Posts tagged ‘Arctic’

September 7, 2014

Back from Sarek – a few photos

by backpackingbongos

There is the temptation to write a long list of superlatives to describe my trek through Sarek and Padjelanta National Parks. Eleven days on my own where I only saw a handful of people, mostly from a distance. It was truly humbling to be able to pass through such a vast landscape. I have never felt so committed as when I reached the mid-point, escape was several days walk in any direction. Twinges of anxiety were a constant companion and I felt alone but never lonely. It was an experience that I will never forget.

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September 18, 2012

Above the Arctic Circle – trekking in Swedish Lapland pt3

by backpackingbongos

Day 5 – 16 kilometres

As I lay snug in a cocoon of down I noticed that the sound of the rain hitting the flysheet had changed.  The rain was somehow more solid and there was a distinct sliding sound.  I unzipped my tent and stuck my head outside to be greeted by wet snow falling, curtains of white drifting across the valley.  It was rather uninviting out there, the snow too wet to settle, my surroundings a cold soggy mess.  I went back to sleep.

An hour or so later the snow stopped and I forced myself out of my warm sleeping bag to face the chilly damp air.  I sat for a while in my tent drinking coffee and eating bacon noodles, waiting for some enthusiasm to appear.  I did not relish packing up and walking into the mist.

My hands went numb as I took down the Scarp1, the wet material making it difficult to wrestle into its stuff sack.  I cursed when I realised that I had packed my gloves along with my dry clothes at the bottom of my rucksack.  It was my fifth day on the trail without resupply so my pack weight had greatly reduced.  This was appreciated when I set off up the hill, the river tumbling away to my left.

The surrounding peaks were firmly hidden under a thick blanket of cloud, mirroring the greys of the rocks below.  The Jagged peak of Nallu had disappeared, a feint outline of its grandeur was all that remained.  I wondered if the German lads would manage to get to its summit later in the day.

I noticed that the cloud base was just skimming above the valley that I would be climbing into.  Using a map with a scale of 1:100,000 I was worried about having to navigate in the mist.  I made a mental note that the river should remain on my left until I got to the lake and then I would cross it.  Climbing higher the terrain got rockier and the path less well-defined, although well placed cairns kept me on track.

My heart skipped when I noticed movement on the hillside.  I was excited to see a small herd of reindeer grazing, amazingly well camouflaged against the browns and greys of the mountainside.  So far on the trip I had been rather disappointed with their general absence.  Maybe it is rather childish but in my head they really scream out ‘Lapland’ to me.  I tried to creep a bit closer to get a good photo of them, unfortunately this immediately resulted in them legging it as fast as they could.

The encounter had really made my day, apart from a squirrel they were the first bit of wildlife that I had spotted on the trek.  With a bit of a spring in my step I continued to the head of the lake.  I stood for a while and admired the sullen atmosphere of the place, swirling clouds teasing me with glimpses of the mountains above.  Atmospheric it most certainly was but I have to admit I was bitterly disappointed with the lack of views.  I had been looking forward to a day surrounded by huge peaks and tumbling glaciers.  I was now at the highest part of the trek at 1056 metres on the shores of Reaiddajavri.

Walking along the shore there was a final tiny cairn and then the path disappeared.  I continued for a few hundred metres trying to relocate it but to no avail.  I finally got the map out to check if I was too close to the shore line.  It turned out that I was completely on the wrong side of the lake.  I had stupidly forgotten to cross the river as mentioned earlier.  It was a bit of a dilemma, should I turn around and backtrack or continue ahead and hope for the best?  I continued ahead.

It turned out to be a bit of a boggy morass, the ground covered in standing water.  A roar of a stream up ahead made me a little nervous as according to the map I would have to cross it at the end of the lake.  Thankfully the stream and the lake were separated by an area of high rocky ground, a slight inaccuracy on the map.  A couple of hundred metres of walking across slippery boulders got me back on track and I located the trail.

I crossed a fantastic moonscape of grey rock, the going slow to avoid twisting an ankle.  An unforgiving and bleak landscape, slowly revealing itself from the banks of cloud.

The terrain soon turned grassier, a noisy river cutting through the landscape reinforcing the fact that I was actually now going downhill.  Such is the scale of the place it still felt that I was on a vast open plateau.

The weather was quickly turning for the better, jagged peaks including Nallu finally revealing themselves.  A boulder next to a side stream provided somewhere to sit whilst I made a brew and cooked couscous for lunch.  Although getting brighter there was still a chill in the air and I pulled on a synthetic hooded jacket over my waterproof.  I sat filling my belly with warmth and watched the landscape shift and change in front of my eyes.  Magical.

After the hard rocks under foot it was good to walk across soft yielding grass and my pace quickened accordingly.  Once again the landscape was changing and I felt that I was finally leaving the jagged spires of Lord of the Rings country.  The soft sweeping curved forms appearing in front of me had the character of parts of the Scottish Highlands.  Three days previous I had felt that I was walking through the Cairngorms on Steroids, here I could have been in a beefed up Northern Highlands.  The peaks were speckled in white, not glaciers but patches of snow that had remained right until the end of the summer.

