Cycling in the snow isn’t for everyone – but for Huw Oliver and his partner Annie, fatbiking expeditions are really what make them tick. We spoke to Huw to find out more about his story “Lemonade in Lapland” and to find out how he coped fatbiking and camping in temperatures of up to -20°C.
We got into fatbiking during a trip to Iceland in 2014. For some reason we started to wonder what the interior of Iceland is like in winter – it’s fairly inaccessible so we started to think about ways to get across it. We landed on fatbiking. And then we were hooked on biking. Winter landscapes are fascinating anyway but being on a bike was mind altering for both of us – something to do with freedom and possibilities…
Can we do it? That question has taken us all over the world, bikes in tow and is what lead us to Sweden, too.
We decided to embark on a trip to Lapland. We’d be subject to the whims of the weather and the snow conditions, but not any human constraints. The trails we’d be following are temporary – they do not exist even from week to week because of snow fall, let alone year on year. And there was something really exciting about this. We were following the Kungsleden, the “King’s Trail”. Although it passes through wilderness areas in the mountains, there are huts along its length that offer a warm bed for the night. However these huts were well out of our budget – so it was camping for us!
We knew the trip would be hard work – cycling through snow drifts isn’t easy by any means. But actually we were both well aware that the biking was unlikely to be the hard part of the trip. It was the cold that was going to be tough. We both know from experiences of Scottish winters that the cold can turn things very quickly. But we knew it would be a completely different kettle of fish when we were facing temperatures of -20°C. But – we did come prepared. Staying dry and staying well fed are both pretty key to staying comfortable in cold conditions, and luckily the climate was significantly drier than the winters we’re used to. That made it easier to keep the insulation in our clothes and sleeping bags dry and effective, although we did have to sleep inside ‘vapour barrier’ liners in our sleeping bags, which prevent water vapour produced by your body from travelling into the down insulation, condensing and then freezing. We did the same with barrier socks to prevent our boots from getting wet from sweaty feet. We made sure to eat well too — although food is heavy, I’d rather carry the weight than the alternative. I have to say though, getting up out of our warm cosy sleeping bags in the morning was never something I got used to!
It’s easy, I think, to talk about adventures and adventuring in an offhand way, while forgetting the uncertainty and challenge that makes a good adventure what it is. The mental challenges that came with the expedition hugely outweighed the physical. It goes without saying that experience, preparedness and decision-making skills are crucial whilst in the moment on an expedition, but your mentality is the medium by which all those things are actually applied. A mentality of optimism and open-mindedness is probably the thing that can you there, past the doubts, uncertainties and setbacks that are part and parcel of any big trip away. And during this expedition, it was the cold that we had to combat, and the cold that infiltrated our mentalities more than we realised it would. I remember being frustrated – the cold was causing me to do everything, even the smallest, most mundane tasks, slower and with much more difficulty.
The first night we camped I was struggling with the guy ropes of our tent. Taking an age on a task I’ve done a million times before and that should have been easy. I got annoyed and frustrated very quickly. Once I was warm inside the tent though, I realised how easily the cold had tested me and had altered my mood. I had let it in with really not much resistance.
This was something that Annie and I constantly battled throughout the rest of the trip. We depended on each other a lot to get through these lows. Sometimes, the other person becomes the target of all that frustration. I’ve certainly done it before, and I know when Annie is doing it to me. At those times, it helps enormously to be travelling with someone you know well, that you’ve been through difficult periods with before. We each know how to read the other, when to try to help or offer a snack, and when to just keep trucking on. When we do sometimes take the frustration out on each other, it’s easy to forget it later on. It’s a lot easier to suffer together than it is to do it alone though. Equipment and knowledge might keep you safe in a given situation, but it’s your mentality that can allow you to enjoy being there in the first place.
Expeditions of this scale are a big commitment. You’ve got to take the bad with the good. And the bad comes in many different forms – sometimes in forms you wouldn’t expect. I think that the most important thing is to be honest with yourself about your reasons for making a trip. If it’s to try and prove something, to be first, fastest or greatest, then the chances of fulfilment instantly become slim. I don’t think a successful expedition is too different to a successful day anywhere else, to be honest: be honest with each other, be realistic, and remember that it’s meant to be fun!
Fatbiking in Lapland tested us in so many ways. But we look back on the trip positively. We’d got the spark for the adventure, and with a little determination, knew we’d get there no matter how hard it was. The benefits of doing expeditions like this are real: they’re long lasting. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going for a day out on the hill or a month-long expedition, by pushing ourselves a little further than we have before, we come to realise that we’re capable of more than we think, and we grow as people. It might sound cheesy, but it’s true.
To read more about Huw’s expedition to Lapland, click here.