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Mostly Southbound

From Abisko to Kvikkjokk in early April 1998

© Andrea Keller and Jann Breitschmid 1998     

The fact that my luggage only arrived 48 hours after Andrea and I did, allowed for a second day of resting, acclimatising and organising, never a bad strategy prior to a trip such as we had planned. It was to be our first winter trip. We chose a part of the Kungsleden because we knew the area from various summer hikes. In addition, there is some basic infrastructure (marked trails, huts, emergency telephones) which would clearly facilitate our "maiden winter voyage" if necessary. Under good weather conditions, we expected to log the roughly 200 Kilometres in approximately 10 days.

We finally set out our trip one sunny Tuesday morning. We both had approximately 25 kilograms of luggage. I took the pulka we had rented back in Switzerland plus some of Andrea’ s equipment. Andrea carried her backpack. Only a couple of minutes into the trail, she still looked unhappy, so we decided to switch equipment. Andrea took the sled and I carried my backpack which had been on the sled. Even that left us still somewhat slower than others which made us restore the original state but I took on some more of Andrea’ s gear until we had reached the equilibrium that made us go at the same speed. This left Andrea with a backpack of about 12 to 15 kilograms, not easy but bearable. As it happens very frequently in these lands, the weather changed quickly and snowfall as well as poor visibility set in very soon after our start. That is when you really appreciate the markers which are usually set up within about 50 meters of each other. On unmarked trails, you would, under such conditions, soon be forced to break camp, as navigation becomes impossible and tracks of other hikers or scooters soon become invisible.

The trail to the Abiskojaure hut is pretty flat and leads through light forest. At this time of the year, all lakes (except for those which are used for electricity generation) are still solidly frozen and can be used by hikers as well as scooters; the Abiskojávri ("jávri", "jaure"= lake) hut was therefore quickly reached and is the first refuge for those who do the trail on a hut-to-hut-basis. It was only early afternoon when we arrived there; we continued after a short break which included some plastering of my feet. I had not used my telemark equipment for years, my shoes needed to be "rebroken" in. The trail follows the Kamajakka ("jakka"= river) for a short while, then turns south-eastward to ascend towards the Alisvagge ("vagge"= valley). For the first time, our gear felt heavy on our backs. The first part of the ascent is steep. We set camp after the first ramp, after which the trail only rises gently. It snowed that night, so we had to blaze a new trail the next morning, but still got atop the ridge that overlooks the Alisvagge very soon.

We were to follow that valley south-westward for most of the day. What we initially identified as the Alesjaure hut turned out to be a wind-shelter which we used for lunch. The Alesjaure hut, where we arrived at mid-afternoon, overlooks the lake of the same name. We decided to push further, as close to the Tjäktja pass as possible. I went pretty soar that afternoon, my guess is that I must have suffered from some mild dehydration problem. We had not drunk very much in the past 24 hours, certainly less than we should have. The Tjäktja hut lies a little less than halfway (hiking time, not distance) between the bottom of the valley and the pass of the same name. The ascent is only partly steep, but feels much tougher than that well after six o’ clock in the evening! I felt completely worn out when we arrived at the hut and hit the sack after a very short dinner. It had been a pretty cold night with temperatures in the mid to high teens below zero Celsius. The sky was overcast, but the rising sun blew most of the clouds away very quickly. The trail rises gently towards the Tjäktja pass where we arrived about an hour and a quarter after we had left the hut. It is the highest point of the Kungsleden and usually very windy. Not that day though.

We took a short rest, and enjoyed the fantastic view into the Tjäktja valley. Then the skins came off our skis and we were in for one of these downhill experiences which always turn out to have been just a little bit too short afterwards. After about two more hours of easy going, the Sälka huts came into sight. Eager to save on our own gas and happy to have a warm shelter for one or two hours, we cooked lunch at the hut, for which one has to pay a small day-fee. We also stocked up on plasters and toilet paper at the attached shop. Several huts between Abisko and Vakkotavare carry supplies, which range from food to toiletries and souvenirs. The trail to Singi is set on easy going terrain, following the bottom of the valley. From Singi, the trail branches off to the Kebnekaise region and, further on, the trailhead at Nikkaluokta. Most of the winter hikers take this route (Abisko- Nikkaluokta or vice versa), which takes about 4 to 7 days. Halfway between Sälka and Singi, there is a wind-shelter, at which we met two Danish guys, who got stuck there. One of them had twisted his ankle just a few hundred meters away from the shelter (fortunately) the day before. We gave him some medication and left after a few exchanges of hiking experience. We arrived at Singi late in the afternoon of the day before Good Friday and "traffic" was clearly increasing. Andrea did not really want to camp since the sky looked pretty clear that evening which usually hints to a very cold night. We got the last two beds. We extensively discussed about summer and winter hiking as well as equipment with a Swedish couple that night. Good Friday morning saluted with cloudless skies. We were the first up in our hut, lit the fire and I went to fetch water after breakfast. What a task! The water hole was about 500 meters away. I put the skies on and fetched the warden’ s sled and bucket. All in all, it took me nearly half an hour to complete the exercise.

