An Annual Ski Trip Turned Into a Quest for Survival

Despite their extraordinary wilderness skills, the Finnish couple were in grave danger.

An-Annual-Ski-Trip-Turned-Into-a-Quest-for-SurvivalReader's Digest International Edition

Liisa and Tuomo Peltola step from their bungalow in a forested suburb of Turku, a small city in southwest Finland. It is just before 8 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning at the end of March in 2015, nippy but with the promise of warmer weather to come. They are about to embark on a 1,200-kilometer two-day car trip to the fells of Lapland above the Arctic Circle for their annual four-day ski trip.

The couple check their backpacks: sleeping bags, instant coffee and two water-resistant covers they’ll use at night in the rustic wilderness huts they plan to shelter in. They’ll stop en route for a night and buy food. After attaching their backcountry skis atop their hatchback, they settle down for the two-day drive to just beyond Kilpisja¨rvi, a settlement of Sami, an indigenous people also known as Laplanders. There, they’ll begin their trek.

It’s easy driving, and on occasion, Liisa points out a bird that Tuomo must squint to see, for he has taught her to love birdwatching as much as he does.

“You can see so much farther than me,” he grumbles good-naturedly.

“Yes,” she says happily. “I can.”

There has always been a bit of competition between them, from birdwatching to running and skiing. Both are passionate about orienteering, a sport that requires them to find their way in unfamiliar terrain with a map and compass, and the wilderness is their playing field.

The ski trip in Lapland is one of their favorites, a straightforward trajectory they have done at least five times before: 30 kilometers due east across a fell, a high, mostly barren landscape, with rolling hills, some steep climbs and jagged boulders and rocks. Here, they can be alone in nature, with only the huts—a system of bare bone, sparsely spaced structures—their only contact with civilization.

Married for only four years, they met over half a century ago, when Liisa, now 65 was a shy, tall, talented teen with a thick blonde braid who a decade later would win the women’s world orienteering championship. Tuomo, nearly six years older, with craggy features and a dry sense of humor, was in the same orienteering club, already married, an engineer and maker of maps.

“Back then, I never imagined I would fall in love with you,” remarks Liisa. “I thought you were so technical and dull.”

“In some way, we stored our feelings,” he says.

There were other marriages along the way, and children to raise – Liisa’s three sons, and Tuomo’s son and daughter. On their first ‘date’ about 14 years ago, she thought it was just a walk in the forest. For Tuomo, it was more than that.

“I wanted to kiss you,” he says. And he did. Ten years later, they were married.

By Sunday morning, as they reach their starting point, the wind has picked up to a gale force 72 km an hour and is blowing snow that turns the world white with fat, black clouds overhead. But the weather doesn’t scare them. As orienteers, they’ve dealt with bad weather before.

They shrug on their backpacks, don face masks and goggles, and step into the storm. Tuomo, carrying a creased, much-used map, leads the way. It’s about 4pm, and they plan to reach the first hut around 7pm, before darkness falls.

“At least we can see about 150 meters in front of ourselves,” Liisa says.

Today, their route is to take them to the Lossuja¨rvi wilderness hut, near the border with Norway. It’s just 12 kilometers to the east, beyond a reindeer fence that cuts through the region. The fence, which Sami reindeer herders use to prevent their stock from escaping their herds, will be Liisa and Tuomo’s marker.

Two hours pass before they start going up what they think is their last hill before the hut, still fighting the wind. As if choreographed, they start to sidestep up, digging their ski edges into the hard-packed snow to gain traction. Slowly, they cover several hundred meters; by the time they reach the top, they have been out for nearly three hours.

They can’t see exactly where they are. They only know it isn’t where they are supposed to be: the hut.

“Did we turn around?” they wonder aloud.

Liisa asks Tuomo if his compass is broken.

“Don’t know,” he shrugs. His mobile phone can’t find a signal, either. Maybe it’s the weather, or magnetic fields. Or maybe, like them, it’s just having trouble telling where the sky ends and the ground begins.

“I’m an engineer,” he says. “Sometimes, things work. Sometimes, they don’t.”

