Sadly the temperature has just today crossed over the 0˚C threshold, ushering in that terrible, wet, drippy period in between Winter and Spring. It's a little unfortunate because I've been hoping for one more Winter camping trip before the start of the warm weather. Every long, dark, cold Winter since I moved to Sweden 5 years ago has been a trial, but this time for the first time, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.
I was reading Shackleton at the time, this fantastic account of Ernest Shackleton's expeditions to the Antarctic really made me marvel at how tough he and his crew were, and how completely over-equipped even the most amateur campers are today, compared to these trail-blazers from a century ago. Reading the book really pushed me into organising a little hike out into the woods of Östergötland to a little bivouac that I had seen on previous camping trips.
The only problem was while I and my steadfast hiking companion Michi prepared for a relatively chill -10˚C weekend, nature had in store for us a shockingly cold snap of -30˚C. It turned out to be the coldest camping either of us have ever done the coldest weekend in nearby Linköping since 1942.
We drove to the forest expecting to have to leave the car at the main road after the last few weeks heavy snowstorms. However in typically efficient Swedish fashion the road had been freshly ploughed right up to the trailhead parking spots. After leaving the car, we heading out on the path to the lake it was clear that nobody had come this way in a long time, apart from a few deer, rabbit and wolf(?) tracks, we saw no signs of life.
The undisturbed snow varied from 30 cm to hip-deep and winter-newbies that we are, we had no skies or snowshoes. We fortunately had had the foresight to bring a cheap pulka and with a little tow-rope we fashioned a harness to drag the pulka, loaded with firewood and beer. These Swedish public wind-shelters, bivouacs and saunas are kept supplied with wood by the state, but it feels nice to leave it with as much wood as we found it.
The bivouac was completely covered in snow, but it took only a few minutes to clear off the door and make sure the chimney was clear. The fireplace in the bivouac was a little touchy, the choices were to have the door closed tightly with a smokey atmosphere, or leave the door ajar and have some fresh air, but with it a cold draught. We chose the smoke.
The temperature in the bivouac varied, around -15˚C on the floor, rising to around 0˚C on the two benches which ran the length of each side of the shelter and then rising to a positively roasting 10 degrees in the ceiling. We ended up storing all our beer and water over the fireplace in order to keep it liquid. We would take down a beer to share and crack it open, within minutes it would cool from a luke-warm 20 degrees to ice-cold, and then it would usually start freezing before we got close to finishing it.
Just before I left work I grabbed a thermometer from the lab and was glad I had done so. The temperature outside the bivouac was already below 20˚C, and that was still early in the evening. We were both a little shocked it was getting so cold but also pretty excited. Sadly I have no idea how low the temperature actually went, it should have been well below the locally recorded -30˚C, as we were sitting at the bottom of a deep valley. I would really love to find a decent, waterproof, relatively small and light thermometer with a min/max function.
After we started up a little fire in the shelter we started cooking up some quick rice and tuna. Cooking was courtesy of the optimus omnifuel running on E95. I had a bottle of fotogen as well, and a few hundred millilitres of 95% alcohol, and a trangia burner... I know it's a little stupid to bring extra cookers, and it's not really keeping with my partiality to the ideals of ultra-light, but I think in this kind of deep Winter camping having a kilo of extra fuel is actually not such a bad idea. We ended up using the trangia to melt snow while the omnifuel made dinner. The fotogen did not take kindly to the low temperatures, and poured very slowly like a thick gel. We used it to start the fire in the mornings, even then it took some time to ignite and fire up. I had read a few guides to winter camping when we planned the trip, they all said 'Bring way more fuel than you think you will need'. We brought way more fuel than we though we would need and came home with almost nothing left.
It was surprising how much effort it took to do anything in these kind of temperatures, we really had to work hard in preparing food and drink, even the most mundane tasks like putting on or taking off a layer of clothes felt Herculean. Getting out of the sleeping bags and putting on boots was a half-hour job!
During the day we hiked to some nearby cliffs overlooking the lake. My Swedish military surplus winter coat and pants were never more appreciated. The military surplus gear is ridiculously heavy and bulky, but cheap and functional. The massive woollen mittens were a joy to stick my hands into after a half hour of photography on top of the hill.
I really don't mind low temperatures, surely because when growing up in Ireland the temperature inside our house was generally the same or below the temperature outside the house, any complaints to my dad about how cold it got in Winter was just met with him saying Cold is only in your head son.
Michi perhaps had a more sympathetic dad growing up in , because he had some problems with cold feet. We were both wearing similar Meindl hiking boots, so I think the real difference in how our feet handled the cold must be due to the couple of cigarettes Michi smokes every week, (How is it that Doctors always seem to be smokers?). He disagreed and said he thought the only explanation for why I was so warm was because I must have a thyroid problem... It's hard to know if he's kidding or not.
I had hoped to travel lighter than normal for this particular trip, and I guess I did manage to leave home the usual suspects (a book to read that I never get to read, and a spare book in case I finish the first one), but this time around I had well over a 2 kg of camera equipment including around 20 fantastic cokin filters (a christmas present from Michi). They were a hell of a lot of fun to play with, but maybe photography that requires so much finger-work could be more fun to do in Summer. I was just happy that my D80 showed it can still work well 30 degrees below its recommended minimum temperature limits.
All in all we both really enjoyed the trip, I'm a confessed addict of Scandinavian nature, I think Sweden one of the most beautiful countries I've ever been to, but nothing I've seen here before compared to this weekend with it's razor sharp clear air, deep virgin fields of snow and the beautifully contrasting black forest.
It was also a good trip to try gear out on. I was a little disappointed in the Petzl elite, annoyed at the massive size and weight of my Haglöfs synthetic sleeping bag, and very happy with the Exped 7 down mat. A decent down quilt would save a ton of weight and space in future trips. My only worry would be if it gets wet (as I read happened to Henrik of 'Hiking in Finland') and loses all insulation properties. Having a wet synthetic bag on this trip would have been an annoyance, but a wet down bag might have been dangerous.
But like I said, warm weather is on the march and nothing can stop it now! Time to mothball the merino wool underwear, balaclavas, gloves and snow shovels, and break out the Kayaks, fishing rods, mosquito spray and sunglasses.