In March 2024, two groups of NOLS alumni ventured into Sweden’s Arctic winter. Although they faced the cold, the kind hospitality of Sweden’s locals, hard-earned days skiing, and several sauna sessions left them returning home warm and happy with new memories.

NOLS ran two Alumni Skiing in Sweden trips this March. The second group poses in the snow for a photo. Photo by Nate Keller

In March of 2024, two groups of NOLS alumni led by instructors Dirk Kramer, Molly Hagbrand, and Maureen Fox ventured above the Arctic Circle into Sweden’s far north on NOLS’s furthest north trip, Alumni Skiing Under Sweden’s Northern Lights. The groups learned to ski, faced the cold, and marveled at expansive landscapes and light shows in the northern sky. They traveled alongside each other and shared space with other travelers from around the world. The trips were a huge success. I sat down with Dirk Kramer to learn more about the trip’s highlights, learnings, and what makes this trip special.

Trip Background

This trip follows 88 kilometers through wide glacial valleys along Sweden’s Kungsleden trail (Kings Trail), starting in Abisko National Park. NOLS also takes a group of alumni to the Kungsleden in the fall of each year to backpack. However, winter transforms the Kungsleden into a white expanse stretching as far as the eye can see. 

Local staff hatched the dream for this trip when NOLS had a campus in northern Sweden. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we couldn’t launch the trip until 2023, making the March trips the third and fourth iteration. 

Dirk Kramer was brought on as the course leader for the trip’s first year. Dirk’s wealth of knowledge from years as a NOLS winter instructor allowed him to jump right in and get the trip off the ground. Molly Hagbrand joined Dirk both years, bringing her local knowledge of Sweden and winter expertise. Plus, she had hiked the route in the fall. “Last year was a big learning year, being the inaugural trip,” Dirk told me. “With any international trip, figuring out the hut reservations, gear rental, hotel logistics, and rations takes time. This year, we could improve and refine some of the trip details, like bringing our own sleds from the U.S., since finding available rentals in Sweden can be challenging.” 

Break for tea One participant takes a break from pulling the gear sled to enjoy a snack and hot tea on the trail.  Photo by Marina Egorova


The Skiing

I started by asking Dirk about the skiing to understand what makes this trip unique. He explained that the main difference from other NOLS winter courses is the type of skiing. “We aren’t teaching people how to make turns on alpine skis,” he explained. “We are primarily touring. The group traveled 8-12 miles a day on skis. That’s a good amount of output for most people, but the skis are completely built for that terrain.” Dirk noted that touring skis are lighter than alpine skis, metal-edged with free heels, and paired with sturdy leather boots. Additionally, the group brings one sled for every 2-3 people to pull their food, rations, and some gear from hut to hut. Participants carry their personal gear in medium-sized backpacks.

Dirk told me that this type of ski touring is very popular in Sweden. “Getting off the bus or the train, you see so many people with sleds and skis gearing up for their winter trips. It’s different than here in the U.S.; taking multi-night ski touring trips is much more popular in Sweden.”

Although this kind of winter leisure is popular in Sweden, Dirk explained that this type of skiing was new to most, if not all, of the participants. Even Dirk, who has done plenty of alpine touring and cross-country skiing on groomed tracks, said last year was his first time touring long distances on these skis. 

Trying a new type of skiing was challenging for many participants. Dirk told me, “Even though many of them trained, they didn’t know what it would be like until they were there.” Along with getting their ski legs, many participants were challenged by the cold. “The skiing is plenty challenging, and this is still a winter course,” Dirk shared. “The weather was often quite pleasant, but sometimes the group skied in temperatures around 0-10 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind sometimes created whiteout conditions. The benefit of staying in huts was the ability to sleep and recover well between days of skiing.”

 

Wide open valleyThe wide-open, snow-covered valleys on the Kungsleden Trail make for an otherworldly scene. Photo by Molly Hagbrand

The Landscape

I asked Dirk what surprised participants on the trip most. 
“People were blown away by the landscape,” he said. “We were in these open, glacial valleys, half a mile wide. You could see all the way down the valleys and the whole landscape is completely white.”