They ski for another hour before they stop and camp for the night.

“In the morning, we can figure out where we are when it’s light out again,” Tuomo says.

They scoop out a shallow snow cave, just large enough for them to lay out their sleeping bags. Using one of the waterproof covers used as a liner and the other as a makeshift roof, they have a meal of bread, cheese and bananas, and then burrow into their sleeping bags for the night.

By 8 Monday morning, Liisa has had bread and cheese for breakfast. Tuomo drinks only black coffee because no matter how active he’s going to be, he has learned that eating anything early in the day makes him tired. In his 70th year, vital and fit, he knows he can’t afford to be tired on this trip.

The wind is still blowing hard and the light, flat, with visibility a short 30 meters around them as they start out. Tuomo is convinced they came too far south the day before. They consult the map, which has the length of the reindeer fence and the location of the hut on it, but because they aren’t sure where they are, it isn’t much help.

“We need to go northeast,” Tuomo says.

For about 90 minutes, the two take a chance that they’re going the right way, concentrating on striding, gliding and breathing. Then, just as he had said, the fence rises before them, partially hidden by snow.

“We’re going left and following it!” he calls. Relieved, they set off again.

But they go barely 300 meters when Tuomo starts to feel dizzy. He stops, leaning on his poles for support.

“What’s wrong?” Liisa asks, coming up close behind him.

“I just need to rest,” he says.

Liisa thinks nothing of it. He doesn’t, either. All he needs is a minute or two to catch his breath. They stand there, drinking and silent, until he nods. Liisa takes the lead, hoping her rangy body can provide a windbreak for her husband.

Liisa can hear Tuomo behind her, laboring, the orienteer and engineer who has always been able to do what he sets mind to, stubborn, strong and fearless. They fall into a rhythm: ski for a few minutes, stop for Tuomo to catch his breath, then start again.

Don’t think about Tuomo’s fatigue, Liisa tells herself, sharply. Deal with the task at hand. We can do this.

She thinks back to her time on the national orienteering team, to when she won the championship while pregnant with the oldest of her sons; to when she calmly fought through everything, including morning sickness.

This, she thinks, is just another challenge. Time passes: stride, glide, breathe… All of a sudden, she realizes she can no longer hear Tuomo laboring behind her.

“Tuomo! Tuomo!”

For a few seconds, there’s nothing. Then, a faint human whistle.

She waits for him to catch up.

By 5:30 p.m., they realize that they’ll have to stop again for the night. It’s been a long, hard day.

We should have found the hut by now, Lisa thinks to herself, then says out loud: “We’ll find the hut tomorrow.”

As they settle in for another night in a snow cave, Tuomo is shivering and nauseous.

On Tuesday morning, he’s even sicker but puts on his skis anyway. “It’ll pass,” he says. “We have one task. Just find the hut.”

It’s the same pattern as the day before, start and stop, over and over again, with each stop becoming longer. By now, Liisa is both frustrated and concerned. Could there be something more than exhaustion at play here? A flu, maybe, or an infection?

They ski on.

In the middle of afternoon, Tuomo stops dead.

“Liisa, I need to sleep before going any further,” he says.

Something is clearly wrong, something beyond fatigue.

She’s worried. Sure, he naps every day at home but what if—what if he doesn’t wake up here? She doesn’t finish the thought with its logical conclusion: What if he dies?

Tuomo lies down on one of the liners. After a 20 minute nap, they continue for another couple of hours until around 7 p.m. when he can go no further, although he is convinced the hut is only a kilometer away, directly due north. It’s as if his strong body has been taken over by someone old and frail.

Deal with it, Liisa tells herself fiercely. Gently, she gets him into his sleeping bag, and places a waterproof cover over him. He goes to sleep immediately.

Liisa plants one of Tuomo’s skis in the snow, ties his flashlight to the tip and switches it on—a beacon that will bring her back to him in the dark.

She bends down to kiss him goodbye. She says: “I’ll be back soon,” and heads off in search of the hut. It’s about 8 pm.

The skies slowly clear and the temperature drops to -5 degrees Celsius. But Tuomo doesn’t feel cold, cocooned in the sleeping bag like a mummy. There is no pain and no fear. There is a great stillness.

