Grey days came. Grey days went. Kilpisjärvi was a quiet place in late autumn, seemingly existing only of empty hotels, dark cabins, a sports shop (surprisingly) and a supermarket. Only on Saturday night there were people to be found, when all the Norwegians crossed the border to get their parties going on slightly cheaper beer from Finland. We should have left by then, but PJ caught a stomach bug and became ill during the night. It seemed better to let him rest rather than have a sick person struggle though the damp hills. When I passed by the supermarket to get us some dinner the amount of people surprised me. After the quiet of the mountains drunk people always make for a too lively encounter with society, so I hurried back to our apartment quickly, looking forward to disappear into silence again the following day.
When we hit the road in the morning it was grey again. Rain had fallen and frozen during the night, covering the trails once more in a thick layer of ice. On top of the ice lay a fresh dusting of snow. The snow was sticky, though not to the ice, but to our snow shoes, forming balls and clumps beneath the spikes to take away the little grip we had. We battled for 1.5 hours to gain the first two kilometers from the road, where a trail of ice wound steeply up and down the forest. It crossed my mind to turn back and walk the road instead, but 2 km were hardly a proper attempt at it. Plenty of other exit points lay along the way if conditions really remained as bad.
When the grey sky turned black a steady rain was falling and the wind had picked up strongly. I was more than grateful for an inside night, sleeping in the final Finnish cabin on this trip. The black turned into another grey morning, lightened by a long anticipated visit to Treriksrosen, the point where Sweden, Finland and Norway meet. Both of us had been looking forward to passing here for a long time. It was another one of those landmarks whose visit I had postponed for the purpose to include it in this trip. There’s something oddly entertaining about a point where three countries meet. We had to take a few rounds of the cairn before we continued the journey, this time through Sweden.
This route was more gentle, more fit to the circumstances than the trail on the Norwegian side. We were in good spirits, confident that we made the right decision, and started to climb up the mountain. The mood blackened rapidly as the wind picked up again and howled in our faces. No matter whether we are heading north, east, south, or west, it has come as headwind for the past 33 days, except on one memorable occasion on the way to Finland. Getting angry at it was irrational, but I did, and in return to my curses the wind bit my face. After a while I calmed down, realising that shouting at the wind was not helping, and that part of my black mood was to blame on the gathering darkness. The eternal thick mass of grey clouds only reinforced the idea that we were living in eternal twilight. The sun did not show itself. The vivid blues and pinks and oranges had disappeared. The northern lights, very active at that time, eluded us. Colour had disappeared from the world. We raced every day to get our kilometers done in the period of grey haze, the 6.5 hours of dim day between the overwhelming blackness.
That was, quite literally, the dark side of things. I am well aware that the situation will not improve, on the contrary. We are heading into the polar night. But every coin has two sides and this one is no different. In Sweden the clouds briefly lifted, and what revealed itself were white, sharp, Alpine mountains bordering the valley. I was in awe as we descended and kept on checking the white, ghostlike mountains outlined against a dark blue horizon to make sure that they were real. It was a hypnotising sight. It rained again that night, making me once more grateful for the many cabins on this stretch of trail. It would have been utterly miserable without them in the current circumstances. Another thing that is really nice about being out here now is that we are almost always alone and have the place to ourselves. That really gives us the opportunity in the evening to sit back, relax, dry gear around the stove and think about our next move. We constantly have to adjust our plan to the circumstances to make it work. Going into Sweden to avoid the steep Isdalen is just one example of those adjustments.
In the morning the mountains hid themselves in the grey again, which was sad, since I knew that this was a very scenic part of the hike. The peaks are gracious so close to the Lyngen Alps, but we could not see them. I pondered all day inside of my hood, on current and future plans, on coming back here one day in Spring to redo this stretch. Suddenly two figures doomed up out of the fog, pulling me out of my thoughts abruptly. PJ didn’t believe me first when I yelled ‘people!’ and we were both so taken aback that we did not know what to say at first.
