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.

siellavagge_west

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.

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.