My planned destination for the day came into view, the scattered huts of STF Salka completely dwarfed by towering peaks.

On the descent to the huts I stopped and chatted to a Finnish man heading the way I had come.  He was carrying the biggest pack that I have ever seen, it must have towered a metre above his head.  I could not resist making a comment about it and he proudly told me that it had weighed twenty seven kilos when he had set off.  I hope that he had a couple of weeks food otherwise I can’t for the life of me imagine what he was carrying!

I had planned to stay the night at the Salka huts, either camping outside or getting a bed for the night.  However it was much too early and my antisocial tendencies were beginning to kick in once again.  I have to say that the thought of a sauna in the evening was rather tempting though.  I left my pack outside the wardens hut and went inside to pick up a few supplies from the small shop.  The warden was exceptionally helpful and friendly and welcomed me with a glass of juice.  I brought a couple of packs of noodles and biscuits, the cost of which reflected both Sweden and the fact I was a major yomp away from the nearest road.  The area around the group of huts was a hive of activity, people arriving after a day in the hills.  In UK bothies there are often comments left in the bothy book about the Swedish netball team paying a visit, relying on the stereotype about beautiful Swedish women.  My short time at Salka hut simply reinforced that stereotype.

The warden let me deposit my rubbish before setting off, an effective system as I had not spotted a single piece of litter during the whole of the five days.  I had enquired about good places to camp further down the valley, aware that the vegetation at the lower altitude had become much more shrub like.  I therefore set off with purpose, keen to bag a spot she had told me about.

I was back on the Kungsleden again, the trail wide and easy to follow.  It was still fantastically scenic walking even though it was much busier than the previous days.  I stopped to look back at the view, mountains rising above a wide river valley.  What struck me was the similarity of these mountains to Glencoe’s three sisters.  All that was lacking was a piper playing in a litter strewn layby.

I never am sure of the etiquette when someone stops you and starts speaking in a language you don’t understand.  Is it polite to interrupt and say so or do you wait until they have finished?  A couple were trying to work out the name of one of the impressive mountains, quickly switching to English after noticing the look of bewilderment on my face.

A slow steady climb took me away from the river, curtains of rain once again gently sweeping across the hills from which I had walked.  I had been lucky to escape the rain for much of the day.

The promised campsite soon materialised, an oasis of proper grass amongst the prickly shrubs.  I quickly got the Scarp1 up, getting inside just as a shower started.  The shower soon passed and I got out in search of water.  I walked down to a nearby thundering side stream and noticed that the water had a strange blue / grey tinge to it.  I could remember reading that water from a glacier can make you sick due to the sediments, so I decided to pass.  In the end I found a trickle a couple of metres from the tent, somehow I had missed it earlier.

I spent another magical evening and night wild camping, the play of light on the surrounding hills keeping my attention until it was time to sleep.  The evening temperature was cold, thankfully keeping the mosquitos as bay.

Day 6 – 20 kilometres

The temperature had dropped close to freezing in the night and I was glad that I had brought my winter bag.  I was up and away early as I had decided that I wanted to get to the Kebnekaise mountain station by the end of the day.  I was pretty keen on having a shower!

Within a few minutes walk I passed the unmanned hut at Kuoperjakka, with a couple of tents pitched outside.  I looked through the window but it looked pretty grubby and uninviting, although I imagine I would have a different opinion in bad weather.  It even came complete with an outside privy.

Once again showers were tracking their way down the valley, but through luck I managed to avoid them.

All along the Kungsleden there are poles with a red cross on the top, markers for the winter route.  I think that the sign below is clear in its message.

I soon left the Kungsleden once more to climb the shoulder of a hill on a popular shortcut towards Kebnekaise.  A final opportunity to look back the length of the immense valley I had walked through.

The path climbed steadily to a lake simply identified as 980 on the map, indicating its altitude.  It was a busy spot, groups enjoying the sun, Trangia’s busy making brews and cooking lunch.  During planning I had decided to spend the night here and there were plenty of idyllic pitches.  However if I got to the mountain station by evening I would be a day ahead of myself, making the final morning much more relaxed, time to ensure I would not miss the bus.

The route was pretty much all downhill now, however lower elevations would not mean the scenery became any less impressive.  Soon after leaving the lake a huge pyramid of rock reared out of the valley ahead.  Just off my map I have no idea of its real size and I have the feeling it was the end of a much bigger mountain.  All I can say is that it was immense.

The path down to the head of the valley was steep, a shock to the knees after the generally gentle ascents and descents of the past few days.  I found a boulder to perch behind and got my faithful Jetboil out once again to make a brew and cook lunch.  A routine I am keen to continue when backpacking in the UK.  Hot food is appreciated for lunch and it gives you time to just sit and appreciate your surroundings.

Heading down the valley I was once again confronted by another wall of rock, thin slivers of water cutting across its surface.  The path was rocky and it’s difficult to walk and stare in amazement without tripping over.

The valley finally opened out, impressive peaks to my left giving a taste of the panorama to come.

The views back to the peak of Duolbagorni were spellbinding, one that would remain on the horizon for the next twenty plus kilometres.  It’s a foothill of Kebnekaise, bypassed by the popular path to the summit of the highest peak in Sweden.  Kebnekaise itself is well hidden but the jagged fangs of Duolbagorni is the star attraction in many of the views of this area.

