When Calls The Adventure – The Cold Pocket

February 22, 2018 | 3:03 pm | No comments »

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It only needs a picture, rumor or an interesting contour on a map for the mind to start wandering. And then, you will not find peace until you go.

I had never been riding north of the famous places of Northern Norway, like Lyngen and Tamok, although Scandinavian mountain range still continues a good ways further up the coast. Not many people tend to ride there because it is little harder to get to and has less services and information. But the mountains are still equally magnificent.

Maps as intriguing as they are informative. It’s very pleasant to spread a map over a table, dig into the contours and leave some coffee stains on the paper during these times of technology and applications. For me, Northern Norway is amazing because I know I will not have time to ride and visit all of it’s mountains in my lifetime. And I can just drive to the trailhead and climb the ones I choose to explore, not fly across the continents to reach amazing adventures.

One area in particular got my attention few years ago when I had buried myself in to the contours and coastline of Northern Norway. The northernmost glacier of the Scandi’s range and last peaks reaching over 1000 meters straight out of the fjords lie in a place called Oksfjord. It seemed that the best mountains can only be accessed by ferry or boat which usually means very little people and even less, if any, riders. I tried to find information about riding there but it was very limited which got me very intrigued.

I looked at the map contours more closely and found a valley that had riding potential in every aspect and a open view to the ocean. My mind started to wander. Does the couloirs and lines go trough? How steep are they? Maybe no-one has ridden there before? Soon, I knew that I needed to go and find out. Otherwise, the valley would start to haunt me.

The conditions didn’t happen last year when I wanted to go the first time . The adventure got pushed by a year. The second year didn’t come without difficulties either: some sudden events, schedule changes and bad weather pushed the departure date further and further in to the spring. Fortunately and finally in May everything seemed to click and we got our opportunity.

öksfjord (4 of 4)photo: @mattiollila

Team of four friends, Me, another rider Jussi Oskari Taka, filmer Matti Ollila and photographer Jani Kärppä, started journey towards the promising arctic valley. The plan was to drive as far as possible, take a ferry to the closest village, hike up to the valley, camp, explore and ride in surrounding mountains. What we would find there was a total mystery but that uncertainty was part of the whole thrill. According to the snow reports from the nearest weather stations, there was still lots of snow left even this late in the spring. Only concern was the forecast that kept changing with every update. Our short time window of one week could not handle a long storm.

After 12 hours on winding roads through the austere arctic scenery, we reached the small pier where we were supposed to take the ferry into the fjords the next morning. But the forecast was not our side – it was going to be low pressure for the next few days. So we decided to put the main objective on hold and explore mountains and snowpack just across the fjord.

We woke up to some scattered showers and a even worse forecast: the mellow low pressure had developed into a storm with lots of precipitation and high winds. We needed some info about the snow pack to figure out what our options were before the storm would hit. We decided to hike into a bowl to check the snow and maybe even ride a sheltered couloir that we spotted from the road. Only few ridgelines separated the valley that we were aiming and the bowl. So it should give us a good general idea of the genereal conditions.

The atmosphere in the bowl was the eeriest I had ever felt in the mountains. The clouds were gathering and hanging low. Temperature was rising alarmingly. Visibility was bad and we could hear small loose snow avalanches sliding and snow balls falling from the rock walls everywhere around us. We ran into a massive old avalanche debris as we got deeper in to the bowl. There was half a meter of fresh snow on top of it and it was getting warmer. We turned back and decided to dig a pit under a small couloir close to the edge of the bowl. The snow column broke from the first tap. There was a layer of graupel snow lurking 30cm deep. We sighed and had no choice but to back out. We almost got hit by a natural wet snow avalanche on the way out.

The situation looked grim for us: the approaching storm would bring only more load on the already sketchy snow pack. We would need to sit out the storm and wait for the snow pack to stabilize for several days before we could step on to any steeper terrain. In short, our window of opportunity closed right there and then.

We had no choice but return home and hope that winter would still continue and maybe we could return. It was a shame since we didn’t even get glimpse of the valley we were aiming for. But it was no use arguing with nature. The mood was low as we started the long drive back home.

A week later I saw a high pressure in the forecast. I called the guys for a rerun. Jussi could not make it anymore because of other arrangements and Jani had fallen sick. It was only me and Matti left. I tried to get at least another rider to join us but had no luck with such a short notice. It was not the best option to head out in to the unknown mountains just by the two of us. Two is a small number if something went wrong. In addition, I would need to solo all the lines. I really had to debate hard with myself what to do.

But the call of the adventure was strong. The valley had developed in to a obsession of some sort. I just had to see what was out there. I convinced myself and Matti too that if it was even little sketchy we would pull the plug. He agreed. This way we would at least know if we were on to something.

This time the forecast held. I was very excited as we got on to the boat. It was going to cruise by the valley and drop us to the closest pier from where we would continue by foot the next morning. It was beautiful sunset and we were admiring the mountains rising straight up from the fjords. Excitement grew as we got closer to our destination.

