A blog from Todd Medeiros. ACA NY-Tri-State Brand Ambassador.
It was August 2017, I was working at my computer and an article came popped about a guy who had skied the Kings Trail in Arctic Sweden with a group staying in huts along the trail. The wheels started turning in my mind:
“I don’t cross country ski but I have snow shoes.” “Could I do this unguided, unsupported staying in tents and the whole way?” “Where is the tallest mountain in Sweden and can I climb it along the way?”
I immediately forwarded the article to my then girlfriend now fiancé, Ajay. “You know how you’ve always wanted to see the northern lights? Well we could do this hike, by the way I think we could do it unsupported and unguided carrying all our food, fuel and tent and we can totally try to climb Kebnekaise along the way.” Ajay was in; although I don’t think either of us knew exactly what an undertaking this was going to be or what would happen along the way.
The Kungsleden as it’s known in Swedish is a through hike in Northern Sweden 250k above the Arctic Circle. Our plan was to trek the northern most section on snowshoe and crampons towing our gear behind us in homemade sleds or Pulks then detour to Kebnekaise attempt a climb on the highest peak in Sweden then hike to Nikkaluokta where we could catch a bus to the city of Kiruna. The journey would cover 150k across snow, frozen bodies of water and glaciers.
Primetime for a trip like this is mid-February to early April because the sun doesn’t rise in the winter in the arctic. We set out at the end of February 2018. Ajay lives and works in Falkenberg Sweden which is in the south of Sweden. Ajay had already carried half the gear from the US on a previous to visit me in Brooklyn. We purchased the sleds in Sweden. I arrived from New York the day before our trip. We built the bridals and braking systems for our sleds and did a couple of test packs cutting the gear down to four 80L waterproof duffle bags. Each of us would end up pulling a 60-80lb sled. The following morning, her father drove us to the first of three trains that would take us up north; it would take roughly 30hrs.
We arrived in Abisko 250k north of the Arctic Circle around noon. It was dark for noon-time, windy and starting to snow. Over the next 4 days it accumulated 24” of fresh snow. We set up the sled and dived-up the gear. The bags and sleds were set-up in such a way where one sled would have our tent, sleeping gear and food and the other sled would have our climbing gear reserve fuel and other items we wouldn’t need daily. This way we only had to open one sled to make camp for the night. We each wore a backpack with our essentials we would need on the trail like compass and GPS but we also carried enough to be able to survive and get rescued should we lose our sleds to a crevasse or something. We always kept our stove on us since the stove was our lifeline for making water, but we each also carried ready to eat food, at least one thawed liter of water, first aid kit, cutting tool and an emergency bivy bag.
Despite the wind and snow the start to our trip was idyllic. The trail begins in a deciduous forest and I was positively skipping down the trail with my sled in. We carried a GPS with us and maps and compass as a backup, as well as a SPOT tracker emergency beacon. The trail was so splendidly marked with big red “X’s” on posts in addition to signs at the cabins and major junctions along the way. We left our orienteering gear in bag and followed the “X’s.” “This was going to be even easier than our winter test hike on the AT,” or so we thought.
Day two, we dug out our sleds, strapped on our snowshoes and headed for the trail. Even with the snowshoes we still had to post holing through thigh-high snow to get back to the trail. There were several groups of Nordic skiers on the trail. Because we were much slower in our snowshoes we were always way behind or way ahead them so we often found ourselves breaking through the fresh snow. On day one we learned it was much easier to walk in the snowmobiler’s tracks and they took a more direct route through the terrain than the trail but if we remained on the snowmobile tracks we always rejoined the trail marked by the red “X’s” at some point. Day two was much harder than the first day as our bodies adjusted to their new normal. We used the snowmobile tracks whenever we could. Little did we know; all the trails up there were marked with the same red “X’s” and one of those times we stuck with the snowmobile tracks we rejoined the wrong trail.
Day three started off amazing still unaware we were now on the wrong trail. The weather had cleared and it was sunny most of the day. We left the trees behind and continued to climb above the tree-line. Now on hardpack and ice we ditched our snowshoes. Around 1pm we passed a cabin and the name on the sign wasn’t familiar to Ajay, so we checked the maps as we broke for lunch. I figured this cabin just wasn’t on the map the next one was right around the corner. But the map told a different story instead of going 20k southeast we had gone 20k southwest we were about to cross into Norway. We had two choices backtrack 20k or take a 15k connector trail. Seems like a no brainer but the start of the connector trail looked like a ski slope and from the map we were going to be crossing a series of mountain ridges to get back on track.
We decided to tow our sleds up the slope and take the connector trail. Once we were on top of this thing we would just more or less stay at that elevation and go up and over a few peaks and down the other side or, so we thought. We climbed our way to the top of the slope and saw that the trail went directly down into a valley on the other side. Still trying to be optimistic I figured, “we’ll go down into the valley and take a series of canyons and passes through the mountains.” We threw on our snowshoes and headed down into the valley. As we trekked through the valley we could hear avalanches off in the distance. CRACK! Then the sound of a rolling thunder echoing through the valley. We never saw the slides and somehow that made it more foreboding. As we came to the end of this valley we saw black dots heading back up. These were the “X’s” marking our trail. We were going back up! This time much longer and steeper than before.