Close to the Kebnekaise mountain station I started noticing tents dotted around the hillside, occupying just about any bit of flat ground.  I planned to stay in their campsite so continued past many idyllic looking spots.  The afternoon weather at this slightly lower elevation was hot and sunny, very welcome after the mist and cloud of the previous couple of days.

Cresting a rise the mountain station lay ahead of me, a strange sight considering that it is located nineteen kilometres from the road head.

I wandered down to the busy reception building, a complete culture shock after six days walking on my own.  There was a sign stating that the place was fully booked as I approached the desk.  I was glad that I was camping.  I enquired about the campsite and was told that there was none.  However I could camp for free as long as I was more than 150 metres from a building.  The caveat was the 300 SEK (£30) service charge if I wanted to use the toilets or showers.  Yep you read that right.  I was hot and tired and could not face a walk to find a good wild pitch so paid up and headed into an area I was told would have some camping spots.  I managed to find a spot of bare earth which was almost passable within the nearby birch forest.  It was a busy spot full of disappointed campers who had failed to get a proper bed for the night.

It was great to shower and feel clean once more, unfortunately soured a little by the fact it had cost me £30.  What peeved me was the fact that no one asked to see my pass in the service building, I could have sneaked in for nothing.  I then managed to spend £20 on some couscous, biscuits and a can of pop.  Please please if you come this way give the Kebnekaise mountain station a wide berth unless you have very deep pockets and enjoy a busy wilderness experience.

The evening soon got cold and I read for a while in my tent, disturbed by the group of lads in the tent next to me.  It was not the fact that they were loud, it was just that one of them had the worlds most annoying voice.

I vowed that the next night would be spent in an idyllic location.

Alone.

September 10, 2012

Above the Arctic Circle – trekking in Swedish Lapland pt2

by backpackingbongos

Day 3 – 16 Kilometres

I woke to the dispiriting sound of rain falling on my tent flysheet.  It was obvious that the blue skies of the previous evening had disappeared.  There is only one thing you can do when you wake to rain whilst wild camping, turn over and go back to sleep.  An hour later there was still the pitter patter sound and I stuck my head out of the tent.  It was only a light drizzle falling, as usual the weather sounds much worse when you are cocooned in nylon.

Low cloud was just beginning to dissipate from the high tops as I started to pack.  There was a distinct chill in the air, the temperature several degrees lower than the day before.  The landscape appeared bigger and less welcoming under a mantle of grey.  I set off along the narrow path hoping that the rain bands sweeping further up the valley would not come my way.

Passing to the south of Njuikkostakbakti I got a different perspective of its giant black cliffs, a really impressive piece of mountain architecture.

The path along the eastern shore of the long lake of Alisjavri was a joy to walk.  Often it would only reveal itself a few metres ahead as it wound its way across the rough landscape.  One minute it would pass through thickets of vegetation and boggy stream crossings, the next there would be rough boulder fields.  The scenery was simply outstanding, with parts of this walk having a Cairngorm like character.  It was in part familiar yet at the same time completely alien.  The scale of the place made it feel like you were not moving, it seemed to take an age to progress along the lake.  Using a map with a scale of 1:100,000 did not help matters in this respect.

On this side of the lake many fingers of land extend towards the water, making the shore appear much more complex than on the map.  The path would constantly climb up and down in an attempt to keep on a fairly straight course.  On one such rocky rise I caught my first glimpse of the STF huts at Alesjaure, right at the head of the lake.  They were on my original route and would be buzzing with activity despite their remote location.  From where I stood they may as well have been a million miles away, this part of Swedish Lapland was all mine.

The path then vanished into a boggy section, failing to materialise on the other side.  Thankfully the vegetation was short and progress was easy and I headed directly towards the Sami settlement of Alisjavri.

I passed the huge reindeer enclosure, the earth churned from countless hooves from when they are rounded up.  The settlement itself consisted of numerous wooden huts, complete with outhouse.  It was eerily deserted, the huts locked and shuttered, just a feint scent of wood smoke in the air.

I walked through the settlement picking up a narrow path above the highest hut.  Once again the path provided easy walking as I slowly gained height, aiming for a lake nestled in a low pass through the mountains.

The sun finally managed to put in an appearance, the temperature quickly rising.  This initially lifted my spirits but had an unfortunate side effect.  The mosquitos once again started to buzz around me and I was aware that they were starting to feast on me through my base layer.  Although I was now dripping with sweat I pulled on my pertex windshirt which provided an effective barrier.  The bites from the previous day were beginning to become sore and itchy and I did not want to add to them.  Despite the buzzing in my ear I could not help lingering, the views to the south as I came around the corner demanding my attention.

I passed the first people I had seen all day, three young lads sitting having a break in the sun.  I tried to engage them in conversation (being British I chose the weather as a topic) but it was a bit of a non-starter.  The ground became increasingly squelchy and the path less well defined.  The shelter marked on my map turned out to be an old Sami hut which looked like it had seen better days.  Still, I bet on a wet and windy day it would provide a welcome lunch spot.

