Between reindeer and northern lights – ski tours north of the Arctic Circle

April 1, 2021 / Posted by Marmot Mountain Europe GmbH

“There was once a mountain lake and a small river flowed from it, which was unruly and wild from the start. As small as he was, he was called Storån because he looked like something big could become of him.” Like little Nils Holgersson. And who does not know him, Tom Thumb, who flies on the back of the tame gander Martin with the wild geese through all of Sweden to Lapland and experiences wild adventures. The Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf has enchanted many generations with her book “Nils Holgersson’s wonderful journey through Sweden”. Today, it is part of world literature. The leader of the geese is the old and venerable Akka from Kebnekaise. The name of the leading goose is made up of the names of two mountains: Akka (2015 m) – in the language of the Sami, the indigenous people of Lapland, this means “mother”. The Kebnekaise is the highest mountain in Sweden at 2106 meters. Both are located in Lapland and are part of the “Scandinavian Mountains”.

When our seven-person ski tour group flies to Kiruna, an ore mining town in Swedish Lapland, we almost feel like Nils Holgersson while we look at the vast, all-white-clad landscape from above. Frozen rivers and streams conjure up a spider’s web in the snowy fells in which the mountains that protrude from them appear trapped. Lapland, better known for cross-country tours or mountain traverses, has great potential for ski mountaineers with its part of the Scandinavian Mountains, which extend over 1700 kilometers in length and up to 320 kilometers across all of Scandinavia. Akka and Kebnekaise are two of the many possible mountain destinations that we have chosen for our ski touring week in northern Sweden.

Every ski tour starts with the preparation

It is mid-April when we arrive in Kiruna, and with it the perfect season for ski tours in this Nordic region: longer days and more pleasant temperatures than in high winter, good snow and, with a little luck, sunshine again and again. With minibuses we reach the end of the street in Nikkaluokta in about an hour’s drive. Together with our rucksacks, we take a seat in the luggage cart of a snowmobile and cross the frozen Láddjujávri Lake to the Kebnekaise Fjällstation, our accommodation for the next two nights, at an altitude of 700 meters. 700 meters above sea level, that may sound modest when you compare it to huts in the European Alps. In Sweden, however, the highest mountains already peak at just over 2000 meters. In a cozy atmosphere, we discuss the weather and avalanche report posted on the hut by the open fireplace and set our goal for tomorrow. We want to start right away with the highest peak: the Kebnekaise (Sami Giebmegáisi), center of the Kebnekaise massif, about 150 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.

Descent along with raindeer

The sun’s rays tickle us up the next day, a rich breakfast buffet gives us strength for the long day of ski touring ahead. It goes flat into the valley of the Kittelbäcken, over a small pass and onto the Vierranyárri. After an intermediate descent we have to pelt again, the long ridge of the Kebnekaise then stretches out a lot. Just below the summit we pass a refuge that is completely covered with an area. Here, it becomes clear how exposed the summit plateau is to wind. After about five hours of walking, 1850 meters of altitude and eleven kilometers, we can hardly believe it: we are standing on Sweden’s highest mountain with a clear blue sky and no wind. Wherever we look, we see the sub-arctic landscape and sheer endless white expanse. The weather is often harsh here in northern Lapland and the climate is extreme. In winter the thermometer keeps falling below minus 30 degrees for days. Snowfall, wind and poor visibility often prevent a successful ascent to the summit. The descent offers us Lappish firn enjoyment. The skis slide down easily, as if by themselves, past a herd of reindeer. With Swedish “Norrlands Guld” beer we sit in the afternoon sun in front of the hut and are drunk – not from the beer, but from happiness. What a start to the touring week!

The crowning glory of the day is the three-course candlelight dinner on the Kebnekaise Fjällstation. From Elsas Kök (in German Elsa’s kitchen) we are spoiled with culinary delicacies from northern Swedish cuisine. Elsa Göransson was the hut keeper at the Kebnekaise Fjällstation for almost 30 years. Her interest in mountains and people created a cozy oasis in the Lappish mountains. Even today, more than 50 years later, the hut landlords are inspired by the atmosphere and the community around the common meal as well as by the kitchen of that time and use their old recipes in Elsa’s kitchen. »Souvas«, shredded reindeer meat, tastes excellent. As a side dish, we get almond potatoes with mushrooms. The national dish in Lapland is the palt, a potato and flour dough dumpling that is filled with bacon and served with cranberries. For dessert there are hot waffles with a cloudberry compote.

