Kebnekaise, Giebmegáisi, is Sweden’s highest mountain; the south peak reaches 2102 meters above sea level. Despite its location in the wild, just at the foot of the mountain there is a Kebnekaise Mountain Station that has offered visitors refuge and rest for more than a century. And not only are comfortable beds and a hot meal on offer – there is even a bakery located in one of the buildings. The perfect starting point for a mountaineering excursion. The road ends in Nikkaluokta, 19 km from Kebnekaise, and the last bit is travelled by foot or skis if you’re up for it. If you want to save your energy there is also other means of transportation such as snowmobile in the winter and helicopter in the summer.
One tricky thing in mountain terrain is judging distances. What looks like a couple of football pitches is in actual fact several kilometres. This became really obvious as we travelled from the mountain station up the so-called ‘Cauldron Valley’, which took a lot longer than I had expected. Here it got steeper and the extra wide climbing skins I’d bought combined with my lack of experience of this kind of skiing proved to be a mix that made itself known, and felt. Another detail that made it difficult was that temperatures were rising and what started out as powder snow was now sticking to the skis.
As the terrain got steeper and steeper, my heart was beating faster and faster and this meant a very wet base layer. It felt like I had a lump of cement fastened to each leg as I tried to keep up with the rest of the group. The feeling was worrying, seeing how this was just a short, and early, part of the trip.
Once we reached the first glacier it was finally time to leave the skis behind, heavy with snow, and change into crampons. They are a kind of metal frame with spikes underneath that you fasten to your boots or ski boots. It was the first time I used crampons and it was a positive experience to feel how well they worked, ascending the steep, snow-clad track up the mountain Vierramvare.
After an hour or so walking with crampons in steep terrain we reached the summit of Vierramvare.
The weather that had so far consisted of sun and blue skies had suddenly changed to wind and fog. We all appreciate different things and I belong to those who think that this was an interesting turn of events. Everyone got more focused and we had to produce a GPS to make sure we didn’t veer off course. This is even more important when you’re in an area with lots of steep drops and cornices.
Once we got past the summit the terrain descended towards the so-called ‘Coffee Valley’, which was also our last stop before the final ascent towards the summit. As far as I’m told, it’s in Coffee Valley many decide whether they push on, or turn back. The later alternative would have been a disappointment considering all the hard work we’d already done. And also, if that had been the decision we made, I wouldn’t have been able to finish this story.
At least the weather gods were with us and after we’d stopped for some well-needed nourishment the clouds broke. We could finally start our final ascent to the summit.
The vertical metres we’d finished that morning started to make themselves felt as we travelled steeply up the southern slope of Kebnekaise. Our water bottles were empty and we had to stop every now and then to eat snow – something I’ve been told since I was a child not to do, to avoid the risk of tapeworm and other things. But necessity knows no law and if you’re thirsty, you’re thirsty. It proved to be absolutely safe.
The place that I had been thinking about and fantasied about at times since I was a child was suddenly in view, right in front of my eyes.
Our curiosity rose as we approached the summit, and I got more and more eager to see it: the highest point in Sweden. On the way up we came across another interesting feature. We found the highest outdoor toilet in Sweden by one of the summit cabins. And it wasn’t really the outdoor toilet per se that was interesting, it was more the state of it. To put it simply: someone who really needed it had to begin the visit to the highest toilet in the country by shovelling snow for half an hour. Because the door had been left open and it was absolutely packed full of snow.
And then, finally, it came and went: the final ridge. The place that I had been thinking about and fantasied about at times since I was a child was suddenly in view, right in front of my eyes. The most fascinating thing about that sight was that it was actually a proper peak. A kind of large and pointed pile of snow right there on top of the mountain.
The final hundred meters felt like nothing and you could sense the group’s emerging joy. When the final climb was behind us and we found ourselves on the South Summit itself there was cheering and the obligatory high fives. The weather was absolutely amazing with clear-blue skies and a view that stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions.
We’d made it! And somewhere inside a niggling feeling of being stressed, that you had to experience as much as possible now that you were there. On top of Sweden.