The ground started to drop away slowly, the long empty valley of Visttasvaggi beginning to reveal itself, enclosed by towering peaks.  It was another stunning scene, the scale of which I have totally failed to capture in a photograph.  For that I highly recommend you walk to and stand at the head of the valley.  You will not be disappointed!

Just before the last steep descent into Visttasvaggi I passed another group of young people who really did not appear to be enjoying themselves.  Two of them were dressed in jeans and what could only be described as skater shoes, canvas with a flat sole.  Out of the four only one returned my greeting.  They were a bit of a strange sight in the middle of Swedish Lapland, nearly three days from a road.

I could hear the water long before I could see it, the path doubling back on itself, finally revealing a hidden gorge which is crossed by a suspension bridge.  A waterfall plunged into a deep blue pool, clear water then carving its way through the rocky depths.

I scrambled down towards the water, finding a comfy perch where I could make coffee and cook couscous for lunch.  I took off my shoes and socks and dipped my toes into the river.  Toes were as far it got, the water was simply too cold to put my whole foot in.  Ten minutes later the three lads who I had passed earlier crossed the bridge and came and sat down right next to me.  What was really odd was the fact that they still managed to shrug off my attempts at conversation.  They proceeded to get a huge Trangia stove out of an enormous pack and cooked lunch between them.  I found the whole sit down next to a stranger and then ignore them rather uncomfortable to be honest.  I quickly packed, said goodbye and left them to it.

The speed at which the weather changed surprised me.  It literally felt that one minute it was blue skies and sunshine and the next it was grey and drizzly.  I pulled on my waterproof and soon passed the jeans wearing group who had crossed the bridge whilst I was having lunch.  They appeared to be struggling a bit under their large packs, stopping to rest every couple of hundred metres or so.

The upper reaches of Visttasvaggi was simply extraordinary, a real timeless almost primeval landscape.  I half expected to see some prehistoric animals grazing alongside the river.  The path passed through areas of birch and thickets, open boggy areas crossed by the now familiar wooden walkways.  However far from the Kungsleden these were poorly maintained, sections missing and others rotting.

The valley simply got better and better, the peaks to my right rising almost to two thousand metres, vast walls of rock dominating.  It was hard to keep my eyes on the trail ahead of me to avoid tripping over.  The word awesome is probably vastly overused and I wish that I had a better alternative.

After crossing a large boulder field the valley opened out and I noticed that the vegetation under foot was much more tent friendly.  Looking at my map it became apparent that this would probably be my last chance to camp before reaching the STF Vistas hut.  I estimated that it would probably still be three hours away and it was already nearly six.  The sky to the north was darkening so I found the least prickly spot and pitched the Scarp1.  The mosquitos in the warm, humid and still air quickly sent me scurrying inside to unpack, the familiar sound of rain on flysheet soon following.  It was an enviable location for a wild camp and I can only just refrain myself from using the word awesome again.

I would love to say that I lay in my tent with the door open, staring up at the surrounding peaks.  The sad reality is that my doors were firmly sealed against numerous winged invaders.  Removing my baselayer I was in my own personal hell, my back and shoulders covered in numerous yellow and raised bites from the day before.  The temptation to strip the skin from my body through scratching hard to resist.

An hour later and I heard footsteps pass the tent, I peered out and watched the jeans clad group pass, looking damp in the drizzle.  I made dinner by boiling water and adding to an expensive bag of freeze-dried gloop.  Amazing that I was camping somewhere so beautiful yet I felt strangely dejected.

Day 4 – 18 kilometres

Drizzly rain continued through the night.  Just after dawn there was a huge crack like a gunshot followed by a crash, perhaps a rockfall or a chunk of glacier being overcome by gravity.  A grouse like bird chuckled and three winged creatures flew low over my tent, startling me.  I suddenly felt tiny, all alone in the vast landscape and my mind drifted towards bears.  When researching my trip I had read that there are meant to be bears in Visttasvaggi.  Any encounter is probably an impossibility but the thought of them played on my mind until I drifted off back to sleep.

The mountains were shrouded in mist when I finally got up, my waterproof providing armour from a few hardy mosquitos.  I was passed by a couple of backpackers who had camped half an hour back up the valley.  Yet again one of them was dressed in rather damp looking jeans, just the thought of denim related chaffing made me wince.

The rain soon stopped although the clouds on the hills were still boiling and churning away, occasionally revealing a glacier.

The going through the valley was surprisingly tough and I was glad that I had not attempted to get to the hut the previous evening.  The narrow twisting trail wound its way though boulder fields, open bog and thick areas of birch.  There were constant small ups and downs, roots and slippery mud making the walking slow and tiring.  The further down the valley I got the more the birch forest dominated until it ended up a muggy tangle of vegetation.  The atmosphere was thick and humid and the mosquitos hungry.

My initial glimpse of the peak Nallu lifted my spirits.  Firstly because it meant that the Vistas hut was near and secondly because it is just so damn impressive.  A tower of rock that would dominate the rest of the day.

