Kiruna: on being very cold…

December 18th, 2017

Warning: This article contains descriptions of extreme cold that may be disturbing to some readers. Try this site if you would prefer some lighter reading.Mary Poppins_01

It is 7:15 pm, deep into the Arctic wilderness beyond Kauppinen where it is now -28ºC. Jane and I are sitting in a traditional Sami tent, trying desperately to get warm again around the fire with Mary Poppins.

Daniella, her owner explains that nine-year old Mary is far from “practically perfect in every way“, unlike her namesake. “She is too old now to lead but she refuses to stay at home so I hook her into the traces and she runs just as fast as the other huskies. It is what she is born to do and she lives for it.”

Mary was obviously once an alpha and still commands the respect of the younger huskies. She is the only dog inside the tent warming herself by the fire and when we go outside, they do not challenge her.

Jane and I are frozen. We have ridden on the dogsled for nearly seven kilometers through the night. Our socks are too thin, our mittens too big and our extremities like many of the others with us are bitterly cold.

This is the coldest environment we have been in and we still have so much to learn. That is what exploring is about; this is not a resort in Fiji <grin>.

And with that comes a beauty. It was hard to photograph much but looking out across a dark forest illuminated only by Daniella’s headlight, the view is beyond description. We are out here to see the Aurora and the prospects are good. The Arctic sky is full of stars our cameras cannot capture; we are frozen but not depressed.

I can only remember one other time feeling colder. Ten years ago I was speaking at the Millbrook Conference Center in Arrowtown, New Zealand. About 10:00 pm that evening, I was walking back through the chilly, South Island autumn in just a suit and shirt, feeling just fine. Half way to my chalet on the far edge of the center, I got caught up in a hailstorm. Within a couple of minutes I was drenched and feeling nausious. I remember running to my door, fumbling with my keys in the darkness while trembling and wanting to be sick. A few minutes later I was standing fully-dressed in a warm shower thinking “I won’t be wearing this suit tomorrow…”

Perspective helps so much when we find ourselves in challenging places. On the sled as we headed back I remember thinking that I was very, very privileged. Scott and Amundsen survived at -40°C for months at a time with clothing far more limited than what we had. Also, just as I had at Millbrook, I had a hot shower to go back to and food that they could only dream of.

Our guide Mattias the following day was a little critical of our guides that night: “That was not right. The coldest I have to take people out in is -50°C, often for eight hours at a time. That’s why I checked all your gear individually before we left and I have been checking you all day. You do not know how to survive out here yet so mistakes can be deadly.” You can read about our day with Mattias in my next post.

No reward without some pain, eh? I love this stuff (noted while standing in a hot shower…)


Author: Rockweather

I am a writer, musician, teacher, and researcher at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in Auckland, New Zealand.

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