At some point during the night, he slips into unconsciousness, his body in deep freeze, unmoving. In the dark, the light from the flashlight Liisa left casts him in shadow, a shroud on the ground.

Liisa skis north, the bulb in the flashlight she brought flickering intermittently in the dark until it goes out. It’s good that it’s clearing, she thinks. I can still find my way. When she thinks of Tuomo, she imagines him waiting for her. He’s there and sending me strength, she thinks.

After about an hour of skiing, without finding the hut, she turns back to Tuomo, deciding that the search can wait until the morning. But for some reason, she can’t find the light she left blazing. Did it go out?

Ski on, she tells herself fiercely. She turns back in search of the hut.

An-Annual-Ski-Trip-Turned-Into-a-Quest-for-SurvivalReader's Digest International EditionNot much later, she guides her skis between some boulders and encounters—wait—are those her own ski tracks?

Did I lose my way? She wonders. Again?

Most people would be panicking by now. Four days lost in the wild, a husband left behind, perhaps deathly ill. But Liisa doesn’t panic. As a former world champion orienteer, she knows this shouldn’t be happening, but she doesn’t berate herself. That would be a waste of time and besides, nobody’s perfect.

[pullquote]Right now, what you have is stamina and instinct, she thinks.[/pullquote]

She chooses one direction, skiing in a straight line for about one and a half kilometers until something makes her turn around and follow her tracks back to the boulders and continue in the other direction. It’s as if a presence is guiding her—a star of Bethlehem, or God, or her own stubbornness.

As the sun rises that Wednesday morning, it gives way to a vista that, for the first time in three days, is clear. Tired, hungry, and running on adrenaline, she makes her way up a hill, stands at its summit and there glinting in the sun is the roof of the hut.

She makes it to the hut in about a half hour, around 11 a.m. Ole-Thomas Baal, a Sami reindeer herder, is inside. The Sami, the northernmost indigenous people in Scandinavia, speak their own languages but Liisa knows they often speak Swedish, too.

Startled, he asks, “Are you alone?”

“No’ she says, slurring her words from exhaustion. “My husband is out there. I’ve been skiing for 15 hours straight to find help and do you have water, please, I’m so thirsty.”

Ole-Thomas manages to make out that her husband is in serious trouble. After giving Liisa some of his water, he goes outside, mounts his Ski-Doo and follows her ski tracks.

An-Annual-Ski-Trip-Turned-Into-a-Quest-for-SurvivalReader's Digest International Edition

Within 30 minutes, he sees something dark and unmoving on the snow.

[pullquote]I’m too late, he thinks. [/pullquote]

He moves closer to Tuomo, kneels down and, startled, hears a sound. Holding his breath, he listens again. It’s no mistake. The body is snoring.

He pulls out his mobile and punches in 113, the number for medical emergency services in Norway; he knows the nearest major medical centre is the University Hospital of North Norway hospital in Tromsø, just under 100 kilometers away. Told that a helicopter will arrive within 30 minutes, he switches on the headlight of his Ski-Doo to make the two of them easy to see from the air.

At the hospital, Tuomo is rushed into an operating room. His body temperature is 25 degrees Celsius, 12 degrees lower than the norm. Dr. Geir Bjørsvik, a specialist in cardiac anaesthesiology, decides that as Tuomo is breathing on his own, the procedure to warm up his body can begin right away. For the next two hours, a heart-lung machine slowly drains Tuomo’s cold, sluggish blood from his body and returns it warmed up. Bit by bit, no more a couple of degrees at a time, until his temperature is back to normal.

Although doctors couldn’t definitively diagnosis the cause of Tuomo’s original fatigue and illness, the resulting hypothermia had done serious damage. In the coming days, he’ll have emergency surgery to remove a meter of intestine that necrotized because his blood was busy preserving major organs. He’ll also lose four and a half toes because of frostbite, and his kidneys will take two weeks to start working properly again.

But really, his doctors say, he should have been dead.

Two things saved him: His top physical condition and Liisa, his determined wife.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest International Edition