I've no idea where the notion to go on a cross country skiing, wild camping adventure came from, but it was one of those ideas that wouldn't go away once it had creeped in.
We read up a bit on the theory of it before we went, so we knew we'd need to use wax, that we'd be able to use a pulk to drag our gear along behind us, a bit on the technique required to get moving, and where to go for ploughed tracks. And so we thought, that would do - holiday researched, let's go. Ha! Nothing prepared us for how difficult it was to even get the damned skis on our boots! With little toddlers whizzing past us, Norwegian mums confidently dragging their newborns along snuggled up in baby pulks, and large groups of people of all ages marching onto the slopes, popping on their skis, and heading off into the sunset, we were still stuck there, embarrassed by our inability to get the things on our feet for a good 20 minutes! And once we got one on, that just made getting the other on even harder, as we slipped around on the one attached foot - it was a nightmare! Thankfully, we got quicker, and by the end of our 10 day expedition, we could pop them on in a jiffy.
Next challenge - wax. The lovely helpful guy in the rental shop had given us a quick run down on the different types of wax and klister we would need, and we bought 4 different ones, suitable for a range of conditions and temperatures, and a thermometer. It seemed pretty straight forward, with the temperatures printed on the waxes, what could go wrong?? Ha again - as we set off from the hire shop, finally having got the skis on, we noticed we didn't have much in the way of glide. We thought it was our crappy learners technique, but a closer look at the bottom of the skis showed that we were collecting snow on the bottom of the skis. Time for different wax, we thought. So off with the skis, and out with the scraper. It was surprisingly difficult to get the old wax off, but we persevered with chilly fingers getting covered in the stuff. We picked a different wax as per the instructions of our thermometer, and got the skis back on (much quicker this time!), and went off on our merry way.
There was now no glide at all, the snow was building up so badly that we were practically walking along in these very thick snow-encrusted skis. So we stopped again, back to the scraping, and yet another type of wax. Still no better. And so it went on, in between falling over quite a bit for a good few hours. It was exhausting, frustrating, and a bit worrying that we had another 10 days of this! Until a nice Norwegian man stopped us - very impressed with our loaded pulk, and intentions of wild camping, but a bit shocked by our current waxing technique. He explained that there was more to the wax than just the temperature - you also had to take account of the amount of sunshine, snow melt, how icy the tracks were, how recently they'd been ploughed - more of an art form than a science really. He scraped our skis down for us (much less messy than when we were doing it), and re-applied the wax. I've no idea what he did differently from us, but for the rest of the day the skis worked like a dream (well, the sort of dream where you fall over a lot!). For the rest of the trip, we never quite cracked the wax, but we did learn to use a bit more intuition, and rely less on the instructions on the thermometer.
We had all our gear in one pulk, weighing around 45kg - tent, sleeping bags, coats, roll mats, food for 10 days, 4 litres of water, snow shoes, and a lot of camera gear. In hindsight, we should have paid the extra to have a pulk each, as 45kg was too much to drag up hill, or push you down hill as a beginner. Though, after listening to one too many of my pulk-dragging hissy fits, this turned out to be Aaron's sole responsibility! At times, the weight of it meant you couldn't get any traction on the skis going up-hill at all, and we had to don the snow shoes and walk it up the hill. At other times, it gave terrifying speed and force to the down hill stretches. And when you fell over, it kept pushing you down hill, until it eventually stopped, and then you had to try to disentangle yourself from it. This, like all the other challenges got a lot easier as the days went on. The falling over didn't happen any less often, but it was more controlled, safer and took less time to get back on track again.
After three or four hours, we decided to set up camp, and get some dinner prepared. We'd planned to melt snow to allow us to stretch our drinking water supplies as far as possible. It takes a crazy amount of snow to create a meagre amount of water! Luckily we'd brought couscous to have for each lunch and dinner, as it is light weight, and doesn't need much water, or gas to cook. Even so, we had to collect pot after pot of snow for each portion, and so were burning through our gas pretty quickly, not to mention ruining the look of our perfect little snowy camp spot! We went for a snow shoe walk through pristine, silent wilderness and then the snow started to fall again, covering our tent in a beautiful little blanket. We don't get snow often in Ireland, and certainly nothing like this - it made all of the day's trials worthwhile.
It kept snowing all that night, and most of the next morning, and the visibility wasn't great so we thought we'd be best staying put and working on our skiing skills, without the hassle of the pulk. We got on much better, and eventually after lunch time, the visibility improved, and we were able to see that we had only made it about 2km from the ski hire centre, after all that exhausting skiing the day before! On the plus side, this meant that we were able to pop back there in a jiffy now that we had improved our skills, and had ditched the pulk. The hot chocolate and cinnamon scones were such a treat after melting snow for couscous dinner, and melting our drinking water for cereal that morning, as even the bottles we'd kept in the tent had frozen up at -10 temperatures. We were also able to pick up some more gas cannisters, as we realised we were going to go through them quicker than we thought.
By day three, with our day's practice in, and some extra supplies picked up, we were able to make much faster progress, although we still only did a few km per day after that. It was mid-March, with around 12 hours of daylight a day. By the time we got the tent all packed away, and some snow melted for breakfast it was usually after 10am, lunch took quite a while, collecting and melting snow for the couscous, and then we had to start setting up the next night's camp about 4pm to give enough time to flatten the snow at the camp spot, set up the tent (complete with a hole at the vestibule to make it comfier to sit in) cook some more couscous and have time for a warming snow shoe walk before it got dark again at around 7pm. We eventually caught on to boil up water at night to use as a hot water bottle in our sleeping bags, so that we didn't have to melt them in the morning - much better for gas consumption, and good for the chilly nights!
While I make this sound like a nightmare - it was a brilliant, exciting and challenging adventure. It gave such an adrenaline buzz, and the daily routine of sking, and camping in beautiful surroundings was relaxing and tranquil, once we got into the flow. We were looking into other places to go cross country skiing as soon as we got home. But I can never eat couscous again!
Planning a cross country skiing wild camping adventure? Here's some tips:
Book a lesson - these are available at all the hire centres - at the very least, they will teach you how to put the skis on quicker!
Bring more gas than you think you will need - you burn through it quicker in the cold weather, and you will also have to melt a lot of snow to cook with
Make sure you have snow shoes. If you're a beginner, it is a relief to take the skis off once in a while and move without risk of falling over. Without snow shoes, you will just sink too deep into the snow to walk.
Bring plenty of warm clothes - goose down jacket and sleeping bag, thermal layers. We had ice forming on the inside of our tent, and by 7pm when the sun went down, the temperature was already down to -7.
Don't put too much weight in one pulk. While it is nice to be pulk-less some of the time by only having one pulk to share between you, a heavy pulk is such a pain for the person pulling it, that it is better to split your weight across a few of them.
Don't be too ambitious in your distance - when we set out, we told the guy in the hire shop we planned to ski the 50 km to the Swedish border, as it turned out we didn't make it more than 25km in total.
Don't imagine you can eat the same thing for all your meals. By day 8, we were literally choking the couscous down, and arguing on who had eaten more of it - a bit of variety amongst crappy camping snacks goes a long way!