THURSDAY, MAY 09, 2019
Into the Wet, White Wild
(Previous ski touring adventures: "Ski Touring in Jämtland," "Blessed by Reindeer," and "Arctic Adventure.")
The journey started on the night train up from Stockholm up to Katterat, just past the Norway-Sweden border and well above the Artic Circle. Katterat is so isolated that the road doesn’t even reach there, just the train through a long series of tunnels through the mountains. It’s amazing that there’s even a train station at Katterat as there doesn’t seem to be anything “in town” other than one farm and the train station. Outdoor adventure must be the main driver keeping the station open. We four Stockholmers (Jessica, Johan, Carl and I) met up with Tromsö-ite Nora at the Katterat station—luckily our arrival times were only one hour apart and both trains were on time.
Before even leaving the train platform, we put on our skis and skied on our way, beginning our adventure in the gentle rain.
|Left: Leaving the train station on skis. Right: Looking back down to the tracks.|
With all of the food and winter camping gear, both of our backpacks weighed around 23 kilos (about 51 pounds). That’s a tie with our Sarek backpacks which had summer gear, 14 days of food, and snowshoes (see "Three Weeks in Sweden's Arctic Mountain Wilderness Sarek"). But despite the weight and the stead elevation gain, neither Carl nor I had difficulty with the load or with the skiing. We had considered trying a sled, which is the go-to method for Swedes on touring skis, but we’ve been pretty skeptical about sleds in general and decided to stick with our tried-and-true backpacks. At the end of our trip, we were extra grateful that we hadn’t brought a bulky, hard-to-manage sled along.
Above tree line, the trail climbed two steep pitches. The first one wasn’t too extreme, but the second one was steep enough that we had to zig-zag up the face with kick-turn after kick-turn. I’m actually pretty talented at kick-turning on skis if I do say so myself, but balancing with the heavy backpack gave the exercise a whole extra challenging dimension. Climbing up this pitch made me very grateful not to be dragging a heavy sled behind me—how on earth do you turn a bulky sled while kick-turning?
Not too far after we reached the high plateau, we set up camp for the night. Since we weren’t yet sure how we’d like winter camping and didn’t want to invest in a crazy expensive expedition tent, Carl and I had borrowed a winter tent from a friend. The tent was huge—not only was it a three person tent, but it had two giant vestibules. The vestibules were handy, but we really only used one. If we end up buying our own winter tent some day, it’ll be small enough that we could probably carry an extra day’s rations without going up in pack weight.
Our first night of winter camping went well, although the temperatures were crazy warm at a few degrees above freezing and we didn’t test the limits of our gear. One super handy tip that we learned from friends is to dig out the tent’s vestibule so that you can comfortably stand up in the vestibule. It made getting in and out of the tent very easy, provided a good ledge for sitting and taking off boots and such, and provided a lot of extra height for hanging clothes to dry. Our rain gear, gloves, and ski boots were all pretty soaked after the first day of skiing, but all the gear in our packs stayed mostly dry.
Day two dawned dry with patches of blue sky that developed into a clear blue sky after a couple of hours. Once the sun found us, it was around 11 degrees C (52 degrees F) and crazy warm—we all had to strip off our jackets and long johns. I continued to ski in gloves so that my hands wouldn’t get scorched in the sun, but it was really way too warm to be skiing in gloves.
|Skiing up toward the pass|
By mid-morning snack break which was spent perched on a large boulder enjoying the magnificent scenery,
Our journey had started in Norway, and we skied over the border to Sweden. At the unmarked border, which also more-or-less coincided with treeline, we stopped for a chocolate break in the sun. Just a bit beyond the border, we reached Unna Allakas cabin. In an interesting historical footnote, the wilderness cabin was used by the Norwegian Resistance during the Nazi occupation for espionage and sabotage. We had thought about staying the night and enjoying the cabin’s history and its sauna, but there was an overwhelming number of people already and at least one of us would have had to sleep on the floor. After getting a vague weather report that the forecasted storm that night had been downgraded to a “fresh wind,” we skied a tiny bit beyond the cabin and set up camp.
|Right: Carl cooking behind a snow windscreen.|
It had been nearly wind still for most of the day, but when we started setting up camp, the wind picked up. By the time we unpacked our packs and started cooking dinner, the wind was most certainly “fresh.” We don’t know what the wind speeds ended up being that night, but it sure felt and sounded a lot like storm winds. The entrance to our tent vestibule unzipped itself in the wind, and the tent was shaking so much in the wind that my head was literally bobbing up and down from the tent floor with each gust. It was reassuring to know that if our tent blew to shreds, we could crowd into the other Jessica/Johan/Nora’s tent. We didn’t get much sleep worrying over the wind, but both tents survived the wind unscathed.
It was still windy the next morning, but the wind had already died down considerably. We got a slow start to the day and it was almost noon when we started the day’s skiing. Our original plan had been to go back up onto a high plateau and over another pass and out to the railroad at Katterjåkk, but one of our group really didn’t want to do all that climbing, so we stayed in the low valley and followed the low trail out toward the railroad at Abisko. It was a decision that we ended up regretting about a hundred times. Next time I’ll insist on taking the high road!
|The trail was marked with red crosses on the Swedish side.|
But we continued downward and soon reached an area where the river meanders back and forth across the broad valley and gathers into large lakes before continuing downstream. The lakes were still covered with ice, but all the recent snow melt and rain had filled the basins with water. We ended up having to ski around the large lakes, adding a bit of distance and time to our trip. But the detour was definitely worth not having sopping wet boots and not feeling super nervous about the ice holding.
|Left: standing water on top of the ice. Right: using a summer bridge instead of the winter ice.|
The weather shifted a lot between rain and clouds and some sun with views. At times we could see the impressive Kebnekaise mastiff directly in front of us. We found a wind-shaded spot for lunch and Carl made us a comfy snow couch. While eating brie and salami on crackers, Jessica spotted a herd of about twenty moose on the other side of the valley!
After another hour or two, I proposed a snack break but the rest of the group was ready to stop for the day and to enjoy the sunshine that had broken through the clouds. We found a relatively wind-shaded spot that still had a sweeping view of the magnificent mountains beyond. The snow was very deep and unpacked and we continuously post-holed up to our waists while setting up our tents. It was pretty comical.
