It begins with a path; a line drawn through a landscape, but also through time. A path through place spanning three different countries, two time zones, and boasting some of the best low altitude, high alpine terrain Lapland has to offer.
Time. Lives. Landscapes. Paths. History. Identity. They all come together in Treriksröset. They meet, blend, and blur at the punctum where three countries converge: Finland, Sweden, and Norway.
My journey on this particular path began some ten years previously, long enough to seem like another life, when time was free and readily available. On that occasion, I was hiking with Bob, and you can read a recap of the trip here. Briefly: It was July. It was hot. There were gazillions of mosquitoes. I’ve since lost all the photos (they were taken with a crappy camera anyway). But ever since going there, I’ve wanted to return and explore some more — and more importantly, try to get to the tops of some of the mountains.
By chance, a few weeks earlier during a chat with my beer-brewing, cheese-loving French friend Antoine, he mentioned that he’d like to do another hike. Our last trip was to Muotkatunturi three years ago, so a second expedition was long overdue, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit the three borders.
Antoine is not a particularly hardcore hiker, but he managed very well in Muotkatunturi. This time I wanted to go a bit easier on him — we're all getting older — and I felt the terrain at Treriksröset would be ideal. The landscape is mountainous but easy going, and criss-crossed with well established trails such as the Nordkalottleden.
After picking him up from the airport and grabbing a few essential supplies (Cheese! Bourbon! Reindeer salami!), we sped off up north, my aim to get as close to Kilpisjärvi and the trail head as possible before the sun set. Driving in Lapland with homicidal reindeer and elk roaming free is no fun after dark. We chase rain for most of the journey, but as we get to the true north, the skies clear and treat us to a wild panorama.
We get within 40km or so before I start to feel tired, so we find a spot near the Peerasuvanto river that marks the border between Finland and Sweden. It feels good to be off again and pitching my trusty SUL3. For a meal we eat two packets of Forestia I accidentally ordered, not realizing they weighed 500g each and came with a suspicious water-triggered self heating pouch. Not being dehydrated food, they tasted great, but at that weight they are best left for glamping.
At night I sleep surprisingly well — the fortuitous side effect of a night off from having your 5-year-old wake you up early every morning — and catch the early glow of sunlight on the hills of Sweden across the river. It’s always brighter on the other side.
We wrap up camp early and kill the last 40km to Kilpisjärvi before 9:00. The weather forecast for the next few days is mixed: largely rain free, but cloudy, with the possibility of some clear skies and wind on day two. My aim is to hike towards the mountains today, and make a north-south traverse over the tops tomorrow, but I’m keeping my options open.
We've agreed to keep the maximum kilometrage to around 20km each day; enough to cover some good ground, but not push Antoine over the edge, which I fear I might have done in Muotkatunturi when I frog marched (sorry, Antoine!) him 28 km on the first day! I’m a little concerned about our schedule and the weather though. The clouds are hanging low over the hills as we set off, so I decide to make a final decision about the route when we get to the Finnish wilderness hut at the point the three borders meet.
It isn’t long before we’re climbing Malla, the hill that forms the center of the Malla Strict Nature Reserve. It’s a 10km hike from the trail head to the border point, and a very popular walk for tourists and locals. Many people take a boat to the border and walk back, and we meet about 25 people on the way back, including one trail runner who seems familiar to me from my last visit here with Bob. The walk is pleasant, rising up to saddle and some abandoned shelters. I wonder what they are for. The corrugated iron seems like a relic from the second world war, and I recall that the last shot of the Lapland war was fired near here. But I think these were probably shelters for the Sámi reindeer herders. Antoine spots some more on Pikku Malla in an even more decrepit state. I’m no expert, and without handy information posts to inform us any better we head on.
Soon, we reach the nice waterfall, refill our bottles with crisp Lapland water, and admire the great views over Lake Kilpisjärvi and the surrounding hills. The trees all around are hued with burnt autumnal browns and orange. There will be snow on the high ground now as the nights are getting colder.
I’m expecting daytime temps of around 10ºC, and night lows not below 0ºC, but close enough to need some serious layering with my MLD Spirit quilt. But we’re not at that point yet. There is still some clambering over the rock flank of Malla, and a gentle rolling downhill through the birch forest towards the border.
