Arctic Skiing: I Hope You Brought Your Parka
I hope you brought your parka because we’re headed north. This time I don’t mean headed north to Canada. I mean, as many head south to spend the late-winter months gaining trail legs on desert trails as they prepare for a thru-hike, we are headed in the opposite direction, to the Arctic, to cross country ski.
“Simon!” I shrieked as I jumped to greet my friend. Flashing back to the last time we saw each other, sitting in camp in Canada after completing our PCT thru-hike. Had it really been a year and a half since we had seen each other? It quickly became evident that the time gap had not destroyed a well-established rhythm and comfort that comes from hiking hundreds of miles together.
The next day as we stepped off the train that had just transported us 20 hours north of Stockholm and deposited us at the northern terminus of the Kungsleden, we were met with breathtaking views and bluebird skies. It was only noon but we had 15km (nine miles) to the first hut where we intended to stay the night, so after a few pictures and the last flush toilet we would see for a few days, we set out on our journey. Our goal: to ski the first 180km (112 miles) of the Kungsleden, a well-established trail in northern Sweden. We spent the next few hours skiing through a birch forest, me tagging a little behind Simon, until we reached the edge of a frozen lake, looking across we could see our home for the night. We quickly crossed and arrived at the hut. We got our bed assignments from the caretaker and then quickly moved into what would become our nightly routine: get on dry clothes, set everything out to dry, boil water for the next day’s thermos, stretch, and dinner. We enjoyed dinner with a table of people from all over the world. We passed the time chatting until we noticed a group outside staring at the sky. This could only mean one thing this far north—the northern lights! We quickly donned puffies and ran outside to admire the show.
At 6 a.m. my alarm beeped, coming much earlier than I wanted. A chill had settled in the cabin as the fire had died down in the night, making it a painstaking effort to drag myself out of my sleeping bag. Nonetheless, I knew that if we wanted to ski the 34 km (21 miles) to Tjetka before sundown, we would need an early start. At 7 we stepped onto our skis, bundled against the cold temps that were into the negatives, and began to ski. We climbed up from the lake and over into the next valley. I was elated when the sun rose high enough to bless the valley floor with its warmth. I stopped and faced the sunshine but quickly returned to skiing as it’s truly the only way to stay warm in the cold temps. We pushed through the morning, reaching the next cabin around 2 p.m. As we took a break to have lunch, I was amazed at how it’s nearly impossible to just relax in the winter; there’s always something to do. I spent the lunch hour alternating between shoveling in a peanut butter and granola sandwich and drying gloves and boots, boiling water for my thermos, and trying to recover a little before skiing more. As we packed up to move on, our friends from the previous night began to reach the cabin. With a slight tinge of jealousy that they were stopping there for the night, I slipped back onto my skis and set out for the next section and its promise of a near-dark arrival at the cabin.
This became our schedule for the week. Our days consisted of: wake up early, start cold, ski to get warm, ski to the next hut, eat and refill water, ski till dusk, keep moving for warmth, arrive at our evening cabin, dry clothes and gear, dinner, bed. Though this schedule was tough, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Though the temptation to stop early was there, the feeling of collapsing into bed exhausted, knowing I had pushed myself all day, far outweighed it. Sure, the next few days had moments of pushing over seemingly-never-ending climbs, battling winds, and cold fingers; they had many more moments of breathtaking mountains, sunsets, laughter, friendship, picturesque landscapes, and joy. I may not have built up trail legs plowing through the desert or been ultralight, but I was reminded of why I love thru-hiking: the push, the exhaustion, the thoughts of “I can’t” being smashed as I do, and the incredible life-long friendships made.
Keep that parka handy. We may be only one month away from our CDT thru-hike but we have more skiing to do.
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