Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 5: The Finish Line!

The final day was rather a strange one by all accounts. With only a measly 10K to go, we had an easy bimble in store, and we were greeted from dawn with brilliant sunshine. It was still very chilly first thing, however, and I needed all my layers including my down jacket just to cook breakfast. However, being able to cook and eat breakfast outside rather than lying in bed hiding from the rain was an opportunity not to be missed.

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Morning view from my tent

We strolled gently in the morning sunshine, surrounded by the stunning scenery of the Abisko National Park, and thought of hot showers, comfortable beds and cold beers. While there was every reason to be cheerful, a small part of me also felt the final stretch to be a bit of an anticlimax. After all, this was supposed to be a tough trek in the Arctic Circle, designed to test our every sinew, and yet here we were strolling to the finish in glorious sunshine with not a care in the world (well, apart from the intense pain in my feet, dulled only marginally by a combination of ibuprofen and paracetamol swallowed religiously at 4-hourly intervals). Actually, I’d become so used to the pain by now that it barely registered. It might sound weird, but a part of me wanted to finish the trek after a really long tough day to make it feel like more of an accomplishment. I felt as if I were somehow cheating.

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Lee enjoying the sunshine and stunning scenery

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Just 500m to go!

However, as we approached the finish line, we were greeted with cheering and clapping from the trekkers who had already finished and were sitting drinking beer in the sunshine. The organisers presented us with our medals, and I felt a moment of pride at what we’d achieved, despite the easy finish. Looking back now, I have to keep reminding myself that it was by no means an easy challenge. I had only to look at my feet for the next few weeks to remind me (6 black toenails, one of which fell off when I took off my sock, and 3 more of which I had to remove a few days later, plus a number of blisters). I’m sure you’ll be glad that I’m sparing you the photos of that.

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Being presented with our medals at the finish

So what now? My next big trip needs to be more challenging in some respect, because otherwise I wouldn’t be pushing myself ever out of my comfort zone, but I’d happily do the Fjallraven Classic another time. The only problem is, there are so many new places to discover.

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Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 4: Pancakes!

Since there was a medic available at the checkpoint, and for once we were camping nearby, I decided this morning to get my feet checked out, as they were pretty painful (a couple of black toenails falling off, and a number of blisters on the soles of my feet). I was surprised to be awarded only a 2/10 for foot damage. Given how much they hurt, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much pain some people must have been in. I felt a bit of a heel (ha!) for making a fuss, but the medic put large amounts of tape on my feet, which was the main reason for me going to see her, and I felt reassured that nothing was going to fall off in the next few days. Today I thought a lot about injuries, having heard more stories from the medic about various people who’d already been airlifted out due to heart problems, broken bones, foot problems and all sorts. It struck me that maybe this actually was quite a tough challenge after all. On an exertion scale, I hadn’t found it too bad so far, although that’s not to say I hadn’t suffered an awful lot of pain with my shoulders and feet, and the conditions had made it far from a simple stroll, as you had to concentrate every inch of the way.

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Some of the bridges demanded careful attention, although at least there are no crocodiles in the Arctic.

Around midday, the rain started again, and although it was never particularly heavy, it was that persistent heavy drizzle that just seems to go on forever and leaves you wet before you really know it. It coincided with a long stretch of boring open moorland perpetuated by bogs, and it felt relentless. It was also cold, and my windproof gloves were soon sodden and about as much use as wearing a teabag on my hands. I’d been looking forward to stopping for lunch at some point along the way, but with the cold and rain there was nothing for it but to push on until Checkpoint Kieron. At one point, a Fjallraven representative (who was also trekking the route) appeared out of the mist and offered us a boiled sweet. Amazing the things that lift your spirit temporarily. The last 3K seemed interminable, and I was getting hungrier and more exhausted by the minute, but eventually the sky ahead started to look a  little brighter, and in my slightly delirious state I chanted to myself “Head for the light! Head for the light!” in an attempt to rally my spirits. It worked, and I soon started giggling to myself, feeling as if I were in a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, it was still a good hour before the rain finally eased and we found the light, so to speak.

We eventually crossed a metal bridge, and thankfully we could see the camp up ahead. But first a wooden hut appeared, comprising a much-needed loo. It was one of the finer varieties of long drop en route, with proper windows and no smell, even if lacking a loo roll and handwashing facilities (both of which I had with me, so no problem). I sat there for quite some time, just enjoying the view of the river through the trees, and the fact that I was finally warm, out of the wind, and sitting down in comfort. It took quite a lot of willpower to actually get up and put my soggy pack on again for the final 100 yards up the hill to the checkpoint.