We hit the Norwegian fence first, skirting alongside it down through marshland and islands of trees. Borders are weird when you hit them like this. Fixed and yet futile, clearly defined and yet utterly porous. I stick my walking pole through the fence and mimic a loud klaxon — VWOOP VWOOP VWOOP. In reality, the fence is mainly there to keep the Norwegian reindeer on the Norwegian side, and the Finnish reindeer on the Finnish side. No interbreeding thankyouverymuch.
With no major incidents caused by my impromptu incursion into sovereign Norwegian airspace, we head down to the bottom or the broad valley and the Finnish hut near the three-border marker. Last time I was here, Bob and I arrived late and we wanted to stay, but the hut was filled with almost as many mosquitoes inside as there were outside, so we headed into Sweden and up above tree line to escape them as fast as our legs would carry us. Now, in autumn, there are more people at the hut than mosquitoes, so we claim a place near the fire pit to cook our lunchtime noodles.
Noodles, yes. There were times, not so long ago, when my ultralight obsession led me to scoff naught but a quick protein bar for lunch, but I have changed my ways as the years pile on. Today, and for the rest of this trip, I will be grateful for the chance to put my feet up and enjoy a warm lunch. Sure, the cooking pot requires a little cleaning after the meal, but it’s a small price to pay for the comfort (and I swear, the noodles are lighter anyway than the protein bars).
As we slurp up the spicy Tom Yum noodles (a touch too spicy for my friend’s delicate French taste buds), I see one of the hut inhabitants wandering over. As he greets us, I realize it’s fellow blogger and (somewhat more extreme) adventurer Jaakko (of Korppijaakko fame). I knew, from a brief discussion on twitter that he was in the area, but wasn’t sure if our paths would cross. As luck would have it, they did, and after catching up, I interrogate him for trail beta.
I’d planned with Antoine to make a decision at this point about what route we would take for the next few days. My observation of conditions so far led me to suspect that my planned traverse of the mountain tops might not be wise, and Jaakko’s experiences of ice, snow, and high winds confirmed this. So alternative plans needed to be considered. I was reluctant to give up hope entirely, but several factors needed to be taken into consideration: distance needed to hike to get to within reach of the mountains by tomorrow morning; weather conditions for the next day; ability to camp high tomorrow night, or alternatively to complete the traverse; ability to complete a long milage day in unpredictable conditions… It increasingly seems to me that the mountains are going to be a long shot, and might need to be abandoned for this trip, which is disappointing, but as we all know, the mountains aren’t going anywhere. There are always more tips in the future.
With Jaakko’s trail info, we decide to head up onto the plateau, and hike another 10-12km. Tomorrow, we will make a final decision at the Paltsa huts about our route through the mountains. Today, we will enjoy the walk.
Filled with tasty carbohydrates, we bid farewell to Jaakko, pay our respects to the three-border point, cross in to Sweden and start the long, gradual climb up to the plateau. The path attempts to lead us astray along some quad bike trails instead of up the less well-trodden Nordkalottleden route, but fortunately my familiarity with the area means we don’t fall for its false seductions. Soon, we are climbing above tree line — which in these altitudes falls only at around 800m — and into the open arms of the fells. Rivers trickle down the slopes, and reindeer scatter around us.
I have strong memories of the reindeer here, recalling how they seemed to strike dramatic poses on hilltops from previous photographs taken on the trip with Bob. They don’t disappoint me on this trip, and frequently stop on the brows of hills, legs apart, horns held high. Did they learn these poses? Are Swedish reindeer more confident and aware of their handsome good looks? Who knows. They certainly seem to be. One in particular saunters up with an arrogant insouciance, and strikes a bold pose before a mountainous backdrop. It makes for a photo straight off a whisky label.
But we can’t sit around watching a bunch of wildlife making ridiculous poses. We have the rest of the climb to conquer, and a few good kilometers before we reach my proposed camp near Ruovddasvaggejavri lake. The climb takes a while — one of those incessant false summit kind of things where the top keeps hiding beyond the next peak. Eventually we make it though, and the going becomes about as easy as you might expect the going to become on a plateau.
