Abisko 2014 — high altitude valleys

Planning preamble

For various reasons we didn’t make it to Lapland last year, so we had been looking forward to this year’s trip for quite some time, pouring over the map, reading Claes Grundsten’s eminent guides, and making plans.

Our targets this year included the high altitude valleys Ballinvagge and Siellavagge. We planned to diverge on a day trip up to the ridge line that cradles the Ballinriehppi glacier. Then we would cut over to Siellavagge and descend along this valley to the southeast, connect with the trail towards Rautasjaure, but fork off south to cross the Aliseatnu river via the bridge and then hike west along its southern bank, following the waterway towards Alesjaure, and then back up to Abisko along Kungsleden. In case we didn’t need to cash in on our extra day (planned for contingencies) to reach Alesjaure and Kungsleden, we could possibly opt to go via Unna Allakas on the way back from Alesjaure. Let’s see how it all went… [Check out the map at the bottom of this post for an overview of our route.]

Day 1: Abisko — Ballinvagge

Just like two years ago, we took the train directly to Abisko Turist, dumped our duffel bag (with books for the train ride, a comprehensive hygiene kit and towels for the post-trek sauna, and a change of clothes) in the storage room at the mountain station, and took off along Kungsleden (‘the King’s trail’). Shortly after crossing the bridge over Nissonjohka, we started climbing diagonally up towards Ballinvagge. We were blessed with great weather. Little M picked up a good pace, bouncing up the slopes. M&M carried all of their personal gear in Alpkit Gourdon packs, 25 liter and 30 liter, which weighed in at 3 and 4 kg, respectively. Dad had a hard time keeping up, but was very happy that his pack was super comfortable despite carrying 7 days worth of food for 4 people (some 12 kg) + other gear, so that his total load landed around 20 kg. Volume-wise the Porter was maxed out, with the roll-top folded twice only. Mom’s load was probably around 10 kg, or so, including 2 kg of food. Her GoLite Jam dealt with this weight easily.

onourway

We’re off! Here we are right at the very start of Kungsleden (‘the King’s trail’), still down in the lush birch forest.

Once we emerged from the birch forest and the views opened up, we could see the modest ravine cut by Ballinjohka. We stuck to the slopes high above the stream, but at one point big M dumped his pack and headed down to the stream, armed with his ‘kåsa’ to quench his thirst.

upintoBallinvagge

On our way up into Ballinvagge. Big M carries a bag full of mushrooms, which he picked while hiking up through the birch forest. Ballinbogicohkka (1661) is visible in the center and the slopes of Coamohas (1743) to the right.

Ballinjohka

Ballinjohka with remaining snow, in mid-August, on its north-facing bank. Spot big M sampling the refreshing water down there.

After a few hours we had climbed the 700 meters from Abisko (at 300-something meters) and reached the point where Ballinvagge opens up and flattens out. There is a wide selection of good camp sites up here and we could choose freely — not a single tent in sight. In fact, since we left Kungsleden we had seen only two other parties. Solitude was to be a recurring and much appreciated theme for the next few days. We pitched the Trailstar and the Tarptent Double Rainbow and cooked dinner. On the menu: instant Thai chicken soup, spiffed up with dried shrimps, extra thai spices, noodles, and coconut milk. Not quite as good as our favorite Tom Kha Gai, but pretty good still. We soon retired to our shelters so that we could rise early tomorrow morning for the ‘summit bid’.

Ballinvagge_dinner

Enjoying a warm meal while the sun sets and the temperature drops. The cirque around Ballinriehppi is visible in the background, although most of the glacier is hidden from view by a sizable moraine ridge.

The night was cold and calm. A magnificent, yellow moon rose above the eastern slopes of Ballincohkka and hung low over the horizon. The high-pressure system looked stable, in agreement with the forecast, which predicted predominantly sunny skies at least for another day or so.

ninja

Big M enjoying the last light on the Ballin ridge. Hoping for equally nice weather tomorrow morning — we’re going for the pyramid in the background and then onwards along the ridge.

 Day 2: Peak bagging, kind of…

Dad woke us up early and served up oatmeal with blueberry soup and superspackle, plus hot chocolate for M&M and coffee for mom and dad. We were on our way by 7:00 under bright blue skies. M&M counted lemmings, at least half a dozen, as we hiked the 3 km across the Ballinvagge floor over to the cirque. Lemmings are funny, cute little rodents with very colorful coats. Little M simply loves them!

We had started up the scree towards the peak when suddenly an adult White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) took off from its perch some 100 meters in front of us and swept past us down the valley. Wow! What a beautiful sight! It was so big! Its head was very pale, almost purely white. A few minutes later we came across the spot where it had been sitting, which was clearly marked by a huge dump (the term ‘droppings’ somehow does not seem to fit the picture). It looked like somebody had emptied a big bucket of white paint over the rocks.

At one point, we had a free line of sight through the valley that connects Ballinvagge with Siellavagge, and past Siellanjunni all the way over to Storsteinsfjellet (1872) and the Sealggajiekna glacier in Norway. Snow, snow, snow… Massive whiteness! Instant inspiration: maybe next year’s trip should be a circumambulation of the Storsteinsfjellet massif?

Ballinriehppe

Views from the unnamed peak 1646, which we reached after gaining some 600 meters in altitude across easy scree. We are high above the Ballinriehppe glacier, visible to the left. Tomorrow we will cut through the valley between the two peaks in the background (Ballinbogicohkka on the left and Coamohas on the right) and reach Siellavagge, which we will follow in a south-eastern direction, down towards Aliseatnu.