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But what we saw from the boat was nothing short from a devastation. The snow conditions suddenly were completely different in our valley. There was no snow at all the bottom and the lines we saw looked like early seasons sharky slalom runs. The valley looked like from another world compared to the other ones just beside it. The lack of snow made the valley inaccessible by skinning and the wet boulders looked like a nasty climb. The whole valley reminded me more of Mordor than the snowy paradise like I had imagined.

It was beyond our comprehension why there was at least two meters less snow in this particular valley than the ones next to it. We stared each other and the valley in disbelief. The ferry was arriving soon to the pier and we had no clue what to do. If we got off now, we would be stuck in the rockiest place of all Oksfjord for the next few days.

oksfjordadventure valley that we were supposed to go - not enoght snowOur Plan A didn’t look so inviting

We made a quick decision to stay on the ferry and return back to square one. The valley we went during our first trip at least had lots of snow. We saw some fun lines there but none of them really caught my attention. Sadly, those mediocre lines were now our best bet.

I was very disappointed. I had made myself believe that we could find something special in the valley. It didn’t even cross my mind anymore that there might not be anything there. I had put so much effort, fantasizing and other peoples time in finding the valleys treasure that I was sure that there was something.

We woke up to a sunny and beautiful day. We crossed over the fjord with a ferry to reach the mountains where we had been digging the pit during the first trip. Temperatures were moderate but there was already run-offs visible from yesterdays sunny afternoon. The spring was well on it’s way even this far north. I decided to climb a couloir on one of the higher peaks that was facing west and north-west to get an idea how high we needed to go to find dry snow.

I got two thirds of the way up and decided to turn back. The snow was still wet and the couloir was full of big wet snowballs. I saw the top part but the situation was the same there too. Run down was horrible: dodging big snowballs and trying to keep the nose on top of heavy and sticky new snow. It was frustrating. I understood quickly that every line the sun had touched was already gone. Only change was to find north facing lines but we had not seen any good ones around and didn’t locate any on the map either.

oksfjordadventure checking snow conditionsCouloir was filled with frozen slush sluff.

We didn’t want to call it quits but at the same time we had to be realistic : with the current conditions there was nothing to ride. I fell into despair. The trip seemed to fall into pieces again. It was developing into a journey without the destination. And I needed to find something, at least for my own piece of mind.

Porpoises were playing around in the water and sun was shining but I retreated for a nap in the back of the van. Lying there half a sleep, I started to think what was the sense of it all anyway. I had been dreaming of discovering something new and special. But in the end, if you strip all the glory off it, I was looking for just another crack in the wall. And that moment it felt like the most useless thing to do. I had ridden hundreds of lines before, how could I even imagine something here would be any different?

As I was dwelling in these bleak thoughts, I recalled a quote from Yvon Chouinard: “True adventure begins when everything goes wrong”. It was a thought to embrace. It gave me tiny piece of hope that maybe we could still turn this trip around. Matti was still admiring the porpoises, eagles and the arctic scenery when I got out of the van back into the sun. We tried to think what we could still do and suddenly we remembered one line that we vaguely saw in the back of one fjords during yesterdays ferry cruise. It stood out from anything else we had seen: completely straight line in the rugged mountain side. And it was facing north! On the down side we had no idea if it went through or how to even get there.

There was no roads going close to the valley and even by boat it was more than ten kilometers away partly on open ocean. There was no village which meant no ferries going in either. By foot we would need to climb up to the glacier which was hanging between the valleys, cross it and drop down into the unknown route trusting only the map that it goes through. It didn’t seem like a good option just by the two of us. We seemed to hit a wall again. But there was some fishermen and boats in a small village close by. Should we try to convince one of them to take us there? Why not? We had nothing to lose.

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After few inquiries in the village, we were told to ask from a fisherman called Örjan when he returned from the sea. To our surprise he didn’t even blink nor question our endeavor but promised to take us there first thing the next morning. Our plan B just started to formulate.

öksfjord (3 of 4)Picking mussles for dinner

Mountains looked beautiful from the boat in the morning light. Also, the feeling of this kind of approach was special. There was few abandoned houses scattered on the fjord’s shores and a shipwreck. Örjan told us that the last people from one of the houses moved out 5 years ago. Few families had settled into the valley after the WWII like they did in almost every fjord and valley in Norway. This amazes me. These houses look totally disconnected from the outside world and farmer life must have been really harsh this far in the arctic.

Örjan dropped us off at the end of the fjord and wished us good luck. As his boat disappeared in to the horizon, we too felt very disconnected, isolated and alone. We hoped that he was a man of his words and would return for us. We left some gear at the shore and started our ascent towards the potential line. We were wondering if anyone had been riding in this particular valley before. Örjan didn’t know when we asked. He had seen some skiers in his home valley but had not heard anybody going into this one with skis or snowboards. Fascinating thought.

To our big surprise, we found dry snow only 100 meters up from the fjord. The valley seemed to have much more snow than the ones beside it. According to the map our plan A valley was just on the other side of our potential line now. And there was way less snow on the on next valley too where Örjan’s place was. We were baffled. It was definitely the weirdest micro climate phenomenon we had ever witnessed.

