The summer is the perfect time to trek the Kungsleden, one of Europe’s remotest trails. Mark Stratton encounters grazing reindeers, glacial springs and naked locals on a hike across Swedish Lapland
Was this the best tea break in the world? We had slipped out of our rucksacks and flopped onto the coarse beach surrounding Lake Alesjaure.
Across the freezing expanse, the mountains shone glossy black in the prevailing liquid sunshine, venting waterfalls like tumbling pearls. And as I sipped my tea, the sugar rush from some Jammie Dodgers biscuits kicking in, life in the Arctic wilds seemed so simple and pristine.
Hiker checking map on Kungsleden trail (Dreamstime)
In winter, you just don’t find moments like this in Swedish Lapland. In those months, trips here are all about the northern lights, staying in an ice hotel, dogsledding and encounters with reindeers (usually christened Rudolph). But in the Land of the Midnight Sun, when the snow turns to slush and the huskies are kicking back, Sweden’s Arctic north is an entirely different prospect.
The summer thaw is a siren call to trekkers, owing to some rather farsighted planning by the Swedish Tourist Federation. In 1902, it began work on a hiking trail, a task made easier after the arrival of an iron-ore railway that trailblazed across Northern Lapland. The route bore southwards from Abisko’s mountain station, and throughout the 20th century it was expanded in piecemeal fashion until, by 1975, it had reached as far as the Hemavan Ski Resort in Västerbotten County, 440km south of its starting point.
Only then was one of Europe’s wildest hikes, the Kungsleden (or King’s Trail), complete, and it was this that I’d come to experience. “The great thing about the trail is that you get a diverse wilderness encounter,” enthused my local guide, Mikael Nyman, as I checked into Högalidsskolan outdoors centre in Kiruna. “Birch forests, Sweden’s biggest mountains, reindeer, lakes and lots of wildflowers,” he listed enthusiastically.
At an average walking pace, a month is required to hike the entire Kungsleden, but I’d come to trek its remote final quarter, a section entirely within the Arctic Circle. Usually, though, all you can expect to encounter en route are scattered hikers, lots of reindeer and a few curious Arctic hares. But I certainly wasn’t going to be alone this time.
Wild camping in Kebnekaise National Park (Dreamstime)
Since 2005, an annual mass hike has seen thousands of walkers trek the final stretch of the Kungsleden every summer, backed up by checkpoints, food stations and medics. It’s called the Fjällräven Classic, with entrants typically taking five days to complete the 110km route from near Kiruna to Abisko.
I joined a group of nine fellow hikers (2,055 completed it in total), led by a rather famous Yorkshireman called Alan Hinkes: the only Briton among a select few mountaineers to have summitted all 14 of the world’s 8,000m-plus peaks. It felt like having a Premier League footballer turning out to captain a Sunday league pub team. Everest, it wasn’t.
But that he even felt this area worth his time told me the journey would be special. “Aye, it’s different. But it’s the vastness of this area that appeals to me. And to think such wilderness exists in a modern country like Sweden,” enthused Alan. It wouldn’t be a stroll, he stressed, but reassured us that it was more than doable for anyone with some trekking and wild camping experience and the right kit.
The event’s mass start began an hour away from Kiruna at Nikkaluokta fellstation, where a carnival atmosphere prevailed and queues had formed at the reindeer burger stall, which some wag had christened ‘LapDånalds’. From there, we set off along the Ladtjo Valley, a westward spur of the Kungsleden proper that offered better access from Kiruna.
We yomped through a forest of dwarf willow and gnarled birch, treading a carpet of ground-creeping juniper and bilberries, which possessed tart little berries. The minutia of the forest proved fascinating, from toadstools any self-respecting garden gnome would be happy to perch upon to blazes of pink willowherbs and purple harebells, and reindeer poo shaped like chocolate-covered brazil nuts.
After two-hours, the Ladtjo River dammed to form a 6km-long lake. Some hikers, embracing the Scandinavian spirit, had already whipped off their kit for an icy dip. I shivered at the thought, instead contenting myself with gazing up the valley towards Sweden’s largest mountains, the Kebnekaise Massif.
As the valley constricted to a pronounced U-shape, I could almost visualise some Ice Age glacier wedged within it, grinding ancient bedrock to smithereens. It was then that Alan’s words about the size of the area came back to me, but this was just the start.
