Kebnekaise – 6,909ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: July 15, 2010
Leg 4: Kiruna, Sweden to Trondheim, Norway
Including Kebnekaise – highest point in Sweden
We have discovered that there is one place in Sweden that is free of mosquitoes: the summit of Kebnekaise (6,903ft), the highest point in the country. There may be others, but this is the only one we encountered.
Before the climb, we were sitting at the tourist office in Kiruna, the largest city in northern Sweden. We had just cycled into town from a nice stealth campsite ten miles away and had been looking forward to taking a rest day in town, our first in ten days. We were ready to get out of the rain and have a dry roof over our heads. We were planning to climb the mountain after a good rest. But the forecast called for nice weather tomorrow, the nicest weather in the past week. We decided to change our plans and make a dash for the summit. Then the rest day would feel even better.
Just getting to the base of the mountain looked to be a significant endeavor. We needed to ride 40 miles down a dead-end side road then hike 12 miles and then we’d finally be at the base of the mountain. Our goal was to see how much of that we could cover today. So we pedaled out of town and headed for Nikkaluokta, the village at the end of the road.
The first little mechanical snafu came when we spotted a reindeer. I was in front and slammed on the brakes to get a good picture. But I forgot to tell Eric and since he was drafting closely behind me he slammed into my rear bike pannier and broke it off. The reindeer fled in terror. Luckily though I had a hose clamp and that solved the problem.
Sometimes I’ve been asked, what do you guys talk about when you’re riding? Well this time we tried to think, would it be possible to climb Kebnekaise in a weekend from Boston? You could probably get to Kiruna by a Saturday morning if the flights worked out, hitchhike to the trailhead, run the 12 miles, then finish the 8 mile hike by 8am Sunday. Then you’d hitchhike back to Kiruna and fly back to the US, and you just might barely be able to get back by 9am on a Monday. Maybe. Luckily our schedule wasn’t too tight so we could take our time.
We got to the trailhead around 8pm and were feeling good so we decided to start the hike immediately. We stashed the bikes a little ways off the trail and recorded their location on the GPS. We walked quickly and covered the 12 miles in just over 3 hours. We were disappointed to discover a huge amount of tourist infrastructure called the Kebnekaise fjällstation at the base of the mountain. There were buildings everywhere and lodges all over the place, it was almost like Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire. See, there are a few cheater ways to get to the base of the mountain which probably explained the huge number of people: you can take a ferry to shave off 6 miles of the hike, or you can pay $100 for a helicopter ride. You might even be able to take a helicopter to the summit.
We turned up our noses with disdain and continued hiking. Luckily you could camp for free and as a result there were probably 100 tents scattered all over the place. Everyone else had heard about the forecast and knew that tomorrow would be a good day. I doubt, though, that they had biked to the trailhead. It was now 11pm. We thought about climbing the mountain right then and there because the sun didn’t set for a few more weeks, but once our adrenaline cooled down we decided we should rest instead.
The heat of the sun actually woke us up in the morning. It was the first clear morning in over a week. Today was going to be awesome, we thought. We packed up our handy dandy drybag-backpacks and headed up. There’s a few routes up Kebnekaise but we didn’t have our glacier gear so we opted for the västra leden (western route), which a sign indicated would take 4-6 hours one-way. We were starting to learn that in Europe trail distances were given in terms of time instead of distance. It was pretty annoying because they don’t tell you who they’re basing the time off of. Is it old granny Gertrude’s hiking time or lightning bolt Thor’s hiking time? I guess if we hiked in Europe long enough we would figure out our own correction factor to the specified times.
We hiked at our normal speed and passed probably 50 people in the first two hours. I guess we were probably in better shape than the average person because we had exercised eight hours a day for about the past three weeks. Even though Eric and I were in shorts, t-shirt, and tennis shoes and still sweating profusely, mostly everyone we passed was dressed for the winter. “Geez, they must have a rule around here that you need to wear long pants and can’t go so fast that you start sweating,” I said to Eric.
