Day 1. 05 March. Abisko to Abiskojaure. 14km. 4 hours. 260m up. 120m down. It was overcast, but still, when I had my breakfast at Abiskofjallstation. It was a buffet breakfast and I ate like a condemmed man. I was surprised by how many genteel tourists there were staying here to see the northern lights and tick ther Arctic, especially Chinese and American, and the Svenska Turist Foreningen (STF) were selling their soul and had pimped themselves out to cater for them. Outdoor folk were few and far between now at Abisko Fjallstation. I had left my pulk (sledge) out all night, so just had to pack my rucksack and and put on my new skis. After a decade of using the BC bindings which clipped into a bar on the boot, I was going back to the old-fashioned, but more rugged, 75 mm bindings with the extended toe. The latter were not as comfortable but offered better control. It was about -10 when I set off at 1000am. I just used my new mohair short skins for traction and did not bother with any wax.
I skied down the lane near the Turiststation, taking care to avoid any gravel ripping my new skins, and went through the underpass under the road and railway and into the birch forest. Just a few minutes from Abisko Fjallstation I was away from the banal chat of tourists and into silent still bare trees, who silvery boughs grew out of the thick smooth blanket of snow. The ski path was well marked with the red crosses of the Swedish Tourist Association and it would have been very difficult to have got lost. The ski path was also well beaten by snowscooters and previous skiers and was sometimes nearly 2 metres wide. Beside this beaten firm path the birch woods looked inviting but they were a white quagmire of soft snow and I would have sunk in beyond my knees and my skis become enmeshed in a tangle of buried undergrowth and branches. As I skied through the bare birch woods i occasionally got glimpses of Lapporten, a chink in the the mountain range to the south with two distinctive flanks on each side of it. It was a delight to be skiing up here again after a gap of about 10 years. I had previously skied south from Abisko about 10 times over the last 40 years and this always remained one of my favourite areas and always filled me with a sense of awe and wonder.
I made good time across along the path which rose and fell, quite sharply in places, as it undulated through the forest. The sledge would push me down some slopes, and would jar as I started up the next slope and it wanted to stay in the hollow. It is a fallacy that if you are taking a sledge you can take what you want as it makes its presence felt even on the gentlest of climbs and up anything steep one must really strain to pull the sledge up. But I had some 40kg in it and that much would have been too much to bare in a rucksack fot my shoulders. The track undulated for 10 km through these birch trees, many twisted and gnarled and stunted and bearing no relation to their venerable age. Occasionlly there was a copse of pine trees, mostly on small hillocks. To the west and north of me was the Abiskojakka river, some 50 metres wide between the gravel banks on each side. It was completely covered in ice and snow so one could not make out what was river and what was gravel banks. Only occasionlly was there a bare patch where a faster flowing section had prevented ice forming, and here open water gushed over stones. There were elg which had been wondering through the woods, their long legs sinking in a good metre in places, as they searched for trees shoots to sustain them. Their large individual droppings, like a giant rabbits, were laid in small piles.
After some 3 hours and 10km the track eventually arrived at Abiskojaure lake. Just on the shore were a collection of simple cabins. Among them were some old traditional Lapp kota, a pyramid type of cabin made of branches in a cone shape which were then covered in turf. These cabins had stoves in them and would have been very warm but small. They woulld have been used seasonally by the once semi nomadic Sami (Lapps) as they followed their reindeer through the seasons or foraged for berries. As I set off across the lake the bright vibrant Arctic light, almost a luminoius white, became dull as a scattered snow showers drifted in and obscured the sun. By now I was on the lake and the craggy mountains rose up on each side as I followed their shallow slot for 4 km to the west end of the frozen lake where Abiskojaure cabin stood beside the river which flowed into the lake. I was first here nearly 40 years ago and although the collections of cabins have been modernized, the cabins are basically the same. The tourism found down at Abisko Fjallstation has not made it here.
