Our 2023 Extreme Dreams: Tri-Nation Arctic expedition is complete. Here’s the lowdown from our Expedition Director, Ben Southall.
Vast swathes of frozen tundra stretch towards the horizon, bisected by the dark foreboding water of the saltwater fjords far below. After three long Covid-ridden years, we were on the final approach into Tromsø, the northernmost city in Norway, and the starting point for our annual Extreme Dreams: Tri-Nation Arctic Challenge.
As I wandered into the city from my Air BnB studio, wrapped from tip to toe in Arcyterx winter gear, it felt ridiculously good to be back in Norway. The darkness and sub-zero temperatures triggered memories deep in my soul from previous visits. Memories of tough times, hardship, and digging deep, which somehow I’d conveniently cushioned in a soothing wrap of satisfaction, warm nights and personal accomplishment. A reminder of the personal growth gained by the ability to turn up and defeat my inner demons.
The formula for our Arctic expedition hasn’t changed over the years; a tough physical adventure and intense mental challenge complimented by the reward of shared good times with like-minded people and overwhelmingly new challenges and experiences, all played out under a nighttime canvas of the Northern Lights (hopefully). Day One was a quick reminder of how intense that first day can be.
Only two hours’ drive from the comfort of our 5* hotel overlooking the harbour in the city, we were dropped in a remote snow-covered car park surrounded by sleds, harnesses and a group of anxious-looking adventurers. Everyone had done the physical training to get to this stage, but now it was time to put it all into practice.
With the dim twilight fading fast, we left the relative comfort of the carpark, and akin to a meandering snake wound our way up and through alpine birch forests onto the vast windswept tundra in the shadow (if there was any light at all there would have been one) of the towering Mount Barras. As our head torches become the dominant light source, the mental battle begins.
Move fast enough to stay warm, but not so fast that you sweat. One snowshoe in front of the other, another kilometre covered, another 100 metres of elevation climbed. After seven hours of physical movement, the reflectors on the side of our wilderness huts twinkle back at us. We’ve made it. Overjoyed adventurers pat each other’s backs, gather personal gear and crack the ice around the frigid door before heading inside. It’s colder here than outside for the next hour. The log burner slowly cranks into life, tired bodies exude dragon-sized steaming breath clouds and an overwhelming sense of achievement that fills the room.
The efforts of the day are rewarded a few hours later as the Aurora Borealis flashes into life above a cloud band in the lower atmosphere. We spend hours outside marvelling at the wonders of our solar system. No one wants to miss this in case it’s the only ‘show’ night of the expedition.
Day Two is about recovery and unique experiences. We trek across the border into Sweden, watch the Arctic sun throw colours into the clouds and dig a snow cave big enough for a small candle-lit party complete with local schnapps in candlelight. Once-in-a-lifetime memories miles from civilisation during the coldest and darkest months of the year. The solar gods play the game on Night Two, with an effort that eclipses the previous night. We retire to our beds, happy campers.
The next day is magical, with near-perfect conditions and temperatures ranging from -5 to -15, no wind and light snow. We pass frozen waterfalls and cross the high plateau as it’s bathed in chromium colours. Late in the day, we drop into the valley, greeted by knee-deep snow making progress challenging. We arrive at Goldahytta exhausted and hungry, and as dinners are rehydrated the call goes out for the third night in a row “the Northern Lights are happening”. We all regroup outside to marvel and cheer in frigid conditions. It’s a bonding experience like no other.
Dawn arrives and it’s cold. Really cold. Overnight temperatures have dropped to -18 as we set off for Kilpisjarvi, our final destination for this leg of the expedition. Stopping briefly at the three-country cairn, we can’t afford much time standing still. People are really feeling it. Water bottles are frozen solid, with fingers and toes not far behind.
With reports of slushy ice on the lake around our usual finish point, we decide to press on for another 4km, making a bee-line for Tundrea, our overnight accommodation. By the time we hit the final kilometre, it’s down to -26c. On arrival at our villas, bodies are thawed out, stomachs filled with local salmon and celebratory shots, and the sauna/ice hole rotations start. It’s the best way to relieve the body of aches and pains before the well-earned sleep starts. It’s significantly warmer in the ice hole (3c) than outside (-26c).
When the locals tell you the conditions are extreme, you know winter is kicking some serious ass. As we depart on Part Two of the expedition, the mercury is down to -30c. The packs of howling dogs seem to revel in it though, all audibly eager to get going. With sleds loaded and a frozen lake to circumnavigate as part of our training, we head out, with varied success. Hold on and never let go, press your feet onto a rubber pad to slow, or jump on a metal frame to really stop the team of marauding canines up front. Simple.
There’s something primaeval about dog-powered adventure. Their power and endurance far outweigh anything we can muster on the flat, and when they hit a slight incline, suddenly it’s time for us to match them. Mastering the art of one-footed sled-riding comes naturally for some, for others, it takes a while. When the hills really kick in you’re suddenly the most unfit person in your team, reducing to a panting mass of blubber desperately trying to stay with them, as they continue to haul non-stop towards an imaginary finish line, tens of kilometres in the distance.
50km later, the white-knuckle ride along icy trails, through snow-laden pine forests comes to an end. It leaves you with a mammoth feeling of satisfaction and absolute delight all rolled into one. Dog-sledding is definitely my favourite non-human powered means of transport and after four days of hauling sleds across the tundra, it’s just a reward for all the effort. Our multi-disciplined expedition gives you a complete understanding of what life has been like moving across the frozen wilderness for generations of hardy Arctic explorers.
Spending a week disconnected from the outside world, traversing alien landscapes deeply immersed in a tough physical adventure, alongside a cohort of equally crazy souls, is a reminder of how good life can be when we commit to something and then do it. Living life ‘in the moment’ with no external distractions and digging deep inside your soul to get to the end of every day makes you realise anything is possible if you do the training and challenge your inner demons.
In January 2024, we are heading back to the frozen, dark lands of the Arctic winter for another Extreme Dreams: Tri-Nation Arctic Challenge. There are limited places remaining and we’d love you to be part of it. If you’ve always wanted to explore a very different part of the world with a team of like-minded adventurous souls get on board now. It’s bloody crazy but awesome fun too.
Secure your place for our 2024 expedition here.
Our annual adventure wouldn’t be possible without the epic guidance of Joona and Tommi from Pihka Outdoors, the team at Arctic Land Adventures and the people of the Lapland region.