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And what a surprise awaited us at Kieron! A lady cooking pancakes, another brewing coffee, and an open fire around which weary wet travellers were huddled. The pancakes (4 enormous ones each!!) were laden with jam and whipped cream, and having had no lunch and it being mid-afternoon, I devoured them eagerly. Never has a pancake tasted so good, or felt more well deserved. Halfway through eating the pancakes, I suddenly remembered that I’d used the collapsible bowl I was eating them out of to pee in the previous night, having not wanted to venture out of the tent in torrential rain, and I tried to remember if I’d actually washed it out that morning. To be honest, I was past caring anyway at this point, as the pancakes tasted so good.

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Never have pancakes felt more deserved!

Still feeling cold despite the hot food and coffee, I put on my down jacket under my waterproof (it was still drizzling a little) and went over to the fire to warm up. There I was offered a slug of dubious Hungarian firewater from a stranger’s hip flask, and soon got chatting to a bunch of Belgian men about beards. Right back in that Monty Python sketch again. The day was so surreal that it barely surprised me when, after discussing the relative benefits of facial hair to keep one’s chin warm vs. the extra weight of the hair slowing one down (every gramme counts when trekking!), a Dutchman reached into his backpack, took out an electric shaver, and proceeded to remove his inch-long stubble standing over the fire. I’m not sure whether this was a direct result of me having mentioned that I only considered men with less than half an inch of facial hair as potential life partners, or worry about beard weight. Either way, I never saw him again.

All too soon, it was time to get going, and we pushed on for another couple of hours until we found a suitable campsite by the lake.  For the first time during the trek, we actually arrived with enough time to relax a little after putting up the tents and cooking dinner. We could potentially have gone all the way to the finish that day, but one of our group had an injured knee, and in any case, there would have been nothing to do but hang around for an extra day once we got there. A couple of hardy souls went for a swim in the lake, more I think to prove their manliness than out of enjoyment, judging by the temperature of the water. This turned out to be rather foolhardy, as they then spent the next few hours shivering. Needless to say, I felt no need to prove my manliness, and every need to preserve my core body temperature. The remains of the rum (mine) and whisky (not mine) came out, and were duly finished, as this was our last night camping on the trek. With a beautiful dry evening (for once), we only retreated to our tents when it started getting too chilly and the alcohol had run out around 11pm.

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Idyllic camp by the river

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Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 3: the High Pass

Yet again I woke to pouring rain, something which was a bit of a theme for the trip! Luckily by now I had making breakfast while lying in bed without even opening the tent flap down to a fine art, and by the time I was ready to pack up the tent, the rain had miraculously stopped. On a particularly precarious set of rocks, I managed to slip and fall flat on my face, where I lay like a turtle with my pack on my back weighing me down, until an elderly couple just behind me helped me right myself. Luckily, I suffered minimal damage as I’d managed to twist slightly as I fell, landing on my side so that the rucksack took the brunt of the impact. Although my damaged shoulder didn’t particularly thank me for the assault on it, I escaped with nothing more than a few cuts and bruises to my knee and side. I learned later that I was luckier than many – one girl apparently dislocated her shoulder falling on the rocks (fortunately put back in place by a passing Swiss doctor, who recounted the story to me while we queued for the loo the following day), while another broke her arm in a similar fall and had to be airlifted out. After a couple of hours, I mentioned to Mark that I thought it was about time for a stop and perhaps a brew, and as if by magic, several seconds we rounded a corner to be greeted with the following sign.

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Lo and behold, in 100m there was a man in a tent brewing up coffee and handing it out to anyone who proferred a mug. Judging by the faces, some of us clearly needed it!

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Refuelled by hot coffee, we then had the excitement of traversing the “high pass” (and the only real ascent of the trek), and we entertained ourselves by pretending it was a serious summit and discussing the mental and physical techniques we’d need to use to overcome it. Although the others could see it from far off, of course I couldn’t see it at all, so had no real idea whether they were joking or not when they muttered ominously about the terrible difficulties the ascent would involve! It turned out to be nothing more than any simple ascent in the Peak District would involve, and barely got us out of breath, although the weather on top turned distinctly colder and there was a howling wind, drizzle and fog on the summit.

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Followed Alan’s stern advice to me on previous days about looking after number one and taking advantage of warm shelter instead of getting cold, I went into the little hut and waited there in the warm while the others were arriving and generally resting. This meant I missed the group photo of our “summit” since the others had completely forgotten about me and not noticed I wasn’t there! Still, I was warm and dry, and it was a good opportunity to break open a couple of cereal bars and chat with the Koreans who were busy brewing up some lunch.

After the stop, we set off for the next checkpoint, which was supposed to be only a few kms, but which seemed to take an eternity, and involved walking over never-ending “pointy rocks” (technical geological term), guided only by some red blobs of paint.

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We also encountered our first snow, which although deep in places, was only very patchy.