Carl started to dig out a completely wind shaded “kitchen,” and while he was at it, he dug out a wind-shaded “cocktail lounge” consisting of a long bench with a snow-block backrest, a trench for our legs and feet, and a shallow bar for resting our cups and snacks. The snow couch of course faced the mountain view. Johan had carried in a half box of wine as well as peanuts and beer sausages, so the cocktail lounge really did come into its own. We sat there for at least an hour, probably closer to two hours, enjoying the view and the drinks and snacks. While we were sitting there, the temperatures dipped below freezing and the snow formed a solid crust on top of the unpacked snow. Sitting there in my giant puffy down coat, my insulated ski pants, and my new down booties, I was perfectly comfortable. The down booties with their companion overshoes are my new favorite gear. I LOVE and highly recommend them.
|Left: Patting down the snow for our tent.|
After dinner in the cocktail lounge, we retired to our tent and played cards until we all got tired of hunching under the tent fabric. The next morning, the icy crust on top of the snow turned out to be detrimental—we had to slowly hack out all of our tent stakes and skis from the ice, ice chip by ice chip. Despite getting up earlier, it took us quite a long time to get out of camp.
The day began pleasantly with warm sun and a lot of downhill. Unfortunately, the icy conditions made even relatively small downhills fast and scary, so we had to swing out across the gradients to avoid the steepest sections. Even so, we were falling like bowling pins. It didn’t get any better once the sun began to soften the crust layer—now when we crossed off the track to lose speed in the unpacked snow, we glided across the crust until it suddenly broke, plunging our skis a meter down in the snow and causing us to face plant. It was just face plant after face plant, and in the end, I started side stepping down the steeper hills. But I even managed to fall while side-stepping! By the end of the day, one of my legs was black and blue and swollen from taking so many falls.
We hadn’t made much headway when we decided to stop for lunch, but the view was nice and the sun beckoned a break. As an extra-special treat, Nora had brought sausages to fry up and she even carried a huge bottle of ketchup as well as fried onion topping! It was a delicious and very luxurious lunch, probably the best backpacking lunch ever.
After lunch,a solid drizzle set in and the skiing was pretty nightmarish and it took hours to go even a couple of kilometers. The problem was that the winter trail followed the winding river, crossing it over and over again. Where the river was still covered in ice, it was covered in standing water, and the ice was buckling in places and clearly unstable. Sections of the river were completely open without ice. While other skiers and snowmobilers were clearly still making the crossings safely, we didn’t feel at all comfortable out on the river and so we avoided it as much as possible. We did end up having to make one scary crossing, but we otherwise stuck to the banks. But up on the banks, the snow was deep and untracked and it didn’t bear our weight. So we sunk down with each step, sometimes a meter or more deep. At one point my ski was so entrenched in a snow pit that I ended up having to take it off, but then I was unable to get my boot clipped in again. It took about 20 minutes and both Carl and I to get the clip working again. All in all, the skiing was very, very slow going.
|Skiing on the ice, with open water in the middle of the river, but close to shore.|
It took us most of the day to ski about six kilometers. But eventually, we made it to the next cabin, Abiskojaure, where we were able to ask about conditions further down the trail. From the cabin, the winter trail goes down the middle of a large lake for four kilometers. The cabin ward told us that it was safe to cross the lake from the cabin to the other bank, but that we should follow the bank after that. It was a wet crossing because there was a good bit of standing water on the ice, but we made it over safely and started following the bank. Luckily, other skiers had already tracked the snow for us so we were able to make decent progress. Even so, we were all pretty tired from the day’s earlier adventures.
|Left: crossing through standing water on the lake. Right: Open water on the lake.|
After a snack sitting in the steady rain, we came to a frothing, open stream. The options were to either go out on the lake’s ice to avoid getting wet but risking that the ice was weak from the moving water, to take off our skis and cross the stream where it was narrow but relatively fast and deep, or to take off our skis and cross where the stream was wider but shallower and relatively still. I opted for the last option because I was not about to go out on the ice and because I was nervous about fording a rushing stream of unknown depth. But the thing that I hadn’t reckoned with was that the seemingly solid land on either side of the stream was actually a thin layer of snow floating on a “lake” of water. So what I thought was going to be four or five steps through the knee-deep water ended up being ten or fifteen.
But soon I was able to get up onto the snow and put my skis back on. I started skiing uphill to get out of the floating-snow-zone but ended up sinking in again, this time with my skis on. I had to reach into the water to unclip my skis and lift them up. At this point, I started panicking a bit—I was knee-deep in water with no end in sight and now both my feet and my hands were starting to freeze—but I forced myself to stay as calm and rational as possible. Carl, still on the starting bank, saw my predicament and started to make moves to come help me, but I screamed over the noise of the water that he should NOT come over—there was no sense of us both getting into this cold, boggy mess.
I slogged through the knee-deep snow-bog until I was able to stand on my ski on “solid” snow. Still standing knee-deep in freezing water, I put my first ski up on the snow, lifted my leg and put my boot into the clip, and tried to clip in. But the clip wasn’t working again. I stood like that, with one leg still in the water and trying to clip in my ski boot, for a good couple of minutes. Now I was really having to swallow my panic. Despite my shaking hands and legs, I eventually got the other boot clipped into the other ski, and I was able to shuffle forward without lifting my unclipped boot off the ski. I finally, finally reached dry land. I followed the higher ground back downhill until I met up with Carl who was still on the other side. He found a spot where he was able to cross without too much ado and he rushed over to help me, first to dig dry gloves out of my pack and then to get my ski into working order. We joined the rest of our group and continued skiing to the head of the lake, luckily without additional adventures.