Dirk admitted that before running the trip last year, he wasn’t sure a ski trip without slopes to make turns on would be interesting enough. “But it was! It was plenty entertaining with those big, beautiful, open landscapes.” 

“On top of the landscapes, we were fortunate to see the Northern Lights on both trips this year. Being there, you can see them, but there is no guarantee,” Dirk said. “On the first trip, I had the chance to see vibrant pinks and greens. You have to be willing to put your gear back on and go back out at night. This year’s groups were game for it. Almost everyone was always excited to go back out.”

EatingParticipants enjoy some downtime in one of the nightly huts along the trail. NOLS alumni will often share the huts with other travelers from around the world. Photo by Marina Egorova

Cultural Experience 

Like many NOLS Alumni Trips, skiing in Sweden gives participants the opportunity to travel through and learn about a different culture. Rural Sweden, in particular, has a very welcoming culture. Our alumni felt warmly received by locals in town and their hut hosts. 

I asked Dirk what excites him the most about working on this trip. “Working in Europe,” he stated, “because of the different culture around travel. For starters, the hut system there is communal rather than private. In the U.S., backcountry ski-in and ski-out huts are often booked as private experiences. On the Kungsleden, the huts have a different vibe. The alumni group almost always found themselves sharing the huts with other travelers. Whether it’s cooking alongside other travelers or sharing an evening sauna, you’re interacting with travelers from all over the world. This was a learning experience for all of us and a challenge that the participants really enjoyed.”

On one of the trips, “there were a couple of other solo travelers on the same schedule as our group, a Dutch guy and a French guy,” Dirk said. “We started to see them at every hut, and they became part of our group in a way, chatting with us at the end of the day. We learned about their travels, and they shared their culture. Our alumni groups also adopted the Swedish tradition of an afternoon “fika.” 

“This is a time in the afternoon that people take a break to have a snack or beverage and socialize with their friends,” Dirk said. “We did this most days when we got to the huts. Everyone would take a break from whatever chores they were doing. We would take out some cheese, crackers, reindeer meat, and laugh and talk and hang out.”

I asked Dirk if he’d recommend any other cultural traditions to people, and he answered without hesitation. “Take a sauna. It’s part of the culture. Plus, it feels good. Most saunas in Sweden have gender-specific sessions, and one is open to everyone. The alumni group stays at three huts on the route with wood-fired saunas, including the frontcountry lodgings. There’s the possibility of seven saunas on this trip. Take one every opportunity you get.” 

Gathering wood

Two participants work together to gather water for the group outside one of the huts. Gathering water and chopping firewood are two of the chores participants must do each evening. Photo by Molly Hagbrand

Outcomes

Finally, reflecting on what made this trip successful, Dirk told me that people really liked this trip. At the closing dinner, people said things like, “This trip was a life experience they will remember.” 

“They are taking a chance coming along on this trip,” Dirk said. “They travel all the way to northern Sweden not knowing what it will be like, and many people have reservations. Will it be too cold or too challenging? But they come away feeling accomplished and awed by the beauty they experienced along the way.” 

Alumni on this trip, like many alumni trips, reconnect with what it means to have good Expedition Behavior. On this point, Dirk concluded, “People learned to think in terms of ‘us, not me.’ When it came to taking turns pulling the sleds, he said, people started to volunteer and were even a little competitive about volunteering first. It was a shift from previously being afraid they wouldn’t be able to hack it. They got the experience of working and traveling as a group and still getting to have their personal experience.”

NOLS Alumni trips remind us of an old English proverb: “Keep company with those who make us better.” Thanks to Dirk, Molly, Maureen, and the whole team for bringing this to life.

Jumping

Sharing a moment of joy, participants attempt to capture the perfect “jump shot.” Photo by Maureen Fox

Source link: https://blog.nols.edu/nols-alumni-skiing-under-swedens-northern-lights-trip-report-with-dirk-kramer by Celia Ripple at blog.nols.edu