There had been plenty of bravado. A night out on the ice in an emergency snow shelter built by our own hard work felt exactly like the sort of experience we had conjured up in our imaginations before this trip, which took us up close to the Arctic Circle in Finland. At least I had. At dinner, in the warmth of the dining room at base camp, we’d talked through how to arrange the space in the quinzee (the proper word for an emergency snow shelter) to create as comfortable a night as possible. At 11pm, as we gathered our rucksacks and thin rollup mats, the mood was distinctly less macho.
It had taken 7 hours of hard shoveling to create our shelter which was essentially a great pile of snow about 8 feet high which you compress and then excavate, removing probably 60% of the stuff you just spent hours constructing. You stomp about on the top of the pile at various points to pack it all down and then leave it to ‘rest’ for a bit. This provides enough time to have a cup of soup and attempt to thaw out and dry our kit around a fire. Part two involves getting down on your hands and knees and burrowing your way in to the middle of it to create a kind of cave. It is hard work and quite boring work and, because you spend much of your time in direct contact with the ice, you get very wet and very cold. Hence, I think, the collective memory leading to the hesitation to leave the [relative] comfort of Basecamp after dinner and make our way down to the woods and back onto the ice. There was also the chance we might suffocate during the night if we hadn’t made the air hole in the top of the structure large enough (the guide was smiling as he told us this so I figured that they hadn’t actually lost anyone that way yet) or that the walls might collapse if we had hollowed the space out too much. Both these things played on my mind as I made my way in the darkness across the ice.
We had worked efficiently and productively in the small team allocated to our shelter and this camaraderie continued as we discussed the best approach to organizing our mats and bedding on the ice-mattress inside the quinzee. Arranging the sleeping bags we agreed who would sleep where and in what order people would settle in so that there was space to undress and slide into ones sleeping bag without inadvertently giving someone a black eye. With the sleeping bags laid out, the rucksacks as pillows and with a small torch positioned as a night light it looked surprisingly cosy. Shuffling backwards down the tunnel and back onto the ice we stood in a small semi-circle looking up at the night sky. The moon was not yet up, the inky blackness above us was scattered with more stars than could possibly be counted and whch trickled in long strands down to the horizon. Someone had brought a flask of Bourbon and pouring some into a cup, they chilled it with snow and passed it round. As my turn comes I took a sip which was at the same time freezing cold and fiery hot. As I tilted back my head and looked upwards the stars flickered and pulsed in tones of gold and green and blue.
We stood for quite some time, occasionally stamping our feet to keep warm. Then someone pointed out, low on the horizon, a haze of palest green and yellow light gently shimmering and fading, then appearing once again. As we watch it changed slowly to a pale mulberry red and then to green and yellow again. We think we are seeing a very minor display of the Northern Lights. It is ridiculous how pleased we are.
A little bit later, inside the snow-shelter it’s about minus five, which feels very comfortable compared to the minus fifteen outside. It’s easily warm enough to shed all our layers down to our base fleece and take off our boots. As we all lay there, in a row, in the gentle light of the torch, I realize that what seemed like an even floor is scattered with lumps and bumps of ice which stick into my shoulder and hips. I turn over and face the wall but the air so close to the snow is too cold to comfortably breathe. Turning onto my other side my hip falls into a depression in the snow which twists my back painfully. I turn over again. I listen to the rhythmic sound of breathing from the others but I still lay there, uncomfortable and unable to drift into sleep. One o’clock comes and goes and I force myself not to keep turning so that I don’t disturb the others. My nose keeps itching but the effort to get one of my arms out of the sleeping bag to scratch it takes too much effort so I turn my head and push my face into the strap of my rucksack which helps with the itch a bit. At 2am I am still awake and trying not to listening too closely to the snow walls creaking and worrying about them caving in. Somewhere outside the ice cracks loudly. At 3am, knowing I have a long day out in the arctic tomorrow, I decide to bail out and see whether I can get a few hours sleep in my cabin so slowly I unzip my sleeping bag which sounds loud in the darkness. My arm grazes the wall and snow falls into my face and down my fleece. I pull on my boots and decide, rather than dress in full and chance waking everyone up, I will put on just one layer over my base fleece and use my sleeping bag as insulation from the cold while I make my way back quickly across the ice. I shuffle slowly off the ice mattress and down the tunnel into the open. Standing up and holding my rucksack in one hand and clutching my sleeping bag tightly around me with the other, I stand for a few minutes gazing up at the night sky where the moon has risen and hangs like a beautiful silver medallion in the blackness. All is silent and still. I feel like a tiny insignificant dot in this most amazing universe. The cold quickly begins to seep through my layers, my hands are cold through the gloves and so I turn, and make my way back the quarter of a mile to my cabin. Just before I head into the trees at the edge of the lake, I turn around to take a final look, and see the fading end of a shooting star. In the warmth of my cabin, under my reindeer skin, I fall quickly asleep.