At this point, we were about nine kilometers from the train station and the Abisko fjällstation or Mountain Hotel. Nora, Jessica, and Johan decided to ski all the way back to civilization that same evening, but Carl and I preferred to stay in the wilderness as long as possible. Plus, we were pretty worn out from the day of falling, post-holing, and wading. And since our train didn’t leave until 4:30 the next afternoon, we didn’t see the need to rush. We set up camp on a small hill just above the trail. While setting up the tent, we post-holed continuously and unlike the night before which had involved dry post-holing, our feet now ended up in a water layer at the bottom of the snow each time we fell through the snow.
|Despite the rain, we had a nice view of the open river below our campsite.|
We melted drinking water (a very time consuming and fuel intensive task) and made dinner in the drizzle and then more or less went to bed. It rained continuously all night, and I was having waking nightmares of our tent sinking into the water under the snow. But by the time our alarm went off the next morning, the rain had eased off and by the time we left camp, the sun was shining.
|Left: No rain but the skiing was still quite wet.|
The trail continued its decent and we did quite a lot of side-stepping down the rain-slicked trail. The winter trail crosses two large rivers, but they were open and raging so we detoured to the summer trail and its bridges.Sadly, a local high school class had a tragic accident in that same river four hours after we crossed. Instead of detouring downstream to the bridge, they detoured upstream to cross over ice. The ice broke and eight people were swept downriver. The teachers must have had a satellite phone because there is no cell reception in the area but they were able to call for help. Two helicopters raced in, one Swedish and one Norwegian, and they plucked up the students from the river. Sadly, one student died a couple of days later in intensive care, I’m guessing from hypothermia.
It was heartbreaking to hear about the high school class’s tragic accident, especially when it could have so easily been avoided by using the nearby bridge. But their accident did teach us that Carl and my gut mistrust of the ice on the second, lower elevation leg of our trip was not misguided and that we were right to follow our instincts despite the long detours. We will not be skiing at such low elevations so late in the year again! And I am more tempted than ever to invest in a sat phone...
After the bridges, we had one last beautiful view of the majestic mountains behind us before descending down to the railroad at Abisko, 70 kilometers from where we had started our journey. We arrived at the hotel with hours to spare and sneaked into the sauna for a shower (so lovely to get clean after five days of trail grime!) and ate a tasty, leisurely lunch at the restaurant with Johan and Jessica. The train arrived on time with repeated loudspeaker announcements that it would be arriving at track one—hilarious because there is only one track! We found our sleeping compartment and enjoyed the views northward into the roadless, trail-less mountain landscape and dreamed about future adventures. We were all exhausted so we re-configured our compartment from couches into beds fairly early and let the train rock us through the night, all the way home to Stockholm. After dropping our off our packs and showering at home, we went in to work, jarring us back to big city reality after the soothing wilderness landscapes.
|Our ski adventure's last mountian view. A large, wet bog is in the foreground.|
All in all, I’d say that the winter camping was a resounding success. Since the weather was so warm, we didn’t really test our equipment to the fullest but I am now more confident that we’ll also enjoy more extreme conditions. My appetite for winter camping has definitely been whetted and I am really looking forward to next year’s ski touring adventure (earlier in the year/at higher elevations)!
SATURDAY, APRIL 13, 2019
(Cranes + Cloisters + Stone Age Passage Tombs)
Somewhere in the mid 1900’s, the potato fields were converted into grain fields and the cranes lost their convenient food source. Out of ingrained habit, they still stopped at Hornborgasjön, but instead of leftover potatoes, they began to eat the budding grain crops. This was of course terrible for the local farmers, so the government started purposefully feeding the cranes on the shores of the lake. The cranes now mostly ignore the budding fields and converge at the lake every spring, creating a win-win situation where the farmers don’t lose their crops to the crane hordes and the local economy gets a huge tourism boost from the 150,000 bird enthusiasts that converge to watch up to 25,000 cranes congregate.
At first I thought it was really strange and unauthentic that the cranes migrate to this particular spot due to the government feeding them, but then I realized that the concentrated crane gathering wasn’t a natural phenomenon to begin with as it had been originally encouraged by the potato farms. Today’s feeding frenzy is the continuation of a 150-year-long human intervention and is an interesting part of the cultural landscape vs. natural landscape debate that pops up in so many contexts in Sweden.
Carl and I had made plans to see the cranes a few years ago, but the date coincided with a small terrorist attack in downtown Stockholm and we were unable to leave the city. But this year, we finally made it out of the city and drove about 4 ½ hours south from Stockholm to witness the crane phenomenon. We tented in a nearby campground and spent all of Saturday watching the cranes and doing a couple of hikes around the Hornborgasjön nature reserve.
I was prepared to see impressive numbers of cranes, but one thing that surprised me was their sound. Their call is like a purring goose honk and it made me both laugh and smile. We were also entranced by the crane dance where a pair of cranes will impress each other by bowing, hopping, flapping, and trumpeting in an ancient choreographed sequence. We were lucky to witness several pairs of cranes dancing at different points throughout the day.
|Cranes flying toward the water in the evening. They feed on land all day then sleep in the water where they are out of range from predators.|
The lake doesn’t just attract cranes—it is a popular migration stop for many species and there are large numbers of permanent populations, too.
|A few hundred song swans were also enjoying the free lunch.|
|Farm of Bolums Lider|
|On the hike to Bolums Lider|
Saturday had been overcast but when Sunday dawned sunny, we decided to go back to the crane observation points to see if they behave differently when it’s sunny out. They seemed to have about the same behaviors—lots of eating, some flapping territorial disputes, a bit of pair dancing—so we moseyed on to the cloister part of our trip.