We made it to the false peak, Vierranvárri, and passed by an interesting looking collection of cairns. It looked like every hiker over the past ten years had stacked up a cairn, there were hundreds. We vowed to make one on the way back. We kept climbing and soon the summit appeared from behind the clouds. It was stunning. So far we had walked almost completely on rock, there were just a few snow patches. But there, 500ft in front of us in the middle of the rocky summit plateau sat the summit like a big snowy pyramid. It looked like some giant had just picked up a humongous snowball and plopped it on the top, it seemed so out of place.
The last little 100ft of climbing was dicey without an ice axe. Luckily enough people had been there before us that we could walk in their footsteps without worrying about sliding down. We made it to the summit but it was far too dangerous for any jumping photos. A nice big Swedish flag christened the peak. We could see countless smaller hills and mountains stretching south along the Swedish/Norwegian border. There was still plenty of snow even though it was mid July. We didn’t linger for too long on the exposed peak and carefully made our way down to a safe spot where we could capture our requisite jumping and juggling pictures.
On the way down we thought about our mom’s birthday tomorrow and regretted that we wouldn’t be able to get a birthday card all the way to Kentucky in less than twenty four hours. But we thought about a better idea: we could spell out “Happy Birthday Mom” with big rocks in snow and email here a picture of it. We found a nice snow patch farther down the mountain and got to work placing rocks. We took one shortcut and wrote ‘BDAY’ instead of ‘birthday.’ One Swedish woman asked us (first in Swedish) what we were up to. We told her about our mom’s birthday and she smiled. “Give my regards to your mother,” she said, and continued hiking.
Next came the universal challenge of how to get a picture with both of us in it. Darn it, I wish we would have asked that lady for her help. But usually I prefer to set the camera up myself because then I can compose the picture and I know exactly what I’m getting. I took two of our hiking sticks and duck-taped them together, then planted them deep in the rocks like a flagpole. I duck-taped the camera to the top of the sticks and captured a decent image. I doubt too many mothers get a July birthday e-card like that.
We got back to the tent and were astonished that all the gear we had set out was finally dry. It was probably the first time it had been dry since we landed in mainland Europe two weeks earlier. We still felt pretty good so we decided to hike the 12 miles back to our bikes at the trailhead. “8-12 hours roundtrip, ha! Not for us,” I said to Eric.
When we got there to our little stealth site we started a nice big fire. I wanted to make some quesadillas to celebrate, using our tortillas and some Danish cheese that we had bought in Kiruna. That cheese was the smelliest block of cheese I had ever encountered in my life and I wanted to throw it away. But Eric was insistent that we had to eat all the food we bought and couldn’t let anything go to waste. So I figured it’d be much more palatable in quesadilla form instead of a cold sandwich. I carefully toasted the tortillas and slowly melted the cheese next to the flame. The cheese still wasn’t very tasty but I forced a bunch of it down my throat anyhow. I can still imagine the disgusting taste of that cheese in my mouth. I would later regret that meal immensely.
The next morning I woke up feeling a little sick. Actually it felt somewhere in between being sick and just really tired. I just figured I hadn’t gotten a good sleep so I shrugged it off. We hopped on the bikes and began the 40 miles back to Kiruna. The farther I went the less desire I had to bike. I started getting hostile. By the time we pulled into Kiruna I was ready to throw up. We found the Gullrisets Lägenhetshotell and parked ourselves in our room not a moment too soon. I didn’t feel like doing anything except laying in bed. It was my body’s first rebellion against all the excitement of the past three weeks.
I laid in bed all day the next day and we ended up staying there another night so I could recover. Eric carried out all the errands. I concluded that the culprit was that Danish cheese combined with overexertion. From Kiruna on a Wednesday we had cycled all the way to the trailhead, hiked 12 miles, then the next day had climbed the mountain and finished the 12 mile hike out. We made it back to Kiruna on a Friday morning, less than two full days after we had started. Most people probably take a full day longer to complete the hike, and they’re not biking to the trailhead. I think that cheese hit my stomach when I was the most vulnerable and made me sick. Even now, as I write this a few months later I can still smell that cheese and my stomach still sours when I think about it.