There was a group of 10 Dutch in one of the 4 rooms, but they were out on their snow shoes for a day trip. I took a different room and got a fire going in the stove and then bought some food in the simple shop run by the hut warden. During the course of the next 3 hours about 10 more skiers arrived and moved into my half of the hut but all took the other room when I told them about my snoring. We all ate inn the same dining room and there was lots of banter between us with a German talking abouty geology and the Swedes talking about their previous times in these mountains. It was really quite a homogenous group of people all with shared interests. It had been a great first day and very easy. I was especially pleased with the mohair skins. The only negative was my new boots which developed a fold right across the base of my small toes, one of which I had broken a couple of months previously. However the boots were leather and I am sure they will yield after a couple of days. It was a delight to get into my lower bunk in the simple room with a stove flickering and warming the room while it was minus 15 outside.
Day 2, March 06. Abiskojaure to Allesjaure. 24 km. 6 Hours. 520m up. 220m down, I slept well in the simple room and in the morning watched large snowflakes drift straight down from my bed. I was up by 0700 made breakfast, chatted with the other guests and the large group of Dutch about their snow shoes. I did not set off until 0900. Jean, the French guy and the German/Swedish couple set off at the same time. By now there was a slight wind and the light snowflakes were drifting past and settling in the woods and on the track. The first 3 km we just followed the track up along the frozen river skiing across its surface and then through brich woods on the valley floor until we got to the edge of the valley where our climb started up the shallow side valley. We were spread out now, and I was last having spent some time faffing with gadgets.
The climb was reasonably steep and I was eager too see how my skins would manage. I opted to leave the short mohair skins on as their glide was superb. I had some full length skins in the sledge for more serious climbs but did not think this climb warranted them. The short mohair was just on the cusp of slipping back most of the time, but just managed. Occasionally at a steeper bit I opted to herringbone up which was as alsways quite exhausting. I took a good hour to ascend the steeper bit and reach the longer gentler climp up to the top of the very shallow pass. By now the wind had increased and the snow was driving into my face. I caught Jean up who had his full length skins deployed and while this gave him great traction it also slowed him up now, At the top there was unfortunately no view over to the jagged massif towards Sulitemja some 40 km to the SW in Norway. There was a limited view to the south along a string of wide lakes in a flat valley and the mountains to the east of the valley but it was not spectacular in this dull grey light.
I then caught up with the German/Swedish couple, Ed and Marie, and we skiied down the very shallow slopes and through a gap in the reindeer herder’s fence until we eventually reach the string of lakes. The terrain between land and lake was almost indistinguishable the valley was so flat. There was the long line of red crosses belonging to the Swedish Turist Association stretching out along the valley marking the trail. A group came towards us, probably German as they all had inappropiate Randonee skis on and looked clumsy. I did not stop to chat as the wind was now fresh and bitterly cold, but it was bringing more and more blue patches of sky. We powered on through it towards a triangular hut which I knew was a shelter. I should have put on more gloves and a hat but I could see the shelter approaching so endured the cold for half a hour rather than pause.
The hut was 16 km from Abiskojaure and it had taken us 4 hours to get here in the opposing fresh wind which was about a force 4. Spindrift flowed across the surface as we reached the shelter but it never rose more that 10 cm of the ground, as it might in a storm. The shelter was warm and cosy and there were still embers in the stove, probably from the clumsy Germans we passed earlier. As we snacked Jean arrived. He was both tired and ecstatic having seen a elg and calf on the way up the steeper bit which everyone else missed. By the time we finished and were ready to move on the sky had brightened up but the wind was still a force 4 and it was noticably colder. I put my outer gloves and hat on at once to save me chilling down too much as I headed off into the wind again.
The German/Swedish couple had a second wind and pulled away leaving me alone. I could see Allesjaure Huts in the distance some 8 km away but knew from experience it would take along time to reach them . I followed old scotter tracks across the lakes enjoying the vast solitude. Even with my skins on and dragging the pulk I managed to get a small glide on the skis. Within an hour I was skiing past some 30 Sami huts in a cluster near Alesjaure. They were used by the Sami collective in this area in the summer and autumn for reindeer herding. However they were often stocked with wood and provisions in the winter by snow scotters dragging sledges although I saw none today. About 2 km from Alesjaure cabins a snow shower painted across the view and obscured it with the cabins vanishing. I did my hood up and twisted my head down and pushed on. It was gone in 10 minutes drifting over the cluster of Sami huts and Alesjaure cabin now appeared just above me. I knew the direct route was too steep for me pulling the sledge so i made a slow ascent arcing round to the west climbing gently.
