In the beginning of August I spent a fantastic week in Sarek National Park, Swedish Lapland, with my (increasingly) old friend Bob Blaker. In lieu of an actual trip report (which will appear in another format later this year), I present here a series of “Views from Sarek” - notes, observations, and opinions about the trip, the trail, and the park, accompanied by a selection of photographs.
There are a few gear reflections in this post, but I’ll write a more comprehensive gear analysis in September.
For now, enjoy the views.
Points of Entry
Suorva, to be honest, is not the most inspiring entry point to Sarek. Easy yes: there’s now an unlocked public access door at the gate to the dam, so you can cross Akkajauvre on foot. But dear God, is the hell of the first few kilometres worth it? There’s supposed to be a trail heading off from a reindeer corral, but a new corral built alongside the old one has obscured its starting point. We couldn’t find it, and ended up thrashing our way through thick brush, bog, very soggy marshland, and over boulder-covered hills: you name it, this section throws it at you. It’s a “throw you in at the deep end” experience that sucks at your spirit and slows you down. And the best thing: we had the same experience to look forward to on the way out.
If I were going again, I’d probably start at Kebnats or Ritsem. The only reason we went to Suorva was my tight-fisted reluctance to pay for a ferry. Next time I’ll happily pay to skip the tedium and get to the good stuff a bit quicker.
Incidentally, if you want to get there from the UK, you can now fly from Stanstead to Skellefteå in northern Sweden, which is only a (long) bus journey away.
Bang on arrival at Suorva, there was a massive thunder storm. The forecast for the week ranged from 20ºC and sunny, to 2ºC and snowing. Winds of 8 m/s were promised, and, of course, days of rain, rain, rain. But this is Sarek; high winds and rain are to be expected.
I didn’t particularly want to experience storms in the mountains. In many areas, especially on the plateaus, there might not have been any cover, and it doesn’t take much to set my imagination off when it comes to lightning strikes and aluminium poles, such as the one holding up the Wicki-Up shelter.
However, in the end, I’d say the weather was quite acceptable. The first couple of days were relatively clear, and while clouds nuzzled the peaks for most of the trip, there were no dramatic thundery overtures. It rained much of the day during our march down Ruohtesvagge, but this I didn’t mind as progress was fast and there were no difficult, slippery rock sections to content with. I find walking in the rain, even the kind that feels like a car wash, can be quite pleasant if you have good gear and the trail is nice. It’s a different matter if you get day after day of it, but during this trip I quite enjoyed the feeling of putting your head down and getting through it. My Rab Demand smock and Drillium pants were excellent, even during an hour of torrential downpour, during which I think we had more rain than the total experienced during the rest of the trip.
The wind, however, was quite striking. On several nights, it blew a literal gale. We pegged out the Wicki-Up using all the tie-outs facing into the wind, and hoped for the best. After re-tensioning everything just before bed, I lay down to watch the center pole shudder and shake and wobble as powerful gusts slammed into the walls. The vents started to thrum with the constant vibration, but in the end you just have to accept that there’s nothing more you can do. To my surprise I quickly fell asleep, and even when the Wicki-Up took a few punishing blows in the night, I soon drifted off again. I think I just accepted that the shelter was solid and would hold. It was a matter of faith in design. Sure enough, in the morning, everything was still tight. All in all, I continue to be impressed with the Wicki-Up.
The most surprising weather condition was the 30 minutes or so of warm sunshine we enjoyed as we sat admiring the Rapadalen from a 1054m viewpoint. We even took our shirts off and got a bit of tanning in! Ironically, at that precise moment I got a message from mission control (my wife) that we should expect violent thunderstorms and 15m/s winds by 6pm. As if by magic, a cloud materialized over the sun, and raindrops began splattering down. But the storms never came, and the winds were no stronger than we had already experienced.
I made several route plans to cover the 7 to 8 day trip. The most ambitious was 118 km. The simplest route was 85 km. The actual number of kilometers we walked was 133 km. So why the discrepancy?
