Sunday 25 October 2015

The Three Peaks of Lake District

This was something we did as a challenge for a charity - The McMillan Cancer Support. I was working for Capita back then, and the event was organised by my manager Lee Pillen. Our challenge was to summit three of the highest peaks in the Lake District (all over 3000 feet) in a single day. Lee's thoughts were it would be more of a challenge rather than the usual corporate team building nonsense (his worlds not mine :)) and in the process raise money for a good cause. The following article is written by Lee Pillen - 

We’re not entirely unprepared for the main event this weekend. We had a bit of a practice run back in June. We climbed Snowdon to get a feel for hill walking and try out our mountain legs. We made it up and down in about 6 hours. Of course, we’ll have to do much better than that this weekend if we are to manage Skiddaw, Helvellyn and Scafell Pike in one day.
The weather was atrocious on Snowdon – driving rain, howling winds and what felt like sub-zero temperatures on the summit (and they’d closed the cafe!). It was so bad that some people had to be airlifted off by the RAF. Hopefully we’ll have some better weather this weekend and that will give us the extra turn of speed we will need.
Here are a few more pictures of the Snowdon climb …
A break to enjoy the view and perform a quick dance number

 Back down out of the rain

It’s really cold up here!
Look at me! I’m up a wet mountain!

We did it!
We’re back, unscathed apart from a few stiff legs, and we did it! We conquered our three peaks, although sadly not all three of the mountains.
We made an excellent start, leaving base camp at the foot of Skiddaw before dawn on Saturday. The first half an hour was hard work and those of us who were new to hill walking (even the fit ones) were surprised at how tough it is until you get into your stride.
Setting Off 
We made great time, leaving some fantastic views back over Keswick and Derwent Water behind us as we climbed into the cloud to reach the summit in time for a spot of breakfast.
A quick run back down the hill meant we’d bagged our first mountain in under three hours.
The next one was harder. Helvellyn is a steep hill and the rock steps on the path mean the ascent is like walking up stairs – for two hours.
Foot of Helvellyn 
The whole team reached the first peak of Lower Man, and all struggled on through the thick cloud and rain to the summit of Helvellyn itself, thus reaching our third peak and achieving what we’d set out to do.
Helvellyn Ascent
We all made it back down the hill having completed the ascent and descent within four hours. The first ones down ran the last leg, finishing inside three and half hours!
Helvellyn ‘Lower Man’
Having climbed two mountains and reached three 3000 foot peaks all but two of the team were still fired up and ready to tackle our third mountain, Scafell Pike. Unfortunately it was not to be. Time to complete the ascent in daylight was limited so we decided to change our starting point to one that would require less walking, but a was a longer drive than our original plan.
We set off, not exactly clear of our new route and hoping that sat-nav would get us there. Unfortunately we lost the sattellite connection on some hair-raisingly narrow mountain roads in Langdale. Then, somewhere over the Hardknott pass one of our cars began to run dangerously low on fuel. We had to temporarily abandon our journey to the base of Scafell Pike and leave the mountains in order to find some petrol.
Having refuelled and got some decent directions we realised that we’d run out of time to begin our ascent of Scafell Pike. There was no way we’d get up and down before nightfall. So, dejectedly, we headed back for our hotel and a well earned meal.
Scafell Pike will be there another day – and we will be back!
Relaxing the following day 
We’d like to thank everyone who has helped and supported us on this trip, especially those of you who have been kind enough to make a donation to Macmillan Cancer Support in support of our efforts. Our next trip? Who knows? Possibly Hadrian’s wall, maybe the British three peaks challenge (Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis). There has even been talk of jumping out of an aeroplane – but that’s just silly.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Scottish Highland trek - The Ben Nevis

Friday 5th of September 2008:
Woke up at 7:00 in the morning. My friend Surj arrived at my place at around 8:30AM, we then went to Enterprise cars in Elms Farms Bedford to pick our car. We booked a Zafira but luckily got a really nice Saab Estate Diesel (1.9L). By the time we left Bedford it was around 9:30AM, we decided to pick Alpesh first who lives in Milton Keynes. We got to his place just after 10:00AM and then went to Wellingborough to pick Ramnik. Once all four of us got into the car it was time to start our long drive towards Fort Williams in Scotland. We were not very lucky with the traffic as we lost quite a bit of time in queuing before we joined the M6. The overall journey to the hostel in Fort Williams was pretty tiring as we finally managed to reach there at about 11:30PM. The hostel is called The Smiddy Bunkhouse & Blacksmiths Backpackers Hostel. Here is the address:
Address - Snowgoose Mountain Centre, Station Road, Corpach, Fort William, Inverness-shire, PH33 7JH, Scotland
Two other friends Louise and Rakesh had already checked in. They got well before us. We managed to catch what ever sleep we could before beginning our journey early next day.

