Above the Arctic Circle, amidst the wide green plains, enclosed in looming blue peaks, the ‘King’s Trail’ covers 400km of land devoid of civilisation, save for the indigenous Sami, their reindeer, and the occasional shelter. Here is where I found myself last year, Leica M4 in hand, photographing one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
For two years I planned a small hike in the region, with dreams of photographing it in all its glory, solely on film. I originally planned to go in July of 2020; it quickly became clear that it wasn’t going to work. As lockdown blues began to set I found that the cure was to aggressively plan for this dream trip, so that if I ever got the chance to go I would be fully prepared. Two years later, a window opened, and in late July I was taking the 17-hour night train from Stockholm to Kiruna.
My weapon of choice was the Leica M4 with the compact 35mm Color-Skopar. While it was probably the second-heaviest item I carried — after my tent — I couldn’t see myself doing this hike without it; this little Leica has followed me everywhere so far, and it wasn’t about to stop now. Now that it’s all over, I can say that it’s worth its weight in gold (or in good negatives, at least). Into my pack it went, alongside a roll of HP5 PLUS and two of ULTRAMAX 400.
This hike was extremely humbling, and the main idea I drew from it was that no matter how long you plan for, and how well you plan it, something will always go wrong. The difference is in the degree of how wrong it goes.
Three hours into the hike my soles fail me, as does my soul.
The first section, from the starting point to my first camp, was a distance of around 20km — about 6 hours of hiking, accounting for elevation and terrain. Largely taking place in the wooded areas above a lake, the trail was fairly easy, and already I began to feel over-confident. Three hours into the hike my soles fail me, as does my soul. I hadn’t considered that my hiking boots were well over five years old, and that while they had served me well a year earlier on some short hikes – and even in the week prior, the adhesive had begun to fail. The base was coming unstuck, so at every step my heel would slide off the sole.
Thankfully, near my campsite, there’s a cabin/rest stop for people hiking the Kebnekaise: Sweden’s tallest mountain at 2,103 meters. At this stop, there’s a small shop for most hiking needs, and they would likely have adhesive for my boots. Still, there was another 10km of trail left before reaching the cabin, so I used some anti-blister bandages to keep my boots together and trudged on.
From there I had to improvise. I arrived at the camp and went about fixing the boots and reassessing my situation. I wasn’t giving up that easy, but finishing the last 80km on tape boots was not particularly appealing. Ultimately I decided to stay in the area and see the sights close to base camp, of which there are quite a few worth visiting.
My first stop was the Tarfala Valley. A cliffside path guides you over scree slopes and through lush forests, offering wide vistas of Lappland enclosed by the foothills of the Scandinavian Mountain Range. Then the path swings left, and the sweeping views are lost as the peaks of the Kebnekaise rise like a shield wall, snow glinting as the sunlight is occluded by the mountain.
Sturdy metal bridges spaced along the way allow passage over the roaring river and signify the human presence in the otherwise pristine area. Following the river guides you to the glacial valley and research station at Tarfaladalen. A series of cabins on rocky terrain overlook the glass lake, shadowed by the glaciers that warrant their existence.
Or they were sentinels, observing the trail and those who use it, the last resort in case you lose the path, but also a sign that this land is not completely untouched by humanity.
I met a hiker on the way to the valley; an hour into the hike, I ran into her as she was looking for the path in a scree slope. Together we deciphered the trail, and she accompanied me for the rest of the hike – I was significantly slower and she was more surefooted, but the conversation was interesting and the company was welcome in the solitary landscape.
Once at the valley, we met a group of researchers who explained to her in Swedish (and she translated for me) about the area and what they were working on. They recommended we swim in the lake, which we obliged to; and after talking to hikers on their return journey and after basking in the sun, we made our way back to the base camp. We parted ways at the final bridge, and I returned to my camp as the sun dipped behind the massif.
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The third day dawned grey and low, hiding the mountain range from view – ‘dawned’ is not the right term, as the sun never sets in the summer months and only the mountains (or the clouds) offer respite from the daylight. The oppressive weather, in hiding the peaks, amplified their size to impossible heights like a Lovecraftian scene.
I set out into the misty morning for Singi Valley, a 10km hike from camp. One of the most beautiful sections of the Kungsleden, the trail from Kebnekaise to Singi traverses flat, marshy fields at the base of a valley, vaguely evoking a Middle Earth atmosphere (which greatly appealed to my literary side). Noisy brooks wind their way through the valley, meeting at intervals to cut a deep gorge in the landscape before once again parting ways, losing themselves in mires or finding their way to the lakes below.
The sun pierced the veil as I reached my destination, draping the mountainside in gold. I sat at the edge of a shallow, warbling stream, where I enjoyed the natural sound of things far from any city or civilised settlements. After a while, a passing group stopped by, and then another, and we shared food and conversation for an hour before they parted ways and continued to Singistuga, which was my next stop in the original plan.
All along the Leica M4 was around my neck, yet as I wandered through the valley I realised I could not possibly encompass the feeling of being there through photography, but I might as well try.
The red Xs (below) trace the winter paths through the valley, for when the snow covers the tracks. They became a motif during my hike; what treasures lay hidden underneath, if not all around? Or they were sentinels, observing the trail and those who use it, the last resort in case you lose the path, but also a sign that this land is not completely untouched by humanity.
They were strangely comforting.
The sun began its slow crawl towards the massif, and I chased the remaining sunlight back to camp. The clouds drained back into the valley as I reached my tent and they did not leave until my trip was over.
The next morning was dark, cold, and wet, and I was not particularly inclined to pack up my things all soaked; instead, I chose to do some geocaching, meet some people at the cabin, and try to get my boots back into working shape as the sole had begun to come loose again. Regardless, the fifth morning dawned with no change, other than strong winds blowing through the valley. I cut my losses, packed up my things as best I could, and bade goodbye to the valley.
Ultimately, despite the setbacks and complications, I had an incredible time. Reconnecting with nature in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and being able to photograph it, was worth every step in those shoddy boots.
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