In March 2020, novice skier Brooke Nolan embarked on a 250-kilometer, all-female, cross-country ski expedition in Norway’s Arctic Circle. They emerged from -25c temperatures and 50km winds to discover COVID-19 had taken full hold, with flight cancellations and lockdowns. A year on, she reflects on this epic—yet relatively ‘do-able’—polar-style adventure.
The wind was fierce, whipping at my face and biting through my gloves. My balaclava was frozen solid. Snow covered my ski goggles, making the already-white world around me even whiter. Pushing through the resistance, I skied forward, one slide, another slide. Just. Keep. Going.
It was our third day of complete whiteout. No horizon, no distant tree or mountain to focus on. Just white snow beneath our feet, merging into the white misty skies that engulfed us.
I was at the front of the line, taking my turn to cut the tracks and lead the group. Now and then, I looked down at my skis, to give myself something to focus on. To remind myself that I still existed.
Part of an all-female crew, we were spending 14 days crossing the Finnmark Plateau (Finnmarksvidda), one of Europe’s largest ice plateaus, in the Norwegian Arctic Circle. Led by Liv Engholm of expedition company Turgleder, the plan was to ski around 260 kilometers from Hatter in the north of Finnmark, to Karasjok in the south, pulling everything we needed behind us in a pulk (sled).
Our pulks weighed around 50 kilos, packed tightly with our expedition tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes, food, and fuel. Temperatures varied from 0°C when we were close to the coast to -25°C when we were in the heart of the plateau.
Over the course of the two weeks, the wind oscillated from calm, still, days with the bluest skies you could ever imagine, to fierce, 80km howling winds and otherworldly white-outs that made every slide feel like a feat in itself.
Aside from the skiing—which we did for around eight hours most days, covering anything from 7km to 23km—the routine was arduous yet beautifully simplistic: Ski, set up camp, eat, sleep, stay warm, repeat. ‘Real life’ felt a million miles away.
This might sound like an experience only open to hardcore polar-style adventurers. But, when I booked the trip nine months earlier, I had never skied before.
The only time I had spent on snow was an ill-fated day on an Australian ski slope attempting to snowboard—and failing miserably due to a lack of core strength.
But, as someone who loves to hike, I figured, how hard can it be? I’d been hiking for years, completing multi-day trips in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Africa, Argentina, Peru and other places.
In terms of affordability, it’s important to remember it’s relative to other polar expeditions—trips of this kind are never ‘cheap’, by any stretch of the imagination… All in all, I spent around AUD$10,000. So how does that compare to other polar expeditions?
My seemingly naive optimism turned out to be right (for once). As long as you’re willing to put the training in, crossing Finnmark is accessible to anyone happy to splash the cash, with a good level of fitness, who isn’t afraid of a little cold. OK, a lot of cold.
Finnmark is known as a jumping-off point for those interested in polar—or cold weather—exploring. It’s relatively easy to get to via mainstream European airlines, which fly regularly to Tromso or Oslo where you can catch a connecting flight to Alta. And while some people opt to go unguided, it’s a big undertaking if you haven’t done anything like it before.
In terms of affordability, it’s important to remember it’s relative to other polar expeditions—trips of this kind are never ‘cheap’, by any stretch of the imagination. For the full 17 days—that’s 14 of skiing plus prep and travel days—it costs approximately AUD$6,000 and this included some specialist gear including tents, Arctic Bedding, stoves, etc, plus all food for the duration of the trip.
There are of course other costs to factor in. Hiring personal gear such as an expedition-level down jacket, sleeping bag (-35°C), skis and boots, plus gloves and mittens. You’ll then need to purchase decent thermals, a sleeping mat, salopettes, windproof rain jacket, socks, undies and ample snacks to power your way through. There’s also flights and accommodation on either side of the trip. All in all, I spent around AUD$10,000. So how does that compare to other polar expeditions?
In comparison, the next step up is crossing the Greenland Ice Cap which takes around 30 days. A recent enquiry to a commercial company—with whom I hope to join a trip in 2022—puts the price at approx AUD$18,000, not including flights or personal equipment.
As for the Poles themselves, you’ll need to have a spare USD$75,000—$150,000 lying around, plus extra (depending on your style, length of trip, and where you’re flying from, you’ll need it).