Saturday 6th of September 2008:
We were up and ready by 7:00 in the morning. The hostel we stayed in is very close to the Ben Nevis base, in-fact we could see the mountain from outside the hostel. We drove to the base which is about 4 miles away, parked our car, and took our backpacks with us to start our journey up to the top. It was really killing for the first hour or so. We finally made it to the top at around 1:00PM in just under 5 hours. It was really windy at the top, with lots of cloud cover making it really cold. We stayed there for about 30 minutes, and started descending back to the base. Every year on the 6th of September there is a race that takes place at Ben Nevis where people from all age groups run all the way to the top and come back down running. The fastest one so far is 1 hour 25 minutes. We reached the base at around 5:30PM. All together around 10 hours of trekking. We were absolutely shattered by the time we back to the base.

Sunday 7th of September 2008:
We got up at around 6:30AM, got ready and left the hostel at around 7:30AM. Considering what we had to go through on Friday we made sure that we left nice and early giving the rush hour traffic a miss. On the way we got off at few places to take some photos. We also had our breakfast at one of our stops near a beautiful lake. The journey back home was pleasant expect for another accident on the motor way which delayed us by couple of hours.

Another nice trip, another nice experience to cherish.

Clothing/Equipment Guide
Conditions on the mountains and on the summits are significantly colder than people expect. The equipment/clothing list is intended as a guide, to help ensure you enjoy your day out on mountains, whatever the weather conditions

Essential Clothing/Equipment

  • Water proof jacket
  • Waterproof over trousers (Tip; Ensure you can put the over trousers on whilst wearing your boots)
  • Hats
  • Gloves (Tip; If rain is forecast, take at least 2 pairs)
  • Walking Boots
  • Food for the day. You will be burning off twice the amount of energy you normally do, so bring enough food. Sugary snacks aren’t a good idea. Foods like bananas, dried fruit, flapjacks & sandwiches are good.
  • Water. On hot days you can drink up to 4 pints/2 litres of water.
  • Flask. On cold days a warm drink is nice to have.
  • Personal Medicines, First Aid Kit, Plasters etc.
  • Thick/Walking socks
  • Hiking trousers (Tip; Do not wear jeans or jogging bottoms)
  • Sun Cream (essential if it is a sunny day!)
  • Sun Glasses
  • Sun Hat (essential if it is a sunny day!)
  • Whistle
  • Rucksack (25-35 litres in size depending on how much stuff you want to carry)
    Rucksack liner (Rucksacks are not waterproof!)
  • Walking Poles

Gems of Switzerland August 2008

20th August 2008 Wednesday
Woke up at 2:00 in the morning got ready and started our journey to London Heathrow airport Terminal 5. It was me and my friend Sinu from Bedford and we hired a taxi that took us to the airport. The flight was scheduled to leave at 7:10 in the morning; we reached the terminal at around 4:15AM, well ahead of time, checked in our luggage at 5:00AM. This was our first flight from Heathrow Terminal 5 which was opened in 2007. The flight time to Zurich is 1 hour 15 minutes. We were in Zurich at 8:30AM London time which is 9:30AM Swiss time.
After finishing all the formalities at the airport we boarded our tour coach which took us to various different places of interests. We went to the city of Lausanne which is the second largest city in Switzerland. There we went to the Lake Geneva took some nice photos, and then went to the Olympic museum. Finally we checked into our hotel in Lausanne.

21st August 2008 Thursday
We woke up at 6:30AM. Had a continental break fast which included cereals, pan cakes, eggs, fruits, etc. We departed for Geneva where we went for a short city tour. We saw the UN (United Nations) building. There is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the entrance. There is Bollywood park where most of the Indian films are shot. We saw the location in Interlaken where David Dhavan shot most of his films with Govinda. We saw another place where most of the South Indian films are shot. Later in the day we saw the floral clock, the English Gardens, and the Rose Gardens. Later we proceeded to the capital of Switzerland Bern. Bern stands for bear, which was named by the duke after a bear he had killed. Then we went to the river Aare to take some more photos. On our way we stopped at a place called Vevey where there is a statue of Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin settled in Vevey in later part of his life. We also stopped at the chocolate factory where we saw the entire chocolate making process. Switzerland is very famous for its chocolates and one of the biggest companies being Nestle. We tasted lots of different types of freshly made chocolates. Finally we got to Bern. Here we took some photos of the clock tower. We also saw the Einstein House. Later in his life Einstein lived in the city of Bern.
At the end of the day we went to Engelberg. Post dinner we checked in to another hotel called Terrace in Engelberg. This hotel is located along tall mountain ranges with amazing views from the windows. The hotel itself is quite big with facilities for dining/breakfast, lounge, bar, indoor sports rooms, etc.

