I’m writing this sitting in the ferry lane, waiting to go from Sweden to Denmark. Denmark seems to spell safety and normality after the heavy minuses of the stark stark Sweden. My hands have become so cold that they lack any dexterity and appear fragile and weak. I’ll never be able to use chopsticks again. I can’t even hold my pen, and eating in a well-mannered way is impossible: acting out an archaic human species by holding each piece of cutlery like a javelin just to get the food in my mouth. Twelve cold days separate me from my warm arrival flight. Frozen lakes, fierce headwinds, incessant snow, slush puppy water bottles, kind strangers, modern cities, beautiful winterscapes and slow-mo hands. But a hope remains that this rigamortis is only temporary.
I arrived in Sweden with the challenge to cycle from Stockholm to Kashgar, China and possibly beyond. To go cycle touring had been in the books for a long time. The question of where was a little more difficult to settle on, but the promise of a tough environment and an interest in all things Scandinavian had led me to Sweden where I hoped beautiful pine forests would await. And they did, but so did the snow. About 5cm had fallen overnight before I arrived and it would continue to snow heavily over the next few days. This made for scenes of such mystical beauty in the pine forests I thought I was in a fairytale. Each branch was highlighted from the dark beyond holding thick layers of snow that would drop flurries of miniature snowstorms as I passed.
I cycled into Stockholm at night and was met by my first ‘Warm Showers’ host, a website for people cycle touring to host and be hosted, much like couchsurfing. This would become invaluable over the next two weeks as the cold settled in and things would get harder than anything I’d done before. My first host had cycled to Iran from Sweden and had many stories from the road, he also said he would rather be cycling in the snow for the next few days than going to work, a sign of the lure of the game I felt too. Helpful, generous and truly understanding of my situation Martin was an excellent introduction to the country and the tour and it was the first time I felt the shock of how welcoming a recent stranger could be.
What did await me, lurking like some great beast, was my first night in the tent. I cycled out past Sodertalje and found a spot which looked good on the map next a river and near a village. It was now almost a foot deep snow. As I arrived I asked one of the nearby residents if they would mind me camping close by and he said no problem. I set to it, only my tent pegs had no chance of going in to the ground as it was frozen solid, so solid I had to check the ground was grass at all. I had prepared for this though and knew I would have to find some rocks to hold it down. There were none. So I used string to tie each end of the tent between a boulder and a bench looking over the river, using the tension to keep it upright. Anyone looking on must have thought I was completely insane, out there in pitch dark freezing trying to find a solution, each time I turned round my bags had been covered in another layer of snow. But I had done it. Stowed my bags inside, locked up my bike, took my saddle in to protect the leather and cocooned myself in my sleeping bag. At this point I had three t shirts, a fleece and a down jacket as well as a sleeping bag liner and sleeping bag and felt warm. I was comfortable. I could see my breath condensing in the light of my head torch. I ate some heavily carbed food to give myself energy to continue this warmth through the night and pulled the cords of my sleeping bag so that there only remained a tiny hole to breathe through.
It was about -8 outside that night and I awoke intermittently, feeling the cold and doing a quick bout of fifty press-ups to generate some internal heat. In the morning my water bottle had iced up completely and a banana in my bag had frozen, signs of the fierce temperature that I felt surprised to see. I did awake cold though and my feet were numb even with three pairs of socks. They had been yesterday and would continue to be today, what would become an ever-present theme. In this moment I do not want to go outside. But I know I must. The tent is covered in snow and the bike too but gradually together we start moving. The bike chain has iced up and will not move so I take it to a local garage to get some water to squirt on the gears and begin the ride.
At times my feet were numb for 24 hours. My fingers have arthritic slowness. The cold bites, it nibbles at the corners of your body. Fingertips, nose, entire toes are lost to it. It gnaws through layers of polyester, it gauges on Gore Tex, it buries itself into the seams of your gloves then burrows down to the core of your bones. It has been as low as -10 here in Sweden and at its heaviest the snow has fallen at 2cm per hour.
