Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Death Valley

Death Valley, 5am. My skis have dislodged a layer of sand. The flow continues long after I have stopped. But at the moment fresh rattlesnake tracks in front of me scare me more than possible sand avalanches. My imagination races ahead. Perhaps I'd be lucky and the snake would sink its teeth onto my ski boots. Still, the idea of a fight with a twisting snake is repulsive. 

I can see myself grabbing the snake with hands, as it would try to loosen its teeth. Would the snake be slimy? How strong is it? Could it try to wrap itself around my legs? Body? Would the tail rattle in front my eyes? Or maybe the snake would just bite again, this time on my flesh. In the darkness, far away from civilisation it is easy to let fear control your mind. And while I am not sure if the tracks are snake tracks, there are rattlesnakes here. And I am here at their best time of the day, early in the morning. Before it gets too hot. At a spot where few tourists will wander into. The fears are too close to reality. If anything, I have been too optimistic, as the snakes would surely not miss the first bite.

I turn my skis towards the side, and decide not to ski too close to the bushes at the bottom of the slope. The snakes will not hide under the sand. Or do they? I try to run up the sand hill for safety, but the soft sand is difficult to climb. My boots sink in, and the sand falls down a bit on every step.

But eventually I get back to the dune ridge. And the sun is starting to rise, making the entire scenery red. It is also getting warmer, but not yet uncomfortably so. It is strange how light and temperature affect the state of your mind. My fears are starting to go away. I remember why I take these trips. To ski, of course, but not only that. On many trips the first morning light is the most memorable moment.

The view over the dunes is one of the most beautiful sceneries I have seen, even if I am not on a high mountain this time. This may in fact be the lowest place that I have skied at. The area is below sea level, although the top of the dunes probably raise slightly above sea level. This is also the hottest place that I have skied at, at least if I were to stay here for the day. The highest measured temperature in the world has been measured nearby, 56.7 degrees Celsius. Hikers are not recommended to be out on the desert after 10am.

I am at the Mesquite Flats sand dunes, near Stowepipe Wells, in the Death Valley National Park. There are plenty of stories of skiing in various dunes in Death Valley, but I have not found any stories about Mesquite Flats dunes. Only snow- or sand-boarding. Is this a possible first descent? I do not know.

I ski two runs. The first one is on the backside of the dunes, a long and steep run. But since I worry about the slides, I ski to the side and do not make more than a couple of turns. Getting stuck in the sand would be fatal here, in a place where the tourists do not usually come.

My other run is less steep, on the front side of the dunes. But it is easier to ski, and there are no dangers. I get up to some speed, and the skiing is fun. But I do not have enough speed to lose for making a turn. Interestingly, someone mentioned furniture wax would make skis slide better on sand. This may be something to try later, but I would not want to do that in this pristine environment.

Once I reach the bottom, I sit down, change into my regular boots, and take a drink. I realise that my backpack is far too heavy for this trip. In addition to the boots I have 3 litres of drinks with me. I only need half a litre, but the rest is for safety.

I stayed at the Stowepipe Wells Village, a nice but very basic hotel in Stowepipe Wells. Complete with a breakfast place, a saloon, and a swimming pool. And meagre Internet connectivity. Recommended for Death Valley trips!

The Death Valley can be easiest reached from Las Vegas. I flew in, rented a car, and drove two hours to get to the national park. The odd thing with Las Vegas, however, are those numerous slot machines that sit right at the gate upon your arrival. You can also find gambling between luggage carousels.

Sweating at the Death Valley:

Photos and videos (c) 2014 by Jari Arkko. Tämä blog löytyy myös suomeksi.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


I am usually dislike anything related to military, but I wanted to share a video where a local military surplus store is calling for Arnold Schwarzenegger to visit them. Varusteleka, is after all, the supplier of Planetskier's gas masks for the volcano trips.

Photos (c) 2013 by Jari Arkko. Video by Varusteleka.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Go Scotland!

Go Scotland! Great place, great people, and possibly soon a new, independent country. Vote wisely in today's elections!

I believe independence would be a good thing. Also, in addition to all the other benefits of being your own country, you would automatically add one to my list of skied countries, since I skied in Edinburgh two years ago.

The flag picture is from wikipedia and is in the public domain.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ice Bucket Challenge

In this week's episode of the Planetskier I participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge. Research on ALS and other serious diseases is very, very important. Please do all you can to support such research, for instance by donating ALSheart disease, or cancer research. And I would like to publicly thank those of my friends who have donated and who have taken the challenge, such as Ray and John. Thank you.