We followed the Kungsleden southward towards Kaitumjaure. Even though the sun travelled clear skies all day, it was bitterly cold and somewhat windy. We passed some winter campers who had apparently spent the night in a snow-hole, a very comfortable shelter if one exactly knows how to build it we were told by someone we met later on. Here, the Tjäktjavagge is enclosed by a most beautiful mountain scenery. The descent to Kaitumjaure would not really qualify for a downhill race.

A couple of minutes short of the Kaitumjaure hut we made a hot meal for lunch outside, but were blown back onto the trail by chilly winds soon thereafter. The trail heads south-westward from the hut and ascends to a small high valley. It takes a good half an hour to get to the ridge where the terrain starts flattening out again. After about four kilometres, when the trail commences to descend gently towards the Teusajaure and the visibility is good, some of the Sarek National Park summits come into sight. The view is beautiful, but even more spectacular in Summer, when some of these mountains, partly covered by glaciers, remain in white in an otherwise lush green environment. A little later, the skins came off again, and it was really worth it. Unfortunately, neither a heavy backpack nor a pulka allow for some proper telemarking. The trail, now winding steeply down to the Teusajaure hut on the shore of the lake of the same name, soon enters light forest and becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate with a pulka. It was great fun though and we made it safely to the hut, where we were warmly welcomed by the same lady warden we had met just over half a year before, when we had hiked parts of the Padjelanta trail as well as some of the Kungsleden. It was late afternoon, when we left across the Teusajaure to check out the wind-shelter on the far side of it. We initially wanted to set camp there and use the shelter to cook dinner only. But we finally decided to continue for a little while. The Kungsleden leads southward from here to Vakkotavare, where hikers usually take the bus east to Kebnats. From there, they continue across the Langas lake to Saltoluokta. We decided to avoid the bus and therefore had to turn south-east on Teusajaure. We soon set camp that afternoon, as we did not want to hike until the sun would have gone down. We pitched the tent on the southern shore of the lake. As mentioned above, it had been a fantastic day with sunshine all over and no clouds. The night was, not unexpectedly, chilly. We felt as if we were sleeping in a deep freezer. I woke up several times to huddle a bit better into my sleeping bag. Andrea found little sleep, even after putting on some more clothes.

When I finally woke up shortly after five o’ clock in the morning, the thermometer showed -19 degrees Celsius - inside the tent! It took me only a short while to light the stove and cook a warm breakfast, which made the tent temperature rise to about freezing point. The toughest moment of the morning came when we peeled ourselves out of our sleeping bags. We only left camp at about nine o’ clock, approximately one hour later than usual. We spent the next two hours on the Teusajaure, heading south-east. On firm ground again, the trail rises above a canyon first, then winds down towards the Kakerjaure delta. We saw quite a few snow-scooters on the trail that Easter Saturday, with most of the people heading for a day of ice-fishing.

The "trail" on Kakerjaure is about seven kilometres long, before it turns south-westward, heading straight for Stora Sjöfallet. The last hour’ s hike follows a straight road and seems to have no end. Finally, after a short descent, it hits the overland road that would take trail finishers east to Gällivare. The Stora Sjöfallet Motel is just a stone’ s throw from there. It had been a very long day for us, we had hiked nearly 30 kilometres just for the comfort of a warm shelter after the chilly night we had had. We thoroughly enjoyed the shower, the first one in five days. We also had dinner at the hotel, which tasted wonderful. Fresh vegetables seemed to come straight from paradise. To celebrate Easter, the hotel had hired a two man band. They played famous international as well as Swedish tunes. They both could not sing, but that did not matter. The crowd was cheerful and the quality of the music was good enough for a dance too. We stayed until midnight, even though we had wanted to hit the sack early. The next day, we decided, would be half a hiking plus half a layover day. The Saltoluokta fjell-station is an ideal destination for this. I knew the place from a summer hike of the then entire Kungsleden (Abisko- Ammarnäs) in the early eighties. It is beautifully set on the southern shore of the Langas lake. The main building is built in traditional log-house style. The interior is also beautifully furnished, with a fireplace at the entrance, a warm welcome in its utmost sense for summer and especially winter hikers! A shop satisfies most hikers’ requirements.