Admittedly, the “routes” were extremely rudimentary: I just made a few points on the trail and didn’t bother going into great detail. For one thing, the maps are not detailed enough to warrant doing so. For another, it’s the wilderness – if you’re not on a trail, you can’t be plan very precisely, especially when considering “thing one” above. In retrospect, I could have made a bit more effort in planning, and maybe looked in more detail at satellite imagery… but where’s the fun in knowing what you’ll experience before you get there?
With some very slow progress on the first couple of days, we had to re-evaluate what we might achieve. Then on day three, on the main path through the park, we stormed through 25km, gaining back ground, and causing another re-evaluation.
Re-evaluating your progress and your route against your timetable is essential (as it is on any trip) but I would say that the variety and unpredictability of the terrain encountered in Sarek makes doing so vital on a daily basis (if not more frequently). Our progress on the first full day was hugely affected by the vast boulder field we ended up traversing. The map gave no info about that, and more strategic advance planning with Google Earth would have been helpful, even if it removed the "fun factor" of discovery.
A lot of the ground in Sarek can only be comprehended when you are standing on it. In some ways this is great: it keeps you on your toes and accentuates the sense of adventure. But sometimes I was craving a little more detail on the map. 1:100000 is fine for general positioning, but often the limited detail it provided was sorely inadequate.
In the images above, you can see the same area depicted on the map, on Google Earth, and in person.
That said, I would say doing 20km a day in this terrain, especially off trail, is a good batting average. Of course you could do more, but why do that? As it was, I felt our trip was a bit rushed. If I were to do it again, I would add a few more days, and take it a bit slower in places. Rest days might not be essential, but they allow you to immerse yourself in the remoteness. I wish we’d had time to have a couple of days off. As it was, on both rest days we ended up doing as many, if not more, kilometres as we did on hiking only days.
Day 1 – 11 km – 4:21
Day 2 – 21.3 km – 9:36
Day 3 – 19.6 km – 9.16
Day 4 – 23.8 km – 9.45
Day 5 – 23.3 km – 10:20
Day 6 – 15.6 km – 7:23
Day 7 – 18.4 km – 6:06
Maps & Trails, Terrain & Navigation
I’ve mentioned it already, but the 1:100000 Calazo/Lantmäteriet maps are adequate and nice to look at, but lacking in ground detail. Some significant and conspicuous land and rock formations fall between the 20m contour lines - Bielavárásj, for example, is barely distinguishable, but quite prominent visually – but it is the almost total lack of terrain information that proved to me most frustrating in route planning. When assessing our options, we found ourselves avoiding certain areas because the lack of information did not allow us to accurately estimate the potential time involved in traversing them. Sarek features a lot of marshy bog and boulder fields that are not indicated. Sure, you can make an educated guess as to what will be where, but a little more info (dots for boulder fields, for example) would be helpful. Also, there is a clear and well-used trail leading from the trail split at Bielavárásj nearly all the way to Suorva, but it does not appear on the map at all. Lastly, the depth (or even presence) of gorges is very hard to determine at the detail level provided.
That said, navigation is not particularly difficult. Mountains are easily identifiable, and once you’re in a valley it’s hard to get off track. If you’re taking one of the established trails through the park, you can’t really go very wrong. They’re very helpful if you want to get from A to B quickly and easily, and the only hinderance to following them are sections of marsh, brush, or glacial rivers. Conversely, on the return section, we lost that invisible trail because of the thick, head-high brush. When we broke through we wasted some time looking for the trail when it was far more efficient to simply head off on our own.
As a segue into the section on rivers, it should be noted that in particular the valley bottoms, but also the terrain per se, is quite wet, especially if you have adopted the wet foot technique. The aforementioned frequent streams and bogs mean that your shoes and feet rarely get much of a chance to dry out. Often, after crossing a stream and walking briskly on to dry your shoes and socks, you will encounter a bog at precisely the moment they get dry. This continues ad nauseum, and can result in the exacerbation of other problems (see “The Shittiest Moment” below).