We sat down on the peak and celebrated our ‘climb’ with a few pieces of chocolate and a handful of nuts and a few swigs of water from the platy. We debated whether we should continue along the ridge line to complete the semi-circle around the cirque, or just hike over to the highest peak (1784), or simply call it a day and head back down. Committing to the full traverse would likely involve another 7 to 8 hours of walking/scrambling across the scree to the other end of the ridge, because we could not see any obvious bail routes when we scouted the ridge line through our binoculars. Given that dark clouds were rolling in from the east, we agreed that we should not attempt the full traverse. Little M and mom were both happy with what we had already achieved and were not particularly interested in any further exploration, especially considering the exposed nature of the continued ridge walk over to the next and highest peak of the cirque. Having settled that matter, we could allow ourselves some extra time on the peak to fully take in the great surroundings.

1646_nissonvagge

View from 1646 down into Nissonvagge and the lake at 1140 meters. As you can see, the incline gets progressively steeper as one moves into the cirque (i.e., towards us), and behind where big M is sitting there is a near vertical drop. Great exposure! 1646 is the outermost peak of a dual cirque, forming one arm of both the Gaskariehppi (behind the photographer to the right) and Ballinriehppi (behind the photographer to the left) cirques.

 

1646

Look at that inversion layer over the Abeskoeatnu valley floor! All those people down on Kungsleden have a gloomy day, but we are basking in the sun!

Lunch was prepped as soon as we were back down to our camp in Ballinvagge: instant soup with a couple of spoonfuls of couscous, along with a piece of cracker bread with hard cheese. Little M took a nap in the Tarptent, while big M made an attempt at fishing the slower-flowing waters of the small delta close to our camp site. We had scouted the stream for rising char, both the night before and this morning, but hadn’t seen any fish at all. Still, we figured it was worth a shot. Besides, it is always fun to work on perfecting your Tenkara cast. The fish — if they were there at all — totally ignored big M’s well-placed and ‘delicately presented’ (as fly-fishing nerds would have it) flies.

camp_Ballinvagge

View of our camp in Ballinvagge from the slopes of Ballincohkka.

 Day 3: Ballinvagge — Aliseatnu/Vierrojohka junction

That night it rained a bit, but it stopped in the early morning hours. We packed up quickly and got moving around 7:00. By 9 o’clock we had reached Siellavagge and stopped for breakfast (our standard oatmeal fare), which we reinforced with a tortilla + salami (thus making it brunch, right?). We hiked upstream along Siellajohka in the southeastern direction, traversing along wet, grassy slopes high above the stream. As you approach the watershed, the terrain changes character completely and turns into endless talus fields. We were grateful for our light packs and trail runners, which enable the precise footwork that is key to speedy travel in this type of environment. Of course, our trekking poles are very useful too.

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Siellavagge, looking towards the northwest.

 

siellavagge

Siellavagge lakes, close to the watershed.

Siellavagge ends with a number of steep shelves. There is no trail here (in fact, there’s not much of a trail anywhere in Ballinvagge or Siellavagge), so finding our way down to the trail along Aliseatnu posed a fun challenge. Big M has a real talent for route finding and we made good choices all along, including the crossing of Alip Hongganjira right under its beautiful waterfall. This way we managed to stay clear of the thickets of willow that block the way down between Alip Hongganjira and Lulip Hongganjira.

downtowards_alisaetnu

Wow, big space, big nature! Looking out over the Aliseatnu valley from the edge of Siellavagge. Now where do we go from here?

There are a number of conspicuous bands of dolomite in the walls here that shine yellow among all the dark rock. The calcium and magnesium rich soils make for a very varied flora and lush vegetation in general, including lots of blueberries. We stuffed ourselves on our way down the slopes and painted our smiles purple. When we had made it down and found the marked trail that would lead us eastbound to the (only) bridge across Aliseatnu, it started raining rather heavily. The trail runs through dense willow brush, which often reached as high as dad’s chest. And the ground was very muddy and water-logged. Given the heavy rain, the only redeeming features of this section were the many beautiful flowers. We managed to time a quick lunch with a rare break in the otherwise persistent rain. Then the rain picked up again and from then on it rained continuously for 14 hours. We slogged on through the jungle of birch and willow and high herbs, e.g. fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium). We had to cover some 4 km on these south-facing slopes through dense vegetation that can be described as arctic rainforest. Wet, wet, wet! A machete would have come in handy.

Finally, we made it to the bridge, crossed it, and climbed the hills, now following Vierrojohka, on the south side of Aliseatnu for another half hour before we got up on the moraine plateau and pitched our shelters around 20:00. By this time we were soaking wet. Not to worry, M&M have the routine down on how to shed the wet layers, change into their dry merino baselayers, and get into their sleeping bags while keeping things dry. It sure was nice to get out of the rain. Dad served us hot soup, cracker bread, hot chocolate, and many pieces of chocolate bar. A unanimous decision was made to skip brushing our teeth that night. We collapsed into a solid sleep right away. It had been a long day, we had covered around 22 km, most of it off-trail.

Day 4: Vierrojohka – Alesjaure

It rained all night, and around 03:00 a strong wind picked up too. By 05:00, the rain stopped and mom & dad got out to start drying our wet clothes in the wind. Some we had already dried inside our sleeping bags, on our bellies, during the night.

dryingout

Early morning after the deluge. Time to dry things out in the brisk wind. The prominent peaks in the background are Siellacohkka (center) and Honga (right). Siellavagge runs between these peaks.

We took our time that morning, M&M slept in, we let the wind take care of our wet gear, we had a leisurely breakfast, all the while observing the menacing clouds roll by. We finally packed up and hiked onwards when it looked like it would start drizzling again. But the weather soon improved and we really enjoyed the rest of the day. We walked along a system of moraine ridges, following the Aleseatnu waterway that includes a number of lakes. We met only one other party hiking in the other direction, so we had the blueberries and cloudberries all to ourselves. We stuffed our faces!

blueberries

Grazing away on blueberries. All of our rest stops involved picking berries. The peak in the background is Miesakcohkka.

