In High Places
By: Burton A. Falk
The high point of Finland is a modest 4,355' peak, spelled, depending on the map you're reading, Haiti, Haltia or Haldi. It lies in Lapland, 190 miles north of the Arctic Circle, at the extreme north of the "Arm of Finland," an area where the boundaries of Finland, Norway and Sweden look as if they were laid out by a demented jig-saw puzzle designer. That Haiti lies in Finland instead of one of its Scandinavian neighbors is about as logical as one of California's gerrymandered electoral districts.
Before leaving the U.S., our group of five spent a good bit of time and effort in attempting to determine the best way to approach Haiti. Studying a map of Finland, especially its 120 mile long, 25 mile wide "arm" which lies squeezed between the northern boundary of Sweden and extreme northern portion of Norway, was the initial and most discouraging step of the process. The peak, it appeared, lay 24 air miles from the tiny settlement of Kilpisjarvi, location of the nearest road. It looked as if we were in for a two or three day backpack. One of our group, however, wrote to the Finnish travel bureau for more information and was soon rewarded with two substantially more palatable alternatives.
First, the travel bureau reported that a hike was indeed possible. "The terrain is very varied and beautyful(sic). And it is not so hard to hike. Another possibility," they continued, "is to go by car fairly near Haiti (about 10-20 km), and then walk." The route they suggested involved driving to a lake, Guolasjarvi, in Norway, and beginning our hike from there. Last, they reported that "aeroplane services* were available, and mentioned two local firms.
A few weeks later, one of the two companies, Polar-Lento OV, responded with a letter of their own: "The most convenient way to go there (Haiti) is to take an airplane. Here is a company, Polar-Flight, which has been operating in the Kilpisjarvi over ten years arranging tours to the fells of the 'Arm of Finland.' The plane can take you to the lake, Pitsusjarvi, which is situated about 10 km south of Haltia. From there you can walk to the top, the way is not difficult to go, you need not to climb. But the journey is worth making. You will see untouched wilderness, the highest fells of Finland and lots of lakes." To us. their letter was a masterpiece of enticement; we booked reservations.
It took us three and a half days to drive from the base of Galdopiggen, Norway's highest peak, to Kilpisjarvi, home of Polar-Lento OV. Upon entering the small resort village, we first checked in at the trailer/office of float plane operation, then, with the help of the company's office manager (besides the pilot, the company's sole employee), we exchanged money and found Holiday Village, our accommodations for the next two evenings. The pleasant two bedroom + loft cabin ($170 U.S. per night for the five of us) was just over a year old, and built to withstand even the fiercest winters. The windows, for instance, were triple paned, and the doors air tight. The building, which was located in a grove of stunted birch trees and was equipped with a dishwasher, a combination washer/dryer and a sauna (correctly pronounced saw-oo-na), all instructions for which were in Finnish. That night on Finnish T.V., we watched a procession of hulking Finns compete in the Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling matches.
Next morning, after a "white" night, during which the sun never completely set, we were up and at 'em early. Since the small float plane could carry only four including the pilot, the five of us had to make two flights from Kilpisjarvi (jarvi means lake in Lapp) to Pitsusjarvi. By the time the second flight arrived at the remote lake, it was 9:30 a.m. Ahead of us, directly up a barren valley to the north, stood Haiti--there would be no route finding problems for us today. We started off along a rocky use trail along the lake shore, soon passing a primitive fisherman's cabin. As we continued up the wide, treeless, grassless valley, the trail became increasingly obscure. Two and a half hours into the hike, reaching the base of the peak, the trail petered out altogether. We rock hopped up the slopes for a half hour or so, clambered up a large patch of snow, and finally, about l2:00 p.m., arrived at the broad summit area, which was covered with a dozen or so tall rock cairns. The largest cairn--one which seemed to be at a slightly lower elevation than the others, held the register, a sequentially-numbered log book. To my astonishment, while signing in, I discovered that I was number 31,378. It seemed improbable that more than thirty thousand people could have climbed this remote pile of rocks. As I sat on the summit, mulling over the perplexing situation, a group of six Finnish climbers materialized from out of nowhere and also signed in. They were members of two families who had hiked into the back country to spend a week fishing for salmon and trout. One of the Finns told me that the ascent of Haiti is a popular cross-country ski trip, and that perhaps even more skiers than hikers reach Halti's summit. Maybe so, but I still have my doubts regarding the total number of summiteers.
Out trip back to the lake and the 4:30 p.m. pickup by the float plane were uneventful. The following day we had an easy drive to Nikkaluokta, Sweden, starting point for the climb of Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest.
To be truthful, fellow climbers, Halti is not much of a mountain (or a fell, as the Finns call it). While standing on its summit you can view several substantially higher and more interesting peaks just across the border in neighboring Norway. To experience the barren beauty of the area is what makes this trip worthwhile, however. As we flew in, for instance, we could look down on the rolling terrain and see the sun reflected off a thousand tarns, streams and seeps; an isolated shack here and there, summer residence for the Lapp families who drive their reindeer north each summer--even an occasional reindeer. This is a remote land; this is a land for those who savor the essentials.
ODDS AND ENDS: The village of Kilpisjarvi has only 108 year round inhabitants. During the mid-winter, it's dark for nearly 24 hours a day. In the spring, however, as the days lengthen, the area becomes a bee-hive of activity for cross country skiers. Courses are laid out all over the countryside, including one popular trip to a monument at the convergence of the boundaries of Finland, Norway and Sweden.
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