Text and pictures © 1999-2021 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"We do not deceive ourselves that we are engaging in an activity that is anything but debilitating, dangerous, euphoric, kinesthetic, expensive, frivolously essential, economically useless and totally without redeeming social significance. One should not probe for deeper meanings." — Allen Steck, 1967.
Jenny had been pestering me to take her to Antarctica or the North Pole ever since I met her. Not that I disagreed, but the problems were that she could not ski and that those trips are expensive. So I looked for a suitable place to go, not too far and not too hard: Spitzberg ? White bears. Alaska ? Too far. North Cape ? Boring. After some investigation on the web and rec.climbing some people suggested Sarek, a range of mountains in northern Sweden, south of the highest summit, Kebnekaise but still north of the polar circle. The valleys are flat and easy with impressive mountains all around, there aren't any refuges, roads or villages and it's easy to reach. Thanks to Mark, Hans-Jørgen and Jacob for helping me prepare this trip.
Left: Ice statue in Kiruna.
Right: Snowmobile tracks on Gårtjjávrre lake.
We flew from Paris to Kiruna on the day the bombing of Serbia started, which caused all my films to be X-rayed many times by those damn security people. It ended after I called the police who hand-checked them. We spent only a couple hours waiting for the train in Kiruna, a small mining town near the border between Sweden, Norway and Finland. There is not much to see: a couple ice statues in the park (left picture), an ice-hotel that was too far away and some deep dark holes in the mines. We took the train to Gällivare and the bus to Vietas, in Sarek National Park (next to Stora Sjöfallets National Park). Most people on the bus already had their ski boots on.
Vietas, last civilized stop. The tourist office informed us that we could not cross the lake right there but further north or south. There we were finally able to eat some Swedish specialties (moose meat, salmon, moose paté, smoked reindeer...), better than the chili, enchiladas or tapas that we'd eaten before. So we took off at 15:00 after this hearty lunch, pulling a heavy home made sled on the snow covered road while being sprayed by the few passing cars. The temperature was quite warm, around 0°C, which surprised us. We were expecting temperatures more like -20 to -10°C. The lake ice was certainly hard enough, according to the snowmobile trail we followed (right picture). We crossed the lake and set camp on the small islands in Jiertájávrre. From there the prospect did not look too good. We could see a steep slope covered with huge boulders, birch trees and pine trees with several apparent rivers running down. Hmmm... We opened up our first freeze dry food bags and ate it looking at some faint green auroras.
Left: Trying to find out way between the rivers and the trees.
Right: Ptarmigan take-off tracks.
In the morning we left the comfort of the lake and started going up. The snow was often knee-deep, even with the skis ! Most of the time Jenny was looking for the best way to go between all the small valleys carved by the rivers and also digging me a trail. I was grunting, sweating and swearing while pulling the sled around trees and out of holes. Hey, what do you think, she pulled it too, I'm all for equal rights ! It took us the whole day to do only 3 km. We had planned a 20 km/day average... bad way to start. I knew that the easy way up was from Kebnats/Sáltoluokta where the famous cross-country track Kungsleden finishes, but it added 20 km to the trip. We learned later that there was an easier way up the valley we took, from Suorva on its west site, on a trail that goes up almost out of the treeline. We saw some animal tracks (lynx ?), moose droppings, white ptarmigans (picture below, there a picture of spring ptarmigan on my Alaska page) and a squirrel.
Right: Pulling the sled in front of Ähpár.
The third day was more like what we expected: 13 km on flat ground in a valley getting more impressive the further we went. On our left we could see a small volcano-looking mountain, Sluggá, that was nothing compared to what we'd see a little later. Along the frozen Sluggájåhkå river we saw some metal poles marking the boundary of the national park. A little further on the high clouds cleared up when we got to the first hut, Renvaktarstuga, from where there is an amazing sight on Ähpár (right picture), a sub-range of Sarek that shows needles of rock surrounded by glaciers. By the end of the day we set our camp at the crossroad of four valleys, next to the hut on Liehtjitjávrre lake. Nearby is a traditional Sami hut, a small hollow pyramid covered with grass.
Left: Skiing up on the ridge of Vuojneståhkkå. In the back the Sluggá is visible.
Unlike Scandinavians we were not using telemark skis, but the much heavier mountaineering skis, with big plastic boots. They are heavier and slower on flat ground, but they allow you to go up and down much steeper slopes. With our backs tired from pulling our heavy sled we decided to take a break and go climb a mountain. South of us the Ähpár glaciers looked easy but not the rocky summits. On the other side of the valley the Sarek subrange offered what looked like an easy glacier, Vuojnesjiegna, with several easy summits around it. We left the tent carrying only a daypack and went up the large ridge of Vuojneståhkkå (1952m). Since it was easy we never traversed to the glacier. On wind-hardened snow and many rocks the large ridge (Left picture)finally took us to the summit of Vuojneståhkkå with a striking view of the 300m cliffs below it (picture below). Nearby we could see the highest summit of Sarek, Stortoppen (2089m) dominating a real big wall. There was a wolf track going all the way to the summit, with small mounds of frozen piss every 50 meters. We could see the track continue onto other summits. Strange place to come to. On the way down we met another group who had some trouble telemarking down this crusty snow. Jenny was skiing down better than them thanks to the mountain skis although it was only something like her 10th descent ever !