At the cabin there was a comercial group of dog sledgers led by a Swiss musher who lived in Kiruna. He had 6 clients with him, mostly from Switzerland. There were also a few Germans with enourmous pulks and inappropiate skis, the Swedish/German couple and a wiley old German lady who was well experieced and had been here about 10 times on her own. Jean soon arrived and he looked tired. I went over to the simple shop run by the warden and got some food for the evening and for tomorrows breakfast and then joined the German speaking throng, mostly the German/Swedish couple who spoke English to each other, the older German lady and the Swiss musher from Kiruna. The hut warden and his wife came over later for a chat. Most of the hut wardens in the Swedish mountains are retired folk from Central or South Sweden who volunteer for a season. The hut became hot with the stoves going and everybody cooking but then settled down as everyone chatted by candlelight while drink hot chocolate before retiring around 2100.
Day 03. 07 March. Allesjaure to Tjaktja. 13km. 4 hours. 370m up. 160m down. I did not have to get out of bed to know it was going to be a difficult day as the wind was whistling down the stove pipe. When I looked outside I could see the spindrift flowing across the hilltop Allesjaure sat on and the Swedish pernnant flag was solid with just its tail flickering wildly. It was not quite a gale and I was sure the wind was exaggerated here as it stood atop a knoll. The others in the huts were all getting ready while I had breaskfast. The nice Swedish/German couple, who I now knew were Ed and Marie, were even contemplating going to Nallo. Just the wiley old German lady was a bit reluctant, but she had nothing to prove having done worse and the thought of sitting beside a stove reading a book appealed to her. I had decided to go as to stay would have been lazy. Previously some 30 odd years ago I had twice taken a route to Nallo over Vest Bossus Glacier and steeply down to Nallojarvi Lake and then Nallo Cabin, but I had no hope of doing it now with my heavy pulk even in perfect weather. The Germans with the massive pulk and inappropiate skis set off first sitting on their sledges as they tobogganed down the steep slope. Then Jean, Marie and Ed set off and walked down the slope. I did not want to ski down as a crash may have broken some equipment or even a limb so I opted to ski down the south side of the knoll and encircle it. On the way down the pulk turned over and I had to detach from it and right it again.
Once down the wind was indeed a lot less it was now a force 4, from a 6 onto of the knoll. The dog sled teams had gone the same way so I followed their trail until I met the ski trail on the north side of the knoll. The trail was very gentle and despite going into the breeze I could still get a glide on the flat valley floor. Ther snow showers came and went but they were not heavy and the breeze did not drive it into my face so I could plod on up the valley quite happily. I could see the other 5 far ahead and they were making good time. Their tracks which I was following had blown full of spindrift in the half hour since I passed annuling any advantage of following them. Even the snow scooter tracks they were following had blown in. None the less the going was still quite easy and I relished the mohair skins and their silky glide.
After a good hour snow scooter tracks left the route of marked crosses and headed over a knoll. Some of the skiers ahead went with the scooter tracks and some followed the ski trail. I opted for the scooter tracks which climbed over the gentle shallow ridge, shortcutting the curve of the ski trail in the flat valley. A snow shower came and went with a gusty squall and I did my hood up and withdrew under it and plodded on. Soon the sun was out and it was becoming more frequent. I caught up with Ed and Marie who were having a snack in the lee of a reindeer herders hut. They were going to Nallo from here over a pass so we said our goodbyes. I could see Jean ahead, but the two Germans with enourmous slegdes had taken the longer way and were down in the valley and slightly behind now. Ahead I could see Tjaktja Cabin but it was up a long slope which I was just about to start up.
