This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Geographical magazine.
Blue light slowly invaded my cocoon of flapping fabric. My waking thought was one of despair. The wind, which had made pitching camp so hopeless and miserable the previous evening, hadn’t died. It was thirty degrees below zero. I lay on my back, remembering how I had stumbled about in the dark tying guylines to bicycle wheels and half-buried panniers in a vain attempt to anchor my three season tent in the deep, sugary snow. I tried to muster the motivation to get up, pack up and hit the road. But motivation was proving hard to come by that morning.
With a huge mental effort, I struggled free of the two bulky sleeping bags and into the down jacket I’d used as a pillow. In doing so, I brushed my head against the door of the tent and was engulfed by a cloud of ice crystals. I unzipped the entrance and discovered that snow had filled the porch, burying my stove and pan. I dug the items out, soaking my thin gloves in the process. I needed to keep my gear as dry as possible in order to stay warm but some contact with moisture was unavoidable.
Whilst cooking a comforting breakfast of porridge, I opened a packet of cheese and cut into it. The cheese was frozen solid. I might as well have carried a brick around in my pannier. The porridge froze to the side of the pan, and to my Edwardian explorer moustache. Instinctively, I wiped my moustache with my hand. This resulted in a glove covered in porridge. I fumed and tried to wipe the glove on my trousers. Now I had a moustache, a glove and a trouser leg covered in frozen porridge. At this point I considered throwing myself in front of the next passing vehicle.
But passing vehicles were few and far between. I was still climbing the steep learning curve of high latitude, low temperature bicycle touring. 19,000 kilometres of pedal-powered adventures elsewhere in the world had been little preparation for Scandinavia’s ice-covered roads in February. I’d already learnt the hard way that down-filled sleeping bags act as giant sweat absorbers, that moist breath leaves pretty ice-crystal patterns on expensive camera lenses, that diesel contains water and freezes, and that standard tent pegs are as much use as chopsticks in snow. I spent many frigid nights wishing I was inside a free-standing, snow-shedding tent equipped with proper ventilation features.
At least I could rely on my down-filled sleeping mattress. Before bedding down, I’d pull two fleece hats over my eyes and don a spare neckwarmer. I had a three litre hydration pack between my knees, a camera battery in my pants, and a stomach full of fatty energy for the long winter night. This ritual became more bearable – even fun – as I grew used to the routine.
Further into my journey, I was hauled in from the cold by a passerby and treated to a warming coffee and a good talking-to. My new friend Anders was a winter outdoor guide and knew all about sleeping outdoors. I departed his home clutching a bag of wide aluminium snow-stakes and never suffered a poor pitch again. A similar chance encounter resulted in a vapour barrier liner to use inside my sleeping bags to help keep the insulation dry, and the knowledge that a heavier synthetic-filled bag would have been a better choice on a trip where it was packed away every morning rather than hung out in the sun.
My rationale for setting off somewhat under-prepared was that I could get away with making a few mistakes. A bicycle tour invariably takes place on roads and among people. No matter how extreme the conditions, you’re rarely further from help than an outstretched hand on the roadside. And this trip, it turned out, involved a strange fusion of approaches. Although I did not carry a satellite phone, an emergency beacon or a shotgun, there was plenty in common with polar expeditions. I became obsessed with the delicate balance of exertion, air temperature, clothing, windchill, road gradient, sun, shade, food intake and tiredness, all for the purpose of remaining as dry as possible whilst making progress. On the other hand, I shopped for food every few days in a supermarket and occasionally feasted on pizza rather than incinerating noodles on my multi-fuel stove. Filling stations sold seasonally-appropriate clothing and equipment, including folding hand saws, collapsible shovels and spare fuel bottles.
I rode the same expedition mountain bike that I’d taken through Africa and Mongolia. It consisted of a steel Kona Explosif frame with heavy duty 26 inch rims, riser bars and an adjustable stem, a Tubus rear rack, and a reliable Shimano XT drivetrain with a wide gear ratio. I’d also made some notable modifications. Flat, wide pedals accommodated the huge winter boots I wore, although the boots failed to keep my toes warm unless I occasionally dismounted for a jog. Studded tyres from Schwalbe proved essential on the hardpack and slick ice. (Salt is ineffective at keeping roads clear below minus 5 degrees Celsius and was therefore not used on the roads I cycled on. This was a relief as salty road spray would have eaten my drivetrain.) An Extrawheel trailer carried my bulky winter kit. And the oil filled hydraulic disc brakes performed wonderfully, even at thirty below.
I flushed the rear wheel’s freehub with degreaser because on a previous escapade the grease inside had solidified, leaving my legs spinning comically while the bike went nowhere. I hadn’t thought to do the same for the gear shifters, which pulled the same trick one particularly cold morning in Scandinavia and left me nudging derailleurs with my feet. As the mercury dropped, my suspension forks became rigid as the internal damping oil grew more viscous. And the saddle – a worn Brooks model that had seen more than a few adventures – did not prove as comfortable as I’d hoped. The leather took on an ice-like quality when perched upon. I kept an eye out in the shops I passed for a saddle cover to relieve my numb behind, to no avail. More than once, as my foot plunged through a thin crust of snow, I fantasised about swapping my bike for skis and a pulk.
I did away with water bottles in favour of a hydration pack that I wore beneath my outer layer. There isn’t much of a market for specialist ice-biking clothes so I took an old ski jacket. It was lined, breathable and snowproof, with plenty of inner pockets for defrosting sandwiches. The jacket was fitted with armpit zips to help sweat vapour escape. Managing moisture required constant attention, and this feature was indispensable. Beneath the jacket I wore a merino wool base layer. This simple combination was sufficient down to about minus 25 degrees Celsius. At lower temperatures I added a fleece mid-layer, pedalled harder, or both. I wore one or two fleece beanies on my head, and reserved my hood and ski goggles for snowy days.
My lower half was served well by a pair of standard padded lycra cycling shorts, over which I wore winter cycling tights and fibre-lined ski salopettes with integral gaiters. On my feet I learned to wear thin silk or polypropylene socks, plastic carrier-bags [in lieu of vapour barrier socks – Equipment Ed.] and long woollen ski socks inside my winter boots. This combination kept my boot liners dry and my feet warm. On my hands I wore a pair of silk liners topped with a pair of cheap fleece gloves. Thanks to the exertion, this system kept my hands toasty warm while riding on all but the coldest and windiest days, when I added a pair of mittens. When any of these accessories became too damp with sweat, I switched to a spare pair of gloves and stuffed the damp items inside my jacket. My body heat dried out damp clothing in a couple of hours.
Before departure I’d scoured dozens of charity shops for a secondhand down jacket and eventually unearthed a suitable one in Edinburgh. I quickly learnt the necessity of dragging my £10 bargain from the rack-top drybag every time I stopped cycling for more than a couple of minutes. Together with a couple of fleece pullovers, it kept me warm throughout the worst of the winter nights as I rode across the Arctic Circle. Even after several weeks I was still shocked at how rapidly my body heat was sucked away when I stopped moving. At these times, preserving my hard-earned heat became my sole concern.
The acute need for a constant presence of mind was perhaps the greatest difference between this cycle ride and previous travels; a loss of the careless freedom that usually defines long bicycle journeys. However, this feeling was replaced by the challenge and intrigue of operating outdoors in an Arctic winter, which was precisely the experience I had gone looking for.