So, for someone wanting to see if cold weather exploits are for them, Finnmark—alongside its southern neighbour Hardangervidda Plateau—are some of the most accessible and affordable around, although naturally, they come at a price.
Finnmark is also accessible in terms of training. Don’t get me wrong—I trained, and I trained hard. But if you already have a decent level of fitness and you’re willing to put some effort in, you’ll be fine.
At the time, I was living in Lausanne, Switzerland, and did the majority of my training on the shores of Lac Léman. I was a peculiar sight; dragging two tyres behind me (who I nicknamed Trevor and Tim) on my hour-long morning walk.
On the plateau, as the weight of the pulk pulled me backwards on even the smallest uphill, I was grateful for my morning routine with Trevor and Tim. The resistance of the tyres dragging on the wet tarmac and sand of Lac Léman had strengthened my core enough to defeat the uphills, despite my pulk’s best efforts.
Alongside the tyre-pulling, I strapped on skis for the first time, embracing Switzerland’s national pastime of cross-country skiing. It felt like home. It was the ease of walking, but faster and gentler on the knees.
I also snowshoed and overnight-hiked every weekend, carrying a heavy backpack. On top of that, I also continued my usual gym routine of strength and cardio.
The world we skied away from was still ‘normal’, with the European press keeping a cautious eye on the virus from afar. Yet, as we skied, the world changed beyond recognition.
I was lucky of course, that my temporary location in the Swiss Alps enabled this level of training. The other women on my trip were all based in the UK and followed similar routines minus the snow. One—the ever-smiling, joke-cracking Scottish Eve—had never skied in her life before landing in Norway.
Another standout of the Finnmark crossing is that you not only get a replica of the polar environments—the wind, the ice, the minus °C, temperatures—but it’s the length of the trip too. Two weeks feels like a long time.
In fact, two weeks can see the entire world change.
Our trip began on March 4th 2020 with a dreamy two weeks of no connection to the outside world ahead of us. While the word ‘COVID’ had slowly been entering the world’s lexicon when we landed in Norway, we had no idea what lay ahead.
The world we skied away from was still ‘normal’, with the European press keeping a cautious eye on the virus from afar. Yet, as we skied, the world changed beyond recognition. The virus began to spread, nations closed their borders, and entire countries went into lockdown.
Meanwhile, we remained in blissful ignorance. We skied, we ate, we laughed, we froze, and we danced the Macarena at night to warm our cold bodies before diving into our sleeping bags to do it all again the next day.
After 11 days, we used the satellite phone to call in for a weather report. It was then that we learned that COVID was no longer just a word, it was a real threat. Airports in Norway were closing and tourists were being told to leave.
But, when you’re in the middle of a remote ski trip, ‘leaving’ isn’t so simple. We were at least two days from anything resembling civilization, and news of a storm rolling in meant a direct route out wasn’t feasible. Instead, we headed further inland to the safety of an old trapper’s hut which we dug out of the snow and sheltered in.
The trip didn’t feel the same again. We had lost the joy of living in the moment, and were instead anxious for what awaited us on our return. Would we be able to get home? Were our families well? Was it safe?
The next day dawned calm and still, as it often does after fierce weather. A quiet realization descended and we made the decision to head to the nearest road, spending one more night camping to break up the trip.
We eventually made it to the minibus waiting for us, and real-life felt as eerie as the whiteouts we’d experienced on the plateau. Instead of a celebratory meal at a husky lodge, we were greeted by empty roads, emails from our airlines cancelling our flights home, and a sense of urgency and fear.
We were fortunate and all of us made it out on the last flight from Oslo, ending our trip with fast goodbyes, eager to get home. There was no time to take stock of what we’d achieved or to celebrate the life-long friendships we’d made.
A year on, and I often think about my trip. I think about how I achieved something I never in a million years thought I’d have been able to achieve. I think about how lucky I was to experience nature so remote, and so pure. And I think about how I used to take the ability to travel for granted.
After a year of lockdowns and isolation, I will never take that for granted again.
Brooke Nolan is a writer and adventurer from the UK who's recently made Sydney her home. She's happiest camped on a mountain under the stars, and is a firm believer that nature is all the medicine we need.