No holidaymaker appreciates having to build their own hotel when they arrive, especially not in the snowy wilderness of Solberget in north Sweden, where the temperature is -40°C. But that’s exactly what I’ve signed up for. Here in the Arctic Circle’s wilderness, I’m going to learn how to build an igloo, and I’d better learn good, because then I’m going to spend the night in it – alone. Just the thought sends chills down my spine.
I arrive in solberget Wilderness Retreat, after an 11-hour sleeper train ride from stockholm through snow-heavy pine forests. I’m in deepest santa country, as solberget sits in the heart of lapland, close to the muddus National Park and a disconcerting 20km from the next house. I’m shown into a simple but comfortable bunk at the camp base – a picturesque wooden cabin where guests share dining space and a huge fire. since this is a wilderness retreat, I have to muck in and build my own log fires and collect drinking water from a mountain well, which I figure is good survival training for later on. Anyway, although the air is freezing, these tasks are no hardship in such a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.
After a cosy night I wake to stunning sunlight peeping from behind the hills and, by afternoon, a whole spectrum of different coloured light cascades down from the mountains of the muddus National Park. ski retreat leader Dirk hagenbuch and I set off on our skis first thing in the morning, taking a route deep into the muddus forest, all the time searching for somewhere suitable to build my igloo for the night. Eventually, we come across a small clearing and stop. I’d pictured us stacking ice blocks like lego to create a big dome, but it turns out we’re not building a conventional igloo, but rather a quinzee. This is a more basic structure, built from snow, and while it’s effective, it’s used more as a temporary shelter (as opposed to semi-permanent igloos).
Dirk and I pile up a man-high heap of snow and then make it as compact as possible by trampling it down, ensuring it’s packed tight. then, to create a living space, I burrow a cavity inside it. this has to be big enough for me to crawl inside but not high enough to stand up in. hot air rises to the top, so the smaller the space, the warmer it is.
Once the living space is complete, Dirk shows me how to sculpt a tunnel of snow that juts out from the centre of the quinzee, to prevent the effects of the biting Arctic winds as I enter my new home. All in all, the igloo takes us about three hours to build, and then we throw down heavy reindeer skins to warm the floor and another to cover the entrance. After all our efforts, we leave the quinzee behind to freeze rock solid, while we escape to a nearby log cabin for some local fare – reindeer sausage with pasta and a few beers. When I return, the quinzee has frozen so hard that I manage to walk across the top without it giving an inch – very reassuring, since it’s nearly time for bed.
Dirk leaves me alone to sleep in the snowy structure, but I’m relieved to hear he’s snoozing close by in a cabin – far away enough to make me feel like I’m out in the wilderness, but near enough to help if for some reason the quinzee collapses or I get too cold. After all the preparation, I find my night is surprisingly comfortable, using the reindeer skins as well as a heavy-duty sleeping bag and my thermals to shut out the biting cold. the ceiling is barely a foot above my head when I sit up, so it’s a good job I’m not claustrophobic.
The next day I embark on an incredible reindeer sleigh trek through the forest. First of all I have to round them up, although it takes no more than a “hup! hup!” to get them into gear. once I’m shown how to put their reins on, I climb onto a wide-seated and very comfortable wooden sleigh, and am soon being pulled, fast and low to the ground, through dense pine forests. on a break in the trek we enjoy a barbecue among the trees, sipping on hot tea as the reindeers forage beneath the snow for food.
Entertainment at camp that night is beers and a sauna, followed by a naked plunge into a snow mound. I’m initially apprehensive, but since I’ve spent a night in a quinzee, I’m pretty sure I can handle anything. It turns out the thrill of my naked skin hitting the packed snow is surprisingly euphoric. It’s an exhilarating end to an out-there trip, on which I feel as though I’ve experienced a genuine sense of freedom in a place where all I saw for miles was snow, reindeer and nature at its most pure.
An igloo building and reindeer tour, including a ski tour with guide and equipment rental, costs approx £800pp for five days at solberget Wilderness Retreat. solberget.com