Well, I say plateau… Technically it’s more of a series of rolling low hills around the 800m mark, but it makes for a very pleasant walk, even with the clouds hanging low above our heads. We make good time, somehow avoiding the infrequent showers that obscure the nearby hills. We’ve really been lucky with the weather so far, but I suspect we’ll get wet at some point today.
After crossing a small bridge (which Antoine is somewhat disappointed in from an architectural perspective) we make a short climb over a saddle which afford us views down to the lake. We’ll have covered about 22 km by the time we get to it, and I think that’s enough for the day. There’s little point going further as there is no water supply until the Paltsastugan huts.
As we cross the saddle, the clouds break above the lake, scattering a watery light over the landscape. I feel the light splatter of drizzle but it doesn’t amount to much. Through the bright clouds and water vapour, we can just make out the hulking shape of Paltsa, the distinctively shaped mountain that forms the primary landmark of the area. But today, there is just a hint, and as we descend, it dips behind a ridge.
At the lake we hunt around for a nice spot to pitch the tent, and settle for a lovely point just off the trail with fantastic views directly south and into Sweden, and near the beautiful Ruovddasjohka stream.
After pitching the shelter, we settle down for a rewarding swig of Knob Bourbon and a few slices of the delicious reindeer salami Antoine wisely purchased. It has been a good day’s hiking. The rain held off. The kilometers slipped by unnoticed. And we are pleasantly tired.
We bimble around camp, inflating mattresses, airing our feet, and enjoying our meals. Life is good. Peaceful. Fulfilling.
I sleep well; it’s chilly, maybe 5ºC, but I’m plenty warm enough in my MLD Spirit and Montane Ultralite jacket (freshly refurbished with a new zip thanks to a couple of seamstresses in Rovaniemi).
In the morning, we rise early and make quick work of oats, coffee, and packing. Today we have a plan; several in fact. Options that we need to consider and decide upon. The aim for the day is to get to the Paltsastugen huts and make a decision. This decision will define the rest of the trip, and as it depends on weather conditions, this decision will only be made upon arrival at the point where we must choose which of several potential routes we'll take in order to get us back to the car within 3 days.
The day is clearer, which is a good prospect for climbing mountains, but as we crest the hill and get views into the Paltsa / Moskkugaisi range we see the tops hidden in thick, dark cloud cover. The clouds hang low, at about our current altitude, and leave me uncertain about the best route plan. Well, I think, anything could happen in the next hour, so I delay any further consideration until we get to the huts.
The descent is lovely. We are rewarded with views deep into the heart of Swedish Lapland; burned orange trees and sharply defined hills go on forever. I’m really tempted by the idea of the Nordkalottleden trail — if not the whole thing, then at least the section from here to Abisko. The landscape looks beautiful, the path is easy going and well trodden, and there are plenty of opportunities for off trail adventures. But down we must go.
Before long we’ve covered 4km without even realizing it. We take advantage of the Swedish facilities at the huts, and take a good look a the map. The way I see it, we have four options:
1. Up the southernmost gully of the Moskkugaisi range, and along the mostly flat tops towards the Bealcancahca saddle. Pros: it would be awesome. Cons: it will probably take a many hours and those clouds at the top look pretty menacing. Plus, what’s the point in climbing a mountains to be stuck in a cloud?
2. Around Isdalen, a “pretty walk” around the west flank of the range. Pros: the pretty walk part. Cons: It’ll probably take us two days, or at least mean heavy milage on our last day.
3. Ditch the mountains and skirt up the path towards Gappohytta along the esker. Pros: Nice route. Very fast. Quite short. Cons: Quite short. A bit of a letdown seeing as I’ve walked it before.
4. Up the middle of the valley between Paltsa and Moskkugaisi, then up over the Bealcancahca saddle. Pros: About as mountainy as we’re likely to get. I’ve never been there. Offers a good opportunity to scout out future routes. Cons: Off trail. Can’t tell how the going is (especially those glacial streams). Potentially a wind tunnel.
We need more info, so we decide to ask the host of the Swedish huts for some trail tips. There’s no shame in asking for info or advice when you need it. Better to travel wise than ignorant.
