I am a parasite, I admit it. When it comes to walking on snow, there’s only one way to go and that is where someone else has boldly gone the day before (and the day before, and the day before that, since it is repeated use that makes snow harden). I am a leech on other people’s activity – they ski or drive their snowmobile onto the lake or into the forest and I then make use of their smooth compact path.
I know you’re thinking, what about snowshoes? Some people come here believing they can’t walk anywhere without them. Tour companies then encourage them to hire the wretched things, or worse still they sell ‘snowshoe walking tours’. People on these tours have a thoroughly miserable time tramping around in snow, and resolve that their next tour will be one where they’re propelled forward by an engine (snowscooter) or pulled vigorously from in front (husky dogs), all achieved in a seated position far away from contact with snow. Looking at a couple of unfortunates in snowshoes out on the lake the other day I wondered if they wondered why they were the only people around using them.
So I’ve always thought that snowshoes are for cissies, and that parasitical behaviour – walking on other people’s tracks – is much more efficient. Today we had the idea to walk up a near hill (or ‘fjäll’, as it’s called in these parts) where we had been twice before in the summer. We thought it would be interesting to see what it looks like in winter. Very soon, when the snow begins to thaw, it will be a soggy mess impossible to conquer, but now – with a bit of help from the winter passage of snowscooters – we reckoned we should be able to coast fairly easily to the top.
You have to be a bit optimistic when setting out here in the winter or you’d never do anything. The truth is it isn’t really easy to travel anywhere, except fast downhill on skis or your backside. Snow is a hindrance wherever you go and provides resistance and inconvenience, even to hard core cross-country skiers if they’re not on a prepared path. Walking on snow is hard work. Even walking on a compacted path is quite hard work after a while.
First of all you have those boots on that are mainly made for keeping your feet warm, not for walking. You don’t stride along in them, you lumber. Quite successfully, but slowly. Then there’s the angle of the compacted snow path which can make you lean uncomfortably. Then there’s the sudden unexpected small hole your foot slips into where someone before fell through the snow / got their ski pole stuck. As well as these minor obstacles, there is the problem that even a compacted path has its weak points, so if you stray just a few centimetres off the well trodden track your foot may disappear beneath you and you find yourself in snow up to your waist. It can then take a little while to haul yourself out of the pit, sometimes the next step being equally perilous.
So we knew the walk would be quite hard work, but we had plenty of time, took some lunch, and thought we could savour the moment. Savouring the moment was not something that had been possible in the summer. The speed you walk at in this environment is dictated by the season. Winter, it’s slow; summer, it’s fast. That’s because of the mosquitoes. As soon as you stop walking, or walk slowly, they settle and bite so fast walking is the only way to deal with them. Our walk in the summer had been exhaustingly speedy, an illustration of the stage direction, ‘EXIT, pursued by a bear’.
This time we looked forward to a slow but relaxing ascent, free from insects. After just ten minutes the wide comfortable snow scooter track through the snow mysteriously turned into a narrow track that had been forged by cross-country skiers. This was a shame but not a major problem. We just had to adjust our steps to fit within the narrow confines of the track – the snow was piled up on either side so we were walking in a narrow ditch. We continued on the path, drawn forward by the prospect of reaching the summit and the view. But our progress was painfully slow, and it became slower. It was uphill, hard walking, our feet sinking more and more often beneath us. There was nowhere to stop and rest and we were exhausted.
Eventually we had to admit defeat, we were not going to make the summit. Worse still we had to admit to ourselves that snowshoes, at this point, would have been extremely useful. Damn.