We sent Keith Ruffles off on an arctic adventure with the Outdoor Academy of Scandinavia, here's his story of snow caves, slush and drying socks over stoves...
Outdoor Academy of Scandinavia – 2012
It’s not every day you sleep in a snow cave, never mind one that you and your friends have spent the previous five hours digging out.
And yet that’s exactly what we’re doing. With us all safely tucked up in our sleeping bags it’s surprisingly snug, the icy white walls blocking out the sound of the gale raging outside and serving to keep the heat in. A hole in the ceiling allows for ventilation and stops the cave filling with steam, a real problem when half a dozen stoves are busy melting snow for water.
I’m in Sweden as part of the Outdoor Academy of Scandinavia, a week-long course run by the Scandinavian Outdoor Group designed to test gear in challenging conditions. It’s a programme aimed squarely at the outdoors industry; almost all of the fifty or so people in attendance work for suppliers in a number of European countries. The SOG itself is a partnership of companies from – where else? – Scandinavia, working together to extol both the quality of Nordic output and to celebrate the fantastic scenery that dominates the region.
Snow And Tent Mates...
Arriving in the central province of Jämtland it’s easy to appreciate this beauty first-hand; snow blankets a landscape carpeted with trees and a small scattering of settlements are the only signs of habitation. It’s here that we’ll be putting tents, rucksacks, clothing and all sorts of equipment through its paces.
To ease us into things we spend the first night at the Vålådalen Mountain Lodge, where I meet my future tent mate – Kristian Nykrog, a fellow journalist working for a Danish outdoors magazine.
It’s quickly apparent that Kristian is vastly experienced in winter activities, having spent many nights camping in various parts of Scandinavia. He’s also a student at Telemark University in Norway, where he is completing postgraduate studies in Outdoor Life Sciences. “It’s my life”, he tells me later in the tour.
I can’t help but confide that I’m feeling apprehensive about the trip. “Don’t worry”, he says calmly, “there’ll be plenty of people without much experience of camping in the snow”. His sincerity is instantly reassuring.
Scandinavian Gear Explosion
At evening presentations we find out more about the expedition. Five Swedish suppliers will be furnishing us with our gear – Haglöfs, Primus, Klättermusen, Hilleberg and Woolpower, the latter based in nearby Östersund. That’s outdoor clothing, cooking equipment, base layers, and tents – some of it right at the premium end of the market, of the sort that most of us would never normally get to test let alone own.
We’re then divided into five groups, Kristian and I joining an international team of two Italians, four Germans, and two Brits. Together we’ll be trekking around the nearby mountain of Smällhögarna taking everything we need in packs, the bulkier items – tents, sleeping bags, food – in pulks, a kind of toboggan pulled by reins.
And We're Off
The next day and we’re off – most of us in snow shoes, some on skis. The pace is easy, allowing us to adjust to the unfamiliar sight of snow covering everything and to take in our surroundings. The landscape at first is gentle but becomes increasingly undulating the further we progress from Vålådalen.
Our first night’s camp is near a frozen River Stensan. We put up a group tent and dig a makeshift table and stool in the snow so we can cook our rations. It’s a tight squeeze to get all of us in but we make it, and I take the opportunity to speak to members of the team.
'Back Home I Sell Boats...'
Jacob, Karsten, Kathrin and Sonja come from Hamburg and all of them are new to winter camping. “Back home I sell boats”, laughs Karsten, “but this is fun!”. Kathrin voices similar sentiments: “I wasn’t sure I’d like this but so far I do.” I can’t help but agree.
But soon the journey starts to get harder. The problem is the weather; it’s getting too warm, and daytime temperatures begin to soar to one or two degrees above freezing. Usually it’s comfortably below at this time of year but soon rivers start to form where the Winter paths should be.
It’s a problem quickly brought home on the second night outdoors. We pitch our tents in a shallow basin, securing our pegs deep in the snow. It’s a blustery evening – one particularly strong blast pulls down the group tent mid-boil in the bag – so we go to bed early.
Slush Puppies And Snökas...
The next day much of the basin has turned to slush. Daniel – one of the company representatives – wakes up in the early hours to a flooded tent and still others find their gear has got soaked overnight. Perhaps higher ground would have been a safer bet.
So higher ground it is that evening. We begin our “snöka” – from the Swedish military term for snow cave. Each cave is designed to house four, so Kristian and I team up with group members Matt and Joe and take it in turns to dig into a snow bank overlooking the flooded basin.
All is progressing well until – disaster! – the roof begins to drip and then collapses completely, the sodden snow melting on the surface in the warm sunshine. But all is not lost; we all help other groups enlarge their own snow caves to take us in.
Warm And Dry And Calm
And it’s comfortable. Outside the may be howling but inside all is warm, dry and calm. I drift off, knowing that tomorrow we’ll be back under canvas and the elements.
The snow is by now visibly melting and conditions are starting to deteriorate – so much so that the decision is made to alter the route. We’ll no longer be circumnavigating Smällhögarna because it’s just too wet underfoot; instead we’ll be walking next to it, following a small river at the mountain’s edge.
Drying Socks Over Stoves
Both the fourth and fifth nights are spent in tents. I’m now starting to feel the cold, particularly in my feet; I keep sinking through the snow and hitting water underneath and my hiking boots are thoroughly drenched. Drying socks out over stoves offers a temporary respite but I know that with these conditions it’ll be a recurring problem. It’s a powerful lesson in how just effective the right equipment can be.
Then suddenly it’s day five, and before we know it we’re back at the lodge. It feels fantastic to have made it – it’s been a hard slog through challenging conditions. We clean up, buy some of our gear and return the rest, and then get ready for evening presentations.
And it’s great. Speeches are said, awards are given, photographs taken and drinks are drunk. Kristian receives a special accolade; throughout the trip his practical advice and willingness to help others without question have been exemplary. His round of applause is thoroughly deserved.
More Than Just A PR Exercise?
It’d be easy, tempting even, to dismiss this trip as an elaborate and expensive PR exercise. But it’s readily apparent that the SOG representatives have both a genuine love of the great outdoors and a desire to create products that allow people to enjoy it safely and responsibly. Training industry staff in different countries so that they become more knowledgeable back home is also key.
It’s a point that one night in the group tent I put to Matt, who works for an outdoors company back in London. I ask him how useful a trip like this really is for him in his day-to-day work.
“It’s fantastic”, he says. “It’s all about gaining knowledge, about knowing how to use the right gear in the right conditions. If someone walks into the shop I want to be able to talk about the products we sell and say ‘look, I’ve used this, I know what it can do’. The chance to pass on some of that knowledge is exactly why this trip is so useful.”
And as I sip my bottle of beer at journey’s end I think that yes, it really is about learning – and having a whole load of fun at the same time.
Keith and OM would like to thank the Scandinavian Outdoor Group and Visit Sweden, who organised the event. If you fancy a trip oop north-er check out www.visitsweden.com.