The second of March announced itself brilliantly, with a morning sun rising into a pale blue sky and not a breeze of wind moving the air. It was a stark contrast to the storms that battered us the week before, blowing off roofs like they were mere sheets of paper and even relocating entire cabins. I had been worrying that we wouldn’t be able to go ahead once more. But that day was a different sort of day. It was a promising restart to the adventure.
I was sad to leave behind all the good people we’d met in Abisko, but at the same time it felt so good to strap on those skis and start moving. I had been looking forward to this stretch for so long now, even though it had given us many logistical headaches. It was one of my most anticipated ones for this trip, postponed for years on end to include it in this winter crossing of Norway.
We had a visitor to join us: Alec, an old friend from Stockholm, traveled north to join us for a week. We now also had Bull, a husky we took over from a friend in Kiruna. None of us had ever been out with a dog before so it was exciting and new to have him around. Alec and I were really keen on going through Narvikfjell rather than simply following Kungsleden to Ritsem. The weather looked really good on the forecast, it was a chance out of a million. If we ever wanted to go that route then now was the time to do it.
I was relieved to leave the cabins at Abiskojaure behind for a final time, and the crowds heading up on Kungsleden as well. Towards Norway the trail fell silent. As soon as we had the tent up the sun disappeared behind the mountains and it became freakishly cold. I wondered if two months of working at the comfortable lodge had made us soft. Our fuel pump refused service and with that we could get neither warmth nor food. Luckily Alec brought his own stove and a canister of winter gas so we could prepare a hot meal. It was the first thing to stop working on a week with an impressive amount of broken gear. I had to ski back to the cabins in the morning to buy more gas and get rid of the heavy petrol. There the wardens explained the thermometer had showed -32 in the morning. That explained a few things. Even Bull looked chilly.
Before coming Alec proclaimed that he had been looking forward to a week of real winter and he would be served no less. The second night came colder than the first one. Once the sun dipped behind the mountains PJ’s nose turned white, an early sign of frostbite. He shivered non-stop and wasn’t entirely coherent. I suspected that he was becoming mildly hypothermic and conferred to Alec that we should strike camp. We got him into his sleeping bag and melted snow, preparing hot drinks non-stop to get him warm again. Alec’s stove broke and in the process it broke his gas cannister, too. We were lucky that the halfwit four season gas I found at Abiskojaure kept a faithful service. It got colder and colder. After dinner we soon crawled into our sleeping bags too, but it took only 10 minutes before I was shivering. How is that even possible, I wondered? It is rated -35. We later heard that temperatures dropped below -40 that night.
The next morning was milder and overcast, but sleeping in a cabin still seemed like a sensible thing to do. We slowly continued upwards towards the Norwegian border, and as soon as we reached it the landscape changed dramatically. The broad valleys and rounded tips of Sweden have way to an Alpine vista with sharp peaks to the south and west. It’s a long way up to Narvikfjell from Abisko but it had been worth it. We checked in at the first cabin just across the border.
Upon our arrival the six-bed cabin was full, yet about an hour after we settled in a group of 8 approached as well. All the other cabins were still locked for low season. The guide of the group entered, proclaiming that they had reserved the entire hut and everyone had to give up their beds. These cabins cannot be reserved and the others present, mainly Norwegians, balked. Then he wanted us to move all six into a two person room. Finally, when it became clear that we did not intend to do that, he tried to chase an elder German lady out of her bed to occupy that room.
It’s a first come, first serve system in these cabins. They came last, and I did not find it very clever to travel here with such a big group while bringing only two spare mattresses. Maybe if the guide wouldn’t have been so aggressive it would have been easier to find a solution from the beginning but now no one wanted to give ground. PJ and I shared a bed and retreated with Alec into one room. Two other Norwegians shared a bed too. Places were found for everyone on the loft and sofas and with mattresses. Yet even after places were found for everyone the guide called his agency in Belgium and claimed that DNT said they could kick everyone out. At that point I could not hide my anger. It was blowing hard and -25 outside. The other three didn’t even have a tent. We ended up in a heated discussion. Under no circumstances should there be threats of kicking people out of a cabin in winter. The mood was bad. 14 people sat crammed in a six-bed cabin.