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oksfjordadventure viewsThe valley had riding potential in every aspect

oksfjordadventure (9 of 21)West wall

The line was a real beauty: a perfect ramp hanging on the side of the mountain with huge walls on each side and it did go through nicely. It almost looked like a perfect wave rolling on the mountainside. And the snow conditions looked amazing with no run offs at all. I got ecstatic. This definitely was not just another crack in the wall!

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Only problem now were the cornices hanging above the line which were getting hit by the spring sun. They looked like a loaded guns pointed at the line. Soloing a serious line in the middle of nowhere was scary enough on it’s own. I didn’t want have any extra tension for the climb. So we decided to return the next night when the cornices were frozen again and hopefully ride it at first light. We buried the camera gear on the plateau that was facing the line. It would be Matti’s post and I would hike around the plateau to get straight under the line.

oksfjordadventure burying camera gear for next morning

We returned to shore and tried to rest and fuel up for the night. I was so excited about the night mission that it was hard to get any sleep. We also found some wolverine tracks in the snow. We started wonder if the wolverines were fond of our smell after a long winter. We decided to pack knives within easy reach, like it would make any difference! But any extra comfort was a welcome.

I started the approach from our little base around 11pm. The forecast had promised clear skies but clouds were gathering, as usual. The world was completely silent. Atmosphere was very peaceful and intense at the same time. Silence was only broken by the static from the walkie-talkies. I reached the foot of the mountain within an hour and started the ascent. It might have been an fairly easy hike all the way up to the beginning of the ramp without crazy flat light. I had to skin through an old and covered avalanche debris and I could not see the bumbs at all. I kept poking my skis into small boulders and falling into holes. On the open I could not see if I was running into a wall or sliding downhill. All I could see was the outlines and the rock walls above. I started swearing by myself and lost a lot of precious energy.

Before entrance of the ramp I jumped of the skis to start bootpacking. I sank in waist deep. The snow was amazing but at the same time I knew it meant a loooong hike. The snow felt stable and the bottom was V-shaped which ensured me that there was not too much tension in the snow pack. So I started push up with a good feeling.

But not too long after, I could feel the cramps creeping in. I lost a lot of fluids and energy zigzagging in the flatlight and obviously I had failed to fuel up too. I was swearing again. I had good 2-3 hours of swimming in head of me and I was already in such pain that I had to lay down and shake my legs. In many other situations I would have stopped but this was not the time for quitting. I needed just suck it up. I knew I could do it… or at least I wanted to be able to do it. After all the setbacks we were finally on to something and I really wanted to ride the line. It had quickly become dangerously important to me.

At times, I got scared of the snow. It was so deep and partly steep and I was alone. There was no partner to discuss the situations. I told myself these were completely normal doubts that you go through hiking in the middle of the night. So, I pushed the fear aside and continued. I was so focused on the goal that nothing could stop me now.

But at some point, I started to noticed my obsessive behavior towards the goal which was a thing I had always tired to avoid. I knew how dangerous it could be in the mountains. I was tired, dehydrated and continuing stubbornly. This could easily lead in to grave mistakes. Is it really worth it? I needed to stop and re-assess the whole situation.

I studied my emotions closely and assessed the conditions of the climb again. My emotions were a like rollercoaster but I could stop and rationalize. Good. The snow was deep and the climbing was difficult but there was no actual signs of instability or danger. Snow had had time to settle for few days and we had not seen any slab avalanches. Good. I calmed down, got my confidence back and kept on going. Soon after, I saw the col and knew I would make it. I was happy about my self-search moment, recognizing dangerous behavior and ability to still think clearly in an intense situation.

At 4 am I was relieved to stand on the col. I was proud of my effort and perseverance. I had made it to the top. The other side of the col dropped down to the valley where were supposed to camp originally. It truly had lot less snow and I still could not fathom why. But that didn’t matter anymore. I was about to drop into one of best lines of the season.

My legs were tired but adrenaline was pumping the fatique aside. It was mostly cloudy and some scattered snow with some rays of pink light. Forecast did not hold once again but I could not have cared less at that moment. At least, it wasn’t flatlight anymore. We waited for the best light possible and as soon as Matti gave the good to go I dropped in.

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It felt like I was riding a big wave. The snow was the best I had ridden the whole season and it was 12th of May. I let everything out and came out screaming at the bottom. With happy grin I stopped into a safety stop behind a big rock wall and let the slough run by before cruising down back to the fjord. But I suddenly became really cold and started shaking. Adrenaline wasn’t pumping anymore and I had no energy left. I ate the last chocolate bar. It was the best chocolate ever.

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We met again at our base with big high fives. I felt extremely happy as we started cooking breakfast and waiting for Örjan to return. We managed to accomplish something great in the end! It definitely took a little faith this time. But I guess, the best memories and adventures need twists and turns, some uncertainty and difficulties, to become the unforgettable ones. This particular line, may it be just another crack in the wall for most, became something truly special to us and maybe it was as a result of all the setbacks along the way.

One beautiful line, which we started calling The Cold Pocket after the weird micro climate, was all it took this time to turn the trip into a real adventure. I understood then that for me it is about those few precious seconds we chase and the feeling of exceeding myself that keep calling me back again and again. They are the spark of adventures.

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