A dog greets us as we wander over to the host’s hut. It sniffs at my leg, no doubt smelling Rufus (or reindeer salami). We knock at the door and a few seconds later a young girl appears. Apart from “Hello” she doesn’t say much, so I break the awkward silence and ask her for some trial info on the terrain. She warms up immediately as we talk about the options open to us. She agrees the route over the top might not be smart as the forecast is for very strong winds, and with the time it takes to get up there I’m not keen on being stuck at arctic altitude in a gale.
She tells us she thinks we could get up Paltsa and around onto the ridge that way. The way up the valley towards Paltsa is “quite easy”, and although the rocks are large she often runs up there (Swedes!). I like the look of that, but I sense Antoine is a little unsure, and there is still the weather to consider. I ask about the route up the valley to the saddle. The maps we have are a little unspecific about the type of terrain, and I’d like to avoid rock hopping as much as possible. The host tells us it’s easy and mostly flat, so Antoine and I agree that this is the best bet. It’ll still take us most of the day to get there and over the saddle, and I propose a campsite near the point where the Isdalen trail crosses the Njearrelahku river.
The host where we are from. When I tell her that we live in Finland she asks, with the kind of innocent bewilderment only the Scandinavians can achieve, “Why? Why not Sweden… or Norway??”
There’s not a lot I can say to that (to be honest, I’ve asked myself that question on more than one occasion), but I mumble something about my wife being Finnish, and that seems to satisfy her curiosity.
After a nibble of jerky, we shoulder our packs, head toward the bridge over the river, and make our way off trail up the valley.
The going is fairly easy; at the start the ground is a bit marshy, and we find ourselves constantly re-routing to avoid wetness. After a while I start to wonder whether there might be the trace of a trail down by the river. After all, if our friendly host often goes running that way, and the route up Paltsa is commonly taken, there should be some convergence of trails. Sure enough, when we get down the the river that flows along the valley bottom we find a few faint trails which make the going a little easier.
Above us, the dark mass of Paltsa slowly begins to peek out of the clouds, and the slab flat top of the main peak is slowly revealed. It looks pretty grim up there though, so I’m not particularly distressed that we’re not taking the high road.
Walking alongside the river necessitates crossing a few glacial streams, and I’m now frequently reminded of the landscape in Sarek; sudden gulleys of turbulent water with rocky crossings. There’s nothing as violent as Sarek — the glaciers here are considerable smaller — and there’s no wading knee-deep in icy water, but I enjoy the puzzle-like nature of finding the easiest path across.
We decide to stop for lunch if there is a good spot after the next ridge, but the ridges seem to keep coming, and the good spots are all in a cold breeze that the valley seems to be channeling.
Eventually, we decide to grin and bear it, and scuttle down behind a couple of rocks. For this trip, I decided not to faff around with alcohol / Esbit stoves, and went for the sure fire security of gas. My JetBoil’s piezo seems to be either broken or affected by the altitude/latitude combination, but fortunately we have plenty of flints that solve that issue.
Refueled, we march on around a small lake, and skirt the edges of vertical rock walls, again reminding me of Sarek’s mountains. Waterfalls tumble down black rock, and we encounter patches of snow that have held their icy grip all through summer.
Antoine is excited to see snow, so we decide to take a closer look at one snow field just before the climb up the saddle. It’s surface is pockmarked with reindeer droppings, and dyed red with blood from their horns which shed a layer of skin and fur at this time of year.
Saddles are really wonderful things. The easiest way by far to climb up between mountains, gain a bit of altitude, get some great views, and discover some new paths leading to even higher places. This saddle lives up to those promises, and while it’s not particularly high (1062m at the top), nor particularly steep, it’s an invigorating climb. I stop every now and then to catch a last glimpse down the valley at the glacially etched mountains. The wind whips my face, and I snap a few photos of Antoine who’s following not far behind at his own pace. His small figure reveals the scale of the hills. We are dwarfed by nature.
When we reach the top we are treated to a spectacular view of the jagged mountains in Norway. Always more dramatic, always more showy, aren’t you Norway? With your pointy peaks and your lustrous valleys painted in light...