22nd August 2008 Friday
Our day started early at 6:30AM. We drove to Stechelberg in the valleys of Lauterbrunnen from where we took various cable cars to reach the peak of Mount Schilthorn. This is 2970m high and was the location for thrilling action scenes in the James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. There is a special video show in a small theatre on top of the mountain which shows various scenes from the film. There is also a revolving restaurant on the top of the mountain called Piz Gloria, we had a nice lunch in the revolving restaurant. We then got down and headed to another place and visited a small mountain called the Harder Kulm. We used the funicular railway (means inclined railway) to climb up. This is a special type of railway which is specifically designed for steep climbs. A cable is attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails that moves them up and down a very steep slope, the ascending and descending vehicles counterbalancing each other. This attractive vantage point offers fine views of capital city Bern. You can clearly see this city lying between the lakes of Brienz and Thun. Later we drove towards the town of Interlaken, a prime destination for shopping and Bollywood filming. This was the end of the day and we proceeded back to the restaurant in Engelberg for our dinner.

23rd August 2008 Saturday
Our day started a bit earlier than usual at around 6:00AM. Post breakfast we drove to Lauterbrunnen valley from where we took the tunnel lift to reach Trummelbach water falls. The Trummelbach Falls in Switzerland are a series of ten glacier-waterfalls inside the mountain. We then drove to Lauterbrunnen train station. From here we took a cogwheel train to the peak of Mount Jungfrau. Lying at 3,454 meters above sea level, this is Europe’s highest altitude railway station. Whilst at the top, we visited the Ice Palace, which is 30 meters under the surface of the glacier. The ice sculptures were amazing.

24th August 2008 Sunday
Woke up at 6:30AM. We drove to the base of mount Titlis which is less than 5 minutes drive from our hotel in Engelberg. We had to change 3 cable cars to reach the top and the last one being the revolving cable car. This is the world’s first revolving cable car. The peak is over 10000 feet above the sea level. We enjoyed spectacular walks on the snow clad mountains and some trekking. At the summit of mount Titlis there’s a small ice cave where there are small sculptures. Later in the day after our descend we went to the town of Luzern, where we saw the famous Lion Monument. This monument is of a dying lion which symbolizes hundreds of Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 French Revolution. We also saw the Chapel Bridge which is about 670 feet long crossing the Reuss River. It is the oldest wooden bridge in Europe. Much of the bridge was destroyed in a 1993 fire, though it was quickly rebuilt.

25th August 2008 Monday
This was our last day in Switzerland. We drove to Zurich city. Here we saw the famous Swiss bank which is actually a group of various banks. Took some photos and the bank vault where the money is kept was right below our feet under the pavement. Obviously it is secure enough so you can't just dig in and get access to it :). We then went to the Rhine falls which is the largest water falls in Europe. Finally we went back to the Zurich airport and boarded our flight to Heathrow at 7:10PM.
Over all it was a fantastic trip. The whole country is cut through the mountains. There are lots and lots of lakes and rivers everywhere and tunnels that run through the mountains with the longest being around 19KM. Switzerland makes lot of its money through tourists coming in from India, and Bollywood filming that takes place around the country. You get to see lots of Indian flags hoisted throughout country at prominent locations. There are food stalls selling vada pav, samosa pav, gajar halva, etc. at most tourist places. These are some best selling Indian snacks.  In fact at mount Titlis there are tourist signs in Hindi and even Indian National Anthem is played there.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Sleeping on the ice

