Also available translated to German.
If you want the background to these stories, see the introduction.
Photographs are included in this text, but if you prefer you can look at the photos separately in the gallery.
This Kungsleden trip became rather long and tedious for various reasons, and although it lasted five weeks, a lot of time was spent waiting out storms or retracing my steps. Perhaps there's something to be learned from this anyway. But if you'd rather just read about certain sections, try the following :
|Kvikkjokk-Pårte, snowed in after one day and eventually turned back.|
|Saltoluokta-Sitosjaure, again only got one day away from base.|
|Nikkaluokta-Vakkotavare, with attempt on south peak of Kebnekaise.|
|Abisko-Kebnekaise, a successful trip despite storms.|
So off I went to the bus station, carrying my full 20kg pack for the first time, and almost immediately realised that my knee was a year older than the last time I did this, and was about to become 20 years older. It was hard to imagine that I could ski 100km like this. More immediately, I had a nasty pain in my knee, so I went into the supermarket to buy some chocolate, and there she was, Pernilla. It was love at first sight - small, cheap and with artificial red colouring, but I wanted her because I knew she would follow me wherever I went without question, and carry my pack without complaints. She was a child's sledge, on sale for less than I'd paid for lunch. I collected some pieces of string and electrical conduit from other shops, and sat at the bus station performing cosmetic surgery on my new partner.
In Kvikkjokk it was around zero, clear and still. I felt cautiously optimistic about starting my trip the next day, and recklessly optimistic when I woke at 6 to the same conditions, but at 7 it was blowing 10 m/s and snowing. Ugh. It wouldn't be smart to try for the 18km to Pårtestugan in this weather with my limited expertise. I decided on a short trip in the forest just for the experience, and to cement my relationship with Pernilla. I took all my equipment to make it realistic. Protected by the trees the wind was no problem, and Pernilla seemed to enjoy our white wedding. In under an hour I'd ascended 200m over about 3km, and I really didn't want to struggle up that hill again another day, so I started to wonder about carrying on. I knew the trail would get more exposed later, but there would always be trees and deep snow nearby to dig myself down in. I carried on, always prepared to turn back and pretend I'd never had that reckless thought. After two hours the forest opened up to very exposed lakes, and I hesitated. I had the wind behind me, which was comfortable, but also meant that if I got into trouble, turning back might not be an option. But I always had my spade and windsack.
A German appeared, apparently untroubled by the head-wind he was fighting, and completely confident that I would make it to the cabin. His confidence infected me, and I headed on. The first lake was no problem, but as I came to the second the clouds lowered, and I experienced my first whiteout. I saw nothing in any direction, including down. I'd been following a heavily snowed-over scooter track, but now it was gone. I'd taken a compass bearing before it disappeared, but it wasn't clear how long that would help me. The cabin should be directly in front of me, but the lake had irregular boundaries, and so using the bearing-off technique of deliberately missing the target to one side and correcting would be difficult. And if it were 10m back into the trees I could still miss it. Not a nice feeling. Much nicer when the clouds moved on and the cabin popped out in front of me. An hour later the weather worsened, and I was glad I hadn't risked taking a lunch break on the way. But I was also glad that I'd got out of Kvikkjokk. I was on my way.
Pårte is nice, as were the wardens (and every warden I've ever met), but on the third day of watching snow drifts form and reading "Till Fjaells" magazines from the '70s, I was getting a little restless. On top of the blizzards was the problem that the next stage to Aktse is around 30km long in the winter, over a regulated lake with regions of open water. The snow was deep and untracked, and I was told that knowing when to turn north over Tjaktjavare is crucial, and tricky in poor visibility. I wanted a very nice day before attempting this one. It didn't come, but Germans did. They had a tent, a GPS navigation system, and experience. No problem, whatever the weather, we would head off together the next day. Meanwhile they kindly shared with me something brown, tasty, and indigestible. My stomach started cramping an hour or so later, and only relaxed slightly the following morning. But at least I will be able to tell my grandchildren about the time I braved a blizzard at 1, 3 and 5am to get to the outhouse, where the wind was strong enough to blow snow up through the toilet, and to give a whole new meaning to the term paper recycling.
