UltraMarkus Markus Kylberg / Ultra-endurance Athlete

Solo journey to the top of Sweden

Posted: August 4, 2016

Earlier this spring I made a somewhat impulsive decision to book a flight to Kiruna in northern Sweden. The plan was to hike to the top of the tallest mountain in the country, Kebnekaise. It was going to be a completely new experience for me as the farthest north I’ve been previously was when I went skiing in Åre, which is pretty much in the middle of the country. I was stoked!

There was a ton of gear to buy, I had never gone camping before and I was going to spend 5 nights in a tent. I bought the Fjällräven Abisko Lite 1, a one person tent at only ~1.6 kg. I also had to get a new sleeping bag (Marmot Nanowave 55), air mattress (Exped Airmat Lite 5 M), some kind of cooking solution (Primus Lite+), a backpack (Exped Torrent 30), and a bunch of camping food (Clifbars, Outmeals, Adventure food).

Food, shelter, running gear. What else do you need?

With all of the food I brought I filled up my 30L backpack and had to bring an extra smaller backpack, but I’m pretty sure I would have survived with a couple of fewer items and a small totebag or something similar. There was a lot of stuff available to buy at “basecamp” aka STF Kebnekaise Fjällstation / Mountain Station.

From Kiruna I took a one-hour bus ride to Nikkaluokta, where I bought toothpaste and gas for my camping stove. Then I set off for the 19 km hike to the mountain station. It was an amazing day, and walking in the valley below the mountains was really amazing. I hiked fast, I even caught up with some of the people who took a boat 5 km across a lake. The boat was 350 SEK each way, which is SO not worth it, especially not if you’re going from Nikkaluokta to the mountain station.

Rocks, anyone?
SO beautiful!

After hiking for about 3 hours and 40 minutes I reached the mountain station. I immediately went to find a good camping spot with a good view of the mountains. A lot of people were camping in the forest, which is stupid for several reasons: no view of the mountains, less wind and more shade making drying wet clothes harder, way more mosquitoes. I found a great spot just below the top of a hill overlooking the valley. I made my first camping dinner and enjoyed the view before going to bed.

I fell in love with this place right away
Not a bad place to go to sleep.
Not a bad place to wake up either!

I only brought one pair of shoes for the trip, my trusted Hoka One One Challenger ATR2. But I probably should have walked more in them before I left, my feet were not used to speed hiking for several hours, even less so in these shoes. I woke up with pretty bad blisters on both of my heels, and had to cancel the hike I had planned to do the first day.

The plan was to hike up about halfway to the top of Kebnekaise the first day, to see what the terrain was like so I would know what I was getting myself into. With absolutely zero mountain experience I felt it was better to take every safety precaution possible. I was then going to hike all the way to the top the next day, take one rest day and then attempt to run / speed hike to the top as fast as possible. However, on the morning of the second day I woke up at 8, later than expected as it really never gets dark up north in the summer. The weather was incredible and I figured I might as well give it a solid shot. So I geared up for a run and set off at a pretty good pace. I was going to make a hard push right away.

The distance from the mountain station to the top of Kebnekaise is a little over 9 km, the elevation gain is about 1700 m. That’s an average 18% grade climb, and it got steep almost right away.

Looking up
Action shot!
The valley floor below. Believe it or not, it’s about a 30-40 minute hike across. This place is massive!

I made sure to stop at every creek I crossed to fill up on water. The ice cold, crystal clear glacier water was DELICIOUS and so refreshing. The creeks got bigger and bigger, but I only dipped my foot a little bit when I stepped on a loose rock during a crossing. Eventually I reached a big, steep, super rocky climb which was actually a bit scary. The route to the top is marked with rocks that have a red dot painted on them, but they aren’t always easy to see, so on this section I had to make sure to take it easy and not get too far off the marked route and get stuck on something too steep.

I made it past the scary bit and right before the top of that section I saw a reindeer coming almost straight for me!

I was a little unsure of what to do, so I just sat down and kept still.
It passed me just a few meters away!
It seemed unfair how easy it pranced down this scary section.

I had gone past halfway and was heading up another steep climb, but not as technical as the one before. I was feeling really good and not hungry or tired at all, but I took a couple minutes of rest and ate a Clifbar with a pretty sweet view.

Sweet product placement, dude.

The next couple of kilometers were tough. A steep uphill, and then a really steep downhill into a valley where some people were taking their lunch breaks. And then finally up the last, steep, long climb. The view was incredible. I really didn’t know we had such incredible mountains in Sweden, I always though of them as oversized hills. These were proper mountains with snow and glacier covered peaks, deadly steep drops, and unpredictable weather.

I reached the top. Kind of. The last few hundred meters are covered in snow and ice, and it’s pretty steep. And with trail shoes made for mostly non-technical muddy trails, trying to hike up the last little bit wasn’t really appealing. I didn’t have any poles or crampons, and being scared of heights certainly didn’t help. So I decided the almost-top was good enough for this time. Also, I reached the almost-top in just over three hours, and since most people do it in 5-6 hours I was more than pleased with my performance.

The view from just below the summit.
SO close!

After eating the rest of my snacks I started heading back down. Going down was definitely scarier than going up, I even tripped a couple of times and almost face-planted into the sharp rocks. I quickly realized I wasn’t going to get back to the mountain station in under five hours, but 5:30 was totally doable. So instead of stopping every so often to take pictures I started pushing a bit more on the runnable sections. The last few kilometers had some rain, which was good since it made me stop worrying about getting wet in the creek crossings, instead I just ran through and got soaked.

I got back in 5:27! Pretty good considering all the brochures say it’s a 10-14 hour hike. Pretty good considering it was my first time ever running in the mountains. I celebrated with a shower, sauna, beer, dinner and then more beer in the mountain station lounge. An amazing day in every way!

The trip up and down the mountain really beat up my shoes, the outsole was coming loose and I was breaking through the upper. So I soon made the decision that there would be no more trips up the mountain. Also, the incredible summer weather that had blessed the valley for the past ten days was over and thick clouds were coming and going throughout the rest of my stay. But I was happy with my accomplishment and hanging out in the valley was really amazing. So I spent the remaining days taking it easy, enjoying the views of the mountains, taking a quick hike down to some beautiful waterfalls, and eating a lovely three course dinner in the mountain station restaurant on my last night there.

Just around the riverbend…
So many other peaks to climb some day!
So peaceful :p
Uhm. Yeah. This place exists.
Last night in the valley.

I can’t recommend going to the swedish mountains enough. I only got a small taste of what the north has to offer. There are so many more mountain ranges just beyond those peaks in that last picture. I must admit, however, I am in love with these mountains and this valley, and I hope to come back every year to run around these peaks.