Kungsleden: 100 Shades of White


Kungsleden: 100 Shades of White

In winter, the Kungsleden trail in northern Sweden leads through lonely emptiness, lost between the sky and the earth in soft colors. In 2024, Photographer Andreas Jacob and his friend Fabian Grafetstetter headed off into the valley of silence.

It is two o'clock in the morning when the two unbuckle their skis and enter the Abiskjaure winter hut. The sky is starless and black, the air is freezing cold, and the friends are tired but happy to finally be back here - in the snow-white expanse deep inside the Arctic Circle. The long-distance hiking trail, known as the King's Trail, is around 470 kilometers long and leads from Abisko to Hemavan through the nearly uninhabited Skanden mountains. While the Kungsleden is a popular hiking classic in summer, it is a mostly empty and sometimes challenging adventure in winter. Just the right thing for Fabian and Andreas. The two met for the first time exactly ten years ago on a ski tour in Kyrgyzstan and have been traveling regularly around the world ever since. This time, the duo teamed up on cross-country skis from Abisko to Nikkaluokta, the most beautiful section of the Kungsleden in northern Sweden.

In addition to essential equipment - from multi-layered clothing to a good GPS and thermal salve - the most important element of the trip is their friendship, which has grown on every tour. "We simply fit together perfectly and are now a well-rehearsed team. And Fabian is also a real styler," laughs Andreas. The outdoor photographer with a weakness for Swedish chocolate is always on the lookout for extraordinary landscapes and sporting adventures. He has found the ideal companion for this in Fabian, as the sports scientist not only works in the field of endurance performance diagnostics, but also likes to push himself to the limit. An ideal prerequisite, because instead of running from winter hut to winter hut as planned, the two had to cover two stages on the first day due to a delay in Tromsø, Norway.

But now it's time to heat up the small stove and bring the freezing cold winter hut up to sleeping temperature before the two get into their sleeping bags by candlelight because there is no electricity. Despite the short night, the friends get an early start the next day, which shimmers through the windows of the hut. Even more important than breakfast is the coffee they have brought with them, which is already bubbling in the Bialetti on the small gas stove and filling the small space with its aroma. Afterwards, the winter room is prepared for the next visitors, which must be left exactly as it was found. Wood has to be chopped, water fetched, and supplies replenished before the pulka borrowed in Abisko - a huge travel bag on a sledge - is packed again.

While most travelers only take the bare essentials with them, Andreas and Fabian have opted for a "cruise among adventures" and, in addition to basic equipment such as their sleeping bags and freeze-dried adventure food, have also taken a few luxury items such as oat milk for coffee or beer for the evening. As a passionate sportsman, Fabian doesn't mind pulling the 50-kilogram pulka behind him while Andreas gives his camera free range to capture nature and friends. Only on climbs do the two of them pull the bright orange rope together.

Even if the sky is still gray over the valley, the multifaceted atmosphere is spectacular. Nothing disturbs the view as they glide through the gently rolling snowy landscape, uphill, downhill, over frozen rivers, and lakes. Only the red markings show the way every 50 meters. In a snowstorm or a whiteout in which even short distances are barely visible, the markings can be lifesaving. In this case, there is always a small emergency shelter halfway between two huts where you can wait "storm-free" for better conditions. The two travelers know from their own experience that the most comfortable way to do this is with a sleeping mat, which is also on board the large pulka, because a storm at this latitude can last a long time.

When they arrive at their second accommodation, the Alesjaure, Fabian and Andreas are already looking forward to relaxing in the small, fine sauna and stocking up on supplies in the hut's own mini market. "It's that special mix - being completely exposed during the day, with no connection to the outside world,” Fabian describes about this very special experience, “and then arriving in a cozy hut in the evening, lighting a fire and cooking something delicious."

At around eight o'clock in the morning, the two start the new day to reach their next destination by the afternoon. The landscape in front of them is almost meditative, dissolving into countless shades of white, gray, and blue. The sun plays with the terrain, breaking through the clouds and bathing the endlessness in glistening light or illuminating the monochrome scenery. Now and again, signs of human civilization flash up, such as the snow-covered bridge that crosses the river on summer days, but assimilates into the spectrum of over one hundred shades of white in winter.

Sometimes the two friends walk together, sometimes there are a few meters between them. Each follows their own rhythm with the surrouding silence, which takes on an unexpected, impressive dimension in the barren, windless landscape beyond civilization. Like this moment at the Tjäkta Pass, behind which a completely silent valley opens up. "This is exactly what a void space should sound like. It was really amazing," Fabian remembers, still fascinated. The silence is one of the reasons why the two friends are here. This is where solitude unfolds in its most beautiful form. There is no internet to scroll through, no news flashing up, no hustle and bustle to take over your senses. There are no distractions, just the here and now, following the path, listening to one’s breath and the regular elementary activities of chopping wood, making fire, and fetching water. A person can be reduced to the essentials and find a simpler way of being.

Arriving at the third accommodation, the Sälka hut, the supply ritual begins anew. While Fabian pulls the heavy pulka, Andreas takes care of the cooking and the two companions now understand each other almost blindly and wordlessly. Even when they play cards every evening, there is pure harmony. As with everything else, it's not about competition, but simply about the great passion of experiencing nature in a special way.

"When the sun rises in the morning and the fog rolls out of the valley, it's a truly incomparable sight," enthuses Andreas. They are now on their last stage before being picked up by a snowmobile at one of the exits and taken out of the valley. Shortly before their solitary adventure ends, the two suddenly spot an old moose cow foraging for food in the barren landscape. It was as if she were the last of her kind, and this almost mystical moment that leaves a lasting impression. The old lady is christened Dorothea and only looks up briefly before immersing herself in her search again. She was like a being from another, more peaceful world that lingers on in the minds of the two travelers for a long time.

Before finally heading back to bustling civilization, however, the friends treat themselves to one last relaxed ski tour and a day in the cosy retro ski resort of Narvik, which has a Wes Anderson atmosphere. It serves as a slow approach to everyday life and the perfect end to a sensual, quiet journey.

Photo Credit: Andreas Jacob