I didn't feel ready for my big day. But it wasn't going to happen anyway, as the Germans had been thinking, and decided that given the record so far, more bad weather would come, and that since they had already skied from Hemavan, they would bow to the Gods and head back home. I contemplated the pile of 'Till Fjaells' magazines, and realised that they were right, and that even if I managed to get to Aktse some day soon, I would probably get stuck there too. I reluctantly joined them back to Kvikkjokk, battling against the wind and snow, but comforted by the 120kg of equipment that we were collectively hauling. I was miserable - I'd been away 10 days and got to one cabin, in horrible conditions. A feeling of profound failure hung over me. What a difference from last year's trip. But worse was to come. As soon as we arrived, the skies cleared, the wind disappeared, and we heard that the forecast was for fine, stable weather. Agghhgghh ! And then we met scooters that had come from Aktse, so there would even have been tracks to follow. We comforted ourselves with a reindeer-heart fondue cooked on a spirit stove.
So off I went, with my stomach and heart happily filled, taking a leisurely 6 hours for the 20km of exquisite skiing to Sitojaure, stopping often for photographs and food. It's pretty much all above tree line, flat after an initial climb of 300m, well-marked, and just gorgeous. This is why people ski. At the cabin were two young hunters, and a warden who loved people so much that she should really have been in a more popular place. Her stories of whole weeks alone there in February were heart-breaking. And she knew my friends in Jokkmokk. In fact everyone knows everyone up there; after a couple of weeks you start to feel like family. That night I took a magical walk on the lake - moonlit mountains, northern lights, and the Hale-Bop comet. Unforgetable. I contemplated a day trip to Skierf, reputedly Sweden's most beautiful viewpoint, but it would be over 30km, and I had to ski back to Salto the next day, so I decided on Tjirak instead, which would be under 10km round trip, and still 1000m high. It was clear but windy, and I got up to Tjirak in under an hour. Too easy, I thought, and headed 200m higher to Tjiraksnjurtje. Too hard, I thought. The wind must have been over 10 m/s by then, and it was -15C, but I had come too far to turn back, and when I finally reached the peak I was in the coldest conditions I've ever experienced. It was one of the rare occasions when I seriously questioned myself "what am I doing here ?". I dug a hole and made a wall to hide behind for lunch. When it came to taking photographs I barely managed to run up to the peak and snap in all directions, there was no question of giving thought to composition or exposure. By the time I got back I'd skied over 20km, and been higher than Skierf. I knew this would happen. I should have just gone to Skierf. Lotta arrived at the stuga just before I did, and the warden cooked us a delicious spaghetti bolognese that slowly thawed me out.
Next morning, after fetching water and sawing logs, we struggled back to Salto against a strong headwind, but it was still clear and beautiful. We met a few skiers effortlessly heading west, and some crazy people in a tent. Pernilla showed no signs of jealousy. The next day we tried to telemark locally until Lotta's shift started, and then I rested, feeling strangely weak. The following day I had developed a cold, and thinking it wasn't smart to do much in that condition, I decided to take the bus to Ritsem for some effortless sightseeing. 10 minutes into the journey the bus stopped for a one hour lunch break, but for most of the following hour the peaks of Sarek loomed over the lake, and Ritsem itself has a grand view of the Akka massif. Really rather perfect, except for the fact that Ritsem is so, well, ugly. There's not much there, but what there is is unsightly, and the fjaellstation is actually an old prefabricated office unit inherited from the power company. Not a place to lift the spirits when you're feeling under the weather. I had a miserable time there, especially after Akka disappeared into a fog that never lifted, and my cold got worse. I took this to be a sign from the Gods that I should start to head home, and so bussed back to Jokkmokk to collect my civilian clothes and phone around about my interviews, which turned out to be wishful thinking.
