Thursday, 10 December 2015

Skiing the King’s Trail: An Arctic Expedition for Everyone


Before this trip if you’d have asked me whether I’d ever consider an Arctic ski expedition, I would have said no. Between marauding polar bears and the sheer vastness and remoteness, the Arctic always struck me as a place for serious adventurers and experts – not for a mere mortal like me.

That is, until I discovered the genuinely accessible King’s Trail in Lapland, northern Sweden. With meticulously well-marked trails, a gentle gradient, and frequent, staffed and stocked huts, this popular multi-section trail makes an Arctic journey entirely doable for a wide range of people. An average cross-country skier in moderate shape with a taste for adventure can reasonably take on the challenge and ski one of the stretches. And with a guide, the trip is even more accessible.

The King’s Trail, or Kungsleden, was built in 1917 as a way to get youth outdoors, and was dubbed the “king of all trails”. The Swedish Tourism Association (STF is the common Swedish acronym) built and maintains the trail. Much of the trail is north of the Arctic Circle.

National Geographic cites the 400-km long trail one of the 15 best in the world. It winds its way between northern Sweden’s highest peaks and most dramatic landscapes. Skiers see Northern Lights on most clear nights. The trail passes through traditional reindeer herding land used by the Sami, the Indigenous People of Sweden.

The extensive hut network includes the possibility of buying canned or dried food in every second hut, meaning that you never need to carry more than a couple of day’s worth of food at a time. There are even wood-fired saunas beside many of the huts!

I’m a big fan of hut to hut ski travel, so I was intrigued when I heard about this trail. My husband and I live in Montreal, Canada and have already made a good dent into the numerous hut to hut possibilities near where we live. We were planning a family visit in Europe and convinced ourselves that a quick “detour” to Sweden’s Arctic was justifiable along the way. We settled on a 70-km long stretch from Nikkaluokta to Saltoluokta, the “second most popular” section, mostly because we could squeeze it into a week, but also because this section has fewer crowds and a more varied landscape. The most popular section extends from Abisko to the north and finishes 105 km later in Nikkaluokta, and also seems fantastic. The trail stays above treeline longer, and skiers are surrounded by craggy peaks for most of the trip. It’s even more popular for hiking in summer months. The STF provided extensive, extremely useful advice, helping me choose the best section for us, and answering all of my detailed questions.

The "second most popular section" - the one we did

Montreal – Stockholm – Kiruna - Nikkaluokta

And so in early March 2015, we flew to Stockholm.  March and April are the most popular months to ski because days are increasingly long, weather is warmer and the snow is still good. The Swedes tend to favour spring skiing and long sunny days in April, whereas the tough Finns favour the darkness, solitude and harsh conditions of February, or so we were told. STF huts aren’t staffed until late February when the light begins to return, and this can vary depending on the location so be sure to check before you go. We came across a few non-STF huts run by local organisations along the way but it would be harder to figure out who to contact for information about each of them.

Though our flight from Montreal was delayed by 6 hours, we were still able to catch our overnight train, arriving the following afternoon in Kiruna, an Arctic mining town around 1200 km north of Stockholm. We connected with a short local bus that brought us to our starting point in the Sami village of Nikkaluokta. Before turning in, we went out for a quick ski and saw our first white Arctic animals: Arctic hare and ptarmigan. We stayed in a cabin with a simple kitchen but opted to eat at the restaurant and sample some of the wild food on the menu. At the Nikkaluokta Sarri AB family-run accommodations and restaurant, traditional Sami objects and paintings adorn the walls.

The next morning, we met the owner, Anna Sarri, who answered my many questions about life in Nikkaluokta. She explained that her grandparents settled here in the early 20th century and helped the STF build Kebnekaise, a historic “Mountain Station” and major accommodations at the foot of Sweden’s highest slope (2103 metres). I was fascinated to hear that she not only copes with the entirely dark season in late December, but actually relishes the slower pace and calm energy it brings.