Hiking the Langas lake is somewhat treacherous. The lake is used for electricity generation and is therefore regulated. The water level keeps changing and the lake’s ice cover can be fragile. Hikers are urged to follow the marked trail, which leads along the northern shore to the vicinity of Kebnats, from where a ferry service operates to Saltoluokta in summer. There, the trail, which is regularly checked for safety, also crosses the lake to the fjell-station. We arrived in the early afternoon and were surprised to learn that the fjell-station was not fully booked - at Easter Sunday! We leisured all afternoon and had a gorgeous dinner in the evening. After some planning for the remainder of the trip, we went to bed. The weather had already changed noticeably the day before. A thin layer of clouds had overcast the sky from early afternoon. This low pressure build-up had accentuated overnight.

Light snowing accompanied us away from Saltoluokta, up to the ridge that marks the northern end of the Autsutjvagge high valley. The ascent is partly steep, but only took us about one hour with the fresh morning’ s energies. It was rather unfortunate that more clouds and wind were breaking in as we reached the ridge, as in good weather conditions, the view over the Langas lake (experienced during the summer hike mentioned above) is breathtaking. After the ridge, the trail flattens out until it descends to the Sitojaure hut. About halfway between Saltoluokta and Sitojaure (10 kilometres from either place), there is a wind-shelter, very welcome to us for a lunch break in the rather chilly conditions we found ourselves that day. We cooked one of our dehydrated menus and had just begun to eat, when five Swedish people arrived. They brought news that another three Dutch were to be there soon, which made space in the shelter a little scarce but guaranteed for immediate heating of the venue. It became cosy within minutes and it did cost us an effort to continue the hike. The weather had not changed. The southerly winds blew strongly through the valley until late afternoon. However, reward was close. A one kilometre downhill run to the Sitojaure hut, though not very steep, was pure pleasure once again. At the hut, we delivered some mail from Saltoluokta to the warden. She was already preparing to move some of her gear to a hut on the Padjelanta trail, parts of which we had, as mentioned above, done the summer before and we realised that we had briefly met there. We left when the folks we had seen at the wind-shelter for lunch were just pouring in. We crossed Sitojaure and set camp close to its southern shore. The weather situation was pretty good. The sky was still overcast, which gave us a decent chance for a relatively warm night. The ground where we were to put up the tent was rather soft and we really had to dig in, which took us a little more than half an hour. At the end, the tent was barely visible from a few meters away, but definitely storm-proof. The trail from Sitojaure soon ascends to the crest which is topped by Mount Skjerfe. The ascent is only about two kilometres long but partly very steep.

From the top, the view is spectacular. The Sarek summits seem to be only a stone’ s throw away. And - yes - ascents are mostly followed by descents. We were in for a great one which we were to rate "best on Kungsleden". First, the trail leads over open terrain, then it gets steeper as it enters light forest. Especially with a pulka, skiing that part can be somewhat treacherous, as the track gets very narrow and ploughing is not always possible. However, we arrived at the beautifully set Aktse hut not only safely but thrilled by the downhill run we had just had. While we were having lunch at the hut, a Dutch couple arrived. They were the first ones we had seen who had chosen to use snow shoes rather than skis. They had already been in the area for nineteen days.

The trail to Kvikkjokk is only marked with birch branches where it crosses lakes, but easy to find, as it is frequently used by motor-scooters. It first crosses Laitaure, then leads through forest only to cross another lake, Tjaktjajaure. We set camp, for the last time, on that lake’ s southern shore, only shortly after we had crossed it and then turned east, as the trail follows its shoreline on the way to Parte. The night was relatively moderate as far as temperature was concerned. The next morning, with Kvikkjokk, our final destination within close reach, we hit the trail early. We had about another 8 kilometres on Tjaktjajaure before the trail entered light forest. The sky was overcast, but the weather was to improve. The third hiking hour of the day had us reach the Parte hut, where we stayed for lunch. Leaving a warm hut after lunch usually took energy, but not that day. The prospect of a hot shower in Kvikkjokk nearly made us fly. After Parte, the trail crosses the entire length of Sjabtjakjaure heading south-west, before it turns west across yet another, slightly bigger lake called Stuor-Tata. Immediately adjacent, now turning south, we negotiated sister lake Jana-Tata, before the trail ascended gently through forest.

