"Nikkaluokta, Sweden. 10th August 2019.
It’s 9am and I’m standing in front of a giant wig-wam style “Start” sign, with a hundred or so other folk. The variety of ages, races and languages matched only by the multi-coloured assortment of outdoor-branded clothing we’d all chosen to keep us protected, dry and warm on the journey we were all about to begin…….
I can’t remember where, when or how it appeared on my radar, but to say I was excited about what lay ahead of me over the next 4 or 5 days, would be an understatement. We were all about to take part in one Fjallraven’s Classic events. A 110km wander through Arctic Sweden, along this Scandanavian countries most famous long-distance trail, The Kungsleden.
A few cheers and some inspirational words from the Fjallraven staff and we were off. Our eagerness balanced nicely against the weight on our backs. The pack’s straps resting nicely on fresh shoulders, and feeling pretty comfortable, after several months worth of kit acquisitions and practice wanders in my home hills, the Brecon Beacons. I’d manage to get my pack weight down to 17kgs, including food, water and more camera kit than I would later come to realise would be needed. This, for a 4 day trip, had me pretty excited.
Wherever, and whenever I’ve spent time in wild places, I’ve found those I happened across as some of the most social folk to be around, and my Classic Sweden experience did nothing to discredit this. Within minutes I was walking and talking with a Swedish citizen and Classic first-timer. She’d been inspired and motivated by her Daughter, who’d completed parts of this trail on her Police training. Over the next 1km or so, we shared back-stories, our plan for the walk and what brought us here. After a pleasant introduction to the trail and each other, we parted ways in the same way we came together, with a nod and a smile. Barely 500m on, another nod, another smile, another Swedish national, and a companionship that would last the next 75km.
We ambled on...
This “Classic” event, from Fjallraven, was set-up in such a way that it was really up to you how long you took to complete it, as long as you were finished within 7 days of starting. There were checkpoints along the way, and everything was way-marked so well, that it was almost impossible to get lost, though there was a rumour on the trail of one who managed it. Amazingly, they ended up on a path over the countries highest mountain, Kebnekaise.) At most checkpoints you were greeted by friendly Fjallraven Volunteers, hot drinks and occasional treats like Reindeer meat wraps, and sweet treats like pancakes and pastries. Allowing you to take off your backpack, stretch out, and enjoy “Fika”, an important element of Swedish culture. Fika encourages you to take time out to share a coffee and a little something to eat, with friends. At the larger check-points you were also able to resupply with their chosen brand of dehydrated meals, The Real Turmat, and gas for your stove.
Incidentally, as someone who has tried many different brands of hill-food, I can fully vouch for the quality of these meals. Even after 4 full days of 3 a day, I could’ve happily continued with them for several days more. A personal favourite was the Lamb Stew, with the pulled pork coming a close second. Perhaps down to having more time than I usually allow on the hill, but each meal seemed to rehydrate nicely, with the meat lacking the cardboard texture that had become alto familiar on my backpacking trips in the UK. I find diet so important on multi day trips, the consequences of getting it wrong can mean huge dips in not just energy, but also motivation and spirit. Treats help. Alot. And the array of treats that people brought along, were as vast and personal as the reasons that brought them here. For me, it will always be fresh coffee, brewed in my trusty Aeropress. Even the smell as it steeps, is a beautifully uplifting aroma and one that goes a long way to helping me prepare for the miles ahead each day. Instant coffee just doesn’t cut it, in my opinion.
The first checkpoint was at 19km, Kebnekaise Fjallstation, it sat at the base of it’s mountain namesake, and was the place at which that unfortunate walker took a particularly lengthy wrong turn. Considering it’s remoteness, the hut was really well served and set up. Not unlike the mountain huts you find in the dolomites and French Alps. There were opportunities to camp around the hut, so you were able to take advantage of the toilets, showers and shop. But my new friend and I had already decided that we wanted to walk on in to the lush, green, grassy expanse of a valley just beyond the Fjallstation. Even from the maps it looked a perfect place to pitch. Mountains rising steeply from either side, with a clear river coursing through.