The entrance to the Ice Hotel

After Northern Lights, now that cold winter mood is set, let me write about my Ice Hotel experience. It was all part of the Northern Lights trip that I had organised and in fact my Northern Lights trip to Abisko was the last thing that I did on this trip.
The Flight
Originally it was only me who was going but eventually I had two more friends (Chris and Vipul) joining in. We managed to get on a charter flight from London Heathrow terminal which was fantastic and saved a lot of time, otherwise you have to fly to Stockholm first and then take a train/bus or drive from Stockholm to Kiruna. Because we managed to get a direct flight it saved us considerable amount of time, we got there in about 3 hours.
Fun on the flight
My friend Vipul as usual added bit of unintentional fun element to the trip. You will read a lot about him soon, however to begin with he very nearly missed the flight. He arrived late for the check in and realised his name wasn't on the check in manifest, we later found out that his name was taken off the list as he got there after check in cut off time and it is a safety procedure on the flight to take the name off. Eventually after showing all his documents and some persuasion he was eventually allowed. Obviously we didn't know until we saw him boarding the plane at the very last minute. He had allocated seating between myself and Chris but then since he was taken off the manifest his allocated seating didn't show up either, being a chartered flight he was asked to pick any empty seat. We were at the back, he managed to find one empty seat at the front, we were relived to know he was on the flight. When the meals were served the stewardess asked us if there was any special meal request - Both me and Chris said no as we didn't make any special requests. After a while the stewardess got back and said I have a spare veggie meal that was requested which you guys can have. We were more than happy to have another free meal which we shared. 
After an hour or so the flight attendant came back asking if there was supposed to be a friend of ours sitting next to us? I said we didn't know what seats we were allocated until we got our boarding passes and we had all booked separate therefore we were not sure. She then said it was supposed to be your friend who is now in the front and very upset that someone ate his veggie meal :). Oh well, what can be done!!!
Landing in Kiruna
As we were about 30 minutes from landing, the pilot announced to look out of the window. We were above the arctic circle. The scenery was breath-taking. Big mountains, trees all covered with white stuff. It was a total whiteout. As we got lower I could see the runway at one point covered in blanket of ice. I am not a nervous flier, I have been on flights to India during heavy monsoon, I have been on flight to the Patagonian region in Argentina which is always very windy and flights landing in between mountain terrains making it really turbulent, my flight to Iguazu made a landing in the middle of thunderstorms and during the process also got hit by lightning, but in this case seeing that we were literally going to land on ice at such high speed did make me bit nervous. But then it was very smooth landing and I couldn't help myself and asked one of the flight attendant if they ever had skidded off the runway. She said they never have, these are normal weather conditions for us in the arctic, business as usual :).
Finding Vipul
Finally for the first time we meet Vipul. When we ask him the reason for delay, the answer was - It took a lot of time layering up. We are still trying to figure out why layer up in London, it wasn't -20 in London, you can always do that on flight if required before landing. But still does it take that long to wear layers? Never mind at least he was there with us.
More about Kiruna
We got on a coach from Kiruna airport that took us to Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi a small village just outside Kiruna, it takes about 20 minutes to get from Kiruna airport to the ice hotel. Kiruna itself is a small mining town, most people who live there are miners and the population is about 18,000. One interesting fact about Kiruna is that the entire town is actually getting relocated over next two decades. They found more mines and to facilitate it's extraction the entire town will be demolished and relocated few kilometres away. The only attraction within the town is the famous church.
Arrival at the Ice hotel (Jukkasjärvi)
The Ice Hotel
Finally we got to the famous Ice Hotel in the afternoon. The hotel was first built in 1989. The hotel is entirely made from ice and snow from the wild rivers in the arctic region. The walls, floors and ceilings of the hotel are the canvases of designers from all creative disciplines. The artists and art work vary from year to year. There are lots of ice sculptures on display, and each room is designed to various themes. 
The Ice Sculptures
The bed, the chair, the table, the chandelier literally everything that you need in a hotel and could think of is made up of ice. The lamps have very small low power led lights fitted in them which hardly generates any heat but at the same time is bright enough for you to see where you are going.  Of course there are no toilets within the ice hotel itself. You have to walk outside the hotel where the changing rooms, bathrooms and toilets are and thankfully all heated and not made of ice :). You only get your room after 7PM. From around 10AM to 7PM it is open to public for viewing.
The Ice Bed with Reindeer skin on top
The nature takes its course around spring when the hotel starts melting and it is rebuilt from scratch every winter.
The day we got there I had booked warm Kamos rooms. Didn't want to get there and check in to the ice rooms straightaway, I thought it would be good to relax in small, warm wooden rooms first and acclimatise to the conditions there and mentally prepare myself for the cold ice room the day after. We therefore decided to use our afternoon looking at the ice hotel from inside. The total area is 5,500 square meters and this never changes. We were checking out every room taking lots of photos, each room was designed to different themes. There was one built like London underground station. There were lots of ice sculptures in the hallway and the artwork that had gone into it was simply breath-taking.