There are many many unmarked streams in Sarek – the map shows only the most significant ones. Most of these can be crossed without much difficulty either by rock-hopping or splashing your way through. The rivers that are fed by glaciers are a different matter, and almost always involved some careful assessment of the potential dangers, and some exploration to find a suitable crossing point.
The flow, especially in the warmer months, can be quite vigorous, and in places the streams can be surprisingly deep. Because the waters contain a lot of alluvial silts, you usually can't see how deep they are, nor what kind of surface lies at the bottom. You can often hear rolling rocks under the water, which is an obvious warning sign to be careful.
Most of the glacial rivers can be more easily crossed near their mouths towards the base of the valleys, where they start to fan out into multiple strands. Here, it's usually simple a matter of identifying a viable path across via jumping, wading, or rock-hopping. Outside of autumn, you will probably need to get your feet and legs wet, and trust Bob – the water is cold if you’re not doing the wet foot technique. It took me too long to discover the joys of neoprene hydroskins socks, by the way. I crossed one glacial stream wearing them and actually thought the water was warm. The look on Bob’s face soon corrected that misconception.
The most difficult rivers we encountered were the Suottasjjågåsj (not that hard, more of a puzzle), Smájlajjåhkå (deep in places, and required a lot of to and fro), and the Tjåggnårisjåhkå (too turbulent at the trail crossing and up on the hill; head down to the bottom of valley for safety). The Niavvejågåsj nearer Suorva was a little tricky, but is very rocky so a path can be found fairly easily as water levels are usually acceptable outside flood season.
Bugs and other creatures
Mosquitoes were not a great problem. They were mainly present in the annoying section around Suorva, but once up on the plateau the wind kept them away. There were a few sections when they came out more, but they were really not that irritating. I’m glad I had some repellant, and fortunately I was dosed up on anti-histamines, so any bites were not an irritant.
As for other beasties, we saw lots of hawks, an eagle, reindeer, one (1) lemming, and not much else. We found some bear scat on the slopes of Vuojnestjåhkkå, and possibly a footprint in some alluvial silt, but other than that no bears. We didn’t even see a moose/elk (although two young guys said they saw 20 in Rapadalen, but they also said our tent looked "funny", so what do they know?).
There are apparently only something like nine wildflowers in Sarek, and I think I pretty much saw all of them. I was surprised to see a nice Scottish thistle.
One nice thing about Sarek is that it’s almost entirely above tree line, which falls at around 500 m in Lapland. This gives you a feeling of being at high altitude, even if you are not particularly high (the highest point, Sarektjåhkka – Mount Sarek – is 2089m). Most of the time were were hovering around the 1000m. One of the nice characteristics of Lapland is that we have a high alpine environment at a low altitude.
It might be my imagination, but during our climb of Vuojnestjåhkkå I think the altitude started to get to us. I found it a struggle to keep going, and we almost collapsed laughing at an incident that has come to be known as “Lidfall”, and which has its own theme song by Adele.
Packing and Food
My backpack on this trip was the new 2014 Laufbursche huckePACK, and it was spectacular. A fantastic pack. I’ll write more in the gear analysis, but it definitely wins “Gear of the Trip” award.
At the start of the hike I was carrying about 14 kg, approximately 4.5 kg of which was food. There was some surprise on twitter about the low amount of food for an 8 day trip, but I have this dialled in pretty nicely. It's important to remember that the weight of food doesn’t reflect it’s calorific value. I felt I was even pretty generous and had room to carry some luxury items and additional trail snacks just in case.
The typical day’s approximate rations were:
Breakfast (Oats) 100g
Lunch (protein bar or noodles) 90g
Trail bar afternoon treat 60g
Main meal (Fuizion) 120g
Bonus munchies included jerky, some dehydrated chocolate mousse, two steamed muffin mixes, a couple of dessert bars, hot chocolate, proper coffee, and a wee dram (or two) of whisky.