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Unfortunately Saskia then came a cropper on some rocks, and suffered rather worse than I had done by landing on her face and cutting open her chin. Luckily, several of us were on hand to mop up the blood, and apply steri-strips (something I was suddenly very glad I’d thought to pack in my first-aid kit), which were the next best thing in the absence of actual stitches. I could probably have sewn her up with a needle and thread if we’d really needed to, but I was quite grateful not to have to (not least because it was cold and raining!). Saskia, the least experienced of our group, was fine, but a little shaken and wobbly on her feet after the incident, so we emptied most of her pack and re-distributed it amongst the team, which gave her a bit more balance on the rocks. Tricky enough at the best of times for all except mountain goats, the rocks required a lot of concentration and balance when tired, hungry, and loaded with a 15kg pack.

Finally at 3.30pm we arrived at the checkpoint and were able to cook up some lunch. At 5pm we set off again, and it was a long but very scenic slog to the final checkpoint for the day. The availability of “bushes” was rather limited, and I found myself having to take a rather long offroad detour to avail myself of the facilities en route. My shoulders were now agony after my fall earlier, my toenails were falling off, and my feet were screaming from blisters as well as sore toe joints, but there was nothing for it but to munch painkillers and continue. Pain doesn’t get any less if you walk any slower, so I pushed on hard in order to minimise the amount of time walking, and was the first to arrive at the checkpoint  around 8.30pm. The views leading up to it were stunning, and I had the luxury of another small shop where I bought chocolate, nuts and hot coffee, before relaxing in the warm bar for an hour or so waiting for the others.

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I timed it well, as it started pouring with rain outside, so I felt a little bit smug and very content other than being in pain. I wasn’t really looking forward to going back outside and putting my tent up in the cold and rain, but around 9.30pm we staggered down the hill to the camping area. It wasn’t quite the wilderness experience of the previous nights, but we were too tired to care, and we managed nevertheless to walk a little bit further and escape the crowds. I was too shattered to do anything except crawl into my tent and eat half a cold dehydrated meal (left over from my lunch) with a couple of wraps.

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Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 2: Long drops, Jammy Dodgers, and Kebab Stew

The first night wild camping was not exactly conducive to a good night’s rest, despite my tiredness. First, I’d decided to try sleeping the opposite way round in my tent. Given that I’ve had the tent for around 8 years and slept in it dozens of times, and always been quite satisfied with sleeping with my head in the narrow end and my feet in the wide end, for some unknown reason I decided that it would be better to try it the other way round. The fact that it was not a success was partly because I wasn’t used to sleeping with my head sandwiched next to my pack, but also because I hadn’t realised how much of a slope there was on the ground, which meant I was facing downhill. However, even after reversing sleeping direction in the middle of the night (easier said than done in a “coffin” tent), I was still kept awake by the fact that my feet and legs were aching, and then by the fact that I needed to pee and it was pouring with rain. This brings me to one disadvantage of the almost 24-hour daylight in the Arctic – normally you can happily go for a pee in the dark outside your tent, but when it’s broad daylight in the middle of the night, this is a slightly more risky strategy. Still, too bad really as I didn’t fancy wandering far in the middle of the night in the pouring rain! Luckily no one was about, although apparently some reindeer wandered very close to our camp later that night. I did hear noises but never thought to look out of the tent, thinking it was just my imagination. I wish I had, as I could have got some fantastic pictures, as our photojournalist team member Mark managed to do. After the first night, I decided to use my Nalgene bottle for peeing at night, which, although tricky in a confined space when half asleep, meant at least I didn’t have to get out of the tent. I also kept an ear out for reindeer, but sadly never saw any.

So anyway, on to Day 2. This time I managed to work the Piezo lighter and get my stove going unaided for my breakfast, and also finally got the knack of unscrewing the pot of boiling water from the base, both of which had been problematic the previous night. Just as well really, because it was raining so hard there was no way I was getting out of my tent to light the stove and have breakfast! This also made me very glad I’d brought my own tent, as it has a large porch which is easy to cook in while still lying in bed, without risking setting fire to the tent. One of our team was too scared to light her stove inside her tent, having a smaller porch, and consequently went breakfast and coffee-less most mornings due to the rain. Good thing we weren’t in the Arctic in winter, or on a climbing trip, or she’d have been in real trouble! I was also very glad that I’d finally made the decision to bring the heavier thermal mug with a lid, as it meant that every morning I could make extra coffee and carry it hot with me to drink during the day without having to stop and get the stove out.