At around 7PM there is a ice hotel survival session that takes place. As funny it may sound I would thoroughly recommend attending the session if you are planning to spend a night in the ice room. We got some really handy tips. The bed itself is made of ice but there is reindeer skin on top to keep it slightly warm. You are supposed to collect your sleeping bag before you get into the room. As a couple you have a choice of having a double sleeping bag that sleeps two or get two single sleeping bags. With double bag, as romantic as it may sound, remember that once you are inside the bag there is not much tossing and turning you could do at your own will. If one has to turn right and other wants to turn left, its not possible, therefore unless you know that you are happy to sleep still and almost in each others arms for the whole night don't go for double. One advantage is the fact that it will keep you warm ;). Some start of with double bag but then after few hours go back to the reception and get two single bags instead, I think that's a better idea. In terms of dressing for the room, you go to this warm changing area where you have lockers, bathrooms, toilets etc. DON'T wrap yourself warm. It is recommended you wear a single layer of thermal under armour. The scientific principle behind this is, it allows your body heat to warm the air inside the sleeping bag which keeps you warm. If you wear too many layers the air inside the bag remains cold at -5 and it will make it really difficult for you to sleep. To be honest no one really sleeps much anyway, the excitement keeps you half awake most of the time, at least that's what happened to me (and no I was not sharing my sleeping bag with anyone). Since we had booked 3 separate rooms for ourselves and each room is triple room as standard there was plenty of room inside. Coming back to changing rooms, you dress yourself in single layer of thermals, wear special snow boots they give you, I would recommend you store your boots in locker and use their boots, and then literally run to your room. It's important that you run, it will be really difficult to survive the walk to your room wearing a single layer at those temperatures. Also don't drink too many fluids on the day. Make sure you make use of toilets before to go to your rooms, again this might sound funny but there are no toilets in the ice rooms or at the ice hotel. You have to walk few hundred meters to where the changing rooms are and expose yourself to the -20 degree cold on the way to the toilets.
There is also Sauna facilities near the changing room areas. This is something I would recommend you do during the day. Don't use it before going to your ice rooms. The extreme change in temperature can make you very uncomfortable or worse it could make you feel unwell. If you do decide to use sauna or have a hot shower then wait in the reception room for at least couple of hours to get your body temperature back to normal before heading to your arctic rooms.
The Famous Arctic Dinner
We had booked our table prior to our departure from London. I will strongly advice you to do so. There is this Ice Hotel restaurant and the other one bit further down the road called The Homestead and that's about it. The restaurant we booked was by far the most expensive meal we have had. We were expecting that, Scandinavia is expensive anyway but this place was so remote and part of unique ice hotel you have to pay the premium to enjoy the meal. The Homestead on the other hand is slightly less expensive, if you are there for few days I would recommend you try this one as well. Anyway on our first night we decided to treat our selves to the posh Ice hotel restaurant. Chris and I ordered reindeer steak for mains and Vipul ordered the only vegetarian option that was on menu. The steak cost us about £60 each and it was no bigger than a cheese slice and almost as think as 4 cheese slices put together. What Vipul got was half butternut squash boiled with no seasoning or anything on the side whatsoever.  No doubt he couldn't finish that. Our steak was delicious but the portion was even smaller than a starter. We were still starving after the meal. So we decided to go on this famous walk looking for any other not so posh restaurants.
The Walk
It was about just after 9PM, it was snowing a lot and we went in search of more food. It was dark, it was cold, and it was just us 3 walking on the path hoping we will find something. Of course we were wrong, on the way we went past a beautiful church, took some photos. We could hear huskies (Husky Dogs) in the distance. We were worried in case we get attacked by them. We then saw a figure in the distance, we were already worried about the huskies and kept imagining it was a husky dog. We didn't want to walk any further in case we get attacked. Chris who really wanted to eat something said lets try it anyway, he said if it was a husky dog it should move, it hasn't moved for last 5 minutes while we have been staring at it. So we decided to go further and investigate. During the entire walk Chris had already slipped about 5 times and fallen on the cold snow blaming his boots. As we went further we started getting more and more apprehensive. Finally we could see that the alleged husky was in fact a post-box. So that problem solved. We could then see a light in the distance and that is how we discovered the Homestead restaurant. Still part of Ice hotel but bit further. It was bit too late to order food but the pretty lady there booked us for dinner for the next day. So we headed back to our hotel, and we never got attacked my any dogs or reindeers or moose.
The Dessert
Once at the Hotel we went to a small snack restaurant in the reception area and treated ourselves to some muffins. We stayed there for a while playing chess until midnight and then around midnight went to our warm Kamos rooms for a well deserved rest.
The Ice Bar