Cloudberries were less widespread than blueberries, but in a few places the supply was particularly rich. We stocked up on vitamins and anti-oxidants for sure.

cloudberries

A good year for the cloudberries. Yummy!

 

cloudberries_in_hand

Gotta get your vitamins!!!

On this stretch we found several piles of scat that we could not identify positively, but they were presumably from either wolverine or arctic fox. We have to read up and learn more!

Day 4 presented few difficulties. We had to ford 4 streams, only one of which (Godujohka) was strong and deep enough to be exciting, even a little bit scary to little M. She crossed at the same time as dad, him walking immediately downstream and providing some support.

towards_alesjaure

It’s just us out here. And the occasional raindeer.

We arrived at the Alesjaure huts in the evening after another long day of some 25 km, mostly following a weak trail. M&M got to buy a bag of almond potato chips, which we savored together with a cup of tea, while cooking our dinner. It really felt like our adventure was over already, now that we had reached ‘civilization’. Since everything had worked perfectly according to our plans, we now had an extra day to spend, given our presumption that the transport back to Abisko along Kungsleden would be uneventful. We drafted plans for the upcoming days over dinner. Who’s up for a detour over to Unna Allakas? Or perhaps we should use our extra day for some more peak bagging near Abisko? Or perhaps we should hike up to Cuonjajavri for some safe-bet fishing? We decided that it all depends on the weather. M&M decided that Unna Allakas was out, and we further rationalized this decision with the expectation that this section is probably best hiked in the other direction, considering the scenery. Also, Unna Allakas might serve as the starting point for next year’s tentative trip around Storsteinsfjellet, so we could save it for later.

Days 5+6+7: Alesjaure – Abiskojaure – Abisko

After several days of more remote adventure, this section along Kungsleden felt a bit pedestrian, as it were. Again, we had a lot of rain, but could still enjoy the great scenery. We had a cozy lunch while hunkering down and huddling together on the lee side of a small boulder; thanks to the wind, the boulder offered good rain protection even though it was not overhanging. At the Abiskojaure huts we indulged in luxury and had a sauna, followed by a swim in the lake. So refreshing!

From Abiskojaure, we continued along Kungsleden back to Abisko. Given the rather cold, rainy and cloudy weather, M&M opted out of fishing at Cuonjajavri and voted instead for a return to Abisko and a hike up to the top of Njulla (1164 m) the next day. Fair enough, on day 7 we hiked up to Njulla in hard wind and intermittent rain, passing by the ‘Skystation’ at the top of the ski lift. Visibility was not great, but every now and then the clouds opened up a little bit and we got some nice views over Dourtnosjavri and the Abeskoeatnu valley.

On our way back down through the birch forest, M&M picked another big bag full of Orange birch boletes (Leccinum versipelle; ‘tegelröd björksopp’ in Swedish), which we fried up with shallots and butter later that night. A true delicacy!

njulla

By the summit cairn on Njulla. Cold, windy, cloudy. We didn’t stay very long up here! A small part of Dourtnosjavri is visible in the background.

Seven fantastic days in the Abisko area was over. The map below shows our route through the Abisko ‘alps’, as the range is sometimes called (although these mountains don’t look much like the central European alps). We can highly recommend this route through Ballinvagge, Siellavagge, and along the southern side of the Aleseatnu waterway. We met very few people over 4 days and traveled off-trail for the most part (except for the two-lane highway a.k.a. Kungsleden, of course). The scenery is superb along this route.

map_edit

Our route. The black line indicates our approximate route. Black circles indicate where we camped.

The take home message this year was that it is greatly rewarding to hike up into the high altitude valleys and to climb a few peaks. Now we are psyched to try an even higher route next year. M&M certainly are able to take on greater challenges; the question really is if mom and dad will be able to keep up with them.

Summing things up, we can also conclude that our selection of gear is near-perfect for our needs. Gear list? We’ll save that for a separate post.

Hunting with the Hadza

Man, say the Hadza, descended to earth on the neck of a giraffe, but more often they say that he climbed down from a baobab.” Peter Matthiessen, In “The Tree Where Man Was Born“.

baobab

Lake Eyasi

It was another grey morning. Our native interpreter/guide, Saidi, found the temporary camp of the Hadza, a click-speaking hunter-gatherer tribe near Lake Eyasi, who still lives much like their stone-age ancestors. Saidi, a Hadza himself, has gone to school and speaks both Hadzane and some English. He lives in a village nearby and wears his guide attire: shirt, long pants and shoes. These days, the ‘stone age people’ dress in baboon fur, jeans shorts and tire-soled sandals and decorate themselves with headbands and necklaces made of plastic beads. Other than that, Hadza culture hardly shows any signs of contacts with the encroaching modern world.

When we arrived in the Hadza camp, half a dozen men were sitting around a dwindling fire, smoking and resting after their first hunt at dawn. The women and small children were hiding out in two dome-shaped shelters made out of plant material. The results of the dawn hunt had been meager, only one or two small animals like mongoose. Perhaps it was about time to move to another area with a greater stock of game? Apparently, the cycle time between camps is only a few months and they had already stayed in the same spot for quite some time. And they hadn’t caught any baboons or antelopes lately.

Smoking is engrained in the Hadza culture. Wild tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) and various psychoactive weeds were used traditionally, but nowadays Cannabis is very common. Several of the men would probably like to hang around the fire for the next few hours. However, three hunters were getting ready to go out again and we were allowed to follow them.

We set off with the Hadza hunters. They moved swiftly and softly through the bush, coordinating their hunting efforts by whistling commands to each other. We felt rather clumsy trying to keep up with them without getting hooked by acacia thorns or tripping over low branches. The terrain was a mixture of open patches, boulders, and dense brush plus a few high trees, including acacias and huge baobabs.