The STF hut at Vistas provides a small amount of civilisation in the wild Visttasvaggi valley, thirty four kilometres from the road head at Nikkaluokta.  It would be a long walk through the endless mosquito infested birch forests to get here from that direction.  I had planned to buy some supplies as it has a small shop.  I started out with enough food to last five to six days but wanted to stock up with biscuits and noodles.  Unfortunately the warden had gone out for the day and the shop was locked.  They had left a few items in the porch along with an honesty box.  I enjoyed a sugar fix with a can of coke on the front steps but there was no food light enough to carry.  After quickly exploring the accommodation on offer (pretty good considering the remote location) and using the rubbish bin I shouldered my pack and headed towards the river.

A swaying suspension bridge crossed the now considerable river giving grand views back the way I had come, cloud beginning to lift from the mountain tops.

I passed the three lads from the day before who were taking down a rather large tent, this time I received a friendly wave.  I was now on a different trail that would eventually lead back to the Kungsleden nineteen kilometres away.  It was these nineteen kilometres that I was looking forward to the most on the entire trip.

A narrow path took me across flat open ground before starting a steady climb into Stuor Reaiddavaggi.  The view back down the valley was vast, the birch forest along the flat valley floor seemingly endless.

With a bit of height the true wonders of Stuor Reaiddavaggi began to reveal itself, the leading cast already hogging the limelight and taking centre stage.

A final glance back towards the Vistas hut, a familiar landscape was being left behind.

I was now entering a tolkienesque world of jagged peaks puncturing the sky, waterfalls, rocks and glaciers.  I wish that I had brought my iPod as Sigur Ros would have been a perfect soundtrack to accompany the visual feast.

The further I climbed into the valley the more the peak of Nallu began to dominate.  It is only 1585 metres high, much lower than many of the surrounding peaks.  What it lacks in stature it makes up in its rocky architecture, a jagged spire pointing into the sky.  It sort of reminded me of a Lapland version of Suilven as that spire is in fact the end of a ridge, from other viewpoints it is more of a whaleback mountain.  My camera barely got put back in its protective case for the rest of the afternoon.

Just past a long boggy section where electric green moss contrasted vividly with the many greys on offer, I found a dry spot to sit and eat a late lunch.  The three young lads had been tailing me for a couple of hours.  Once again they sat down next to me, this time engaging in some pleasant conversation.  They were from Germany and I think that they had just been a bit shy rather than standoffish.  I was by now a familiar figure who could be talked to!  They said that the jeans wearing group the day before had reached the hut totally exhausted just before dark.  They had a bus to catch meaning that they would need to walk the entire thirty four kilometres to the road in one day.  The chance of them staying on schedule were looking very slim.  The three German lads were hoping for some clear weather the following day as they planned to climb Nallu.  I crossed my fingers that they would get it, a great sounding expedition.

Continuing up the valley my surroundings got much starker, vegetation having to fight with bare rock which was starting to dominate.  The boulder fields were tiring and I was glad that I had decided not to trek in trailshoes.

A glacier hung high on the other side of the valley, most of it hidden in the clouds.  I heard a crack and looked up just in time to see a couple of large rocks bounce down the cliffs below.  I was walking through a constantly moving landscape.

The STF hut of Nallo soon came into view, sitting amongst a lunar landscape.  At over 900 metres the temperature had dropped significantly and although tired the cold kept me moving.

The hut sits on the other side of the river, with many braided channels at the crossing point.  It was wide but the easiest route was marked by cairns meaning that I got across with dry feet.  I left my pack outside the hut and went into the almost overwhelming heat inside.  It felt overly busy inside its dark confines, its occupants preparing their evening meals.  After four days on the trail without a wash or changing my clothes I was aware that I stank.  I found the warden and asked about good places nearby to camp as I decided I did not fancy staying the night.  She was exceptionally helpful and pointed me further up the valley.  She said that the nine people already in the hut was an August record for a night there.  With the weather dry I was glad to escape back to my own company for the night.

I climbed for ten minutes up the hill and found a relatively flat spot above the river.  There was a cold wind blowing but the view from my tent was exceptional, worth a bit of buffeting.  I managed a ‘Jetboil bath’ in my tent, a soapy j-cloth around my body with warm water.  It removed some of the stink building up.  The same clothes went back on though.  Unlike the night before I enjoyed the evening immensely, laying in my sleeping bag with the door open, drinking in the view.  Spirits were high and I was looking forward to the following day and the highest section of the trip.

September 2, 2012

Above the Arctic Circle – trekking in Swedish Lapland pt1

by backpackingbongos

The journey from Stockholm Arlanda airport to my hotel in the city was remarkably easy.  A lift (I liked the fact that the sign read ‘hiss’) from the terminal building took me down to the railway platform where the Arlanda Express was waiting.  The immaculately clean space age train then whisked me at 205 kpm almost to my hotel door.  In the UK turning up on a Friday night at 11pm in a strange city can be a hair-raising experience, drunken chaos sadly being the norm.  Stockholm at that time of night was remarkably calm and ordered and I spent half an hour wandering around after checking into my room.