I tried to keep up with Jean some 300m ahead but he was making good time and soon I was struggling. The weight of the sledge, perhaps 45kg was really dragging me back and I had to strain as I pulled it up a few centimetres elevation with each step. My skins were on the cusp of giving up traction and this made me nervous and use my arms more. I was soon puffing and panting as I pulled the sledge up the 2 km slope which took over an hour. Jean pulled further ahead with his lighter load and full skins and I could see him far ahead, also straining. The Gemans with their enourmous sledges would have their work cut out on this climb. I had to stop occasionally to catch my breath and rest but slowly I inched closer to the cabins, almost quivering with exhertion. Any thought of going over the pass to Nallo cabin was quickly expelled and I settled for a night a Tjaktka Cabin. From the top of a steep section I paused and watched Jean arrive and knew I would be there within 20 minutes. As I herringboned up the final steep slope the hut warden, a young bearded man from Stockholm, came to greet me. We saw Ed and Marie head up the slope towards the narrow slot in the side valley which was the pass over to Nallo.
I went in and got a bed in a small room and made myself at home. Jean was already ensconsed and we chatted a bit about the last slope but his English was limited. The Germans with the enourmous pulks arrived after half an hour and looked remarkably fresh and chatty despite hauling their heavy sledge. As we relaxed I saw Ed and Marie sking back down to us in the hut, the wind was increasing and there were occasional snow showers and they obviously thought it would not be worth continuing. The wiley older German lady arrived soon after and it was as last night again. However as it was getting dark a group of 8 manly Belgiums arrived and pretty much took over half the hut, stomping about, slaming doors and laughing loudly. I chatted with them briefly but then went back to the easy going Ed and Marie. There waas no food at this hut so I had to break into a days rations. I was carrying 2 in the sledge and had another 8 waiting for me at Ritsem in a few days time. By 2100 the hut had calmed down and there were just a few Belgiums up rerading books and looking at the map by candle light with the wind was howling in the stove pipe.
The only down side to the day was I realized my expensive Berghaus goretex gaiters were only 40 percent goretex and the entire area around the boot and lower calf was plastic. This mean a lot on condenstation around my boot area and my socks and boots were damp. It was OK here with a drying room every evening but in Sarek where I had to camp for a week the books will become wet and freeze every night. Luckily I had a spare pair of gaiters which I knew to be gore tex throughout but they were in their twilight. I felt conned by Berghaus and their shoddy use of cheap material on their flagship Extreme Yeti gaiters.
Day 04. March 08. Tjaktja to Salka. 13km. 3.5 hours. 240m up. 530m down. It was clear in the morning but there was a bitter wind coming down from Tjaktja Pass. I was in two minds whether to go to Nallo or not but it seemed the weather was going to cloud over with frequent snow showers and more wind in the afternoon. Furthermore tomorrow I would not be able to do anything spectacular, like the Unna Raitas-Reaiddags Glacier circuit, as I had done a few times before, as the weather forecast was poor. So decided to cut my losses and go directly to Salka and then give up on the Kebnekaise area and head SW for 3 days to Ritsem via Hukejaure and Sitajaure. The noisy Belgiums, however, were going to Nallo and it looked tempting. The others all left around 0830 but I did not get going until 0900, with the wiley old German lady, Birgit, leaving just behind me.
I made good time up to Tjaktja Pass, the highest point on the famous Kungsleden trail at about 1150m. The wind was about a force 5, but it was cold at around -12 and my face and fingers would cool off rapidly if I stopped to take a photo. I soon caught up with the Germans and their enourmous sledges and reached the windshelter at the pass at the same time as they did. Brigit was just behind me her, ability and experience more than compensating her age which I reckoned was nearly 65. We all stopped for a quick rest in the shelter before the descent which I remembered was quite steep. The blue sky was long gone now and the force 5 wind was bringing in constant clouds and showers. It also got quite misty.
The others started their descent first as I faffed to take my rucksack off the pulk to make it less top heavy and likely to topple if I travered the slope. By the time I went the light was completely flat and it was very difficult to make out any defination in the snowfields. I was lucky in that the others had gone first and made some tracks which I could use to give some dimension to the descent. I went well for about 5 minutes putting in a few cautious simple snowplough turns and got some confidence. The sledge was constantly pushing me down and the snow ploughs were exhausting so I traversed the slope in a wide arc. On one occasion I did not see a small ridge of snow until it was too late and my skis piled into it and slowed while the pulk heaved me forwards. I went flying headfirst into the soft snow with the pulk driving me forwards for a few metres to add to my humiliation. I was in a tangle of skis, sticks, my sledge poles and my rucksack. It was impossible to extract myself without taking my rucksack, sledge harness and one ski off before I could rise covered in snow. Luckily I was spared an audience. It took me 10 minutes from crash to getting going again and by now the others were far ahead into the white misty valley.