The next day we got up and went for our day activities outside Kiruna. More about that in my next post. We got back in the evening and checked into our ice rooms. We got our room numbers, didn't actually go inside the room yet as you have to get changed etc. before you finally go into your room. We decided to spend few hours at the ice bar. We had few drinks (Mocktails for me) which were served in ice glass. Nice music playing, I got two left feet anyway but even if you are a good dancer you really can't dance on the slippery ice surfaces there. For those who were getting pissed it was a good excuse to blame it on the icy surface if they ended up on the floor.
The night at the Icehotel
We got changed, stripped down to single layer of clothing and did a runner to the ice room. It was dimly lit. The room was beautiful with a double bed and a single bed and an ice chair. I went to the terrace for a bit. Chirs and Vipul followed me to the terrace. There were few breaks in the clouds and we thought it might give us a good chance to see the auroras if they are out. We thought we saw some that night but were not entirely convinced if those were the Auroras. Close to mid night we went to our rooms. I got into my sleeping bag and enjoyed the fantastic experience of sleeping on the ice. Since your face is exposed you could feel icicles forming around your nostrils from breathing out warm air. Anyway, we all survived and the next day were given a certificate for surviving the whole night in the ice room. There are some who book warm room in addition in case they are not able to last in the cold room.

Icehotel FAQs
How many rooms does ICEHOTEL have?
This varies from year to year. Usually around 65 rooms divided into deluxe suits, art suites, ice rooms, snow rooms and group rooms.
How much snow and ice is used to build ICEHOTEL?
About 30,000 m3 of snice and about 1,000 tonnes of ice.
What is snice?
Snice (snow and ice) has two components: Calculated amount of water from the Torne River, and air. The snice is used to build ICEHOTEL. It reflects the sun rays and protects the ice inside the hotel from melting. The snice has a higher density than natural snow and therefore insulates better and melts slower.
How many people are involved in building ICEHOTEL?
More than 50 people are involved in the construction of ICEHOTEL. At the end of November the artists arrive from all over the world. This means a total of about 100 people.
When does the Torne River begin to freeze and when does the ICEHOTEL ice harvesting begin?
The river freezes over in the middle or end of October and grows thick up until the end of March. During the winter months, the area where the ice is harvested is maintained, regularly clearing away the snow.
Is there an Ice Church at ICEHOTEL and can couples get married there?
Yes, the Ice Church next to the ICEHOTEL opens every year on 25 December. On this day it is formally handed over to the Swedish Church. Couples from all over the world come to Jukkasjärvi to get married. Children from near and far are baptized here. Couples that are already married can renew their vows in the church.
How many weddings are held in the ice chapel each year?
More than 100 wedding ceremonies are held every year.
What is the temperature inside the IceHotel?
It never gets cooler than -8. Irrespective of outside temperatures which can get to as low as -40, the temperature inside the hotel is constant -5 to -8. This is because of the insulation that ice provides. 

Friday 9 October 2015

Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights

Northern lights captured at Abisko
Northern Lights Captured at Abisko - March 2014

It was all over the news today (08-10-2015) - Spectacular Northern lights display in Scotland and parts of Northern England. I thought I will use the opportunity to write my next post and about my experience when I went aurora hunting in 2014. An experience I will cherish throughout my lifetime. People often ask me what has been my best travel experience so far, and I always struggle to answer. Each place is so unique. However I always say that the trip to Arctic always stands out, and I will tell you why, keep reading :).

I started thinking about this trip way back in 2009, and no, I have not been planning it since then, I was just waiting for the right opportunity. Is there such thing called right opportunity to view the Northern Lights? To be perfectly honest they are very temperamental. It is nature after all, it has its own mind. Despite all the modern equipment and advancements in science and technology it is not as easy as predicting the weather on our planet.

Why 2014? Out of the many factors that I took into considerations Solar Maximum (also called Solar Max) was one of them. This is a cycle that sun goes through every 11 years. Basically a sunspot cycle when solar activity is highest and sunspots are most abundant. Between 2012 to 2015 is the period when these activities will be at it's peak. That was one of the reasons why I decided to go in 2014. There were several other factors that I looked into and I will go through them now. But before that let us understand this activity in detail. I have complied a list of FAQ's for the benefit of all of us nature enthusiasts out there.

What are Northern Lights?
In simple terms, when magnetically charged particles from the sun (or the sun spots) are bombarded towards the earth, eventually they enter the earth's atmosphere and interact with the gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere. This causes the glow. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. Although mainly green produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth, there have been other shades of auroras such as red, blue or purple-red.

Why are they called Northern Lights?
Simply because they occur in the northern hemisphere primarily near the areas closer to north pole.  

Why Aurora Borealis?
'Aurora borealis', the lights of the northern hemisphere, means 'dawn of the north'. Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn.

Does it have to be below freezing for the northern lights to appear?
No. Cold temperatures have nothing to do with the occurrence of  Northern Lights. I was in Iceland last summer, there were spotless clear skies, and I said to one of the locals if lucky we might be able to see the Northern Lights tonight. I said to her the kP index is really high today as well (More on kP index later). She said to me, "no you can't tonight, its not cold enough". I didn't say anything then as I didn't really want to upset the local :). Anyway just to reiterate temperatures have got nothing to do with the appearance of the northern lights. You need clear and extremely dark skies with no light pollution what so ever, and because these activities happen near the polar region (which happen to be always cold) and you get dark skies only in winter that's why people have the misconception that it has to be cold. In Polar region even at midnight there is still twilight during summer and even if the lights show up you miss them because its not dark enough. However people have spotted them as early as August in some regions.

