This is the point in the summer when I always start dreaming about skiing again (sorry!), and I have been — a lot. So call this a #TBT to June and summer skiing at its finest with a fun Swedish crew in their own version for the Great White North.
An hour west of Kiruna, Sweden, far above the Arctic Circle across a sweep of slowly wrinkling land, lie a string of Sami villages with tongue-twisting names that only scions of this reindeer-herding culture can pronounce. They are remote. Unconnected. Outposts. Passing through them is like travelling the Milky Way to find every star labelled. Between, occasional mossy-roofed cabins huddle in dwarf birch forest, secrets bared by winter's revealing hand. When a large lake looms, boathouses join the few-and-far-between clusters. Where the lake meets a wide alluvial valley, the road ends at Nikkaluokta.
Here, a large A-frame is the starting point for snowmobile support that ferries people and supplies a final 19 kilometres to the Kebnekaise Mountain Station, set below the eponymous massif of Sweden's highest peak (in summer you can walk). A Sami family — famous for its Farmer's Almanac-style weather pronouncements made each spring on national TV — runs the transport operation. Inside, antique ice axes adorn walls hung with portraits of Sami matriarchs. A woman shuttling between serving coffee, manning the cash register, staffing the gift shop and leaning out the front door to issue instructions to sled drivers, is a portrait unto herself.
Legendary guide Jimmy Odén, photographer Mattias Fredriksson, skiers Hanna Ovin and Olle Regnér, Swedes all, huddle with North American interlopers Sven Brunso and I on bench-fitted wooden sleds. Following a trail as twisted as the surrounding trees, we emerge to cross a barely frozen lake staked with willow wands, then over bogs and streams swelling so rapidly with meltwater that their still-icy caps bulge upward. The landscape screams Pleistocene — as if the continental ice sheets that ground these mountains into sharp-edged plateaus had retreated only days before. They're still large enough for serious skiing, however, with up to 1,500-metre climbs from the valleys and Kebnekaise itself topping out at over 2,000 metres. Even in March, when skiing starts, competing continental and maritime Arctic climates breed weather that seems less to arrive than slam into these ranges with all the fury of a Norse God. In the spring, as light builds quickly toward midnight sun and weather systems change, wind pouring over the ramparts can fall fast enough to cause katabatic warming in the valleys.
Such a windstorm had prevented us reaching Keb the previous day. When we do arrive the wind is only half-crazy. Tossing bags inside the homey 218-bed lodge/hostel that anchors Sweden's ultra-organized mountain hut system, we turn to Odén, leading the group on behalf of his upstart clothing company, State of Elevenate. He peers into the raging ground blizzard.
"Let's go up," he says.
After 18 years of guiding in Verbier, Switzerland, Odén recently moved his family back to Åre, Sweden. He claims starting the Elevenate brand with wife Sarah and a few core-skier friends to be one of the biggest things he's ever done — up there with becoming a guide from ski-bum nothing and authoring Free Skiing: How to adapt to the mountain, an illustrated ski-mountaineering book that filled a void in practical knowledge. This Odén dishes atop the summit we've toured to, where we now wait for clouds to break so we can descend.
After doing their homework to identify a gap in the ski outerwear industry (yes, there actually was one), they jumped in. "As a premium brand you can't talk about having the best materials and highest quality if everyone else makes the same claim," notes Odén. "So what truly separates brands? Fit, design, identity. Elevenate is a 100 per cent ski brand; we simply do clothes that we would like to wear in the mountains."
These people are not only happy to wear what they like in the mountains, but even to be here. "Eleven," represents a ski track, and the ever-clever Swedes have made it into an English verb. "Like 'meditate' or 'motivate,'" notes Odén. "We like the idea of making ski tracks being something you do."
But what can a celebrated guide learn in the cutthroat clothing business? "In this industry you have stresses like employees and bills and seasonality and kids at home and you have to stay calm and navigate them. People who can't handle stress get eaten up."
Which, if you think about it, is precisely the ethos of a mountain guide.
Tobias Granath, another Swedish guide, has joined us from his home in Engelberg, and he and Jimmy have their eye on the "Question Mark Couloir" across the valley, named for its odd, wraparound entrance. Gearing up, snow sinks with isothermic ease beneath our skis as we plod across tundra. The climb poses no problems until we crest a ridge and doff our skis to cross a field of shattered rock, the wind threatening to lift us into the atmosphere. While we huddle to remove climbing skins, the guides rope into the couloir's entrance, which seems far greater than the 35 – 40 we were quoted; it is, in fact, over 50 and exposed. Not the best place for a photo shoot, it's decided, and we split into smaller groups to move to adjacent chutes. Odén and I find our way in perfect corn to the valley, where we steer through birch corridors and house-sized blocks from an ancient rockfall. Eating lunch in the shelter of a large, angular block, we watch the others descend their respective lines, as well as a young couple from the lodge side-slipping the Question Mark, which is indeed too steep to ski.
The dramatic land of the Sami proves a good place to test clothing, a good place for photos, and a great place for magic skiing moments. Around 6 p.m., a helicopter lands outside the station to lift the group to an evening shoot near Kebnekaise. In the kind of happy coincidence that happens only in the remotest outposts, the pilot is the same one who flew Jimmy and Sarah to a nearby summit for their wedding. The group returns on the rays of the setting sun, spilling from the chopper with beatific smiles, as if each has found another reason to live. Which you always do in the mountains — whether you're a skier, a guide or a clothier.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.