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Blow, Northern Wind – Kungsleden 2024

The last time I donned snow shoes, was on the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska, and we all know how that ended..!  Twenty five years later, I clipped them onto my boots in the Swedish town of Abisko, and began a ten day trip down the Kungsleden.

I joined mountain friends and colleges from Buxton Mountain Rescue Team on the ice and snows of the Arctic with a little trepidation.  As ever, I seemed to pack heavy and my bag towered above my head.  Everyone else’s kit seemed much lighter, but I don’t mind the weight.  Having enough kit to keep what’s left of my extremities warm is my priority, oh and a bottle of the good stuff.

The first day was dominated by blue skies, little wind, deep snow and a lot of faffing.  The first day faff took its time with all of us, but we were soon squeaking over stunning powder, through birch forest and across frozen lakes.  Undulating mountains dominated our left and right, as large expanses of flat snow marked out the lakesides.

I wandered along, enjoying the conversation and fresh air, but paused often to hear – absolutely nothing.  The peace here is shattering.  A lone female moose with two young and a few birds were the only wildlife we saw, in between the screams of snowmobiles here and there.

After six hours we arrived at the stunning huts at Abiskojaurestugorna.  Lots of jobs were handed out – cutting wood, lighting fires, collecting water etc.  This was to be the norm for every hut and we loved the work.  Many hands make light work and we were soon roasting before log burners, with the sauna on and our feet up.

There’s a beautiful feeling in mountain huts.  Simple living with fires, food and conversation.  No electricity, no service and nothing but nature around you.  A place to truly unwind.

The next morning dawned cold, but clear.  I like to be up and out early, and sat with a brew at 6:30 as folk began to rise.  The shade was freezing, but we soon found sunshine, which followed us for much of the day.  Occasional gusts of wind blasted spindrift across the hills, and chilled us to the core, but the sun soon returned.

It was a long day – 22km on foot, but by 6pm we arrived at the Unna hut.  A few small wooden huts, overlooking a huge expanse of snow and rock, silently sheltered us for the night.  The warden was Inge, an elderly lady who had retired and lived here alone.  She was charming, helpful and obviously enjoys the life.  She made me think of the way we treat the older generation. Rather than retiring and slowing down, she was a shining example of loving the outdoor life. Good for her…

The next morning dawned clear and we ascended two passes, clearing over 1200m, before descending into a huge valley, and onto the hut at Alesjaurestugorna.  My left foot had been rolling in my boot as we traversed the slopes, and my sole felt sore.  Thankfully no blister had formed and I was glad for a change of socks.  Managing my feet is a lifelong challenge, and it’s never going away.  As I say to people who ask if they’ll get any better ‘my toes aren’t growing back..!’ I just have to take more care than most.

The huts were strewn over a headland between two lakes and we enjoyed a very relaxed evening, with a sauna, and the northern lights gracing the night sky.

A storm was forecast for the next day, and it certainly appeared just after breakfast.  The wind swirled and spindrift filled the air. It was time for a day of rest and recuperation.

After we had stocked up on water and wood, I read and wrote.  I’ve always enjoyed writing letters and cards, even if many people think it old fashioned.  There’s nothing like the sound of a letterbox opening to something other than advertising or bills.

The wind howled for the rest of the day, but at least we were safe.  Having felt what the cold can do, that was enough for me.

As I brought a few provisions from the shop, one of the wardens came over to me.  She looked at my scarred face, smiled and gently said, “you are an outdoor man”. After only a few seconds, she understood me well.

The storm abated through the night, and the next morning we set off for the hut at Tjäktja.  A SW airstream blew in, bringing warm temperatures and wet snow.  The light was flat and it took concentration to work out the angle of the ground, where the snowdrifts were and all the while keeping your snow shoes clear of balling up.  I slipped and slid a great deal, which rubbed my skin grafts, but by early afternoon we had sight of the hut and piled our wet bodies in.  It was good to be under cover, as the wind speed continued to rise all afternoon.

I soon had the fire lit and the dormitory resembling a boiler house, with steaming gear strewn all around.  There is a wonderful feeling of achievement when a steaming brew is in your hand and the world feels at peace.

Earlier in the day, we helped a lone lady who was struggling with her pulk.  The snow was drifted and she was up to her knees, but with a few helping hands, we had her up, out and on her way.  We learned later that she is soloing the ‘white ribbon’ and had already completed over 1000km.  That sounds impressive enough, but she was also in her late 60’s.  Her huge effort puts our 100km to shame.

The night fell quiet, and the northern lights graced us again.  This was to be the last silence of our trip as by next morning the wind was stiffening.  It increased as the morning passed, but we’d seen the forecast, and were up and out early to make the hut at Salka before it got too dangerous.  Ptarmigan and Snow Buntings hunkered down in the gale, and we almost lost the door as we burst into the hut. I dozed the afternoon away, finding peace in the howling maelstrom.

We were out bright and early the next morning, creaking into crisp snow with our snow shoes.  It was an overcast day to get your head down and get the distance done to Singi.  On the way we passed an emergency shelter and thought we’d drop in to have a snack and a brew, before continuing, but a crew were camping in it illegally.  The emergency shelters are just that.  Not a reason to get a free night.  I vividly remember being on the Hornli Ridge and finding people using the Solvay Hut.  The guides exploded through the door and gave the occupants a right dressing down.

We made Singi by mid afternoon and settled in.  The wind was unpleasant, but nothing as to what we faced the next day.

The forecast was for strong winds coming later in the morning, so we set out at 5am, hoping to be done by the time they struck.  They came early and caught us in the open.  Gusts of 80mph+ knocked us to the floor and we took shelter behind some rocks to hide from the battering.  It could be easy to panic in such a situation, but we are an experienced team, and soon a snow wall was built and the emergency shelter was over our heads.  Hot brews and laughter were the order of the day, before we set off again.  This is not a place for the faint hearted or inexperienced.  I’ve said time and again that serving your apprenticeship in any skill or trade is vital.  Today proved that.

We arrived at Kebnekaise battered and bruised, but safe and in one piece – generally. Between us we’d lost a snow shoe, a ski pole and a pair of goggles. Another ski pole had been smashed. Expensive monetarily, but we were safe. We called it a day here and took a skidoo ride to Nikkaluokta the next morning to end our trip.

I can highly recommend the Kungsleden, not only for its peace and beauty, but also for the fellow travellers, the huts and their wardens, and the fact there’s no phone service..!

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