I had booked a sleeper train for the following evening to take me to Abisko, north of the Arctic circle.  This meant that I had a day to spend in Stockholm.  I have to admit that I am not a big city fan, for me they are something to escape from.  Therefore after a late breakfast I found myself walking rather aimlessly around the city centre killing time.  I managed to locate the street with several outdoor shops and had a good old browse.  Stockholm is not the place to head to if you want to pick up some bargain outdoor kit!  I purchased some gas for my Jetboil and some mozzie spray and then spent a few hours walking in a large circle, returning to the train station rather hot and footsore.  I had not expected the city to be so warm and sunny.

I was relieved to finally board my overnight train later that evening.  Being of a slightly misanthropic persuasion I had paid a few extra pounds and had a cabin all to myself.  I was glad that I had as it would have been a tight squeeze to fit three adults in that rather narrow box.  I enjoyed being able to spread out on the bottom bunk whilst watching the Swedish countryside drift past the window.  There are rather a lot of trees in Sweden. It was early to bed in an attempt to make the 18 hour journey go a little bit quicker.

I woke to find that we were stationary in the middle of nowhere, enclosed by a wall of trees.  I felt rather sick and my stomach was making some very unhappy noises.  The morning was spent making several emergency dashes to the loo and I have to admit that the idea of shouldering my pack and hiking into the wilds was becoming very unappealing.  A series of lengthy announcements came over the tannoy in Swedish.  Chatting to the occupants in the cabin next door it turned out that due to signaling failures in the night we were running over four hours late.  As we pulled into Boden station I set off  down the train in search of the buffet car on a mission to purchase strong coffee.  Unfortunately the buffet car had been removed and connected to another train.  For some unfathomable reason we then sat motionless in Boden for nearly two hours waiting to connect with another train, compounding the late running.  It is good to know that the UK does not hold a monopoly on having an unreliable rail network!

Day 1 – 14 kilometres

It was 4.00pm by the time I got off at Abisko tourist railway station, twenty two hours after boarding the train.  After such a long journey and having spent most of the day on the loo I was feeling a bit sorry for myself.  It did not help that I was four hours behind schedule and had fourteen kilometres to hike by evening.  In Sweden you are pretty much free to pitch a tent wherever you want, but there is an exception to this rule within Abisko national park.  This meant that I had a bit of a route march ahead of me to get my tent pitched in a designated place that evening.

Passing under the gates to the Kungsleden trail I followed the wide track through the birch forest.  It was at this point that it really sank in where I was.  I kept muttering to myself, “I’m in the Arctic, I’m in the Arctic, I’m in the Arctic” over and over again.  Soon I was grinning from ear to ear.  My Arctic trek had finally began.

The Abiskojakka river would be my companion for most of the afternoon.  At the beginning of the trail it thunders through an impressive rocky canyon, the water crystal clear.

Wooden boardwalks would soon become a familiar sight on my trek as I passed through areas of bog and delicate vegetation.  You have to concentrate when walking across them as it would be easy to misplace your feet and twist an ankle.  Also in the less frequented areas they are not always well maintained and have a habit of acting like a see-saw when you walk on one end.  I soon got used to them and could quickly see the benefits to the ground and vegetation.  They also keep your feet dry across the boggy bits, which is nice.

I have to admit that at the first meditation spot on the Kungsleden I managed to take a wrong turn.  Maybe it was because I was trying not to disturb the woman sitting with her eyes closed high above the river.  I noticed after a few minutes that the sound of the river had disappeared and that the path was now only a few inches wide.  I retraced my steps back to the Kungsleden which is as wide as a motorway in this early stage.  I wondered how I could make such a navigational error.

I passed a constant stream of day walkers who were heading back to Abisko for the evening.  Backpackers however were thin on the ground due to my late start.

A few kilometres after setting off I passed a designated camp site.  I was tempted to stay as I was tired, but I was aware that it would add at least ten kilometres onto the twenty two I already had planned for the following day.  I also felt that it was a rather dark and gloomy spot, the tent pitches being damp and muddy.

I crossed the first suspension bridge of the trip, it was great fun as it bounced and swayed high above the river.

It was a shame that I had to rush the first day of the trip and I found that I was constantly looking at my watch and then the map to gauge my progress.  It was a lovely warm and sunny afternoon and it would have been good to spend time lingering, the landscape slowly unfolding as I passed through.  From riverside to open moorland to lakeside.

At the north eastern end of Abeskojavri there was a Sami settlement next to the lake.  It looked like an excellent place to camp with plentiful patches of flat grass.  However I was aware of the no camping rule in the national park and was also unsure of the protocol of camping near a Sami settlement.  I thought that the traditional huts were impressive though.

A few hundred metres along the lake I passed a small stream and decided that I would collect water and have a stealth camp out of sight of the path.  I was simply too tired to continue and I found myself getting rather grumpy.  I headed to a flat looking terrace above but was dismayed to find that what looked like grass from a distance was actually inches high shrubs and trees.  There was absolutely no chance of being able to pitch a tent.  I ditched the water and continued along the lake towards the huts at Abiskojaure.

