Also available translated to German.
If you want the background to these stories, see the introduction.
Photographs are included in this text, but if you prefer you can look at the photos separately in the gallery.
The first part of this report is again a catalogue of disappointing weather conditions, so feel free to skip ahead to Cunojaure and Hunddalen.
This year's tour was planned as an easy week's loop from Abisko to Katterat via Unna Allakas and the Norwegian cabins at Cunojaure and Hunddlaen, with 3 spare days for side-trips along the way. Then I would meet up with some friends with a tent and camp with them for 4 days somewhere north of Riksgränsen. Due to schedules at work it couldn't start until after March, a time I would otherwise avoid because of the risk for positive temperatues and consequent dampness, rain and waxing difficulties. So it was April 1st before I found myself on the sleeper to Abisko, sharing with 4 enormous vikings with 30kg packs on their way to camp in Sarek national park. My feelings of experience and confidence that had built up as I planned this third winter tour dropped to a sensible level as I sat there with my child's sled hanging from my pack straps where these guys had ice axes and crampons.
The train was 2 hours late arriving, so I abandoned my plans for an immediate start and checked into the fjällstation for a bonus luxury evening with sauna, fresh food and wine. The 4-day weather fax boldly proclaimed sun, sun, sun, sun, so there was no hurry to get away. But first I thought I should awaken my skiing skills by taking a quick run down Abisko's famous off-piste slalom slope, Njullo. The lift had closed, so I went just half way up on climbing skins and came down slowly and inelegantly through the icy wooded section. My confidence fell a little further.
I had paid the minimum rate which gave me a place in a 4-bed room, but no-one else arrived, and after an undisturbed night I set off happily on the rather dull but far from unpleasant 15 kilometres south to Abiskojaure in -10 C windless sun. The winter track is planned to be passable by anyone any winter, but to achieve this it takes a rather meandering route, and so I followed the example of many others and took the summer route down to the river, which saved time and was very easy to ski along. This went well until I got to where the scooter track to Kårsavagge crosses, when all the ski tracks veered off leaving me to make my own tracks over the ice, which was developing disturbingly large holes as the gradient minutely increased. I thought it best to veer off too and find the winter track, which should have finished its meandering soon. 1km doesn't sound very far, but when birch trees start popping up closer together than the width of the sled you are hauling, such a short detour can take a long time, I discovered. Still, I got to the cabins in 4 1/2 hours, and residual thoughts of work slid away as I sawed logs and fetched water from a hole in the ice, under the massive chiselled face of Kieron that towers more than 1000m over the lake.
Some older April-type skiers arrived, and then a group of happy young people on an STF-organised tour, who after a tantalising touch-down in our stuga decided that they should go and colonise one of the other empty cabins by themselves. Luckily it was cold there, so a lovely Stockholmer called Karin came back to warm up, and entertained me with tales of her two weeks kayak camping in Greenland. Everyone was in bed by 8:30, and despite a late start the silence and darkness subdued my normal restlessness and I too was in bed by 9:30, looking forward to another beautiful day for the next leg, which had been such a nightmare the year before.
But history repeated, and I awoke to -5C, 5 m/s headwind, low cloud and horizontal snowfall. At least this year I'd got a good night's sleep, and it was fun to wave goodbye to the women who had been mocking me all the night before because I had more gear with me than they did, but who were now panicking because they felt underequiped to go out in the mildly-bad weather, and would thus risk missing their train home. It was a long 20km to Alesjaure, and very frustrating since it was obvious that it would be beautiful in good weather. After a couple of kilometers there is a steep climb up 400m over about 4km, and then it's almost flat along Alesjaure the rest of the way. I had planned lunch at the recently-built Kungsstugan, but I noticed that it was occupied by the overly intense and talkative guy who had plagued me over breakfast, and since I had come to the mountains to escape stress, I chose instead to lunch in my new windsack a little further on. Soon after, I topped a small island and was confronted by what looked like the cabins of Alesjaure, dead ahead and quite close. Since they should have been 6km away I was confused and wondered how I could have missread the map so badly, so I pulled out the GPS receiver that I had buried away for whiteouts and emergencies. 5.8km it agreed, and I reluctantly accepted that the long flat lake had distorted the apparent distance, and that I had 2 hours of tedious skiing ahead, taunted by the imperceptably advancing cabins. While I was in my toy box I pulled out the wind meter and was surprised to find that the wind was now gusting over 15 m/s. Ho hum. I was fairly comfortable in my Activent trousers and Gore-Tex jacket, but sometimes I'd felt a little cold and damp, especially my arms. This feeling went away as I neared the Alesjaure cabins, and when I arrived I found out that this was because the inside of my jacket arms had frozen, a common but fairly harmless phenomenon with breathable shells in cold wind.
