Sweden: Go wild in winter

An extraordinary trek on cross-country skis across the Swedish tundra leaves Simon Birch dazzled by the Arctic landscape

Who says a cross-country ski holiday is nothing but unrelenting hard work? At the end of day two of a week-long cross-country ski tour through the vast wilderness of Arctic Sweden, I was doing nothing more exhausting than sitting in the warmth of a sauna knocking back a chilled beer.

Outside, in the fading twilight, it's was nippy –12C but inside it was steaming hot. There's was a hushed quiet in the crammed sauna as we soaked in the heat. The only sound was the crackle of birch logs in the stove and the wind rattling around in the chimney.

While most of the country is as flat as a freshly made Ikea bed, where Sweden rubs up against Norway there's a chain of snow-splattered mountains, forests and lakes. The aim was to ski around 100km of the King's Trail, a long-distance footpath that snakes through these mountains, starting in Abisko, a speck of a hamlet 150km inside the Arctic Circle.

"The King's Trail is a great introduction to ski-touring," explained our tour leader Pie (pronounced "pier") to our band of 15 skiers at the pre-trip briefing in Abisko's mountain lodge. "While the trail passes close to Sweden's highest mountains, there's very little climbing to do as the trail goes round rather than over them," he added, reassuringly.

So what is the appeal of cross-country skiing and what had drawn people to the far north of Sweden? "What I love about cross-country touring is that you're on a real journey with a different destination every day," said 52-year-old veteran skier Simon from London, as we tucked into freshly made blueberry cake and mugs of steaming coffee. "On a downhill ski holiday, all you aim for is the bar in the evening."

"For me it's all about the remoteness and wilderness that you find up here," said 32-year-old Patrik from Malmo. "You're forced to relax and switch off as there's no mobile signal here, no internet, nothing."

Abisko is also a great place to see the Northern Lights. That evening we all oohed and aahed at the shifting curtain of green in the freezing Arctic sky.

Next morning: to business. We hit the trail just as the sun was venturing from behind the morning mist. With only 15km of mostly flat skiing through birch forest, our first day was an easy one. Finding your ski legs after a lay-off is never easy, especially if you're carrying a 16kg rucksack full of spare socks, salami and a snow shovel.

The only real effort of the day came when we skied up a series of gentle hills. For cross-country skiers, going uphill is not as hard as you may imagine. The skis are much lighter and longer than downhill skis are and the boots, too, are lighter, attached to the ski only at the front. Having your heel free to move up and down is the key to cross-country skiing, making inclines far more manageable.

After our hill climb, it was just a short ski across the frozen Abiskojaure lake to reach our base for the night, the Abiskojaure mountain lodge – the first of half-a-dozen cosy mountain huts that we'd be staying in over the coming days. We were welcomed by Per, a serious-looking Swede who manages the collection of little huts next to the lake, and he explained where to find wood and water.

Pie had already split us into work groups. Working in teams, wood was quickly chopped, stoves lit and food cooked. Soon we were sitting down to a splendid candle-lit dinner of steaming reindeer stew. It was only when I came to sleep though, that I discovered the one big downside to this sort of communal living: the monstrous snoring from the bunks around me.

The next morning demanded an early start as Pie had warned us of a much tougher day ahead, with 300m of climbing and 25km of skiing. Snow was falling gently as we skied through the flat forest of birch and pine, the perfect warm-up for the climb ahead. Here we saw moose tracks – huge prints in the snow – and the much daintier tracks of mountain hare, evidence that wildlife can survive here in these toughest of conditions.

Later we came across a golden eagle that swooped low overhead, patrolling for ptarmigan, before being swallowed up by the vastness of the wide open valley. After climbing for just under an hour, the change in the landscape was dramatic: gone were the forests and in their place was a vast, rolling plain bordered by mist-shrouded mountains to the east.

This is the tundra, the wild and savage Arctic stripped bare, which can kill unprepared tourists in winter. I spent the rest of that long second day with my head down, battling the buffeting wind. The sauna at journey's end could not have been more welcome; it had been a brutal day.

Happily, it was also the toughest day of the trip. For the rest of the week we had easy, sun-filled days, skiing no more than 15km over gently rolling ground. And apart from the occasional reindeer seen in the distance, we had the trail pretty much to ourselves.

The only really big climb in the whole week was a steady four-kilometre pull up from the Tjaktja hut to the top of the Tjaktja pass which was the highest point of the tour at 1,006 metres. Mist swirled around us on our way up but as soon we reached the summit the sky cleared and we were rewarded with a spectacular view down the Tjaktjavagge Valley, through which we were to ski that afternoon.

As we steadily headed south, the mountains to the east became ever more impressive until finally we sighted Sweden's highest mountain: Kebnekaise standing at 2,106 metres.

From the Singi mountain lodge, the trail swung abruptly east into a narrow pass, a gigantic gash that sliced into the very heart of the mountains. As we skied downwards, we were dwarfed by colossal cliffs that swept up either side of us, while massive, icy-blue frozen waterfalls plunged down from the mountains above. A huge white-tailed eagle cruised in and out of the mist, oblivious to the angry mob of ravens whose scolding calls ricocheted around the pass.

All too soon, we arrived at the settlement of Nikkaluokta, a day's skiing from the pass that marked the end of the tour. We were greeted by dozens of friendly huskies barking excitedly outside Nikkaluokta's restaurant and tourist office. The tiny village is the trailhead for dog-sledding teams and skiers heading into the wilderness.

As we sat in the warmth of the restaurant for our final meal together, I asked if you really needed the fitness of an olympic athlete to cross-country ski. "No not at all," replied Jonathan from Manchester, at 72 the eldest in our group. "Actually, it's not really been that hard," he grinned.

Travel essentials

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk) by train from London to Abisko; from £521 return. Or fly on SAS via Stockholm to Kiruna, from which Abisko is one hour by train.

Skiing there

* Nature Travels (01929 503 080; naturetravels.co.uk) offers a week's King's Trail tour from £657 per person, with full-board.

More information

* visitsweden.com

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent