The Exchange VII. Grövelsjön
Full disclosure, I had never done any cross-country skiing before coming to Sweden. It may strike you as a little odd then as to why I decided it would be a good idea to sign up to a four day expedition to the border with Norway on skis. My answer to that would be that I came to Sweden to try new things, and come hell or high water I would make it through this trip.
That sets the scene for how I found myself on a train bound for Borlänge, which in addition with another train and a bus would deliver me to STF Grövelsjön, a mountain station on the border between Sweden and Norway. As you might imagine we were quire relieved to finally arrive in the afternoon after being on the road (and the rail) since 8 in the morning. The carload of five that was meant to meeting us there were nowhere in sight, so we perused the giftshop before getting started on collecting the gear we had hired from the station. During this process the car finally showed up, having stopped to enjoy a buffet and purchase some horses (of the wooden variety).
Now would be a good time to introduce the motley crew that made up our expedition. First, our fearless leader, Per ‘Bear’ Elfberg. He was accompanied in the car by Mads - the mad Dane, Phillip - the scruffy Swissman (Swissman numero uno), Christian - the yeasty Yank, and Leon - the scatty Swissman (numbero dos). My company on the train was Killian ‘The Mule’ Müller (Swissman numero tres), Marion - the audacious Austrian (the only woman in our company) and, Daniel - the cheeky Czech. Not to forget myself of course, the Kiwi.
Now with all that silliness out of the way I can get back to the story at hand. Per was worried we wouldn’t make it to the first shelter by nightfall if we left that evening (or he was still too full from the buffet), so set about erecting the tents on the snow under a stand of trees. We concluded this with a toast of beer to Per’s organization, GHIF - Outdoor and many adventures to come. With our cans drained we stomped through the snow to begin on dinner. We had been divided into three different food/tent groups and this led to a great deal of variety as to what was on offer. I was with Marion and Per, our fodder for that night was bulgar with stew, rather tasty too. That night we sat around a table playing a game Mads had taught us, ‘Bullseye’, and thinking of what adventures the following days would bring.
The next morning it became apparent that the tent erecting skills of some of our party left something to be desired, as one of the tents had had a rather ‘wet’ night. Despite our 6am wake up call, it wasn’t until half past ten that we finally finished faffing about and got under way towards our goal. Killian ‘The Mule’ Müller was tasked with dragging the large pulka, which was filled with all of the heaviest things that we could find on account of how quick he would otherwise be. In his words “I want to be exhausted after this trip”, well, we certainly tried to turn his dream into reality. The second smaller pulka had been in Per’s family’s basement since the late 40’s and it seemed only fitting that he be the one to take it on its maiden voyage of the millennium.
Our first obstacle was the climb of a few hundred metres to the top of the range from the station. This was hard enough in a pack, I could only admire Killian and Per dragging the pulkas behind them. Those with packs simply used the herringbone technique to assail the slope, whilst the pulka bearers zig-zagged up the contours. The weather on top of the range was less than desirable, not being far from a total white-out. A little bit of snow wouldn’t stop our intrepid party, we found ourselves enjoying the flattening of the terrain and even a little bit of downhill. We stopped at a crossroads further along for a snack break. The mist had even lifted enough for me to brave pulling my camera out.
The rest of the days journey followed a gentle downwards slope, which made for fast skiing. The combination of the loss of altitude and the lifting cloud resulted in our first glimpses of the valley below and the shelter that we would camp beside.
We dumped our kit beside the shelter and stomped inside for some well deserved fika. Once we had warmed up the morale in the party was boosted, as a result Per proposed we leave the packs at the shelter, skiing on to the border cairn with Norway. Everyone was in agreement with this and Christian even agreed to pull a pulka for warm jackets and a thermos. Our route to the border took us over a small ridge before descending down to a small lake, past a reindeer fence and a collection of cabins. The descent was easier for some than others. Even once we got down to the relative flat of the frozen lake there was still quite a few near-misses or slip-ups, myself included. Per instructed up to head over to a collection of three rocks on a hillside covered in boulders, helpful.
Nestled under the hillside was a uninspiring fence, which we supposed was the border, and on the other side stood a large yellow stone cairn. we all duly hopped over this fence (easier said than done with skis on) and went to investigate. On a closer inspection we could see that perched atop of the cairn was a stone carved with the date 1754 (These are known as Riksrösen). One could only assume that was when the border markers were established.
Christian was elated to have the novel opportunity to take a piss in Norway. The rest of us settled for fika, and the thermoses were pulled out along with a substantial quantity of cake prepared by Marion. We sat there happily munching and slurping away, enjoying that warm retrospective feeling that you get after a hard days work. This however was not the end of our journey, we still had to make it back to the shelter and the rest of our gear. So once our tummies were happy we recrossed the fence and started back in the direction in which we had come. Everyone was getting a bit tired by this point so we all slipped into that autopilot mode to get our tired frames back to base. Mads and I were the first back and we duly began work on sawing and chopping wood for the small burner in the shelter. As the others slowly trickled in they took up the task of putting up the tents, trying to avoid where people had peed at lunch time. You might wonder why people had chosen to relieve themselves on the snow. It can be pinned on the presence of POO MOUNTAIN in the longdrop, a stack of frozen shit so high it almost stood above the seat.
After a few tries I finally got the fire started and those on tent duty began to shuffle inside to warm their frozen limbs. Snow was happily melting away on the stove and warm bodies filled the benches. Soon it was time to get onto dinner, and there were elated sounds of slurping and chomping all through the air, it had been a hard day after all. Supplementary to dinner Mads tried his best to make pancakes over the stove. Whilst these may have scored low on form, resembling more a ball of mush than a pancake, it was an A+ for effort. To accompany our food we had the delight of a bag of wine that Christian had hauled up the hill. Not wanting him to carry such a heavy weight the next day we all duly tucked into it. It was from this point that discussion really began to flow freely, much to Marion’s horror. No details were spared in conversations ranging from cadavers to ‘pick snus’. Take what you will.
The lumps of snow under me were less than comfortable when I stirred in my sleeping bag. I stared at the roof of the tent for an immeasurable period of time before finally getting bored with that and making the dash to the shelter. Even though it was early I figured I could get the fire started for the others and worst come to worst I could just nap in there in the warmth. However this nap was not to be as I was soon followed by Marion and a rather frozen Christian. We got him warming up and got the long process of melting snow started over the stove. It’s fair to say some sleep better than others that night, as some members of our party took a couple more hours to emerge from their tents. I can’t blame them, conditions outside were akin to a blizzard.
It was late morning by the time we finally built up the motivation to leave the shelter. The situation outside was less than desirable but we couldn’t do a thing about that. The day’s ski took us off the marked tracks, which made navigation more than a little difficult considering it was hard to see one’s toes. Nevertheless Per led out in front with a compass as we zig-zagged across the white landscape to calls of “left, left, left, not that far left!”. Several of us were concerned that we might end up at the shelter we had just left as a result of veering too far in one direction forming a loop. This did not transpire as Per’s navigation turned out to be not half bad.
We stopped at a large rock for lunch, each food group having their own unique interpretation of the meal. For us it was simple fodder, peanut butter and tortillas with a side of chocolate. I had some cheeky fun throwing snowballs from the top of the rock on the unsuspecting lunchers below. When we got back underway the weather began to clear a little. This was a mixed-blessing, as the temperature increased the snow became awfully sticky, so much so that we resorted to stomping rather than skiing. As we neared the shelter it was really warming up, so much so that we all had to stop to strip layers off. This was especially true for Killian and I, both of us doing the hot work of pulling pulkas (albiet my load was substantially smaller than his!).
As is always the case there was a fair bit of faffing when we arrived at our accommodation spot for the night. The improved weather had renewed everyone’s enthusiasm, so we set off at a great pace ‘downstream’ from the shelter. Not that we could see any signs for some time of the aforementioned stream. Eventually it did emerge and we crossed a bridge leading us to the bottom of a hill covered in pristine snow. By this time the weather was really providing, so after climbing to the top of the hill we had fika, accompanied by pear schnapps that Dan had made.
After a quick group photo we hit the slopes. The snow was so good that we did several runs down, enthusiastically climbing back up for more runs. Some of us even got our rigs out to ‘reduce weight’ and ‘improve our aerodynamics’ on several speed runs. One of these speed runs just about resulted in Mads ending up in the stream, caused by my attempt to stop by turning right and forgetting he was there.
When we’d had enough of suicidal runs and tele-mark turns we started back in the direction of the shelter. Per posed for a photo on the bridge and everyone took the opportunity to pelt him with snowballs. It was while I was focused on this endeavor that Mads struck. Before I could register what had happened I felt a sickening pain in my gonads, so strong was this pain that I fear I had lost my family rearing capability. On the other side of the stream Mads grinned evilly, proud of his handiwork. Payback for the lunch snowballs and stream near miss I guess. I tried to recollect myself and we regrouped on the shelter side of the stream. Marion for what ever reason decided to SEND IT over the bridge, getting a little airtime in the process and miraculously avoiding a swim.
We followed the stream further downstream and had fun crossing several ice bridges. In an ironic twist Marion pleaded Christian not to not be an idiot by SENDING IT over a couloir. He followed the long tradition of men ignoring wise words from women, did it anyway and lived to tell the tall. We all pottered at our own pace back to the shelter.
Back at base we all made ourselves busy with camp prep. Most of us were outside digging a snow pit and constructing a wall for the tents. This turned into quite the engineering operation, with the shifting of maybe a dozen cubic metres of snow. Meanwhile Killian and Per worked at the fire, which was a task in itself considering the wood in the woodshed was half frozen. Once that task was completed Per set out with his divining rod and a shovel. He slowly disappeared into the snow in search of running water. After digging a hole nearly big enough to hide himself in I relieved him. It was only a minute of further digging before he hit the wet stuff. I felt a little guilty for taking over at what ended up being the opportune moment.
With all the camp prep completed we slowly all pilled into the shelter to warm up and start on dinner. Our dinner for that night was my responsibility, and so I decided to treat Per and Marion to my Peanut Butter Satay Noodles. This dish is simple, literally boil the veges, cook the noodles and add a jar of peanut butter before stirring. Given Marion’s taste for peanut butter it is no surprised that it was happily accepted, if only hesitantly at first. We spent the night completing the work we had started the night before finishing off the drinks we had left. This led to a very ‘informative’ game of Never Have I Ever. I’ll spare you the details.
We were all slow getting up the next day. The weather had taken a turn for the worst again, with a strong wind blowing powder across our campsite. I actually had a fantastic sleep in my sleeping bag cocoon. So good in fact that I failed to notice that my half of the tent was completely covered in snow!
It took two middle-aged ladies showing up at 11:30am to finally get us on the road. This section of the trip was less than pleasant as a result of a strong headwind and uphill slope. However we all tackled the task at hand with vigor and before we knew it we only had the descent to the station between us and the end of the trip. This last portion should not have been so underestimated. For starters one half of the group missed the turn off to the station, maybe they wanted to ski back to Uppsala? The snow down to the station was less than desirable, consisting of pockets of deep powder and then icy hillocks. This proved difficult to ski down, especially for those (myself included) who were new to backcountry skiing. This nearly resulted in a temper tantrum from Mads and it did result in a faceplant for me. As we pulled up to the station I think we all had mixed feelings. Our aching feet were ready to be out of skis, but not one of us there could have wished for a better adventure in Sweden, or for better company to share it with.