A question I’ve been asked a lot is what do I think about when riding. The mind meanders, just like the road your riding and the thoughts that come and go appear bound by nothing: where will I rest my legs tonight? What’s the name of the river I’m following? When will this satanic rain stop? How the inch is a better unit of measurement than the centimetre. Whole hours of misery go by trying to plummet the pedals despite the increasing wind in your face, the sight of purple clouds up ahead gives you a vague sense of the impending doom that awaits. A driver beeps at me to move over but my hands are so cold I can’t even shape them correctly to give him the finger, I can only feel sorry for his wife and wonder if he would rather be out here in the cold.
Fingers are in agony feel like they’re on fire, something’s not right. Gotta keep going. Can’t stop. If I stop the rest of me will freeze. Gotta keep going. Just keep pushing the pedals and generate your own warmth. But I’m tired. It doesn’t matter. Gotta keep going. Only twenty kilometres til your next destination then they’ll be a shop to warm up and buy some food. But I have food in my bag. But you can’t eat that unless you stop somewhere warm enough to eat it. These thoughts race round your head mile after mile with the persistent thread remaining.
But soon you learn that it’s all temporary, cold feet will eventually warm up when you’re sharing coffee with a kind-hearted stranger. I guess the hard thing to admit is that it’s scary, cycling in to the unknown at dusk when you don’t know where you’ll sleep and your body aches with cold. I was in this position one evening and had decided to stop in a small village to knock on a door and ask if I could camp in the owner’s garden. The kind face behind answered ‘of course’ and as I set about unpacking my tent on to the 20cm of snow he came out and asked if I would like to use his sauna, a wooden hut in the garden, to sleep in instead. I said yes whilst trying to control my utter joy and he said it had a fire and the temperature can reach 80 degrees.
Part of the joy of the whole trip is seeing that these necessities: warmth and food aren’t just handed to us, we have to create them somehow and when they are a struggle to achieve everyday you see the cheer resulting from just securing a warm nights sleep. Ironically, hitting the road makes you see the latent satisfaction in a salaried job, securing food and warmth day after day.
The family were a delight and asked if I would like to join them for dinner, the two boys were curious about my bike and found it difficult to imagine all that I would see en route, I showed some photos of my camping escapades. This was an experience which nourished me after the conditions I had faced and I found it difficult to leave in the morning.
The challenge is always ahead, and the mundane comforts of everyday life hit you with emotional force. A cup of coffee can feel like waves of warmth enveloping your entire body; scenes of widescreen TVs from the house you pass can bring on pungent nostalgia; supermarkets can take on religious importance as life-giving edifices.
I was hanging on to consciousness by a thread. Always kept resolutely alert on the bike, by the harsh conditions and passing cars. But fatigue was setting in and as soon as I was comfortable sleep would come on with the force of a freight train. I could sleep anytime and any place if there was sufficient warmth. My body was always ready to shut down and let sweet rest take over.
There are two immobile and unfeeling stumps at the ends of my legs that seem to look up at me and ask “Why? Why did you do this to us?” I haven’t felt my feet in days. It would be a rational question, especially from a foot. The answer is not so rational. If only that I’ve never done it before. It was a fresh challenge. And every now and then pushing the boundaries of what we’re capable of seems a good idea. I know my definitions of cold and pain are very different. I also cherish the important moments when they arrive. Being in the cold where every moment is a challenge, securing the safety of your body at all times put me in touch with that survival instinct, giving rise to primal concerns. I will miss Sweden and as mad as it sounds I would have been disappointed if it didn’t snow, but I’m also looking forward to some good old-fashioned sun!
In the Hadzabe tribal culture of Tanzania one must hunt and kill five baboons before entitlement to marriage, and only when they can wear the skulls of their prey as medals can they ascend to the next rung of the ladder in life. Perhaps each of us has our own set of baboons to slay?