The rest of the descent was fantastic and the snow was uniform and some 10 cm deep to slow my progress. It took me a good half hour to reach the bottom of the slope from the shelter excluding the crash time. Once down the wind had virtually ceased and the snow was falling gently. However the mist was still obscuring the mountains on each side which was a great shame as I knew them to be spectacular. The ski trail now undulated along the floor of the valley and I caught the enourmous pulks and overtook them, but Brigit kept up a good pace ahead. The ski trail followed a straight line needlessly going over small ridges, but Brigit seemed to know it was better to go to the west of it along the flat valley floor where there was a gentle descent along the gentle stream bed on the valley floor. I followed a few hundred metres behind her and we wove down the frozen stream under a blanket of snow. The snow now was a few centimetres deep on a firm base and it was a joy to ski on as the glide was so smooth and the pulk was virtually unnoticable. Suddenly I rounded a corner and there was Salka just a few hundred metres in from of me. Its proximity had already been betrayed by the smell of wood smoke drifting up the valley.
There were quite a few people already here, perhaps 8, and another 8 arrived as the afternoon unfolded. There were Ed and Marie, Birgit, soon the enourmous pulks, a German couple on snow shoes and 3 adventerous French who had just returned from an ambitious day trip. It was quite a lively collection as we all got to know each other. The Enourmous Pulks gained some respect from me as they decided to camp. They had the best of everything, tent, sleeping bags, matresses, stoves; there was no expense spared. As we settled in the 8 noisy Belgiums also arrived having been turned back at the pass over to Nallo due to virtually no visibility. They got a seperate cabin to stomp around in. As dusk approached the mist cleared, but the high clouds remained and the moon rose giving a luminous glow to the mountains against the grey sky. I was first in the cabin in 1983 and have been here perhaps 10 times since and little had changed to the general ambience and cosy atmosphere. It was a nice evening with plenty of chat and I was also pleased with the way the Noronna gaiters performed and my feet felt much less humid. Tomorrow was going to be a hard day though and this played on my mind.
Day 05. March 09. Salka to Hukejaure. 19 km. 6.5 hours. 460m up. 420m down. As was becoming usual with the weather forecast provided by the STF hut wardens the actual weather had little resemblance to what was previously forecast. It should have been windy with snow showers, but it was cold and crisp and getting clearer with large patches of blue ski, although the cloud was lingering on the tops. Although to be fair to the forecast it was not due to get really windy until the afternoon. I had my mind set on Hukejaure now and was up quite early to make sure I had enough time. I said goodbye to Ed and Marie and also Birgit who I had spent the last 4 days skiing with and enjoyed their company. I put my skis on at 0800 and set off on the beautiful track made by the Belgiums an hour earlier. I quickly caught up with the enormous pulks pulled by the rich German couple on their splitboard skis. His sledge was over 80 kg apparently.
Birgit had warned me not to head across to the side valley on the west which lead up to Hukejaure too early as there was a canyon to negotiate that way, so I kept on the ski trail south to Singi for about 3 km until I got to the reindeer fence which cut right across the valley. There was a moderate climb up to the fence and I wondered if it was really necessary but persisted. My reward was a beautiful descent on soft conditions across virgin snow as I descended from the Kungsleden ski trail off into the unknown to the west. It was about a 2 km descent down to the confluence of the main valley and the side valley, Cuhcavagge, which I was to ascend.
Birgit was right, there was a canyon here and many steep ridges and cornices and I had been lucky to come far enough south to avoid them. I could also now see there was a marked ski trail going up the side valley which must have originated at Singi cabin, although there were no scooter or ski tracks to follow. The trail looked quite steep, not for a skier with a rucksack but certainly for a pulk so I fortified my soul for the effort. Not only was it steep but it went up the south side of the side valley and that was on a slant.