A wild outdoor adventure

Our further route should lead us along the famous Kungsleden (English: “King’s Trail“) from the self-catering hut to the self-catering hut. We want to take one or the other summit with us. The luxury of the Kebnekaise Fjällstation is over. For this we dive deeper into the almost untouched Lapland, which especially in winter lets you feel its magic: wide tundra, impressive mountains and absolute silence. In the mountains of Swedish Lapland, silence has its own voice. No roads, no settlements, no other ski tourers. Not even aircraft noise disturbs our loneliness. We can get lost here if we want to find ourselves.

The next stage to the Kaitumjaure hut demands a certain amount of respect: There are only 600 meters of altitude to conquer, but 27 kilometers along the Kungsleden. Not exactly what we know and love as ski tourers from the Alps. In the Kebnekaise Fjällstation shop, we cover up with blister plasters for our feet as a precaution. As we pull our touring skis through this landscape, we begin to understand why skiing began in Scandinavia. The Kungsleden is a kind of marked cross-country skiing route along the valleys and enjoys great popularity beyond the borders of Sweden, while ski tourers are still rare here. The trail leads us uphill and downhill through the original, Lappish fell. This is real wilderness!

“The way is the goal” becomes our mantra today. In the late afternoon we reach the hut on Lake Kaitumjaure with tired feet. Hakon, the hut warden, greets us with a delicious welcome tea. Exhausted, we sit in the sun on the hut terrace and enjoy our drink. The 27 kilometers are more in our bones than the 1850 vertical meters on the Kebnekaise the day before. Hakon speaks good German, so we talk to him for a long time. He comes from Stockholm and maintains the hut for cross-country skiers and ski tourers every year in March and April. He explains to us where there is water and firewood and heats the sauna for us. Our spirits are awakened again. We shop for our dinner and breakfast in the small hut shop. The Kaitumjaure hut, like all of the following huts, is a lovingly run and perfectly equipped self-catering hut of the Swedish Alpine Association. Christine, “mother of the company”, assigns us to all the upcoming tasks: mountain guide Hannes chops wood, Sepp and Richard fetch water, Anita heats the stove, Christine and I are the cooks and Sissi is responsible for washing the dishes. People are known to be creatures of habit and so we stick to this distribution of tasks throughout the week, as well as the traditional sleeping places in the huts – each one is exactly the same cut and furnished. Although it feels light from zero to midnight, we slip into our sleeping bags early, tired and satisfied. A sparkling, deep blue starry sky provides the backdrop as the colorful northern lights shine over our hut at night.

The following day is again a day for ski tourers, not for cross-country skiers. A good 1000 meters of altitude is directly behind the hut up to the summit of Sánarcohkka (1570 m). We are rewarded with the finest firn descent. Awesome! We manage the remaining 15 kilometers on the Kungsleden to the Teusajaure hut with a skating step. The Kungsleden is marked out with red St. Andrew’s crosses. With our luck with the weather we have no orientation problems, but we imagine the vastness of Lapland in fog: you are happy when you can orientate yourself from marker to marker. One last descent through a sparse birch forest, then today’s destination is reached, the Teusajaure hut, located on the lake of the same name. We sit for a long time in the golden afternoon sun in front of the hut, directly on the lake, with a »Norrlands Guld« in hand.

Early the next morning we cross the frozen Lake Teusajaure and a plateau full of reindeer. For thousands of years the Sami have followed the grazing reindeer herds on foot through the changing seasons through Sápmi, the Sámi settlement area that stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The oldest known settlement in the region is almost 10,000 years old. The Sami are one of the indigenous peoples, with their own parliament, flag and language. In Swedish Lapland, their culture and traditions are still very much alive. There are 32 Sami communities there that are dedicated to reindeer herding within the given territory. We take the summit of Ráhpattjårro (1677 m) with us before we descend to Vakkotavare on Lake Suorvajaure.

The weather changes

The ascent of the 2015 meter high Akka should be the culmination of the touring week, but in the end the weather thwarted our plans and so we changed plans targeting the Boaltnotjåhkkå hut peak (1099 m). So in the end our hardshell jackets and snow goggles are finally in use this week and we get to know the “real” weather in Lapland: heavy snowdrifts, gusts of wind and miserable visibility.

It is probably the overall experience of this trip that left a lasting and deep impression on us: the Sami with their reindeer herds, the sparse birch forests and the countless lakes where you can go ice fishing. But also the lonely huts along the Kungsleden, the unique northern lights and the dark blue polar nights, the civilization-free expanses of the arctic landscape and above all the silence.

At the end of our trip, we feel like Nils Holgersson: we have discovered Lapland and learned to love it. We don’t want to go back home, but rather move north with the wild geese, explore valley after valley and peak after peak, in a landscape whose originality is unparalleled in Europe.

Text & Photos:
Alix von Melle

Alix von Melle
April, 2021
The Send