One of Sweden’s earliest, most important monasteries and an equally historic and significant convent are both close by the crane lake. There are a lot of historical similarities between the two institutions. The Varnhem monastery was founded in 1150 at the estate of a noble family. There was already a small stone church, probably built by the family and serving the estate, when the matriarch Sigrid donated the estate to the church much to the family’s chagrin.
|The landscape around Varnhem is still pastoral.|
The family proceeded to torment the monks to such a degree that they were forced to vacate the property for a few years. But new donations of land made it possible for the church to build a large monastery and church at Varnhem, and the small family chapel eventually fell into disuse and collapse.
|Varnhem. The monastery ruin consists of low stone walls.|
Varnhem was clearly an important political and religious site as several of Sweden’s earliest and most important kings are buried in the church. But there’s actually very little medieval written material mentioning Varnhem so we don’t even know that much about the various building phases, but the church’s current appearance dates to about 1260. After the Reformation, the state took control over all church property and the monastery closed. The monastery was burned by the Danes in one of their many attacks on the region, but the church was kept in repair because it continued to serve as the parish church.
|Varnhem nave and apse.|
Varnhem is a very beefy church with none of the light, soaring, airiness of its Gothic role models in France. There is nothing “flying” about its buttresses, and the chapels and buttresses radiating around the apse are so chunky that they almost create an architectural style of their own.
|Varnhem's not-so-flying buttresses|
Gudhem was founded as the “daughter” convent to Varnhem in 1170 at the site of an ancient kungsgård or “King’s farm.” Before the monarchy settled in one capitol city, they constantly moved around to their various estates to keep tabs on the political situation, collect taxes, and so on. Gudhem, as one of these ancient seats of the monarchy, was a politically important location just as Varnhem had been. The siting of Gudhem and Varnhem shows that these medieval church institutions were extremely powerful, wealthy, and important. Which is precisely why Gustav Vasa put a stop to them in 1527 with the Reformation.
|Gudhem church and convent church ruin. A pretty cool gravestone from 1638 in the church.|
Like Varnhem, Gudhem’s convent used the existing Romanesque estate church until 1250 when the convent received a large donation from Queen Katarina and a large convent building and convent church were built. Because the nuns were supposed to be sequestered away, the local village continued to use the older parish church. After the Reformation, the convent and convent church were left to decay and the parish church continued to be used.
The area around Hornborgasjön is a truly ancient cultural landscape and 10,000 year-old relics of human habitation have been found at a couple of sites around the lake. More visible to the tourist eye are the burial monuments at Ekornavallen, an archeological site just upriver from the lake. Here, different types of burial monuments span from 5,000 years ago to about 1,000 years ago. The four Stone Age passage tombs with their gigantic slab construction were the most impressive and intriguing. The slabs weighed 15 tons and held the remains of several (usually 10-50) people.
Our weekend was all too short and before we knew it, it was time to start our drive back to Stockholm and our lonely cat. The area around Hornborgasjön is beautiful and fascinating and littered with Stone Age and Medieval monuments, far too many to see in one too-short weekend. Good thing we’ll be back for a long weekend later this spring!
THURSDAY, APRIL 04, 2019
Off-Piste in Val ThorensVal Thorens before but my experience the previous time had been a bit mixed. This time, my instructor was amazing and I had a really great experience despite less-than perfect weather. I’ve also made some progress in my backcountry skiing, though not quite as much as I had hoped.
|Val Thorens, not the world's most charming ski village, but the pistes through town sure are handy.|
Our first day of skiing was just Carl and I before the group lessons began. The visibility was terrible, the snow was wet and heavy, and the slopes were bumpy. In the middle of our first run, I nearly burst into tears thinking that I had forgotten how to ski. My legs were tensed in pain and my form was awful and I was having trouble on a relatively easy slope. Carl was doing better than I was, but he was also struggling more than usual. So we decided that it was high time for a cappuccino. The plus side to the warm weather (and the wet, heavy snow) was that we could comfortably sit outside, enjoy our caffeine, and look at the craggy peaks around us.
After our break, we both relaxed, skied much better, and had TONS of fun. We still couldn’t see the contours of the slope very well, but I managed to let go and just trust myself. It worked, and I floated down the slopes again and again and again with a huge smile on my face.
We were having so much fun that we didn’t stop for lunch until 2 p.m.. We treated ourselves to an incredibly tasty, gourmet French lunch. Carl had the best leg of lamb ever and I tried a “cheese box” which amounted to an entire wheel of cheese in its original wooden box roasted in the oven to gooey perfection. It was served with bread, potatoes, and different kinds of prosciutto to dip into the cheese, much like fondue except without the wine in the cheese. The combination of the melty cheese with the prosciutto was heavenly. Our waiter even paired perfect wines with our meal. We sat and enjoyed our meal for so long that we didn’t really feel the wine by the time we got back on skis, but considering the long week ahead and the late hour, we began the journey back to the UCPA center anyway.
The next day, Monday, the visibility was even worse as it was snowing quite a bit. Despite the bad visibility, I was glad that it was snowing because the snow hadn’t been super impressive when we arrived—there was a good bit of bare ground visible on the sunny side of the valley.
Tuesday dawned clear and beautiful, but the avalanche risk was very high. This time it wasn’t the visibility, but the avalanche risk that kept us fairly close to the slopes. We even watched a crazy off-piste skier set off a thankfully small avalanche—if it had been any bigger, it could have buried the three crazy skiers standing just under the danger zone as well as the several skiers on the mountain face.
|Carl's group (they were not setting off avalanches!)|
By the afternoon, the avalanche risk had diminished somewhat (the avalanches that were most likely to start had already started). We had a lovely, long lunch sitting on our skis in the sun overlooking the mountains, and then skirted around the mountain to a little-skied face. I re-discovered that I do pretty darn well skiing off-piste on steeper slopes, but that I struggle more on the gentler parts where I ski too slowly. After this long run, we took a lift up on the other side of the valley and could see exactly where we had skied from the top of the ridge down to the lift station, more than 1000 meters in height. Super cool!
On my birthday, we awoke to 30cm of new, fluffy snow and perfect visibility. What a birthday present! We were finally able to ski way, way off-piste and our guide took us on an fantastic, un-skied route from one of the area’s highest ridges down into the lowest stretch of valley. The off-piste conditions were perfect, and for once, I skied really well. For the first time, I experienced how effortless powder skiing can be when your technique is right and when the snow is perfect. It was amazing!
|View from the top of a lift|
My good form and the perfect conditions didn’t last for forever, but that little taste let me finally understand what it is I’ve been striving for. And to know that I can, in fact, achieve my goal, with a little more work and a lot more just letting go and trusting my ability. Now I just have to get confident in less-than-perfect snow.