Signpost on the trail (Mark Stratton)
We reached the first checkpoint at Kebnekaise Mountain Huts shortly after the forest petered out. The massif north formed bulbously rounded peaks rising high above, with one bowl-shaped summit, Tuolpagorni (1,662m), cradling summer snow like an ice-cream cone. On paper, the 20-to-25km treks planned each day hadn’t looked too daunting, but continuous rain had made the conditions underfoot tricky.
As we crossed slippery mud, bog-spanning wooden boardwalks and bouldery scree falls, I soon became grateful for the regular presence of the mountain huts, offering solace to our weary feet. The huts boasted cafés, bunkrooms and supply shops, and the free cinnamon buns at Kebnekaise proved a real fillip. But with many hikers camping around the station, there was no room at the proverbial inn, so Alan urged us to wild camp 3km further on.
It was during this early evening stretch that Kungsleden’s uniqueness really started to dawn on me. For a start, it offered the novel sensation of 24-hour hiking, thanks to the Arctic phonemena of ‘midnight sun’ during the summer months. It wasn’t until 10.30pm that we finally made camp, yet a lingering half-light left a perfectly navigable fuzzy, peachy glow.
By this point, the volume of walkers had also thinned and in this vast isolation, so far inside the Arctic Circle, I suddenly felt small and alone. Yet I was also excited to have the resources to survive in a realm once considered the preserve of grizzled explorers.
Glacial springs catapulted off the mountainsides, delivering pure sources of water, while the springy grass sward provided a comfy mattress. Soon the hiss of Primus stoves around our impromptu campsite sounded like a serpents convention. Should I rehydrate game stew or cod in curry sauce, I pondered? The latter won the day and proved a delight.
Early the next morning, I awoke to see reindeers grazing nearby in swirls of mist. A regal young buck with top-heavy antlers was a somewhat more divine sight than my rehydrated chocolate muesli. The animals loitered all morning as we climbed a treeless moorland pockmarked with lakes and scree fans, fashioning a sort of super-sized Lake District that would have had Wordsworth ramping up the hyperbole.
When the Singi checkpoint appeared six hours later, the Tjäktja River sliced across our path, ushering in the official Kungsleden from the south. Now veering northwards, the trail’s easy-to-follow markers of red-painted rocks directed us along the imperious Tjäktjavagge Valley, towards Sälka.
That afternoon, I marvelled at snowy cirques and turquoise-tinged glaciers, and between the mountaintops of Tuolpanjunnjetjåkka and Kuopertjåkka I glimpsed Sweden’s highest peak, Kebnekaise (2,098m). But this accolade is disappearing as fast as Kebnekaise’s mountaintop glacier is melting, and in a few years its altitude will likely dip beneath a neighbouring summit.
The Tjäktja, meanwhile, cavorted down the valley, braiding into channels and calving into oxbow lakes. It’s a sodden environment, so care is required on the narrow boardwalks that sometimes float on puddles like surfboards or tilt like seesaws. During long stretches, the trek proved highly sociable and allowed ample time to chat with my fellow hikers.
Alan Hinkes had outdoors tales to top all others. “Oh, the K2 – that was a right gnarly mountain,” he’d casually drop in with some understatement as I endeavoured to keep up with his bionic stride. He also put into context the relativedifficulty of hiking the Kungsleden. “After seven or eight of the 8,000m peaks it would’ve been a good time to stop,” he began.
“Nine or ten was pushing my luck, and by the time I’d nearly finished the 14, I’d psychologically come to terms with the fact I should’ve been dead.” Our tired limbs were trifling by comparison, so imagine how brave I felt when I bottled the Swedish sauna up ahead.
Footpath with wooden planks on the trail (Dreamstime)
Quintessentially Scandinavian, some of the huts along the Kungsleden have their own saunas. I’d steeled myself for a visit to the one at Sälka, our next overnight stop, but the effort of chopping the wood and the embarrassment of going publicly starkers was too much, particularly as I had just settled down with a nice beer and a bag of nuts purchased from the shop.
And to continue the theme of ‘nuts’, the sweaty stream of pale, naked bodies exiting the sauna in the drizzle lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. We broke camp on the third morning for a rugged 26.5km trek under a blackened sky. The weather couldn’t dampen the scenery, though, as we passed through vast fields of glacial moraine studded with blocks of deposited quartz.
All around, bedrock stacked like Jenga tiles marked a route to the Kungsleden’s highest point at Tjäktja Pass (1,140m). Beyond this watershed col, a broad stony plateau stretched ahead, while carrot cupcakes at Tjäktja checkpoint set us up for an afternoon tracing the meandering Alesätno River.
