Frostbite in January, Amputate in June: The Long Lost Lofoten Story

Author’s Note: This article was originally written almost 4 years ago, but was shelved after thinking I had lost a majority of the photos to a failed drive.  After I managed to find many of the lost photos on an old SD card, I figured it was still worth sharing the last trip that inspired me to quit my job and travel the world by bike…

Over the winter a very unique opportunity came up through my then day-job. It’s not very often that a post-production sound editor gets asked to go to the Arctic Circle in January for actual sound work, so I immediately jumped at the chance to get out of the LA routine.

Once I saw the specific location I was working in, the ideas for what I could do in my “free time” started flowing. I’d take an extra couple weeks after the work portion of the trip was done and head to the Lofoten Islands, a place I’d drooled over through social media over the years. Since I didn’t have a fat bike lying around, I contacted the folks over at Twin Six who came through big time with a loaner Titanium Fat Bike loaded up with XX1, 45NRTH studded Dillingers along with fancy Whiskey and Wolf Tooth bits all around.

Due to gulf streams, Lofoten is actually (relatively) mild considering it’s well within the Arctic Circle.  However, near the city I’d be basing out of for work, the conditions promised to be downright brutal.  Still, with a free day and a bike I hadn’t even taken out of the box yet, I couldn’t resist getting layered up with all of the clothes I could scrape together and hit the ice-covered tarmac. 

In early January in this area the sun never actually rises from behind the mountains and daylight comes as a combination sunrise & sunset that only lasts for only a few hours. On a particularly cold day, this can make for a pretty rough time outdoors for any length of time. Wisely, most of the locals were waiting out this particularly cold spell, but in this case, my enthusiasm for riding in a new place may have gotten the best of me…

I had my eyes set on Svartisen Glacier which was roughly 53 miles round trip. Starting from town in darkness, the temps plummeted with every pedal stroke heading back into the hills. First -15F, then -20F, and -25F as I entered a canyon along a frozen solid river. 

At that point, all electronics cease to exist. Camera, phone, GPS, all dead, even when packed into my backpack, surrounded by down jackets and loaded with heat packs. The camera actually had frost built up on the inside of the battery pack. My eyelids were sticking shut every time I blinked, and I was rocking one of the gnarliest ice beards of all time. Unfortunately, with all of my batteries dead, a kind Norwegian couple living in the hills who let me use their heated barn for a few minutes are the only people with a photo of that.

On the way back from the glacier I met up with the main road back to town and decided to stop in a cafe to warm up and get something to eat before I’d finish the ride back to my hotel. That’s when I started to notice a problem. The tip of my right thumb was a little off-color and putting it under warm water for a moment released a sharp pain that felt like I’d held it over an open flame. I’m no Doogie Howser but that started to set off some red flags.

I got back to the hotel and the moment I took off my left boot I knew I was in real trouble. Two toes were dark purple and there was no sensation whatsoever. Then I took off my right boot to find that foot not doing a whole lot better.  

There’s something truly spine-tingling about the first moment you touch something with your toe and truly felt nothing.  Sitting here four years later, I remember this sensation as if it was an hour ago.  I’ve had varying degrees of mild frostbite over the years, but it was immediately apparent that this situation was far different.

A nice trip to the emergency room and the doctor’s deadpan diagnosis was “Oh don’t worry about this, they’ll just turn black and fall off”. I nervously laughed and looked at his assistant to see if he would assure me it was just that dry Norwegian sense of humor.   “Well, we’ll see.” the doctor said,  “As the saying goes, frostbite in January, amputate in June”.

Now that it’s been 4 years since this incident happened I am happy to inform you that I still have all of my digits, though I’ll spare you the gory details of how it unfolded over a 6-month period. Unfortunately, I still deal with the effects of this to this day, any time the temperatures drop or I have to cross a river, when that burning sensation comes back as a sharp remdinder of this fateful day in Norway.

There are probably a few lessons here, but one of the more practical takeaways for me is to always size your shoes up in this kind of weather! Poor circulation caused by snug boots and harsh conditions is a seriously bad combo. You might not even realize anything is wrong until it’s too late.  I found out the hard way.

I was extremely hesitant to continue with my riding plans, but the doctor just said to keep an eye on it and don’t go back out in -30°F again. So, once I finished up with work I searched around town for the biggest pair of Eskimo-worthy boots I could find. Size US14’s with a removable liner to fit my now extremely swollen feet into them. They also happened to be about 3 times as wide as the tiny platform pedals I found at a local sporting goods store, so it would certainly be a perfect combo!  I loaded my bike up and jumped on the ferry to the Lofoten Islands. 

I got off the ferry in the middle of a snowstorm at night and it was a balmy 30°F. No really, at plus 30 I was shedding layers and grinning from ear-to-ear as I rode out of Moskenes with my heels awkwardly pushing on the pedals, trying to put as little pressure on my toes as possible. 

It was a quick ride to Hamnøy where I had rented an old fisherman’s cabin in one of the most picturesque spots I’d ever seen. I stopped in my tracks at the apex of a bridge entering the village and watched in awe as the clouds broke, the moon lit up the mountains and I got my first glimpse of the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. 

The next eight days of riding in Lofoten was an overload of scenery, with its dramatic peaks, pristine Fjords, and rugged coastline. It almost feels unfair since the riding isn’t particularly challenging and around every corner is a new spectacular vista.

While the lack of daylight and harsh weather may turn some folks off the idea of riding in this area during the winter, I’d argue that the lack of crowds/traffic and waking up to a fresh blanket of snow make it a perfect chance to try something different. Maybe even worth risking a few toes!