Lapland, a glacier, the Arctic Circle: Hiking in this part of the world, you encounter more reindeer than people – a thought our reporter found impossible to resist.
Loose stones crunch beneath our feet as we near the edge of the ice. I glance back at Lapland’s green taiga, the shallow meltwater lakes glistening peacefully in the distance. Kåtojåkka glacier begins just a few meters away. The ice at its base is ragged with fissures, but it carries my weight. Somewhat awkwardly, I place my different pieces of equipment within reach around me so that my hands are free to strap on my crampons – gear I’ve never ever needed in my life till now, and this goes equally for my climbing helmet and ice pick.
That’s because I’m a city person. When I need a break, I go to the coast or take a walk in the woods. But can you really lose yourself among the fish sandwich shops and surf schools? Are you allowed to start a campfire beside the path in the suburbs? Exactly. I want to balance across tree trunks, fall in the mud, grill fish over an open fire and have my jacket still smell of smoke days later; listen to the frogs’ croaking and the beating of my heart when I meet a reindeer face to face. This yearning for the wilderness is not unique to me, it has spawned entire industries. Youtubers make money from videos about sleeping in the woods with only a knife for equipment. It’s not just anglers and extreme sports enthusiasts who frequent outdoor supply stores like Globetrotter these days, and countless travel operators promise the ultimate wilderness trip.
Last summer, I finally had the chance to pack my backpack for a two-day hiking trip in the mountains of Lapland. Our starting point was Abisko village (which the Swedes pronounce as if the first letter were an “o”), 195 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The sun never sets for eight weeks of the year, but in the winter, it doesn’t rise for weeks as well. Only about 130 people live in Abisko, which has a research station, a tourist center and hotels for hikers to spend the night. There’s no better place to observe the northern lights than here, they say. The nights are dark because there are no settlements nearby to serve as light sources, and thanks to the mountains that trap the clouds, making them rain on the Norwegian side of Lapland, Abisko is known as “blue hole” for its patch of permanently cloudless sky.
To get to Absiko, you have to travel to Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town. Each year, roughly 27 metric tons of raw ore are mined here in the world’s largest iron ore mine and loaded into open railway cars. The 52-car train has been traveling back and forth between Kiruna and Narvik on the Norwegian coast since 1902. But the ground beneath Kiruna has now been so undermined it is in danger of giving way, so the town is currently being moved several kilometers away. Even the old wooden church is to be taken down and rebuilt in a new spot.
Abisko’s natural landmark is a horseshoe-shaped valley, a U in the rock that looks as if a giant had taken an enormous bite out of the mountain. What the Swedes call “Lapporten,” the door to Lapland, is home to the Sami people and their reindeer herds. It’s a taiga landscape, where the trees are stunted and as delicate as bushes due to the long winters. The Scandes Mountains stretch all the way from the Skagerrak Coast in southern Norway to the North Cape. There are no streets here, no signs, no settlements anywhere to be seen. It gets no wilder than this, our mountain guide, Mattias Erlandson, tells us – not in Europe, anyway.
The ice is as bumpy as the skin of a humpbacked whale. As the sharp iron teeth on the soles of my shoes cut into it, I feel like I’m walking along the back of something that’s alive. Twice, we hear a drawn-out cracking sound issue from the depths. “The ice is always moving,” explains Mattias, “each year, gravity pulls the glacier a little bit further down the mountain.” As it moves, the creature scoops up all sorts of rocky debris before burying them beneath it again. Our guide has roped us together because the ground is covered with light snow. One false step and we could fall into a crevice. So I’m walking along like a dog on a leash. It’s a wonderful thing, to do nothing but set one foot in front of the next. Our basic concerns are very simple: Stay warm and dry and every once in a while, take a sip from Mattias’ thermos flask: Swedish boiled coffee could bring the Iceman back to life. Our thoughts and needs are reduced to the essentials: ourselves and our natural surroundings. I’m quite aware that the world is filled with cities and cars, but right now they are nowhere to be seen. There’s not much to be seen of anything, in fact. The snow and clouds envelope us in white noise. The longer I stare into this landscape without contours, the more I lose my orientation, like a scuba diver experiencing the rapture of the deep. But now, we’re actually right on top of the glacier, currently 1991 meters above sea level.
Kebnekaise Mountain, some 20 kilometers to the south of Kåtojåkka, made headlines not so long ago. Until last summer, its southern, ice-capped peak was Sweden’s highest point. In recent years, however, the glacier melted so much that the 2097-meter-high northern peak took over this distinction. Mattias says he notices the effects of global warming everywhere in the mountains. As we head down, he points out a gigantic cryoconite hole. Such holes in the ice are formed when sediment gathers on the surface. The dark rock warms up in the sun and melts the ice, which eventually collapses. Some of the holes are as small as golf balls, but this one is unimaginably deep. We can hear the meltwater gurgling in the shimmering blue depths.
We have to keep moving if we want to reach base camp before nightfall. As we descend, we pass the ice line and enter the fjäll, the treeless alpine tundra. Alternating periods of freezing and melting have broken the rock into slabs, some of which look like they’ve been sliced with a bread knife; others resemble the jagged back of a dragon. Nobody knows exactly when the earth’s crust buckled to form the Scandes Mountains, but estimates range from 400 million to only 40 million years ago. Either way, what we see now is merely a relic of their former size. Erosion has reduced summits to plateaus and rounded off rough edges.
I keep my eyes firmly on the uneven, now many-colored ground, where a carpet of lichens covers the rocks with spots of sulfur-yellow, green and blue. Lichens are fascinating organisms created by the symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi or bacteria. They are found in the most inhospitable regions of the earth, and some species live for thousands of years. If their habitat becomes too dry, they fall into a deep sleep. Access to water even hundreds of years later will reawaken them as though nothing had happened.
We soon see our destination sparkling in the distance: a small, turquoise-colored lake, elevation 1150 meters. This is where we’ll set up camp. Already, our crew has the gas cookers going. As we hop across the last rivulet of meltwater, Mattias presses a steaming hot cup of blåbärssoppa, sweet, sticky blueberry soup, into our hands. Later, inside my tent, I listen to the wind and the scritch-scratch of the snow as it lands on my tarp. I’m freezing in my sleeping bag, despite all my layers. Gravity pulls me over toward the lowest-lying corner of my tent, but I’m still loving every minute. Tomorrow we return to Abisko.
I meet Johan Skullman there. Johan comes from outside Stockholm and used to work as a field researcher for the Swedish military, testing and developing outdoor equipment. Today, he does the same for outdoor outfitters such as Fjällräven and Aclima. Johan spends around 250 days of the year in the mountains. He takes tourists on hikes, canoe trips and dogsled rides. “I used to go into the wilderness with a map and a compass when I was only 6,” he says. Johan has the mischievous air and satisfied look of a person who spends a lot of time outside; someone who isn’t easily ruffled by traffic, weather or stress. When I tell him that I miss the wilderness in my life, he looks at me, surprised. “Nature begins just 100 meters off the side of the road,” he says. “Go outside, climb the next hill and when you reach the place where you lose sight of home, you know you’ve reached the wilderness.”
Johan’s packing list
It beats any equipment
Windsack shelter, Fjällräven
First-aid kit, Ortlieb
Truearc 3 compass, Brunton
Bushcraft survival knife, Morakniv
Lufthansa is operating five daily flights from Frankfurt (FRA) and several daily flights from Munich (MUC) to Stockholm (ARN) in December. Use the app to calculate your miles: www.miles-and-more.com/app