NB: Note that since the article below was written, the itinerary for the tour has changed slightly, travelling to the wilderness cabin on Day 2 for four nights’ accommodation.
As I reclined on my bunk, the night train from Stockholm to Gällivare rattled its way soothingly through the endless miles of forest, making its way steadily north.
I’d recommend anyone travelling to the north of Sweden to choose the train above flying – not only for the environmental benefit and often a considerable cost saving, but also because it gives a much better impression of just how far you are travelling and the vast areas of wilderness that make up northern Sweden.
From embarking at the station at Stockholm Arlanda airport to being disgorged blinking into the early afternoon sunshine 15 hours later at the regional town of Gällivare, the vista of forest and frozen lakes was virtually unbroken.
I was here to join our Discover Mountain Ski Touring in Lapland experience for a week’s introduction to ski touring in the Swedish fjäll chain. Intended for participants with some previous cross country or downhill experience, this tour bridges the gap between the comfort of the pistes and prepared cross country trails and the wild expanses accessible by point-to-point touring.
After the bus to Kebnats and transfer by snowmobile across the frozen lake to Saltoluokta Mountain Station, we were met by our guide, Conny, who exuded calm and gentle authority from the outset and an instant sense that we were in good hands.
There were to be five participants in total in this group: Philip from the UK, not hugely experienced in cross country skiing but with plenty of additional fitness as a runner to make up for it, Maurice from Holland, an experienced cross country skier on prepared tracks, two Swedes – Petter, who would shortly be revealing his passion for retro outdoor clothing, and Gunilla, a seasoned hiker on trips worldwide and veteran of the “Tjej Vasaloppet”, a 30km cross country skiing race held annually in Sweden – and myself.
Aware that my skiing would win no prizes for style or technique, I’d been preparing for the trip by upping my cycling days to the Nature Travels office in the weeks beforehand in an attempt to reduce the spare tyre that had been stubbornly sticking around since Christmas.
Following our long journey, we were starting gently. We collected our equipment and had a run-through of the days ahead. We would be using the next day to test out our gear on a trip around the local area before heading off into the wilds the following day.
After briefing, we retired to the station sauna with its stunning view out over the lakes and surrounding mountains followed by an enormous three-course dinner at the station restaurant. Salto may be remote, but in the small station kitchen culinary wonders are conjured, mostly using organic and local ingredients. At this rate, I was going to have to do some serious exercise to work this lot off.
The next day, with the sun shining and a light wind blowing, we headed out across the lake to practise our “on-the-flat” skills and up the hill to try our climbing skins, for our first long-distance mountain view and for instruction in how to use the safety equipment that we would be carrying for the tour.
Windsacks and snow shovels are carried both as an emergency precaution and also to make lunch-stops more comfortable in windy or cold conditions.
After another sauna, another enormous dinner and fortified by a good night’s sleep and the extensive Salto breakfast buffet, we were packed and ready next morning to begin our adventure proper. It is around 20km from Salto across the bare mountain plains to the cabin at Sitojaure, where we would be spending the next three nights.
Being an introductory tour, this leg is normally done by snowmobile transfer, with the option for hardy types to choose to ski the last half or so of the route. The sun shining and a cold wind was biting at our cheeks as we sped out above the treeline and into the stunning expanse of the “kallfjäll”. Eager to be moving under our own steam, after about 9km we hopped enthusiastically out of the trailer, shouldered our packs and equipment and watched as the snowmobile disappeared over the peak and out of view.
As the wind whipped across the open mountains and the warmth drained out of me, I quickly realised I’d underestimated how cold it was today and hadn’t put enough layers on for this part of the trip. Time to get moving! With my skis and equipment still feeling rather new and unfamiliar, I set off clumsily along the trail behind Conny, who was effortlessly gliding along at the front.
A lunch stop with our windsacks and a few hours later, we started the descent down through the treeline and were soon at the Sitojaure cabin. Although simple (no electricity, outside toilets, water from a hole in the lake ice), our cabin was very cosy and warm once heated and would provide a perfect base for the coming days.
After dinner, Conny got the map out to discuss the plan for the following day. One of the great advantages of having a fixed base for a few days is the freedom to plan each day as you wish, varying the distance covered and level of challenge depending on the weather and the level of the group. With clear skies and light winds forecast for the following day, we opted to go high and picked a likely-looking hilltop a few hours to the north.
Sure enough, next day we were greeted with bright blue skies and we headed for the hills. Although the going was hard work at times and I still felt more like a drunken penguin on my skis than a seasoned tourer, as soon as we left the trail and struck out into virgin snow, I found myself energised and uplifted both by the stark beauty of the landscape and the thrill of the adventure.
When the soft powder gave way to hard packed icy snow, we dug our edges in furiously to keep from sliding back. When the terrain became too steep to use skis, we left our equipment and hiked the last few minutes to the top.
