Backcountry skiing the King’s Trail 2016, Sweden

In March of 2016 we were back in Sweden to ski the Kungsleden – but this time we came with 7 friends, my dad among them. The goal was the same – get from Abisko to Nikkaluokta in 6 days, a journey of about 125km through hills and valleys of the Swedish Lapland. But additionally we planned to climb the Kebnekaise peak – the highest peak in Sweden.

So we did a couple of things differently this time around – firstly, we were there earlier in the year, hoping for better weather and some Northern Lights. But this also meant that the days were much much shorter, as we found out already on day 1.

Secondly – clothing. We decided to dress lighter – just warm underwear plus a hardshell on top (maybe a fleece if it was very cold). On our first trip we had discovered how sweaty and wet all the clothes get and how quickly you then get cold once you stop moving. And not much dries for the next day.

Thirdly – we and mostly everyone else had regular cross-country skis with in order to save money by not renting gear. All in all the ski selection was, I would say, maybe not the best. The thinner skis had a lot less balance on downhills, were flimsier and were a hassle to wax all the time. This showed by the second part of day 1, when while crossing a ditch one of my skis snapped. I proceeded to ski the next 115km with a broken ski.

Day 1

…went pretty much the same as during the previous year – due to the delay in renting the gear at Abisko we got a late start. And this time too we had a group member who had never tried cross-country skiing before. Only this time that person didn’t learn to love it but rather said until the end that she would never try it again (she still enjoyed the whole journey, though).

Besides sort of getting lost quite in the beginning of the trail, we barely had time for lunch. After crossing the Abiskojaure lake already in darkness, we finally arrived at the huts. We were split up into two groups, both having to share a room with some strangers and this time also two huskies. Our two Finnish group members decided to stay in a tent instead.

Besides the hot sauna we were also awarded by some Aurora Borealis that night.

Day 2

This day started with good weather and it stayed so for the whole day – quite unlike the same section during the previous year. Some of us had problems with ski wax, though, and some adjustments had to be made.

Because there were no winds the ascent went much easier and we could even enjoy a nice lunchbreak just before reaching the plateau – together with some skiers from France.

We continued up and over the mountain pass and reached the small emergency hut located before the lake. We made a fire there and had some tea from our thermoses – it was still pretty crispy outside.

After warming up we continued to move towards the huts, which we could see gleaming from across the long-long lake. Some of us went straight over, some more around – but because of the location we could see each other at all times. It was especially frustrating seeing the faster guys reach the huts whereas you knew you were still probably an hour away.

But warm beds and hot sauna awaited for us. Well – for the Finns there were no hot beds, just a freezing cold tent.

Day 3

This was the toughest day of this trip – and all because of forgetting that it gets dark very early when it’s only the beginning of March.

The day started with some wind but nothing overwhelming. We moved as a group and once we made it onto the plateau above the valley the winds died out. The route then got steeper and steeper until the final climb to the Tjäktja hut. I pushed my dad to not take the skis off and do it together on skis instead – we pushed through.

Once 7 of us made it to the hut (around noon) we had lunch and we tried to get warm and dry. Because the Finns had started a bit later that morning they also arrived later at the hut and therefore started later towards the next hut.

From the Tjäktja hut we kept going up towards the mountain pass, enjoying the art that had been drawn on the snow by the wind. When we started the long and pretty steep downhill, it was already getting darker. The whole downward slope was covered in a waist-deep layer of pretty soft snow so whenever you fell or didn’t have your skis on because you had just fallen, you’d spend a good 10 minutes trying to get up on the skis again.

So after more than an hour of struggling to get down into the valley we finally made it – but it was now nearly pitch black dark. We dug out our headlamps and used the reflective route markers to keep moving. Our eyes kept inventing ‘lights up in the hills’ as we hoped that the hut was just around the corner. We even accidentally crashed into each other during one of the smaller downhills.

When we finally made it the hut managers were stunned – they hadn’t expected anyone that late! But we got our room, heated it up and had a rewarding dinner. We had earned it.

Day 4

This day was blessed with amazing weather and an easy 12 kilometers to the Singi hut. That evening we got a whole room for just ourselves and we made a fire, heated it up and put our clothes to dry. The guys were cutting firewood, we cooked dinner together and spent a cozy evening in candlelight.

Day 5

Unlike the previous year this section had great weather – if only a bit too cold. We enjoyed actually seeing the views this time as last year we couldn’t see more than 10 meters and couldn’t even stop for a break.

Most of our group had to start the day very early, though, because in the afternoon we were to have an avalanche awareness course at the Kebnekaise Mountain Station.

When we arrived we realized that this was the first day of the season the hut was actually open. We were literally the first guests.

During the course we got our ski touring equipment and hiked up onto the slopes behind the Station – there were two others in our group, too. Our guide was Robin from the STF Kebnekaise Mountain Station. We did some search & rescue exercises, went over the gear and talked about snow conditions. Skiing down was pretty difficult for two of us – one had never tried mountain skis and I hadn’t been skiing for maybe 8 years (sadly their splitboard was broken at the time).

Later in the evening the rest of the group arrived and we again had sauna and dinner together. Robin joined us in the sauna and it turned out that one of the other two people who were on the course with us was the head of the Swedish Tourist Association (STF owns and manages all of the mountain huts and trails in Sweden).

Day 6

Early this morning (it was very cold but more or less clear) our group started hiking up towards the Kebnekaise peak – we had skins under the skis to give us more traction. We zig-zagged up the culuoirs until we finally reached the plateau from where one can usually see the Kebnekaise peak. This time, however, it was covered in clouds.

After a quick lunch and some hot tea we had to adjust plans – who would continue to the peak and who only up to the first bit of the final ascent? Kristians, Robin and the two Swedes continued pushing towards the peak whereas the rest of us got our crampons on just to climb the first bit of it.

The two Swedes turned around soon enough – when they realized they couldn’t keep up with Kristians and Robin (the clock was ticking). So the rest of us all descended together in what was to be quite fun as two of us were rather clumsy in mountain skiing. At some point I fell and lost a ski – the other guide tried but couldn’t stop it from sliding downhill so he ended up giving me one of his skis. Later on we found my missing ski and nicely made it back to the hut.

Meanwhile, Kristians and the guide had reached the icy peak where it was truly cold and windy. On the pictures from the peak there is sadly no view, either. But they were happy to snatch the first ascent of the season.

We finished the evening with sauna and dinner once again.

Day 7

This day, as last year, was relatively easy and fast. Everybody was stoked to get back to Kiruna. We had one final hurdle to hop over, though – while in Kebnekaise we had found out that the day of our arrival in Nikkaluokta was a national holiday and that there were no buses. So we ended up ordering two relatively expensive taxis from Kiruna and rode comfortably back to our accommodation there.