A few dogs followed us for a short while, but then padded off. The band of Hadza we visited doesn’t use dogs for hunting, but we figured that the dogs keep guard against predators at night.

following

Trying to keep up with the Hadza hunters as they flow through the bush. Dogs are the only kind of animal they keep.

The Hadza make their own hunting bows and arrows. They trade meat and honey for knifeblades and arrowheads made by the blacksmiths of the nearby Tatoga tribe. At least four different types of arrowheads are used. The largest metal arrowheads have one or two spurs and are laced with a powerful cardiac toxin from the desert rose (Adenium obesum or other Adenium species) that sticks like black tar to the metal. —Don’t touch that! M&M both take a step back. The largest arrows are used to hunt big game, like buffalos, zebras or larger antelopes. Sink one of these arrows in an animal and it will keep running for a few minutes before its heart gives up. Smaller metal arrowheads, without toxin, are used for smaller game, like guinea fowl or dikdik. Arrows for even smaller animals, like mongoose, simply have sharpened wood at the end. And arrows for small birds and lizards have a blunt end, so that the target is knocked dead. We only saw the hunters using the sharpened wooden arrows on our morning hunt.

lake_eyasi copy

View towards Lake Eyasi from the Hadza hunting grounds.

Wild honey is a delicacy and forms an important part of the Hadza diet. We were told that at weddings, each guest is expected to bring one baboon and 10 liters of honey. We were out hunting for only a couple of hours and during this time the Hadza raided three beehives and harvested at least several hundred grams of honeycomb. It seemed to us that different species of bees showed very different levels of aggression.

axe

After knocking on the trunk of the tree to find out exactly where the beehive was located, it only took a few swings with the hatchet to get to the honeycombs.

We stood back at a safe distance from the angry bees. The Hadza guys got stung several times over, but seemed used to it. It’s part of the game.

raiding

The stinging bees were whisked away with a bunch of leafy branches from a nearby bush. One piece of honeycomb is visible inside the hollow tree.

Once a beehive had been raided, the guys closed up the hole so that the bees could go about their business again, replenishing the stores of honey until next time the Hadza pass by. Q: Do you remember every tree where you’ve found a good source of honey? A: Sometimes.

honey

Yummy! Huge amounts of honeycomb were consumed on the spot. Eat when you can.

Two fat pigeons escaped, despite being chased for some distance as they flew from cover to cover. Two small blue-naped mousebirds weren’t as lucky. The Hadza guys plucked the long tail-feathers and saved them for later use as hair decoration (but they are not the ones you see in the pictures here).

mousebird

A blue-naped mousebird (Urocolius macrourus) without its long tail-feathers. Apparently, nothing is considered too small to be hunted.

After a couple of hours of speed hiking through the bush, we had closed the circle and returned to the camp. M & M were happy to be back, as the trek had been a matter of jogging through acacia brush, which required all senses to be on full alert all the time. ‘Where did the hunters go?’, they suddenly disappeared, hiding from some prey, ‘Duck! Watch that branch!’, ‘Please help free dad from the acacia thorns!’, ‘Don’t touch that plant!’, ‘Listen… what’s that sound?’ (whispering, of course, we’re on a hunt…) Fun, but physically tiresome. A great morning workout.

By the time we made it back to camp, the catch comprised the two mousebirds and one squirrel. This hunt was a tough, but valuable, experience for M & M. Cute little animals for breakfast? That’s another way of life, quite simply.

bbq

Post-hunt chilling with a smoke by the fire. On the bbq menu: blue-naped mousebird, squirrel, mongoose.

Cooking is very simple, no need to complicate things:

squirrel

Squirrel. Put it whole on the coals, wait until most of the fur has burnt off, crack the parched skin open, gut it, eat. No need to wait until the meat is cooked. Then carefully crush the bones with a stone and suck out the marrow.

We all declined the half-cooked squirrel they kindly offered us. But we did try the honey of the stingless bee (most likely Hypotrigona sp.), which was absolutely fantastic! The best honey we have ever tasted. Very fruity flavor with rich citrus tones, but not overly sweet.

Baboon is the Hadza’s favorite food, as evidenced by this close-up shot of their trophy tree. There were easily some 20–30 skulls displayed on this tree. Look at the fangs on the left-most skull! Baboon hunting is risky business: a cornered baboon does not hesitate to attack.

trophies

Baboon skulls.

The Hadza normally sleep out in the open by their fires. Sap from a local tree is used as mosquito repellent and the leaves of a particular plant are thrown on the fire to drive away snakes. Only in case of rain do the Hadza sleep under cover. Two of the men showed us their bad-weather shelter, a cave formed by a big flake of a boulder leaning at an angle against a huge rock. The rock formation looked oddly familiar, a fake memory originating from Matthiessen’s book. Could this be the place where Matthiessen spent a few weeks living with the Hadzabe back in the 60s? It might well be the same place, actually, because there are probably only a handful of similar optimal caves in this region and they have definitely been used by the Hadza for thousands of years. Sure enough, beneath the overhanging boulder we spot the primitive rock paintings: a sun, hunters and animals.

sun

“Ishoko”, Sun, female deity. Who painted this and when? Nobody knows…

Q: How old are these paintings? A: They have always been there.

There are few, if any, places on earth where you get a more direct connection with our distant past. During a morning’s hunt M & M got a feeling for a true out-there way of life that runs straight back to the origin of mankind.

Watering the cattle — a morning walk with the Maasai

Engaruka

We set off well before sunrise to reach Chief Marias’ enkang in the Engaruka region in time to follow the morani on their morning cattle drive to the river. On this early morning of late December, the sky was behind a layer of still, gray clouds that hung close to ground as if weighted down by the rain they never let go of. The sun would soon burn off the cloud layer and by midday it would be scorching hot. But the rainy season was definitely on its way and the previously arid earth had started to sprout and speckle the red dust with green tufts. Most of the cattle were held by morani up among the hills that lie beneath the rift escarpment, where lush vegetation had been triggered by the recent rainfall. The few  cattle that were left in the enkang were brought to the river together with a large number of goats and sheep and a half-dozen donkeys carrying empty water containers.

letsgo copy

Time to go! Are you coming? We are heading out on our 2 hour walk to the river. The sheep and cattle know the way.