The fjaellstation is impressively placed, in a convincingly alpine nest of peaks. Quite spectacular. I managed a quick tour along the valley before dinner in the restaurant and a glass of port by the open fire in the lounge. To be 20km from the road, it was really quite civilised. My plan was to do something fairly gentle the next day to make sure that I was completely healthy again, try for Kebnekaise's summit the next, and then ski four gentle days down to Saltoluokta. But after a night in the beautiful old section of the main building, I checked the daily weather fax - still and sunny today, wind increasing to hard over the next three days. It was no idea to wait. I took a deep breath and a huge breakfast, and did some rapid research on Kebnekaise's south peak. There are three obvious routes - the east route, quite short but needs technical climbing skills for the last stage over Berling's glacier; the west route that is longer and takes in another 1700m peak on the way, but needs no special skills; and a technically trivial but even longer route starting at Singhi, itself a day away. The west route it would be. I breakfasted with Peter from my room, and he was interested in joining me.
Had I been attempting the trip alone, I would have taken most of my equipment along in case I got stuck, but with company the weight of safety equipment could be divided and some left behind, so I was down to under 10kg, which felt good. But reorganising and changing Pete's rental skis took time, and it was 10 before we were on our way. Someone told us we could save a few hundred meters by a short cut higher up the valley than I had skied the night before, and that we did. Maybe we saved those meters, but we lost 40 minutes and hundreds of calories because we were traversing on ice for several kilometers. But it was warm and sunny, and we skied in just our undershirts, still sweating. By the time we got to Kitteldalen we were already aching from the unpleasant traverse, but we were still optimistic. On with the climbing skins for a 400m climb over 2km, tough but straightforward, and loose snow that looked like it would be great fun on the way down. 20m up, snow got under my right climbing skin. I knew that the glue was old, but it had held perfectly earlier in the trip. On ice, I now realised, with no loose snow to creep in and wet the glue. I couldn't believe that I had been so mean as to put off reglueing them until after this trip. Oh well, I thought, I'll just walk. I took off my skis and dropped half a meter through the snow. I took a few more steps and had to rest. Peter realised that we were doomed, and suggested going back, but he didn't know that I had my stubborness with me. I unpacked it, and tried to walk in his tracks. Sometimes the packed snow there held, so eventually we came up to Kittel glacier, but we'd lost another 30 minutes. And already it was cold - just 400m up and a slight breeze brought on a heavy fleece and jacket. We sat on the glacier and drank coffee, wondering where over two hours had gone. We had barely started. Yet the top was tantalisingly close, in fact it seemed closer than Vierranvarri that we must go over first, but we knew that the last stage over Bjoerlings glacier on the direct route needed technical climbing skills. Since it seemed unlikely that we would make it to the top now, I briefly considered taking that route as far as I could, but I had asked nothing about the conditions there from the guides, and so dismissed the idea. Despite our doubts for success, we decided to push on as far as we could. I tied the ends of my flailing skin up to the binding, and put loops around the ski and skin at three points along their length. Less thorough prophylaxis on the left ski finished off my string supply. The next 200m to the saddle between Vierranvarri and Tolpagorni was too steep and loose for a direct ascent, and traversing was much tougher on my enfeebled skins. But we made it again, to be confronted by an ugly 500m long, 30 degree field of jagged rocks and ice. We had to walk, but had heard that our skis might be useful later, so we strapped them to our packs rather than leave them there. It was tough going, and would clearly be harder coming down. I was glad I had company - this was an obvious place to fall and break bones, not something I would risk alone. Eventually we were up on a wide, smooth, top at 1700m, with an incredible view down to dozens of other peaks. This alone would justify the trip, but of course we still wanted to get to The Big One. We could see it, just 400m above us, but with a depressingly deep valley between us and it. And I could tell I was pushing my body beyond its normal limits. Normally I'm very careful to eat and especially drink regularly when