7:37am The trip to Lapland
A SAS flight from Stockholm to Kiruna, Lapland, a 45-minute bus ride with the Nikkalouktaexpress, and you’re at the Nikkaloukta mountain station. This is the gateway to Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise, as well as a popular entrance to the country’s most famous long-distance hiking trail, Kungsleden (“the King’s Trail”), which runs between Abisko and Hemavan. This is where the road ends, and where the real adventure begins. We’re 150km north of the Arctic Circle and the scenery ahead of us is nothing less than breathtaking.
Unless you’re too eager to get going, boost your energy levels with an early lunch before you depart – the local fish, moose and reindeer dishes on the menu will not disappoint.
12pm Hike to the base camp
Midday, and off we go. After a 4km “stroll in the park” we reach Enoks restaurant – a nice pit stop – as well as the boat that takes us across Lake Ladtjojauri and shortens the hike up Vistas valley by 6km. If you’re a hardcore hiker you can walk the 19km to the Kebnekaise mountain station (Kebnekaise Fjällstation), but if you want to save your feet for the real deal – the challenge of conquering the mountain – pay SKr350 and enjoy the 20-minute ride across the water. If you visit in June or July, you’ll likely be rewarded with an unforgettable midnight sun and endless days as the sun never sets.
6pm First goal achieved!
Reaching the Kebnekaise Mountain Station at dusk is like stumbling upon an oasis in the desert. We enjoy a hot shower and quick sauna before rushing to the mandatory meeting for all climbers who have booked a guided tour via the East Trail the following day.
8pm Mandatory Meeting
Kebnekaise was first conquered in 1883 by the Frenchman Charles Rabot. Six years later, 17-year old Alfred Björling was the first Swede to reach the top. The glacier we need to cross on our way up to the summit is named after him.
Our guide Johan doesn’t sugarcoat things. “We’ll make you turn back if you slow down the group. We’ll make you turn back if you don’t have proper rain gear. And once we pass Big Hill, there’s no turning back, and you’ll have to follow through, no matter what.”
I’m not the only one in the room who starts to regret ever signing up for this hike.
“The weather in the mountains can change quickly. You need to be prepared for rain, snow and strong winds in combination with poor visibility,” Johan continues, before giving us a quick demonstration of how to use the crampons and climbing gear.
At this point the butterflies in my stomach are doing the Harlem Shake. We stay up late to do our homework, prep our gear and learn to use the crampons.
7:10am Departure time
After a breakfast at 5:55 where a long line of hikers – all dressed in merino wool – eagerly waited for the breakfast to open, teased by the scent of freshly baked bread. We followed our instructions and packed extra sandwiches, soup and eggs for lunch. Now the clear blue skies and sunshine help our mood, still we’re a pretty quiet group following the path behind our guide Johan. Four hours of sleep before climbing the first mountain of our lives, and the highest one in the country, is not ideal. The first half hour is a walk in the park. A stony park, but still. Then the climb starts. Or, at least what we think at that point is “a climb.”
7:28am And up we go
Big Hill, looming in front of us, is the most strenuous part of the entire trail. We walk up the winding path for 25 minutes, then rest five. Walk 25 minutes, rest five.
I finally extricate myself from my backpack and find my water bottle when Johan suddenly announces, “One minute to departure.” I try to shove in some nuts and raisins to keep my energy levels up, before hurrying to follow the group. Had he not paced us, we would still be stuck on that mountain.
8:30am Wading across the stream
We wade across the Jökelbäcken stream splashing our way through. Luckily the water level is low and nobody gets properly wet. Ahead of us is high alpine terrain, steep and boulder-strewn, brutally exposed to inclement weather and blustery winds, while far away on the horizon we get a first glimpse of the snow capped peaks ahead. The view is breathtaking. Every time we take five, I turn around to get an idea of how far we’ve come – and how far away the goal still is!
9:30am Erratic landscape
Kebnekaise is a demanding climb and accidents happen every year. There’s a 1,400m altitude difference to struggle up – and down – and the East Trail takes 10–12 hours. We still have a long way to go.
The scenery changes once more. Suddenly a valley of huge uneven rocks lies ahead of us.
“Speed is safety in the mountains,” our guide Johan tells us, as he tries to speed us up as we climb, hop, jump and crawl across the obstacles – thousands of them, lying ahead, as well as behind us.