As we started our hike up the gentle incline, the clouds slowly lifted and we could just barely make out the escarpment as a hazy wall beyond the blue hills we were heading towards. We carried nothing but water and sunscreen. Oltwati and his brothers carried their sticks and traditional spears to fend off any predators that might attack the cattle. No, we didn’t see any lions out here on the rift valley plateau, but later that night we saw a band of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) loping off into the darkness.

cattle copy

Somewhere behind the hills there is a river.

To the north, on our right-hand side as we walked towards the escarpment, we had the cone of Kerimasi. Behind it, hidden from view, was Ol Doinyo Lengai, a live volcano and sacred mountain of the Maasai. Due east, behind us, was the other demarcation of the Engaruka valley, and far beyond that lie Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro.

enkang copy

Looking back east towards the enkang. Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru behind the horizon.

Closer to the foothills, we reached fresh pasture among acacia shrubs. The heavy morning dew gave the grass a silvery shine in the diffuse, cloud-filtered sunlight. The animals entered grazing mode, moving with a slow, continuous pace towards the river.

Mattias_Oltwati

Big M and Oltwati. They both like Zlatan.
On the way back from the river, each one of the donkeys will be loaded up with fifty liters of water.

We had time to play, testing each other’s toys. Taking pictures is fun! Hold still now…

oltwati_photo

Trade, trade: you get the camera, I get the spear…

And showing the warrior skills that make a moran! Very impressive precision handling of the spear.

oltwati_spear copy

See the lion over there?

The little river had a good current, bringing cold and surprisingly clear water down from the escarpment watershed. We sat beneath the trees on the river bank and cooled our feet in the stream, while the cattle milled about downstream quickly making the river a thick slurry of erosion deposits.

Myra_getter

Little M counting in the sheep as they roll down the bank to the river.

After the walk we went back to the enkang and then onwards down to the rainwater catchment dam on the valley floor. Sharp sunlight and big open space. A small grove of acacia trees offered a bit of welcome shade. Chief Marias explained how they had built the dam and their plans for further improvements to be able to direct massive floods into secondary overflow dams, thereby avoiding another breakthrough of the wall, which had ruined the dam a few years ago. Now everything was working nicely again, making it possible to hold water past the rainy season and well into the dry period.

engaruka_walk copy

Big M heading for the shade under the lone acacias by the dam. Dad’s old desert cap from A16 can only help so much from the burning sun.

Quoting Lonely Planet: “…a desolate, otherworldly beauty and incomparable feeling of space and ancientness.” Yes, our experience was definitely along those lines.

escarpment copy

View towards the escarpment. Rains of late have ushered in the rainy season and started to fill the catchment dam.

For a full day, we shared the life of our Maasai friends. M & M got exposure to the very different conditions that the kids in this enkang are growing up under. Do you really need a lot of toys to be able to play and have fun? That’s something to think about back home.

Family gear for Lapland

This is the follow-up to our previous post on Kids’ Kits, expanding onto mom’s and dad’s and our communal gear. First, let’s summarize what worked really well. Then, let’s look at what didn’t.

The Dialed-in bits

Shelters: M and dad sleep in the Trailstar tarp from Mountain Laurel Designs. In addition, we use bivy bags when needed to keep the mosquitos away. The Trailstar is arguably the best shelter we have ever used. It is extremely flexible and can be pitched in several different modes. It sheds wind amazingly well. We’ve had it out in some serious weather without any problems whatsoever. Some people complain that its footprint is too large, but we cannot see that this could ever be a problem unless you are camping in a dense forest or similar. As long as you have enough space to lie down, it doesn’t really matter if there are rocks or tree stubs or even bushes under the tarp. Furthermore, the Trailstar is very light, weighing in at 700 grams, including 6 Easton pegs (16 cm) and 5 aluminum skewers + cord and line-locks. Since we use trekking poles anyway, the weight of these come for free, so to speak. It is very easy to pitch, especially if you follow these guide lines.

M and mom sleep in the Tarptent Double Rainbow. This is a single-skin tent, which comes with a single flexible pole. If we experience or expect really windy conditions, then we beef up the construction with two trekking poles that insert under the “awning” at the doors. It is also possible to use trekking poles in a completely different fashion to make the tent freestanding, but we never use it in this mode, since we always peg down all four corners. The TT DR is close to ideal for M & mom, who appreciate having a mosquito-safe space to sit around in and don’t really like the idea of bivy bags. As with any single-skin shelter, condensation can become an issue, but it has never been really bad under the conditions where we’ve used it so far; sure, a few drops here and there, but so what? It is a relatively light-weight shelter at 1215 grams, including the pole and 6 Easton pegs. Super-easy to pitch.

Sleeping bags: Western Mountaineering Ultralite, Alpkit Pipedream 400, Marmot Sawtooth, TNF Cat’s Meow. The first two are awesome. The latter two are very good, but don’t make it under the 343 cut-off.

Cook kit: We have a well-functioning and compact kit, consisting of: Optimus Crux Lite canister stove, which we typically use with a 230 g canister. The Crux Lite works well, even if the clearance between the pot and the burner head seems to be a bit narrow. Makes you wonder if combustion wouldn’t be more efficient with a greater distance? Trangia aluminum pots of 1.5 and 1.75 liters, Trangia pot lifter (good old “Tage” in Swedish outdoor parlance), mini-Bic lighter, matches, aluminum foil windscreen, paperclip, single-use pie form of aluminum foil (as a pot lid, which we use for a long time before discarding it), mini-dropper bottle with detergent, small piece of scrubby. Everything, including the gas canister, goes into the 1.75 liter pot and then into a light ditty bag. Altogether, the kit weighs 505 grams in addition to the gas canister. If we pair it down to just the 1.5 liter pot and other hardware that constitutes the core cooking system, then we land on 320 grams, which is pretty decent; compare it to the Jetboil Sol Ti, which has received rave reviews, at 280 grams or so. Nothing needs to be changed, we’re happy.

