Climbed a Mountain and I Turned Around: My Saana Saga

View of Malla and Kilpisjarvi Lake from Saana

Last Friday I decided to walk up Saana Fell, the mountain that overlooks the Kilpisjarvi Biological Station, where I am staying as an artist in residence. Local artist Leena* had told me the view was amazing from the top, and that there were stairs up the side. It’s only 4 kilometers, she said. How hard could that be? I walk all the time!

So I set out, in my favorite yoga pants and my snow boots from Marshalls. I didn’t take any food or water because I had just had breakfast and I thought it would only take about an hour and half to get to the top. Yes, I am kind of stupid.

1. The walk

I started out from the Kilpsjarvi camping center, walking along a gently upward-sloping path with wooden walkways over the slippery bits. I can do this, I thought. 4 km, piece of cake. After all, I had walked to the border of Norway two days before, a much longer trek. After walking uphill for what felt like three million years, I came to a sign that said Saana, 3.5 km. Shit.

2. The Stairs

stairs up
That’s a lot of stairs

At first I was happy to see the stairs up the side of the mountain. Then, about 10 minutes later, I was really glad I was doing this alone, so nobody had to see me stop every 20 stairs to catch my breath. Then every fifteen. Then whenever I damn well felt like it. I stopped to examine every interesting lichen I saw. I ate some snow. About halfway up the stairs my phone dinged with a message from T-Mobile welcoming me to Finland. At the top of the stairs there was a nice wooden platform with a bench, where I gratefully sat and waited for my heart rate to return to normal.

3. The Here We Go!

Arctic Hare was here

At this point I realized that the stairs did not, in fact, go all the way to the summit. But I had come a long way, and I was determined. This was the “here we go” portion of the climb, when I was full of confidence. The sun was up, the view was stunning, and I was strong and capable. There were painted sticks to mark the path, so I followed them. I saw one other set of human footprints, but no other people. In fact, I never saw another living creature the whole time, only the prints of a few arctic hares and birds. I am a real Viking now, I thought.

4. The AYFKM

Oh dear

The “here we go” leg of the journey turned out to be significantly shorter than the “are you fucking kidding me” leg. The bright sunshine had melted some of the snow, turning many of the rocks icy. I slid around a lot. There were no more footprints. For some reason I was particularly terrified by the idea of falling and breaking my teeth on a rock, hundreds of miles from a dentist. I focused on keeping my mouth tightly shut, walking in the areas where I could see shrubs sticking up through the snow, and saying “fuck” a lot.

5. The Hey, This Isn’t So Bad

Piece of Cake
Piece of Cake

Then I got to a kind of plateau where there was lots of soft snow that was easy to walk through. Hey, this isn’t so bad! That lasted for about 7 minutes.

6. The AYFKM, Part II

Then the AYFKM part started again, with slippery rocks and a very steep uphill grade. I could see the white stick marking the summit, but it was still a long way off. I checked the time and discovered that I had been out for over two and a half hours. I began thinking, for the first time, about how hard it might be to get back down the mountain. (See above, “I am kind of stupid”)

I tried some more affirmations of the “you can do it” type, followed by some of the “you can’t quit now, you wuss” variety. But after looking back down and discovering that I could not even see where the stairs started, I reluctantly decided to stop short of the summit.

7. The Turning Point

One of the times I fell
Me, ass over teakettle

I beat myself up a little over turning back. (Old! Fat! Weak!) Then Saana took over and started beating me up much more efficiently. The melted and re-frozen surface was treacherous. I lost track of how many times I fell down. Once, after I went down especially hard with my arms bent awkwardly behind me, I took a break to lie there for a while and have a little cry. Then I got back up again, because a) I was a Viking now and b) I had no alternative. I slid on my ass down a few steep parts, which, although uncomfortable, seemed preferable to taking them face-first.

8. The Stairs Again

I am the Stair Master!

I have never been so happy to see a ridiculously long, steep set of snow–covered stairs than on the trip back down Saana. I didn’t exactly skip down, but I took them at a good clip. There were many more sets of human footprints on them than when I came up. My sense of triumph came surging back, as I realized that others had climbed up Saana today, but none had made it as far as me.