The main cabin was full of very nice Norwegians, plus a German girl with a huge dog who'd chosen to emmigrate and work as a postman way up in Kirkenes in order to be nearer the mountains. She was very handy with an axe. I sawed wood with her and fetched water for the sauna, and hoped to meet the STF group there, but my timing was bad and I got stuck with the over-excitable guy again. I also hoped to roll in the snow, but there was just wind-blown ice outside, and that just didn't seem as inviting somehow. The following day brought dull weather again, +2 C and grey, so I decided to stay put and hope for better visibility for the potentially beautiful next leg. Instead I took a short trip around Turkitjåka, but it was icy and rocky, and not much fun. Earlier we had been visited by a police helicopter, as it turned out that the king and queen would be passing by later, and as I skied past the Sami village I was intercepted by two policemen on scooters who wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. With my poor command of Swedish vowels I could only hope that they heard "tourist" rather than "terrorist". I later heard that the king had invited other guests for a salmon lunch while I was out skiing. Bad timing again. I had fallen and broken my sunglasses at one point during the day, and delayed mending them for about half an hour until I got to a sheltered spot. That evening my corneas itched terribly, presumably snowblindness caused by that brief exposure to grey skies, coupled with hypersensitivity borne of greater carelessness with eye protection on my first winter tour.
I had another sauna, this time with some colourful Norwegains from Harstad, and then went to bed where I tried in vain to sleep through the incredible snoring of my roommate, which penetrated even earplugs. I gave up and moved into the drying room with all the damp boots, and woke unrefreshed and aching, to more miserable weather, 0 C, 5 m/s and grey. After stocking up on a week's supply of hard bread and freeze-dried dinners in the shop I staggered off towards Unna Allakas, immediately confronted by a 300m rise over 3km that took me about an hour to climb. Then it is an undulating plateau for 4km, before a kilometre-long 15 degree slope down to another long plateau. I unhitched the sled here and sent it off to explore the slope by itself, and then tried to telemark after it. But the surface was a breakable crust that rather spoiled my style and I was met at the bottom by a concerned Norwegian couple who offered to tow me behind their scooter. This sounded like a skill I should learn, and since I was so tired, the idea of skipping an hour or more skiing a long flat stretch with no view was just too tempting. So I was soon doing 40 km/hr across the plateau, which was much like waterskiing with a block of dry ice stuffed down your trousers. They dropped me when the terrain got steep again, but took my sled on the cabin so that I could ski unfettered.
Unna Allakas has a great setting, and the skies even cleared briefly so that I could appreciate it. I used the time I'd saved to have a long lunch with a German there, and then whizzed 5km across the border to Cunojaure.
Cunojaure was my first experience of Norwegian cabins and the first thing I noticed was that they are older and cosier than most Swedish cabins, and that they were decorated in a homely way with checked tablecloths and colourful curtains. Very welcoming. You need a key to get in, which I had borrowed from friends, but they can also be bought or borrowed from DNT in Narvik, or the fjällstation in Abisko. I believe that cabins all over Norway now use the same key. Up here the cabins have no wardens, and there tends not to be a water hole or plentiful wood supply. Heating is by coal, which is harder to light but burns longer into the night. Paraffin lamps are supplied. When I arrived there were two guys sleeping in the cabin, which I later learned was because they too had shared with a snorer the night before. There were no chores to be done, so I too dozed in an armchair, and then took a brief tour before dinner. And it was beautiful ! The clouds and wind had vanished, and for the first time on this trip I saw the full beauty of Lappland - unending, quiet, remote, unspoiled. This is why I had struggled all those uncomfortable hours. Perfection. We shared our luxury foods, their chocolate and my dried strawberries, and went to bed early, anticipating a great day's skiing ahead.
