As soon as my eyes opened, I knew something was different. The air around my face was bitterly cold, but that was to be expected when you’re in a tent on the side of a mountain in Artic Sweden in early September. So this can’t have been what had woken me up out of the blue, in the middle of the night. I was used to these temperatures by now. I closed my eyes again, focusing instead on making my breathing as quiet as possible. I desperately strained my ears, trying to identify the sound that must have awoken me. And then I heard it. Distinct, deliberate steps, accompanied by the quiet ringing of a bell. Both sounds that were most definitely out of place in this vast wilderness, miles from civilisation.
In gale-force winds and relentless torrential rain, that tent of mine felt like an indestructible fortress, a safe haven no matter how extreme the weather outside. But the thought of another human, possibly with malicious intent? As my half-asleep brain thundered down the path of what nightmarish hell may be lurking outside, I suddenly became acutely aware of how thin the fabric walls of my tent were. But then another sound infiltrated my consciousness. This time a grinding sound. Almost like grass being slowly chewed. A smile spread across my cold and wind-chapped lips. A reindeer, I thought to myself, it’s just another reindeer.
When you’re walking the 275-mile Kungsleden across northernmost Sweden, encountering reindeer is a commonplace occurrence. The majestic hiking route, literally translating as the “King’s Trail”, begins 155 miles inside the Arctic Circle. It passes through numerous impressive national parks, including one of Europe’s largest protected areas, Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve, and Europe’s largest wilderness area made up of Sarek and surrounding national parks. You can expect vast, barren, boulder-covered fell plateaux; wide valleys lined by steep, imposing walls of mountain; powerful glacial rivers; high, snow-topped peaks; and forests so deep and peaceful that as you walk through them you lose all sense of time and distance.
“I knew I was after a trip that would challenge me, something that would push me further outside of my comfort zone than ever before, and it didn’t take long before testing moments began to present themselves.”
Within the first few days of walking one of my boots split. The following night, as the wind whipped around me and the rain hammered down, I discovered that my tent was neither water-tight nor able to stay standing in such weather. It’s not much fun being woken up at 4am by the sodden material of your collapsed tent smothering you… Needless to say, this tent was replaced, a logistical challenge in itself given the remoteness and isolation of where I was. Over the subsequent few weeks I endured below-freezing nights huddled up in my tent, fully-clad in all my thermals and layers of feathery down. My boots gained a handful more splits and holes, meaning any wetness underfoot immediately permeated my boots and socks. Simultaneously, I found myself repeatedly having to traverse marshland and flooded areas. These factors, combined with the low temperatures of autumn north of the Arctic Circle and living in a tent meant I had to become accustomed to permanently soggy socks and feet.
It certainly wasn’t all hardship though; most days it didn’t take long for me to feel the warmth of happiness and contentment spreading through my body, warming my cold toes and fingers and providing the fuel to continue, regardless of what the previous day had presented. Often, the moments that triggered this feeling weren’t big or dramatic. Day-to-day throughout the trip there were certain parts of my routine that were guaranteed to put a smile on my face.
“Watching the effect of the steadily rising sun was one such moment I relished on a regular basis, be it the way it picked out the details of the lumps and bumps and nooks and crannies of rock high on a mountainside; or the manner in which it filtered through the fine leaves of the birches, casting a gentle and dappled light over the small clearing in which I’d pitched my tent.”
With scenes like this before me, I gained a newfound pleasure in my bowlful of plain, lumpy porridge and mug of instant coffee, the day’s ration of milk powder sitting clumpy on the surface. As the weeks passed by, I observed the gradual change in the colour of the leaves that hung from the armies of silver birches, the tones of the carpet of plants and shrubs coating the ground underfoot. The once crisp green hues slowly gave way to deeper shades of orange, red and golden as autumn crept its way into the landscape.
Then there were the moments which felt more poignant somehow, the ones that resonated and remain still at the forefront of my mind. The day after my 23rd birthday I spent the majority of the day crossing a high and exposed plateau in a constant onslaught of torrential rain and wind that stopped me in my tracks. Yet somehow all I could feel was such overwhelmingly happiness. I took a video to send to my parents announcing this fact, a video that I watch back frequently just to remind myself that joy can be found in the most unexpected of places. I spent a long evening in the company of four wonderful Swedish men, sitting around a blazing campfire deep in the forest, sharing beer and gravadlax and discovering surprising similarities between the life perspectives of 60 year-olds and that of a 23 year-old. My toes may have been bitterly cold, but my heart was warmed with a glow that lasts with me now.
I distinctly remember the moment I crested a mountain pass and, after blinking away the tears brought to my eyes by the blast of icy wind, having my breath taken away by the view in front of me. A wide, bare and unusually flat plain stretched for miles, interrupted only by the soft twinkle of an occasional lake catching the afternoon sun and the line of snow-dappled mountains on the horizon. Seeing this expansive view in front of me, I immediately knew two things: firstly, it was what I wanted to gaze upon from my tent; secondly, I wanted to climb to the summit of the highest mountain in that range.
I achieved both of those goals, as well as the other small challenges I set myself along the way. Reaching the end, I knew that ultimately I was the one who had got myself to that finish line. There hadn’t been other people around to motivate and encourage me when I was feeling tired or low, there wasn’t the option of hopping on a bus to the next town to rest up, no taxi service to deliver my bag to my next hostel so I didn’t have to carry it myself.
“I knew that every step had resulted from my own determination and perseverance.
I will hold with me for a long time that knowledge of my own capability,
and the power of the beauty and stillness of the wilderness.”