At the top of the last run on my birthday, our guide reminded us that she knew exactly what we were all capable of, and that she wouldn’t take us anywhere that she didn’t absolutely know we could ski. It was a bit reassuring in a way, but her little speech also made me a bit nervous about what was coming. We were obviously headed toward a challenge.
|At the top of the slot canyon, me dropping into the slot.|
And in any of my previous off-piste groups, I probably would have panicked when we got to the top of the nearly vertical slot canyon that we were about to ski down. But I didn’t panic at all. I just dropped into the slot and took it one turn at a time. One turn, slow down, stop. One turn, slow down, stop. I was exhausted from all that stopping by the time I got down to where the slot opened up, but I was quite proud of myself for being so calm and for actually turning instead of just sliding down like some of my other groupmates.
|The red arrow points to the slot we skied down.|
On our last guided day, the conditions were extremely poor. It had snowed all night, so there was about 30cm new snow on the slopes. It was still snowing and blowing like crazy, but the temperatures were so warm that all that new snow was wet and extraordinarily heavy. Visibility was null—I have skied in a lot of bad visibility but this was a whole new level. In order to follow the group, you couldn’t let the person in front of you get more than a few feet ahead lest they disappear into the fog. The avalanche risk was back to being extremely high, and coupled with the extremely bad visibility, all off-piste groups were required to stay on-piste. My instructor said that we were unlikely to ever ski in worse snow, so it was perfectly natural if we weren’t at our best. I certainly wasn’t at my best, but I still managed, even on an ungroomed, black mogul run.
We spent a good part of the afternoon doing an avalanche training exercise with Carl’s group. First, my group buried three backpacks with transceivers in the snow. We skied down a short ways and watched Carl’s group search for the bags with their transceivers. They quickly found two of the “victims,” but the third remained buried. After a while, it was apparent that the instructor had forgotten to turn on the transceiver in the third bag. Both groups lined up shoulder to shoulder with their probes and probed the snow in front of our left foot, in front of our right foot, and then in the middle. One step forward. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. After at least a half hour, we found the bag. Having to do a probe line wasn’t our instructors’ intention, but it was a good exercise for finding victims without transceivers, and it was good advertising for always, always, double (triple) checking your transceiver.
I really, really liked my instructor this trip. She was patient and kind, gave exactly the right amount and very personalized technique tips, and I always felt perfectly safe. Another factor that made the week so good was that my group was comprised of kind, patient souls. It felt good that I wasn’t the only person struggling here and there, and the more skilled group members were always helpful and kind to those of us that were a little less experienced and a little slower.
|The UCPA center at Val Thorens|
The last half day of skiing was just Carl and I together without a guide. The day was gorgeous and sunny and we did a “ski safari,” visiting all of the highest point of the lift system and skiing down down down back into the valley and to the next lift over.
I haven’t come quite as far in my backcountry skiing this year as I had hoped, but after our week in Val Thorens, I feel more confident that my ultimate goal is within reach. Next year, I think I’m going to return to an on-piste group to focus on improving some of my technique flaws before doing another backcountry group.
|Me cruising down the pistes in Val Thorens|
SUNDAY, MARCH 24, 2019
Cross-Country Skiing in Sörskog
On our previous trips to Orsa and to Gyllenbergen, we rented a car in Stockholm and drove up after work. The distance isn’t all that far but on Sweden’s two-lane roads, in the snow, and in the dark, the drive up into the heart of Dalarna can be a long and exhausting journey. So this year, we took the train from Stockholm to Falun, and then rented a car from there. I had been a bit concerned that travelling on the train with our skis and then having to walk to the car rental would be annoying, but we chose the train station based on having a very convenient car rental place nearby, so the trip and transfer went quite smoothly.
In the past, we’ve stayed at relatively inexpensive hostels (but with our own room), but this year, we chose a more luxurious route and rented a super cute little cabin at an extensive cross-country ski area. The cabin was practically ski-in-ski-out, but for cross-country! The cabin “hotel” at Sörskog consists of three small cabins, a kitchen/bath/sauna house, a woodshed, and a well-equipped room for waxing your skis. While the bathroom is separated from the cabins which isn’t super ideal, each cabin has its own WC and shower which was nice because you didn’t have to worry about all of the toilets being occupied.
|The photo on the left is from: http://dalavind.se/dala-vind-ab/mycket-sno-och-fina-skidspar-i-sorskog/|
The interior of the cabin was traditional pine weekend cabin meets Scandinavian chic. It was really well done—evoking nostalgia without being too country or cutesy, while being a bit understated and chic without feeling cold or impersonal. Our cabin packed a lot of function into one room. There were four super cute built-in bunks with privacy curtains that were definitely inspired by Dalarna’s traditional built-in beds. The cabin also featured a small kitchen (no running water), a dining table, a desk, and our favorite, a wood-burning stove. The only thing missing was comfortable chairs for reading in front of the fire. We made do with the dining chairs but comfy reading chairs would have really made the cabin perfect.
The cabin’s windows looked out into the snowy forest. It was such a beautiful scene and it really tugged at my heart. Maybe we should live in a little cabin in the snowy woods instead of in the middle of slushy Stockholm after all?
Another downside to our trip was that I came down with a cold the day before we left town. I managed to have fun skiing, but I was definitely not skiing on a full tank and I was too exhausted at the end of the day to fully enjoy our cute cabin and the cozy wood stove. I was in bed by 8:30!
But despite the icy conditions and my cold, we had a lovely weekend of skiing. The first day, we set out on an 18km trail but cut the day short at 13km because the trail was just so icy and impossible, and because it started to rain. The trail climbed up a couple of low mountaintops, and at one peak we stopped in a little wind shelter for fika with coffee and tea. At the next peak, we skied a good bit off the trail to reach an open meadow with a bit of a view down into the valley and the next mountainside over. We tramped down a well for our feet and then sat on our skis for lunch. Toward the end of our lunch break, it started to rain, so we skedaddled back toward the cabin.
The rain didn’t last for long, though, so after a snack we exchanged our skis for snowshoes (we borrowed them from the hotel) and set out on a packed-down trail through the “forest.”
Each cabin could sign up for a private sauna time, so we enjoyed the wood-heated sauna for about an hour before starting dinner. Such luxury! I’m still not suuuper into saunas, but the warmth is lovely up to a point, until I start getting sweaty. Carl stayed in much longer than me.
