the Baltic Sea on foot in the dead of winter. Surely, we could have spared a lot of uncertainty by scouting the area from a chopper first, or maybe checking satellite images. However, that would have spoiled the spirit of it all, while we hoped to face the task ahead with a pioneer’s mind: setting off towards the unknown – with just patience, imagination and a strong will to carry on.

The huge ships break their way through the ice, leaving behind a chaos of bulky ice blocks, ground ice and black open water. The resulting channels, 60 to 100 meters-wide, are impassable until they freeze up again.

About 10,000 years ago, The Baltic Sea was a huge lake. Nowadays, a 4 km-wide gap connects it to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Baltic has the lowest salinity levels on earth which, added to its northern latitude and extreme cold conditions in winter, keeps most part of its surface frozen solid for four or five months a year. Although it rarely freezes up completely, the remarkable conditions during the previous season led us to feel optimistic.

Huge blocks of ice make the way difficult

November and December 2002, plus January that year, were the coldest in the last 85 years, causing the ice to reach an unusual thickness. Sadly, as we soon discovered, the ice melted at an equally remarkable speed due to mild temperatures through February and March – the “warmest” in 40 years.

Open water channels everywhere

Water and ice

There was a lot we didn’t know by the time we departed from Oulu, Finland, on March  3, 2003. We carried gear and supplies enough for 15 days. Dragging our 80 kg-heavy pulks (sleds) right from the hotel’s gates, we walked down to the frozen beach, under the curious stares of a handful of locals. Jose Manuel carried a third, empty sled, meant to be used as a crossing boat on some of the numerous open water channels that we expected to find on the way. Should the open sea prove too wide, we could link our three sleds with the skis in order to improvise a trimaran boat. Resolution and imagination were our only resources  as we set course towards Pitea, in Sweden, right across the sea by following Parallel 65º.

Dragging equipment across the ice floe

We started along Oulu archipelago on good, smooth snow. We even pushed on for a great deal of the night, hoping for a swift progress. We kept on our course by using several lighthouses on far-away islands, and continued across the sea, feeling more sailors than skiers… until we reached the first icebreaker trail.
These huge ships break their way through the ice, leaving behind a chaos of bulky ice blocks, ground ice and black open water. The resulting channels, 60 to 100 meters-wide, are impassable until they freeze up again. There was nothing we could do but wait, just as we did that first night. We waited for 4 hours, then pushed forward for a few more kilometers before setting up camp. After a much needed rest, we continued on  excellent, firm ice, with some icebreaker routes well within sight.

We move forward using the safety rope

Hailoto, the biggest island in Oulu archipelago, eventually disappeared from sight as we ventured further into the sea ice. The ice near land freezes up first and is thicker and smoother.  Further into the sea, the ice suffers traumatic changes of temperature and state, and thus provides a much tougher and unstable surface. On the bright side, our emergency supplies had just been empowered by a handful of herrings, a present from some Finnish fishermen we had come across.
By sunset we encountered the first pressure ridges. We did our best to go straight ahead across them, although our route was never quite as straight as we wished. Progress ended up being a rough march up and down, around open water channels and patches of green, thin ice which we crossed with all possible caution and crossed fingers, hopping from a loose slab of ice to the next, feeling the ground sinking under our weight with every step.

Inside the tent

One of the days, as we prepared to leave, the GPS indicated that we had drifted 1000 metres NW during the night. Unaware, we had camped on a gigantic iceberg which drifted along with the wind. As in a nightmare, I couldn’t help thinking on how the next pressure ridge could prove a dead end, with just black water ahead. We pushed on through each day with all our power, barely stopping for a break.  Average temperatures in March are supposed to reach as low as -20ºc, but that year told a different story. We saw the ice melting under our feet while our thermometer registered as much as +7ºc.
On our sixth day, mid-way on the frozen sea, a huge phantom-like view suddenly appeared 500 meters behind us: it was a monstrous icebreaker, towing two freighters. Luckily, we had already crossed their course line. While I don’t think the crew in any of the ships spotted us,  I’ll never forget the image.