Drybags: We use Alpkit Airlok drybags of different sizes for just about everything that must not get wet: 13 liter bags for our sleeping bags; 4–8 liter bags for clothing, 4 liter for the DSLR camera (which is simply wrapped in a micro-fiber cloth without any further padding; works great so far). Zip-lock bags are used for most other little things (e.g. money, credit card, driver’s license, binoculars, hygiene kit, toilet paper, repair kit, first aid kit, etc). We use the same color code for everybody’s bags: day-bag is black, night-bag is red. The former contains our extra layer, hat, and gloves. The latter contains our long merino underwear and sleep socks + extra underwear for some of us.

The Need-to-fix bits

In general, we were extremely pleased with how our gear functioned. What didn’t work so well? A few things: dad’s backpack, mom’s sleeping pad, mom’s gloves, Mattias’ shoes. Now, what about them?

GoLite Jam. This is a very good backpack in many ways and dad really likes it. The shoulder straps and hipbelt are very comfortable, the mesh back panel ventilates nicely, the compactor straps and pocket features are well designed, and the gridstop Dyneema pack body makes for a durable construction. But we learned that when dad carries food for 4–5 days for 4 people, then he is simply too heavily loaded (approaching 20 kg) and the Jam simply doesn’t cope with that kind of weight. This should be expected, as he is trying to use the pack well outside of its intended range: the maximum recommended load is 14 kg. It didn’t really matter how he packed it, the back panel still collapsed (putting the fishing net inside the pack as an internal frame was perhaps a brilliant idea on paper, and actually improved things somewhat, but didn’t fully solve the problem). He will have to “upgrade” to a pack that meets our needs better, and thinks that he has found a near-optimal one. More on this in a later post.

Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Elite 6. (It appears that the company POE is defunct.) This is an air mattress with synthetic fiber attached in the torso region. Mom sleeps cold, so we will upgrade to an Exped SynMat UL 7, i.e. same as dad’s. Dad being a real gentleman, he swapped pads with mom, but in the long run it will be more convenient to have two SynMats (actually, come to think of it, why not four?), since we already have an Exped Schnozzle pump bag, which is an absolutely ingenious invention. Mattias will then get the Ether Elite, which has been functioning well for us in other respects (although inflating it requires a fair bit of huffing and puffing, resulting in build-up of moisture inside). This should work out nicely, since he usually has the Exped MultiMat underneath his bivy bag in the Trailstar and thus gets a bit more insulation between the Ether Elite and the ground than mom does when using it in the Tarptent (directly on the silnylon floor). The Ether Elite is quite light (395 grams) and packs down much smaller than the Thermarest Pro that he is currently using. 

Mom’s gloves. Polartec Powerdry or merino liners are simply not enough to warm mom’s cold fingers. She suffers from a bad case of circulation problems that probably are further aggravated by Raynaud’s disease. Next time we will bring a pair of thick fleece mitts + rainproof overmitts.

Mattias’ shoes (and Myra’s and mom’s), as stated under the previous post on Kids’ Kits.

Kids’ Kits: clothing and gear for Lapland

As already reported on this blog, we went hiking in the Abisko region this summer. Here’s a short write-up on M&M’s gear. What worked and what didn’t work, etc.

BackpacksAlpkit Gourdon 25 liter for Mattias (12 years old). Simply perfect! The Gourdon is essentially a drybag with shoulder straps + a hip strap (not a hip belt). It fits M just about perfectly and carries very well. The Gourdon accommodated all of M’s personal gear: sleeping bag and pad, night-bag (sleep socks, merino longjohns) and day-bag (fleece hat, gloves, extra layer), ditty bag with sun glasses and binoculars, and Crocs; except for his raingear, which was kept in a side-pocket of mom’s backpack. M’s sleeping pad (Thermarest Pro, size regular) was folded four times and packed inside his Gourdon to serve as an extra back support, which worked very well. His night- and day-bags were both Alpkit Airlok 4 liter drybags, which is overkill, really, given that they were packed inside the Gourdon. However, the extra margin of rain protection never hurts when you are hit by the sudden urge to rummage around in your backpack during a downpour.

Upward bound towards the pass. M carries his Alpkit Gourdon with ease and comfort.

Osprey Jet 18 for Myra (9 years old). Very good, although a bit too small. M carried her sleeping bag in the main compartment, together with her day-bag containing her fleece balaclava and gloves, while her raingear went into the outer stretch pocket, her Crocs went into one of the stretch side-pockets, and a 500 ml PET bottle went into the other side-pocket. She shared her night-bag with mom, and this was packed in mom’s backpack. M’s sleeping pad, a first-generation (25+ years old) Thermarest, size short, was folded three times and packed inside mom’s backpack (GoLite Jam) to provide a bit more structure than the integral backpad does. Next year, we should probably upgrade M to a Gourdon, or perhaps a less bulky sleeping bag (see below), which would leave more room in the Jet for the rest of her kit.

Sleeping bagsAlpkit Pipedream 400 for Mattias. The PD400 was stuffed into an Alpkit Airlok 13 liter drybag and kept at the bottom of the Gourdon. The PD400 is arguably the best value for money in sleeping bags out there. Very well designed and well made, 750 grams with 400 grams of 750+ down (EU fill weight), rated to –3 ‘C. M slept very comfortably in his 200 merino baselayer down to +2-3 ‘C. He really likes the fabric, which is soft like silk to the touch. A great bag.