On Sunday, we learned our lesson from the previous day and stayed down in the valleys and on a very flat trail which looped around a series of bogs. The loop was about 5 km long and we went around and around. After two loops, we stopped a bit off the trail and had fika in a little shelter with a bench conveniently placed in the sun. After a third loop, the shelter was no longer in the sun, so we sat at the edge of the trail on our skis and enjoyed another fika in the sun.
Carl kept skiing for another couple of hours but with my cold, my body was just done. I headed back to the cabin, got the fire going again, and read sitting up in my bunk while enjoying the sun flooding in through the window onto my bed. It was just lovely. One of the perks with this particular “hotel” was that checkout on Sundays isn’t until 5 p.m., so we could keep our home base intact on the last day. It was perfect for my lounging while Carl skied, and it was very nice to be able to change out of our sweaty ski clothes before driving back to Falun and sitting on the train.
There’s not a whole lot to the village of Sörskog except for a couple of farms and the popular cross-country ski area. I’m not 100% sure what the legal framework is, but it seems like the local landowners lease (or sold?) land to an energy company who built a few wind turbines in the area. The cross-country trails are maintained and groomed by a local volunteer organization, but I think that the energy company contributes the money to keep the volunteer organization running—snowmobiles, gas, and signage certainly aren’t free and it’s hard to believe that the tiny community of Sörskog has enough resources for the impressive endeavor.
|Left: A farmhouse in the village of Sörskog. Right: One of the area's wind turbines.|
In a culture that doesn’t even have its own word for volunteer (the English word has been Swedish-ized into voluntär) there sure are a whole lot of people who freely give their time to maintain the thousands upon thousands of kilometers of cross-country trails around Sweden. Thank you volunteers!
SATURDAY, MARCH 09, 2019
Backcountry Skiing in La Plagne, France
Carl and I totally lucked out with our UCPA trip to La Plagne (pronounced, approximately, La Pluh) as it snowed a lot right before and at the very beginning of our trip. We then spent the rest of the trip skiing through a minimum of half a meter fresh, fluffy, mostly untouched powder. It was magical snow!
La Plagne is known as a family-friendly ski resort because its slopes are relatively easy—a black slope here is like a red slope or even a steeper blue slope in most other resorts. Skiing on the groomed slopes for a week wouldn’t have been the most entertaining skiing ever, but the groomed slopes were plenty of fun for the two days we spent on-piste.
|Some of La Plagne's runs|
My off-piste skills are slowly improving but I’m still not totally up to speed. I get scared, and exhausted, and I need to keep working on my form. I definitely improved over the week, but I definitely have a ways to go before I’m confidently swishing down the mountainsides, especially when the terrain is really uneven. Ironically, I ski much better when the slope is steep than when it flattens out, I think because the speed of the steeper slopes forces me to have better form. I can’t say that the skiing was easy, but the few times I really got it right, it was pretty darn blissful to bounce-turn in all that fluffy snow.
One particularly memorably scary run involved skiing down a knife’s ridge. Because the ridge was bumpy and went both up and down, you had to keep up enough speed to make it up the next hump. After the ridge, we had to edge along a cliff contour. That part of the track was icy and very fast, and I was absolutely terrified the entire time. After the cliff face, we then had to climb for about 15 minutes, side stepping up the steep mountainside to make it over a small pass. The long, untouched run on the other side would have been absolutely magical, but I was too exhausted from the fright and from the climb to enjoy it. I really need to get over my fear of heights and get in better shape to be able to enjoy these magical runs!
|Don't you dare fall!|
The avalanche risk was high a few of the days of our trip, so we had to stay down lower, taking advantage of the protection of the forest. One day, we started at 2740 meters (well above treeline actually) and skied all the way down to about 800m over a series of Alp farms, past ancient farm buildings, and through the gorgeous, idyllic landscape. We skied down much farther than the lowest lift, so UCPA arranged a bus to take us back up to the center.
Tragically, a ski patroller with 40 years of experience died in an avalanche during our stay in La Plagne. He and a co-worker were patrolling the same backcountry area that we had skied two days before when they were caught in an avalanche. One patroller managed to float up during the avalanche with his air bag, but the other patroller was caught under the snow. The safe patroller called a helicopter rescue, found his companion using their transceivers, and managed to dig him out while he was still alive. But tragically the patroller died, probably of internal injuries, after arriving at the hospital. Even very trained, very experienced, and very prepared skiers can get caught unawares. It was just so sad.
As usual, my group was super friendly and I really enjoyed getting to know my groupmates who were about half and half French and Swedish with one Englishman mixed in. When I was struggling the most, my groupmates were extraordinarily helpful and patient.
|Some of my groupmates got bored waiting for the lift to open...|
In an effort to conserve and maximize my skiing energy, I didn’t participate in much apres-ski this year. I probably would have been more tempted if the temperatures were higher, but hanging out on cold, crowded patios drinking beer just wasn’t super enticing this time around.
On the last day with our backcountry guide, my group ate lunch at a super cute cabin that had once been a farm building and was somewhat recently converted into a restaurant. All the cheese served in the restaurant is still produced on site. Our guide had ordered a traditional dish for the group ahead of time—it was like a potato gratin but the potatoes aren’t cooked ahead of time; instead, they’re in the oven for several hours until cooked soft in the cheese and butter. So delicious! For desert, we shared a traditional desert drink of spiked coffee. The liquor is partly burned off, then the flame is blown out. It is served in a communal pot with six spouts, and the pot is passed around until empty.
Hotels don’t get anymore ski-in-ski-out than the UCPA center at La Plagne—the piste literally runs through the building! Suuuper convenient!
