In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk

Kebnekaise (6,973'), Sweden's highest peak, is located ninety miles north of the Arctic Circle in the massive chain of mountains, running southwest to northeast, which forms the backbone of Scandinavia. It is the second most northerly national high point in the world, Finland's modest 4,355' Haltia, 125 miles to the northeast, being the northernmost. Forty miles to the east of Kebnekaise lies Xiruna, a city noteworthy for its huge open pit iron ore mines. Daily rail and air service is available from Stockholm to Kiruna, thereby eliminating a tiring 785 mile two-day drive. During the summer, buses run on a regular schedule from Kiruna to Nikkaluokta. the trailhead for the Kebnekaise Fjallstation. For the impatient climber, helicopters fly daily between Nikkaluokta and the Xebnekaise Fjallstation (hut), twelve miles to the west; the price is steep, however ($60 U.S.)

It had rained most of the night prior to our hike to the Fjallstation. When Charlie Winger and Rayne Motheral arose at 6 a.m. to begin their breakfastless trek to the hut--in order to secure accommodations on a first come, first served basis-it looked as if the downpour might begin again at any moment. That being the case--and because our big Dodge van was so warm and comfortable--my daughter, Kim, Mary Motheral and I pulled our sleeping bags over our heads and dozed off again. An hour and a half later, we awakened to find the sun streaming across the parking lot at the Nikkaluokta trailhead. The storm had passed and the first day of August 1992 was clear and brisk. It would be a slpendid day to walk to the hut.

We had breakfast at the lodge at Nikkaluokta and started our hike about 8:30 a.m. Because so much rain had fallen the previous night, the broad trail leading west through a birch forest was a maze of puddles, causing us on numerous occasions to jump or detour into the forest to keep our boots dry. Ladtjovagge, the glacial valley up which we were walking, was broad--perhaps two and a half miles wide at the trail head, and the grade was gentle. Three miles out we came to Laddjujarvi, a lake on which, during the summer months a boat ride is available, cutting about four miles off the hike--cost $20 U.S. Cheapskates that we were, we opted to walk the full distance, stopping only once in a delightful green bracken for a lunch of apples, cheese and bread.

Kim and I pulled into the Fjallstation about 2:00 p.m.-Mary having outdistanced us--and we were surprised to find that the "hut" was a complex of five dormitories, a reception/office/cafeteria, and a sports shop/bath house/sauna. The place was huge, sleeping 150. Even though we'd already lunched, the aroma wafting from the cafeteria was tempting, and soon we were in the pleasant blonde wood dining room, enjoying a bowl of shrimp bisque and an English ale. Later that afternoon, after stowing our gear in the four-man dormitory rooms, we made good use of the bath house and sauna. That evening, following a fixed menu meal ($28 U.S.), we attended a slide show, which described (in Swedish) the splendors of back-country winter skiing in the area.

The following morning, as the four of us--Kim, not being a true (i.e., obsessive) peak bagger, opted to take it easy that day-prepared to leave on the non-guided western route on Kebnekaise, we found twenty-five or so Swedes gathering for a guided attempt on the eastern route--a route, which, although more direct, involves a crossing of the Bjorlings Glacier. We began hiking west at 8:30 a.m., continuing up the main valley, Ladtjovagge, under a moody, Ingamar Bergman-like sky. About a mile and a half from the Fjallstation the guided party, which had been at our heels, turned north up an ancillary valley, leaving us to continue alone another mile to next side valley. As we began working our way up the steep glen, the Kebnekaise massif loomed directly in front of us. A line of cliffs, however, prevented a frontal assault, so we turned left (west) to climb over a snow-covered peak, Vierranvarri, before dropping down 500 ft into another small valley, at which point we stood at the base of Kebnekaise.

As we started up the massif's southern slopes, heading for the Toppstugan hut 900' above, the wind began to pick up and the cloud cover began to lower, eventually concealing the top of our mountain. When we reached the shelter about 1:00 p.m, we paused only to drink and, as some returning climbers assured us the summit was only 30 minutes away, shed our packs. Leaving our packs was not a good idea, however, as the higher we climbed and the more exposed we became, the fiercer the wind blew. Charlie Winger, out in front in the swirling, wind-driven snow, decided to turn back to the hut for additional clothing. I was about to do likewise, when, during a brief pause between gusts, the summit ridge became visible, and it seemed too close to make the return worthwhile. Thanks to my topo map, I knew that, though Kebnekaise's summit ridge has several false peaks, the true high point was on the near, southern end.

Mary, Rayne and I climbed the final steep slope, plowing through deep snow, arriving at the heavily corniced, picture postcard perfect summit at 1:45 p.m. Looking down on the Bjorling Glacier, site of the guided route, it was apparent that no one had crossed it that day. The guided party had had to turn back-too much new snow covering the crevasses. As a matter of fact, the glacier route wasn't climbable for at least four consecutive days just prior to and during our stay. The western route, although longer and involving more gain, is the most reliable option, especially if one has only limited time in the area. As we turned to begin our descent toward the Toppstugan, Charlie, accompanied by a lone Swede, came chugging up the final slope.

We consolidated forces at the shelter, ate our lunches, then dropped back down in the small valley, only to have to re-climb Vierranvarri. From there, thanks to a nice long glissade, the return hike was easy. we reached the Fjallstation about 5:30 p.m., where we enjoyed another relaxing hot shower and sauna before dinner.

The following morning, we left the Fjallstation just after 9 a.m., each hiking at his own speed. Rayne, the fastest, reached Nikkaluokta in 3-1/2 hrs., while Kim and I took 4 hrs and 20 minutes for the 19 km hike.

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