There was something very easy about the relationships I formed on the trail. You could lose many kilometers in engrossing conversation, and then, barely a breath later, walk in silence for several hours. There was an implicit appreciation of each others space, and a silent understanding of our needs as solo walkers in the wild. At some point during the 27km of day 2, toward Salka, our troop of walkers grew another, a dutch lady (whom we later also found out was a Krav Maga instructor), the ease at which we wandered with each other, continued on. Our first night together, also turned into a bit of a celebration, in part as we were roughly half way, but also, one of our gang revealed a birthday. Considering our remoteness, it was a bit of feast, with whiskey, red wine, the finest dehydrated food Sweden had to offer, and of course, an obligatory haribo or two.
Just beyond Salka, lay the high point of our route, the Tjatka Pass. And the long slow descent into Abisko.
The walking to this point, had been through long gorgeous green valleys, snow-capped peaks rising steeply all around. And whilst it had been cathartic and enjoyable, I am a mountain-man, I yearn to be up high and to see what the world beneath looks like. So when the climb to the pass started, I couldn’t contain my excitement, with my poles as propellers, I bounded on, into a clumsy near-canter. Which, considering the distance already travelled, and the weight on my back, it was a miracle my legs carried me like this all the way to the top. But standing up there, looking off through the pass itself, a huge rocky expanse, pock-marked by patches of snow, and dotted with a steady stream of Orange Flags, the standard issue to Classic participants, you couldn’t help but smile. This was cool. I was happy. Very…...
The walking from the Tjatka checkpoint changed, not in speed, or company, but in it’s spread-outed-ness (that's a word right?) The hills and mountains all seemed a little further away after this, pushed back by large turquoise lakes and remnants of half-abandoned Sami villages. With the change in landscape came changes in the paths we followed. The trail is renowned for its boardwalks. And here we go to know them, intimately. At times, the boardwalk sections went on for so far the narrow-gauged paths disappeared into the horizon seamlessly. It was like an optical illusion. The end of each section taunted you at times, teasing your mind and your feet, dangling the finish in front of your face like the metaphorical carrot on a stick.
Waking up on the fringes of the Alesjaure STF Hut and Sami Village on day 4 felt quite surreal. I was 75km into my Classic experience and there was only 1 more, of my planned 5 days, to be spent on the trail, before reaching the finish line. It was weird, I wasn’t excited about finishing. I knew there would be a huge party there, noise, bands, drinking, and lots of cheering. But my pace quickened all the same, I walked faster on this day than I did any other, in spite of what I knew was ahead of me. Not that I begrudge people having a party to celebrate achieving something, but for me, the prospect of all that, after this much silence, was not a good one. It would feel like an explosion, an forceful blast of people and sound. I felt like I would need a much longer transition, to ease myself gently back in, like dipping your toe in to test the temperature of the pool, not thrust in head first. But still my pace quickened.
So you can imagine my surprise, when I reached the days target of Kieron, some 18km on from Alesjaure, and all I could think about was finishing today. Abisko was still another 17km away. My feet were tired and my back hurt, alot. But my mind was active and full of strength. I wanted to walk on. I needed to walk on. I had to reach Abisko today.
Those last 17km were the longest of all the trip. My body slowed down, through a combination of my pack cutting into my hips, and the beginnings of blisters on both feet. But I was cheered on by the smiles of passers by, heading in the opposite direction. Some day-walkers out of the Abisko. Others beginning their journey south on the Kungsledden. Fresh, keen and eager. Their enthusiasm and positivity, charged me on. Toward Abisko. Toward a hot shower. Toward a restaurant meal that would never know the trauma of dehydration. Toward a good Stout.
Abisko did not disappoint. My glee at finishing, and the warmth brought on by some expensive Swedish Whiskey, definitely helped with my passage back into civilization.
Abisko, Sweden. 13th August 2019. 4 days, 110km, 1 happy Grant. "