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2020-12-21 16:32:00

In January 2020, ambassador Anna Blackwell travelled to Arctic Sweden. Once there, despite very little experience on skis, she found herself skiing into the backcountry for a multi-day camping trip with a friend.

Eyes closed, just the tip of my nose protruding past the safety of my sleeping bag and into the cold air, my ears strained to identify the mysterious noise coming from outside my tent. Just as I managed to convince myself I’d imagined it, I heard it again: a soft, continuous whisper of a rustle. My mind whirred, trying to identify this unfamiliar sound. It took me a moment to realise I could hear snow gently sliding off the fabric sides of our tent. Mind once more at ease, I snuggled into the downy cocoon of my sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.

It was the middle of January and I was visiting my friend Rob in the far northern reaches of arctic Sweden, on the outskirts of Abisko National Park. Despite numerous visits to this part of the world over the last few summers, this was my first time experiencing it in the harsh grips of winter. It hadn’t taken long for me to fall in love with the vast blankness of the snow-covered mountains, the spindly birch trees poking out of the otherwise featureless white winter landscape.

Despite it being the best part of a decade since I’d been on a pair of skis, Rob and I had hatched a plan to spend a few days ski touring and wild camping. This wasn’t your average camping trip, for starters there was the temperature: despite the concerningly mild winter the arctic had faced thus far, we were set for a cold snap that perfectly coincided with our excursion. Camping in minus 15-20°C was going to be one heck of an experience. And then there was the issue of daylight hours… This far north at this time of the year, the sun doesn’t even make it above the mountainous horizon and there are just a few short hours of light.

After a slightly manic morning of packing, unpacking, and repacking our rucksacks, it looked like we were finally ready to get going. Heaving my full 80L Cerro Torre off the floor, I groaned outwardly before letting it fall back down. My eyes flicked up nervously to meet Rob’s gaze; at this point I could barely keep myself upright on skis, let alone with 20kg on my back…

Acknowledging that no adventure is complete without some pre-departure nerves, I took a deep breath, strapped my rucksack securely onto my back and joined Rob outside the house. Clipping into our skis, we slid out of the driveway and made our way to the start of the trail. With no disasters so far, my confidence was building and I found myself relaxing.

After all the faffing we’d done that morning, we hadn’t made a start until lunchtime, meaning we only had a few hours of light left. Not letting this worry us, we skied up through the snow-cloaked woods, stopping only briefly for a late lunch of slightly frozen cheese and pickle sandwiches and a few swigs from the whisky-filled hip flask. I hadn’t realised how deep the snow was until I took a few steps away from the trail, my foot sinking until I was up to my thighs. Hoisting myself back out, I clambered back to my skis to continue into the encroaching darkness.

By early afternoon it was time to get the head torches out. We were still intermittently in woods and I was mesmerised by the way the light from my torch caught on the frozen droplets clinging to the tree branches, causing them to twinkle magically. As the temperature dropped still lower, the surface of the snowy ground was also transformed into a soft, glittering carpet beneath our skis.

After breaking out of the forest and crossing a frozen lake, we decided it was time to pitch up for the night. We didn’t have the correct snow stakes for the tent so decided to improvise, instead digging our skis and poles into the snow and fastening the tent ropes to them. We were so focused on erecting our fabric home that we didn’t notice the increasingly heavy snowfall. Finally happy with our work, we crawled inside, cooked our dinner with melted snow and before long, we were both soundly asleep.

Day Two

It was now the morning of the second day of my ski touring adventure alongside my good friend Rob. We took our time breaking camp, savouring the beauty of the landscape we could now clearly see around us having navigated in pitch darkness the previous afternoon. Rejoining the trail, it wasn’t long before we reached a huddle of cabins belonging to the Swedish Tourist Association. These cabins are found throughout the mountains and fells and are staffed in the summer and winter months. After a chat with the amiable warden, Rob and I decided to spend our second night in the relative luxury of one of the buildings; both of our air mattresses had small punctures and the thought of another night sinking into freezing cold ground was not that appealing…

As we both still had some energy left, we decided to go back out for a quick ski. Discarding our camping gear and detaching the lid of my Cerro Torre, we packed just our layers and essential gear in the one rucksack before mounting our skis once again. As the last of the light dwindled in the sky we made it to the top of a nearby hill. We paused briefly to take in the dark shapes of the mountains surrounding us, before flicking on our head torches. Turning for home, we plunged down the hillside, trees whipping past and our worlds narrowed to just what was illuminated immediately ahead.

Returning to the cabins we were greeted by the welcome sight of warm light seeping from the windows: some fellow winter travellers had arrived. Kicking snow from our boots as we opened the door, a wall of warmth hit us. Inside, we introduced ourselves to the three men who we were to share a simple dormitory with that night. There was an instant comradery, unique between those who seek out the extremes in nature.

It was still dark the next morning when Rob and I packed up to leave. Crossing the snow outside the cabin, I inspected the thermometer. It read -25°C. Instinctively, I tugged my warm hat lower around my face.

We had arranged to ski back to the village with two women Rob worked with, and for a moment I felt a pang of nerves. I was still a complete newbie skier, whereas these three were all experienced. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them and that they’d get frustrated with the deadweight lagging behind.

Thankfully, these fears were ungrounded and straight away I was skiing alongside the others, happily chatting away and able to catch up with ease if I slowed to take photographs. As I confidently skied along, I realised that in two short days I had gone from finding the downhill sections terrifying to exhilarating. The uphill stretches no longer filled me dread at the physical exertion needed to power up them, as by now my technique had improved enough that they were no longer exhausting.

That final day skiing back to the village was an absolute joy. A vast, icy blue sky hung overhead, so pale that the clear sky was barely discernible from the wisps of grey cloud. The air was so cold that I could feel the chill of it with every inhale and frost coated my eyelashes. I hadn’t showered or even worn deodorant in days, yet I felt a familiar surge of contentment and happiness which I only ever experience after time spent in remote and beautiful places like Arctic Sweden, disconnected from the modern world, self-sufficient, and at harmony with nature rather than battling to conquer it.

That said, the sauna back at Rob’s house was calling my name…

Words by | Anna Blackwell

Images by | Anna Blackwell & Rob McNamee

Lowe Alpine ambassador Anna Blackwell is an adventurer, writer, speaker and photographer with a love of the outdoors and pushing her limits. This has led her to pursue numerous adventures, from trekking over 600 miles alone across the Arctic and northern Scandinavia to spending five months kayaking across Europe. Anna is currently studying towards an MSc in Environment and Human Health.