The rooms at La Plagne were basic but clean and recently renovated, and featured incredible views of the surrounding peaks including Mont Blanc!
|Room with a view|
As usual, my UCPA experience was a bit mixed. As always, I pushed myself to the limit and was disappointed at not making as much progress as I had hoped. But as always, I did actually improve, and some of the runs were just magnificent.
|me on the groomed slopes|
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2019
San Miguel and Oaxaca, Mexico
|views from my mom's roof terrace|
One afternoon, we took a taxi out to a warm spring and bathed in the beautifully landscaped gardens. The city was bursting with hibiscus, bougainvillea, and other tropical flowers, and even though it was winter, the city was surprisingly green and verdant. One of the most interesting aspects of San Miguel is its stark contrasts, not least of which is the contrast between the dry, nearly desert landscape with the rich, verdant watersheds.
|These two scenes are within a mile's walk from each other.|
I’m really not one for beach vacations and I usually prefer snow over sun when choosing vacation destinations, but I have to admit that hanging out in San Miguel’s not-too-hot-not-too-cold sunshine was a good tonic for feeling cooped up in the office working long hours for most of the fall.
|San Miguel de Allende|
We’ve never been in San Miguel for Christmas and we spent a couple of evenings walking around, looking at the lights and lit up churches.
Although we’ve visited all of San Miguel’s churches before, we did another round to see the various gaudy creche scenes. The disco-lit Jesuses were a bit much for my taste, but I did find a couple of quieter corners that caught my eye.
Carl and I then flew down to Oaxaca for the second week of our trip. The sky and views back to earth were unusually clear and after leaving the ginormous Mexico City, we flew amongst volcanoes. On the approach into Oaxaca, we flew right by and had clear views of Monte Alban, the mountaintop archeological site that was the main impetus for our trip to Oaxaca.
Oaxaca City, capitol of the state of Oaxaca, is fairly large and seemingly relatively prosperous. The colonial center is colorful and charming, but it’s not quite as dense or as perfect as San Miguel. The city is surrounded by nearby mountains and many street perspectives are capped by these towering mountainsides. The central Zocalo is very lively and is filled with absolutely huge trees as well as a bewildering density of street vendors and pedestrians. Around New Year’s the city was chock-full of tourists (a good number of Americans and a sprinkling of Germans but most of the tourists were Mexicans) and it was difficult to get a table at restaurants, but the crowds died down a day or two into 2019 and it soon felt like we practically had the city to ourselves.
Because we booked our trip so late, we couldn’t find a decent hotel with a room available the whole week, so we ended up staying in two different places.
While San Miguel’s buildings seem to generally have been of wealthier stock than Oaxaca’s, Oaxaca’s churches are far more impressive, both in size and in exuberant decoration, than San Miguel’s. Oaxaca’s Cathedral is a Baroque explosion of decoration,
|Santo Domingo monastery|
|Santo Domingo monastery|
There’s a modern, artsy side to Oaxaca where colonial architecture meets simple, modern design. Some of the contrasts are just beautiful, and the level of handcraft is jealousy-inducing.
The main impetus for our trip to Oaxaca was to visit Monte Alban, a Zapotec archeological site that was built in several phases over a millennium starting about 2500 years ago. It’s hard to call Monte Alban a city, its function was more like a religious and political complex with controlled access and a calculated, designated route of moving through the site, a bit like the Acropolis. Commoners were most definitely not invited. There’s nothing practical about the siting apart from strategic military surveillance of the surrounding valleys since there are no springs up there and all water had to be carried up the mountainside from the river at the bottom of the valley. There must have been hundreds of slaves dedicated to carrying water.
|Monte Alban from the northern pyramid complex|
In no small feat of earthwork, the Zapotecs leveled an entire mountain ridge to create the central plaza. The scale of the site is even bigger than the photos make out, imagine that the central plaza is at least twice as big as it seems in my photos. A couple of small, obstinate rock outcroppings in the middle of the central plaza couldn’t be removed, so the Zapotecs built pyramids over the outcroppings to hide the imperfections. Otherwise, the plaza is perfectly flat. Archeologists have found evidence of a couple of small rain cisterns under the plaza, but based on the Mayan cities we visited in Guatemala, I am convinced that there is an entire network of cisterns under the plaza.
The Zapotecs’ architectural ambitions were not punier than the earthworks, and they enclosed the entire plaza with a ring of pyramids. The pyramids vary in size but they form a constant foreground to the backdrop of the surrounding mountain ridges. The interplay of the manmade wall of pyramids against the natural mountain ridges is stunning—there is no mistaking the favorable comparison of Monte Alban’s creators to the creator of the natural world.
The pyramids lining the long east and west sides of the plaza are relatively straightforward with a small pyramid facing the plaza, an enclosed private plaza behind the small pyramid, and a larger pyramid behind the enclosed plaza. The sequence of going up, down, and then up again in order to reach an objective (tomb, temple) was repeated over and over again throughout the complex.
|east and west sides of Monte Alban|
The pyramids at the north and south ends of the plaza were of a different character than the flanking pyramids. The northern and southern pyramids were comprised of entire complexes of pyramids with pyramids built on top of pyramids on top of pyramids; the different building phases spanned a thousand years. The northern pyramid was especially complex with at least seven or eight pyramids built in a jumble.
All of the pyramids and structures were originally covered in lime stucco. I am unsure if the stucco here was mainly white or if it was multicolored and painted with friezes. The Zapotecs are known for the double scapular cornices that decorates many of Monte Alban’s pyramids; I was also intrigued by these circles which also popped up every now and then.
|Monte Alban decorative stonework|
|carved stone labs in Monte Alban|
There’s a little-visited tomb in a remote corner of the archeological site. Later on our trip we actually saw more interesting tombs, but this one had a very special, intact roof with tilted stone slabs leaning against each other.
|Monte Alban tomb|
Monte Alban was truly fascinating and mind-boggling, an incredible way to spend New Year’s Day. The city’s power began to wane around 1000 AD, giving room for some other amazing cities to rise up in the power vacuum.
We had taken a tourist bus to Monte Alban, but the next day we were a bit braver and took a collective taxi to another of the valley’s towns, Mitla. Collective taxis are small cars that leave from designated sites around town, and the driver waits until all five seats are filled with paying passengers. Yes, five passengers. The unlucky fifth passenger gets to sit on a pillow on top of the emergency brake, which means that the driver can’t pull the brake if needed. More on that later… The collective taxi ride to Mitla took about 45 minutes at break-neck speeds and cost about $1.50 per person.
