Sarek - The last wilderness of Europe - by Emma Svensson
Published on 07/08/2020
There is a place in Scandinavia, a huge area in Northern Sweden where there is no trails, no mountain huts, no cell reception and no tracks of humans. It´s often referred to as the last wilderness in Europe. Emma Svensson set out to go climb all 2000 meter peaks in this area with her climbing partner Anton Levein and to explore and discover a new part of her country.
The twelve 2000 m peaks of Sweden isn´t technically demanding on a higher level. The hard work is to get to them. In no mans land where there is no trails, cable cars or roads to lead you there you have to bushwhack through forest, cross rivers, walk in swamps, over glaciers and down in long valleys. It´s far away from civilisation and you need to carry everything you will bring by yourself.
Most people that enter this area carry huge backpacks of 25 kg+ and have big boots. On our expedition we wanted to do things different. We decided to go light and fast, dividing our expedition into three stages. First one would leave us in the wild for 12 days, bringing food, camp and climbing gear in a 38L backpack each. On our feet we had trail running shoes instead of big boots.
From Kiruna we took the bus to Kvikkjokk where our adventure would start. We were greeted by thousands of mosquitos on our arrival. We tried to escape them by walking fast without any stops through the forest but it was impossible. I think I had around 100 mosquito bites the first day. Ten on my forehead under my cap, four on my ears, five in my face and ten on each shoulder only. It was a nightmare.
After following the famous route “Kings Trail” for a while we took off left and into the unknown, towards our first 2000 m mountain: Pårtetjåhkka. Maybe the easiest of the twelve, just a moderate scree slope to the top. But a two day long approach to reach. So we sat camp by a small lake, escaping the mosquitos in our tent to get some sleep before we continued. In the summer in Northern Sweden sun never sets. It´s called the midnight sun.
The next morning we packed up our camp and made the rest of the approach, up the long scree slope to our first summit. Now the fun could begin!
The next 2000 m mountain was in our sight: Palkatjåhkka and to get there we were going to traverse from the top of Pårtetjåhkka, over a long ridge with a few smaller peaks. Nothing too difficult but a fun day scrambling, a few rappels and by the evening we put up our tent just next to our second 2000 m summit. It´s weird to go to bed in full sun, I have never experienced anything like it but our bodies were tired from the long approach and all day climbing on the ridge with a 15 kg backpack. I could not wait until I had eaten some more food so my backpack would be lighter but I could not eat too much everyday. Food was on the low limits and I only had one dried freezer dinner per day. For breakfast I had musli with milk powder and during the days just snacks & bars. It wasn´t nearly enough since we were on the move for at least 12 hours per day bur it would be like this for the first stage of the expedition.
When we woke up in the morning we took the last few steps up to our second summit and then we found the first big problem: The route we were going down, another ridge was super loose and steep. It was a nightmare to downclimb. At one point we rappelled off a small rock, not bigger then a regular pillow and I wasn´t really sure it was going to hold. But we survived and could continue the adventure. Over a col, crossing a glacier and down a valley where the mosquitos were back to greet us.
This year winter was late and there was a record of snow in the area so that meant a lot of water in the glacier rivers we had to cross. And with high season not started yet no summer bridges were in place yet. We just had to cross them by foot. It takes a second or two before you feel the cold water coming into your shoes. The rocks in the rivers are slippery. You have to be careful and focused every step you take. And it´s often not clear enough to see how deep it is. Sometimes you have to turn around halfway across and try to find another point where you can cross the rivers safely. We sat our limit to “nothing over our legs” meaning that the deepest wade we did the water were as high as our hips. It was almost impossible to move forward. The stream is strong in the ice cold water and one little slip would mean goodbye forever. It hurts, but you can´t think about the pain. You have to stay focused and continue forward. Get to the other side.
After the first wade we did I had wet feet for another 8 days. We used sealskins in our trail shoes but overtime the water was higher then then knees it poured inside anyway. I was happy the summer days in the end of June were warm enough to heat our cold again feet after crossing a river.