Ajay took lead and we started up the slope the weight of our sleds seeming to double and triple. It wasn’t long before we had to trade poles and snowshoes for ice axes and crampons. It had begun blowing and snowing as we started up. As we continued up the slope we began to see what we thought was the top. Unfortunately, as “the top” came into view so did two peaks and a dark storm between them coming straight for us. We would eventually climb past two massive ledges, like two steps for a giant. We were at the first of the two ledges and I asked Ajay if she thought we should make camp for the night but Ajay wanted to press on. As we kept moving upward the storm intensified and the sky grew darker; we could now see that our trail was heading right into the storm. To make matters worse, “the top” kept getting higher in front of us. Just above the second ledge I made the call, “We’re making camp.”
We downclimbed and traversed to our right, onto the ledge. There was a near vertical wall maybe 25-50 yards above us and you could see bare rock. “Great,” I thought, “that wall is too steep to snow load, so we’ll be safe from avalanches.” We found the flattest spot and I anchored our sleds with a couple of pickets. We steaked out the tent flat on the ground before threading the poles and standing it up to avoid it being caught by the wind. Then we buried the sleds and loaded all of the gear into the tent.
I started the daily chore of melting snow to make water and then preparing our food, but our stove wouldn’t pressurize. We were riding out a storm on a ledge and now our only means of making water didn’t work. Rationalizing my growing fear; “Thanks to good planning we have enough liquid water to get through the night and we could make it back to the cabins at the start of the connector trail. The trip would be over, but we would be safe,” I would tell myself as I fiddled with the stove. We were using an MSR Whisper Lite International and the bottle and pump wouldn’t hold pressure. First thing first; new bottle, “this one is almost empty, that must be it.” I thought to myself. No luck. I checked all the seals and O-rings everything looked fine. I began going through the steps for disassembling and cleaning the pump then I put it back together. Still no pressure. I removed the pump from the bottle again pumped the plunger vigorously in air and just then there was a little pop and something came out. I didn’t know if the problem had just been fixed or if I had just lost a vital part. I placed the pump back into the bottle and got pressure. The trip was saved for the moment. I would later figure out that some ice had formed around the ball in the check valve jamming it in the open position.
After dinner we laid down for the night Ajay was pressed hard against me as our ledged wasn’t quite flat. The wind roared and shook our tent. It was like trying to sleep beneath a jet engine. Somewhere in the distance we could still hear avalanches. We talked for a little bit and planned for the next as Ajay fell asleep. I wouldn’t get more than 20-30mins of continuous sleep most of that night and there was Ajay leaning against me gently snoring like she hadn’t a care in the world. I was envious of her sleep, resentful of her peace and fearful for what I had gotten us into. Lying there unable to sleep and unable to move with Ajay perpetually sliding toward me. I stared up at the SPOT mentally debating on whether to set it off. Resenting Ajay for not “being there” to engage in the debate to push the abort button or not. I was alone on a ledge in the arctic with my girlfriend right there. Ajay would later tell me that was the best sleep she had the entire trip. My thoughts began running away with themselves. “Did you check the slope?” “Was there a snow load above you?” “Are you sleeping under a cornice?” Unable to convince myself of my earlier observations I peered out the tent door; all I could was black so, back to my mantra, “It’s too steep to slide, it’s too steep to slide.” Visions of tidal waves of snow rushing at us from between the two peaks filled my head and I swore I heard the sleds come loose and slide down the mountain.
During one of my 20-30min blinks woke up and I realized it was totally silent. There was no wind, no snow just silence I couldn’t believe it! I headed outside. It was stillness like I’ve never experienced before. I checked on the tent and gear. Ajay’s side of the tent slumped under a snow drift which I cleared. Then I went to check on the sleds. They were both there buried beneath the snow! It so nice and pristine out that I lingered a moment to look for the northern lights. Finally, at peace I closed my eyes and got close to two hours of sleep before waking up to the same howling gales from the night before. Ajay woke up too dismayed that the storm was still blowing. I told her about the respite during the night but now I doubted if it even happened. Had I dreamt the whole thing?
We did our morning ritual at a nice leisurely pace believing that this storm would pass at some point. Right? After breakfast we packed all of the non-essentials, so we could leave as soon as the storm let up. Somewhere between 9:30 and 10 o’clock we gave into the cabin fever and decided to break camp and try and press on through the storm. One sled filled I lashed the trap closed over top. With the tent we removed the and packed the poles leaving it steaked down. Then we folded the tent up and laid it flat across the bags in the sled like another tarp underneath the sled’s tarp. The system worked so well we would use it for the rest of the trip.
Ajay and I started off the day in our crampons and ski goggles. We had been more than 30mins from the top when we made camp the night before. We spent that day completing the last 12k of the trail back to the Kungsleden. Up and down peaks and ridges sometimes so steep that we took them 20m at a time. We alternated between waist deep snow and rock and ice. The entire day was white out conditions and sometimes we could barely see one another. No matter which direction we turned the wind always seemed to be in our faces. After crossing a large featureless bowl, we found ourselves standing on top a down hill slope leading right to the Kungsleden. I raced down the slope and found a sign; “Kungsleden!”, “Ajay, this is it” I called to her still half way up the slope.
Ajay and I got down to the valley and made camp for the night as the sun set. The rest of the trip would go with out incident bay comparison. It was certainly the hardest 12k of the trip and the slowest. Looking back on everything now I know we made the right choice by trusting our gut and making camp when we did.