We knew that we would be in for another easy downhill run soon, but the more we were yearning for it, the farther it seemed to be away. It finally did come. It felt great to take the skins off for the last time. The run was rather short, but what the hell, we were there! I am always amazed that the reception staff at the fjell-stations manage to smile when all these smelly, filthy unwashed backpackers arrive. The Kvikkjokk fjell-station does no longer belong to the STF (Swedish Tourist Board) but is now officially a youth hostel. Apart from the fact that there is now only a bar in some adjacent building rather than a restaurant, which did not bother us too much, there was little difference to be noticed to previous years. The showers, our only interest at that moment anyway, looked pretty much the same. And the water was so beautifully warm! I must have been in there for almost 30 minutes. The bar does provide some basic food. Since we didn’ t really feel like cooking again ourselves, we went to check it out. It was rather cold in there and some local was just getting drunk and rather aggressive, so we didn’ t stay for long. Back in our room, I let the pictures of these nine days go past again. We had been lucky; the weather gods had been with us. We had never got stuck. We had met great people, logged over 200 kilometres. Apart from a few blisters, we had suffered no damage. And, most importantly, we had spent nine days in a place of outstanding natural beauty. We’ ll be back.

Here are some tips which you might find useful:

There are two hiking strategies for the Kungsleden:

The easier one is to do the trip on a hut-to-hut basis. There are huts approximately every 15 to 20 kilometres. An easy distance, especially since hikers then only have to take minimal equipment with them. All that is needed is a light sleeping bag, some reserve clothes and a little bit of food, as only every second or third hut carries supplies. I would however also include some "emergency gear" (additional warm clothes, emergency foil, shovel) just for those cases when the weather changes very quickly and you might have to dig in for a while.

We were fully equipped (camping gear) and self contained for approximately 7 days. The packs then obviously get heavier. For that reason, we had initially planned to rent two pulkas but only got one. The Abisko tourist-station does rent out some pulkas, but for the Easter period, which usually attracts most of the winter visitors, they must be reserved well in advance. We were too late, but did manage to get a pulka in Switzerland. This forced a one-pulka-one-backpack strategy upon us which turned out to be very convenient (as described in paragraph 2 of the trip report above). The tourist-station carries lots of telemark gear for hire. I would still make a reservation to guarantee availability. From wherever the trip ends, the equipment can be sent back to Abisko by public transport (bus/train) at a reasonable rate.

There is no uniform skiing equipment for winter hiking. Most people use telemark skis though. But even in this segment, two different types exist. The best for hiking reasonably flat terrain are those with scales. They work the same way as no-wax cross-country skis (the second most frequently seen ski type) and will also help up hills if they are not too steep and if the backpack or pulka is not too heavy.

Alternatively, downhill telemark skis can be waxed very much the same as their cross-country equivalents. This however requires waxing experience and can go fatally wrong as some Danish guys told us along the trail.

The third strategy uses skins. Certainly the slowest, but you get up any hill and if you have a heavily loaded pulka, probably still the one that saves most energy. Whenever the terrain is really flat or even descends, you can always take the skins off and will then be at least as fast as anybody else.

The majority of the hikers we met used telemark skis with scales. A fair number of people had cross-country equipment, which is a disadvantage in deep snow. However, since the Kungsleden is frequently hiked, this is not really a problem there.

We only have a three season tent (very light, therefore probably not fully storm-proof) but did not bother buying another tent for the occasion. We were never challenged for this, as the weather had been very good all the time. At places where the snow cover is one meter high or more, you can dig in very well though and should even survive a storm with a tent such as ours reasonably well.

Buy the warmest sleeping bag you can afford! There is little else you will appreciate more than a cosy bag after a cold day. I personally prefer synthetic insulation material to goose-downs. Synthetic bags are bulkier and even slightly heavier. But they dry faster than goose-down bags, a valuable asset for the following reason: Sleepers’ breath condenses at the roof of the tent. With temperatures below freezing point, this is no problem, as it all freezes immediately. But when you cook inside the tent (which is great for obvious reasons) and temperatures get above freezing point, your sleeping bag is soaking wet within minutes. And then you want to have a bag which dries quickly. Goose-down bags sometimes have another problem. The downs tend to come off the bag over time. Again, synthetic bags are my personal preference. There is a big controversy going on about this among hiking and mountaineering folks, and there is probably equally many pros and cons for both types of bags. We both took an inner linen with us. Andrea’ s was made of light fleece, mine of silk. I have never used mine, Andrea found hers and mine very useful. They are neither heavy nor bulky and you’ ll appreciate the extra warmth in clear nights.