After another day of approaching the Sarek massif after climbing Palkatjåhkka we found a small emergency hut were we took cover from the mosquitos for a moment. They had been chasing us all day and I needed to get away from them. Imagine bushwhacking through a swamp with 50 mosquitos around you. Never ending attacks in your face. Biting you everywhere on your body. It´s so annoying that it makes you go insane.
“Just don´t think about them” Anton told me. Easy for him. Mosquitos loves me more then anyone else so whenever I was around they didn´t care about him at all.
But at least now we had cover for a while. And after another day hiking for 12 hours we decided to stay the night in the little hut and do a early start for tomorrows big climb: The traverse of the Sarek massif.
In the hut we found a really detailed map. We studied it careful. We had already planned the route months before the expedition but the terrain and loose rocks had made us a little bit slower then we wished for. We were a few hours behind and a possibility to go up a glacier and access the mountains from the south side of Stortoppen could be a way to not have to do another 10 km in terrain tomorrow before the climb. It was possibly a new route up that mountain too since our research didn´t snow any records of anyone ever taking that way up.
We woke up by 5am and left the hut. We spent the next hour trying to cross the biggest river of them all during this project and after turning back halfway through at one point we made it over safely in the deep water.
We were really cold after that challenge and put on our crampons on our wet trail shoes to start the approach to the first of the four summits that were our goal today: Stortoppen.
To go light and fast comes with a price: Early in the morning when your feet is wet and cold from a wade and the sun is on the other side of the mountain and your are walking on a glacier you can´t get them warm again. It was painful but we also knew, the only way is up. On our trail shoes we used the Grivel Ran crampon. Light, easy and good grip in the snow. The new possible route we took was maybe MII-III so noting too technical. A mix of a steep snow slope where we took turns digging our wet cold feet into the snow and loose rocks with some scrambling. A small climbing section where we were comfortable enough to not rope up even if it was wet on the slabs and easy to slip. Then we made it to the col!
To our right was Buchttoppen and to our left the South Peak. We decided to go right along the ridge and make it to the first summit without our backpacks. We left them on the col to pick up later and brought only our climbing gear with us: A 40 m single rope, a few cams & nuts and alpine QD`s.
At the foot of the summit there is a exposed ridge and then a climb with a small crux. We roped up for the first time just in case since the exposure was pretty serious. The crux was not difficult at all and I really enjoyed the freedom of climbing without my heavy backpack even if it was probably a kg or two lighter by now. Then we left the rope and continued the scramble up to the summit.
The north face of Buchttoppen is really impressive. Instead of loose rocks you have a solid steep wall 80-90 degrees, maybe 200 m high of amphibolite. Probably a great project to climb by someone who is more experienced then me. There is so many lines in the Scandinavian mountains that never have been climbed.
After the summit of Buchttoppen we went back to our backpacks and traversed over the ridge to our next summit: South Peak. So far in this project we had amazing weather and conditions but we knew today it was going to change. But so far the sun came out from the clouds every now and then.
After South Summit we kept going on the ridge for the third 2000 m mountain of the day: Sarektjåhkka. When you look at it from a distance it looks harder then it is. Like Matterhorn maybe. Impossible for the regular hiker but not too difficult for a alpinist with some experience and a Sunday walk for a professional climber.
The closer we got the less loose the rock became and for the first time it was pretty solid from time to time. With another summit done we continued on to the North Peak and down into another valley. We did what we planned to do: Traverse all the 2000 m peaks in Sarek in less then a day and now we were on our way to mountain no 7: Ahkka.
Ahkka is like Swedens Kilimanjaro. An alone standing mountain north of Sarek. It took us two days just to get to the base of the mountain. We had to walk 20 km extra in terrain to be able to cross a river on the way over there. And by now I was pretty tired of bushwhacking. Weather had become bad. It was heavy rain all the time by now and on top of this we managed to go for the summit of Ahkka on the coldest day of July in decades. It was probably -10 in windchill on the summit where the cold wind blew the snow in our faces. Anton got frost in his beard. And my feet were colder then ever.
