Huw Oliver is a guide, mountain bike coach, and outdoor educator based in Scotland. He travels the world with his partner Annie, exploring as many different environments he can by bike. In April 2018, the two of them set out for a long-distance bike trip through the frozen mountains and valleys of Lapland, Sweden. It was the perfect challenge. Setting off in snowstorms and camping in temperatures of up to -20°C, they endured some of the worst conditions the Arctic could throw at them. Sometimes, as Oliver writes below, a positive mentality can be more important than the best gear.
One of my earliest memories of an outdoor adventure is from when I was four or five and my dad took me up Blencathra, which is the first big fell that you come across, approaching England’s Lake District from Northumberland in the east. We took two days over it, camping by a tarn and eating instant pasta meals cooked over a Trangia stove. I can still remember the smell of the tent nylon, the feel of a sleeping bag and the vertigo of standing on top of something. I’m intensely grateful for that experience, as I think it still shapes my priorities today. Defining just what exactly draws people towards the outdoors is fruitless, I think, but for me there’s definitely a sense of maintaining the curiosity we had when we were children.
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. 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. Winter landscapes are fascinating anyway, coming from such a damp island, but being there on a bike is mind-altering for both of us: something to do with freedom, and possibilities. 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.
We traveled to Sweden to challenge ourselves and our capabilities. We would be subject to the whims of the weather and the snow conditions, but not any human constraints. I think living in a very temperate, mild climate here in the UK, we’re drawn to extremes. You either look south to the Mediterranean, or you look north. Scottish outdoor culture has a lot of strong Scandinavian influences, whether it’s the cross-country skiing in Aberdeenshire, or the herd of reindeer that were brought over from Sweden to the Cairngorms in the 60s. We were already keen to visit that part of the world, but the lure of a good adventure in the ‘proper’ winter of the north sealed the deal.
Fatbikes are the perfect match for a curious mind. The mountains that straddle the Sweden-Norway border are crisscrossed 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.
Besides the planning for the route – a lot of which we owe Google Earth for – cold weather was a major focus of our planning and preparation. We’re both used to winter camping in Scotland, but it was certainly different in Lapland. Staying dry and staying well fed are both pretty key to staying comfortable in cold conditions, and luckily the climate was significantly drier than the winters we’re used to. That made it easier to keep the insulation in our clothes and sleeping bags dry and effective, although we did have to sleep with liners in our sleeping bags that prevent water vapor produced by your body from traveling into the down insulation, condensing and then freezing. We did the same with barrier socks to prevent our boots from getting wet from sweaty feet.
We made sure to eat well too — although food is heavy, I’d rather carry the weight than the alternative. Overall, we were fairly comfortable considering the temperatures were at around -20°C for several nights. The low point of every day was getting out of the sleeping bag to get the stove on (we took turns) and putting on frozen boots. The basics of planning a self-supported trip boil down to this: getting there, fuel, food, and water. The beauty of carrying everything with you is that you’re never tied to an itinerary. It’s so easy to let enthusiasm get the better of you when you’re staring at a beautiful topo map.
Saying that, there are times on an expedition – and especially this one – where even having experience wouldn’t distract from suffering real lows. The greater your own personal experience becomes, the easier it is to recognize low points as they arrive and know that they will pass. That said, the same combinations of hunger, fatigue and frustration – and cold in this case – never seem to get any easier to deal with. I suppose I cope with difficulties by trying to think of something worse that I’ve gotten through in the past and try to be confident that I’ll get through this one too. Taking life one hour at a time really helps me, so I end up muttering to myself: “things will be better in an hour, just wait.” It’s surprising how often that comes true.
That being said, when you are facing one of those lows, the other person you’re traveling with often gets the brunt of your frustration – I know I’ve done it before and I know when Annie is doing it to me.
At those times, it helps enormously to be traveling with someone you know well, that you’ve been through difficult periods with before. We each know how to read the other, when to try to help or offer a snack, and when to just keep trucking on. When we do sometimes take the frustration out on each other, it’s easy to forget it later on. It’s a lot easier to suffer together than it is to do it alone though.
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.
I think it’s times like those – times like when I was struggling to put the tent up in frigid conditions and became frustrated that it was Annie’s turn to start the dinner, in the relative warmth of the tent – that having a strong, positive mentality is a huge factor. It goes without saying that experience, preparedness, and decision-making skills are crucial, but your mentality is the medium by which all those things are actually applied. A mentality of optimism and open-mindedness is probably the thing that got you there, past the doubts, uncertainties, and setbacks that are part and parcel of any big trip away. If adventure is all about uncertainty, then it’s your mentality that has the power to turn that uncertainty into a positive or a negative. Equipment and knowledge might keep you safe in a given situation, but it’s your mentality that can allow you to enjoy being there in the first place.
Expeditions are a big commitment. I think that the most important thing is to be honest with yourself about your reasons for making a trip. If it’s to try and prove something, to be the first, fastest or greatest, then the chances of fulfillment instantly become slim. I don’t think a successful expedition is too different to a successful day anywhere else, to be honest: be honest with each other, be realistic, and remember that it’s meant to be fun. And that is definitely something you have to remind yourself of in the low points.
I think for any expedition or adventure, it’s important to keep that curiosity alive. Find something that catches your imagination. Once the spark is there, the rest will fall into place with a little determination and imagination, one way or another. It might be a photo that caught your eye, and exotic place name or something more personal, but you’ll know when you find something that draws you deeper, and if you follow it you’ll likely find an adventure of your own.
You can read more about Oliver’s experience here.
Photos by Huw Oliver.