A Concise Report on Ski Touring in Hibiny

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January 18th 2014
Published: January 28th 2014
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I make the preliminaries as short as possible: once I decided to join the 6-day ski touring of Hibiny with Club Perehod (my second trip with this company), paid the booking fee online (later paid the whole price also online), and waited. It is not necessary to explain my affection to skiing - and skiing in Hibiny Region, among rather noticeable mountains, is a treat not offered to many, though it is so cheap. In this case, I mean not Alpine skiing, but rather “ski-trekking”. In the next paragraph we will read some data about the region.

Hibiny is the largest massif on Kola Peninsula, about 350 million years of geological age, its highest peak being Yudychvumchorr with 1200.6 meters above sea level; and the towns of Apatity and Kirovsk at mountains’ foot. To me, Apatity is important as the train station to which I arrive from Saint Petersburg. In the 1920-ies, the geologic surveys under the guidance of academician A.E. Fersman revealed rich deposits of apatite-nepheline rocks, development whereof commenced in 1929. The town was constructed simultaneously with the mine and processing plant. The plants are still operating.

On January 17 I took the train from Saint Petersburg to Apatity. It was comfortable, though confined, in the compartment, ticket being bought with 50% discount in advance (more than 40 days). Since it was confined, I spent most of the time reading Leacock’s ‘Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich’ on my upper bunk. I slept very well and upon waking was amazed at the landscape in the window – all trees on both sides of the train, and coated with snow (like a fairy tale) – this was WINTER, in the true sense of this word, so much missed by me because in St. Petersburg there was no snow, and for me winter means – SNOW and COLD. The eternal line of fir trees continued rarely interrupted by fields and lone houses. For the whole 1400 kilometers between Petersburg and Murmansk, two large cities, there are no other comparably large settlements, except maybe Petrozavodsk.

On January 18, a little more than 20 hours after departure, I reached the Apatity station and was met and taken in a taxi to our Kirovsk base by Alexander Vasilyev, our guide – a man no stranger to woods, hills, mountains, skis, etc. The group consisted of four persons only, and they arrived earlier than me and had already spent their first training day on the slopes of Aikuayvenchorr Mountain (“Madonna’s Head” – meaning the head of God’s Mother).

I got excited upon arrival to Kirovsk, where the hills became already visible and presented a truly unusual picture to my eyes, I even saw the lights of an Alpine skiing slope. Our accommodation was the detached two-storey building of Red Cross school, very comfortable and quiet, with a large dining/conference room with a big tea-pot, TV set, and a kitchen in a small room. When I arrived I greeted the others and soon we all had supper of buckwheat porridge with stewed meat (the four of us were to cook in turns, except the guide), then the guide helped me choose skis and poles, but I found some poles a bit shorter than desired. On the third day, I found longer and much better poles. During and after the supper our guide told us about the plans for the next day.

On January 19 I got up at 9 and for breakfast we had oatmeal with dried apricot – I might advise to eat something more substantial in the morning before embarking on a long ski expedition (about 15 kilometers in our case), because the intermediate snacks may fail to satisfy hunger. However, it might be simply that I myself have not enough strength.

We started at 10 and visited the regional museum showcasing the history of ore explorations, development of mining industry, and the main achievements of the region starting in the 1920-30-ies, also its participation in the War (actual battles took place in Murmansk area). I saw many old photos, items related to the mining of apatite rocks, documents about the history of geological explorations; stuffed animals, and a special exhibition of paintings (wolves) by a physically challenged person drawn with her toes.

We began the trip rather easy but skis are specific (heavy, not sliding fast) and would not excel a certain limit of speed on any terrain, so that finally I would fell all worn out. Meanwhile, I fed on magnificent views and overwhelming silence later crushed to pieces by multiple snow mobiles, much disliked by our guide (but they have the advantage of leaving packed ground under their traces). Now, as such mountains are not higher than 1000 m, but the amounts of snow cover the whole terrain, imparting to it so special a look. The snow landscape was almost nowhere interrupted. We did not see the sun that day, only its rays illuminating the hill tops. There were several downhill sections one of which was spoilt by snow mobiles (they make the road uneven, producing holes) where one of us and the guide fell, but I managed to remain standing (I seem to know how to tackle such uneven areas provided that I'm warned in advance of their existence). Gradually the terrain became awesomer and awesomer and the keyboard cannot describe the beauty of the hills clad from head to foot with white, clear, fresh and dense snow. Dense snow is good for your skis and your feet if you are pedestrian because it does not crumble under your weight. One of us would abandon the skis for the remaining days in favour of snowshoes. I have also found a couple of snowshoe trips for the future.