I look up to my right and see a lower unnamed peak of 1267m within reach, and ask if Antoine doesn’t mind if I quickly run up there to get a look. I’m determined to get at least one summit in, even if it isn’t a “real” one. He’s happy to rest for a few minutes, so I nip up as fast as I can.
At the top, the wind rips at my wind shirt (which I am very glad to have with me) and I am happy we decided on the route we took. It would have been a cold, hard walk without much reward along the tops.
I take a few snaps, but don’t want to linger. The wind is strong enough to unbalance me, so I head back down.
Back at the saddle we look down towards our destination on the other side. We align the map with the landscape and make a guess as to where the Isdalen path crosses the river, and head in that direction. It’s nice to be out of the wind.
We zig-zag down the hill across small snow fields, rocky streams, hanging bogs, and grassland until we reach a wide stretch of the river strewn with rocks. We soon see the cairns marking the fording points on either side, but the path across is far from obvious. I could just walk across in my super comfortable Ultra Raptors, but I’d rather avoid wet feet right before camp. With some ingenuity we find an erratic route from rock to rock across the river, and head a little away from the train to find a nice enough spot to pitch the tent. We’ve covered another 20 or so kilometers again today, but mostly off trail, so our legs are happy to stop for the night, and our taste buds are craving our bourbon reward, this time with the bonus of reindeer salami and manchego. Such luxury!
The night is cold — by far the coldest of the trip. I awake several times with ice buckets instead of feet, and icicles for fingers. I’m wearing almost all my insulating clothes bar some neoprene socks that I can’t be bothered to hunt for. The interruptions to my sleep are annoying, but with a little exercise I think I can bear with the cold. It’s definitely borderline, and I envy Antoine for the GoLite down quilt I lent him; it has a rating of -7ºC if I recall, compared to the 2ºC of the MLD Spirit (although I’m bolstering that with insulated pants and the UL down jacket). I’ve come to the conclusion that in Lapland, contrary to the popular regional marketing spiel of there being eight seasons, there are in fact only two: shoulder season, and winter.
Morning arrives, and with it the clouds. The good old high latitude / low altitude alpine effect is in full swing, as the entire landscape is shrouded in slowly drifting murk. Occasionally a break reveals a sunlit mountainside, but in the main visibility is poor. There is no reason to hang around camp, so we gulp down our oats and break camp.
Today, we hike towards Gappohytta on the Norwegian / Swedish border, and then onwards into Sweden and back towards the three-borders. My plan is to head back onto the hill we climbed on day 1 leading up to the plateau, simply because the landscape there is nicer, and it reduces the distance we walk on our last day. I’m not much of a one for cabins, and would rather enjoy the peace of the tent, and the chance to choose somewhere with a good view for our last night.
As we walk through the clouds, a small ravine appears, then disappears again.
We move on, through thick and thin mist, Antoine occasionally disappearing into the vapour ahead of me. The path is exceptionally easy. Even in thick cloud we’ll not get lost as the path is clear and easy to follow. We appear to be slowly descending — either that or the cloud is slowly lifting. Suddenly we find ourselves in clearer air, with the clouds drifting just above our heads, obscuring the tops of the low hills around us. It’s spooky, but quite atmospheric.
As we approach the Norwegian huts, we see the first signs of people for two days. A tent pitched by the trail, and the voices of others staying at the huts. It seems quite busy - people bustle around packing their things and preparing for their day ahead.
I have an urge to avail myself of the facilities, but much to my disappointment the toilets seem to be private (Norwegian huts require a key that you obtain as a member of the national trekking association, DNT). Well, damn you, Norway, I shall take my shit to Sweden.
Without further ado, we pay a quick visit to another border sign, then make our move onwards.
Again, the path is easy going, and the kilometers fly by without us realizing. We pass some lovely rock formations, a devil’s cauldron, and walk the winding path around Gahppoaivi. It’s a charming, Hobbit-esque wander, with a hint of Ireland, and very enjoyable.