Stoves are another big issue. The cleanest and easiest ones to use are the gas stoves. They have one big disadvantage. They do not work very well in cold temperatures. Under these conditions, stoves running on fuel are the most efficient. Use white gasoline rather than the unleaded one if you can, but bear in mind that even that type releases toxic gases. The lighting procedure is more troublesome than the one for gas stoves. Remember that the nozzle can block, especially if you use unleaded or even leaded gasoline and take a second nozzle or a needle with which you can "deblock" it with you. Sometimes, high flames can emerge before the burner works properly. One should generally not use stoves inside a tent. I do use gas stoves inside, but would never do so with the gasoline type.

Multi fuel stoves are certainly the best bet in most places, where one of the fuel types should always be available. If you go for gas, bear in mind the following:

Firstly, airlines do not carry gas cartridges. You therefore have to purchase it at the point of departure. Make sure it is available there. Abisko for instance did not carry the cartridge which attaches to my burner. I had to get an outdoor shop in Kiruna to deliver some to the Hotel where we stayed before we left for Abisko.

Secondly, various types of gas are available. For our stove, propane-butane or propane only cartridges exist. The propane-butane mixture is the most efficient one in cold temperatures. However, it is not available in all countries, as propane-butane is also more toxic than propane only. Once again. One should not use stoves inside a tent. But when I do, I make sure there is enough ventilation.

Thirdly, get a gas stove which allows you to detach the cartridge after every use. With the first generation of these stoves, this was not possible. Once the cartridge was attached to the burner, it had to stay there until it had been fully used. As I mentioned above, gas burners don’ t work very well in cold temperatures. What you therefore want to do is warm up the cartridge about 30 to 60 minutes before you use it. During the day, I just put it underneath my jacket while hiking. During the night, I kept it in my sleeping bag. This worked perfectly. Wrap a shirt or jumper around the cartridge while you use it. The warmer the cartridge, the more efficient it is.

Maps are available at every fjell-station on Kungsleden. I usually purchase them long before for some rough planning of the hike. You can never plan in detail. The map will show the ascents and descents, but will not tell you anything about the trail conditions you will find. In summer for instance, parts can be extremely muddy after days of rain. In winter, fierce head-winds can influence your speed. Warm weather can make the snow heavy. Fresh overnight snow can force you to blaze a new trail etc. On reasonably flat terrain, we found ourselves doing about 4 kilometres per hour.

Include some extra time for unforeseen problems when you plan your trip. Take a book with you in case you get snowed in for two days (you’ ll get terribly bored if you don’ t)! Speak to the people you meet on the trail. Many of the ones we met on the Kungsleden are repeaters and have an awful lot of experience, can tell you what you are in for in the days to come or give you tips about good hiking gear. And most of the folks you meet up there are just good fun to talk to.

Food is not really a problem on Kungsleden, since you can regularly resupply. We took prefabricated, dehydrated menus with us. They are very light and quickly made. All it usually requires is about half a litre of boiling water. You can directly use the aluminium bag they usually come with. This saves you from doing some washing up, which you’ ll especially appreciate when hiking in winter. We had these menus for both lunch and dinner. One menu served the two of us when we supplemented it with some peanuts as starters and some sweets for dessert. We also ate some chocolate, dried fruit or peanuts during short breaks on the trail.

Make sure you drink regularly! You need far more water in winter than in summer. In cold weather, you are usually not thirsty and will not realise that you are dehydrating. Victims suffer from a drastic drop of physical energy, a dangerous phenomenon in extreme conditions such as you can find on the Kungsleden in winter time for example.

One final tip for the video enthusiasts. When you don’ t use the camera, store your batteries as close to your body as possible. I carried mine in a wallet which wraps around the waist during the day and put the wallet in the sleeping bag for the nights. It work beautifully. My batteries, which usually last a maximum of 45 minutes in summer, worked for 30 minutes in the conditions described above.  

And now, I do hope that some of the above will help you plan and do your trip. Andrea and myself will be happy to answer any further questions you might have and share your hiking experiences. Here is our address:

Andrea Keller and Jann Breitschmid
Schulhausstrasse 6
5454 Bellikon
Switzerland
Tel/fax: +41 56 496 62 84
e-mail: jann.breitschmid@bluewin.ch  

Good luck!

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