On the way up the mountain we had to cross two rivers. The first one was fine. My feet managed to get warm again. But after the second one they didn´t. And we had to walk on snowfields so my feet had no chance of getting the heat back. At one point there was only one thing left to do: Stop and take off my wet shoes and socks and put them under Antons arms to warm them for a few minutes. That helped and we could continue up.
Ahkka have two summits and we traversed the narrow ridge between them where someone put up a fixed rope for protection. My Grivel Ghost ice axe came in handy for this mountain since the snow were windblown and really hard packed up here. To get down we slided down a couloir on the south side to a glacier where we changed rain, snow and wind for sunshine and summer. What a change!
But our happiness were short - after getting down from the glacier it was already midnight since the bad weather the last days made us start the climb late in the afternoon and now we had to do the worst bushwhacking in the whole project: Through a swamp in a forest that was never ending. It took us hours and hours in the middle of the night to get to the bridge where we could cross over to a trail and take a boat across the lake. But that boat ride across the lake meant we were done with stage one of the expedition and that meant: Pizza!
The thought of pizza was something that came to my mind over and over again during the hard parts of the project. Since we had way too little food with us we already lost 4 kg each in 8 days. And we were starving! So pizza was our treat when we got back to civilisation again. We used to talk about all the things we were going to eat before falling asleep in the tent during the evenings. And now it was about to happen.
The only thing they served in the mountain hut on the other side of the lake was a frozen pizza you put in the microwave. It was good enough.
After the first stage the plan was to go back to Kiruna and change our gear, fill our bags with more food and head out to Kebnekaise.
Kebnekaise is the highest mountain in Sweden with two summits: North and South. The south summit have glacier so sometimes the north summit is higher since that one have rocks at the top. But almost no one climb the north summit since it´s either a technical route to get up there or a traverse over a narrow ridge from the south summit.
The south summit is where all the tourists go. And due to Covid-19 a lot of Swedes decided to go to climb Kebnekaise this year since they could not travel outside Sweden.
At Kebnekaise basecamp it was packed with people. The hut was fully booked and there were tents everywhere. We found a great spot to put our tent and since we were going to stay here for a few days and climb other things too we felt spoiled with having a basecamp for the first time in this project. That meant more food and snacks, extra sleeping pad for comfort and extra clothes. I could change my underwear everyday! Something I did not have the luxury to do out in the wilderness in Sarek. When you try to pack light you have to be really hard on yourself and you can´t bring everything you would like to.
We arrived in the evening and already the next morning we took off to climb Kebnekaises two peaks. Our plan was to climb the east ridge. Barely climbed at all during the season but weather and conditions made us have to change to Nygrens route. It was raining, snowing, windy and no visibility at all when we reached the ridge.
Nygrens route is a climbing route grade AD that takes you to the Northern peak. We tied in over the glacier and I put my Grivel Air Tech crampons on. The trail shoes was changed for alpine boots because from now the climbs in this project will get more serious.
I had climbed this route before, during my project 49 peaks where I climbed the highest mountain in every country in Europe, so I knew it and that was good since we could only see about 10-20 meter in front of us.
There was a lot of snow on the route and the rock was very slippery due to rain. The crampons were perfect for this climb. It was the first time I tried them and they are really great for mixed routes where you have to climb a lot on rock with crampons on too.
We reached the north summit and traversed over to the south. It was like walking inside a milk bottle. At one point my boyfriend, who came to join us on the climb for a few days, slipped because the snow on the ridge broke and started falling down into the exposed west side of the mountain. I was ready to throw myself over the other side of the ridge but he self arrested with his Grivel Air Tech Evo before he fell off the ridge completely. But my heart stopped for a second.
We made it over to the south summit and it was snowing a lot. From here it would be easy going down through the eastern trail. A small via ferrata and then down over a glacier and a steep hill. This is the route some of the tourists take with guides. But most people do the western trail where it´s just walking to the top. We met two girls on the way up to the summit just as we came down. They were happy but tired. I said to them “you are almost there, congratulations!”. I know what it can mean to have someone cheering for you that last part. When your tired and you don´t know how you can take another step but you still find the power to do it. It was like that the first time I climbed a mountain. I had no experience. I was a couch potato back then. And one day I got the idea to climb the highest mountain in Norway. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. And I promised myself to never do it again.