Which one should never do, since it guarantees bad weather. Low clouds, -7C, 10 to 15 m/s in this case. Headwind, naturally. I trudged off again, but at least this day the sky cleared regularly to show me what a nice place I was in. I later learned that the Norwegians had headed north that day, and came across a Swedish couple who were lost and dangerously hypothermic, so they had had to stop and get into sleeping bags naked with them to warm them up. "And I got the girl !" reported one of them in an email to me "And don't tell my friend, but it's nowhere near as much fun as it sounds". Navigation east was easy since I was in a deep valley, and even though I was on 20 degree traverses sometimes, my sled behaved perfectly, thanks to modifications I'd made for this year. I stopped regularly, trying to coincide with the sunny periods, but my major lunch break happened to hit a wind peak, and I wondered if I would lose my windsack. Then I stopped at the Kvillebo wind shelter for tea, and when I came out my skis had already been buried in the snow. After 8 hours of plodding 17km and the rather more exciting icy descent to Hunddalen, I reached the group of cabins, and moved in with yet another nice Norwegian couple, a rare English couple, and an irritatingly arrogant old German.
As I went to bed I could hear the wind whistling through the wires that held the cabins down. In the morning I felt rested even though it seemed like I had been conscious all night. That's happened before after extreme exertion, as though my body can't slow down again. At 7 o'clock I could hear that the wind had stopped. Great ! At 7:30 it was back with even heavier snow fall. At 8 it was clear and still, and sight was unlimited. I got up. 10km downhill to Katterat would be a sheer joy in the new snow. I felt good, and made a hefty breakfast of porridge to replenish the previous day's excessive consumption. 9 o'clock brought more snowfall with it. It was clearly going to be a schizophrenic day. I set off into the heavy snow with almost no visibility, but was confident of easily finding the winter track. I'd been in much worse conditions, and this was an easy stretch, right ?
20cm of new snow was hard work with the sled, but after 20 mins I met a Norwegian couple heading to Hunddalen and I happily retraced their tracks, with only a brief thought for how they had managed to get there before the first train came to Katterat. Half an hour later their tracks stopped. No sign of a camping site, just a clean turn. Odd. Still, I was pretty much where I expected the winter track to be, and I carried on. Suddenly the skies cleared and I could see the valley I was headed for, and everything looked fine except for the 20m plummet into the narrow ravine in front of me, so narrow that it didn't show on my map. I hiked painfully up around the source and continued, but I was now clearly not where the track should be. Still, I was in a valley that headed due north to Katterat, and after whizzing across the basin I was just 6km away with 4 hours to the last train.
Then things got ugly. The valley narrowed, and big rocks and precipices loomed out of the renewed snowfall. Following the river clearly wasn't safe with this visibility. I would have to get back to the track, but the walls around me were very steep and I would have to backtrack a lot to keep my climb to around 20 degrees, which was all I could manage with the sled in heavy snow. I climbed until the walls suddenly became 45 degrees, but saw no sign of the track. Now I was up on the level of the summer trail, and decided to keep heading north in the hope that it was passable in winter. Occasionally the skies would clear and I would see the 400m drop to where I wanted to be, and the black walls of the parallel ridge that were too steep to hold snow. I started to consider the feasibility of spending the night in my windsack, and I ate no lunch in case it cost me a precious clear-sky period that might show me a way out. I found myself on a 700m summit to which the summer trail led and from which I could see a plateau maybe 50m below. I had to guess at the heights because although Swedish maps show contours across the border, they don't label them on the Norwegian side.
The light was good enough now to see that maybe I could get down, but not good enough to be sure, and at around 30 degrees it was a one-way street. I considered the avalanche possibility, having had both strong winds and heavy snow in the last 48 hours, but many rocks showed through, which I hoped would stabilize the layers. I came down surprisingly elegantly and felt very proud that my sled followed faithfully. I came to the north end of the plateau and tried to see how steep it was for the next 300m drop, but it was so steep that I dared not get close enough to find out just how steep. But at the western edge I saw a delightfully shallow ravine heading down to the forest, where I thought things would get easier, but it was in fact a nightmare of densely-packed birches that snagged my sled continuously. Less than 1km to go in 45 minutes. Could I really miss my train ? I didn't, but only with a 5 minutes margin, so I was very glad I hadn't had lunch as there is no road to the place, just a very cold station platform, or another 10km of steep untracked skiing to Katterjåkk, which is where I took the train now. I had phoned the Tourist Station there the week before and they had said that they always had a floor somewhere for a desperate skier passing by. But not today, apparently. In the end the guy kindly drove me to Abisko, where they really do always have floor space. It was a pity that I would now miss my day's slalom skiing at the ledgendary Riksgränsen, but I got to play at ice-climbing instead. I even got a room to myself again, and I lay on the bed replaying the day. I felt that I had been close to the edge, both literally and figuratively, yet all the decisions I made had been good ones. I just shuddered a bit to think what would have happened if I hadn't been so clear-headed this day. I suppose I would have realised, and backed off. Wouldn't I ?
© Mark Harris 1998
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