But I also want to say that most people are doing this challenge the wrong way. It should be an ice bucket challenge. See here how it is done right:

Photos and videos (c) 2014 by Jari Arkko and Olli Arkko

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lost World

The sun is still bright, but the environment is getting strange. Fog is engulfing us. Plants are starting to look pre-historic. And I'm hanging from a 100 meter rope, above the Lost World, a cave system in Waitomo, New Zealand. And it is starting to look like my landing spot is in the river at the bottom of the cave.

Luckily, I manage to land on the riverbank. And the whole team is now down here, our legs numb from hanging on in tight harnesses for the long descent. And maybe from us being a bit tense, too. The descent was scary, while I climb a bit I rarely practice rappeling. And Tero and Olli have never done it. 

Our descent began on a platform built at the entrance of the cave. The whole group descends at the same time and the guides have set up ropes and belay systems where we can do this safely. Each of us have our own braking device, but we are also connected to the guide.

On the way down we pass through huge open spaces and narrower canyon parts where we can touch the walls on our sides. The rock walls are covered with green vegetation in the moist environment.

But the descent is nothing compared to the lost world we find at the bottom. Some sunshine travels even this far, and a large green "valley" has grown around the river, hidden from outsiders. There were already pre-historic plants in the neighbourhood of the cave. But the ones here, in the foggy valley, are out of this world.

We continue on foot, until the large open space turns into high-altitude ledges and narrow tunnels through the rock. We clip ourselves into safety ropes, and explore the wonderful cave. 

After exploring for a while, we turn our lights off and let our eyes get used to the darkness. When we look up, we see an underground night sky, the cave roof being covered with small green lights. Some caves in New Zealand host glowworms that need to generate their own light. The worms begin their life as worms, but eventually transform into flying insects. But at that stage they can no longer digest anything, and will only live for a couple of days. In the dark cave the light makes it easier to find a mate to produce offspring. 

Our route continues upwards in the cave. The 100 meter descent must be met by an equal amount of climbing to get back. The cave has multiple entrances, and some of them allow some light to shine through to the cave. Halfway on our path back we reach a metal ladder. These are not just any ladders. They are 30 meter high. Fortunately, we continue to be belayed by rope through the climb.

I start my climb with speed, because I want to show my supposedly good climbing condition. But 30 meters is a lot to climb, even on good ladders. Particularly when your hands are starting to slip from the wet dirt that previous climbers have left on the ladder. I have to stop and rest in the middle of the climb. Finally, I reach the top and the team continues the journey forward. We still keep clipping ourselves to the fixed security ropes, in a manner familiar to those who have climbed via ferrata routes. Our journey continues on a ledge with a 40-50 meter drop. 

And finally we reach the surface after four hours of caving. We were in New Zealand to ski, but the weather was bad on the early days of our trip. And the airline had, perhaps predictably, lost all our skis. So we were desperate to find something else to do. The ski areas were closed, but a day that begins with a 100 meter rappel can not be all bad!

Waitomo is in the middle of the north island of New Zealand, a couple of hours drive from the volcanoes and ski areas of the Tongariro National Park. The Lost World tour was organised by Waitomo Adventures (who I can wholeheartedly recommend). Although later I felt sorry that we had not taken the seven hour "wet" tour in the cave. That tour would have required us to go in our swimming suits to the cold water flowing in the cave river. Including a jump down an underground waterfall!

The pictures in this blog article are partially taken by the guides and the guide company. On the tour itself the use of cameras and video equipment was forbidden. As a result, the above video has only a few clips taken secretly with my GoPro :-)

The three musketeers have arrived and are marching on:


Green depths of the cave:

Preparations and Surroundings

Pick your boots from here:

The Waitomo area is full of sinkholes like this:

Vegetation looks pre-historic even outside the cave:

Equipment practice before going into the cave:

A leaf, shot from the bottom of the cave:


Fortunately, after a hard day of caving, our hotel (Chateau Tongariro) offered relaxation in the sauna and the pool. This luxurious hotel has been built in the 1920s, but has perhaps seen its best days. The pool area provided a claustrophobic experience suitable for us newly educated cavers:

Photos and videos (c) 2014 by Jari Arkko, Olli Arkko, Tero Kivinen, and Waitomo Adventures. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Capitol Hill

Today we are visiting Washington DC, and trying out a Planetskier recipe: take a grass slope, two miniskis, ice cubes from the hotel ice dispenser, and mix them together. And there we have, another ski destination!

