Chapter 3 (Part 4) – Climbing Kebnekajse

Panorama of the Kebnekajse massif seen from Tarfala Valley – By Alexandar Vujadinovic – Own work,

Another fabulous adventure back in the late forties was the climbing of the south peak of Kebnekajse two days later. We started at the tourist station at an altitude of 690 m and the peak of Kebnekajse was at the time 2123 m. Kebnekajse is topped by a thick glacier which was supposed to be about 20 m thick, but that keeps melting so that the mountain gets lower every year. It stands today at about 2102 m. Sadly, global warming will most likely make the glacier disappear one day.

It was a long and strenuous climb up, across a rocky slope, a huge glacier and finally along a narrow path, really a ledge on the side of the mountain. But once at the goal we had this feeling of being on top of the world, looking from above over the vastness of the snow and ice world stretching out all around us. It was a wonderfully clear day and the view over the high mountains looking west into Norway was breathtaking. You could see an infinite distance, peak after snowy peak – a dreamland in white. There was much more snow on all those mountain peaks in 1947 than there is today, and the view was just about the most beautiful mountain world I’ll ever see in my life. Both peaks of Kebnekajse were in the sun and the world around us had opened up as I could never have imagined it to be possible, a huge number of white peaks in Norway to the west, glowing in the sun, a sight that nobody will ever see again after the global warming that has taken place since 1947.  We were extremely lucky since the peaks of Kebnekajse are very often shrouded in clouds.

View of the Kebnekajse massif taken from the higher eastern part of Tarfala Valley – Photo courtesy of friend Ulf Mjörnmark

This is of course far above the Arctic circle and the scenery doesn’t even loosely resemble the Alpine landscape in the summer. Here we were in an Arctic landscape and there was snow and ice to be seen all around us from the peak of Kebnekajse on that marvelously sunny day.

There is absolutely no comparison with the peak of the highest mountain in the Rätikon Alps, Schesaplana, almost 3000 m, above Brandnertal in Vorarlberg, which we climbed in ’86. We were in a cloud at the top that time, but even without the cloud this is a totally different world, a green world. The cloud didn’t matter too much. The climb had been wonderful, strenuous but fun, and at least we already knew the view very well from somewhat lower mountain peaks. One thing that adds to the fun at the top of a mountain in Austria is the Gemüt at the top. Everybody talks with everybody, exchanging things and laughing happily. And we sit and eat our sandwiches, admiring the scenery, usually mountain ridges behind mountain ridges, disappearing into the haze, into infinity. And the green Brandner valley below, which we could not see on that day because of the clouds below us.

On our climbing to the south peak of Kebnekajse, this fabulous mountain, we were not alone. A guide is required and there were quite a few more people in the little group as well. You don’t go up on Kebnekajse all by yourself unless you are a very well trained mountain climber. On the way down the guide also gave my somewhat exhausted stepfather Arne moral as well as physical support. I remember well how the guide said I was skipping like a mountain goat. I was, at 14, the youngest person who had climbed the mountain that year. The oldest one was a woman from Nikkaluokta, close by,  who climbed it every year. She was 75.

The Swedish tourist association (STF) huts in the Tarfala Valley below Kebnekajse – Photo courtesy of friend Ulf Mjörnmark.

For the first 500 meters there was what we call rough blockmark, which is bolders and big rocks that you tread on, from one block, more or less poi,nted, to the next, similar to what we had been walking on when we noticed, a couple of days before, that the mountain was moving across the valley on the right and west side of our ‘path’ (den rösade leden, a path supplied with cairns to mark the ‘path’) The walking was tiring, but fun. After the 500 m altitude of rocky ground, we got to the huge glacier, named Björling’s glacier after the first Swede who climbed the mountain in 1889.[ ! ] This was easy walking except for the approximately one-meter-wide cracks that were not infrequent. We were not roped together as they obviously are today (see video below), but the guide held out his stick and we grabbed hold of it as we jumped to make sure we made it across safely. After the glacier came väggen, the wall. As I remember this, it was just a more or less level but narrow path alongside the mountain, a sharp drop on our right. I do remember how we walked very carefully, and it was recommended not to suffer from vertigo. But I remember that path as fun too. There is a cable to hold on to in the mountain wall, and that piece of the climb up is a bit strenuous but not really difficult.

The glacier which makes Kebnekajse south peak higher than the north peak – looking east. The ‘comb’ was a lot less sharp in my days and it didn’t occur to us that the last climb might be hazardous. Lapland – Landscapes – Kebnekaise…

Well, that is how I remember it, but  as I watched the video below I realized that it was far more difficult to walk on this ledge than I now remember. Memory flattens out and levels all things – so I was taught in my psychology classes at Lund University. Then came the wonderful snowy peak that was at the time 2123 m high, now 2104 m. It actually varies from year to year depending on the weather.

The view from the top towards the west over the Norwegian fjäll was like a fairyland of white snowy peaks as far as you could see. Fjäll is the Scandinavian word for the mountains above the Arctic circle which are snow-covered even in the summer. Today, alas, that incredibly beautiful view is no more. A lot of the snow has melted and even the glacier at the peak is not nearly as wide or as high as it was in my day. The ‘comb’ was also at the time much flatter and I can’t believe anybody felt scared about walking the last 50 meters or so. Also, the way I remember it, it was not really considered a feat to climb Kebnekajse even on the eastern path. But it seems to have become so in modern days, even though nothing has really changed, as far as the climbing goes, apart from the peak glacier.

In those days people were not so picky with a special outfit for every sport or athletic activity and I remember well how we were all just wearing our ski boots and ski pants on this day and on chilly days, otherwise shorts. Ski boots in those days, it has to be noted, were quite supple boots and easy to walk in, and ours got pretty soaked after crossing swampy areas. There were no wooden planks laid out on Kungsleden at the time, and the first time we had those comfortable boards was from Kebnekajse tourist station to Nikkaluoktan the day after our climb. After the hiking our boots had been through, they were pretty worn out, and as my sister Gun and I slid down on our behinds from the top of the snow covered peak, Mother and Arne were watching with big laughs and Mother later photographed the soles of our boots which had big holes in them, as we were lying prone on the ground. The trekking from Abisko to Kebnekajse, via the tiny Singis hut and walking uphill and downhill, following our Sami friends to the unforgettable reindeer branding, finished off those ski boots.

Video from 2016 of a group of athletes who climbed the south peak of Kebnekajse, with a guide just the way we did. However it seems so much more dangerous and strenuous in the video than what I remember from when I was 14.

Bestiger Kebnekaise, besöker Kirunagruvan och bor vid Stora Sjöfallet – Gone Camping i Norrland” — The climbing of Kebnekajse is from about 2.40 – 7 minutes in the video. Sorry abou the Swedish, but it’s the scenery that counts.

Note: In 1889 the 17 year old Johan Alfred Björling climbed to the south peak using the Western trail. He though he was the first one to reach the top but it later turned out that the Frenchman Charles Rabot had done it already in 1883.

Continued: Part Five – Lapland, three years later

One thought on “Chapter 3 (Part 4) – Climbing Kebnekajse

  1. Pingback: Sketches from the Life of a Wandering Swede | Siv’s sketches from her life

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