Anna helped us to send our “city clothing” and extra bags to the end of our one-way ski trip in Saltoluokta via Bussgods. It turns out that “gods” just means “goods” in Swedish, although our bags did get transported like magic!

Day 1 – Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise (19 km)

We finally set off along the trail, following the ubiquitous big red X’s on the signposts. We admired the quiet landscape, frozen lakes and low mountains around us. There were only a few scraggy birches. A slight headwind intensified as the day progressed. Snow began to fall, and as the wind picked up, began pummeling us in the face on its relentless, horizontal path. It seemed like an inauspicious start to our “accessible” Arctic expedition. Any Arctic expedition is not without its challenges, I told myself, as visibility decreased and I laboured to stay within sight of my husband, just metres ahead of me. We were grateful to have brought downhill ski goggles, neoprene facemasks and balaclavas. Even in the mild weather, just below freezing, it wouldn’t take long to get frostbite in these conditions. We focused on the making out the next red marker and staying on track.

The ski trails are marked but not machine tracked, although other skiers, snowmobiles and dog teams may come through depending on the section. This stretch would also have been possible by snowmobile transfer. It’s recommended to carry a bivvy sack (tent-like bag) in case you need to stop in the wind, a shovel to dig a snow shelter, a compass and topographical map.

An extenuating 19 kilometres later, we were relieved to arrive at Kebnekaise Mountain Station. Numerous dog teams rested outside the main building, also tired after a windy day of touring. Friendly staff welcomed us with a hot drink and assigned us a room in the original part of the Station, complete with short wooden bunkbeds originally used by the Sami porters who helped early tourists complete their ski trips. Accommodations are simple, with shared bathrooms, and numerous different options. It’s a good idea to reserve and pay ahead of time if you want a meal in the restaurant. The large sauna and truly tasty meal of local fare quickly made us forget the tough day. It was a real highlight to stay in this historic lodge.

In the restaurant, we were seated next to other travelers and traded stories of our day. A young couple from Scotland was just finishing their ski trip, having made it all the way from Abisko with almost no prior skiing experience! The STF also organizes guided tours and accepts beginners, as do numerous private companies. On the other end of the spectrum, serious backcountry/downhill skiers come to Kebnekaise to climb up and ski down the powder slopes.

Day 2 – Kebnekaise to Singi (14 km)

The next day we were rewarded with sunny weather. We reveled in the lack of wind as we skied through a higher mountain pass to the hut where we would spend the night: Singi. We were so far north that even at a relatively low altitude, we were above treeline. We stayed between 500 and 900 m above sea level during the entire trip.

Surprisingly, we had the hut at Singi all to ourselves. The hut was staffed by a “guardian” (warden), Jöm, who showed us the ropes of hut life along the King’s Trail. Guests must fulfill certain duties, such as hauling water up from a nearby stream and chopping wood to heat the cabin. Each STF hut has a warden, friendly volunteers who opt to spend a couple of months keeping the place running smoothly and living in a spectacular, remote setting in exchange. Wardens have access to weather forecasts, which they enthusiastically (and sometimes insistently) share with skiers, and also have the means to call for emergency help if needed.

You can’t reserve a spot in an STF hut, but no one gets turned away. There’s always an extra mattress that can be squeezed in somewhere. Some times of the year may be busier than others, such as holidays; it would be worth consulting the STF to avoid peak times. Huts provide mattresses, warm blankets, cooking stoves, cookware, wood, dishes, candles and toilet paper. Bring along a sleeping bag liner and the usual emergency gear and clothing you’d usually have on this kind of trip. You can save a few dollars per night by paying for the huts ahead of time. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring enough cash to pay for the huts, food and bus trips along the way.