This was my first descent in Washington DC, and the 21st state or district in North America that I have skied in. My family vacation in the museums of New York and Washington was not quite as mountain-focused as I would have wanted, but I did find some skiing, eventually!

I was a bit nervous about the possibility of the security in the National Mall getting too interested in my ski exercise near the congress. But fortunately they were relaxed and did not pay any attention. Some tourists even took a few photos of what I was doing.

And I was surprised by the amount of ice cubes one can get in few seconds from a hotel ice machine. I've never used those machines before, but clearly they are useful! In the next trip I will keep this option in mind, and consider them as a source of even larger amounts of ice. Now I used one bag, but it would probably have been easy to acquire much more.

I also happened to be in DC for the July 4th fireworks, which were great:

And I was in New York to witness the incoming storm. Those skyscrapers are a great place for storm watching:

Photos and videos (c) 2014 by Jari Arkko. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On the Beach

Midsummer in Gotland, Sweden. Perfect place for boating, hanging out on the sand beach, swimming, as well as a little bit of climbing. And all this underground!

Gotland is a great vacation destination, but when the others were going through medieval church ruins for the third day, I felt I needed to do something else. Lummelundagrottan is Sweden's 2nd longest cave, and stretches for four kilometres. Or possibly more, as the exploration continues. The cave is 15 kilometres north of Visby, the main city in Gotland, and also near the airport. The largest open spaces of the cave were discovered in the 1950s by three school kids, Örjan, Percy, and Lars.

Today, the stairs lead to those large spaces, and the tourists can walk through the cave along paved pathways. The cave gets over 100 000 visitors every year. But there is another, a more interesting way to enter the cave - even for us who are interested in trying out caving but have no experience to do it on our own. An adventure group takes ten wannabe explorers into the cave along with two guides.

One of the branches of the cave system is closed, and we can not enter that. Even cave researchers get to visit that part of the cave for only a week in a year. The adventure group explores another branch for about half a kilometre into the cave. Going beyond this would require crossing a "water lock", i.e., would require diving. Not for us!

The route that we can take begins on small boats. They are easy to manoeuvre into the cave, as we can grab hold of rocks in the tunnel walls and pull ourselves forward. But then the going gets a bit tougher. The cave ceiling drops so low that we have to lean low - and lean to different directions to avoid capsizing the boat. Once we reach the end of the boat trip, we climb over rocks, and continue our journey on foot, wading through partially water-filled tunnels, climbing, and even crawling.

The cave was partially what I expected: tight spaces, water, crawling. But I was totally blown away by the surprising elements. The underground sand beaches. The beauty of large tunnels. The water that shines in bright green colours in the light of our headlamps.

And I did not expect clay. I imagined the cave would be rock, clean rock. But many parts of the Lummelunda cave are covered in clay. The crawling and climbing in these areas turns our clothes and hands thoroughly dirty. My fellow cave-men drew war paintings on their faces.

And the water. Wading through the deep water in watertight pants was surprisingly different from just wading through water in your swimsuit, as the pressure is feels stronger. My mind raced through the stories of cave diving, and I kept being afraid of the holes to other parts of the cave. The holes were hiding somewhere under our feet, under the water.

An interesting part of the trip was navigating in complete darkness, as we turned our lights off for a moment. This was surprisingly difficult, not to mention scary. The guides also told us a story about a mouse they had seen in one of the early tours, only to find the mouse half-eaten when returning from their tour. Is there a large carnivore hiding somewhere in the cave... true or not? I do not know.

We used wade-fishing pants, high enough to reach our armpits. But they were not high enough to protect us completely from the water, as it was too deep in places. In a couple of points we had to either jump a few meters or swim. This would not have been such an issue, but doing that while carrying two cameras was a challenge for me. In some other points we held on to rocks on the tunnel walls to keep ourselves afloat. In another case we had to move on our bottoms along a small underwater ledge in the tunnel wall.

The cameras survived, albeit a bit dirty from all that clay. But most of us had taken in some water during the trip. The advice from our guides was that if water starts pouring to our pants, there is no point in raising the issue - we better keep going and pass the difficult point. And the organisers have a system for drying the pants :-)

A tourist tour into the Lummelunda cave costs 130 SEK or about 13 €. The adventure tour costs 800 SEK or about 80 €.

Photos and videos (c) 2014 by Jari Arkko. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.