Luckily, the rain stopped just as it was time to start packing up and leaving. To be fair, I actually waited till the rain stopped, unlike some, but I knew I could break camp very fast since I was well organised, and I was ready to go at the designated hour of 10am. I still really have no idea why the plan was to leave so late, since most of us had been awake for some time, and we had another very long day ahead, but in the words of Tennyson: “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” I refrain from asking if someone had blundered. It turned out that we didn’t die, so maybe not.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. We didn’t march into the Valley of Death, however, but some rather scenic surroundings, and despite my lack of sleep, I felt on good form. Today for the first time we saw snow on the mountains, and the terrain became more interesting, with a number of rather bouncy suspension bridges, which some of us enjoyed more than others.

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I was the first of our group to arrive at the next checkpoint, Singi, which was bitterly cold, and unfortunately had nowhere to shelter from the wind except behind a few small rocks. I was, however, saved having to get my stove out, as a German man who was sharing my rock had just finished his lunch and had spare boiling water which he donated to me. Since it was already 2pm, I was very hungry, and it also meant I didn’t have to take my gloves off, so I was doubly grateful! The others arrived about 20 minutes later and we had a decent rest and availed ourselves of the (smelly but clean) long drop loos before continuing on. How could the loos be smelly but clean at the same time, you may ask? The answer is simple – they were always spotless, mainly thanks to the array of old men (there may also have been women, but I never saw any) who continually cleaned them and refilled the paper and sanitiser, but the nature of the long drop (a big hole in the ground, covered by a seat) meant that the smell of ammonia was overpowering. It also didn’t help that people kept closing the lid, which only made it worse as no air ever got in. 2000 people passing through in only a few days creates quite a lot of volume, as you can imagine!

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The second half of the day was fairly uneventful, other than the fact that my blood sugar level crashed shortly before we reached the next checkpoint at Salka around 7pm, and despite a fistful of jelly beans and a chocolate bar, refused to come up. I pushed on to the checkpoint where a couple of the others had already arrived and had fortunately also just visited the shop, so were able to hand me chocolate and Jammy Dodgers, which soon sorted me out. I have to say that the Jammy Dodgers were much better than the English ones (so they should be, at around £5 a packet!). I visited the shop, which was almost pitch black, and since the writing on everything was in Swedish, I had almost no chance of figuring out what anything was. I managed to acquire some Jammy Dodgers and nuts, however, and (eventually) a cup of coffee. The coffee should have been straightforward, since I’d paid for it at the till, and then just had to ask the nice man sitting outside the shop to pour it for me. However, he had decided for some unknown reason that he was going on strike, and told me there was no more coffee. After telling him I’d already paid for it, he very reluctantly went inside again and retrieved the big thermos and proceeded to pour me a cup, muttering what I presumed to be Swedish swear words at me. I was too tired to care, but such was my need for coffee that I might have hit him over the head with my Jammy Dodgers if he hadn’t delivered! Since we were still waiting for some of the team who were struggling, and it was already late, we decided to cook dinner while waiting for the others, which meant that when they staggered in looking a bit the worse for wear, we had tea and hot water for food all ready for them. Tonight’s delicacy for me was the slightly scary-sounding “kebab stew”, which tasted a lot better than it sounded, with more Jammy Dodgers to follow.

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I think we’d planned to go on a little further at this point to find a better campsite, but since there were a few dissenters who didn’t have the energy, we went for a compromise and found a spot just across the river beyond the checkpoint.  A couple of people decided that crossing the river (slightly precariously) was all too much, and camped with the masses below the checkpoint, but it was definitely worth the few extra yards to have a more peaceful spot to ourselves, and away from the midges. Climbing up onto the plateau, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset just as we went to bed, and I realised again how happy I was to be in this magical place.

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Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 1

“Going anywhere nice for your summer holidays?” “Well yes actually, I’m off to the Arctic to trek 110km, camping wild and carrying everything I need.” Possibly not the way most people spend a week in August, but then I’ve never been like most people. Some would say I’ve never been normal. I don’t think it seems like an odd thing to do, but apparently others disagree.

Nevertheless, it was with a little bit of trepidation that I spent countless hours packing and repacking my 65 litre rucksack to fit in everything I might need. Admittedly, 90% of that time was spent squashing up my light down jacket, packing it, taking it out again, squashing up my warmer but bulkier and heavier synthetic jacket, comparing the weight and size, packing it, taking it out again, and repeating the process. Not to mention endless hours of discussion (aka mildly disguised panic) on Facebook with my long-suffering teammate in Scotland about packing dilemmas. I only took a slightly shorter time to decide between a heavier but more useful thermal mug with a lid and a lightweight mug without a lid. In the end I packed both mugs, and left the decision till I got to Sweden. I could continue discussing packing ad infinitum, but I’ll save that for a separate post.