skiing, but trying to keep up with Peter today I'd neglected my chemistry. My mind was restless, my body was weak, and my urine was orange. I drank half a litre of water, but I knew I had lost more than that. I stuffed in handfuls of peanuts and raisins too, despite the adrenaline I was running on having taken away my appetite. It was 3pm, and it would be dark by 7. We really didn't want to be on the icy rocks after dark, but we still thought there might be a chance for the top, so we allowed ourselves one hour to see how far we could get. At 4 we must be on our way back. Toppstugan, a cabin 30 minutes from the summit was our intermediate goal. We traversed down 500m of rock-strewn ice. I kept my skins on to limit my speed, but it was so steep that only my edges touched the ice, and I accelerated so fast that when my skins did touch, I lost balance and fell. Each fall saved me 5 minutes of skiing, and eventually I gave up trying to recover from them. Going up Kebnekaise herself on the other side was technically easier, but I was starting to suffer from my exertions, and when we got to the stuga I had an uneasy feeling that things were not right, but I couldn't think clearly enough to work out what. I had no interest in the view, or photographing the cabin, but just stuffed down my frozen sandwiches and drank another bottle of water, which was also beginning to freeze despite being buried deep in my pack. It was now -20C with a slight breeze. I saved my hot water for possible emergencies later. Rest, food and drink brought my mind back to a state where I could understand what a bad state I was in. I would never have let myself get like this if I'd been alone. The cabin was of little comfort on a day like this when the sun could warm our bodies, but had made little difference to the temperature inside, where frozen blankets and a small stove with a minimal amount of emergency wood dispelled any thoughts of overnighting. We would have survived there, but it wouldn't have been pleasant. Now I felt better. It was 3:45, and we couldn't quite see the summit. Just 10 minutes more and we might see it. Peter was sceptical, but agreed to try. We walked up 100m. Just 5 minutes more and we might see the top. Now I was sceptical, and it was Peter's turn to be determined. Until he saw the white fleck on my nose, frostnip, time to give up. I hurried back to the cabin with my bare hand on the spot, and it disappeared. We hurried down to the valley and up the other side. Now there was only the rocky ice field left between us and the easy snow, so we relaxed briefly and took photographs. But the rocks were terrible - going down was indeed much worse than coming up. It was harder to look down for footholds, the ends of my skis kept hitting the ground and unbalancing me, and I was tired. Both of us developed several more frostnips until we fashioned protective coverings for our faces. After that, what should have been perfect telemark conditions were wasted on my exhausted body, and I ploughed and fell my way down to Kitteldalen. We got back to the fjaellstation at 7:30. I felt disappointed not just by turning back so close to the summit, but also by having let myself push too hard to keep up with Peter's pace. I tried not to think of the maybes - maybe if we hadn't taken that first short cut, maybe if I'd reglued my skins, then maybe, maybe, we would have made it. Or maybe not. But next time it would be the Singi route, alone.
After two weeks of frustration it was now time to do some real ski touring - four easy days down to Vakkotavare, with lots of spare time to learn to telemark properly. But I had forgotten that the weathermen hate me, until they faxed a forecast for half-storm from the third day. I would have to skip at least one cabin to avoid getting stuck once more.
The next day it was perfect weather, but I had no energy left and when I started the long slight incline up through Ladtjovagge in the cold shadow of Skarttatjåkka, I had trouble enjoying the magnificance of my surroundings, and I hated the pressure of having to push on. Half way through the valley there was a welcome 100m patch of sunlight, and the couple in front of me stopped immediately to rest and eat. I thought I would be smarter, and ski to the end of the patch so that I would be warm by the time I stopped, and I wouldn't get sweaty when I set off again. By the time I had taken off my skis and jacket I was in shadow again. I quickly dragged the sled a few meters down the hill into the sun, and hunted for coffee. The sun was quicker and I was in shadow again, so I dragged further. By the time I was finished I had strewn equipment all the way down to the wise couple. I vowed never to try to be smart again, and to take a course in astronomy.