Day 3 – Singi to Kaitumjaure (13 km)

The next morning, a brisk wind at our backs formed clouds of snow that twisted and danced up the mountains. The trail brought us back down below the treeline, where we spotted two moose and another well-camouflaged ptarmigan. We arrived at Kaitumjaure hut, perched on a small hill overlooking a long mountain lake. A special place indeed.

This hut had a store! We bought a can of chili and some rice and filled up on a few simple provisions for the next days. Hut stores contain very basic food that you’ll need to supplement with other food and spices. We carried wraps, sausages, cheese and dried fruit, as well as a freeze-dried camping meal in case we got stuck at a hut without provisions, which had actually happened to a number of other skiers we met. If the weather forecast is for high winds or stormy weather, the hut wardens strongly recommend staying put. No trees means zero visibility when the wind picks up. Since no-one patrols the trails, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Ideally, you should build an extra day into your schedule in case of bad weather, or else be prepared to put in a “double day”. This level of uncertainty is tricky when making train or Mountain Lodge reservations. It’s usually possible to pay a bit more to have a flexible ticket.

We got to chat with this hut’s warden, Anita, who was here for her third season. Anita hails from Kiruna and was looking forward to ice-fishing at the end of winter. During our conversation, we saw her husband head out ptarmigan hunting, dressed in traditional white clothing and wearing an enormous pair of old-fashioned wooden hunting skis.  

Day 4 – Kaitumjaure to Teusajaure (9 km)

Our fourth day of skiing became extremely windy but was mercifully short. It was once again hard to see the next trail marker. Suddenly, in the distance, we could make out a group of 6 skiers hauling massive sleds called pulkas, skiing at a perfectly synchronized pace. We met them later in the day and learned that they were from Finland, out winter camping for 2 weeks!

Our short and stormy route ended in an abrupt, 500 m downhill through a gnarled birch forest. As the gradient increased I resorted to “bum skiing”, arriving in style at Teusajeure hut to the bewilderment of the hut warden Curt and his well-behaved Rottweiler.

Curt has been spending time in these mountains since childhood, venturing off the beaten track onto the many side trails and even off-trail. This was his 25th season as a hut warden, a retirement project for himself and his wife.

That afternoon, I tried my hand at chopping wood, a task that I had otherwise left to my husband Fred. Sweden prides itself on being a gender-equal society, so I figured I’d better step up to the challenge! There was a wood-fired sauna at Teusajaure, which added to my motivation. Every other hut (or so) has a sauna, a relatively recent addition. You can heat water and clean off, a novelty compared to my hut experiences in Quebec. Bring your own soap and towel. We gleefully ducked into this tiny, piping hot sauna with a big mountain view, scrambling and whooping as we periodically cooled off by jumping in the snow outside.

Day 5 – Teusajaure to Vakkotavare (16 km)

We got an early start the next day, crossed Teusajaure’s frozen lake and set out to climb 400 m, made easy by the climbing skins we had brought. The horizon was nearly endless and at times it looked like Fred was skiing straight up into the sky. We crossed an empty, U-shaped streambed. Soon after, I was thrilled to come across wolverine tracks. People rarely get to see these elusive creatures, but their tracks are fairly common in the area. As we reached the highest point of the day, some of Sweden’s biggest mountains came into view. The sun shone brightly and the air was perfectly still. We felt so fortunate for this beautiful weather which allowed us to fully appreciate our surroundings. We started to ski down the other side of the hill, turning back and forth, free to ski wherever we wanted, and not just on the trail – the advantage of skiing above treeline. This was what we had come here for!

Birches started making their appearance as we skied further downhill and the trail dipped around a series of tiny hills called moors. The day ended with another long, crazy downhill through the trees to Vakkotavare hut, a vast lake, and a bus stop! This would be the end of the trail for us.

The lake across from Vakkotavare hut is stunning and vast, dotted with numerous snowmobiles parked beside ice-fishing holes. The hut itself is a funny place, because it’s literally in front of a bus stop. Skiers and hikers continuing south catch the bus here to get to Saltoluokta – a slight discontinuity in the King’s Trail before the next official section.

