Simon Birch travels by ski through an Arctic region of Sweden that many will never have heard of – the Sarek National Park. It’s only visited by about 1,000 people a year
OK everyone, listen up! shouts Christian our expedition leader who’s way upfront, Fifteen minutes break! Phew. We’ve been skiing non-stop since lunch two hours earlier and I’m starting to run low on va-va-voom. Diving into my jacket I grab a fistful of chocolate and peanuts and quickly wolf them down.
As I take a breather, I can finally fully get a good look at our surroundings and gosh – what an incredible spot this is. It’s day four in a week-long, 80km cross-country ski expedition through the spectacular Sarek National Park in the snowy wilds of Arctic Sweden.
Right now we’ve stopped in the upper Rappa river valley that slices right through the centre of the park and we’re being dwarfed by massive mountains that sweep up from both sides of the broad, flat valley. It’s just a little after three in the afternoon and the late winter sun’s starting to slip behind the peaks causing the temperature to plummet and already it’s a nippy 13 below.
There’s not so much as a whisper of wind to break the silence and with civilisation miles away we’re totally alone. Awesome. If you’ve never heard of Sarek, don’t worry as virtually nobody else has either and that includes the Swedes themselves.
The silent country
Whilst most outdoor types charge south to the overcrowded Alps for their mountain fix, those in the know quietly slip north to Arctic Sweden where they have the vast and empty open spaces all to themselves. And the number one destination for these savvy outdoor adventurers is Sarek. With the most rugged alpine terrain in Sweden, Sarek’s glacier-clad mountains rise up to over 2,000m, but what really draws hard-core outdoor obsessives to Sarek is its untamed wilderness: you won’t find any helpful signposts, bridges or even mountain huts here. And if this wasn’t enough what makes this ski expedition even more extreme and so exciting is the fact that we’re pulling all our gear behind us in sledges and camping out every night under icy Arctic skies.
“Fewer than a thousand people visit Sarek every year and they’ve got to be fully experienced and totally self-sufficient,” explained Christian over a dinner of steaming reindeer stew at his base in Jokkmokk, the nearest village to Sarek, where our small group of skiers had met up four days earlier. Fully carbed-up, My big Arctic adventure began the next day at the isolated mountain hut of Aktse which lies at the very edge of Sarek’s southern border.
Here Christian’s co-leader Mirja divvied out masses of kit including boxes crammed full of fresh food that included salmon and reindeer steaks (no dreary dehydrated dinners for us then) which we piled onto plastic sledges, or pulkas as they’re known up here. “It’s far easier to pull weight through the snow rather than carry a backpack,” explained Mirja. True enough, when the time came to leave I clipped myself into the pulka’s harness, took my first strides through the soft snow and found that hey, pulling such a heavy sledge, which by now weighed about 30kgs, wasn’t that difficult.
Snow was gently falling and mist hugged the surrounding hills as we ventured onto the frozen lake into which the Rappa river flowed. It was also uncannily warm as given that we were just inside the Arctic circle the temperature was hovering just below freezing, something which made for hot and sweaty skiing.
Whilst Sarek bulges with fearsome-looking mountains, our route would follow the Rappa river north west for four days, sneakily avoiding these beasts as Christian outlined over lunch which we ate under snow-laden birch trees. “The Rappa valley offers the easiest way through Sarek and apart from a short climb on day five there’s hardly any steep uphill on the expedition,” explained Christian.
Making camp in the Sarek wilderness
Soon we reached the ice-bound Rappa itself and we carefully followed Christian’s tracks as he weaved a course through the increasing tangle of trees that grew by the side of the river.
The snow was coming down in big, fat, lazy flakes and as we made the site of our first camp in mid-afternoon there was almost a metre of fresh powder snow.
So just how do you put up a tent in this amount of snow I asked Daniel, my affable tent buddy and veteran of numerous Arctic winter camping trips? “Easy,” he replied with a grin. “First you walk up and down stomping down the snow using your skis and then you tie the guy lines to your ski poles and skis which you push firmly into the compacted snow.”