On top, the snow strip was minimally decorated with sunlight. All felt like real nice true winter weather without any nonsense. We crossed a lake and then ascended a short steep hill to start the final long section to the Kukisvumchorr mountain pass (they have Saami topographic names here, chorr means a massif with a flat top, Kukisvum means Long Valley). I will not explain the other names.

About an hour later I began feeling feeble and this damned feeling would not leave me quite alone for the remaining part of the day, and spoilt my spirits in a certain extent until we finally boarded the return bus (we took always the public bus). Here's an enjoyment - we saw white grouses, two in number. Needless to say of what colour. I forgot to mention that there was a schoolboy with us on that day and he tried to run after the birds, but they ran away funnily, being said to be lazy to fly (or maybe just fledglings). We tried to capture them, i.e. to take photos of them. The small heroes escaped us easily and no photo was taken. The road to the mountain pass was mostly uphill and I longed for rest; finally we reached the destination (with a cross to commemorate deaths – one of mountaineers and one of a snow mobile driver) and a pointed mount in front.

We soon started return, it was easy to go downhill, but then all my strength suddenly disappeared and I crawled like a hopeless baby, even the small schoolboy was far ahead of me. Then everybody was ahead… We came to a difficult steep descent where some of us fell, me too, on my right thumb (it hurt a little) and I descended it like stairs, and then straight down without falling. We were actually approaching the final portion of the trip and I crawled, crawled, crawled, crawled, alone, in darkness, wishing this to end as soon as possible, and then I caught up with the group awaiting me, then I caught up with them for a second time, and finally, oh, it was all over, reached the bus stop, and soon we were back in the comfortable rooms. What else could you expect from a person who took skis for the first time this season?

On January 20 I could not sleep till about 4-30 in the morning; I got up at 4 and drank some warm water, tried to relax tight muscles (I could not sleep because of tension in my body), and then fell asleep. We had breakfast at 10 and marched off at 11. We walked across the town to garages, crossed a pair of railway tracks and then put on our skis. It was a long ascent in the beginning and then we rose to a sort of flat land with the inevitable panorama, and from there our way lay through the Rocky Gorge, having crossed which we had a rest and ‘lunch’ (it is rather difficult to chew rye bread at -20C) with hot tea (no amount of tea is enough on a laborious trek – for me particularly), and one of us had problems with his skis (a strap was torn), and the problem persisted more or less throughout the day. The man who on the previous day abandoned skis and walked on foot wore snow shoes this day and on all the other days.

Snow was of different texture in various places, from densely packed to loose, with crust here and there. We descended and entered a section between boulders and a very short section somewhat hard to negotiate. There were rocks generally on both sides of us, and soon we found ourselves in mixed forest and walked among bushes, trees, and snow banks. It was easy, though sometimes branches would obstruct the way. Finally we reached the open area and descended to the railway tracks right nearby the town, and walked a long way to the accommodation. Tomorrow it will be my turn to act as cook.

On January 21 I was damned tired by the end of the day. In the morning I got up to cook rice porridge with dried apricots, but the but the electric stove would not heat and water in the saucepan would not boil for longer than an hour. I had brains enough to abandon the project, threw away the rice and found a perfect decision – to cook oatmeal. I boiled a kettle of water, poured it in the pan and took out flakes, the stated cooking time on package being 3 minutes. It went well and tasty. The others would soon return from the ice-hole bathing so I hurried up. Unfortunately, an event prevented me from bathing in the cold water, which I wanted to do by the end of our stay.

We ascended a hill, saw beautiful panoramas on the left and right with the Big and Small Vudyavr Lakes and the town, then descended on the opposite side where I fell once due to lost speed control. Then we walked for a long time along the lake and then in the forest zone, I tried to gather up as much strength and strength was nowhere to be found. Our destination was Ramsay Pass. Soon we began ascending the excellent, long, challenging (maybe it is only me who thinks it challenging) and very snowy ascent to the pass, and I just wanted the pass to come before us in all its splendour as soon as possible, but uphill, uphill, uphill we went. I just screamed internally with joy supposing if we should return the same way – it’d be a fast and exciting downhill descent. I guessed it right. I never saw such amounts of snow, except on Elbrus perhaps. During the ascent, my right foot because of tight boots (have to procure new ones) hurt.

We reached the pass and had a quick bite and began descending, I fell twice – once because I put my foot in a wrong place trying to turn and then because I gathered excessive speed and sat on my buttocks in order to decelerate (this fall was controlled and harmless). I seem to be good at descents.