– “This is unexpected, to see people here!”
-“Oh no! Us old fellas, we’re always roaming around. Where are you walking from?”
-“Pältsastugan. From Nordkapp, before that.”
(One of the old fellas gets really excited now)
-“Nordkapp! So you’re on a long trip! (draws a line in the snow). How far are you going?”
-“To Lindesnes. Well, eventually. To Sulitjelma before Christmas.”
-“Lindesnes! Then your hike is not this long, but thát much longer! (majorly extends the line in the snow) And you have a young lady with you, too! You must be inspired, you can walk all the way to Rome!
I had to laugh. They were in good spirits, these old fellas, and heck, pretty though for a 70- and an 80-year old to be walking around here on a day of gloom and rain and fog to go icefishing in one of the lakes. After some more smalltalk we each headed other way. I smiled until the cabin, hoping that when I’m 80 I’ll be going around entertaining some young people in the fog, too.
It was a really gloomy evening, that one, with more rain and more fog. We could not see a thing, even the cabin came as a surprise when we bumped into it. I started to wonder if going up again was such a smart idea. But in the morning the mountains were out once more, and I had to rub my eyes to make sure I was seeing them alright, white and pale cliffs outlines against a deep purple sky. We had a long climb ahead of us today, which soon became a doubtful affair. The rain of the last few days had left behind more ice, thick and transparent, covering everything. We slid and shuffled and crawled up the mountainside. I was sure one of us would break a leg. It felt somewhat suicidal being here now.
I had just put the words “I think we should turn and head for the road instead” out in the open when the sunrise began. The faint white peaks caught fire, blazing increasingly red every minute, and I did not turn. I kept climbing, wanting to see the spectacle from higher up. More and more blazing mountains came on the horizon, and I climbed on, not wanting to miss a minute of it. The peaks shone red, orange and yellow in turn, and by the time PJ asked why I wanted to turn I could not remember. When we reached the highest point of the day at over 1000m the sun shone bright in our faces and made all dark thoughts, all doubts disappear. I had dreamed about coming through these mountains for many years, from Finland by Treriksrosen and the mighty Norwegian peaks of Dividalen through the large, seemingly empty ranges on the north side of Torneträsk to end up in Abisko.
Some days are black and some days are white. Out in the mountains, the black becomes very black, yet it goes the other way around too, and the white days are always worth all the black days combined.
At Dærta we entered Øvre Dividalen national park, like Reisa another one of those rare places in Norway where high mountain areas as well as forested valleys are protected. Old pine trees stand proud in deep valleys, and moose seek refuge and food in those woods during winter. Birch forests cover the higher plateaus, strewn between the marshes, until only shrubs and in the end only rocks remain. All four large predators can be found here: bears, wolverines, lynx and even wolves, one of the sole places in Norway to host them all.
There is a lot of history in this place. The Sámi have been roaming this area for centuries beyond count, following their reindeer from the mountains to the coast and back in their yearly migration. A viking sword was found at Altevann and it is suspected that viking lords from north Trøndelag traded with the Sámi, as well as raiding them. Though all in all it was the Sámi who dominated this area until Norwegians started moving north in the end of the 18th century, having heard rumours of large lands available for farming. The two groups had a conflictive relationship, and as a result the Sámi retreated inland all year long, while Norwegians mostly settled around the coast or in lower valleys. Until the migration north the valleys around Bardu were covered in dense, old forests, so it’s only a good 200 years ago when much of the forests of the north stood untouched. Today, most of that is gone, with only patches like Dividalen left, to give a glimpse of what these woods used to be like. Today, less than 1% of all Norwegian forests can be considered old-growth.
