km 0 – km 23
Just before leaving on MyBigWalk my friend Michèle sat me down and gave me an envelope with 5 tiny envelopes in it, each marked with Day 1 to Day 5 – I was to open one a day, she said, like an advent calendar, adding ‘I am with you all the way’.
She had no idea HOW spot on her words and with me she was, and how very very much I held onto those little envelopes I would treat myself to every evening.
So, you trained? Kristof asked me at Nikkaluokta during the wait for what felt like the never-ending start between being shipped there by bus from Kiruna, and finally starting to walk at 13.00 sharp. I proudly said YES, and proceeded on to tell my story about how I’d rediscovered my home country and my love and delight for beautiful Luxembourg, and how so many of my friends and family had stepped up and walked with me – my journey really began months ago at home.
He asked if I’d trained with the backpack and before I could elaborate how I’d done three walks of over 15km each with backpack, he took the air out of my pride by saying ‘they recommend you walk 200km with your backpack and the weight you’ll carry here – in training.’
The heaviest my backpack in training weighed 14.6kg, now it is 18kg,
and I totalled 50km with backpack if I was generous. HOLY SH*T, what have I done? Oh well, not much I could do about it now, here we were. I had spent the last month packing my rucksack, and repacking it, carefully elaborating what I may need to walk and sleep and eat for 5 days in the rough, potentially cold and rainy Swedish lapland.
I’d never done this before, I was going by what people told me, what I’d read and an amalgamation of my life and travel experience so far. When I travel I pack last minute, I boast about only having put the things into my backpack for my three months to India 30 minutes before having to leave to the airport – but this was different, I was going to the unknown and also, there was no way to readjust the content of my stuff once en-route: I’d have to carry it, and it would have to be the right stuff. I didn’t know what the right stuff was, and what I had chosen over the months simmered down to 18kg, which was 6kg more than the suggested maximum for women. But I had NO IDEA at this point what else to take out. I must say, it is a humbling learning to put oneself into beginner’s shoes every now and then – it does the smug in us good to NOT KNOW from time to time.
Let’s go already!
After applying a last coat of mosquito repellent and attaching the orange FjällrävenClassic flag (that can be seen from the rescue helicopters) to the packs, we all went and stood in the starting blocks and waited for the countdown. Oh finally, this was the moment, finally this Big Walk of mine would start and I could start to stop wondering about it, start to stop fretting over it, start to stop planning for the unknown.
…3… 2… 1… GOOOOOO!
Quick press start on the gps-watch activity tracker and off we went like a herd of cattle, boots chomp-chomp-chomping, and as a surprise to me: I got tearful.
The last thing I remember Luc saying to me was ‘see the red paint on the stones, that marks the trail.’ … after that, him and Kristof shot off into the horizon. I think I lost them when I stopped 5 minutes in to put the rain cover onto my backpack for the first shower. It stayed on pretty much for the rest of the hike.
Oh what bliss. Just walk. Just walk.
The herd spread out and turned the landscape into the pictures I knew from the internet: big wide and wild open, one little path, lots of colourful dots ahead of me, lots of colourful dots behind me. Over the next five days, they would become my comfort, this chain of dots, always there, slowly moving and meaning I was never alone.
This day was just walking. Walking away from home stuff, contemplating recent conversations and happenings, walking away from the unknown that had been on my mind and walking in the unknown.
The path was very pretty; in the ‘low lands’, some trees, some bogs, lots and lots of stones and boulders… the wettest parts of the trail were covered by long wooden planks, most parts of the trail one walked from one stone to the next, over dry ground and over rivers and streams… it was soon evident that this was not going to be a straightforward walk, it was more of a dance and stone stepping juggling act.
I’d set myself the goal of an average of 22km per day, I really wanted to finish the 110kms on day 5!
There were checkpoints along the route, friends who’d done this before had said they would camp a few kilometres beyond the checkpoints so as to leave the crowds.
This is what I wanted to do today, too, as the checkpoint was at km19.
