Winter sports: snowshoeing

Snowshoeing was something I’d wanted to try for years. Something about it appealed – tramping across pristine white snow with ease and being as one with my surroundings. Or something like that. But opportunities to try it were few and far between. It’s not really a thing they do in Iceland, and although it was available at Altitude, in Mayrhofen, it took the form of full day expeditions which were always either fully-booked or had to be booked in advance or overlapped with a snowboarding lesson or an afternoon show I particularly wanted to see. It wasn’t until I went to Kiruna, in Swedish Lapland, in March 2014, that the chance finally came. And I was terrible at it!

You know the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where they’re crossing Caradhras in the snowstorm and Legolas is walking on top of the snow and the hobbits are shuffling through up to their waists in it? Well, I am definitely not an elf.

There were four of us, heading for the hills around Kurravaara. Me, our guide Emilio and a couple on the elderly side of middle-aged.

I was the only one picked up in Kiruna, so I got suited and booted before we left, had a pair of snowshoes fitted, swapped my boots for massive waterproof furry-lined yeti things and collected an armful of poles before we headed out to get our other snowshoers, a couple on the elderly side of middle-aged who weren’t staying in Kiruna itself. Having picked them up from the world-famous Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi and thus giving me the opportunity to at least have a glimpse of the thing, we drove up to the hills around Kurravaara and left our bags in a barbecue hut. Emilio lit a beautiful fire with nothing more than his knife and a bit of bark and left it to get nicely settled and we went out in the snow to see if the Northern Lights wanted to play – this was very much secondary to my goal of just trying snowshoeing. And they didn’t come out, or if they did they were too faint to see or I was too preoccupied to notice them.

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Snowshoes are not, as I fondly imagined, magical things a bit like tennis rackets that allow you to walk on snow. Snowshoes are clompy plastic things attached to your boots with ski-style bindings which you can clip or unclip at the heel, depending on how much movement you want. You do not walk on top of the snow, you fall into the snow because it’s two feet deep and it’s fragile. So you position your other foot and your poles and then you push down and your other foot falls into the snow and you find yourself in an awkward uncomfortable half-kneeling position. Often your foot slides forward as it falls into the snow which means the snowshoe ends up hooked under two feet of snow, so you have to release it by unhooking it, which is particularly difficult if you’ve already taken the next step forward with the other foot. Falling into deep snow every other step is exhausting. At one point I fell in so badly that I had to get settled in the snow while Emilio dug my feet free. When we came down the hill towards the road, I decided the best way was to just slither down instead of trying and failing to walk. Three times the shoes came undone, both of them fell off at least once and Emilio’s best attempt to do them up tightly just wasn’t doing the job. And despite being in two feet of snow, it soon gets really really hot. I was down to just a t-shirt under my coat and the only reason I kept the coat on was to protect me from the branches of the trees we were underneath.

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Believe it or not, I hadn’t actually fallen over in these photos. I just opted to pose lying on the ground to represent the position in which I’d spent most of the evening. And then I lost a shoe getting back up!

It’s very nice to be out on a nice cold snowy night, I’m glad I got to try snowshoeing. The road was a little easier than the hill and the frozen river was ok – for a few yards, I managed to be an elf before I fell in and lost a shoe again (fell in the snow, not in the frozen river, for clarification).

The best bit, however, was going back to the barbecue hut for fika and to warm up – being clad only in a t-shirt and open coat, soaked in snow and sweat, I thought I was hot but I soon discovered I was actually frozen half to death. We ate – that is, everyone else at – reindeer sandwiches and moose sausage and I had some very nice and very much appreciated hot chocolate. And I probably won’t try snowshoeing again anytime soon.

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