We’d been on a pre-trip training weekend about a month previously, where we’d met the other members of the team (or rather, all but one, a journalist who was a last minute addition to the group), so in principle I’d had some practice at walking with around 15kg of equipment, and knew that at least there didn’t appear to be any complete psychopaths in the team (though there’s nothing like spending 5 days trekking in the wilderness in freezing cold, biting rain, slippery mud, with sleep and food deprivation and blisters to bring out the psychopathic tendencies in anyone). If you missed it, I recommend reading my account of the training weekend before you continue with this post.

The day before we were due to fly out, I took the day off work even though I’d pretty much finished packing, in order to unpack and repack my bag another 6 times and do a few last-minute things. In the end Siri (my long-suffering friend from Scotland, not the iPhone voice) told me in no uncertain terms to leave my bag alone and make a cup of tea, as by this time I was driving her nuts (and she was already on the train to Heathrow, so couldn’t make any more changes to her packing if I came up with any last minute words of wisdom). Come to think of it, I could probably have just asked Siri the iPhone voice for help and left the human Siri alone, but I don’t have an iPhone. Being me, as soon as I finally made it onto the train to Heathrow, I pretty much stopped panicking about packing, or at least until the following day when we arrived in Sweden and then had to make a few last-minute decisions about what to take out of my rucksack and leave in my bag to be transported to the finish line. I drove Siri mad yet again deliberating for hours about two different mid-layers, as the ones we had been kindly donated by Fjallraven were thinner than I’d been expecting, and I cursed myself for not having packed an extra lightweight top.  I was banned from ever mentioning hoodies again for the rest of the trip, and to be fair, that shut me up.

After flying to Stockholm and then connecting to the small town of Kiruna (with some trepidation waiting for our bags to arrive – luckily they all made it safely, but there were a couple of unfortunate souls from other teams who didn’t get theirs), it was time to relax and attend a briefing from one of the Fjallraven team about the trek (aka nab as many freebies as we could – not only did we get a very nice hoodie, as mentioned above, but also a hat and buff, and some snacks, just to make our rucksacks a little bit heavier. I can highly recommend the chilli biltong!). There was a popup Fjallraven shop also set up in the school gym, where the unlucky people who hadn’t got their luggage could spend vast sums of money kitting themselves out again. Amazingly, there were even boots for sale. You’d have to be pretty stupid to have not brought any boots with you, but it takes all sorts. I always wear my hiking boots when flying (when going hiking, I mean, not routinely just to fly in), because the worst thing to be without and have to borrow / buy new is a pair of boots, but some people were rather braver (more stupid?) and had packed theirs in their luggage!

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Pre-trip briefing

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Our route with checkpoints

Trek Day 1: Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise

Having debated hotly among our team the previous night the merits of getting up at an ungodly hour to be in the first wave of start times (there were 3 throughout the day – early morning, lunchtime, and mid-afternoon), the majority vote had gone for the lunchtime start. This meant that we had a lie-in in the morning and the chance to repack our bags another 6 times, but had the downside that we had more than 20km to walk and would only start at 1pm, so it would be a late finish. I was happy with either option, but on balance I was happy as there wouldn’t be anything to do other than eat and sleep when we got to our campsite, and it never got properly dark, so arriving late didn’t matter too much, and I’m never a fan of early mornings. After collecting our gas and food and making the final packing decisions, we checked in our spare bag to be sent off to the finish line. It was incredible to see 3 giant containers just for the bags, but then you have to remember that there are over 2000 participants, so that’s quite a lot of luggage! I hoped I’d see my bag again, as it had my passport and house keys in it, amongst other things. But there wasn’t really anywhere it could get lost, so I wasn’t too worried.

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Collecting gas and bread

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Sending off our bags

When you’re getting ready to start 5 days of trekking, what you really want to put you in the right mood is a beautiful view and brilliant sunshine. We had neither. It was on with the waterproofs and rucksack covers, while munching our pre-trek reindeer burgers (our last chance of a non-dehydrated meal for a while, and they were surprisingly good) and trying to keep the rain out of our coffee.

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I’m ready to go!

After an interminable speech from the race organiser that no one actually listened to, but which I imagine was a lyrical waxing about the joys of trekking in the rain and mud and how our spiritual energy would be revitalised by the end of it), the whistle finally blew and we were off! The rain actually stopped very soon, and we were soon walking through the mud and trees in sunshine. Our shoulders were strong as a gymnast’s, our feet were as smooth as a baby’s bottom, our boots were shiny as silverware, our hair could have promoted Timotei, and our Tshirts smelt like flowers. We were invincible. Briefly.

We made good time for the first few hours, fuelled by reindeer meat and powered by limbs that had spent the best part of the last 2 days sitting down, and we were eager for action. After a couple of hours we arrived at a beautiful spot by the river in glorious sunshine, and sat down for a rest, a snack and our first experience of the trail toilets (basically a shed containing a long-drop with a seat). Actually compared with other trails in Africa and Asia, these were in excellent condition despite the enormous number of users (we were encouraged to use these rather than going in the wild, for environmental reasons). You soon got used to holding your breath and putting a buff over your face to disguise the smell of ammonia, but they were always spotlessly clean.

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Alan emphasising the importance of airing your feet at every opportunity

My sense of time had already gone out of the window (after all, you don’t usually start a walk of more than 20k at lunchtime), and it must have been about 4pm that we set off again with what seemed like an enormous mileage (or kilometrage, since everything in Sweden is metric) left to go. I soon learnt to banish all thoughts of time, which was easy considering that it never really got dark and that we would often end up eating lunch at 4pm and dinner at 10pm, although we usually managed breakfast around 7-8am. Some days, we didn’t eat lunch at all, and just snacked throughout the day on cereal bars, dried fruit, biltong, or whatever other squashed delicacies we were carrying in our pockets.

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First checkpoint stamped!

At some point in the evening we reached the first checkpoint, Kebnekaise, after 19lm, and had our passes stamped (important so that the organisers knew we hadn’t been swallowed by a bog monster, broken a leg or suffered any other fatal incident on the trek and were still alive). We still had a few km to go until we reached the point where we’d planned to camp, however. There were a few very tired faces and almost a mutiny when we had to keep pushing on, due to other trekkers having already reached our preferred spot and set up camp there. I was actually feeling pretty good still at this point, so happy to carry on, and it was certainly worthwhile when we finally found a suitable spot to camp, with no one around. I wrote a little bit about this experience in another post on remembering why I love the wilderness experience. I was very glad I had a tried and tested tent with me (unlike the poor person using a tent he’d never even seen before, and which turned out to be incredibly complicated to erect). I was keen to get to my food, but I spent the next hour assisting with the recalcitrant tent, and we finally managed to make it suitable for sleeping in, even if not exactly looking like the photo on the instructions! After all, we were a team, and I’ve have welcomed the help if it had been me. I finally cooked my first of many dehydrated meals on the trek, which turned out to be a delicious and very filling game stew (yes, I did use the word “delicious” and “dehydrated meal” in the same sentence, and not just because I was hungry, it really was good!) and fell into bed just as the sun was starting to set.

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Five reasons why you should do the Fjällräven Classic

There are so many reasons why (if you like trekking) you should have a go at the Fjällräven Classic. In no particular order, here are five of them.

  1. How many people can say they’ve trekked in the Arctic? On the list of cool destinations, it’s pretty much guaranteed to give you hero status. And nobody will know (unless you tell them) that it’s not quite as extreme as trekking to the North Pole. And while you probably won’t see any polar bears, you might spot some reindeer.

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    Not quite what you’d expect the Arctic to look like

  2. It’s incredibly well-organised. The Swedes – and Fjällräven in particular – really know how to make an event work. Granted, they’ve had more than 10 years of practice, and have fine-tuned it over the years, but with frequent checkpoints  (including shops where you can stock up on snacks and critical items, medics to check you out, and even saunas at some of them), excellent signage, all food provided, buses to and from the start/finish, and advice coming out of their eyeballs, all you really have to worry about it is putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end. Which is just as well, as this requires intense concentration given the assault course of rocks, river crossings, slippery mud and narrow boardwalks you have to negotiate. It’s as much a mental challenge as a physical one, but there’s masses of support along the way, from the practical (a little man sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere brewing up coffee and offering to fix your gear) to the moral (Fjällräven reps popping up on the trail handing out sweets and encouragement, and strategically placed meditation spots to remind you that there’s more to the trek than pain).                                                                                           

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    One of the constant surprises en route

  3. There’s nothing like being out in the wilderness for a few days to restore your soul. So much so that I wrote a whole separate post about this. On my return after describing the trip to a work colleague, his reaction was “You might as well spend a week tied to a tree being beaten with a stick.” I tried to explain that the pain was only a minor part of it, and that there were so many worthwhile reasons for going, despite the state of my feet on my return, but he just didn’t get it. Ah well, each to their own. But a sense of accomplishment does wonders for your mental health and general wellbeing.

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    One of the many boardwalks through the wilderness

  4. New scenery, new culture. Admittedly, my grasp of Swedish pronunciation isn’t that much better than before I went, but I can at least pronounce Fjällräven more or less correctly now (thanks to the patience of the one Swedish speaker in our group). For the record, it’s supposed to sound pretty much like you have a mouthful of rubber bands. And the scenery is fantastic, even if the weather might be a bit on the drizzly side (which can at least make for some good old-fashioned moody photos).

