We saw the bus leave, waved goodbye to Alec and then there was only two of us again. It was really nice having another person there and being a small team, short as it lasted. It was a beautiful day again, not a breeze of wind and not a cloud in the sky. PJ and I enjoyed the afternoon with a view over Akkhá, Sweden’s longest mountain slope. This impressive massif dominates the skyline above the massive hydro lake with the same name.
I sometimes still can’t believe what that lake has caused in damage to one of Europe’s last true wilderness areas. During the afternoon I had a discussion with the cabin host at Ritsem about it. 40% of all hydropower produced in Sweden comes from here, from the dam that ceased the existence of Stora Sjöfallet, flooded ancient old forests and cut Kungsleden in half, making it passable only in high season when either a safe route over the ice is marked or a boat goes across. “That’s why they did it”, he said. I didn’t and still don’t know what to think about it. Was the output worth the price, invading and profoundly altering this place for what we now call green energy? And how green is that really? These are hard questions to answer.
The Akka lake was one of our major obstacles in early fall, but a marked trail now showed a safe way across. After a day’s rest we strapped our skis on again and headed for Padjelanta, Sweden’s most remote national park. The ward told me that they had planned to expand the hydropower projects to those lakes too but were stopped. Luckily.
Bull got really excited as we pulled the skis out: he had been so tired upon our arrival but was fully rested now. While crossing the lake we met a caravan of people heading the other direction, covered in thick down jackets and their faces taped up from against the cold. Two of them told us they also wanted to cross into Padjelanta, but the weather had been so bad and cold that they decided to head back. I hoped for better fortune for ourselves.
That first week through Narvikfjell set the bar pretty high and a night in the tent at -25 really did not feel all that bad anymore. When the hardest part comes first the rest can only be easier. The way through Padjelanta was not nearly as hard as Narvikfjell had been. Mostly we had brilliant weather, gradual terrain to follow and good conditions. The storms of the previous week had packed the snow hard, making it much easier to travel now. Mostly, at least. There were a few exceptions to that smooth sailing.
Padjelanta is a timeless place, where lonesome Sámi villages border immense lakes. Powerful rivers flow between them and even the cold of the past two weeks couldn’t entirely cover them in ice. The sharp peaks of Sarek stand proud to the east while Narvikfjell and Rago dominate the skyline to the west. I wondered what it looked like in summer, this broad borderland between these harsh mountain ranges. One day I’ll have to come back and find out.
It was quiet in there. We saw a few snow mobiles running in the distance pulling heavy loads, probably the rangers resupplying the cabins run by a collective of Sámi communities. We met a handful of people coming from Sulitjelma and there was some movement at some of the cabins in Staloluokta, but otherwise everything was utterly deserted. Though only to the eye. Tracks of wolverine and a fresh kill betrayed that they could not be far. A lonesome fox was hunting for something under the snow on a hillside. And seven moose were migrating together between Arasluokta and Staloluokta in the heart of the national park. Everything in the woods started to stir in the spring.
The weather remained stable and absolutely stunning. It was the best weather window we’ve had since the start of the trip in October. I was keen on camping and using the huts every couple of nights, but my face decided otherwise. Blisters developed first on my nose, then on my lips and cheeks, products for the harsh cold and biting winds from our first ten days out. Halfway through it started hurting intensely and we decided it was better to sleep warm, giving the skin a chance to dry out and recover itself. It wasn’t worth getting it infected. I taped half my face up every morning to shelter it from the elements.
The road roughened up on the way to Norwegian border. We had been doubting long and hard about which route to follow down to Sulitjelma. The shortest one ends in a never ending undulating trail with steep passes and a sharp descent before reaching the final cabin right above the village. The longer one was slacker but had more than one messy section included in it, and PJ said it was hard to find the way through some of it.
After much debate we decided to take the shortest one and go over Sårjåsjaure and the Norwegian cabin there, from where things get tricky. The last two days in Padjelanta this prospect hung heavy in the air and I felt a knot in my stomach. It would be scary and technically difficult terrain. But a dark mood hung over that place, too. In 2011 PJ followed that same route with three friends in December and was nearly involved in a mountain catastrophe. They were all lucky to make it down and tell the tale.
The wind picked up again at the border, making me fearful that we would find ourselves in a similar situation. PJ was understandably very uncomfortable and just wished to get it over with. The Sulitjelma mountains are notorious for their fierce storms, and when they hit there is no escape. I kept a close look at the sky but couldn’t quite tell what the clouds were saying. Would the good weather spell end before we got down, or could we get there right on the limit? We had no way of getting a forecast, and the sky didn’t let us look into its cards. At Sorjushytta we both had a restless night, hoping for still skies and clear vision in the morning. Something about this place felt extremely temperamental.
To both our reliefs the sky was blue when we woke up, but the wind had turned to the northwest and that predicted no good. The already difficult terrain became very hard to pass under the conditions: the snow had created its own topography, covering steep mountain sides in sometimes nearly vertical ice cliffs, making it paramount to select the right route. The map couldn’t entirely be relied upon, everything looked different. We needed to push the sleds up the icy slopes in team and later had to lower them with one of us hanging on a rope in the back to break, too. It was a long, tiresome and slow way of making progress, but it was the only way it could be done.
I was grateful for the good visibility: it would be so easy to make a wrong estimation of one of the slopes and fall off a cliff. Because it was so icy we mostly proceeded on foot, it was hard keeping control of the skis with the big sleds behind. After an hour or two clouds rolled in and the light became really flat, making it harder to navigate. We kept Bull loose, afraid that he might get injured if he was attached to a sled that got out of control. It was the right thing to do. At a steep descent I lost my pulka and it thundered 70m down the mountain, making a few rolls in the process. Miraculously neither my skis, nor the tent, nor the pulka or the bars for pulling broke in the process.
That day wore long and tiring. I felt a certain responsibility to be there for PJ, while at the same time his story of this place really scared me. The cliffs scared me too. The pulka always pulled towards the abyss and there was no end to it. Even when we finally caught sight of the cabin the way there appeared impossible. In the end I broke into tears. I was so afraid yet I was so angry at myself too, for being a bad team mate, for having him take care of me in his place of black memories. But there was nothing I could do about it. I was exhausted.
We lost a screw again from one of the bars to pull the sleds, pj’s this time, making it even more unstable than it already was. He tried to manoeuvre it with the rope we use for attaching Bull but it kept tipping and sliding in the wrong direction. I was done with it. He was done with it. But somehow we got down, just as the tide really turned and the first fierce winds of a five-day-long-storm started howling in the valley. The cabin, equipped with electricity and running water, was like an oasis in the midst of chaos. The 11km over the mountains took us 9 hours and 45 minutes.
I had been a long time since I was so scared in the mountains. I apologised to PJ at length at the cabin and felt like the worst team mate imaginable. After a while emotions calmed. And I was so proud of Bull. He had behaved perfectly all day long, even showing us the way when we were not sure where to go. A husky responds best to respect and loyalty. It seems that a long trip through the mountains is the perfect way to establish that bond.
Finally, we reached a benchmark from Nordkapp and crossed that long chain of mountains that held us back for so long. No matter what happens now, I will be at peace.
Distance covered: 1008 km