It might not sound like a lot, but I have to say (from my point of view at least; I can’t speak for Bob, but I hear he is still alive) that the food amounts were spot on.
On the subject of lunches, in recent years I've just eaten a quick protein bar for lunch, but we took a few packets of noodles (ramen) along this time for variation. Now I'm a born again noodle head. There's a lot to be said for a warm meal that also hydrates you on a cold, wet day. Plus, a pack of noodles weighs about a third of the weight of a protein bar, and has almost the same calorific value. Bob made an observation about eating carbs during the day to keep you going, and protein to recover in the evening. Noodles. The ultralighter's secret weapon.
An Ultralight Mystery
Roger recently wrote most humorously about the things you see on the trail, and his experiences were largely backed up by ours. Most people sweated under the weight of big, external frame backpacks, weighing 25–30kg. I actually thought one guy was carrying an inflated packraft from a distance, but it was just his rain cover. It doesn’t help that one “official” website advises readers that if you have anything under 20 kg you are unprepared (again, weight is not equal to preparedness). But anyway, to each his own. People were enjoying themselves, and that’s the important thing.
On our last night, however, I spotted a sprightly young figure moving along the trail towards a stream crossing just below our camp. I had to do a double take when I saw he was carrying a very small pack, maybe half the size mine had been when we headed into the park, and I would estimate still smaller than mine was now at the end of our trip.
Bob and I sat discussing how we could possibly have carried less and had such a small pack as this minimal gentleman. I could certainly have carried a lighter, smaller sleeping bag, and perhaps, if solo, a smaller tent. But with the trail conditions and weather conditions we encountered, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a tarp, and the forecast did predict snow and colder temps when we left (which never really arrived: the coldest was probably about 8ºC at night). Of course, a shorter trip would maybe mean taking less, and you could theoretically carry less clothing, but again, I wouldn’t have wanted less, and indeed almost every item I carried was worn at some point (exceptions: headnet, tyvek mitts, merino tee).
I found myself a little concerned for this chap, worried that he might even be going a bit stupid light into the wilderness. But who can say? There are people younger, fitter, and more extreme than I. It’s a mystery, nonetheless. Perhaps I will one day find out who it was and read his packing list.
There were multiple highlights during our trip: touching the Suottasjjiegna glacier, the dark and gloomy weather and the way it transformed the landscape, and, of course, the views around Rapadalen.
Glaciers have long been a source of fascination for me, so the chance to really get close to one was something special. I think Bob saw the attraction of that as we saw it looming into view as we hiked, and watched the weather change over its mass on the evening we spent nearby. It was a no-brainer to go and pay a visit. In another life, I could have been a glaciologist, I tell you, leaping across crevasses, measuring retreat rates, and examining their wonders. But I’ll make to with admiring their ancient power.
Perhaps it's a personal thing, but there's something about them that encompasses time, evolution, life, the universe. They seem to me almost alive. To think that the glaciers stemming from these mountains possibly sculpted the landscape around my home on the Arctic Circle in Finland is humbling.
But glaciers are not the only attractions.
Rapadalen, of course, is a draw for a lot of people. The traverse around the cliff of Bielatjåhkka to get there was a fun experience, and while we didn’t have the greatest weather to bring out the best in the ribbons of water flowing far below our viewpoint, it was impressive enough.
Ladies and gentlemen, behold the majesty of Rapadalen:
I also loved the heavy weather when it set in over the mountaintops, plunging them into gloomy shadows while the sun shone brightly elsewhere. It made for some dramatic, spooky scenery, that got me clicking away on the camera.
The Shittiest Moment
Let’s be honest: all trips, like the hills, have ups and downs. My low point began on day two when we inadvertently found ourselves slogging across a boulder field for what seemed like hours. Big, wobbly boulders forcing you to pivot and twist as you try to avoid falling into deep holes and find the least dangerous path across.
The constant twisting of my feet resulted in a hotspot on my sole. By the end of the week that had developed into a particularly nasty 10cm long blister on my right foot that caused me to limp along with gritted teeth for 30 km. I felt every step, but what can you do? Call in the helicopters for a blister?