It took all my power to haul the pulk up the first small slope. It would have perhaps been easier if I had put my full length skins on, but it hardly seemed worth the faff for the 20 minutes of strain. As the top of the rise I was horrified to see the path drop steeply down into the valley wasting 10 minutes of previous effort so I contoured round the side of the valley as the floor came up to meet me. This was on a steepish slant and my pulk toppled over once meaning more effort to de-harness and right it. Eventually I was on the valley floor and skiing across a small frozen Lake at 818m.
It felt the air was warming and I was sweating with the effort of hauling the pulk up a mere 40 metres. It did not bode well for Sarek when I would have added another 12 kg to the existing 45 kg. The ski along the lake was easy but another long climb loomed ahead of me and it involved 70 metres of ascent. I had to zig zag up the slope, which is not easy with a sledge. At the top I was again working hard and sweating as I reached the bigger Lake at 889m. There was plenty of blue sky around now and I could look back down the valley I had just come up to Kebnekaise and the large Rabots Glacier beneath it. The top was still covered in cloud, as were the summit ridges and aretes.
As I skied across the lake I noticed the surface snow was getting a bit wet and it was balling up under my skins. It seems the temperature had risen to just above zero. I was getting no glide on the lake and had to plod on with wedges of wet snow under the skis making every step arduous. Even as I plodded to the end of the lake and then up the shallow valley for another 4 km until I nearly reached 1000m altitude the snow remained wet. At 1000 metres in the Arctic in early March it would have never have crossed my mind the temperature could exceed zero. Surely this was climate change.
As I continued I could feel the temperature drop a bit and at last the skis began to glide again. For the next 6 km the going was undulating but with the glide life was easier again. The skies were completely overcast again and starting to darken and the forecast wind seemed to be arriving. After a gnarly area with a lot of small drifts and little cornices I climbed a crest and looked down on Hukejare cabin in a white wilderness, a desert of snow with a few black rocks peppering the landscape. As I arrived at the hut the snow and wind increased and the visibility was very poor so I cautiously inched forward down the slope hoping not to hit a drift or cornice. I was tired when I arrived at the welcoming hut which had a friendly local host called Ragnild, and also a German couple who had camped last night. I looked in the hut visitors book but there was no mention of Ben Bardsley, a Brit who was doing Norge Paa Langs and had been in touch with me about it a few times. I was hoping our paths might cross.
I had a snooze in the late afternoon and got up as it was getting dark around 1800. The Germans were cooking and the hut warden was holding court as if she had cabin fever. It was unpleasant outside now with a small gale and plenty of spindrift blowing about. After it was dark the German lady suddenly spotted a flash of light from the south. It was there for a minute and then disappeared. The hut warden said if it was a snow scooter it would be here in 5 minutes. But we saw no more of it. Then an hour later it reappeared just near the hut. It must be a skier and as it approached I saw it was. I went outside to see a spindrift cover yeti take his skis off. It said “Are you James”. It was Indeed Ben.
He had just skied the whole distance from Lindesnes in Norway, some 1600km away and was en route to the Nordkapp, perhaps another 800km. He had been on the go for about 11 weeks.
I put the kettle on and we started to chat. He was a kindred spirit and a wealth of outdoor wisdom and banter. We chatted for hours about his journey and compared it to my previous one 11 years ago. He had been using my book and Tania Noakes’s blog to guide him. it sounded like he had really pulled the short straw with weather. It had just not been cold enough for many lakes to freeze over and he had endured a fair bit of miserable weather and heavy snowfalls to slog through. Still he seemed in great spirits and had a modest glint of victory in his eyes at having overcome so many hardships. I am sure he will find the going much easier now for the next month. He too had been inundated with kindness and hospitality especially from Roros northwards. I was sad to hear many of the people who had helped me with warmth and kindness 11 years ago had since died, not least Steiner Gaundal. Ben was using my book exactly as I had intended others to do. We could have sat for days discussing cabins, hospitality, hardships, types of snow, and equipment but after 4 hours it was approaching midnight and well past our bedtimes. After decades in Scandinavian mountain cabins this was the single most memorable night’s conservation. There was no polite small talk, it was straight into the joyous nitty gritty of a shared expedition. I felt like I had know Ben for years.
