At forty degrees below zero bare skin will freeze within a few minutes. The body goes into survival mode, closing blood supply to hands and feet in an attempt to keep the warmth around the vital organs. How do you survive in the arctic circle?
Photography & text by Frits Meyst
Ice crystals stick like grains of sand in my eyes and the paralyzing arctic -40 windchill freezes my face. I turn my head and see a scene from a Tolkien book. Three figures defy the blizzard that cuts horizontally over the ice. The figure in front in a pre-war style anorak is on wooden skis with thick sticks. He is followed by someone in modern clothes dragging a sled and someone in a red jacket follows at the back. My mind is only on one thing: warmth! If we do not find shelter quickly, we’ll get hypothermia. What at the start seemed like a fantastic sunny morning for Arctic survival instruction quickly downgraded into an ice-cold hell.
Emergency shelter in the snow
Claes-Jörgen Pohl, the man with the sled, points to a hill. Above the noise of the wind he shouts: “Over there we will dig a snow hole”. CJ is mountain guide and organizes winter ski tours. Behind the hill, sheltered from the wind a lot of snow has already been gathered on the lee side. The second guy is the ethnic Sami man we met on the trail. He is interested to see what the modern explorers do to stay warm. While he dips some dried reindeer meat into his coffee, CJ digs into the snow with a shovel. When the tunnel is about 1 person deep, he digs at a right angle to create enough space two people to lie down. With two people, insulating mats and sleeping bags, it’s surprisingly warm. He pokes a few more holes up in the ceiling so we get air and places his skis right up the entrance so that anyone searching can find us. Voila! A house in 30 minutes.
Let’s hook some fish
Digging, however makes you hungry and if you want to eat something you must first catch it. We walk back to the lake where the wind has fallen and the temperature (-10C) has become pleasant. Ice fishermen have already drilled a hole and CJ only needs to chop through a thin layer of ice. He puts a couple of maggots on the hook of a tiny fishing rod and it doesn’t take long before he draws the first Arctic Char from the hole. The fish lands on the ice and it takes only seconds before it’s frozen stiff. The arctic char is a member of the salmon family and tastes good. Three more fish and we have a meal.
Fire in the hole
Now we have to make a fire. First CJ digs a pit in the snow. “It’s important that you lay some thick branches on the ground so that your wood doesn’t get wet when the snow melts”. CJ says, as he removes thick sheets of birch bark. “The bark is full of resin and it burns very well. If you encounter any, always take it with you, because you never know when you might need it”. He builds the fire with kindling and tops it up it with larger pieces of wood. Within 5 minutes we sit around a crackling fire and the heat slowly returns to my bones. “This is also the time, for example, to dry your socks, gloves and other wet clothes because wet clothes freeze!”
How do the Sami do it.
The man in the anorak has up to now been observing us while sitting on his reindeer skin. His name is Rolf Rimpi and we came across him between nothing and nowhere. He is dressed in clothing from the last century. Nothing against modern survival strategies, but this 70-year-old Sami, the original inhabitants of Lapland, has survived with hundreds of years of handed down experience and knowledge. The Sami have no less than 52 different words for snow and have defied the icy cold of Lapland for over 2000 years, so we must ask Rolf about his knowledge. In his backpack are some extra gloves and socks, a thermos with coffee and protein in the form of dried reindeer sausages. With multiple layers of woolen clothes he regulates his temperature, it doesn’t rain here, therefore Rolf has no need for expensive Goretex clothing.
He nods approvingly to CJ’s lessons, but however much I ask him about arctic survival techniques, I constantly get an answer from: “Just normal”. Rolf binds his wooden skis with a few leathers, greets and leaves. We are 20 kilometers from the inhabited world, but this is the country where the Sami is at home, he just disappears into the landscape, and we continue our training day till the sun is low on the horizon and the temperature starts plumeting rapidly. Time to get indoors for the night.
Swedish Lapland is one of the most exciting winter destinations you can find. 4ever.travel joined arctic survival expert and mountain guide Claes-Jörgen Pohl of Bearfoot North to learn some very important winter skills. Go check him out!
Bearfoot North Arctic Survival, ski touring & hiking
Swedish Lapland Travel info by the Tourist Board
Visit Sweden The official Swedish travel site.
Saltoluokta Mountain Station A great base for winter adventures.