Where is the best place to see the northern lights?
To see the celestial disco in its full glory, you will have to head north towards the Arctic, above latitude 60 degrees at the least.The snowy wilds of Canada and Alaska are fine viewing spots, but for most of us it is more affordable, and convenient, to fly to Iceland or northern Scandinavia, commonly known as Lapland. Here it is possible to see the lights from late September to early April, with October to November and February to March considered optimum periods. I saw them at north of Sweden about 120 miles away from arctic circle place called Abisko. 

Is there such thing called Southern Lights?
Of course there is. Similar activities happen around the southern pole. And around southern winter (May to August) time is best suited for that. However most of the display that happens near the southern pole is restricted for the penguins. Cost and remoteness to get near the southern pole are the major factors why they are not so popular. And the other name for it is Aurora Australis

Any guidelines on what to pack for Northern Lights trip?
Anything and everything warm.
Thermal Wear
Woolen Socks – few pairs to form a layer
Thick combat trousers
Proper Snow Walking Waterproof Boots
Thick Waterproof Jacket
Sun Glasses - Not to see the Northern lights of course, they are very useful during the day. Even if its not sunny you can see lot of glare from a total whiteout everywhere.
Sunscreen - Again it might sound funny but if you do get a sunny day your exposed skin does get badly burnt mainly because you don't realise due sub zero temperatures, and the reflection from the snow adds to the intensity. The UV percentage at these regions is very high.
Camera + Remote control (Very handy, you don't have to take your gloves off all the time). As far as camera I will seriously recommend decent SLR if your intention is to capture Northern Lights.
Tripod - Absolutely essential for capturing the northern lights
Medicines - Mainly for Common Cold, Nasal drops, First Aid Kit

What other activities can be done during the day as the northern light activity is only visible when it is completely dark?
That's what I tell everybody who ask me for advice about booking a holiday like this. I say to them, always treat Northern Lights as bonus. Plan your holiday such that if you see them count yourself among the lucky ones, if not don't be disappointed there is always next time. I will give you some tips later on maximising your chances of seeing the them but despite all that remember it is nature after all, it's not in your hand.
There are lots of other activities you could plan. I did husky dog sledding, snow mobiling, stayed at the ice hotel, saw the fantastic themed rooms made of ice, ice sculptures, visited the ice bar, did some ice fishing. I will go through the above activities is a separate blog and how to book them. But yes no matter what part of the world you go to see them - whether its Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Alaska or Canada, you will find loads of other activities to do. I stayed at Ice Hotel in Kiruna but in Finland they have igloos with glass top so you can lie down in your bed looking at the lights should they occur. Some organise dinner in glass restaurants. Some have alarm systems so you could sleep until the Aurora alarm comes on. The longer your trip more chance you give yourself to see the lights.

How did I prepare myself for this and where did I go to see them?
I saw them in Abisko - Northen Sweden - 120 Miles North of Arctic Circle.

1. As I said, the first thing I did was waited for Solar Max, you don't have to but since I knew I was only few years away from it since I started planning I thought I might as well.

2. While I was researching about the best place to go, a friend of mine suggested Abisko. A natural occurrence in the behaviour of the prevailing winds in the area means that cloud rarely forms, creating ideal conditions for auroral appearances. This anomaly in cloud formation also makes Abisko one of the driest places in Sweden. The Abisko sky station is at the summit of the mountain and strategically placed between valleys where there is very low precipitation and hence low cloud formation, and the continuous wind keeps blowing the cloud away so even if there are clouds you get intervals of cloud free skies. You also take a chair lift to the top of the mountain where there have the aurora sky station. Since you are that high, the likelihood is you are above most of the low clouds.

3. Abisko itself is very remote and the mountain is in total wilderness, therefore there is no light pollution whatsoever. 

4. I planned my activity around new moon so there was no moon in the sky making the sky even darker. 

5. I downloaded an app on my iPhone that forecasts the Auroras. It's called "Aurora Fcst". I will highly recommend it. I am sure there is an Android version as well. It is very accurate. It shows the geomagnetic activity on the sun and the most important kP index. Higher the kP index better the chance for you to see the auroral activity. If you are there for few days and you notice that the kP index for a particular day is high then make sure you stay up late provided there are clear skies because the chances are you will see them.
More about kP Index -
It is a scale of numbers between 0 – 9 known as the planetary index. Using this scale, it is easy to determine what kp number you need to have a chance of seeing auroras where you are. So look on the map, have a look which line and which corresponding kp number are on top of or just above your location.