Day 06. March 10.Hukejaure to Sitasjaure. 19 km. 4.5 hours. 260m up. 520m down. Everyone in the hut rose about 0630. The weather had completely calmed down and it was about minus 7 outside. The wet snow of yesterday had firmed up and there was a sprinkling of new powder on top. It looked like it would be excellent conditions. As we made breakfast we chatted more and I could see the Germans listening in with awe at the Norge Paa Langs tales. We then had a photo photo session and a video chat for Ben’s blog and discussed more of up coming plans. Bens’s on a continued ski mountaineering traverse of the entire alps over 10 skiing seasons with a group of his friends, and my traverse of the entire alps on foot in this summer and autumn with Fiona. Ben was also a vet by trade and it seemed like the coincidences never stopped coming. Eventually by 0930 our ways separated, Ben heading north to Allesjaure and me south towards Sarek. I watched him head across the lake getting ever smaller as I hitched up to my pulk.
The two Germans also left at the same time and we zoomed down the gentle slope to the south with our pulks bouncing behind us like an old cart pulled by a thoroughbred on a rough track. Soon the slope ended and we crossed the flat lake. My skis were perfect with the mohair skins just getting enough traction but providing an excellent smooth glide at the same time. After the lake there was a long gentle climb up a completely white bowl for a good half hour. Last night’s snow had covered every protruding rock so the slope was a perfect white. The sun was coming and going as the cold north east wind blew clouds across the white expanse and their shadows and effects looked like an old monochrome film. The Germans were relaxed on the climb as they were just going half the distance and were going to camp so we said goodbye and I powered up the slope with none of the feebleness of yesterday.
At the small col a vast smooth expanse of white, much of it lumious in the sun, spread out before me. It was gently sloping down in the direction I was going, with a fast fading line of red crosses disappearing into the distance. From the map I could work out the next 6 km and it looked either down or flat with a minimal climb at the end. I started down and with these perfect conditions I got up to about 10 km per hour and stayed there for some 15 minutes as I gently glided down towards the flat. Even on the flat section I made great speed as the skis performed perfectly. The climb was not taxing and I never felt my skis were going to lose traction so could relax more.
The top of the gentle climb was a long rounded ridge with a reindeer fence running along it. At the bottom of the fence, beside a small frozen lake was a “Sameby”; a collection of some 20 Sami huts and houses and fenced corals. It was used by the Sami to herd their reindeer. The corals would be used for the annual tasks of ear-clipping, inoculations and medicines, and also to separate some reindeer for the slaughter in the autumn. The Sameby were organized along cooperative principles with each reindeer individually owned. There are perhaps 20 of these cooperatives in Swedish “Lapland” and their lands extend NW to SW in strips, sometimes hundreds of km long and maybe 25 km wide. These strips often follow the rivers which run the same way down to the Gulf of Bothnia. This means that each cooperative can move their reindeer to different grazing areas as the seasons wax and wane, from high mountain to the vast lowland forests.
After the Sameby the ski trail continued another easy descent. I passed a group of 5 Germans, all friends but 3 on skis and 2 on shoe shoes. Interestingly the 2 on shoe shoes were ahead and looked dapper while the 3 skiers were a bit clumsy. Another flat section across this white expanse brought me to the final gentle descent to Sitasjaure Lake where I could just make out the Swedish Turist Forening (STF) cabin which would be my home for the night. On the descent I occasionally caught a glimpse of the Akka massif at the northern edge of Sarek where I would be heading to in a few days. The final km took longer than I expected but the conditions were still perfect and I had had a relatively easy day.
I was the only one in the cabin. The warden, Haakon, came up from his cabin to welcome me. He was instantly likable, an ex soldier who had served in Kosovo under the UN. We chatted for a good hour and joked frequently as comes naturally to a soldier. He then left me and I started two fires in the kitchen oven and bedroom stove, then turned the vents down so they burnt slowly. After supper Haakon returned for another hours chat and he brought up some cake he had made. He had volunteered in many of the cabins around here and knew Sarek well. After he left at about 0800 I gathered the candles onto one table and sat down to write two days worth of blog for a good two hours. Outside the wind was starting to howl and I could see the spindrift swirling when I shone my torch out of the window. It made it all the cosier inside with the gentle candlelight, simmering stove, and hot drinks in perfect peace.
