The time had come. Max and I stood at the junction. A few minutes passed, mostly in silence. At last, we left the Kungsleden behind, turning right (east) onto an unmarked trail. The side trip had begun. Our goal: the south summit of Kebnekaise (~2106 m), Sweden's highest peak.
After enjoying our last night together on the trail, the whole group had continued north on the King's Trail, down from the plateau, across the Kaitumjåkka (river), and up along turquoise Tjäkjajåkka. Mountains abounded. The mosquito-ridden jungle of the trip's middle slog seemed worlds away. We'd reached the 'promised land'!
Off the Kungsleden now, Max and I relaxed atop a low pass and took in the muted beauty of our surroundings. The Great North, wild and bare. With only 12 kilometers or so to the Kebnekaise [i]fjällstation[/i], our day's destination, there was no need to rush. I made a hot lunch.
Along a desolate lake's northern shore, we made our way toward the trail to Kebnekaise. Just shy of the junction, we stopped and looked around. Max enlightened me about glaciers and mountain formation. Soon the Kebnekaise complement—Michael, Brian, and Jen—joined us. All admired the newly dramatic scenery. Photos were taken, including a 'panaroma.' The rocky face before us (north, Mt. Sinnicohkka) was classified: a massif, or mountain complex, comprising Kebnekaise itself. To our right loomed Liddubakti, dark and mighty like a monstrous whale. We'd entered a land of giants.
The valley walk that followed was a treat as we ooh-ed and aah-ed at the tall, steep slopes on either side. Bluffs gave way to rock slides slanting down to the waters below. Gravity worked on waterfalls, too, cascading thousands of feet. A chorus of roars. Speed eased as we savored the views. Brian's phrase of the day was "Wow—oh boy, wow!" A unanimous opinion.
Eventually, the trail left the river and traversed open marsh till rising to graze the base of Kebnetjåkka. I wandered off-trail, on a parallel course up and down mini-ridges. By now clouds had given way to blue skies. Cliffs glistened from snowmelt. Broad vistas eastward ended only because I stood low. One could imagine it all roll on to Bottenviken and the Finnish border. Feeling carefree and 'high' amidst all that boundless beauty was joyful. Moments like this made it all worthwhile.
Our luck continued that evening at the Kebnekaise mountain station. Dinner was the best of the trip: stew, bread and butter, several varieties of pickled herring, moose steak, and whipped cream with sauce made from that north Nordic delicacy, the cloudberry. What a feast! And what a cap to a delightful day. It was hard not to smile. Sated, we turned in, eagerly anticipating an early morning start up the mountain.
Then...luck left us: we awoke to rain. And more rain. To continue till evening, said the forecast. Let down, we waited in vain for a break. None came. After some hesitation, Michael and Jen decided to pass on the climb and head back to Kungsleden the way we came. So then there were three.
Now what? Brian, Max, and I played the waiting game. We checked the forecast. Brian and Max read. I caught up on journaling. We each dozed at some point. Swedish women tempted us like so many Sirens seducing Odysseus. But like the Ithacan, we had a mission.
The rain stopped early evening. At 6:18 PM, our trio finally set out. We were psyched.
The trail started easy, then turned vertical as it followed a mountain stream. "This isn't even the steep part!" said Max. I pretended not to hear him. Across the stream and up to a pass we went...losing, then re-gaining, the red blazes on a rock field. Fog grew. It was agreed that we should stick together.
From the pass, it was straight up Vierranvarri—a stout little climb—then down wet rocks to the next pass. Another steep up brought us to a couple emergency shelters at the base of the summit. We stopped briefly in one and collected ourselves for the final push.
On we walked, over ice and snow. For the final approach, the trail rose and narrowed sharply. No rock here—just the white stuff, piled atop a glacier. Max charged ahead, against a blank backdrop. Then a shout of joy—or was it satisfaction? Yeti yelled! I hurried to catch up. A low peg (pole?) marked the spot. We made it—the top of Sweden!
Alas, no view. Skies hadn't cleared; nor were we above the clouds, as dreamt of earlier. Instead, we stood surrounded by utter[i] white[/i]:
[i]“…the incantation of this whiteness…appeals with such power to the soul…[I]s it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe…? […] …like wilful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.”*[/i]
Nothing but a sharp, sweeping drop before us, down the northwest face. A bit precarious. So once we'd savored the summit, back down we went—but why walk when you can slide? A glissade, that is. Brian dared first, then Max. I was a bit apprehensive, but it was good fun. Elated, we retraced our steps to the shelter. A taste of transcendence...
Warmed and layered up, we left the clammy hut behind for good and continued our descent. Soon we picked up the 'Summer Trail', an unmarked path down and out the massif's west side. Loose, small rocks slid underfoot with every step. This was unlike anything I'd trod before. It wasn't easy.
Suddenly, though, something pulled our eyes upward. Around midnight, as if on cue, the clouds began to break. Nearby mountains appeared to us in all their imposing glory. The sunlight seemed a Godsend—the blue sky likewise, shifting in patches, graced with rosy clouds. Sights all the more brilliant after drab darks and blinding white. The beauty took our breath away. Brian asked Max where this ranked on his all-time list. "This is up there!" Max replied. Ditto for me.
Newly cheered, we continued down. And no cakewalk, this. Loose, small stuff was followed (after a brief interlude) by loose, big, sharp stuff. Rocks, that is. And nothing else. What happened next I won't soon forget. I took the rock field one step at a time, slowly. It was the toughest descent I'd done yet—harder still given my fatigue. My hiking cohorts, meanwhile, put on a veritable exhibition of footwork prowess. They didn't even slow down. Shock and awe.
Amazed, I finally caught up—or rather, they waited and let me catch up—and expressed marvel at their skill. They just smiled, the hard-earned smiles of experience and mastery. The thru-hiker difference, I thought. And a case of not even knowing what I can't do well. "This is your hazing!" joked Brian. No kidding.
The three of us hiked together for a while, over fields of snow and rock. Then the masters pulled ahead again...out of sight. I didn't even try to keep up.
Weary walking, gradually down, to the valley floor. I spotted Brian, then our campsite: a flat, grassy strip bounded by brooks. Behind rose a ridge, majestic. It appeared Max had chosen well, yet again. It was nearly 3:00 AM.
Relieved, I pitched my tent. Part of me wanted to hike on—it was still so beautiful out—but I really needed rest. Enough for one night.
We rose around 9:00 AM. Sunny skies had turned cloudy, and the wind had picked up. Rain coming? The weather was predictably unpredictable.
More of the Summer Trail to walk—perhaps two-fifths. More slow going on rocks, then tussocks till reaching the Kungsleden. It was good to be back on the 'Yellow Brick Road.'
By that night, we'd made it a little past the Alesjaure fjällstation. Brian and Max got in hours before me. My fatigue slowed me down, and the hours had dragged. (Consistency of pace: another thru-hiker habit worth having.) Still, Lapland's beauty had carried me through. [i]Fjällen[/i], rivers, reindeer, wildflowers, and all-too-short sunshine. Under twenty miles left till Abisko, by day's end. And our reunion with the rest. The non-Kebnekaise rest, anyway: Michael and Jen met us at camp the next morning, having camped close by. Almost there... I was ready to be done; I was going to miss it.
[i]*Herman Melville, Moby-Dick