When you think of travelling across Lapland, you wouldn’t think that the most practical mode of transport is a bicycle. But for Huw Oliver and his partner Annie, fatbiking was the only mode of transport they ever thought of using.
We spoke to Huw to hear more about his story “Lemonade in Lapland” and how he and Annie coped with the extreme conditions they faced whilst travelling in the North of Sweden.
What drew you to Lapland over other – slightly more temperate – climates?
I think that living in a very temperate, mild climate here in the UK, we’re drawn to extremes. You either look south the Mediterranean, or you look north! Scottish outdoor culture (and myself and Annie live in Scotland) has a lot of strong Scandinavian influences, whether it’s the cross-country skiing that’s still strong in Aberdeenshire, or the herd of reindeer that were brought over from Sweden to the Cairngorms in the ’60s. We were already keen to visit that part of the world, but the lure of a good adventure in the ‘proper’ winter of the north sealed the deal. So many Scandinavians clearly enjoy and thrive in the climate up there, that we wanted to know what all the fuss was about!
You’re obviously inspired by the outdoors – what in particular inspires you to spend time exploring and adventuring? Was it something your family have always done?
Annie and I are both lucky to have grown up among families that spent time outside, I suppose. One of my earliest memories of an outdoor adventure is from when I was 4 or 5, and my dad took me up Blencathra, which is the first big fell that you come across, approaching the Lake District from Northumberland in the east. We took two days over it, camping by a tarn and eating instant pasta meals cooked over a Trangia stove. I can still remember the smell of the tent nylon, the feel of a sleeping bag and the vertigo of being stood on top of something. I’m intensely grateful for that experience, as I think it still shapes my priorities today (much to the frustration of my parents!). Defining just what exactly draws people towards the outdoors is fruitless, I think, but for me, there’s definitely a sense maintaining the curiosity we had when we were children, both for the world and for ourselves.
How did you get into fatbiking and what about it do you enjoy?
I can’t remember who said it, but we were in Iceland in 2014 and one of us wondered what the interior would be like in winter! Both of us are awful once we get an idea in our heads, so it was a bit inevitable that we wouldn’t be able to let it drop. A couple of years later, we planned and rode a route across the centre of the island in late winter. We were blessed with a perfect weather window that allowed us to make the crossing, and the boundless feeling was infectious. Winter landscapes are fascinating anyway, coming from such a damp island, but being there on a bike was mind-altering for both of us, something to do with freedom, and possibilities…
You followed a well-known trail across the Swedish/ Norwegian border – can you tell us a bit more about that?
The trail we followed in places is called the Kungsleden, or ‘King’s Trail’. It runs between the Sami villages of Abisko and Kvikkjokk in Swedish Lapland and is travelled in both summer and winter. The route climbs from Tornetrask lake into the hills and follows enormous glacial valleys south; if you’ve ever been hiking in the Cairngorms then the landscape would feel familiar, although everything felt three or four times the size.
Can you talk us through the planning stages of your expedition?
We owe Google a lot. Image searches, blogs, obscure ski club journals, Google earth… We spent a lot of time trawling them all for tidbits of information that might help us to build a picture of the expected conditions. Fatbikes are incredible tools, but they do require more specific conditions than skis in order to be useful, and the transient nature on winter trails made the research a little tricky. Once we realised that there was a network of trails that generally gave the conditions we needed, it became a familiar job to work out distances, elevations and bailout options. The basics of planning a self-supported trip boil down to this: getting there, fuel, food and water. The beauty of carrying everything with you is that you’re never tied to an itinerary. It’s so easy to let enthusiasm get the better of you when you’re staring at a beautiful topo map in the warmth of the van, but hopefully, experience has begun to curb our over-ambition!
You camped in temperatures reaching lows of -20C which must have been pretty demanding. How did you stay warm and safe in those harsh conditions?
The mountain huts that I mentioned are absolutely incredible, but they were well outside our budget. We were also looking forward to the chance to improve our winter camping skills, anyway! We’re both used to winter camping in Scotland, but it was certainly different in Lapland. Staying dry and staying well fed are both pretty key to staying comfortable in cold conditions, and luckily the climate was significantly drier than the winters we’re used to. That made it easier to keep the insulation in our clothes and sleeping bags dry and effective, although we did have to sleep inside ‘vapour barrier’ liners in our sleeping bags, which prevent water vapour produced by your body from travelling into the down insulation, condensing and then freezing. We did the same with barrier socks to prevent our boots from getting wet from sweaty feet. We made sure to eat well too — although food is heavy, I’d rather carry the weight than the alternative. Overall, we were fairly comfortable, and the temperatures were at around -20C for several nights. The low point of every day was getting out of the sleeping bag to get the stove on (we took turns), and putting on freezing cold boots!
Staying positive in these kinds of conditions isn’t easy. How do you reason with yourself during low periods, when you’re disheartened and discouraged?
The greater your own personal experience becomes, the easier it is to recognise low points as they arrive, and know that they will pass. That said, the same combinations of hunger, fatigue and frustration never seem to get any easier to deal with! I suppose I cope with difficulties by trying to think of something worse that I’ve gotten through in the past and try to be confident that I’ll get through this one too. Taking life one hour at a time really helps me, so I end up muttering “things will be better in an hour, just wait”, to myself. It’s surprising how often that comes true.
What advice would you have, for someone who wants to undertake an expedition or expeditions like you’ve done?
Find something that catches your imagination. Once the spark is there, the rest will fall into place with a little determination and imagination, one way or another. It might be a photo that caught your eye, and exotic place name or something more personal, but you’ll know when you find something that draws you deeper, and if you follow it you’ll likely find an adventure of your own.
To read more about Huw and Annie’s expedition to Lapland, click here.