The walk was easy on Day 1, the weather was kind, the path light, everything was new, and the backpack and body went along well. I was quite surprised at how good I felt when I walked into the Kebnekaise checkpoint at 18.30. I got my trek passport stamp, warmed up in the teepee, made use of the last flushing toilet I’d see until my arrival in Abisko, and geared up again.
However my energy level did then drop drastically after leaving the checkpoint. It was getting late, and cold. And though it wasn’t dark, it got grey, and windy. Well, I was climbing by now, and had left the treeline. Part of me was hoping to catch up with Luc and Kristof for the night (little did I know then that they made it to the next checkpoint that evening), so I looked at all the tents that were scattered around the countryside, maybe one of them would have a Luxembourg flag on it.
“Whatever you do,
do not get the inside of your boots wet!”
Every time I told people of my adventure, I would get tips. This one came from Sander who’d done the Classic before… and I heard his voice loud and clear, echoing from the mountain tops, as I slipped off a stepping stone into a stream at km 20!
Within a split second the water gushed down the top of both my boots… and the next three kilometres I walked with a slush-slush sound coming from my feet, a lot of anger coming from my head and a bit of lurking despair as I was starting to get cold.
I pitched my tent in the most beautiful of all my tent spots that night, at km 23, in a valley behind the hill after the Kebnekaise checkpoint, and before the trail started going uphill to Singi. It was very windy, and this valley had lots of low shrubs, and tents emerging from their middles. I thought they may protect from the cold, and I chose a spot about 20 meters away from a man who had just finished putting his up and was taking the obligatory photo of it. He looked happy and proud, and he looked like he’d be a good neighbour.
It was gorgeous here, and still light at 8pm, it wouldn’t get dark til after 11 here way north of the artic circle in August. Cold and wind oblige, I was very efficient in my proceedings. Also, I needed to get the boots and socks off, ‘how silly silly silly Laura to get your all-important boots wet on the very first day!!’ Oh I was mad at myself.
What follows next turned into some sort of evening ritual:
1 – I hung the socks on the walking sticks and took the soles out of the boots as I made my bed and put on my thermal evening clothes. I love my thermal evening clothes. I loved them from the moment I bought them, they are cozy and they look good. The guy in the shop said I looked great in them – on My Big Walk I couldn’t show off my great looks much, though, it being so cold, the hundreds of people around me and my good self tended to retreat into our tents as soon as they were up.
2 – I set up my stove and cooked some water for my meal-in-a-bag, which I didn’t like so I kept it for lunch the next day, and how ingenious was I for bringing these two items with: my thermos water bottle, well worth the extra weight because I filled it with hot water to have warm water in the morning, and my flat super light plastic bottle which I could use to carry water to camp and also: as a hot water bottle on my poor frozen feet.
3 – Foot care, following another piece of advice, this one from Luc! He suggested a dip in the cold river, but I was too cold for that so I went straight for the good cream and added my own practice: a proper foot massage. I congratulated myself for having taken that clinical massage training this year, it came in super handy. On Day 1 I also got my first and only blister, on my right heel. Covered with a compeed and it didn’t bother me henceforth.
4 – And then I settled into the warm of my little tent bubble. I journaled. And I started my letter to my injured buddy at home, I’d write her every evening. I only ever wrote a few lines, it was so cold. And I was exhausted.
And truth be told, I was lonely and starting to wonder why on earth I was in a cold tent in the middle of nowhere all by myself and realising how far away from anything I was and that the only way out was forward, with the power of my own body and mind. Would I make it?
I quietly thanked the two Danish-speaking men who put up their tent a few meters away from mine, strangers who by their sheer presence and soft voices made me feel more comfortable in my nest.
And once I was settled I treated myself to the first tiny envelope from my friend Michèle.
I almost cried when I saw the message, she could not have been more spot on for the moment:
“If you are brave enough to start,
you are strong enough to finish.”
She added that I would make it, the first day would be hard, but that all beginnings are difficult, the hardest step is the first.
I’m not alone. I re-read some of the last messages I exchanged on whatsapp before going offline – oh yes, there was no telephone network along the way – and nodded off into a really good sleep.