We went for a quick ski on the lake and chopped some wood in the sun. That evening, we met ice-fishing aficionado and hut warden Jan, who made us Swedish boiled coffee and regaled us with tales of travelers who had come through over the years.

Vakkotavare – Saltoluokta (by bus)

The next morning we caught the once-per-day bus heading back in the direction of Galliväre, another mining town. We opted to stop over at Saltoluokta, just 40 minutes from Vakkotavare. To reach this renowned Mountain Lodge, we had to get off the bus at the “Kebnats” stop, and then ski 4 km across a frozen lake. There was also the option to pay for a quick shuttle by snowmobile, but it struck me as absurd to “pay to not ski”.

Swedes speak fondly of Saltoluokta. It’s a warm, friendly lodge with a historic feel. The food is fresh and home-made, featuring local ingredients, and lived up to its reputation. We made good use of the wood sauna with a view. And greatly enjoyed seeing families from Eritrea and Iran being introduced to winter as part of a settlement program in northern Sweden. That night we were finally treated to Northern Lights, a spectacle that reliably entertains visitors whenever the sky is clear.

Saltoluokta – Gallivare (by bus)

And thus began our journey back home. We took the bus to the small northern city of Gallivare, and then the overnight train back to Stockholm.

All in all, the King’s Trail is a great playground for would-be Arctic explorers. It is just remote enough to require some clear thinking and planning, yet makes the grandiose, endless white landscapes accessible to so many.

Practical Information and Hints

STF web page about the King’s Trail: https://www.svenskaturistforeningen.se/omraden/kungsleden/
  

Stockholm Arlanda ARN is the main airport. Many trains stop here so you may not need to go into Stockholm at all. The Arlanda Express takes 30 minutes and there are frequent departures. www.arlandaexpress.com

Train schedule: www.sj.se. When we finally got around to buying tickets, the train we wanted appeared to be sold out on this website. Fortunately, we found tickets on http://www.scandinavianrail.com/ for the same train, and they were even a bit less expensive.

Bus schedule: www.ltnbd.se

Nikkaluokta Sarri AB (accommodations and restaurant): www.nikkaluokta.com



Currency: SEK (Swedish krona).
In December 2015, 1 SEK = 0.15 CAD

Cost of this trip: In 2015, this trip cost us approximately $800 (CAD) per person, starting at the Stockholm airport, including transportation, accommodation, food etc., for about 9 days (including 6 full days of skiing).

Food in the huts cost around 100-200 SEK/person/day
Huts cost us around 300 SEK/night/person
There is no cost to access the trails or parks.
STF membership (gives access to better rates on lodging and food): 295 SEK/adult or 450 SEK for a family

Example of an STF-guided trip along the northern-most stretch: https://www.svenskaturistforeningen.se/aktiviteter/lappland-kungsleden-abisko-kebnekaise-vinter/  8 days at a cost of $1125 for intermediate-level skiers, not including transportation to Abisko (the starting point) and from Kiruna (the ending point). runs from March 12 – April 9, 2016.

The STF also organizes beginner ski trips in the region, but not this exact itinerary.

Approximate altitudes of the huts we visited:
Nikkaluokta, 450 m
Kebnekaise Fjallstation, 720 m
We climbed a bit after that and came back down
Singi, 700 m
Kaitumjaure, 620 m
Teusajaure, 500 m
We climbed up to around 900 m and then skied back down
Vakkotavare, 480 m

*** 
A huge thank you to the STF, to the lovely hut wardens we met, to Anna Sarri in Nikkaluokta, for welcoming us and helping us with our trip, and to my husband Frédéric who shared this experience with me!

5 comments:

  1. Good work on this post! I really like the way you delivered your qualitative facts and how you made this fascinating and effortless to realize. Thank you!!

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  3. Great story, couldn't stop reading this, keep posting please !

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