Intrepid Women: Ice Dreams

ice hotel_1.JPGby Kate St. Vincent Vogl (New York City)

Walking pneumonia would not keep Christin Walth from attending her business meeting. She was Microsoft’s representative to the Bluetooth team, and she could and would pull her weight for that lineup of seven industry leaders now that she wasn’t contagious. The conference had started two days before, and she knew at the backend she’d have to go directly to Israel to outfit those border guards, but she wasn’t about to miss this first meeting—at the Ice Hotel.

She was glad she didn’t. What she remembers most vividly after landing in Kiruna, 124 miles inside the Arctic Circle, is the unending white sparkling under a Swedish blue sky.

Walth expected the Ice Hotel to look like an Inuit igloo, the kind you learn about in school, but instead the ice fort of Jukkasjärvi spread out long and low, as big as a football field. Massive ice sculptures fronted the hotel landscape, hinting at the iced treasures inside. Though Walth had heard the hotel was stunning, she was hardly prepared for the lavishly chandeliered lobby with soaring ice columns and even a reception desk shaped out of ice. “Of course it was cold,” she says—about 20 degrees throughout. Not as cold as she expected, but maybe that was the fever talking.

Her luggage was whisked off to a heated changing room, where she reluctantly dressed for the afternoon dog-sled run. “You know I don’t even like rodeos,” she says, “so I wasn’t into seeing those poor puppies suffering as beasts of burden.” But she’s a team player, so off she went, bundled for the Arctic air. Having lived in Sweden as an ex-pat for several years already, she was perhaps better prepared for the cold than most. Still, it was beyond frigid, and she was out in the middle of an ice field with an illness that regularly killed people 100 years before. She was beginning to seriously question the wisdom of making the effort to come.

That was before she saw the dogs, yelping and barking and straining to pull on their harnesses, anything to leap forward and plow through the white nothingness and just go. She climbed on the back of the standing sled as the dogs checked back at the musher for the word they couldn’t wait to hear: Mush. An Anglicized version of the French “marchez,” universally used. Walk on, work on, and that’s all these dogs wanted to do.

They took off in a frenzy, a leap and a lurch of the sled, and Walth hung on with mittened hands. Sub-zero temps made the inside of her nose burn, even with a face mask on, and this was the kind of cold that could freeze a person and her team was out in it and through it, with the dogs leading them, cutting a path through that blanket of white under the flag blue sky. And so she was laughing, and then, after a time, all was silent, save for the dogs’ eager barks that yes, this was the best, the best, the best thing a sled dog could ever dream of doing.

Strange but she was warm by the end—not so warm she didn’t look forward to the roaring fire in the meeting room held in a cabin outside the Ice Hotel. The hotel’s creator, Jannot Derid, might have been visionary enough to take five weeks every year to create a hotel anew from the waters of the Torne River, but he was practical, too. A shadow hotel lies next to the ice one, with meeting rooms and rooms for guests who can’t make it through the night on a bed of ice.

“The ice beds really aren’t that bad,” Walth says. “And the rooms were big, really big—10 by 12 feet, probably.” With a couple of reindeer skins to keep the cold out of your mummy sleeping bag, and a couple of pelts on top to keep you warm, it was comfortable enough for the hotel to warn guests not to overdress for bed. “It’s no Tempur-Pedic, though,” Walth says ruefully.

After a full day, though, Walth was ready to turn in. She didn’t need to see the Northern lights dance over the bonfire outside; living in Sweden, she’d seen her share. That night, she didn’t have the energy to drink shots out of glasses made of clear ice at the Absolut ice bar either, or even just to relax on pelts draped over club chairs carved of ice. She snuck away to her ice room, hoping no one would notice and give her grief the next day.

And there, already curled up in a reindeer pelt on the bed, her assigned roommate was already in a deep Arctic sleep, dreaming on ice.