For Nooshin Hamzehloo, Fjällräven Polar was her way of celebrating life so far, making a statement to the world (and herself) that the best is yet to come.
To many of those around her, Nooshin Hamzehloo is anything but ordinary – but that’s exactly how she describes herself. Born and raised in Iran, Nooshin emigrated to Sweden in the early 1990s at the age of 28 in a bid to remove herself from politically sensitive connections. She left everything she knew and started her life from scratch in the Swedish capital where the language, the culture, and the people were all new.
Today, she’s a tax auditor at the Swedish Tax Agency. She loves swimming, cooking Persian food, her job and her colleagues – and it was a chance conversation with her colleague, Anne, in the Autumn of 2022 that resulted in Nooshin earning her place on Fjällräven Polar: “Anne asked me if I had plans to travel or to celebrate my birthday. The last few years had been tough, but I got back on track, and I told her I was looking for a special way to celebrate my 60th, no matter what difficulties I’d had in the past.”
In a strange twist of fate, that same evening, Nooshin received a forwarded Fjällräven newsletter, which mentioned that the Fjällräven Polar 2023 application period was open. It came with a simple message from Anne: “I think this is something for you.” Nooshin admits she couldn’t sleep that night. She imagined herself up in the north – in the deep snow with a team of dogs in the wilderness – and saw it as a sign from the universe. She started her application the next day, knowing it would be her special way of celebrating life so far. Looking back on it, she has a huge smile on her face: “I wanted to prove that the best is yet to come!”
Nooshin explains that she always accepts what life gives her, whether difficult or easy. If she wants to achieve something, she tries her best, but if it doesn’t happen, she won’t be disappointed in herself. It’s a mindset she got from her father – to enjoy the little things in life and dream of something bigger. That dream came true when she realised she would finish Fjällräven Polar on the day she turned 60. It took her some time to realise she had won a spot after the announcement. She’d never done anything like this before: “I’m just an ordinary person! But the message I got was that ‘we believe in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself’, so if Fjällräven Polar can teach me, they can teach anybody!”
In April 2023, she found herself travelling through the depths of the Scandinavian Arctic by dog sled on a journey where she’d face all the physical and mental challenges that come with a polar expedition. She describes it as one of the most wonderful times of her life: “I couldn’t swim in a swimming pool, but I learned to swim in an ocean. And Fjällräven Polar was the ocean!”
Finding balance in the extreme
During the expedition, Nooshin’s openness and optimism brought her close to the hearts of the 19 other Fjällräven Polar participants. Together, they journeyed across frozen lakes, through dense birch forests and white, barren landscapes, and it gave her a completely different perspective of Sweden: “I have lived in Sweden for 32 years and I have never been up here. It’s incredible! The nature here gives you meaning for life. I have lived my whole life in the city – where it's busy, busy, busy. Maybe that’s why I love this calmness. Life should be like this.”
Nooshin is no stranger to new experiences or different cultures, but driving a pack of six sled dogs for 300km was completely new to her. She describes how she stayed calm by repeatedly scanning through a checklist of tasks while on the sled: the breaks, the dogs, her positioning on the sled, and the terrain: “You must stay focused on so many things. You cannot daydream. Dog sledding needs your full attention and 100% eyes on the road – everything at the same time.”
She puts her ability to focus down to Vipassana meditation, which she has practiced for the last few years. Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’ and aims to help you find balance through a form of self-observation and ‘scanning’ areas of the body.
It would help her more than she suspected when she experienced ‘a tsunami of bad feelings’ halfway through the expedition. Despite her steady progress, Nooshin had convinced herself that she was too old, that she wasn’t good enough and that she should leave for the good of the team. It’s an all too familiar feeling during long endurance-based pursuits in extreme and unknown places. ‘The little voice’, as she puts it, grew over the course of a few short hours and made her doubt her ability to finish the expedition.
For Nooshin, however, the voice had a deeper meaning. She describes how she had lost confidence in herself in general: “There are many things that can happen in life that you don’t like. And every time something goes wrong, you think maybe it was my fault or my wrongdoing. Little by little, that negative voice gets stronger, and you come to a point where you don’t trust yourself anymore. It has been a little like this for me, but I am a fighter. I love life and this is a wonderful opportunity.”
She eventually spoke to lead musher and team leader, Anna, who reinforced the key elements of how to tackle any low point on an expedition: food, water and rest. In cold temperatures and long days in nature, dehydration and losing your appetite is commonplace – sometimes you need to force yourself to eat and drink to maintain the energy levels needed to reach the finish line. But Nooshin also remembered what a teacher once told her when she first started meditating: ‘You must go on. Don’t quit because eventually, you’ll see what happens.’ She decided to delay her final decision until after a good night’s sleep, which that night, would be under an open sky. No tents. Just a shallow snow pit dug by her teammate Kert, some birch branches to lie on collected by Thomas and Lina – and all four of them, lying side by side under the stars.
A new beginning
When Nooshin remembers that low point, she smiles with a knowing look. She knew the coming days would be longer, with the final day being a tough 75km journey in howling winds and exposed, mountainous terrain. But no matter – Nooshin’s mindset had changed, and the voice had gone thanks to Anna’s advice and the distraction of the vast Arctic landscapes she’d never seen before: “I just looked at the beautiful scenery in front of me: the mountains, the beautiful shades of white, and I thought, I could have missed all this. And the tears just came from nowhere – I just cried and cried on the dog sled. I felt wonderful.”
She thanks her dogs for helping her, and suspects they sensed that she was struggling on the second day: “They were taking it easy for me. They would look back and check that I was OK!” She pays tribute to her team and team lead, Anna. “My team was amazing – they all kept a close eye on me – and Anna is my wonder woman. I had no idea what a tough job it is to be a musher. But if I knew there was a job as a musher 32 years ago, instead of staying in Stockholm, maybe I would have come here and been a musher!”
On their final night together and back in civilisation, the Fjällräven Polar 2023 team celebrates, now bound by this once-in-a-lifetime experience. But tonight, it’s a double celebration. At an after-dinner party, team members sing happy birthday to Nooshin in Danish, Korean, German, Swedish, Taiwanese and Malaysian. During a heartfelt speech, Nooshin thanks them: “To you, the 19 others who shared this with me. You are wonderful souls. I just look at you, you are so young – and I feel young and joyful, even though I’m 60!”
Back in Stockholm, Nooshin celebrates once again with many of her colleagues, providing champagne and a selection of her favourite Persian food. She shows photos from the expedition and uses all her energy to explain what she experienced: the highs, the lows, the exhaustion and the pride. Anne looks on at her, smiling. “I have done things I am proud of. This has helped me to grow, emotionally, physically, and I’m so happy for the opportunity. I wanted to prove that my life doesn't stop at 60, and to encourage myself that the best is yet to come. Now I can trust myself that I can be adventurous and have a great life. I think to myself, Nooshin: you did it!”