When we reach the approximate mid-point of today’s journey, we stop for noodles, and greet a few other hikers passing by. When we set off again, we find ourselves absorbed in a long conversation about music (Antoine and I used to DJ together and play live noises occasionally), but when I look at my watch I’m surprised to see we’ve only walked 400m. That seemed like a lot more than 400m of conversation. Something can’t be right. Up ahead, I see a formation that must surely be the point I’ve been heading towards, where I plan to make an off trail deviation. Thankfully, I downloaded the handy SweMountains app before I left, and loaded maps of the area onto it. When I use to geolocate us, I see that I am correct. We’ve walked 4km, not 400m, and are indeed at the point of departure from the trail. This is the first GPS malfunction I’ve experienced on my Garmin Fenix, and it’s a weird one. But all is well. We are where we are supposed to be.
I refill my water bottle at a stream, and we set off to check out another nearby border post (Rr 293A), and get our bearings.
My plan now is to follow a 600m contour line around the hill for a couple of kilometers, until we hit the Nordkalottleden trail and a small bridge we crossed. That would be a great place to camp for the night, as it’s only a couple of kilometers downhill from there to the three-borders, then the 10 km hike out via Malla.
We set off, following some quad bike track that start heading in the right direction before veering off down the hill. Following a contour line is a nice way to get easily between two points. It’s relatively level, and fun to use the altimeter to stay roughly on course. With the clouds clearing, and golden sun dappling the hillsides, it’s getting quite scenic. Dark clouds hang over the hills and far away, but we seem to be under a widening patch of blue sky.
Underfoot the terrain demands some minor bushwhacking through dwarf birch and sage-like tufts that clump together over some wetlands, and it takes some cunning to stay on the even, dry ground. As we get closer to our destination, I check the compass and redirect us a little more northwards. Some small hills stand between us and the bridge we seek, but they all feature some great flat camping ground which I make a note of.
When we hit the path and stream almost exactly where we were aiming, we search for a pitching place nearby, and find, just over the brow of a hill, the most idyllic spot imaginable. Like a miniature zen garden, small rocks and miniature birch trees create a little garden of eden with spectacular open views along the Stordalselva valley. It really is awe inspiring. We admire the views as we set up the SUL3. It would be so easy to miss this spot by simple following the path. The views and garden would be entirely hidden by the hill next to the path. Amazing. Had we not ventured off trail we’d never have found it.
It’s time for our regular, and final drachm of bourbon, and it tastes sweeter than ever. Why does whisky taste so good in the outdoors? There must be some olfactory effect of breathing the fresh air all day on the salty/smokey/sweet bourbon. We finish the bottle off with the remains of the reindeer and cheese, and a few dried mango slices I’ve been saving. Perfect.
The night is much warmer than the previous one. I’m almost too warm — although I’ve intentionally layered up as much as I can to avoid any cold spots. I sleep soundly and well, but awake early, before sunrise. Peeking out the door I see the first red tendrils of light on wispy clouds, and a flowing mist down in the valley. I have a feeling there will be some good photo opportunities this morning.
Last night, we discussed starting early without breakfast, but neither of us feel much in the mood for that this morning, so oats it is. We have plenty of time, and why rush out of a beautiful campsite? We take our time and enjoy the morning light and mist.
After packing everything away, we reluctantly make a move, but don’t get far before the camera comes out. Down in the valley the fog is rolling over the lake, lit by the golden rays of the morning sun. In the distance, the mountains are caught in low light, their crags and mounds illuminated and sharply defined.
It seems that every few steps reveals a new perspective; a new scene; a new interpretation of landscape. We can’t help but stand and just watch as the world shifts and changes before our eyes.
But ultimately we must continue down into Finland and to the hut on the border for somewhat urgent bodily relief. We don’t stay long, but instead start the climb up again through the birch forest, past mist-shrouded hills, and up above tree line once again.
There are only some 8km left now to the trail head along already travelled paths. We stop every now and then to look back, admire the views, and remember a very enjoyable walk. Mountains. Plateaus. Rivers. Clouds. The terrain in Treriksröset is remarkable varied. In all we cover 75km, and not a moment of it is boring or repetitive.
It’s an area I’ll return to again, mainly to try and complete that elusive traverse around Paltsa - Moskkugaisi. I don’t know when, but I feel it is something that just has to be done.
For now, descending from Malla to the car park, the path is almost complete. Time has passed. Lines have been drawn. Time zones and borders crossed. It is time to return.