There’s nothing quite like a winter’s morning in the mountains. The crystal-clear air that seems to form icicles in your lungs, the dome of infinite blue above your head and the snow that squeaks beneath your feet – it’s magical.
For all the captivating beauty of the Swedish ski resort, though, I was happy to pick my way across the car park and swap the icy mountain air for the heated ambience of my car: Volvo‘s new V90 Cross Country. Based on the company’s flagship V90 estate car, it adds a little off-road capability thanks to increased ground clearance, four-wheel drive and some tough plastic body protection.
It had certainly proved its worth the previous evening, transporting me, tired from two cramped flights on cheap and cheerless airlines, through the inky blackness of a sub-Arctic night in minimalist luxury. Today, though, a sterner test awaited it.
Just a few miles away, we’d heard of a lake so firmly encrusted with ice that the Swedes were using it as an airfield, landing light, two-seat planes on the frozen surface. The Swedes in question, it seemed, were willing to let us go and have a play in our new toy.
Arriving at the lake, though, I had my reservations. The ice, which I’d expected to be metres thick, was just 30cm deep at the water’s edge, and though a man with the most incredibly grey eyes told me that it was double that thickness in the middle of the lake, I wasn’t convinced.
Still, he had a reassuringly poor taste in woolly hats, so I tentatively edged the car onto the flat expanse of ice. The car’s winter tyres bit into the soft layer of snow with vigour, giving it a surprising amount of grip, and my confidence rapidly grew.
Just minutes later, my foot was buried in the carpet, mashing the accelerator pedal to the floor as two white plumes billowed out behind me. A glance at the digital speedometer showed 85mph come and go, the crisp white needle steadily winding around the virtual dial as the Volvo shot down the improvised runway. As the wooden posts that marked the end of the good ice grew in my windscreen, I slowed to about 50kph, and flicked the steering right, then sharply left, before stamping on the throttle once more.
Even though I’d expected it – and even planned for it – my heart skipped a beat as I felt the rear tyres lose traction and begin to slide. The heavy tail slewed around, sending clouds of snow into the air, and the engine’s throaty roar abated for a moment as my toe involuntarily twitched on the pedal.
In a split-second, though, self-preservation took over, and my hands and feet were working overtime. A spin of the leather-bound steering wheel caught the slide, the stitching chafing my fingers as I hurled it over, while my right foot trembled on the gas, adjusting the power to hold the back end in place.
In such situations – even when you know there’s little to hit – the mind wanders to a strange place. I found my brain had dulled everything except sight and sound. Not that you’d say I was exploring the full breadth of either sense’s capabilities. All I could see was the patch of snow I’d picked as a reference point and all I could hear was the engine note rising and falling as I feathered the throttle.
But if holding the slide required concentration, it was nothing compared with pulling out of it. On ice, it’s incredibly easy to over- or under-cook it and find yourself either pointing the wrong way or in a second, less docile skid. I came out of my first attempt surprisingly cleanly, but it all fell down when I tried the same trick again.
This time my confidence was at its zenith, so I tried making a tight, 90-degree turn in a desperate bid to stay within the posts. As I pulled away, though, I got caught in a tank-slapper of my own making. You’re supposed to make small adjustments to bring everything back into line, but the terrifying prospect of falling through wafer-thin ice was at the root of all my thoughts. I sawed at the wheel, desperately trying to bring the wild fishtail under control, but but to no avail. In the end, the only way of stopping was to let go of everything and squelch to an ignominious halt, facing the wrong way.
At least, I thought, as I stepped out to brush the snow away from where it had collected on the brakes, there was nobody here to see it. Except the man in the naff hat. And my best mate – a handy racing driver who had wedged his sizeable frame into the passenger seat before we left the hotel.
“Well,” he said. “The first one was alright.”
I looked at him, waiting for the sucker punch to be delivered.
“The second one was s***.”