Day 07. March 11. Sitasjaure to Ritsem. 21km. 5 hours. 410m up. 560m down. It was windy in the night and I was glad I was in the cabin listening to the wind rattling the cladding. I got up and cut some wood before breakfast. As I ate, Haakon arrived for another chat. I don’t think Sitasjaure gets many visitors in the winter and he was keen for company and hoping the Germans who were camping would show up today. I set off quite late, procrastinating about going out into the bitter near gale. It was minus 7 outside but it felt much colder in the wind. Climate change was having a holiday today. Haakon said the best thing to do today was to follow the scooter trail which went along the road and it was completely covered by snow and drifts all the way.
I put my outer garments and proper mitts on for the first time on this trip and set off at 1000. The wind bit into my exposed cheeks but my legs and arms were warm under multiple layers. The ski trail headed down the road, often covered in huge drifts to Autajaure lake where I came across the first trees in nearly a week. They were gnarly small birches which grew around the fringe of the lake. Elg had been around nibbling their softer branches and gnawing bark from the stems. It must be desperate times for the elg each March before the buds come out, but there were plenty of piles of large droppings from them. There were also lots of tracks of reindeer but I did not see any of them either. The ski trail cut a swathe through the woods and the snow had piled up on the track. The wind was easterly and it was screaming across the lake and straight into the woods. Where there was no protection from the trees it was very cold.
At the end of the lake the sun was starting to come out and I noticed the wind eased. There was a small collection of Sami houses at the edge of the lake which were probably used for fishing in the summer or even netting in the winter. The Sami are adept at putting up nets under the ice on two pulleys which they operate from two holes in the ice. After the small summer hamlet the road gently climbed for about 4 km to the day’s high point where there was a small lake and more reindeer corals and fences for the autumn round up. From here I could get a great view across the lake to the mountain complex of Akka on the south side of the large Akkajaure Lake. Akka mountain was revered by the Sami and it is easy to see why, its multiple tops forming a compact high massif.
After the high point the road gently started to descent for about 5 km. I still had to ski as the gradient was generally shallow but the going was easy. After 3 km the road reached a hydroelectric power station which got its water from Sitasjaure. From here the road was cleared but it was still covered in a hard layer of snow. It was a quicker descent now but I was always comfortable on the gradient. I was wary for gravel embedded in bare ice as it could damage my skis or skins, but there was a good covering of spindrift on the ice packed surface. Just before Ritsem I passed the ugliest caravan park where folk from Gallivare had their caravans and would come to fish in the summer and go on snow scooters in the winter. Being a week day it was quite empty but I am sure at the weekends it is a throng of rednecks.
Ritsem Fjallstation was quite easy to find but it was an ugly single story building. It looked like it was the left over from workers accommodation when the power station was built. The staff however were very friendly and Gergor Mellbert, the manager, gave me a warm welcome and my food parcels which I had previously posted to him. He gave me a room overlooking the lake and the Akka Massif and showed me the drying room and showers and washing machine. There was no cafe here but the shop had a few frozen meals or pizzas which I could cook in the kitchen. I tidied up my pulk in the drying room, put on a washing, had a shower and then ate. Somewhere along the trip so far I had left a bag with socks and underwear. This was a concern as if my socks got wet I would not have a spare pair unless I could buy or find something tomorrow. I also had to stretch out a single pair of pants for 10 days.
Ritsem was the end of the first section and was really just a warm up for the main event which started tomorrow, when I crossed the lake and entered Sarek. By and large Kebnekaise had been a bit disappointing as the weather was so insipid with very little sun, but also no storm. It meant I just had to follow the valleys and could not do any of the side trips I wanted. The pulk would have made any side trip prohibitive while en route but I could have based myself at a cabin for a day or two and done something more interesting. Indeed the highlight of the entire section was not the skiing or the views, which I knew to be there, but it was meeting Ben. As a result I had arrived at Ritsem 2 days early, but I am sure I will be thankful for those later. The long term forecast for the next 10 days in Sarek is for more ambivalent non-weather, with no sunny days but at the same time no high winds or storm predicted.