We met at the Abisko mountain station, 16 hours north of Stockholm on the night train, crossing the Arctic Circle in our sleep. We walked south, single-file on a narrow trail through birch woods, or on boardwalks above a boggy undergrowth of crowberries and blueberries. We crossed ravines on tremulous chain and cable bridges, grey-blue snow-melt gushing beneath us. We imagined Norway on the far side of the mountain wall to the west, while plump ptarmigan with feathers down their legs like trousers skulked among the willow shrubs. We reached the cabins at Abiskojaure in late afternoon, stowed our packs in triple-decker bunks and split logs for the sauna at the edge of the lake.
For a long time I'd dreamed of walking the King’s Trail: days without roads, an Alaskan vastness. Over 100 years ago, the committee of the Svenska Turistföreningen (the Swedish Touring Association) proposed a north-south walking route through the Lapland fells. Now the Kungsleden runs 400km between Abisko and Hemavan, and I'd joined a group to walk the first week to Nikkaluokta. We were nervous, thrown together like this: Kent and Elisabeth, Jurgen and Joachim, Kristina and Maria and Karl. Karen, a microbiologist from Sheffield, recognised the wild flowers: avens, gentian, meadowsweet. Our Finnish guide, Ingrid, was a mountain-bike champion with thigh muscles standing out like loaves.
We gained height as we moved south, rising above the treeline. Our packs were heavy with provisions: pasta, coffee, bricks of treacle-dark rye bread, slabs of bacon and cheese. But it was exhilarating to stride into these open valleys, with tongues and bunkers of snow glistening on the uplands, and vast boulders deposited by glaciers lying around like toys a child had failed to put away. We passed Sámi shelters—turf mounds the shape of steamed puddings, with chimneys like periscopes—and walked in the strange music of Sámi place names pimped out with accents, umlauts, carons and overrings, the Kåtotjåkka massif ahead of us, the summit of Cěakcahjälměn to the east.
Sometimes I walked eyes down, watching for alpine plants in the tundra thickness of dwarf birch and willow: saxifrage, speedwell, Arctic bellflower. Mica specks twinkled in the rocks, wheatears and golden plover jaunted from perch to perch. Sometimes we fell into pairs and conversations. Elisabeth had a blurred tattoo of a tiger on her calf. Karl was prodigiously well-equipped: the bracelet on his wrist was a braid of spare bootlaces. Jurgen and Joachim were friends from university; Kristina had left her husband and two children in Gothenberg; Kent wore an earring, raced a Nissan GT at the weekends, and dried his Björn Borg underpants by hanging them off his backpack, so that following him on the trail meant you walked with Borg’s tie-dyed face hovering in front of you, white bandanna round his forehead.
But the landscape kept calling your attention. We reached the Tjäktja pass at 1,150 metres, then descended into the long, broad valley called Tjäktjavagge, massifs rearing to east and west, snow-melt waterfalls like quartz strings dangling off the cliffs, a river flowing silver into the distance through soft-looking heath, a rough-legged buzzard mewing on an updraft. We’d found a rhythm now, resting at midday, filling bottles in streams, finding bunks in the STF cabins at Alesjaure, Tjäktja and Sälka, bathing in rivers and lakes, fetching water in gleaming pails for cooking and washing. At Sälka, I woke early and found a crew of six reindeer browsing, velvety antlers swishing the crowberry bushes, tendons clicking as they hurried away.
We were almost at Kebnekaise, the highest mountain in Sweden. Five of us would climb it the next day, fitted with harnesses and crampons. But first the long walk along the floor of Láddjurvaggi, sheer mountain walls rising on both sides. Ingrid told a story about some Swedish soldiers training near Kebnekaise, how they’d made snow caves for bivouacs and settled in for the night. Next morning, a young German couple were skiing, off-piste. They sat down to rest, happy to be alone in the mountains, and watched bewildered as men emerged from the snow, punching through the crust from underneath, bears coming out of hibernation. Already I was thinking about when I might be able to come back, pick up the trail again at the Sálka huts and press on towards Hemavan.