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