“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.