With our tent sorted my thoughts turned to dinner and a brew as it had been a long and sweaty first day which had seen us ski over
12kms through deep, sticky snow. This was served up in considerable Swedish style in an eight-man mess tent which Christian and Mirja had magically turned into the ultimate pop-up cafe complete with twinkly lights and chilled beats courtesy of an iPod. Perfect.
Not so perfect was my first night in the tent. With the temperature still barely below freezing, streams of condensation formed on the inner tent which continually rained down on us during the night making everything damp and clammy. “You must expect some level of discomfort on the trip,” said Christian as he handed me a mug of reviving fresh coffee the next morning. “But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
Over the next couple of days we pushed on, following the Rappa river north into the mountainous centre of Sarek. And whilst we didn’t see anybody else throughout the whole week, as we criss-crossed the river there were signs that we weren’t entirely alone. “Look, moose tracks!” said Mirja pointing to the huge, heffalump-like prints in the snow whilst close by were the tracks of lynx and wolverine, Sarek’s top predators.
Gradually we gained height and by the fourth day we reached the Upper Rappa valley where the tangle of trees disappeared and the skies finally cleared revealing the magnificent mountains that dominate Sarek’s heart. And with the air now flowing directly from the North Pole, the temperature tumbled dramatically, like the doors to some gigantic freezer had suddenly been swung open.This was actually good news as the severe cold meant that not only was the snow easier to ski through, but it also put an end to the nightly downpour in our tents.
That night under a mesmerising full moon, the temperature fell to a toe-tingling 26 degrees below causing the condensation in our tents to turn to ice crystals that sparkled in the light from our head torches which we could simply brush off our sleeping bags. The skies were still dazzlingly clear the next day when we finally left the Rappa by way of a 200m grunt of a climb out of the valley, the only serious climb of the trip.
Whilst the climb itself was brief, the world that we arrived in was totally different to that which we’d left behind, as this was the tundra, the vast treeless and wind-scoured plateau that was the savage Arctic stripped bare.The weather too was to become more extreme. After we finished putting up our tents on a bleak and exposed plain, Christian told us that the wind would be picking up so he got us to build a windbreak from snow blocks that would help deflect the wind around the camp.
All night the strengthening wind battered and buffeted the tent and we awoke to find not only great snowdrifts piled up outside but that the temperature has risen by a staggering 20 degrees overnight and that the clear skies had been replaced by a thick blanket of mist. The wind continued to howl all morning whipping up the spindrift in our faces and forcing us to put up the mess tent so we could get some temporary shelter from the maddening wind whilst we had lunch. And things were to get even more interesting later that evening.
A storm arrives
After he’d got the nightly forecast via his satellite phone, Christian announced that one of Sarek’s notoriously ferocious storms was brewing and was heading our way. “We don’t want to be around when the storm hits,” warned Christian, “so tomorrow we’ve got to try and outrun it.”
With the wind screaming and swirling around our ears, the approaching storm was already nipping at our heels by the time we were ready to leave on our final morning. But with 15kms of tough skiing between us and our lunch-time rendezvous with the skidoo team that would whisk us back to the safety of civilisation, there was little option but to fuel up and push on.
I got a measure of just how serious Christian viewed the threat posed by the advancing storm by the cracking pace he set – the fastest of the whole week. The lung-busting effort paid off though as we eventually reached safety having made good our escape from the jaws of the monster storm. Our reward? Our first shower in a week and a long, steamy sauna in the sanctuary of the Saltoluokta mountain lodge. Bliss.
Back in the upper Rappa river valley Christian shouts out that our short break is over: “Time to start moving everybody!” I quickly clip myself into my pulka harness and set off into the fading blue light. The temperature might be sub-zero, but right now this is easily one of the hottest outdoor adventures anywhere on the planet.