I decided to skip Singhi, since that would take the pressure off for the next day, and I could take a short cut around Unna Jierttas to save a few kilometers. Up on Jierttajavri was one of the most pleasing views I have ever seen, but all I could think about was how could I ski another 4 hours, and whether I was really where I thought I was, since the short cut was unmarked and tracks led in all directions except for the one that I thought led to Kaitumjaure . Determined not to repeat the mistakes of the previous day, I replaced all the water I'd drunk by melting snow on my spirit stove, a painfully tedious process. 12km behind, 12 to go. Deep breath.
The descent into Tjaektjajåkka was comfortable, the snow was soft and deep, and I could choose a traverse that was just steep enough to glide down but took me as far as possible along the valley. After that, time stood still. Every time I thought I had earned a rest, my watch told me otherwise. The sun started to go down, I was cold and exhausted, the skiing was monotonous, and progress was excrutiating. I longed for a quiet empty cabin in which to collapse, but I had to settle for one with 15 lively French skiers in. Nice people, but 15 too many for me that day. Normally I chop logs as soon as I arrive, before I have a chance to relax and get comfortable, but this time it would have to wait.
I slept like a log, and felt surprisingly good. The morning was fine, but there was an ominous black band on the horizon, slowly but relentlessly getting thicker. No time to waste. Kaitumjaure is just below tree line, and it was a steady climb up to Muorki where I could see the Frenchmen, who were on a detour to telemark in the perfect conditions on Vattitjåkka . I longed to join them, but knew that an hour could easily make the difference between getting to the road and spending days trapped at Teusajaure . I pushed on, painfully aware of wasting conditions that I would probably never meet again - well-trained muscles, 20cm of fresh, loose snow, 1km of constant 20 degree slope, -10C, sun, no wind. I could develop my technique more in an hour here than in days of normal conditions. But I just trudged on. The final descent into Teusa is steep and wooded, and I had to walk down, with my sled attached in front of me. It was 12 o'clock - 2.5 hours for 9 kilometers. Not bad. I asked the warden's advice on continuing, and she was encouraging, provided that I was willing to turn back if the weather got worse. No problem there. I squandered an hour on lunch in the stuga, slightly discomforted by the young scooter driver who worried aloud about travelling to Kaitumjaure in this weather. Hmm. After the lake I put on my climbing skins, but it was so steep and deep that I still slipped, and the trees were tightly packed so my skis and sled kept catching on them. For the first time I started swearing at my equipment, and growling when I needed to give 105% to get over a particularly steep stretch. It looked like about an hour to the top, but the warden had warned me that it was more like 3 hours. It certainly was, and the storm took about the same time to arrive. At first the wind was behind, and quite bearable, but then it inexorably became a head wind of at least 15 m/s. I was already having trouble navigating as this section of Kungsleden is not winter marked, and the gentle peaks were hard to identify and take bearings on. Not that I was going to get completely lost, but I could easily add several kilometers to an already long trip. With the snow whipped up by the wind, it became even harder. Luckily it wasn't cold, so even though I couldn't ski against some of the gusts, I was comfortable and felt safe continuing. I was heading 90 degrees to a road, so I could afford to miss the hut. Curiously, it was also sunny, possibly because I was above the storm. I had to capture these dramatic conditions on film, but it wasn't easy. Partly because they were dynamic, but also because my hands froze in seconds when I took my mittens off, even though I had my normal fleece gloves underneath. It was -5C, but with windchill it was probably -30. The one thing that worried me was that the snow was only a few centimeters deep on the exposed tops, and so I couldn't dig myself down if things got worse. I had to trust that I could go downwind into a valley if I needed to.
