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  • Writer's pictureFrank Pastula

LOST IN EUROPE: Our Week in the Arctic

By Frank Pastula

Lofoten Islands, Norway. Photo taken by Frank Pastula

“FIFTEEN ROCKS IN THE TENT, THAT HAS TO BE ENOUGH TO HOLD IT DOWN,” I yelled, realizing that the ice was too hard to stake our tent down. As a windstorm brewed atop the snowy peak that Ben and I camped on, I motioned to him, “ALL SET FOR THE NIGHT, CAN YOU GRAB OUR GEAR?” And that's when I heard it: a sliding sound, something dragging against the ice, barreling and catching speed down the peak of the mountain; a climber’s worst nightmare. Now I know what you’re thinking… you’re probably wondering if Ben managed to grab hold of a rock and save himself from the abyss thousands of feet down to the Arctic Sea beside us. Well first, let me tell you how we got in this mess.

I opened my eyes, waking up to the sounds of a bustling airport that surrounded me. It was a rough night of sleep in the Oslo airport for Ben, Emma, Nic, and I. However as we grabbed our luggage and headed to the terminal, I couldn’t help but feel excited that I was finally fulfilling a lifelong dream. Ben and I had seen the Lofoten Islands on a screensaver years ago, and swore to ourselves that one day we would summit the picturesque mountains, unzipping our tent to reveal bright sunrises and maybe even surfing on the beach. However there was a hiccup in our masterful plan: it was the dead of winter, and this would be our only window to visit the small village towns in the northlands of Norway. This would mean that instead of warm sunrises and beach surfing we would settle for blisteringly cold nights and snow that covered essentially everything in our path. After all, it was the Arctic Circle. Regardless of the facts, Ben and I were not letting anything stop us. We found Emma and Nic, two brave souls to share the journey with us, and headed out into the unknown. Honestly none of us knew what to expect.

Lofoten Islands, Norway. Photo taken by Frank Pastula

Our plane soon touched down and we stepped off the single runway, on the only plane, heading towards the garage warehouse that was the Narvik airport. We got our rental car—a tough choice between a red one and a blue one—and pulled out for the final four hour drive to the islands. Arriving that evening at our little red fishing cabin, Ben and I turned to each other in laughter, quickly realizing that we were the only humans for miles. I stoked the fire and retired to read a book in the attic I was given to sleep in (It was actually quite cozy). The next morning we embarked for a “nearby” recreation store in search of a sleeping bag for Ben. We had always said that if we got to Lofoten, nothing was going to stop us from summiting and camping on some of the largest, most beautiful peaks in the world. Again, the only problem was that it was winter, we had limited sunlight, and it was a “bit” colder than expected; but no challenge for a Minnesotan and Michigander. We soon found the store and were greeted by the owner, a Norwegian man who chuckled as we told him about our plans to hike and climb. I later found out that Norwegians don’t really laugh often, or rather ever, so he must have been truly amused at our genius idea. Nevertheless, he sold Ben a light sleeping bag and gave me a propane canister for my mini stove. While ringing us up, Ben asked him what hikes he might recommend. Our new friend certainly had many suggestions, but was quick to follow each one with the numbers of how many hopeful climbers died on each respective mountain. There it was again…that classic Norwegian positive attitude! I’d be lying if Ben and I weren’t a bit discouraged at his statistics, but driving back to the cabin we reassured ourselves of our adept thinking and ability to turn back if needed. The following days were spent with the four of us watching bright northern lights and hiking beautiful mountains, luckily with mostly blue skies and weather that no one could complain about—except for Nic: remember, he’s from Tacoma.

As the final days approached, Ben and I found that the Tuesday before we left would allow for just a big enough weather window to hike the nearby summit of Øfferskamoyen. This peak, although monstrous and steep, was only a ten minute drive to a nearby town, with a hospital… just in case. Ben and I grabbed our gear, wished Nic and Emma goodbye, and took the car to head towards the base of the mountain. As we began our hike around 4pm, we quickly realized that it would be more difficult than previously thought. The snow was often at our knees and some holes even led up to our waists, not to mention the steep incline of the path that ran through an iced-over creek flowing down the mountain. On the bright side, there were still a decent amount of trees and bushes that would worst-case cushion our fall. Surprisingly, we soon ran into a Norwegian making her way back down from the summit. She took a long look at us as we passed and stopped to mention that we might not want to head all the way to the peak without spikes. Looking at my shoes and Ben’s, I realized that our un-spiked, spring season hiking shoes were not the best choice. But as you might have guessed, we thanked her for the information and continued up the mountain. I guess someone had to keep the “stupid American” stereotype going, right?

Within 2 hours and just before a setting sun, Ben and I reached the final upward run. We took the moment to call some friends back home and reassure Nic and Emma that we were alive before our data cut out. Seeing as we had no more brush to break our fall and a straight shot of ice/rock to the summit, Ben and I grabbed what sharp rocks we found near us and picked our way up into the darkness as the sun set behind us; one of the few moments that I am sure I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Photo taken by Frank Pastula

As Ben and I reached the summit, we turned on our headlamps in search of a flat space to set our tent for the night. With no flat areas in sight and inclement weather swiftly approaching, Ben and I settled for a slanted ice patch set up against some rocks, about 10 feet from the cliff’s edge. Little did we know, our journey was far from over. I soon realized that our tent would not be secure as I couldn’t get any stakes in the iced ground below us. Faced with the decision of coming this far and turning back, Ben came up with the brilliant idea to find any nearby large stones and wedge them in the corners of the tent. I got to work, placing around fifteen rocks in the tent and asked Ben to grab our equipment near the edge of the peak. And that's when I heard it: that terrifying dragging, sliding sound. Something was surely falling off the mountain from behind me. I quickly looked and saw Ben who was frozen, looking off the edge. He was fine, but my bag pouch had been open and our cooking stove (our only access to food), had fallen thousands of feet to the Arctic Sea below us. Defeated and hungry, Ben and I settled in our tent rationing some two Nature Valley bars and a slice of pizza Nic had luckily packed. We let out a laugh, knowing that our trip would never be complete without such a misfortune. Now alive and happy, we settled to watching darkness overtake clouds looming over the Arctic Sea in front of us. In that moment, I couldn’t help but feel so small; a speck on a planet whose size I would never be able to fully grasp. But perhaps the strongest feeling was the newfound awe of just how big the world was--something I had been unknowingly searching for throughout my year abroad. And for the first time in a long time, it didn’t scare me anymore.

'Til next time; stay adventurous, dear friends.

Frank Pastula

Video by Frank Pastula on YouTube, "Lofoten Islands 2022"

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