When the group came in I heard they were Belgian but did not wish for them to know that I could understand, else I would become the main negotiator. In a way I was ashamed, too. They really did not know very well how to behave in a cabin. Our stuff that hung drying was thrown on the floor to make space for their items. They kept using gas to melt snow rather than the fire and put the snow bucket on the floor in the kitchen so there was water everywhere. The kitchen seemed occupied for ages too. Rather than eight I felt they were double that amount. No, that night I was no Belgian. I spoke Norwegian and English only and tried to ignore what they were saying. I did not wish to be heavily involved with them.
The one good thing about the group was that we could let them go ahead to break trail through the loose snow. That was the one positive thing about being on the same route as them. The ascent continued and a steep climb would bring us high in the mountains the following day. The day started calm and beautiful, but gradually clouds gathered and the wind picked up. I got a bit scared: I had never been in such an exposed place in a gathering storm before. I was relieved when the cabins came into view. But just about 200m away the wind picked up violently. We had to brace ourselves for the gusts. Bull panicked and kept running back and forth, trying to dig himself in. It was actually the right reflex but dragging him along like that was hard work. 200m later we came to the huts in a full-blown blizzard and got inside a small cabin. Poor Bull shook for half an hour after we got him out of the storm.
We were stuck for the next day too. Everything was white and the risk of unawaringly skiing off a cliff was not worth it. I felt bad for Alec who would most likely miss his train home now, though he himself was very calm under the situation. It is what it is. You can’t force a way through the storm, so all there was to do about it was to sit and wait, eat and drink tea.
That storm passed, too, and a crisp clear sky was what we awoke to the following morning. It was really then that it became clear how stunning Narvikfjell really is, high up there at Cainavagghe. The route from there is a hard one to take with a heavy sled, but since we made it all the way there we had to get across now too. Just a kilometre from the cabin Alec’s ski binding snapped irreparably. He made do with some rope and straps, determined to keep moving forward. PJ laughed. That stubborn Englishman, he said. They don’t make many like him anymore.
The storm had dumped about 40cm of fresh powder, making it hard to move even with the trail from the Belgians. The route undulated relentlessly, including one intimidating wall that had to be climbed to gain the plateau. The wall got really steep – too steep, and at some point I couldn’t move anymore. I was just stuck. I was angry and frustrated and sat helplessly waiting for the other two to come up, trying not to slide off the mountain meanwhile. When Alec started pushing the sled I noticed that my pulling system had detached itself on one side of my sled. No wonder that it kept sliding down rather than following me up. We hauled it up together, me pulling in the front and Alec pushing in the back, while PJ pushed Alec’s sled up with his poles. Had anyone else been there, it would have been quite a sight.
By the end of that day, conquering many more steep bumps, we were exhausted. I understood now why travel with a pulka mostly follows ‘the route of least resistance’, rather than the one with most, like the route we had chosen. We arrived at the next cabins at Gautelis just in time for the gathering dusk, after a sunset of countless pastel colours had glorified the mountains on our descent. There’s an upside to arriving late, too.
From Gautelis we had to cross back into Sweden to regain the route to Ritsem. The Belgians were on a different path and breaking trail came down to us now, which was heavy work. Every kilometre felt like a titan’s battle, just as it had for days. I was exhausted, but we had to keep going. Another storm was blowing in and there was still a slight chance we might make Alec’s train. There was no space for a break.
The storm continued throughout the next day too, with powerful winds blasting over the mountains all day long. We had it in our backs so we strapped on our skis and braved it for another day, skiing for over 20km without any chance for a considerable break. We figured out by now that we could attach Bull to the back of our pulkas so he could walk alongside us, and that seemed to give him comfort. He trotted along bravely, joining in our mission of reaching Ritsem in time for the train.
There was not much to see that day. Everything was white and the only way to look was straight ahead, to keep the biting wind off our faces. But when we got to Sitasjaure we knew that Alec could still make it. We left at 6 AM the following morning, allowing some margin for the 2PM bus out of Ritsem that Alec needed to catch. We arrived with an hour to spare.
Narvikfjell was truly a baptism by fire. There were times when I thought that none of this was for me, but I came out realising that I utterly enjoyed it. Half of the long way to Sulitjelma was done. It was Padjelanta, long anticipated and long on my to-do list, that remained.
Distance covered: 886 km