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.

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