Ski report from Kebnekaise, April '99

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.

The plan for this year was for 4 days of top tours from Kebnekaise fjaellstation, before joining friends for another winter camping trip in Norway, but after 2 days my hands swelled up horribly, and I aborted the rest of the trip to let my tendons recover properly. I'll briefly report on those 2 days, mostly out of habit, but also because some fellow novice might benefit from my observations on the transition from tour to telemark skis. If you want to know more about Kebnekaise, and reaching the south peak, see the report from my '97 attempt.

To the horror of my purist friends, I again took the caterpillar transport from Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise fjaellstation. The journey is across 18km of lake and almost flat forest, 'almost' in that all the motorised transport has caused half-metre moguls to develop. After a bad night in a busy sleeping carriage, the choice between dragging a sled for 5 hours over such terrain, or a quick transport and some hours warming up on the beautiful slopes around Kebnekaise with a minimal pack, was an easy one for me. To lower my credibility to further, for the price of a bottle of beer I upgraded from a dorm with 20 or more beds in the old quarters, to a double room in an adjacent building. But I drew the line at eating in the restaurant, and cooked in the communal kitchen. The last week in March, a week before Easter, was still low season, so I had the room to myself, which I appreciated greatly, and awoke ready for an adventure. The weather was dull, around zero, cloudy and windless, but the forecast suggested worse coming, so bagging the south peak wasn't looking hopeful for this trip.

Tolpagorni Ideally, I would have done something gentle this first day, but with the probability of best visibility being for that day, I decided to climb Tolpagorni, the impressive cratered peak that looms behind the fjaellstation. It is 500m lower than the south peak of Kebnekaise, but still a good climb of 900m from the station. With few other people around and the dodgy weather, I couldn't count on having company nearby, and so packed 10kg of emergency overnight kit in case 'something happened'. Snow conditions were odd. There had been little snow all season, and a thaw, so there was a lot of hard ice and exposed rocks, but a couple of days previously there had been heavy snow fall and wind, so on lee slopes the avalanche hazard was high. Any surface snow was soft in the humid mildness. On the way to Tolpagorni's peak To compound the difficulties, I was experimenting with new skis - Tua Cirque, a go-anywhere tour/telemark hybrid that I had had great success with on prepared pistes, and now wanted to try on loose snow. But having a pronounced waist, they were not inclined to track straight, and having no centre groove, they had a tendency to dive sidways into the snow. In addition, their soft camber caused them to lose wax quickly and slip backwards. All this meant that the easy 3km run to the bottom of Kittelbäcken was much more of a struggle than it should have been, and took about an hour. I suppose the Tuas are the Landrovers of the skiing world - they will go anywhere, but if you're on a motorway you'd probably rather be in a Ford. Once I'd put on my climbing skins, clicked up my Televator heel supports, and started climbing Kittelbäcken, they were in their element and I was happy again, and looking forward to coming back down the loose snow in the ravine. The wind was rapidly picking up, and by the time I got up to Björling's glacier it was probably around 15 m/s. Ahead of me I was glad to see two teams headed for the south peak, a group of 5 Norwegian girls just ahead, and 3 Swedish guys. For a while I considered following them, but it was my first day touring for a year, and the weather wasn't good, so I contented myself with my decision to go left to Tolpagorni at the saddle, rather than going right, up to Vierranvarri then 500m down and 700m back up to the south peak. And back.

The kilometer from the glacier up to the saddle slopes at about 30°, climbable directly on skins in perfect conditions, but with 5cm damp loose snow over ice, alternating with hard windslab, I had to traverse, and when I lost an edge I slid rapidly sideways, sometimes losing a hard-won-back metre of height. Eventually I gave up skiing, strapped my skis to my pack and pulled out the light walking crampons that I'd picked up for next to nothing in a second-hand shop, unsure that they would ever be useful. They were. Able to walk straight up the hill where the Norwegians were post-holing traverses, I almost caught them up, and being able to adjust my poles down to 110cm made life a lot easier too.

At the saddle I had lunch in my wind sack, but here there was no snow at all, just a centimetre or so of icy windslab, so I couldn't make supports with my skis or poles, and just let the sack billow around me in the gale.