An hour or so later I was greeted by a rather stern warden who informed me that the hut was full and that he hoped I was carrying a tent.  Not being a member of the STF I was charged a ridiculous 240 SEK (£24) to camp on a muddy patch round the back of the hut.  I tried to join so that I could get discounted rates during the rest of my trip, but they had run out of membership cards.  I was rather peeved that I therefore still had to pay the non-members price.  I was then forbidden from entering the main hut and forbidden from cooking in my tent, instead shown to a campers kitchen.  I have to say that the whole STF experience was rather off-putting and I vowed to wild camp as much as possible during the rest of the trip.

Day 2 – 15 kilometres

I woke at 5.00am and got up to use the loo.  I have not seen air so clear and sky so blue since trekking high in the Himalaya many years ago.  The clarity of the air was amazing, the sun just lifting above the horizon and shining through the birch trees, the precipitous slopes of Giron towering above and casting its shadow.  It was a breathtaking moment but I could not linger as the temperature was close to freezing and I was dressed in my sleeping clothes.

I managed to get another couple of hours sleep, waiting for the warming rays of the sun to reach my tent before getting up.  I was glad to leave the rather regimented vibe of the Abiskojuare hut, the suspension bridge across the river promising real adventure.

I could not believe my luck with the weather as I slowly ascended though the birch forests.  The going was easy and with every step I was moving into ever more remote country.

A suspension bridge crosses the tumbling Siellajohka river, boulders providing plentiful places to sit in the sun.  I removed my boots for a while and dipped my feet in the fast flowing water.  That lasted only a few seconds as the water was painfully cold.

Across the river the path starts climbing steeply until you are high above the river.  There is a feeling that you are now entering the high mountains, the forest spread out below my feet.

An engraved boulder marked another meditation spot, one of many between Abisko and Nikkaluokta.  I did not feel the need to meditate but it did provide a nice handy seat to rest for a few minutes.

The scenery was now outstanding and I could have been in the Scottish Highlands, although the landscape was on a much bigger scale.

It was a long hot and steady climb around the shoulder of Garddenvarri, the mosquitos becoming very active and annoying.  As I came around the corner the scenery became much more alpine with the jagged peaks and ridges ahead rising to nearly two thousand metres.  Unfortunately the position of the sun made it difficult to capture just how impressive they really were.

It was whilst standing around taking photos that I heard the commotion behind.  One of my pet hates in the outdoors was quickly approaching, the outdoor mega hiking group, their members stretching out in a long crocodile line.  I continued on my way, hoping to put some distance in front of them.  I passed a large hairy man of the mountains, all beard and suntan who looked like he had been in the hills for weeks.  He returned my greeting and then his eyes widened in horror when he saw the group behind.  He said that he was going to find a boulder to hide behind whilst he waited for them to pass.  I left him muttering, “Too busy, too busy”.

The climbing was done and I found myself on a plateau on the eight hundred metre contour.  The view to the west was stunning with a mountain in Norway looking all rugged and pointy above a large glacier.  I think that there are endless possibilities for exploration in this area.

Two lakes came into view with a Sami settlement spread out between then.  My pace had become relaxed and the mega group had caught up.  Feeling in a bit of a huff I decided to go off path and found a boulder to perch for a while whilst I waited for them to disappear over the horizon.  I was happy to hang around, the view being exactly how I imagined the Arctic tundra to look.

The mega group decided to have a faff and it was evident that they were being guided.  I have seen companies that offer guided walks on the Kungsleden on the internet and cannot fathom out why someone would want to pay large sums to be herded along what is a very well-defined trail.

I managed to get ahead of mega group and came to another, “Oh wow” spot, the large lake of Ahpparjavri nestling amongst high mountains.  Once again a photo cannot do the scale of the place justice.  I stood and gawped for a while before deciding that it would be a good place to sit and do some further gawping whilst I had my lunch.  It was a very happy man who removed his boots and sat against a boulder drinking coffee and eating couscous.

I had photocopied some pages from the Kungsleden guidebook and I sat reading them in the sun, no real hurry to get moving again.  The following caught my eye, ‘Look out between Radujavri and Mieskajavri for a spot where it is possible to wade across so as to continue along a path on the east side of the lakes towards Visstasvaggi.  But be cautious, wading is difficult unless the water level is very low’.

It sounded like a challenge and with mega group appearing once again on the horizon I decided to change my route.  I followed the Kungsleden a little bit further until a rickety faded signpost pointed towards the lakes, no visible sign of a path in the boggy tundra.  My heart fluttered a little in my mouth as I took the plunge and headed into a much more deserted Swedish Lapland.

I actually managed to find a few vestiges of a path on the boggy walk towards where the two lakes met.  There were even a few sections of boardwalk which had not been eaten up by the bog and vegetation.  The path frequently disappeared and it was a bit if a game trying to work out where it would reappear.

At the crossing point I met a couple who had been sitting there for half an hour trying to decide whether they should cross or not.  They said that another couple had successfully managed to get across earlier.  I have to admit that I was rather nervous, I had never crossed such a large body of water before, it was probably at least two hundred metres to the other side.  Although there were plenty of boulders where I could rest, it was difficult to gauge how deep the water in-between was.  Also the water towards the far bank appeared to be fast flowing.

