In the northern reaches of Finland, there exists a remarkably badass winter wonderland that is the real-world embodiment of every ethereal dreamscape you've ever seen. It's the type of place you'd swear was lost to mythology around the same time as Atlantis. The name stands in stark contrast to its reality: "White Hell" is actually heaven on Earth, a secluded hideaway located just outside of Ivalo, Finland, a couple hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The snow-frosted buildings look edible, reindeer frolic in the streets, and a group of Finnish guys enjoy the ultimate dream job: spending their days on a racetrack carved from a frozen lake in the shadows of Russian hills, driving 400hp Audis in the perpetual pursuit of better traction.
This is the world's northernmost testing facility. Nokian Tires built this place 30 years ago because, if you're going to stake your reputation on building the best winter tires in the world, you'd better be damn sure you test them in the harshest winters in the world.
This is the entry gate to White Hell. Passing through it for the first time I'm struck not by thoughts of Dante, but Spielberg: the theatrics are straight out of Jurassic Park. As legend has it, the White Hell name itself is an homage to the Nurburgring Nordschleife, famously nicknamed "The Green Hell" by Sir Jackie Stewart.
White Hell isn't really a secret per se, or Nokian certainly wouldn't have flown me and three other journalists all the way to Finland, camera in hand. But it isn't really advertised either, since the last thing Nokian wants is a bunch of enthusiastic car guys showing up at that crazy-cool gate begging for admission.
So what is White Hell, exactly? A vast property with a series of tracks where Nokian tests out its winter tires. All told, there are nearly two dozen different tracks in this one facility. They all serve a different purpose, but the star of the show is clearly the ice track in the center, where trees give way to a lake.
I don't want to sell this lake short, though. It really is the mother of all frozen lakes. Sure, there are (probably) larger examples, but this is a fully fledged test track. An entire section of icy sweepers as sharp as San Francisco's Lombard St dares you to show it what you're made of.
It's mid-morning when we arrive at White Hell, and snow plows are still very busy clearing off the overnight drifts to leave one of the tracks as slippery as possible. I haven't a clue how many full-time snow plow drivers Nokian employs, but it's readily apparent there's no shortage of work.
That's a very important point, too, because the snow plows help set the condition of the track. As amazing as White Hell might seem from a driver's standpoint -- and for the record, I did drive it, and... oh yeah, it's amazing -- the test track's entire reason for being is to replicate real-world frozen road conditions. Transitioning from clean-swept ice to the snow-dusted sections results in a very tangible difference in traction.
If the snow does happen to get too deep for the test fleet -- mostly modern VWs and Audis -- some of the grounds' older vehicles are pretty damn cool in their own right.
A quick aside: you see those hills in the distance? According to our Finnish host, that's Russia. I didn't see any shirtless Putin-esque men riding bears, though, so I'm resigned to take his word for it.
Nearer to the entrance of the facility, this gorgeous camouflaged VW stands guard. For what? I have absolutely no idea, but it's a fiercely magnificent sight to behold.
At any rate, the building behind the VW is the Ice Hall, that 700-mete-long sheet of ice you should remember from this piece about stopping distances.
Even after you leave the grounds of White Hell, the wonderment stretches on endlessly. Just to give you some small sense of the stratospheric level of ethereal beauty we're talking about here, I don't consider myself all that great of a photographer, but here, I could do no wrong.
The many miles of minor two-lane roads in Europe's most sparsely populated area probably appear mediocre during that briefest of periods Finns call "summer." The rest of the time, with snow draped across them like the finest lace, they take on an exquisite look.
Nearly every road in this part of the world is distinguishable from the winter landscape only because it's plowed. They are strips of drivable smoothness in an otherwise dense forest. With every passing tree I gained just a little more appreciation for what it is Nokian really does at White Hell. Lose control of your car out here, and you'll almost definitely hit something that will hit you back with an equal and opposite force.
The cabin we stayed in was on top of a hill overlooking the village of Ivalo, and my initial impression when looking out the window sums up the town perfectly: it's a snow globe. I'm staying in a f*cking snow globe!
I wasn't kidding earlier, by the way, when I said the buildings looked edible in their frosted coatings. I never did figure out what flavor "Tuliaistupa" is, though I'm reasonably certain this building would fulfill its flavorful and satisfying promise in exactly the way that gingerbread houses never do.
I mentioned Ivalo's reindeer population in the very beginning, and with good reason: they really are everywhere. These were on one of the snow tracks at White Hell, but even after we left we kept running into them -- almost literally, on occasion.
After ripping us from the life-affirming experiences of White Hell, our hosts decided the best way to take in all that Lapland has to offer was by riding off into the wilderness on snowmobiles. Only one member of our group took a spill, and that was only after a slight detour caused by reindeer traffic. Really. Reindeer traffic. I can't make that up.
That's it, basically. After a day like that, all that's left is a return to our little snow globe, to sample dry-smoked reindeer, enjoy some fine Finnish vodka, and go straight from the sauna to the hot tub in sub-freezing temperatures for so long that your beer starts to freeze over and you forget that you're wearing nothing but a Speedo and a beanie.
Oh yeah, and reminisce about sliding a 400hp Audi RS4 around the ice course for a bit.