The descent to Vakkotavare is worse than to Teusa, but the snow there was much deeper and hard to walk in, so I tried to telemark down. Those trees I didn't hit, my sled did. Snow got in every corner of my clothes, and I didn't make the most elegant arrival at the cabin, dragging my sled backwards and juggling my skis and poles under my arms. It was 6pm and no-one was there. The water buckets were frozen, and the cabin was only 10m from the road. Not comfortable, not romantically remote, and I knew that once I relaxed it would be a long time before I would want to ski again. I decided to hitch a ride 15km to Kebnats and ski across the lake to Saltoluokta, where I could indulge myself in a sauna, hot food, and the company of Lotta the waitress, before taking the train home the next day. But this plan presupposed that cars travel that road. They don't, not that evening at least. I gave up when it got dark at 7, and started trying to make the cabin homely, hunting around for things with a torch between my teeth. Later, as I lay in bed, I worked out what the cables on the ceiling leading to switch boxes and lamps were for. I'd been away from civilisation too long.
During the night a full storm broke loose, making even driving difficult. I was offered a lift by some fishermen on their way to Gällivare, and ended up pushing their car up the worst hill. I was glad I wasn't still in Teusa, and as we came to Kebnats I decided that I had had enough, and carried on to the railway station. I was finished. Or was I ?
I was home about a week before restlessness set in, alongside the residual dissatisfaction with the way all my previous tour plans of the year had been badly rearranged by the weather. Maybe I should have another go. And there was just one section of Lappland's Kungsleden left for me to explore - Abisko to Kebnekaise. Probably doable in a week, 10 days should be comfortable.
I arrived in Abisko late afternoon and did some terribly unimpressive telemarking on Nuolja, but at least it reminded my muscles and joints what was in store for them. I have to say that I didn't fall in love with the place. Not that there is anything wrong with the fjaellstation, but it lacks something, sitting there on the road, with new, characterless accomodation blocks. I guess I'd just been spoiled by Saltoluokta and Kebnekaise. Don't let me stop you going there, lots of people love it, but I wasn't sad to leave it as I clumped across the road and into the sparse birch wood on the otherside with its view up to the famous Lapporten between Tjuonatjåkka and Nissuntjårro .
Two weeks had made an enormous difference to temperatures and day lengths - now it was +4C and light until 9pm, which took a lot of pressure off each day's journey, but I would have preferred it to have been 10 degrees cooler for comfort and ease of waxing. After about 1km I came to flat ground, and I started to struggle. Could I have become unfit so quickly ? Was there something wrong with the sled ? Was I getting sick ? Why did it seem such hard work to keep moving ? Maybe I just needed coffee, but I'm very stubborn about putting one hour of skiing behind me before stopping for coffee, so I struggled on, the sled stopping completely each time I lifted a ski. Coffee made no difference, and eventually I stopped to examine the sled, finding that the backpack cover that I'd tied over it was hanging down too far and acting like a snow plough, filling itself up with snow and causing immense drag. Progress suddenly doubled, and I could enjoy the brilliant sunshine and easy terrain. Only the last 4km over Abiskojaure dragged a little, but then I arrived at the cabin at 3pm - 6 hours of daylight left, what would I do with it all ? Knowing that bad weather was on its way, I considered heading on to Alesjaure, but that would amount to 34km in one day, far more than I had ever done before. Instead, I chopped logs and sunbathed until an exceptionally nice couple from Germany appeared, and we chatted about titanium thermos flasks and other delights that are lost on some unfortunate people.