It seemed such a long way back and the town lights would not show. Before we re-entered the forest zone, I asked our guide whether spring water could be found and, yes, he brought it from a rivulet, and later again we drank even more pleasant cool water from an artesian well. All tea has been consumed at the pass. Just as we approached the last couple of kilometers to home, my spirits and strength flew away and I dragged behind like a sinner from hell after being had by demons. I took off my skis and walked for a certain distance, then began to fall through the snow, cursed everything and put back my skis for the final hundred meters to the finish line – I’m not the winner, however, but I still remain pleased.

In the evening I cooked excellent borsch, everyone liked it and we ate up the whole of it. Then we watched a short film about igloo building (for the day after tomorrow) and some other useful information about Kirovsk, touring etc.

On January 22 our breakfast was marred by strange stuff with a chicken leg. While the latter was all right, the former seemed to be macaroni, but in such a consistency that it would rather stay in the plate than be eaten. The cook put the stove power to a wrong value.

This day we ascended Aikuayvenchorr Mountain, right along its steep Alpine ski slope (I wished we took the bar lift instead – it was so close to us and so alluring; we saw only a single skier). The snow was packed and uncomfortable to climb, so I took off my skis. The most beautiful picture was when the snow dust in swirls was blown away towards the sun. We finally reached the top – and could not ask for a better view. The snow was of three different qualities on the descent, two whereof were good and the third (packed) was rather unskiable. I enjoyed the descent immensely especially when I faced the sun. We stopped in the Gorge of Blue Lakes, with picturesque climbing rocks and various trees, also some strange ornaments on snow supposedly blown (carved) out by the wind (on the slopes). Soon we entered the forest area with numerous humps and excellent speed qualities of the ski track. All trees stood with caps and coats of snow; I nearly fell several times but always returned the balance. We ended the tour near a church.

On January 23, in the morning, we gathered things for igloo building, such as spades, metal saws, boot covers, the others took sleeping bags because all except me intended to sleep in the igloo. I somehow want to sleep there, but not this time. I was sure I would not sleep well there – as it later turned outer, neither did the others.

As we reached the bus stop, our guide went in search for gas for bottles while we were waiting. He returned only in an hour, we were getting chilled and nervous, and my feet started getting cold. Nevertheless, soon we were on Komsomolskaya Street to leave our things at a friend’s, so that we could return for them after the conquest of the Vortkeuaiv mountain pass, and build the igloo in the evening. Alexander’s friend offered us sweets, chocolate, and tasty Altay tea. His drawing room was decorated with petroglyphs, many of which can be found on Kola Peninsula. Then we took our skis and visited the mine, i.e. saw it from afar, out of the reach of actual works, and almost everything was hidden by mist and clouds. Nevertheless, it was impressive.

We ascended the mountain pass, crossing a short avalanche slope very carefully one by one (a metal plate on a stone commemorates the deaths of 6 persons under an avalanche). The wind was violent, so we very soon started downhill, rather difficult at first but rewarding in the end. Having all gathered by a huge stone, we had a bite and then traversed the hill slope back to the town.

Just nearby the town’s ski slopes we had to negotiate a steep descent where I fell once because I’m definitely not fit for such steep slopes. Then I tried to turn my skis to the other side to complete my descent and banged my left knee on the ski – the focus of the blow was actually many centimeters below the knee, but … I cried loudly, fell down, and stars seemed to fall from my eyes – it felt like a neurologist banged a huge hammer on my knee with all his/her might (no need to describe such unpleasant sensations fully), I lay in the snow for a while, then tumbled down the remaining 10-12 meters to the even area, and there I managed to stand on my feet feeling almost no pain, straining my muscles to feel whether they worked. Well, for ten minutes or so I seemed to recover but then, as we reached the ski station and I was taking photos of the lifts (not to be used by me) I felt a momentary sharp pain in my knee, like some horrible rupture, fell down and cried, shouted, and cursed, without using euphemisms, feeling such bloody hurt as never before in my whole life. The group gathered round me, our guide tried to rub my knee, and I felt the pain withdrawing, but the worst thing is that it did not hurt noticeably, but I could at any moment have the same seizure – I was examined by a medical assistant and they put a temporary bandage on my knee. This event marked the sharp end to my ski explorations, but the group and the guide remained there, sent me to the accommodation, to build an igloo, and ascend one more pass on the following day.

I will try to make the final statements as short as possible. I spent the last day indoors, watched TV, and on January 25 embarked the train to Petersburg, where I am now, with the muscles still aching, but recovering. It teaches one to be so extremely cautious.

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