04:11 Sun.
22 Dec, 2013

It was -15 degrees

Day 136 , 11 remain
Lulea , Sweden
-1 °C
Partly Cloudy
9:53 am
1:03 pm

Two weeks ago there was a Christmas market in the old town (Gammelstad). We decided to go there by foot like in the orientation week. The only difference was that now there was snow everywhere and it was around 35 degrees colder (it was -16 to be exact). We decided to start at 10 o’clock since sun rose at that time. In the summer it took us about 2 hours to get there, so timing was perfect, since market was open from 12 to 16 o’clock.

Tree tops showering in sunlight
Tree tops showering in sunlight

Once we started walking we didn’t feel cold anymore, though exposed long hair froze up, to a nice white shade. Thankfully I don’t have long hair, even so, I put on both a warm hat and a hoodie, from my jacket. Because I thought path was going to be flooded with people, I wore normal pants, since I wasn’t expecting much snow on the road. Later this turned out to be a grave mistake.

First hour went by fast, while were walking through the forest. To my surprise we were first to go there, as there were no other tracks in the snow.

When it’s this cold, snow doesn’t stick together when it falls on the ground (at least I think it’s because of this) instead it’s like light dust and if you kick it a snow cloud goes up into the air. It looks amazing.

When we reached the bird tower we decided to take a “shortcut” over the frozen lake. Shortcut is in quotes because even in theory it isn’t shorter. But the fun part was that we could go over the lake, so we took it anyway.

As we were making our way toward the lake, we found just how hard it is to walk on the marshy land that surrounds lakes and rivers up here. For some reason ground doesn’t freeze and snow builds up, so when you step onto it you go knees deep and there is a lot of swamp vegetation that you have to navigate in order to reach the lake.

After we were on the lake, we were making good progress again. Sun was already (well it’s like this all the time) low on horizon, it was more like dawn/twilight, despite being only 11.30 AM. Fun thing with a sun so low is the length of ones shadow. Our shadows must have been at least 15 meters long, on a flat lake surface.

After crossing the lake, we found out, that there is a highway separating us from the other side, where the old town is. Here we could have turned around, but instead we decided for a more exciting option of continuing down the highway until we would cross path with the “real” trail.

Our progress slowed down dramatically, we weren’t on a lake anymore but were walking through a deeply snowed marshy land. For some reason, despite not wearing waterproof pants, I was leading first through the deep snow. As I later learned (nah I actually knew this before :P), it is much easier to follow someone on such terrain, since he flattens the snow and makes a path in it. After about half an hour of walking we reached a small shaft under the highway connecting lakes on both sides. The shaft was small, maybe around 0.5m in diameter and half of it was filled with frozen water from the lakes. After much deliberation, whether we should go through it or not, we split into two groups, one continued beside highway, mine decided to go down under.

Preparing to cross the highway through the underground half frozen drain pipe, connecting both lakes.
Preparing to cross the highway through the underground half frozen drain pipe, connecting both lakes.

Again I was the first one to go, the tunnel was so small I had to take my backpack from my back, lay down on my belly and push it in front of me. After first few meters of really careful movement and intense listening if ice was cracking I got more courage and continued faster. A friend passed me a flashlight so I could better evaluate depth of ice. When I turned it on I found myself face to face with frozen fish just about 5 cm under the ice (my face). I almost screamed, but there was not much I could do but continue. Even with the flashlight it was hard to tell how deep the ice was, I have a feeling that it was frozen through and through. After about 5 minutes I was on the other side. It took me 5 minutes to crawl through a 50m shaft. Ice was so slippery that it was impossible to push yourself forward, that’s why I had to cling to the ceiling and walls, really weird to see, like a Spiderman.

On the other side we were greeted with another lake and about 0.5km of marshy land in the direction of the town. After about 15 minutes of struggling through the snow I suddenly felt my leg sink deeper than usually. The snow came almost to my waste and as I was trying to pull my leg out when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my leg. It was water. For some reason water wasn’t frozen on that spot, probably because of deep snow cover providing sufficient insulation. As soon as I freed my leg out, pants up to my knees went stone hard as water froze instantly on a -15 degrees cold air. And like if that wouldn’t be enough icy cold water also went into my shoe. Despite them being waterproof they can’t prevent water from going in from the top.

But wait, there is more. Like if that wouldn’t be enough… Just after few steps the other leg followed. So there I was in the middle of nowhere, with freezing cold water in my shoes, frozen pants and with sun already gone. I felt like I was in the middle of Antarctica.

I have never experienced anything like it, the pain didn’t go away as it normally does, when you touch something cold. It was burning like someone spilled boiling water on my legs. The worst part is there was nothing I could do, except continue toward the old town (the closest civilisation). Even after 45 minutes, when we finally reached the market, my legs were still in pain. It was then, when I got really scared, that I would get frostbites from all the cold.

Frozen pants up to knees.
Frozen pants up to knees.

At the market, I got a chance to take the shoes off. Despite expecting water to pour out, everything appeared surprisingly dry. Even socks were only moist at worst. I’m still thankful that I bought the best shoes I could find, they probably saved my feet from a nasty frostbites.

The market was much smaller than I expected. Merchants were selling all sorts of stuff, from trinkets, statues of dwarfs and elves, some kind of sweet Swedish bread, moose meet and many more.

Christmas market at Gammelstad
Christmas market at Gammelstad

After short trip around the market, we decided to take a bus home, since it was already pitch black, my legs were frozen and we had a farewell dinner to prepare for.

Despite market being disappointingly small, the journey was one of a kind and like usually it’s the about the journey not destination.