Late winter skiing at Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest massif
A late winter morning in Kebnekaise. Not a breath of wind, blazing sunshine and 10 degrees below zero. The mountains are powdered with fresh snow. The breakfast room at the mountain station is packed with backcountry skiers, dogsled handlers, ski tourers and a group of heli-skiers from Germany and Britain, who have chosen the station as their tour base.
It is a place to gird your loins before an action-packed day with porridge and substantial wholegrain sandwiches.
The freshly baked bread has eager customers. This morning, the choice is poppyseed buns, walnut loaves, and rye sourdough baguettes.
Vacuum flasks are filled, and packed lunches prepared with smoked and dry-salted reindeer meat toppings. The breakfasts here are to die for.
Perfect conditions for skiing
The deeply lined faces of old mountain hands in plaid flannel shirts and snus stained handkerchiefs share tables with tanned snowboarders and a couple of younger women who are eagerly debating where the best off piste skiing at Kebnekaise can be found.
But there is one common topic of conversation at least, the weather and snow conditions. And today they are perfect. Everyone wants to get out on the snow quickly to make as full a day of it as possible.
Some of them are going to continue their ski trip along the classic Kungsleden trail towards Abisko, via a handful of Swedish Tourist Board (STF) mountain cabins. An 80km stretch through classic wilderness country.
Outside an hour later is a hive of activity. The crowd includes a group of nurses from Luleå on a classic trip from Tourist Board cabin to cabin, from Vakkotavare to Kebnekaise, with Nikkaluokta the next stop. Others are heading to Singi mountain cabin for a day trip. Another party is getting ready to head to Björling Glacier and the rich range of peaks in Tarfaladalen.
Duolbagorni with guide
In our case, a ski outing up to the crater shaped mountain of Tuolpagornithe awaits, or Duolbagorni as it is called in the Sami language, together with our Tourist Board mountain guide, Tryggve Tirén. The summit is about 1,700 m above sea level.
A challenging ski run in this spectacular bowl looms. It is nearly 20 years since I was last there, and then it was in bad weather.
Tirén’s explains that the first person to climb the mountain was his great grandfather, Karl Tirén and some friends. They reached the peak in 1904.
“Naturally, they may not have been the very first, but they were the first to record this feat,” he says.
Duolbagorni is spectacular and has been ranked Sweden’s most beautiful mountain with one of the most exhilarating ski runs by skiing magazines and similar authorities. The mountain has a look of an extinct volcano, pyramid-shaped with a large crater at the top. Monumental and mystical.
Naturally, our daypacks contain a spade, avalanche transceiver and probe, along with our substantial packed lunch. As always ahead of an outing, Tirén goes through the safety drill before we set off. We are joined on the trip by two other ski enthusiasts who work at the station, Karin Bäckström and Johan Östman.
We gently ski through the valley westwards towards Kittelbäcken, and after a few minutes, pass a flock of grouse that sluggishly making their way across the snow. We follow the west trail towards the South peak.
Our ski climbing skins provide a good grip when we start to ascend the ever steeper incline about an hour later towards the pass between Duolbagorni and Vierranvárri.
We are no longer exchanging many words with each other now. I am more focused on finding an even, comfortable rhythm, with the aim of avoiding puffing too much and losing contact with Tirén up ahead.
The bright sun and lack of wind means we sweat profusely and need to keep hydrating. We are therefore grateful for a welcome break halfway up the north slope of the mountain, with majestic views across the Kebnekaise massif.
“Duolbagorni was originally called Kebnekaise, or Giebmegáisi as the Northern Sami call it,” Tirén says. “But at some time in the 19th Century, the name came to be used for the highest mountain in the area. It maybe have simply been by mistake or in the spirit of that age, the cartographers were able to change and rename things any way they wished.”
Spine tingling crater descent
An hour or so later, we reach the edge of the broad crater almost 1,800m above sea level. In the distance, we spy another STF group heading towards the South Peak. From where we are, we can also see the North Peak wreathed in a veil of passing clouds.
A spine tingling snowy descent into the summit gully awaits. Tirén and Östman secure the rope with a snow anchor, we clip our skis to our backpacks and drink an invigorating cup of coffee.
With butterflies in my tummy, I lean backwards, trust in the rope and make my way out over the snow cornice.
It is not that big a drop, but you can definitely feel it in your tummy. Tirén has cleared a space in the snow where we can clip on our skis before we set off again. Pretty steep to start with on difficult crusted snow.
Tirén is already waltzing down the crater in harmonious swings and is soon a tiny dancing dot that disappears in a cloud of fresh snow. I try to keep up as best as I can.
After the crater, another steep gully awaits that takes you down the mountain. Yet another big challenge, bearing in mind all the lactic acid in our muscles.
“What a run, wouldn’t you say?” Tirén shouts as we approach Kittelbäcken once more. Absolutely amazing, with so many different elements in one single trip.
We are now ready for a good glide home, with the promise of a seductive sauna and dinner at Elsa’s. That is the name of the restaurant at the mountain station, in honor of a previous host, Elsa Göransson, who took great care of visitors here for 30 years.
On the menu this evening is gravad arctic char, elk stew and cloudberry parfait. A perfect choice after bestriding Sweden’s most beautiful mountain. Tomorrow morning, a classic ski tour along Kungsleden with its majestic valleys awaits, with cozy cabin stays in Singi and Sälka. A comforting contrast with the sweaty summit ascent.
Playground for ski lovers
The Swedish Tourist Board mountain station at the foot of Giebmegáisi offers comfortable double room or dormitory accommodation with half board. The station offers a wide choice of lessons and day trips. For example, you can learn how to dig a snow bivouac and about avalanches, try ice climbing or ski mountaineering to reach the best high altitude alpine ski runs.
The Swedish Tourist Board mountain station
Kebnekaise Fjällstation, Kiruna
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Published: December 9, 2021