One of the things I like best about Sweden is that almost no-one lives here, but those few exceptions all seemed to be in Abiskojaure that night. Most of the Swedish army (20 persons) were staying there on exercises, which included digging a snow cave and then sleeping in the cabin. Wimps. Then there were 10 sports students, and the skier-from-hell, who whined continuously about everybody else's behaviour whilst being the only one who was not behaving well. She is the only unsympathetic person I have ever met skiing in the mountains, and later in the trip I heard several tales from people who had encountered her elsewhere. I shared a room with her and Kurt and Carola, the Germans, and she insisted on having a roaring fire with the windows shut. The heat, along with the snores and odour from her person were too much for me, and drove me out to sleep on the floor of the day room. Not a good preparation for 20km skiing above tree line, in 15 m/s snowstorm. The weather forecast had been almost right, except for the little matter of the tail wind becoming a head wind. I should really have stayed put, but the wardens gave me their blessing, there was a wind shelter half way, and it would be easy to turn back downhill with the wind. Given the company I would have in the stuga, I decided to give it a go. Kurt and Carola would also try, but I went ahead on the assumption that they would ski faster than I do. It was again +4C, so the snow was wet and sticky.
Sometimes I think that sleep deprivation helps at times like this, as my mind is numbed to the unpleasantness of it all. I trudged along against the snow-saturated wind for 2 hours, delaying my normal coffee break in the hope of finding some shelter for it. Some hope. I simply climbed higher and became more exposed, not a rock or a tree to be seen. So I stopped anyway, having covered 6km and climbed 300m. I was quite comfortable, and confident that I would at least reach the windshelter at 12km, though I wondered how fit I would feel after a night in a snow hole behind it, not knowing at the time that the shelter is actually a very nice, if small, stuga. Reaching Alesjaure was far less certain. Some scooters came by, and I proudly resisted thumbing a lift. Then one got stuck in a drift, and as I helped him out he told me that he didn't think they would make it to Alesjaure. My confidence dropped under some crucial threshold, and when he offered me a lift, some primitive part of my brain containing survival instincts took control, and I accepted. We lunched at the windshelter, which was so well built that if I'd known I would not have accepted the lift, confident that I could overnight there. The guys were on holiday from the south, were very nice, and told stories of this awful woman they'd met in Unna Allakass. I got far colder on the scooters than if I'd been skiing, and as soon as we arrived I dived into my sleeping bag to doze for an hour. Alesjaure is huge, with 4 stugor, 34 beds, a shop and a sauna. I ate dinner with a couple with big dogs that could pull them 50km in a day, and then we went to the wonderful wood and snow-powered sauna, running out to roll in the snow when we got too hot, to the delight of the girls feeding the pack of 20 dogs outside.
I wasn't at all bothered to wake to -6C and 20 m/s as this was a good place to take a rest day - lots of people, lots of food, and a great sauna. I read, wrote, talked, chopped wood, fetched water from a hole dug down to the stream, and skied briefly, just to understand why people don't ski in these conditions. It was fascinating - I wasn't surprised that I couldn't see the markers in front or behind, despite being only 40m apart, but I was surprised to not be able to see the ground, nor indeed to know if the ground were flat or not, nor to be able to judge whether or not I was moving. At one point I thought I was standing still, but then I inexplicably fell over, and as I hit the ground it was rushing past me. I was obviously gliding down a hill at some speed, but with no fixed reference I was unaware of it.
It was a Thursday, and the sauna was full of people who were expected at work on Monday, trying to decide if they should stick to their plans to get to Nikkaluokta, or play safe and head back to Abisko. It was nice not to have those constraints. We woke to a forecast for 20 m/s from the south, and everyone decided to turn back. I resigned myself to another day there, all alone, until I remembered that Niklas hadn't been too bothered about being late back to his job, and so I hunted him out and needed about 3 seconds to persuade him to take on the storm, which I didn't feel confident to do alone, though intellectually I knew that this was not the sort of danger that is reduced by having company. In fact it was an easy trip, 13km to Tjaektja in 5 hours, and no more than 10 m/s wind. It's quite flat despite the mountains all around, and probably beautiful in better weather. The stugvaerd was lovely, and quite unlike the others with her smart clothes, immaculately-groomed hair, and feisty attitude. Very refreshing. We chopped wood, and I took an evening tour, trying vainly to telemark again.