I then left my skis wedged between some rocks and hiked the 200 vertical metres to Tolpagorni's peak using my crampons and poles. Almost at the top clouds started to blow in, and I realised that although I would have little trouble navigating back down in fog, finding my skis could take a long time, so I quickly took a compass fix on them before they disappeared into greyness, and hoped that I could dead-reckon back to them if the fog persisted. Meanwhile, I considered the dangers of admiring the view from my peak. The wind was gusting hard from behind, so being blown over the edge wasn't impossible. There were cornices over the crater which could break, and the huge accumulation of snow in the basin was just longing to avalanche, should I fall into it. I found the fixed rope that better skiers than I use to lower themselves into the crater for some exclusive first tracks, and wrapped it around my arm before approaching the edge, probing for rock. I needn't have bothered with all this, as the plumes of snow being blown over the top obscured what must otherwise be an excellent view up and down Ladtjovagge.

The cloud passed, so I found my skis easily, but found that the transitions from loose snow to windslab were too frequent for me to telemark down as I'd hoped, but I still appreciated the stability and manoverability of my waisted skis and high boots. I was also grateful that I had mounted Voile release bindings, as I caught an inside edge on a small sastruga and my ski twisted outwards, sending a sharp pain through my knee just as the binding released. It seemed fairly clear that I would have torn something useful in my leg if I'd had conventional bindings.
A more minor modification I'd made was to cover my binding plates with parcel tape to prevent snow sticking and building up to ice wedges, which I usually have to hack off when they become so thick that they stop my foot coming down enough, and this had worked well.

I was exhausted when I arrived back, more than I felt I deserved, and hoped for more stamina for my next day. I heard that 3 groups had turned back before reaching the south peak that day.

From Kebnekaise's Personalbacken The next day was completely still, sunny, and -2°C, a perfect day for a top tour, but I decided to stick to my plans for an easy day heading up to Tarfala. But not to make it too easy, I chose to go up over the top of Kebnetjåkka and then take the conventional route back down Tarfalajåkk. It was 2 hours of pleasant skinning up Personalbacken to the plateau, with an excellent view of my previous day's trek to Tolpagorni. Kebnekaise's south and north peaks I wandered around the plateau for a while, enjoying the view of Kebnekaise's north and south peaks, and the glaciers flowing down to Tarfala, and went over to the western edge to look down on Björling's glacier, before heading for Rännan, the skiable slope in the north-east corner that takes one down between ravines to Tarfalajåkk. I'd been told that it sloped around 20-25°, and should have developed excellent telemarking conditions during the westerly snowfall. What I found was a rocky ice field sloping 30-35°, so my first thought was that I was between the wrong ravines, but bearings on some obvious landmarks and the 1:20000 map told otherwise. I had climbed an extra 700m for the pleasure of side-slipping, walking, and falling back down again. I wasn't happy. It was then a long hour's trek on a slight traverse over uneven windslab to the STF cabin, past the glacier research station famous for receiving the strongest winds ever recorded in Sweden. Tarfala cabin The cabin is beautifully situated, with glaciers dripping off Klippberget on one side, and soft, snow-covered basins on the other. I ate my lunch there, hydrated heavily, and then whizzed back down Tarfalajåkk in a little over an hour. It was uneven and icy all the way, but must be a very pleasant run in better conditions, dropping 600m over 5km.

I ate a huge reindeer steak with a glass of red wine in the restaurant when I got back, and heard that about 20 people had made the south peak in the perfect weather. If only I hadn't listened to the weather forecast the day before. But I still had a couple of days to go....
Except the next morning I woke with the backs of both my hands swollen, and I could hear the tendons squeeking as they moved. So I bandaged them up, took lots of ibuprofen, and settled in to read Powder magazine and drink tea all day.
The tendons were still squeeking at the end of the week, so the rest of the trip was abandoned for fear of doing permanent damage. So I still don't really know how it is to tour on tele skis, but from those 2 days I could see that for a cabin-to-cabin tour I would choose conventional tour skis with double camber, but I still see the potential for top tours on tele skis. Maybe next year.

© Mark Harris 1999

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