The kp numbers start at 0 and as the geomagnetic (aurora) strength increases, so too does the kp number. So kp 0 being a very weak or none existent aurora, right through to 9 being a major geomagnetic storm with auroras likely in France and even Northern Spain.

6. Kept my fingers crossed (I am not superstitious but after all those efforts didn't want to take a chance). And believe me I could hardly feel my fingers. It was almost -20 with wind-chill. 

7. After about an hour or so what we saw is something I cannot describe in words. The number one natural wonder in the world, totally worth all those biting cold winds, slippery snow surfaces, numb fingers to the extent where I thought I was going to get frost bites.

Here are some of the photos although photos won't do justice to what you see while you are there -

How to capture Northern Lights on camera?
1. A sturdy tripod. This is essential.

2. Wide-angle lenses. Dedicated wide-angle lenses (like Nikon's 10-24mm DX lens) capture the widest amount of sky, but even a standard lens (like the 24-70mm FX lens) is "wide enough" for most.

3. Fully charged batteries. -20 degree temperatures can zap a battery in no time, so make sure you're at 100 percent before leaving your hotel. If you have spares, bring them!

4. Flexible gloves. You'll need to be able to tweak your camera settings, so make sure you wear gloves that allow you that luxury.

5. A remote shutter. This is optional, but having a remote to activate each shot means less opportunity for blur in long exposure shots. At those extreme temperatures my remote shutter release button stopped working. So I put my shutter release on long delays and pressed the shutter button myself while the camera was on tripod.

6. A flashlight / headlamp. This is super useful for lighting up the buttons on your camera so you can tweak settings in the dark of the night. But please use only when you really need it, you don't want to create any light pollution otherwise I can guarantee you won't be very popular up there.

7. And please don't use flash on the camera, it's not as if it is going to reach all the way to the stars anyway. And moreover it completely ruins the experience of those who are there to see the northern lights who keep seeing light flashing on your camera instead.

So, that's about it as far as kit. Now, let's talk settings:

1. Widen your lenses as far as they'll go -- you want a vast image, and having the ground / surrounding buildings / waterfront visible on the lower portion of the shot provides outstanding scale and context.

2. Place your DSLR in full manual mode; you'll want total control over every single aspect of these shots.

3. Switch lens to manual mode, and dial your focus ring to Infinity.

4. Lower your aperture as far down as it'll go. I'm talking f/2.8, f/3.5, etc. Whatever your lens will stop down to.

5. Lower your ISO between 200 - 1000. This varies greatly depending on the camera, so you'll need to start at 200 and raise it notch by notch if your shots are simply too dark.

6. Adjust your shutter speed to 30 seconds. If your camera will only go to 20 or 25 seconds, you can probably make that work as well. Those with a remote shutter can use "Bulb" mode for even longer exposure shots, but remember, the longer you leave that shutter open, the lower your ISO needs to go (and / or higher your aperture value needs to be) to prevent too much light from "whiting out" the shot.

7. Set your file capture type to RAW! This is an extremely vital step. Feel free to shoot in RAW + JPEG if you want both, but RAW files grab the rich blackness of the sky far better than JPEG will.

8. Align your shot on the tripod. Peek through the viewfinder and make sure you're getting the angle you want; I'd recommend various portions of the sky to add some variety.

9. Gently press the shutter button, and remain still. Even the slightest shaking of the ground could introduce unwanted blur into your shots, so it's important to remain still as the long exposure takes place. You can dodge this by using a remote shutter from a distance away.

10. Evaluate your results. If it's too dark, bump the ISO value higher or lengthen the exposure time (i.e. shutter speed) beyond 30 seconds. If it's too light, raise the aperture value a notch or two or bump your ISO value closer to 0. You could also slow the exposure, but I'd use that as a last resort.

The only other major advice I have is to shoot a lot. A whole lot. You aren't guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, so if they come out, you need to be quick in your setup procedure and continually fire shots in hopes of grabbing a handful of keepers. You also cannot assume that you have "one great shot" based on what your see on your DSLR's LCD. Those are often misleading, and can hide subtle amounts of blur that'll show up later. Take as many shots as you can stand to take, as each one is guaranteed to be somewhat different than the last. I'd also recommend a lot of patience, and if you don't see them on your first night out, try again. Trust me, it's totally worth the effort.

Aurora watch subscription -
I have also subscribed to They send you email alerts when high auroral activity is detected. I got one for the display that happened in Scotland and Northern England on Wednesday but unfortunately I live too far South to see anything.

Links to booking hotel -
If you are going to book the one in Abisko use the booking link right at the bottom of this page and search for Abisko Mountain Lodge.