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    Snow patches on the hills

  5. You’ll make new friends and have some odd experiences. The beauty of this event is that with 2000 people entering every year, you’re bound to meet some new people. And it’s worth getting to know them. The plane between Stockholm and Kiruna is guaranteed to be almost exclusively full of trekkers during the week of the event, and it’s pretty easy to strike up a conversation. I sat next to two lovely Korean gentlemen on the way out, and a member of the Dutch police force on the way back, and had some fascinating conversations with them. The Dutchman in particular was full of interesting stories and information about the event, since it was already his second time doing it. It turned out that he was also a high-functioning autistic, though I’d never have guessed. Furthermore, on the trek itself you can’t help but chat to fellow trekkers. A German surgeon told me in the loo queue at a checkpoint one morning about how he’d found a young girl who’d fallen on the rocks the previous day and had dislocated her shoulder, and how he was able to put it back in place for her so she could continue the trip. (Other accident sufferers were not so lucky and had to be airlifted out by helicopter). A Hungarian man offered me some of his homemade firewater from a hipflask on a particularly cold and wet afternoon as we huddled round an open fire at one of the checkpoints.  I wouldn’t normally accept unknown alcoholic drinks from a stranger’s pocket, but I was incredibly grateful as I’d been cold right through to the core after several unrelenting hours in the rain, and it really hit the spot for the next few hours of walking! More bizarrely, a Dutch trekker got out his electric razor and started having a shave while we were huddled around the campfire. Admittedly, I had just mentioned that I wasn’t interested in men with more than 1/4 of stubble, so perhaps he had ulterior motives, but unfortunately I never saw him again.

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    Fellow trekker contemplating the best approach through a river crossing

I’ve returned from the trip stronger, wiser and more knowledgeable, and with a new-found love of Sweden and the Arctic, not to mention some great memories and new friends. They say that the reason you forget about pain is because otherwise no one would ever undergo childbirth more than once. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I’m already looking forward to doing the Classic again some time.

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Top 5 tips for trekking the Fjällräven Classic

I can’t claim to be an expert trekker. There are many people out there far more experienced than I am, although I’ve now ticked off a few classics – Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Mt Toubkal, the Inca Trail, and the Abel Tasman –  as well as a number of other lesser-known ones. But the Fjällräven Classic last week was my first real experience of a long-distance trek carrying 15kg+ of kit, not to mention my first ever experience of the Arctic (though admittedly in summer the Arctic is more like the Scottish or Icelandic wilderness than the stereotypical image of snow, ice and polar bears). However, what I did have on my side was plenty of experience in the group I travelled with, being organised by Jagged Globe, accompanied by a number of seasoned trekkers, and none other than the famous Alan ‘all 8000m peaks’ Hinkes as our leader. I use the term leader rather than guide because you’d really have to try very hard to get lost on the Kungsleden (King’s Trail), that forms the route for the 110km Fjallraven Classic, even if you’re legally blind like me and can barely see anything of interest more than a few feet away. Furthermore, with 2000 people completing the event every year, there’s  a wealth of information to be gleaned from the fellow trekkers you meet en route, especially with a number of them having completed the event multiple times, and with plenty of time to kill waiting in the interminable loo queues at the checkpoints.

So without further ado, here are some of my top tips for the event, many of which would also apply to any similar trip.

  1. It’s not about the distance, it’s about the weight. You’ll hear this time and again on the Classic, and it really is true. 110km over 4 days (for most people) equates to only about 25k or 15 miles a day on average, which is nothing when you’re used to walking 20 miles a day in the hills. And it’s almost entirely flat, so it should be much easier. More on that in another post. What makes it hard is not the distance, but the 15-20kg you’re carrying. I tried to go as light as possible, even packing a half-size toothbrush to shave off a few grammes (though I didn’t go as far as cutting off the labels on my clothes), and still ended up with between 15-17kg depending how much water I was carrying at any one point. When I had an extra litre of water I really noticed the difference, and more than 16kg seemed to be the tipping point beyond which my shoulders and back really started to hurt. I could go on at length about tips for packing, so I’ve made that into a separate post. But in terms of water, it really is abundant, so you really never need to carry more than a litre at any one time.
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    You’ll appreciate a light rucksack when you’re going uphill