I can’t say what the actual cause was. It was certainly partially the boulder field, but shoes and terrain are also to blame. The new design of the inov8 295s I was wearing has something to do with it: the insole feels harder or thinner, and the tongue slips to the side all the time, creating a large gap that allows ingress of grit that inevitably makes its way under the ball of your foot – exactly where the blister formed. My Bridgedale x-hale socks also felt a bit thin for the terrain, which exacerbated the effect of the grit. I eventually double-socked (so glad I took spare pairs) which helped a bit. Having wet feet constantly didn’t help the blister healing, and made an explosive gooey mess of one gel pad (note: Compeed are much better than Adventure Medical Systems).
Europe’s Last Wilderness?
Sarek is often referred to as Europe’s Last Wilderness. I don’t know if I agree with that. It might be Europe’s last mountain wilderness, but last wilderness? There are areas in Finland that are definitely wilderness (I know this, because they are helpfully called “Wilderness Areas”) and for me at least, they feel far more wilderness-like than Sarek. That's not to say the Sarek doesn't feel like wilderness – it does: it can be harsh and brutal, and you're very much on your own inasmuch as you are far, far away from civilisation.
I suppose what I mean is that the wilderness areas in Finland feel somehow more primordeal; untouched and less visited. Sarek is surprisingly popular. I don’t mean Kungsleden Trail popular, but we saw plenty of people there, and the impressive display of red tents all pitched together near a major trail intersection made me ponder whether it was an in situ advertisement for Hilleberg.
Compare this with the four days I spent in Muotkatunturi last year: I saw three people near the start, then no-one. Not a soul. In Sarek we saw around 45 people in total (including the Hilleberg group of 10 or so). Nearly all of these were on the main highways (as it were), and off trail the numbers drop significantly, but you'd be surprised where you bump into people. But in any case, if you’re looking for total isolation, seek out the less obvious corners of the park, or head to other, less explored areas of Lapland.
A Controversial Conclusion
At the end of our trip, Bob and I had a little chat about the experience. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, and had a wealth of good memories. I wished we’d had more time, and had the chance to explore a but further and take a few rest days, but it had been a good, tough, wet, but rewarding walk.
And yet, and yet…
We couldn’t shake a certain feeling of mountain fatigue. I realise this is almost sacrilegious, but I started to wonder if I'd had enough of it. Normally I crave more and more time in a place, and feel an almost physical sadness at leaving. But this time I felt oddly ambivalent. I asked Bob whether he would come back to Sarek, and he replied that he would come if someone he knew really wanted to go there and wanted to be shown around, but probably not as a primary destination.
I felt something similar: not that I’d seen it all, but that I’d seen enough. I felt that I’d got a good look at the types of scenery the park has to offer: the rough, the rugged, the remote, the wet, the wild, the vast, the epic. I’d been suffused with all these different types of terrain, and felt that I’d got a good experience of the park: it had had its way with me, and I with it. I’d been cold and wet, elated and frustrated, and come out blistered, bruised, but not beaten.
Bob and I both have families and other commitments, so it’s not as if either of us can manage a couple of weeks away very often. The places we choose to go must be selected carefully. I’m not ruling out a return to Sarek, but I feel there are other adventures, both larger and smaller, that will somehow pip Sarek to the post. It feels counter-intuitive to say such a thing about a place which, for many, is a dream destination, but I can't pretend it isn't true.
Of course, this feeling could well be post-trip blues, and this time next year I’ll probably be pining for the glaciers, the jagged spires, and the open vales of Sarek. And then there’s always winter, when it’s a completely different park – but my winter skills are sorely lacking, as are my funds to join any expeditions.
I think if I had some additional mountain knowledge – most notably the ability to cross glaciers – then Sarek would appeal a lot more as a place I'd like to return to. It would open up the possibility of some really interesting and diverse routes, but it would also require group travel for safety.
Will I return again?
Watch this space!