From three hours out, I could see our projected overnight camp: a small promontory of huts above the silvery line of Lake Alesjaure, calling to us as we perambulated river bends and strode over boardwalks spanning shamrock-green swathes of sedges and cottongrass.
Then, as afternoon broke into evening, sunbeams leaked through the fissures of dark cloud, showering light on sparkling tarns, delicate mountain flowers, distant rainbows and granite boulders, on which we perched for a scenic brew.
When we finally erected our tents near Lake Alesjaure’s checkpoint, I encountered my first setback: there was no cod in curry sauce to be found anywhere. I decided to pass on dinner, having spotted a ptarmigan moseying around my guy ropes – the thought of rehydrating game casserole would have created a major guilt trip.
Overnight, a hoolie battered vainly against our tents, blowing away the clouds, and we awoke to sunshine. A raven clucked its approval on high. That morning’s hike was the most beautiful of all, following a string of glacial-fashioned lakes. On the opposite shore was a small settlement called Alisjavri, occupied by Lapland’s indigenous Sami people, who roam across the region.
Sweden has between 15,000 and 20,000 Sami, around 900 of which work as reindeer herders. The free-roaming herds we’d seen were building-up their fat reserves for winter, when temperatures can plummet to around -40ºC. Crossing an exposed pass, we veered away from the lakes, passing beneath the 1,154m summit of Kartinvare.
Amid such grandness it was hard not to feel tiny, surrounded by the cold indifference of the Arctic. For my fellow companions, however, that was all part of the appeal. “I have a very comfortable lifestyle,” explained Esther Green, a fellow hiker and tax-accountant from Rugby. “So I love the feeling of getting back to basics. Small things like brewing up on the lakeshore mean so much more.”
Walk through Abisko National Park to Abisko Tourist Station (Mark Stratton)
The steep descent to Kieron checkpoint met returning birch and willow forest as the valley narrowed. In the language of the Sami, kieron means ‘grouse’, but it could just as easily have meant ‘heaven’ as we arrived to hot pancakes, jam and cream. Fully refuelled, we embarked on an evening walk into the mystical mossy forests of Abisko National Park.
Established in 1909 and stretching 77 sq km, the park’s tundra hides bears, lynxes and 213 species of birds, including golden eagles. The archaeological remains of trapping pits suggest the Sami have inhabited this area for several thousand years. We set up camp in a sunlit clearing, and during our final night I decided it was time, at last, to embrace Scandinavian life.
I drew a sharp intake of breath and plunged into river. Extremities frozen, I felt lightheaded with an exhilaration that continued the next morning as we followed the raging Abisko River, which hurtled towards the Kungsleden’s denouement on Lake Torneträsk’s shoreline. With 500m to go, it felt unnatural after so long in the wild to see motor vehicles and walk on tarmac again.
It was also moving to be applauded over the line by the other hikers at Abisko Mountain Station. A giant Sami teepee had been erected, and amid the rapture of finishing I scarcely baulked at the £17.50 it cost for a beer and some falafel. A hot shower, clean clothes and food (not boiled in a bag) awaited.
“I feel tired, excited, and a bit sad it’s over,” said Ben, an arboriculturalist from Worthing who was walking with his partner, Saskia. “I loved it. Well, 90 per cent of it. The slippery rocks and rain were challenging, but then moments of stunning scenery and pancakes with jam lift your spirits.”
Arctic Lapland has faces I’d never considered beyond its familiar wintertime thrills. I’d like to return one day and walk it on my own, armed with the knowledge the Kungsleden can probe your spirit and fortitude one moment, and the next embrace you in euphoric achievement. I may have run out of my elusive cod in curry sauce, but I was one happy camper.
The author travelled with Jagged Globe, which is due to run the ten-day Fjällräven Classic with Alan Hinkes OBE group trip in August 2017. Places cost £1,595, including return flights from the UK and all transfers, entry to the Fjällräven Classic, cooking fuel, half-board accommodation before and after the hike, and a guide. The trip also includes a training weekend in the Peak District (full-board accommodation) but not transport to and from it.
Entry for the Fjällräven Classic 2017 (Aug 11-18) costs SEK2,220pp (£200) and includes bus transfers to and from Kiruna’s airport and railway station, maps, a hiking pass, freeze-dried meals and cooking fuel.
Main image: Kungsleden trail in Autumn (Dreamstime)