9. The Walk (with humans)

By the time I reached the wooden walkways, I was starving and my legs were shaking. I had been walking (and climbing, sliding, and falling) for four hours. I saw people on the walkway, young Nordic types with impressive hiking gear. I inwardly scoffed at them, setting out in mid-afternoon for an easy stroll. They undoubtedly saw a tired, chubby, middle aged American in snow boots and a puffy coat, and not the mountain warrior I had become. As I slowly wobbled my way along the main road back to the biological station, I hummed The Ride of the Valkyries under my breath.


*Leena has been living in Lapland for 15 years, 3 km from the road, with her husband, who is a Sami reindeer herder. I should never listen to Leena.

Art of Science, Arctic Edition: Getting Here


It’s a long way to Kilpisjärvi. This is essentially true wherever you start. In my case, I left Washington, DC about 5pm on Friday and arrived in Kilpisjärvi about the same time on Sunday, having traveled by plane, train, bus and car. At each stage of the journey, I left my usual mode of life farther behind.


The airplane part of the trip was only noteworthy for the huge contrast in the style of airport security between the Nordic countries and the United States. Last week, when I traveled to Chicago for the Society for Neuroscience meeting, I was patted down, swabbed for bomb residue and questioned by TSA agents at both BWI and O’Hare. In transit at Reykjavik, by contrast, the immigration guy took a quick glance at my passport photo, decided it was probably me, and nodded me on. After I retrieved my bag in Helsinki, I simply walked through the door marked “nothing to declare”.  I will think wistfully of this experience every time I hear someone say that Obama wants to turn the US into Europe.

From Helsinki airport, you can take a subway train right into the center of town. But first you have to descend deep into the bowels of the earth, on no fewer than four escalators. (This is probably to avoid disturbing the trolls. Finland is apparently full of trolls, and not the internet kind.) Once in town, I met some twitter friends, Janina and Tommi, who took me for lunch and showed me the beautiful library at The University of Helsinki.

Helsinki University Library

Then it was time to get on the overnight train to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. The train is very comfortable, with two decks of berths with cute little bunk beds. In the summer, the view from the top is probably beautiful, but because it gets dark early in the autumn, I couldn’t see much.

My bed on the overnight train to Rovaniemi
My bed on the overnight train to Rovaniemi

On the train, my first Stupid Foreigner Problem (SFP) struck. The train made many stops, but there were no station announcements, so as not to wake sleeping passengers. Since the route continued beyond Rovaniemi, how would I know where to get off? I had also cleverly planned my trip to coincide with the very day that clocks go back in Finland for daylight saving, complicating the issue of arrival time. Fortunately, the train had great WiFi (since 2010, Finland has classified internet access as a legal right), so I was able to tell from Google Maps when we were arriving in Rovaniemi and get myself safely off the train.

Rovaniemi is supposed to be the true home of Santa Claus, and has a theme park devoted to all things Santa.   On this particular Sunday morning, however, it was gray and rainy and everything was closed, so I hopped on the bus to Kilpisjärvi without regret. There were four passengers. After two hours or so, the other three got off, and I continued to Kilpisjärvi alone with the friendly bus driver.

We stopped for a lunch break in Muonio, where I had been advised to eat in the local Thai restaurant. As Muonio is basically a one-intersection town, it was easy to find. Alas, on a rainy Sunday in the off-season, the cook had not prepared any Thai food, so the other customers (both of them) and I made do with tea and pastries, which we ate to the discordant accompaniment of loud Asian pop music. The adjoining visitor center and gift shop offered reindeer hides for 149 Euros.

The visitor center at the Thai restaurant in Muoni shows the distance to Bangkok and Kilpisjarvi
The visitor center at the Thai restaurant in Muonio shows the distance to Bangkok and Kilpisjarvi

I saw my first small herd of reindeer almost immediately outside Rovaniemi! Then some more. Then a couple more reindeer. Then a few more reindeer crossing the road. The driver, who called reindeer “the local mosquitoes,” told me there are 8,000 reindeer vs. vehicle accidents a year in Lapland. Apparently reindeer are not very smart.

The driver told me that the local Sami people use every part of the reindeer – not just the meat and hides, but also the bones and antlers, from which they make tools. He said that they even grind up the hooves for medicine.

“What kind of medicine?”

“Medicine for men. You understand?”

I understood, but even so, he clarified further. “It makes the stick stand up!”

I hadn’t even arrived in Kilpisjärvi yet, and I had already learned so much.

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