Mattias’ sleep system also includes an MLD Superlight bivy bag with the optional ‘all net head area’. The Thermarest Prolite goes inside the bivy bag, of course. We typically use the Exped Multimat as a torso-level ground cover under the Trailstar, while a sheet of polycryo goes under our legs.

TNF Cat’s meow for Myra, stuffed into an Alpkit Airlok 13 liter drybag. This is a nice synthetic bag that has had a strong following for many years, albeit not perhaps among lightweighters. It’s a good bag for kids (and adults), ruggedly built to handle some serious abuse (not that this is needed any longer; at age 9, M takes good care of her belongings).

Yippee! The clouds are lifting. M on her way towards the sun and the Gorsa glacier further up the valley.

Rain wear: Didrikson Tigris Junior set for both kids. The Tigris is water- and windproof, with taped seams. M & M really like their Tigris rain jackets and pants, and are now working on their second pair. Despite being relatively light (compared to most other kids’ models), the Tigris has withstood a lot of serious abuse through the years and is the kids’ go-to rain gear for everyday use throughout the year. The uppers breath well enough that they also serve as wind jackets. Very good value for money, in our opinion.

Pants: Marmot Boy’s Cruz and Girl’s Lobo’s convertible pants. These are essentially the same model, but slightly tweaked to suit boys and girls, respectively. Both were excellent. Made out of a single layer of 100% nylon, these pants dry out in no time. The leg zip-off feature came in handy when we forded streams. It is really rather surprising how relatively few good outdoor pants there are available for kids, at least in Sweden. Most are way too heavy, with multiple layers, including Cordura or other industrial-strength materials. Kevlar anyone? Yeah, right. Several manufacturers do make very good kids’ pants, but they do not seem to make their way to Sweden in any great numbers, unfortunately.

Fleece: Patagonia Synchilla Marsupial (which seems to be discontinued?) for Mattias and an old nondescript fleece hoody for Myra. Mattias also prefers a fleece hoody, but we couldn’t find any good and reasonably priced ones at the time of buying. By contrast, the Marsupial was a steal at a recent sale. Super nice and toasty, it immediately became a big favorite of M’s.

Base layers: Both M & M wear Smartwool or Icebreaker merino, typically of 200 g/m2 weight. Both kids had synthetic underwear to make sure a wet butt doesn’t stay wet for days on end, which tends to happen when you use cotton undies. As a matter of fact, cotton is essentially banned from our gear list. We are looking for merino underwear for the kids, but haven’t found any so far. Please let us know (post a comment) if you know of any!

Socks: Smartwool or Woolpower liner socks. Our entire family particularly likes the Woolpower liner socks, which is all we need, even for temperatures down to freezing, as long as we are on the go. Our sleep socks are thicker, typically of the “expedition weight” quality.

Shoes: Adidas running shoes for Mattias (a very old and ragged pair that was well worn in). Adidas gore-tex lined shoes for Myra. Neither were optimal. The insoles couldn’t be removed from Mattias shoes, which made them dry relatively slowly, despite the predominance of well-ventilating mesh on the uppers. Same thing goes for the gore-tex lined shoes, once they get wet they tend to stay wet. We will hunt around for running shoes or trail runners with removable insoles, well-ventilating mesh fabric, and without any water-impermeable barrier. Both kids also brought their Crocs, which they slipped into in camp if their shoes were wet. They also used their Crocs for planned fording of wider streams. Dad threaded some elastic cord through the holes in the Crocs and tied the cord around M & M’s ankles to make sure the Crocs didn’t sail away when we waded through the jåkks.

Gloves: Rab Polartec Powerdry for Mattias, Icebreaker merino liners for Myra + a pair of generic fleece mitts. We will probably complement these with a rainproof barrier.

Hats: Fleece balaclava (from MEC) for Myra, fleece bucket with inca-style earflaps (from REI) for Mattias. Both are old favorites and worked very well.

That’s it, that’s all we need. A few tweaks here and there, and then we have a solid system in place.

Abisko 2012, part 3

We started the day by hiking the 15 km leg of Kungsleden from Abiskojaure back to the STF mountain station in Abisko to resupply. After a quick selection of dried food and various goodies, we set out again towards Cuonjavaggi, another 18 km away. We weren’t really up for a 30+ km hike in a single day, so we stopped for the night when we found a nice site on a small esker ridge (i.e. well-drained) close to the first jåkk (i.e. convenient access to water) we crossed after emerging from the birch forest. On our way up through the birch forest we had picked a bag full of orange birch boletes (Leccinum versipelle). The kids set about cleaning their “catch”. We sorely missed butter and shallots! Next time we have to remember to bring both of these near-essential ingredients. After all, one great motivation for selecting light gear is to allow ourselves some luxury here and there (and still carry light packs). Nonetheless, it was fun to supplement our diet with some fresh mushrooms.

M & M hard at work cleaning their catch of Leccinum mushrooms. Cuonjacohkka is to the left in the background, Nissoncorru to the right. Both soon to be engulfed by the approaching rain clouds.

We timed dinner well. As soon as we were done, it started raining and the rain continued all night long. The next morning it started to clear up a bit, and as we progressed up into Cuonjavaggi the weather turned really, really nice. Bright blue skies and a warming sun! Up here on the fell, we made several sightings of the Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) and frequently heard their characteristic calls. Once we reached Cuonjavaggi, we chose a nice spot for our camp on a well-drained little hill close to a big esker ridge that runs across the valley floor at the tip of Cuonjajavri. We cooked a quick lunch (soup + cracker bread + salami) and pitched the tarptent + Trailstar.

