I emerge from the tiny tent cold, damp and puffy eyed, shivering as I try to warm my hands on a cup of tepid green tea. We are camped on the waterlogged bank of a mountain stream, deep inside the Arctic Circle, the sky grey and heavy with the threat of more rain yet to come. My husband is boiling water for breakfast; a rehydrated sachet of apple and cinnamon porridge, a welcome start to the day. It will be several hours before either of us remembers it is my 49th birthday.
We are hiking through the north of Sweden, an 110km stretch of the 450km trail known as the Kungsleden, the King of Trails. The event is the Fjallraven Classic, and the challenge is to complete the distance within 72 hours.
Our trek began yesterday in Nikkaluokta, and, having skirted the foothills of Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, we have already covered some 35km. It is imperative to maintain this pace if we are to arrive in Abisko in the allotted time. This area is home to the nomadic reindeer-herding Sami people, and while we glimpse an occasional reindeer, there are neither roads nor settlements, only the occasional hut, which the rules state are for emergencies only.
Today we will cross the highest point of the trail, the Tjaktja Pass (1,140m) and a miserable patch of summer snow, blackened by the boots of hikers. On the northern side we find shelter and lean against our packs, easing our backs, knees and blistered feet. Between us we are carrying everything we need to survive three days in the wilderness, and from the back of our packs swing bags containing empty food packets, used toilet paper, and old bandages all of which must be carried out of the National Park. There are no waste bins here.
Thousands of hikers make their way to this remote corner of Lapland every year, admiring its stark beauty, and pitting themselves against nature. Huge efforts have been made to minimise damage to the pristine environment, robust bridges cross fast-flowing rivers and boardwalks enable hikers to negotiate swamps and rocks.
Refreshed, we descend into a scree-field, teetering like tightrope walkers along narrow planks of wood above the moonscape of ankle-breaking rubble. The clock is ticking, but we maintain the rhythm of our march, resting for ten minutes every hour, checking our progress on the map, filling our water bottles from cool clear streams.
We break for lunch on the rocky banks of an ice-blue torrent of melt-water. The flat rocks are cold and exposed, freshly cracked and splintered by the incessant action of water, wind and ice, but we huddle under boulders the size of cars, and admire the snow-capped mountains, and the surge of sparkling water. Soothing our sore feet in the freezing river, we eat a birthday lunch of rehydrated beef satay and rice.
In the afternoon, rain descends in heavy showers. Our progress is slow and we must cover a few more kilometres before searching for a campsite amidst the woody Lingonberry bushes whose roots push through the thin turf. August nights in Lapland are brief, instead a leaden dusk descends and swarms of midges begin their nightly feast. Carefully, we exclude most of them from the tent, zipping up our sleeping bags as the strangely comforting noise of rain patters against the canvas.
Morning dawns and ethereal cloudscapes and shafts of light fill the sky. A lake of slate-grey water reflects a jagged spine of mountains, the light changing with every step as we start our final days trek. Only another 30km to go, but each raw step is increasingly painful; will we get there in time?
In these harsh wintery pastures, nature makes a sprint for the meagre summer warmth. Berries ripen fast, while mushrooms erupt beneath them. Hardy flowers appear in shades of purple, pink and yellow, and swathes of white cotton sedge line the valley floors.
With the mountains behind us, we begin our descent into the birch forest marking Abisko National Park. Progress is agonisingly slow, but time is still on our side. The alpine pastures seem dull and oppressive after yesterday’s bleak heights, though the canyon of the Abiskojokka River is a stunning reminder of the power of nature.
The finish line comes into sight. Beyond it lies rest, real food, and a warm shower. Curbing the impulse to run, we hobble through the final checkpoint, our passes are stamped with the time 69hours 20 minutes, 51 seconds. Success! A cheer of applause goes up from those hikers who have arrived ahead of us, as we in turn will cheer those following after us. We are euphoric with relief, with the wonder of nature, and with our own achievement. My birthday challenge accomplished.
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