The next day was -10C, still and sunny. Niklas took the direct route over the Tjaektja pass, and I headed off to Nallo, soon to be joined by low cloud, gentle snow, and light so flat that all features in the ground disappeared. There was a small ravine to be crossed, which I approached cautiously sideways. I found the edge with my pole, and leaned down to see how steep it was, losing my balance and breaking through the cornice I was standing on in the process. I fell about 3m, miraculously landing flat on my skis and regaining my balance. My first thought was "wow, that was lucky", closely followed by "but didn't I have a sled ?", even more closely followed by "Aggghhggg" as my sled arrived and dragged me another 2 or 3 meters down the ravine. I suppose this was the nearest I have ever been to a serious skiing accident, and I thought carefully about what would have happened if I'd broken something useful, like a leg. I like to think that creeping into my sleeping bag and windsack, and firing distress rockets when the weather cleared would have saved me. I like to think things like that.
Proceeding along Sielmmavagge was straightforward, but crossing the subsequent basin was not. In good visibility it must be pure joy, a wide, well-covered basin where one can choose exactly the slope one desires. In thick fog it was a nightmare, being unable to judge slope or speed, and ideally travelling the direct line to the cabin, as my compass was the only thing that was going to get me into the right valley and miss the treacherous ravine that preceeds the cabin. Luckily visibility improved a little just before the ravine, and I could enjoy the long, gentle traverse to the cabin.
I was joined later by some very nice geographers from Kiruna, and a group who thanked me for leaving tracks that they could follow through the fog, though they were surprised by the route that I chose across the first ravine, considering I had a sled. Just a question of experience, I assured them ambiguously.
By midnight the sky was clear again, and I got my first glimse of the legendary view from Nallo.
The next day the geographers suggested that I take a detour with them to Unna Raita, on my way to Saelka. The weather was fine as we left Nallo, and it was great to dump my sled and ski unfettered. Unna Raita is an unmanned cabin perched by an impressive 200m precipice which leads to Vistasvagge and thence to Vistas or Nikkaluokta. It was certainly worth the 10km detour to see it. We lunched in the tiny stuga and contemplated the entry in the guest book that read : "Waited here for storm to pass, 5 days with 7 dogs", and we hoped that the dogs were outside. We parted when I found my sled again, and I had a pleasant, gentle slope 5km down to Saelka where I spent an uneventful night with another large group of Frenchmen.
It was +5C, cloudy, grey and miserable for my trip to Singi, and my enthusiasm for another day of skiing waned, so I headed straight for Kebnekaise, saving a few kilometers by cutting the corner off Singitjåkka . As I reached the top there, the skies cleared and I could see 10km back to Saelka, and the beginning of Lattjovagge, into which there is a nice kilometer-long slope. I uncoupled my sled, pushed it down the hill and chased after it, suddenly enjoying skiing again. The sun followed me down the gentle, 10km-long valley, which was a sheer joy to behold in the warm evening light.
A glass of wine with dinner and a long sauna stole the last of my consciousness, and I slept deeply and happily as 20cm of new snow fell outside. Then I could either spend my morning skiing in heavy snow through increasingly dull forest to Nikkaluokta, or play in the fresh powder around the fjaellstation and later take a scooter taxi to the bus. I opted for the later, and rounded off my trip with some great telemarking on the slopes of Darfaltjaerro before lunch.
Although the Gods had been cruel to me again on this trip, it was much more satisfying to have at least followed my planned route whilst augmenting my experience of bad-weather skiing. It went down in the annals as a succesful trip, and on the way home I got to spend the night in the legendary Ice Hotel near Kiruna. This is a fantastic place that you must visit. I was worried that I would be disappointed after all the hype I'd heard about it, but still I couldn't supress a "Wow" as I entered the lounge. Apart from the wooden front door, absolutely everything is made of snow or ice, including the chairs, vodka glasses, and the chandelier. There are reindeer skins on the beds to stop them melting. Go there.
Update 2017 : Happy ending - I now have breakfast every day with Lotta the waitress from Saltoluokta...
© Mark Harris 1999
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