“One way ticket to Abisko please.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Umm…why you´re asking?”
“There´s a snowstorm there. Road is closed on the way to Narvik but we should be able to get to Abisko if you really want to get there?”
I´ve done my share of outdoor adventures along the years, but ski touring was the one thing I had never tried. The idea of a winter tour somewhere in Lapland got to my head over Christmas time and evolved to surfing the web for different route and gear options through January and February. In March, I finally purchased my pair of skis and started getting serious on locking down the timing and destination.
When the travel date eventually got closer, I figured I should familiarize myself on the very basics of surviving in wintery mountains. Every guide I found online started with a pro tip for first timers – “Never go alone”. I was swimming against the current from the very beginning.
After hopping off the bus to a windy roadside, I pulled my pulka to the nearby Abisko Mountain Station for last breakfast before heading out. Lingering in the warmth drinking coffee and staring through the window to a gusty snowstorm building outside I realized – this is exactly how I wanted to start my journey! It´s not half as fun if it´s too easy.
I stepped out, set up my pulka and headed for the trailhead.
Kungsleden is a 425km long hiking trail in northern Sweden and I was planning to cover the northern part of it from Abisko to Nikkaluokta in six days. The route is marked well and it passes a number of cabins along the way, so the chances of getting lost were slim even on my standards.
My plan was to sleep in the cabins, but I was carrying a heavy sleeping bag, bivvy and a shovel for emergencies as well as a cooking kit if I needed to melt water or cook in the wild.
For the first three days I was traveling in constant wind and snowfall. Pulka felt heavy from the start, and when going uphill in deep snow I was averaging only 3-4km/hour. My longest planned day was close to 30km so I was up for some long days out.
The first day from Abisko to Abiskojaure was relatively flat giving me some time to get used to skiing with a pulka. From there, the trail started heading upwards and soon I found myself high above treeline surrounded by mountaintops in all directions.
For the beginning of day 2, the weather was quite ok. Wind was still a bit rough, but the clouds had subsided over the morning and I could actually get a glimpse of blue skies every now and then. Encouraged by the improving weather and fresh mountain scenery, I decided to take a small detour from the marked route following a snowmobile track towards a frozen lake.
An hour and a half later, while still on my little detour, I noticed the clouds pulling back in looking a lot darker than before. Wind started to pick up, and eventually, it started to snow.
The snowmobile track I had been following was quickly disappearing under fresh snow and deteriorating visibility was making it difficult to maintain direction.
It took less than 15 minutes in blizzard for me to admit I was officially lost. I had a hunch that the marked trail should be somewhere on my right hand side but even the notion of “right hand side” started to get fuzzy due to the very low visibility. It was basically just plain white in all directions.
Luckily, I had an old fashioned set of map and compass in my backpack (which quickly got filled up with snow as soon as I opened it). I made sure not to lose grip on either, in the gusty wind and deep snow around, trying to make sense of the directions through my foggy goggles in plain white surroundings.
Eventually, based on the estimated distance and direction I thought I had been traveling, I picked a direction which I believed to lead back towards the marked trail. Moving in fresh snow was even slower than before dropping the pace down to less than 2km/hour ballpark. I needed to stop frequently to catch my breath, but needed to keep the stops short. While not in motion it quickly got really cold in the high winds.
For full two hours, I pulled my pulka in plain white with my compass and tracks behind being the only things assuring me I was still seeing properly. It was a surreal experience and probably one of the longest 2 hour stretches I´ve experienced.
The uncertainty of where I was and if I was heading to the right direction kept my mind occupied and when the snowstorm finally passed and revealed the peaks around me, I was really relieved to get a firm grip on my location.
Finally, I also saw the trail of poles with red crosses in the distance and hurried to get there in fear of another wave of snow. I made a firm decision to stay on the marked trail from now on.
The one single thing making Kungsleden accessible to first timers like me, even in winter, are the Swedish Tourist Association maintained cabins along the route. They´re located right by the trail every 15-20km and with a small fee, you´re allowed to use all the provided facilities including kitchen, bed with a blanket and pillow, small shop for resupplying, and most importantly, a sauna (in most of them) to get freshened up after a long day out.
Additionally, in each cabin there´s a warden who welcomes you with a cup of warm drink, explains the basics of cabin life (how to get water, firewood, etc.), provides tips for the upcoming days (weather, avalanche risks), and provides the important additional layer of safety being the only person knowing exactly where you are while skiing for a week in the mountains without mobile phone coverage.
Typically, while on the trail, I rarely saw other people. Most of the time I found myself breaking trail in fresh snow wondering if there was anyone else going through Kungsleden in this weather.
However, in the cabins, I started to meet other travelers from all around the world, sharing our experiences on the trail, as well as exchanging ideas for future travels based on our past trips.
Even more interesting were the few encounters with lone travelers I met out along the trail. One of them had been camping out in the wild for a month already and didn´t have a set date when she was returning back to civilization.
