Day 6: Climbing Mt Kebnekaise
The walk to the summit of Kebnekaise is 18kms return, and takes on average 10-14 hours. Thanks to the midnight sun, there is little risk of returning before dark if it takes longer than expected, so long as you complete it before September (in which case, you’re really, really slow).
The weather was fine but cold, and with a strong wind of 10-14 metres/second. Our roommate advised us to check the Norwegian or Danish weather forecast instead.
“They say the Danish meteorological service has ‘better’ weather,” he explained.
He thought about this for a moment, then added: “Though I’m not sure if that means better as in ‘more accurate’, or better as in ‘always sunny’. That would definitely be my definition of better weather.”
We forewent our regular oatmeal breakfast in favour of the buffet option in the hotel. We had eaten the similar offering in Abisko, which had been hearty, healthy and delicious.
We arrived at the dining hall – “Elsa’s Kitchen” – at Kebnekaise to a scene reminiscent of feeding time at the zoo. For a realistic interpretation of what it’s like to lower a zebra carcass into a pen of lions, just put some cheese and bread rolls in a basket in front of some Swedes and leave a sign out that says “All You Can Eat”.
Guys were piling their plates with upwards of 8 bread rolls, each. With no coffee cups left, people were resorting to drinking out of egg cups. Even the large serving bowl of sour yogurt called filmjolk, which is the definition of acquired taste, was scraped dry by Swedish day-trippers loading up their stomachs and lunch packs for the climb ahead.
I’d seen school dining halls that were better organized and better behaved, and those had been in Sweden. Even the wolverine from Day 2 had managed to keep the reindeer carcass spread within a 3-metre radius of where he ate, and had had the good manners to neatly impale the head on a bushel once he was finished.
Clearly some matronly discipline was in order. I took a big slurp of coffee from my apple juice glass, and pushed my plate aside. Discipline could wait: there was a mountain to climb.
We were on the trail by 7:30, and on the right trail by 8:00.
The sun was already high, but the temperature was a chilly 6°. Thanks wind chill factor you dick. I was marching in a long-sleeved merino shirt with integrated hood, some snazzy zip-off gaiter-pants, and a merino wool snode.
A snode is a circular scarf that can be worn around the head as a beanie, the neck as a scarf, or something between both, if you want to look like a Pashtun goat-farmer. Snodes can do anything; anything that is except make you look well-dressed. Still, according to the rules of mountain and hiking attire, anything goes, so long as it doesn’t go together.
What the other blogs don’t make apparent about climbing Kebnekaise, is that it’s actually bloody hard work. The 9 kilometres is almost exclusively upwards, except for the parts which are a steeply downwards, and the ground is always loose rocks.
You need good quads and thigh strength to lift you legs over the rocks and avoid tripping. There is also a false hope on the Western route. You climb and climb, thinking you’ve reached the summit, only to realise you need to descend again, then climb up even further.
When we finally reached the summit, the mountain still refused to make things easy. For this part we would need to strap on crampons we hired at the mountain station (130 kr for left and right feet – bargain!).
I was skeptical about needing them initially, but when I saw the icy ascent on the glacier to the summit, with about 5 metres of visibility, they were definitely worth it. Some guides had affixed a rope which I clung to, for dear life, and edged up.
I’m glad for the lack of visibility, as the vertigo would have been paralysing. Apparently the summit is a tiny 2-metre wide ridge, which steeply drops at both sides. I took a selfie then got the fuck back down.
It was now about zero degrees, and I wished we’d brought a thermos or cooking stove to warm some noodles or soup. But once we made it below the cloud-line, the view was superb. Stunning vistas over glaciers and snow-capped peaks well into Norway. 2.5 hours later, and a bum slide down a section of snow to avoid yet more rocks to descend, we made it home.
But there were more surprises to follow. Only then did we learn that, due to the unseasonal heatwave, the highest, snow-capped Southern peak, which we had spent 10.5 hours climbing, had melted 4 metres since July, and as such was no longer the tallest point of Sweden…
We also heard that trains from Kiruna were being cancelled due to the fire risk they posed from the sparks on their brakes. But by this stage the only thing burning in the immediate moment was my legs.
Back at the hut, we exchanged war stories with the others who’d tackled the mountain. One had turned back early on – despite his incredibly buff torso and biceps, his weak knees couldn’t stomach it.
Another guy had spent an hour helping a woman down from the very first ascent. She had been petrified – literally turned to stone – from fear. And if there’s one thing the mountain didn’t need, it was more stones.
Later in the mixed sauna, yet another well-built 50-year-old threw water on the coals, and told us about his day.
“My wife, she suffers a little from vertigo, so I left at the first ascent so that we could summit with my son. I made sure she was with a friend – I certainly would never leave my wife alone to climb a mountain…”
Sorry to pour some cold water on that mate, but that’s not what I’d just heard.