Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lyngen in May, a ski-mountaineering trip report (part 1)

Telemarks off Holmbuktind (1666 mtrs), the summit ice cap of Jiehkkevárrio (1834 mtrs) that we had just climbed is behind me. Thanks to Dave for this photo.
I had never heard of Lyngen before moving to Finland despite having been pretty immersed in British climbing culture for a good number of years by that point. It's odd in a way because most of the first ascents in the region were done by British climbers visiting by ship around the start of the twentieth century. The region has seen some other British visitors as well down the decades, ascents of many of the major Lyngen peaks are described in Peter Lennon's “Scandinavian Mountains” from 1980s and Joint Services mountaineering teams did winter training in the area before that. Nevertheless, in the 1990s I don't remember any magazine articles about the area nor had I heard anything about British climbers visiting; it really seemed back then that, besides locals, the area was a Finnish playground – indeed it's much closer in driving time to Helsinki than it is to Oslo.

After 16 hours in the car, welcome to Lyngen (Piggtinden 1505 mtrs).

When I first went I was awestruck by the place – both by its beauty and by its seriousness. It was relatively early in the winter - February I think; there was a lot of snow and a lot of avalanche activity. We camped and needed to melt snow for water all week. At night the temperatures got as low as -27. It felt like a total expedition experience and partly as a consequence of this we didn't get huge amounts done – just being; staying safe and comfortable in those kind of conditions takes some work. I've now been back almost ten times, sometimes to ski, sometimes to ice climb, even once in the summer to climb on rock. I feel I'm just about starting to get a feel for the place, but even though I've rarely camped since, finding you get much more done with a warm shower, meal and bed each night, it hasn't stopped feeling serious.
This is the Arctic. Crossing Jiehkkevárri's ice cap on the way back over to Holmbuktind. Dave and Okke are just visible on the left giving the cornice/serac on the right a wide berth.

If anything has changed in the 15 years that I've been going to Lyngen, it's other people going as well. On this trip we followed others skiers tracks most days – that wasn't the norm a decade ago where you would often be breaking trail and have the whole mountain as your canvas. Having not ski-toured in the Alps I can't really compare it, but I get the sense that despite Lyngen's huge rise in popularity, it is still not exactly crowded compared to more well known ski-touring destinations. On this trip I was the youngest participant and I feel old more often than not, so we did sensible things as middle-aged men should.
Late season; aesthetically pleasing tree wells but keep your skis out of them!

We gave up a day to do the drive, making an early start from homes in the south of Finland, getting to our rented house in Lyngen by mid-evening. Yes, you can drive through the night and maybe get something done on your arrival but that's a young man's game. We ate wonderfully, in no small part thanks to the cooking talent of my trip mates. Wild boar, fresh halibut, shrimp straight from a trawler in Tromsø, authentic classic Chinese food from a former Beijing resident and even – I'm vaguely ashamed to admit – whale steaks. Yes, it would be illegal in the EU, but Norway isn't and they sell it in the supermarkets there. I just wish it hadn't tasted as good as it did.
Skinning up Middagstinden (1072 m), Balsfjorden in the background.

It was also our first trip in May – the date was chosen as much as anything else because the trip was a sort of a celebration of one of the team's imminent scoring of the big half century – but the decision turned out to be pretty successful from a skiing point of view too. We skied from the car each day which – in Lyngen – means from virtually sea level. Coming back down in the afternoons this meant that lowest slopes, often flat or near to it and through trees could be rather hard going with numerous falls into bottomless wet gloop. Not falling over is the obvious solution, although I'll blame it on my now rather old, narrowish skis rather than my poor skills. Higher we had everything from wonderful open slopes of sun-warmed spring snow, the odd icy sections and not inconsiderable amounts of powder. You can't ever stop thinking about avalanches in Lyngen – it is a serious place in that respect but earlier warmer weather had homogenized much of the snowpack making the base rather stable. We did see lots of full depth slips on lower slopes from strong sun, often off rock bands, but staying away from those areas was easy enough.
Nearly back to the road, as can be seen even at a height of only 100 mtrs there is plenty of snow left in mid May.

Skinning in Lyngen is always an education in grind although I found myself going well on this trip and was fairly often was at the front of group. We had one rest day out of our seven days up there, and in the other six I worked out I did 6750 mtrs of ascent – I reckon 90 percent of that on skis; boot packing and cramponing was kept to a minimum. I think that cycling a fair amount helps prepare for this and mentally I don't hate the grind as much as when I was younger.
Mikko skinning above Balsfjord on the slopes of Blåtinden (1180 mtrs), although we didn't go to the summit that day.

I had only skied for literally four or five days on alpine gear before I bought my own telemark gear, so I've been telemarking now for just shy of 20 years and can't really remember what it is like to have your heels attached. After this trip I think it might be time to bite the bullet and accept I just don't have the money and/or the access to good lift skiing to get better at telemarking and try AT kit as an alternative. I'm not a total disaster and my tele skills have been enough to take me for some of the best days I've ever had in the mountains. I also suspect that some newer, better gear would help a bit as well, my kit is over a decade old now. I can ski any piste in Finland confidently and relatively competently on the gear I have but mountain skiing is a harsh teacher. Crust, grabby snow, deep wet snow, even light fluffy powder can punish my okay-but-not-brilliant technique honed on the, mainly icy, pistes of Scotland and Finland. On this trip we also skied in a number of places where falling would be a bad to really bad idea. I cramponed down the first couple of hundred metres of one of the big couloirs where my friends jump-turned, and I side-slipped another steep section – maybe about 35 degrees – where again my friends on AT gear were skiing hard and fast. Being able to climb in ski boots is also a big attraction to clamping my heel back down. I can put my G12s on my tele boots and it's OK for steep snow but tenuous when on anything remotely technical. There's something fun about telemarking; even with its continuing rise in popularity it's still to be part of a special club – although perhaps that's a club of people who insist on making life more difficult than it needs to be!
About halfway up the Lakselvtindane massif; Lakselvdalen and Lille Piggtinden behind.

The standout day for me was doing Jiehkkevárri, the highest peak in Lyngen at 1834 mtrs. It is something of a mountaineering challenge as despite being topped by a large flatish ice cap, there is no easy direct way to approach it. The 'standard' skiers route we took first goes to the top of its neighbour, Holmbuktind (1666 mtrs). It was fairly busy up there with lots of other teams making an ascent, but few others decided as we did to drop down to the col to its north and then begin the plodding re-ascent to Jiehkkevárri's eventual top, about another 3.5 kms on. You will have done about 2,300 mtrs of ascent by the time you reach its top.
Olli and some Norwegian guys on the "skiers summit" of Tomastind, just a few metres lower than the difficult to reach 1520 mtr main summit. The view is eastwards across the interior of the Lyngen peninsular.

Being an ice cap and flat there is nothing to mark the highest point beyond some ski tracks of earlier visitors and other signs of their passage: dropped lunch crumbs and yellow stains in the snow a few metres away. But that didn't matter. After numerous visits to Lyngen, spending probably a couple of months of my life in that magical area along with the hundreds of indifferent cups of coffee drunk in Finnish petrol stations to fuel that tedious 16 hour drive up; I had made it to the top. I might not be the most stylish or hard-charging skier going back down, but getting to the top of Jiehkkevárri (plus actually enjoying most of the skiing back down again) made me feel like I had got somewhere as ski-mountaineer and that's good enough for me.
Mikko and Olli picking their line for tele-turning back down Lakselvtindane's mighty Tomasrenna (The Tomas couloir).
(I will soon do a part 2 to this post which will give some practical descriptions of the mountains we climbed and reflections on the routes taken.)