And then it was time for some fly fishing! We had noticed that the fish in Cuonjajavri were rising to feed and we were curious to see how our tenkara set-up would work on an alpine lake (950 m altitude). We rigged the Yamame rod with a traditional furled line and a dark Sakasa kebari fly. In the sunny, late afternoon, the surface of the lake was perfectly still and we could easily see the small arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus alpinus) swimming close to the shore in search of insects. It didn’t take long before we had landed our first fish. All in all, we caught 8 fish. Most of them were small and we released the 3 smallest ones. The rest nicely complemented our dinner consisting of another home-made and dried dish: southern-indian chick-peas in coconut milk + couscous. Again, since we didn’t have any butter (big regrets!), we had to poach the char (we did have a fishing license, in case ambiguity leads you to think otherwise:). Grilling was out, because up here in Cuonjavaggi, far above the tree line, we simply couldn’t find enough twigs to make a fire (besides, there’s always the leave-no-trace issue to consider).

Catching arctic char on a tenkara rod in Cuonjajavri!

Boy, this was so much fun! Tenkara is perfect for kids and novices (ie dad) in general. Light enough to carry along even if fishing is not your main objective and very easy to rig. We are learning fast. With a tenkara rod, it is quite easy to cast with precision, and you have an impressive level of control of the fly once it’s on the water too, not only when fishing lakes, but also on fast-moving streams. Now we’re psyched to get more practice!

The collapsed Tenkara USA Yamame rod rigged with a TenkaraBum hi-vis level line, tippet and fly. The entire rig is wound up on the spool and threaded over the rod, which makes for a very convenient way of carrying the rod between spots.

After dinner we went for a short hike further up the valley. We enjoyed the warm sun, but soon realized that it would turn quite cold as soon as the sun dropped behind the peaks in the west. We put on all our layers, made some hot blueberry soup, and stayed up a while longer to take in the great colors on the surrounding peaks as the sun set. Then we snuggled into our sleeping bags, cinched the hoods tight against the cold, and soon drifted off to complete silence. No wind.

After-dinner hike further into Cuonjavaggi. The peak to the left is Cuonjacohkka (c:a 1500 m).

Dad woke us up early so that we could attempt to bag the nearest peak on Nissoncorru before the weather changed. Already at 5:30 we noticed a foreboding band of clouds over the Norwegian coast. Time to pack up and move. We stashed our packs and aimed for the gentle slope of the northwestern ridge line of Nissoncorru.

Early morning in Cuonjavaggi. Nasty looking clouds over the Norwegian coastal range.

Up and up we went until we were satisfied with the views that the gain in altitude offered. We actually stopped far below the summit, but were happy that we had climbed higher than ever before (we were probably at some 1200-1300 m). The menacing clouds moved in pretty fast from the west. After a short break and some munchies, we headed back down again.

On our way down from our vantage point on the slopes of Nissoncorru. The summit across the valley is at 1372 m.

Leaving Cuonjavaggi, we traced our steps back down to Baddosdievva, a sacred place to the ancient sami people, and then forked off to the southwest towards the Nissongorsa canyon. In places, the canyon is 60 m deep and quite narrow. We followed the canyon downstream towards Abeskoeatnu. Closer to the river, the birch forest showed signs of the flood that struck in early July, when Abeskojavri reputedly rose 2 meters after heavy rains. Down here, it was sometimes hard to distinguish the trail from the many dried-out rivulets that had formed during the flood, especially since there were masses of debris. After a few kilometers, we merged onto Kungsleden and headed back to the Abisko mountain station, passing by the magnificent “marble quarry”.

Abeskoeatnu cuts through a band of dolomite. Spot M & mom in the background for a size reference!

Back down, we pitched our shelters on the assigned camp ground near the STF mountain station and then enjoyed a really long and good session in the sauna, followed by dinner, and then we called it an early night. Tomorrow we go back home. What a fantastic trip we’ve had! We are already making new plans for next year’s adventures. How about weaving together the following routes from Grundsten’s guide book: 7 (Ballinvaggi-Siellavaggi), 14 (the Mårma pass), 20 (Unna Reidavaggi), 19 (the last section to Tarfala and then down to Kebnekaise mountain station), and 25 (Laddjuvaggi out to Nikkaluokta)? That would be quite a challenge, but should be doable in a few years time.

Footwear for hiking in Lapland

1 kg of weight on your feet equals 6 kg carried on your back, or so the saying goes. We believe it. And so we hike in trail runners.

Crossing Gorsajohka, M & M wore Crocs, dad wore his trail runners, with the insoles removed, and mom actually waded barefoot, carrying her Gore-tex lined shoes around her neck. Going barefoot is certainly not recommended, since your feet get so numb from the cold water that you cannot really tell if you cut yourself on sharp rocks. We need to work out a better strategy for mom. Once her beloved shoes wear out, we should replace them with a pair without any water impermeable barrier, so that she can follow dad’s strategy.

After stomping out the little water that collects in the mesh of the trail runners, dad put the insoles back in place and put on a pair of thin merino liner socks. His feet were warm after a few minutes of hiking and nearly dry after another 30 minutes or so. This system is unbeatable in dad’s opinion. And the insoles-out, socks-off procedure is not really needed at all, usually he just walks right across any waterways on the fly. Of course, it doesn’t work if you wear gore-tex lined shoes, since they trap water inside the shoe.

A perfect setup for hiking in Lapland (and elsewhere).

The details of dad’s recommended footwear system: trail running shoes, in this case Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra; Superfeet blue insoles (taking care of dad’s achilles tendonitis); and Woolpower merino liners. A pair of lightweight gaiters (MLD Superlight Gaitors) stop grit from getting into the shoes.

The ideal shoe is made of ventilating mesh fabric and has a removable insole to make the shoe dry out really fast.

If it is cold and our shoes and socks aren’t dry by the time we stop for the night, then we take off the wet stuff, dry our feet, put on our night socks (thicker merino socks) and a pair of Sealskinz over these, then step into our trail runners again with the insoles removed (to allow for the extra bulk). Perfect!