When I declared that I was going to go for it the couple decided they would try as well.  I removed my boots and changed into my inov8 recolites and made a tentative step into the water.  It was cold enough to make me gasp and my feet quickly went numb.  To start with the water was knee-deep and I slowly made my way to the first boulders where I could rest in safety.  In places I could see that the water was over waist deep and I spent a while backtracking to find a safer way across, the boulders underfoot being rather slippery.  At times the water came to mid thigh.  Finally I came to the fast flowing section which thankfully was only knee-deep, more water would have caused difficulty.  Twenty minutes after first starting the crossing I reached the far bank.

The couple was only half way across and whilst stopping to put my socks and boots back on I paused to photograph them.  Hopefully it shows the scale of the crossing.  I felt rather pleased with myself and I was happy that there was now a large barrier between me and the Kungsleden.

After the wide and often eroded Kungsleden the narrow trod on the other side of the lake was a pleasure to walk.  It was just a feint groove marked by the occasional cairn as it twisted and turned through boulders and thickets of vegetation.  All alone and with the mountains towering above I felt that I was now properly exploring the stunning scenery.

The path climbed to cross a finger of land sticking out into the lake, the height giving a better view of the huge bulk of Njuikkostakbakti, its black cliffs an impressive sight.

A small amount of ascent meant that the vegetation was much shorter and there was evidence of grazing by reindeer.  I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss in terms of a wild camp spot.  With excellent conditions underfoot, fantastic views and water a few minutes walk away I decided to pitch the Scarp.  It was rather windy but it was doing a good job at keeping the mosquitos away.  In fact the location was perfect, probably the best of the trip and perhaps one of the best I have ever had.

With my tent pitched, gear sorted and my 4ltr platypus full of water I wandered across the small rocky outcrop overlooking the lake.  Once again the view was superb and I could not believe how good the weather was.  I drank it all in aware that by the end of the following day rain could be falling, according to a woman on the train.

With the sun slowly sinking behind the mountains the temperature quickly dropped and I got cosy in my tent.  A perfect wild camping moment.

August 28, 2012

An Arctic shakedown and photos

by backpackingbongos

Yesterday morning winter put in a brief appearance in the town of Kiruna.  Flakes of snow were mixed in with the persistent rain which was falling out of a leaden sky.  The taxi driver that took me to the airport said that the temperature was only 1.5 celcius when he had started work.  He thought that the mountains which I had spent a week walking through would now be under a mantle of white.

I think I was exceptionally lucky with the weather, the first three days being almost too hot for walking with a heavy pack.  The weather changes fast and on the fifth day I woke to wet snow falling on my high level camp.  The day spent walking through swirling mists unfortunately hiding the grandeur above.

I set out to walk the first week of the Kungsleden trail but after the first day and a half found it too busy for my liking.  I did a fairly risky river crossing and set off for three days along a series of much quieter side trails, meeting just a handful of people along the way.  As I rejoined the Kungsleden later in the week I found the crowds even more of a shock.

Crowds or not, it was the scenery that totally blew me away, a huge variety in such a short distance.  From the damp humid birch forests I climbed into a landscape that resembled the Cairngorms on steroids.  A day later and I had the music from Lord of the rings going through my head.  Jagged peaks punctured the clouds above one of the most beautiful primeval valleys I have visited.  There is something rather special about wild camping when the nearest road is nearly three days walk away.

What did surprise me was just how difficult it was to find a decent wild camping spot as compared to the British hills.  Space is not an issue, there is plenty of that.  It’s what is under foot which is the issue.  The ground is carpeted in thick wooded shrubs which I think may include Arctic willow.  Definitely not something that you want to pitch a tent on if you value your ground sheet.  Otherwise the ground is either solid rock, boulders or gravel.  It often took a bit of searching to find somewhere suitable to pitch my tent.

Anyway I will do a proper write-up soon.  In the meantime here are a few photos giving a flavour of my 120 kilometer trek.

The Abiskojakka river though the Abisko national park was my companion for much of the first day.

A Sami hut near Abeskojavri.

My first wild camp with the mighty cliffs of Njuikkostakbakti (1370 m) rising above.

The view from my first wild camp.  It reminded me of the Scottish Highlands yet the scale was simply vast.

Visttasvarri (1299 m) rising above the rough landscape.

Looking across the length of Alisjavri from the south shore.  The path disappeared after this point for a few kilometres.

Crossing a low pass on the way to the sublime valley of Visttasvaggi.

Visttasvaggi took my breath away.

The satellite peaks of Passustjakka (1935 m) towering above my camp.  I had a real feeling of being alone that night, the nearest road at the end of the valley being at least 40km away.

Lord of the rings country as I enter Stuor Reaiddavaggi.

The mighty peak of Nallu (1585 m) possibly the most impressive bit of rock I have ever seen.

My highest camp above the Nallo hut, I awoke the following morning and it was snowing.

The highest point of the trip at 1056 m, the mountains hidden in mist.

Descending towards the huts at Salka.

When I spotted an actual patch of grass I could not resist pitching my tent on it!

A peak just off my map filled the sky with a huge wall of rock.

Looking up towards Duolbagorni (1662 m), a satellite of the huge Kebnekaise, the highest peak in Sweden.

Seemingly endless birch forest on the way to the road head at Nikkaluokta.

Fancy a big lap?