10:44am Reaching Björling’s glacier
At last, we reach Björling’s Glacier. That summer-like feeling we had this morning down in the valley is long gone and we hurry to find our down jackets. We’ve reached a different world, a wintry landscape surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The Kebnekaise massif is heavily glaciated, with Kebnepakte Glacier, Isfall Glacier, Storglacier and Rabot’s Glacier, to name a few.
We get a quick toilet break and have a coffee and energy bar. The glacier looks like a flat field of ordinary snow. There’s little hint that a 225m-deep chunk of ice, covering an area of 1.6sq km, awaits us. Crampons on, we line up along the rope that ties us together, and off we go. The few crevasses are minor and being a big group means it’s safe, Johan assures us – should one of us fall down a crack, the weight of the rest will easily be able to compensate. Which is good to know, although the thought of falling down a crevasse is anything but tempting.
11:03am The wall
Tied together, like elephants holding on to each other’s tails, we keep on walking. One step at a time, at a steady pace that’s slow enough to allow me to take some pictures and eat some chocolate along the way. Chocolate is my main survival strategy for the day. Lots of chocolate. Though I can’t help wondering how on earth we’re meant to climb straight up the vertical wall of ice and rock ahead of us.
12:20pm The climb
Did I mention I am extremely afraid of heights? After a fatal accident here in 2002, safety has been improved, and I feel surprisingly safe as we secure ourselves to the via ferrata fixed ropes. The climb I’ve feared for months is easier than expected. “Scramble” might be a more descriptive word for it actually.
1pm The last part
We crawl over the ledge at the top and see the peak for the first time. It’s snowcapped and tinier than expected. We’ve reached the highest points of the massif, along the ridge called “Vargryggen” (the Wolf’s Back) that runs from the southern and northern summits to Kebnepakte at 1,990m. That’s where we’re heading. We’ve reached 1,800m above the sea. The walk to the top from here is quite comfortable compared with what’s behind us, but still our legs are tired. Here the west and east trails meet and there are plenty of hikers on the go. The ones going down are all happy and smiling and cheer us on. Those going up are clearly less cheerful.
1:27pm Reaching the top!
The southern peak is a narrow, icy rocky plateau. The icy cornice should be walked upon with great caution – fatal accidents have occurred with people sliding off on both sides. The top is traditionally said to be 2,111m high, although as a result of the record-breaking warm summer, the glacier on the South Summit melted so much that in August the North Summit (which is the highest fixed point in Sweden) was announced the highest peak. But thanks to recent snowfall, the South Summit has once again regained its title as the highest point.
At 1:27pm we reach the top. In clear weather, an area as vast as 10% of Sweden can be seen from the summit. Unfortunately, most of our view is blurred by clouds, but it’s emotional anyway. We did it! I feel overcome by a ridiculously primitive sense of achievement – man (or in this case, woman) versus mountain – achieved! We did it!
1:53pm The descent
If you think going down is in any way better or more comfortable than climbing up, think again. Going down is what really kills you. And your knees. And your thighs. And your motivation. The next five hours are spent mostly on autopilot. One foot after the other. As dusk falls, your stomach wants more than just nuts and bars and your body starts to whine a bit. At least on the way up we had a goal. Now, when our mission is completed, it seems like an endless hike down. The scenery, however, is truly stunning, when I dare to look up from the stony trail. Falling is not an option and we need to keep track of where we put our feet at all times and dodge tumbling rocks.
6:07pm We made it!
At around 6pm we stumble into the mountain station again, feeling like different people than we were when we left this morning. We survived. We conquered that mountain. We are so deserving of that glass of prosecco! The other reward is the set three-course dinner at the restaurant. Too bad we’re too tired to even finish the glass of wine!
10am The day after
We’re extra pleased that we booked an extra day at the lodge. We had the Saturday as a backup in case the Friday tour fell prey to bad weather (which happens a lot we’re told). Now, with our mission complete, Saturday is pure “vacation.” We sleep in, enjoy a long breakfast without any butterflies in the stomach or the stress to pack, and get going. Instead, we do a bit of much-needed stretching outside and then take a day hike to enjoy lunch with a view over the colorful landscape. At night we enjoy a sauna and then splurge on another three-course dinner in the restaurant.
8:30am Ready to fly
There’s time for one last coffee with a view before takeoff. It takes the red helicopter about eight minutes to get back to Nikkaloukta – considerably less than a six-hour hike on foot. Seeing the landscape from above is a special feeling. And as the view of the mountain station gradually becomes a tiny dot, I make myself a promise – I’ll be back. Only next time, I’ll challenge my teens to do the hike with me.
Published: March 4, 2020