Her relaxed approach on surviving alone in the mountains for such a long stretch really impressed me, and introduced me the idea of a future trip of a similar kind. Let´s see if I get to materialize it some day!
After close to three days of slowly inching upwards, I was finally approaching the high point of the route, the Tjäktja Pass. 4km before the pass, I stopped for a lunch in Tjäktja cabin, and really needed to push myself out the door to continue on towards the next hut Sälka, another 15km ahead, instead of staying in for the night.
It was snowing heavily and the day´s progress had already been tough, especially the final climb to Tjäkta cabin in deep snow with again, low visibility.
Luckily, there was a group of Swedish skiers leaving Tjäkta cabin for the same direction just when I came in, and I figured, it would be easier to push up towards the Tjäkta pass using their trail instead of breaking my own the next morning.
It took me another 1,5 hours to cover the 4km up to the pass, even with the ready made trail. I was really starting to get tired from the three days of pulling the pulka uphill, and already imagined the long days of downhill ahead of me.
After the pass, it indeed was a downhill. And a steep one.
This is where my weapons of choice for this trip, the OAC KAR 147 skis got into play! It was pure joy crisscrossing the fresh powder down the steep mountainside even with a pulka behind me! When I finally hit the bottom of the valley, I even played with the idea of climbing back up without the pulka and doing it all over again.However, it had already been a long day out and the sun was starting to set. I quickly abandoned the idea of climb realizing I still had about 10km to go and it was getting late.
Slowly sliding downwards towards the next hut, Sälka, was another one of the definite highlights of the trip. The sun was setting, there was no wind in the valley and it was completely quiet. All the exhaustion of the previous days of climbing were quickly forgotten and I just soaked in the moment whishing the downhill would last forever.
When arriving to the cabin, I realized it was Easter Sunday. There were branches decorated with yellow feathers by the cabin door and a traditional Swedish easter bonfire set up right outside the camp.
Sitting beside the bonfire in total quietness surrounded by the mountains was a magical experience. I stayed out long into the night just staring at the fire waiting for the stars to come out. I was already approaching the final stretches of my journey and wasn´t sure if it was a good or a bad thing. I really liked the simplicity of life out here.
After leaving the Tjäkta pass behind, I felt like I had entered a whole other climate. There was a lot less snow around, the trail was firm going downhill, and most importantly, it was relatively calm and mostly sunny.
Mornings were still cold (-15ish), but once the sun came out it got a lot warmer, and I could ski with only my base layer on stuffing my jackets in backpack.
I passed the last cabin before Kebnekaise Mountain Station, Singi, again at lunchtime, but didn´t even stop there as the weather was perfect for cooking outside. I picked a spot by a cliff to get sheltered from the slight wind, set up my camping kettle, and enjoyed an outdoor lunch in sunshine.
Even with downhill, the journey to Kebnekaise Mountain Station from Sälka took me full day of skiing. On this stretch, there was more traffic (especially after Singi) with day skiers and hikers going back and forth the trails close the mountain station.
Before the last descent, I got a glimpse of the big valley heading towards my final destination, Nikkaluokta.
The lower the trail descended, the less snow there was around. There were sections where wind had cleared much of the snow and the rocks below were barely visible forcing me to go around or take off my skis altogether and walk instead.
Finally, as the sun started to set, I set my eyes on the long awaited skier´s heaven on earth, Kebnekaise Mountain Station, and imagined a hot shower and a propel meal, both of which I desperately needed after spending days in the mountains.
This was also the first chance for electricity since starting on the trail in Abisko – my camera gear was already running thin on battery.
After signing in to a single room, having a shower and eating a three course dinner with some fellow travelers, I was more than ready to hit the bed with proper linen. It was almost 9PM!
Arriving to the mountain station one day earlier than planned (due to pushing through a long day earlier), I had the next day to spare for skiing around the area without my pulka for a change. I set off at the first sunlight and made my way up the Kebnekaise slopes.
Avalanche risk in the area was high due to recent wind and snowfall so I tried to stay on the safe side working my way up the mountainside.
Weather treated me well and I spent the whole day going up and down the surrounding slopes looking for a chance of fresh powder. As a novice in wintery mountain surroundings, the constant worry of avalanches was a bit nerve wrecking at times, but the scenery and fun downhills more than made up for it!
Back at the mountain station, I treated myself with another dinner and toasted for the last night on Kungsleden.
After this first experience in wintery ski touring in the mountains, I really think there´s something in it for me. I love being out exposed to the elements, embrace the solitude, and the snowy mountain scenery doesn´t hurt either.
Gear wise, I seemed to be fine with a couple of minor adjustments in mind for the future. With the extra layers I had with me, I could have taken a couple of colder days, and the skiing kit worked reasonably well in both powder and icier slopes.
For the next time, I´ll pack a tent and try to skip the cabin life for some additional challenge and most importantly – the starlit nights surrounded by the mountains.
The one thing I missed during this trip was the much talked about aurora borealis. Something to look forward to for my next trip!