As we came over the rise, the world opened into a truly breathtaking panorama, with the mighty mountains of Sarek National Park to our west and the limitless forested lowlands stretching away to the east. With not a breath of wind and a cloudless sky, I felt literally on top of the world. We may have only been three hours from the comforting warmth of the cabin, but there was a real expedition feeling to this day. Philip celebrated by demonstrating his yoga skills with a flawless headstand!
On the way down we were very excited to cross the tracks of a wolverine, with the clearest prints I’d ever seen. We didn’t know then what was waiting for us the next day!
We took a different route down with a chance to try new techniques, picking our way down through the birch forest through icing-sugar snow. This was hugely enjoyable but also very tricky from a skiing point of view – we all fell regularly and with the deep snow refusing to support even the slightest pressure it often took several minutes to get ourselves back on our feet again.
With the constant effort of hauling ourselves out of deep holes of snow following yet another wipe-out and laughing hysterically watching others trying to do the same, most of us were feeling it by the time we arrived back at the cabins. But we were happy. And double helpings of everything for dinner helped to soothe the aches and pains…
Like most visitors to the far north, we’d hoped that our time in the Arctic might also give us a display of the Northern Lights. The problem with seeing the Aurora on tours such as this is that after a long day in the fresh air, bedtime tends to come early – sometimes as early as 9 o’clock! – and later in the evening the heavens may blaze away spectacularly above on sleeping bodies blissfully unaware below!
But tonight we were lucky that clear skies and some early activity coincided. We forced ourselves to stay up to the daring late hour of 10 o’clock and were greeted with luminescent fingers of green stabbing down through the dark and shifting curtains of light moving mysteriously above. A perfect end to what had been a memorable day.
For contrast, the next day Conny planned to take us along a ravine to set our skis into Sarek National Park itself. A couple of hours across the lake and though a lovely stretch of birch forest with delicious soft snow beneath our skis brought us into the ravine, with its twisting sculptures of snow and ice decorating the frozen river and valley sides. A little cloudier today, but still with some tantalizing glimpses of sunshine.
Quite by chance I looked up and saw, a couple of hundred metres away, a large brown animal clearly silhouetted against the shining white of the snow. Unmistakable – a wolverine!
These elusive predators are one of Sweden’s rarest large mammals and I’d contented myself that tracks were all I would ever see of a wolverine outside Sweden’s animal parks. We were all stunned to see one in the wild – our shouts of excitement and surprise caused the wolverine to pause. He stopped, looked at us and sniffed the air before turning and loping effortlessly away over the hill and out of view.
Amazing, and a true brush with the wild. Conny, who has been guiding tours in the area since the mid-70s, confirmed the privilege of the occasion by saying that this was only the fifth wolverine he had seen in 40 years in the mountains.
We reached Sarek for a tantalising view into its untamed heart before turning for home for the gentle ski back down the ravine, through the forest and home once more. An evening of cards and double helpings of everything rounded off another great day which had given us a different perspective on the Lapland wilderness and a great opportunity to improve the fluidity of our skiing over quite easy but varied terrain.
We’d had a climbing day and a ravine day. Today was distance day, as we prepared to ski the 21km back across the mountain plains to Salto. Conny estimated it would take us around 7 hours, so we started early to allow a buffer for bad weather or extra time if we went a little slower than expected.
Once again the sun was shining today, but there was a cold headwind up on the hills which would make the going difficult at times.
The improvement in everyone’s skiing technique compared to the beginning of the week was marked. I myself, while still feeling that I had a lot to learn, noticed a marked increase in the ease with which I now moved along, covering more distance with each step and using less energy.
We were clearly all wanting to show our guide, who had looked after us so well during the week, each other, and ourselves what we had learned, and we fairly flew along the first few kilometres. Maurice had kindly offered to treat the whole group to waffles when we got back, and the imagined smell of the waffle iron and the taste of succulent cloudberry jam spurred us on when we started to flag.
In the end, Conny had to slow us down with an extra long lunch break and some stops to just take a moment and enjoy some last looks at the beautiful mountain landscape before starting our descent.
Coming down through the trees after the long trek across the mountains was joyous and gave us a chance to try out our new downhill skills (something I’ve never found easy on cross country skis). We eventually made it back to the station well in time for afternoon waffles, having completed the distance in about 6.5 hours.
Back in the sauna, looking out once more across the mountains, it seemed in some ways just yesterday and in others a lifetime ago since we had sat there last. Tours like this are wonderful bonding experiences, and we’d come to know each other well over the last few days. I’d also learned something about myself and certainly a fair bit about skiing.
A final meal of epic proportions in the station restaurant, some sharing of photos and memories and a bit of packing, and the next morning we started our long return journey south. Across the lake by snowmobile, onto the bus from Kebnats to Gällivare and then the night train to Stockholm.
As I lay once more on my bunk on the train, my mind full of impressions from the week, I knew I’d caught the ski touring bug and would be back for more as soon as possible. I have my eye on the King’s Trail ski tour for next year!
Bob from the Nature Travels Team