  2. Take your boots and socks off at every opportunity. I can’t really take the credit for this one, as it was drummed into us at every opportunity by Mr. Hinkes (OBE). Although he can’t actually take credit for it either, as when he did the trek for the first time last year, he laughed at the locals who gave him this tip (after all, when you’re climbing Everest, the last thing on your mind is taking your socks off)  but he tried it and found it really did help. I’ve actually learned this tip previously from softball tournaments, where you can spend up to 12 hours a day running around in not-so-comfortable cleats, and most of us have learned to swap them for Crocs or flipflops during the rest periods). Note: if an Australian tells you to swap your boots for thongs, don’t put your underwear on your feet — it’s simply the Australian word for flipflops.                                                                                          DSCN8512
    Alan leading by example
  3. Be flexible. While you may plan to stop and have a lunch break, get out the stove and cook up a delicious dehydrated meal (not entirely sarcastic – the Real Turmat ones provided really are quite good, even if I wouldn’t serve them at a dinner party), and it’s a great idea to do so if you can, when the weather turns to freezing rain and biting wind, it’s much better to crack on rather than risk hypothermia and faffing around in the wet opening up your rucksack, not to mention freezing off your fingers in the process. Make do with your favourite choice of snacks until you reach a checkpoint or the weather improves. Similarly, you may plan a particular place to camp, or a goal to reach for that day, but conditions change, your body may give up on you, or conversely you may feel still energetic and want to push on a bit further. And of course, it’s not just you but also your companions that you may need to consider. There’s nothing wrong with pushing your body a bit out of its comfort zone, but there’s no point breaking yourself on day 1 either if you don’t have to.

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    Unfortunately we were beaten to the spot we’d planned to camp at on day 1, so we had to push on a bit further

  4. Establish a good packing system and stick to it. It’s best to get this down to a fine art before the trek with some practice days out, if you can. Everyone’s very different in how they like to pack, but the basic principle involves making sure you know your system so you can quickly reach the things you need without having to delve around in your bag and faff needlessly. This typically means having waterproofs and extra layers (including hat and gloves) easily available, keeping plenty of sweets and cereal bars (or your favourite snack items) easily accessible (for me, this is my hip belt pockets where I can reach them without having to stop – especially useful when it’s pouring with rain and you don’t want to stop for proper food), camera at the ready (not just for the beautiful views, but also for when your companion slips and falls headfirst into the river, so you can quickly snap them before pulling them out), and stove and cooking materials (including mug, teabags etc) near the top of your pack so you don’t have to empty everything out when you stop for a quick brew. It’s also worth having a similar system for the items you need for camping – it’s likely there won’t be much spare space in your rucksack, so having a good system means you know how everything fits together, and your rucksack won’t have any sharp pointy things sticking into your back. It also means you can get everything ready fast in the evening when you’re exhausted, and similarly pack up quickly in the morning. As soon as you get lazy and stuff that mid-layer into an exposed side pocket instead of packing it away properly in a drybag, you can guarantee the rain will descend, you’ll forget it’s there and before you know it, your warm layer is soaking wet and useless.

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    Cooking breakfast in the rain – it helps if everything you need is accessible

  5. Have fun! I’ll make no bones about it, the Fjällräven Classic is not easy (there’d be no point in doing it if it were!), and there will be moments when the rain is hammering down, you can’t feel your fingers, your feet hurt, your companions are monosyllabic (or even swearing at you), and there’s still 10km to go till the next checkpoint, but the challenge is a mental one. Some people turn to music to keep them going, but personally I prefer making myself laugh. My favourite distraction is to sing to myself a song about how horrible everything is to the tune of something really silly (Postman Pat or the Wombles are always good ones). If you’ve ever listened to “One Song to the Tune of Another” on Radio 4’s “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, you’ll understand why I can be found singing and laughing manically to myself in a rainstorm. I’ve long since given up worrying what others might think. One of my teammates told me he thought I’d entirely lost the plot when he was overtaken by me marching along a boardwalk at full speed, swinging my arms and shouting poetry  at passers-by (for the record, it was “Lepanto” by G.K. Chesterton, which is one of my favourite gutsy and onomatopaeic poems, guaranteed to drive me up the steepest hill – and in that particular instance, the only way to forget about my aching feet, back and shoulders). I also found Shelley’s “The Cloud” particularly beneficial when walking in the pouring rain. Luckily no one saw me practising Monty Python-esque Silly Walks in an attempt to amuse myself, or doing a quickstep along a boardwalk (or at least they were too polite to say anything if they did). Do whatever works for you, and forget about how silly you look.

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    Who cares if it’s raining? I’m a ninja and I’m here to have fun!

And finally, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Despite the inclement weather which you’ll probably encounter at some point (the Arctic is hardly known for its desert conditions after all – one of the many reasons why camels are not popular modes of transport there), it’s a fantastic trip and one I would highly recommend. You’ll have stunning scenery, magical moments, laughter and smiles, seamless organisation from Fjällräven, and the satisfaction of having trekked 110km in the Arctic, even if you do come back with blisters and sore shoulders or worse. It’s worth it just for the hero status when you return, if nothing else. And if in the worst case you get helicoptered out with a broken leg or worse, your kudos will be even higher and you’ll have a great story to tell your grandchildren / dog / strangers in the pub.

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