Encouraged by the good snow conditions and clear weather we decided to go over the mountains from Dærta to Dividalshytta, rather than around. It was the wrong thing to do. In the funnel of a valley leading up to the pass the snow was piled high by the wind, but not packed. It was sticky, almost glue-like, and it stuck under our snow shoes in high piles, giving us the impression that we were walking around with bricks underneath our feet. PJ was done for after the steep climb up. We were aware that the wind was going to pick up and a lot of rain would fall throughout the night. I was worried that we would not make it across and spend the night up there in bad weather, so I started to plow through. We needed to sidle around a top for a long time. The snow there was very uneven, full of holes, piles and flutings, sometimes knee-deep. Visibility started to drop fast: soon we could not see the difference between the ground and the sky anymore. In the white-out it was impossible to make out any features in the snow. Ups and down remained hidden until I bumped into them or tumbled over them. In the blind I stumbled on until we finally reached an edge where the trail led down, and soon after the cabin showed up.
In my worry about getting stuck up there I pushed so hard that we made the 25km faster than the indicated summer walking time. I payed a price for that, though: I was completely exhausted and we were unable to leave the next day. The storm came a day late, and from the afternoon until the following evening the cabin shook and rumbled under the force of the wind, confining us there for another day. We needed to be very careful with our supplies now, as we had counted on one extra day but not two. It is torturous to sit all day listening to a rumbling stomach, not being able to touch any of the food packed in our bags.
Every day on this stretch felt like drawing a lottery ticket: easy days turned out hard and hard days turned out easy, so we never really knew what to expect. I woke up in the mornings with a knot in my stomach, wondering how the day was going to go. The easy ways out towards the road were a temptation at all times. Especially when we departed Dividalen for Vuomahytta the step out the door felt incredibly difficult. But the weather cleared again, and every day became a reward in itself. We would look at each other and be happy that we did not stop this day either. Dividalen is a magical place, and as we walked through valleys or over passes covered in deep shadows the peaks around glowed the red of hot coals in a fire, announcing that the day was not over, that we still had time, and that we surely had to continue to see them glow in the next valley, too.
During those last five days the weather turned about every 24 hours: from those clear, breathtaking days back to a world engulfed in grey, with rain patting on our hoods and headwinds biting at our faces. Lucky enough the worst of it came in the night. But the step out the door remained difficult, the exit tempting. The day before we would cross the mountains into Sweden we were both at the end of our forces, tired of battling headwinds, white-outs, rain, fog and ice. The little snow that lay on the ground had all turned into ice, and no proper white powder was to be found anymore until above an altitude of 800 m. We were hungry: our calorie intake was too low, especially after losing an extra day. We hobbled towards the road at Innset, unsure about what to do, feeling weak and exhausted.
The bad weather forced us into a cabin once more, calling it an early day and keeping both the exit and the continuing options open. There lay, forlorn and forgotten, the holy grail of the mountains: a package of waffle dough, one with pancake though, and even better, half a pack of butter. I’ve never eaten 4 pancakes that fast. The bad weather was for the good: the rest and the food revived us. When stars shone in the sky the next morning we packed up, put our headtorches on and headed up into the mountains once more.
It was as if we were granted passage: bad weather blew in around us, dark clouds encircled the valley we followed up, but we walked under a blue sky, overlooking the peaks towards Narvik and Torneträsk. It was one of the most rewarding and stunning days I have ever spent in the mountains. We made it through this wild land of jagged ridges and sharp peaks, glowing a deep red, on a highway of packed snow. By the descent dark clouds hung in the valley, and when the full moon rose a fierce wind rose with it. But we were down, we had passed, we had seen.
The mountains still smiled at us. “Fortune favours the brave” proclaimed the walls of Makalu Base Camp once upon a time. It was still true. When we reached Abisko I felt as happy as if it was Lindesnes. We pushed our limits on this time. But the dream had been accomplished. And every minute of biting headwind, every minute of battling snow in low visibility, every precarious step on ice had been worth it.
A new storm unleashed itself, in grand force, the following day.