But it´s funny how life turns out. A few years later I watched a movie about climbing mountains and felt the strongest feeling of “I have to do this” and from that moment the mountains have been a big part of my life. Now I can´t live without them.
The plan was to climb a few other things around Kebnekaise the next days but bad weather with heavy rain made it impossible. Instead we had some relaxed days before taking off to Tarfala where the expedition would continue.
With only three mountains left the bad weather continued to follow us around. The next day it was still no visibility up high but we managed to climb Kaskasatjåhkka quite easily. Navigation on the summit glacier was the hardest part. We couldn´t see anything. But by sticking my Grivel Trail Three poles into the snow I could feel the direction of the slope and we could find our way to the summit
The next mountain was going to be the hardest one to climb in the project. Kaskasapakte is Swedens Grand Jorasses. We choose to do the SW ridge up to the top. The route reminds me of Arete du Diable. You climb up and down towers. Just not quite as difficult. At least not a sunny day with dry rocks. On our climb it was snow, rain, hail, wind and no visibility. Maybe crazy even to try since the other team trying to climb this route turned around halfway up. But we decided to go for it anyway.
At one point Anton lead up a slab, traversed over to the right and were going to climb a pinnacle with huge exposure. He hesitated for a moment and then he went for it. Screaming to me “that was the scariest move in my whole life!”. I could see what he meant since there were nowhere to put protection along the way. A fall here would mean falling almost 20 meters down the steep face. Hoping the last piece of gear in place would hold that fall.
The rock were wet and slippery. I climbed with my crampons on to not slip. But climbing a technical route with a 14 kg backpack was heavy. And the backpack were in the way all the time. I remember a place where it got stuck in the rock, making it impossible for me to make a move since my balance was off due to the stuck backpack. I fell there.
A overhanging crux was also hard with the backpack on. But we made it to the summit and were rewarded with sun for five minutes. Then we started going down another ridge. It took forever since the rock were very loose once again. And it rained heavy on us. When we reached the glacier I felt so happy! We put up camp and went inside the tent soaking wet, trying to dry our clothes as good as we could for the next day.
The last approach to the last mountain took all day. When we had that glimpse of sun on the summit of Kaskasapakte we could see over to the last peak: Sielmatjåhkka. It was so far away! Like all the peaks in this project.
When we reached Vistas valley the mosquitos were back. And there was so many of them! Once again I had to walk with 50 mosquitos around me, attacking me, flying into my face. I hated them by now. I swore to myself to never comeback here again. At least when it was mosquito season. In the end of august they disappear.
Sielmatjåhkka is a pretty new 2000 m peak. It wasn´t until 2016 it became a 2000 m mountain when they did new measurements of the mountains in Sweden. So few people have climbed it. It´s often climbed from Nallo but we decided to try it from Vistas. Making a possible new route again,
The weather was perfect even tho it was very muddy on the terrain after all the rain. After bushwhacking once again we reached the moraine and after climbing that we got to the glacier. From here we could not see the top but we could see a steep wall of ice and snow. About 55-60 degrees that we had to pass. It was full of crevasses we had to navigate through. But it was fun to actually climb on ice and I had a blast!
After crossing the glacier we went up a steep snow slope that avalanched a small and slow avalanche when we climbed it. It was no danger to us so we continued up to the ridge. I climbed it with my crampons and the only thought in my head was “do not stumble here, you are so close now, don´t make a stupid mistake now”.
We reached the summit and my focused face changed to a big smile. We did it! We climbed all the 2000 m mountains in Sweden! Something maybe just a handful of people have done before. It wasn´t the original plan for the summer but sometimes you have to adapt your plans to the circumstances and this was a great adventure for sure!
The GRIVEL equipment used for the project:
Grew up in the forest of Sweden and started with alpinism just three years ago. Her first project was to climb the highest mountain in every country in Europe to see if a regular girl could do something like that. After this it was impossible to go back to a normal life. For her it´s important to share different stories from the mountains and to show that not everyone have to be a professional climber to enjoy the mountains.