After the icebreaker passes by there is a huge ice ball chaos

Despite the rough terrain and the unexpected obstacles, we eventually managed to adjust our pace, we learnt to move among the sea ice chaos and at some point, we actually started to enjoy it. At nights, we devoted ourselves to a new favorite sport: “stoving”.  No wonder that, after a long day dragging the sleds along a barren surface with no possible shelter, we couldn’t wait to get as warm as possible. Therefore, once in the tiny tent we shared, we would turn on the stoves at full-throttle, in order to feel the temperature rocketing up to Finnish sauna levels.
The expectation of (very) warm evenings, thick soups and our personal version of “Baltic Gin cocktails” – consisting of oral saline solution and “tang” served steaming-hot, kept us going against the wind, cold, snow and rain storms, day after day.
Eskimos are said to be able to recognise ice conditions with a single glance. In that sense, we wanted to feel a bit like eskimos, evaluating blue and green ice as solid, the slab covered in a thin layer of snow as acceptable and the black one as disturbing to say the least. From time to time a certain block of ice, arisen and twisted by violent sea currents, permitted us to check its thickness, for better or worse.

Checking ice thickness

Our penultimate day was cold and sunny, so that we seized the opportunity to dry our sleeping bag, sort out the chargers and brush everything clean of snow. We set off happy – as if we were the first men allowed to use a brand new world. After nine monotonously grey days, the sun was a gift that we cherished.

Breaking camp

The terrain’s farewell souvenir was not so pleasant: we had to find our way through the biggest ice blocks we had faced in the entire trip. Through the day, our anguish increased along with the rising temperatures and our concerns about approaching ships. Eventually, our fears proved real: at 6:00pm, we crossed two water channels freshly opened by icebreakers. Beyond, a 400-meter wide flat slab ended up in yet another water way – 100 meters wide. There was no way to cross it on foot: our only option to reach the other side would be to assemble our sleds into a trimaran raft of sorts. It could float, sure, but… We were more than hesitant to use such an unstable resource, least of all among the numerous icebergs which floated in the open water. We would need an icebreaker of our own, and our home-made raft looked definitely far from it. A mild 0ºc temperature provided neither hope for the gap to freeze up again any soon.

A rare sunny day

There was nothing we could do but stop, rehydrate, rest – and think. We were trapped in a frozen slab, surrounded by three open water channels, right in the middle of an often-used icebreaker route. It was definitely not the best possible place to be. I guess that was what the Swedes had meant by considering our trip “inadvisable”.

Flat ice at the end of the crossing

At midnight, a blinding light made us ran out from the tent. Was it a ship? The beam from a light-house nearby? “Light-houses don’t sail at 12 knots,” I recalled. Trying to think logically, I concluded that icebreakers would surely choose to follow the already opened route, rather than wasting time and fuel by breaking up a new one on solid ice… Just in case though, we hurried to bundle everything up and moved our bivouac as further to the left as possible – which was just 100 meters – while the ship’s spotlights swept the ice. I would have loved to see the captain’s face when he finally spotted two freaking idiots running around on the ice, barely avoiding the steel monster hull of his ship as it sped towards them.
The ship passed 100 meters away. For a moment we feared that the ice would burst in pieces around us. It didn’t move though – not even a tremble was felt  while the massive ship broke its way passed us. Relieved, we got into our sleeping-bags again.
Hours later, the icebreaker returned, towing two other ships. This time, as the spotlights hit our tent, we leaned forward just to pop our heads out of the tent and wave the passing ship good-bye.
Such a heavy traffic was a problem: we would hardly reach land with so many ships breaking the ice in all directions. Luckily (for us) the weather turned for the worse. Temperatures sank and snow began falling heavily.  Although exhausted and sore, we quickly packed and left at dawn, otherwise happy to find the water channel frozen solid. Without thinking twice, I stepped off the skis and jumped to the ice, in order to help Jose Manuel with the pulks. It was then that the ice cracked and slid under my feet. A second later, I was up to my knees in the water. Often before, I had tried to imagine how it would be to drown under the ice… The fact is, I felt no fear. I just began sliding down slowly – and suddenly jumped back up, leaning with all my strength on the shore and pushing myself back to safer ground. It happened all so quickly that I didn’t get soaked, although my outer layer of clothing froze in that instant. It was crystal clear that I am no eskimo.

First houses on the Swedish offshore islands

We arrived to Rebben, the first island in the Swedish Archipelago, later that day. There we met an elderly Swedish couple, amazingly kind and hospitable: They offered us a place to sleep under their roof – and even turned on the sauna for us!  After midnight, we got a call from a top Spanish radio network, hoping to congratulate us and to run a small live interview. It seemed we were famous as well!
On the following morning we resumed the trip among Pitea islands  until we finally reached continental ground. We had made it –and thus became the first Spaniards to ski across the Baltic sea, from coast to coast. We have not yet found any other skiers who have completed the crossing. Moreover, most of our friends in the expedition world were surprised to know the details, not knowing how the Baltic would look in winter. It had been as surprise for us as well. A true adventure!

Jose Mijares and Jose Manuel Naranjo.

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