Right: Summit of Vuojneståhkkå (1952m) with view on the Svarta Spetsen walls.
Back to our cozy tent happy after this long day. So far the weather had been much warmer than expected, often cloudy but with good visibility and low wind. It all changed in the evening: the wind came out of nowhere hitting the side of the tent and bending its roof on us. We spent part of the night holding the roof and worrying if the anchors would hold (picture below). Worse, two years ago, while being left unanchored and unattended, the wind had picked up that same tent, a solid North Face Mountain-24, and blown it on rocks with loads of equipment inside. The holes were repaired carefully with tape (thanks mom !), but I was quite nervous about the tape. I half-slept imagining tearing noises, wind and snow rushing in... In the morning the wind worsened. Too late to change to orientation of the tent. Average wind speed 28 m/s with much more violent gushes.
Left: Stormy night: the wind bending the tent out of shape !
It was really a drag to get out of the tent that next afternoon, but I could not hold any longer: I had to take a piss. So I'm next to the tent, letting the pressure drop, when I see one, two... ten yellow lights right in front of me ! In a couple seconds they materialize as snowmobiles out of hell. They park right in front of me, and I'm there, dick in hand, looking stupid with 15 people watching me take a piss. And I can't even turn because of the wind ! They let me finish while having a good laugh and don't seem too disgusted to shake my hand after I shake the last drops off ! They had the key of the hut and went inside for a while and then all mysteriously disappeared again in the storm.
Next day, same weather. We spent the days reading and eating but mostly sleeping tenderly holding each other (or maybe she was just tying to steal all my body heat). Those matching sleeping bags sure are nice... Being bored we even started planning our wedding. On the third morning the wind ablated. By early afternoon we decided to move, but just as we had our bags ready and were about to remove the tent the wind started beating hard again. Back in the tent, swearing. Our plans to go in the Álggavágge valley and back via the Sarvesvágge valley were now blown: not enough days left.
Right: Summit of Bielatjåhkkå, 1573m. This image has been used for posters of metal band Megalith !
Fourth day, same thing, but this time we managed to remove the tent without loosing it. We kept going south-west, with the wind right in our faces. After 3 hours we stopped by an open hut, Pielastugan, before the large Ráhpa valley. Three Danish who had found it open occupied it. There are many huts in Sarek, but all of them are private, belonging to Sami people, the only ones allowed to have huts and ride snowmobiles in the park (they come here mainly for reindeer herding, their main source of income). Anyway, there was a wood stove with some nice burning wood inside. We settled there for the night chattering with the Danish and to our surprise we had a common friend in... Alaska !
They left the next morning in the blowing wind. At that point we did not know what to do. No time to go inside other valleys and too much wind for climbing. We were even thinking about sacrificing something (somebody ?) in the nearby offering place. Fortunately in the afternoon the wind dropped completely. At 15:30 we came out and decided to go on Bielatjåhkkå (right picture), a small (1573m) summit south of the hut. Jenny left her skis at the steep rocky part and I carried mine up. The clouds cleared and we saw the sunset from the summit. We also tried to find a place to go the day after: Kanalberget ? Too far. Ähpártjåhkkå ? Too steep. Bierikbakte ? Looked impossibly hard with our gear (one ice axe each, two ice screws and 16m of rope). We'll see.
Left: Full moon on our tent on the last calm night.
The morning after was without surprise: bad weather, wind, snow... Since it was the last day before heading out, we decided to leave early for Nilas Kam, a summit next to the impressive Bierikbakte, hoping that the weather would clear. We starting up the steep couloir a little nervous about possible avalanches from both sides, but it looked like it had not snowed all that much. The couloir is just behind the south-west ridge of Bierikbakte. After climbing Nilas Kam we wanted to ski down the easier Bierikjiegna glacier. I did not say so to Jenny but I had the hope of climbing Bierikbakte if it did not look too crazy from up close. Near the 1548m pass the visibility was complete zero, even with the GPS we had a hard time finding the pass. Forget the summit. I did not relish the idea of skiing down an unknown glacier in a complete whiteout. I took some convincing but I managed to decide Jenny to go down on the much steeper couloir we had just climbed. Not an easy task for a beginner skier. Further down the visibility was better but we finished the couloir wet and tired. In the valley a big Finnish expedition was playing with kites, sculpting a hotel in a snowcave and having snowfights. Back to the hut in the whiteout to prepare our bags for early departure the next morning.
Right: The Ähpárjiegna glacier on Ähpár.
The return trip was pretty much uneventful, still in the bad weather, with the wind pushing us so that sometimes we could just open our arms and let ride... The GPS was useful to find our way back to our second night's campsite, by the treeline. We skied down in the forest the next morning, me trying to control the sled which wanted to wrap around every single tree, and Jenny trying to control her skis which wanted to wrap her around every single tree... We managed to avoid the river but not the big boulders. Once on the lake it was an easy walk back to Vietas. Hmmm, a hot shower !
All in all it was a frustrating trip. The place was beautiful, with easy skiable as well as hard technical climbs all around. But the weather... While waiting for our (lost) luggage in Paris airport, two other people came out of the plane wearing ski-mountaineering boots. They were back from crossing Iceland, but they had been in Sarek the year before and they'd had really nice weather ! If I had to go again, I'd probably take a bit of rock gear, and extra ice axe, 90m of rope, two more weeks and go for the harder summits.
Above: 360° picture from Vuojneståhkkå.