Over the next few days we gradually increased our daily mileage until I felt 100%. It continued to rain almost every day but some days we got really lucky. One day while we were shopping for groceries in Arvidsjaur (we called it “Average Dinosaur”) the skies let loose. We waited on a sheltered bench for a full three hours before it let up. We had learned that it’s not actually any fun to ride through the cold rain and fun is what we were seeking.
A few days later we experienced one of our first little victories in the battle against the rain. I had just got done talking with Amanda on the cell phone when we noticed that the sky was getting darker and darker in front of us. We began to observe some thunder and lightning. We couldn’t tell which way it was moving but since we were headed southwest and most weather moves to the northeast we figured we might be in a little predicament. We weren’t sure what to do. If we kept going we’d be getting closer and closer to the storm and would expedite our own soaking. Should we stay put and string up the tarp for a shelter, hoping the storm will pass south of us? Or should we make a dash to Sorsele (the next town), where we can find shelter, and hope that we beat the storm there? We still had three miles to go and the storm was knocking at our door.
It sounded way more exciting to make a dash for it. We started pedaling moderately at first and the thunder grew closer and more frequent. Lightning streaked all around. We kicked it in gear. We could see treetops in the distance getting obscured by curtains of rain. Time was running out. The skies grew darker. It felt like one of those moments in a soccer game when there’s suddenly a ball out in middle of the field, away from everyone else, and someone from each side is racing to reach it first. We were racing the storm to shelter.
We started to feel a couple of drops. “0.8 miles left!” I yelled to Eric. A strange tailwind materialized and propelled us down the hill. I was pedaling in my highest gear and observed with surprise that my speed was 35mph. We might just make it, I thought. No, it’s still too far, I thought. We were speeding like a bullet straight at a rumbling wall of blackness. Suddenly a bright green soccer field appeared on our right and we spotted a nice big sheltered grandstand. Without hesitating we made a dash for it. We pulled our bikes under the roof and took a seat to watch the show.
“Watch this, it will probably miss us after all that,” I joked. It did not. We started to hear a siren blaring in town, like a warning siren you might hear in the US. What could that be, we wondered. Three minutes after we sat down we were suddenly surrounded by a Niagara Falls of a downpour. The trees shook violently and torrential rain poured down on the steel roof above us. Thunder shook the wooden bench and I could feel the rumble in my chest cavity. Then centimeter-diameter hail began to fall and started to cover the ground in white. We had to yell with all our volume to talk to each other ten feet apart. We were delighted that we were not still riding our bikes. I don’t even want to know what hail feels like on bare skin.
The severe storm persisted for about 15 minutes before tapering off to just plain rain. We had won today. Hopefully we’d be just as lucky down the road. We ate lunch and cautiously waited until the rain had completely stopped. We didn’t want to get hit by another storm right on the heels of this one. We cruised into town but pretty soon the skies let loose again. Fortunately we found a sheltered bus stop to wait in. We waited for another hour while the skies rained themselves out. It was ridiculous how much it actually rained in northern Scandinavia.
Over the next couple of days we passed through Storuman, Vilhelmina, Dorotea, and Strömsund. Gradually the weather seemed to be warming up and the rain was becoming slightly less frequent. We took a little shortcut around the big city of Östersund that we had discovered on the GPS. Whenever I got a little bored while I was riding I could look to the GPS for a little bit of entertainment, I didn’t need any music or a TV. The little shortcut took us to the West, back in the direction of Norway.
The next day we left Sweden for good and found a nice stealth campsite just a few miles outside of Stjørdal. I tried my best to catch a Norwegian fish for supper but those fish were sure crafty. In the morning we cruised on into Stjørdal and visited the bibliotek (library) to look up some more information about the upcoming high points.
We laid out the map and debated which high points we had time for before the end of the summer. We definitely wanted to hit all the Scandinavian high points; we were headed next to Norway’s high point, Galdhøpiggen, and we would certainly have time for the high point in Denmark. After that, we figured we could take a train to the Netherlands or something in order to climb the Benelux high points, which were all very close together. We’d see what we had time for after that. We needed to make it down to Switzerland by August 15, which is when we’d meet Amanda and her mom. We had three more weeks on the bikes.
“All right then, let’s head to Galdhøpiggen,” Eric said enthusiastically. That would make high point number four on our list.