It was a late afternoon in the end of July when PJ and I got off the bus in Sulitjelma, packs filled with food for 8 days, eyes on the southern horizon. 2.5 years ago we had stood on almost that same spot, though with a slightly more frightened and desperate look in those eyes.
In spite of the beautiful forecast, ominous clouds loomed over the Sulitjelma massif. Rising nearly 2000m above sea level they are some of the most alpine mountains in Arctic Norway. Oh, and PJ has a thing with them. Or rather: they have a thing against PJ. I laughed at it the first few times he said it, too. By now I’ve experienced it firsthand not once but twice. PJ has been to those mountains five times. The first time he was nearly killed in an avalanche, getting away only because there was not enough snow for it to slide far enough. Twice he tried to come back to make amends with what had happened and twice the mountains blocked him out with gnarly weather in spite of a brilliant forecast. When we crossed in 2019 we made it to the cabin at Ny Sulitjelma just as a storm started breaking though only after hours of dragging and lowering our sleds one by one, nearly losing one over a cliff in the process, through steep and exposed terrain of which the geography was entirely altered by walls of ice and sastrugi.
In retrospect it was Sulitjelma that broke us then. Even though we made a futile attempt at crossing Saltfjellet in between a succession of storms, our fate was sealed there. And now the clouds. Shortly after we left one small but persisting dark cloud followed our path, thundering persistently as we made our way up the mountain. But we were all strapped up and ready to go, so upwards we went in the blistering heat, our bodies crunching under the weight of the packs. Neither of us had carried more than an overnight pack since we reached Abisko in December 2018. As we trudged our way uphill on the swampy slopes the whole thing came as a shock to the body.
The way south required a few northward turns towards PJ’s nemesis and interestingly enough there was a palpable grim atmosphere in the air. Every time we turned our noses north the wind bit. The thundercloud rumbled at regular intervals and the cumulonimbus towering above Suliskongen reached new heights at every turn. It was pretty intriguing in all honesty: this place was really growling at us. After we made the definitive turn southwards and walked away from the massif the wind subsided, the clouds evaporated and the thunder stopped. We enjoyed a beautiful, sunny and still first evening on a grassy hillside. A few days later, as the Sulitjelma mountains were about to disappear from view, PJ turned to them and vowed to never return. I vowed to never bring him along if I did. The peaks shone happily in the sunlight.
For three days the heat persisted, reaching as much as 28 degrees in the shade. My feet, with their tendencies to self-destruct in warm and moist conditions were tortured. The going was harder than we anticipated with no physical trail, irregular markings and a fair amount of undulation. By day 2 I had most of my feet taped up and was limping, but the beauty of it all made me hobble along happily. We walked to and then around the beautiful Ballvatnet, a large mountain lake offering stunning mountain vistas in all directions. We had just enough time to do the stretch and faced with the choice of all or nothing we had chosen all. After all, it was not that long ago since I lay defeated and tired to the bone on the sofa, daydreaming of a return to the north. A few blisters, flayed toes and a bruised nail were a small price to pay for the opportunity to be here.
Those first days I do have to admit that the bliss I once felt while walking thousands of kilometers on end was far away. I wondered under the blazing sun how we managed 1000km of summer heat without a single tree in New Zealand, or how our feet survived three consecutive months of wet socks and boots. And how did we really survive Nepal at all?
It was a rude awakening to the body and to the mind after months of existing in a hibernation-like state. Upon contemplating the great questions of life we entered Skaitidalen, a place I was particularly disappointed about skipping back in 2019. The avalanche danger dictated it but to be honest I think it’s one of those places that must be experienced in summer. An exceptionally beautiful valley it was in full bloom, wildflowers in many colours covering the lush green slopes.
I was grateful too to experience it in good weather as the forecast after the heat had been grim and warned for a lot of rain. When we woke up in the middle of the valley it looked grey and gloomy where we were headed, but when we got there the grey and gloomy loomed over where we came from. Soon the sky turned an unpleasant kind of black. Running (read: hobbling faster) over the mountains with the thunder right behind us the downpour broke just as we set foot in a cabin for the night. A warning for frequent lightning kept us inside that night. The sight of the black cloud hoovering right behind us made me wonder if we had returned to the mountains’ good graces, if we paid our dues. Attribute it to coincidence or sheer luck if you like, but I’ve seen too much of it to believe that is purely what it is.
The thunderstorm did clear the air and the heat was replaced by a cool 15 degrees and a cloudy day. Personally I perform much better when it drops below 20 and I was relieved, as were my feet. My purple toe was too damaged by then but that was just the way of it. We walked over to Lønstua where lots of memories boiled up. I remembered the stunning pine forests stretching out over the landscape. I also remembered jumping off the train in 70cm of fresh powder after sitting out a storm in Fauske and the despair of the resistance it brought on the sleds. But this time we would head up into Saltfjellet for real and boy were we both excited about that.
Saltfjellet is one of those famous mountain areas in Norway, containing one of the country’s biggest glaciers. It would be the very last stretch above the Arctic circle. 2.5 years ago the storms, the avalanche danger and the experience at Sulitjelma made us decide to follow the highway over the mountains, a depressing affair. Being back reminded me of the fear, the insecurity and the sadness that we felt. But not today. Today we crossed the train tracks and headed up into the mountains. When our camp was swallowed in the fog that evening we were seemingly encamped at the end of the world.
Temperatures kept dropping and by this time we found it as ridiculous to have shorts in our packs as we found the down jackets and warm wool during the first hot days. A merry side effect of the cold and wet boots was that they made for a numb toe rather than a throbbing one, a pleasant sensation. Above the tree line we did not stop much. A cold wind chilled the air to freezing temperatures and above 1000m it was snowing. We looked at the flakes in amazement and found a campsite below 700m where the wind was more bearable. We passed a couple of stunning mountain beaches those days which made me long for a dive, but taking clothes off was certainly not an option, if anything more of them were coming on.
Again and in spite of the cold we lucked out with the weather and got to see much more of Saltfjellet than I anticipated. Just as Skaitidalen it exceeded my expectations. The icy winds and cold rains were changed at regular intervals with the warm embrace of the forest. We overlooked multiple stunning valleys, crossed crystal-clear rivers and camped at stunning spots. Overall this stretch was more challenging than I anticipated, which made it more rewarding as well. Rewards always come after a little suffering. I do believe that nothing spectacular ever comes from just having it easy. It’s through the hard moments that we appreciate the reward, then we learn about ourselves, about who we truly are and about the things that matter to us.
After 8 days of wet feet, fresh air and that sweet simple mountain life we arrived at Dunderland station and hopped on the train south. Pj and I were in a happy state: a common thing united us once more and we had a really good time out together. For me, my body was awake again and my mind as sharp as a knife, I could think clearer than I have in the past 1.5 years.
We can now raise our heads and say that we walked from Nordkapp to beyond the Arctic Circle. We were both stoked to have returned to Sulitjelma and restart from there rather than go south from our last reached point beyond Saltfjellet. Though I’m excited for that stretch too, hopefully next year we’ll be on the train again.