Mitla is a small town living on its hand-weaving business and on tourists visiting the archeological site. I was particularly enthralled by the street decorations which provided some much needed shade over the dusty main street.
|the town of Mitla|
While Mitla had been occupied for some time, it rose to prominence around 950 A.D. in the power vacuum left after the downfall of Monte Alban. Mitla is known for its incredible fretwork which decorated the palaces and tombs inside and out.
|Mitla stonework and interior fretwork|
|frescoes in Mitla|
Both Mitla’s parish church and a small chapel were built on top of Zapotec pyramids. While the parish church is an entire, new structure on top of an existing pyramid, this little chapel really does look like the original Zapotec temple was remodeled into a Catholic chapel.
|chapel and church in Mitla built atop pyramids|
Another day, we braved the public bus for a $0.50, twenty minute ride to the small town of Zaachila. We timed the visit with Zaachila’s market day, but we were mostly interested in visiting the mostly un-excavated archeological site for its tombs. (The ancient city is unexcavated because most of the structures lie under and have been incorporated into modern homes, businesses, and churches.) But when we arrived, the tombs were locked, and no one was around to take our entrance fee and open them for us. We contented ourselves with walking around the market where you can buy everything from live turkeys, squirming worms (tasty snacks), dried grasshoppers (more tasty treats), woven baskets, pineapples and oranges, clothes and shoes, woven market bags, pig heads, pasties, toys, goldfish and canaries. I was fascinated by the fact that the lively, practically compulsory market is held on Thursdays . . . clearly very few Zaachilans work 9-5 in an office.
Before heading back to the bus, we decided to give the tombs one more try and we were delighted to see that they were open! Zaachila was an important power center long after the Zapotecs fell and after the Mixtecs took control over the Oaxaca valley, and according to archeologists, its tombs are influenced by Mixtec design. They are known for the anthropomorphic symbols built into the walls above the tomb niches, especially the bat-god symbols (which to me seem extra appropriate for underground tombs).
Yet another day we tried yet another transportation method and rented a car for the day. Carl drove and while getting in and out of Oaxaca City was a bit stressful, driving through the countryside was relatively painless. We drove out to Agua Hierva where the upland Oaxaca mountains begin their steep descent into the cloud forests and finally down to the Pacific Coast. Agua Hierva is a place where natural springs with extremely high mineral content dribble down the cliffs forming frozen waterfalls and even better yet, a series of natural infinity pools with thousand-foot drops and exquisite mountain views. The site was quite busy with tourists, but we were still able to enjoy the unique beauty of the pools and the soothing coolness of the water (one at a time, since we didn’t have anywhere to lock up our stuff).
On the way back to town, we stopped at a couple of smaller archeological sites that are difficult to reach with public transportation or collective taxis. The first was Yagul where we were most impressed by the view over the maze of palace complexes. I was astounded to learn that the yellow stucco was in fact original. Yagul was populated for about 8000 years before Monte Alban, but it only reached its peak after Monte Alban fell, around 1200 A.D. (The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to caves with 10,000 year old cave paintings, but the caves are closed to the public. Sad, but they are closed in order to protect the sensitive paintings, so I guess it’s a good thing.)
Our last day in the area, we took another collective taxi to the nearby town of Atzompa. Unfortunately, this collective taxi ride didn’t go as smoothly as the ride to Mitla—our car T-boned a pick-up truck at an extremely high velocity. Of course, there were no seat belts in the taxi, and of course the car didn’t have antilock breaks. So when the pickup truck pulled out in front of our flying car, the taxi driver hit the breaks but the car just skidded into the side of the pickup truck. Miraculously, especially considering the speed and lack of seat belts, none of the 8 people involved in the accident seem to have been injured in the least.
Carl and I were in a bit of shock as we sat in the back seat right after the accident, but we were cognizant enough to be floored by the culture clash that happened next. So in the US or in Sweden, the driver would have of course called the police to report the major accident. Without the police report, the driver wouldn’t be able to file an insurance claim. But in Mexico, the taxi driver got on his radio and called on all his taxi buddies for help. The driver of the pickup truck got on his cellphone and called all of his local amigos for backup. Soon, a bustling crowd of taxi drivers were hurling insults at the bustling crowd of locals. I’m assuming that neither the taxi nor the pickup truck were insured which is an extremely serious offense in Mexico. So the drivers couldn’t ring the police; instead, they called all their buddies, who hadn’t witnessed the accident, to back up their case. The person with the biggest and brawniest group wins the argument, apparently, but we don’t actually know who “won” because our taxi driver also called for a backup taxi to take us, the potentially incriminating witnesses, on our way to our destination.
So we arrived in a bit of a haze to the town of Atzompa where we hailed a mototaxi to take us up the mountain to the archeological site. Atzompa was an exclusive suburb or satellite of its contemporary Monte Alban, and you can see across the valley from one site to the other.
|Atzompa in the distance seen from Monte Alban|
One should visit Atzompa first, because although it is impressive in its own right, it isn’t in the same league as Monte Alban. None-the-less, it is also an interesting example of an Acropolis-like complex. It is not meant to be looked at, but moved through. The biggest pyramids aren’t even visible until you climb the last staircase and cross the final threshold into the innermost sanctum. It’s the whole experience of moving through the majestic site with its beautiful mountain backdrop that is overwhelming and impressive, not the individual buildings.
|Atzompa. Left: one of the inner courtyards surrounded by pyramids. Right: A threshold building for crossing into one of the inner pyramid complexes.|
I think that this is a really interesting and important lesson for city planning and architecture today: The skyline doesn’t have to be the impressive part; cities are not meant to be viewed from a static viewpoint. Nor do individual buildings have to be the impressive part. Buildings contribute to the impression of the whole, but it is the holistic experience while moving through a city that is important.
Atzompa is also interesting because archeologists have uncovered ancient kilns and pottery showing that the suburb specialized in pottery. The town still specializes in pottery, and the backyard kilns still have the same design as they did 2000 years ago. The local lineage of potters is continuous over at least the last two millennia.
During our time in Oaxaca, we visited several archeological museums to look at the various artifacts that have been dug up from the areas ancient sites. The artifacts were all interesting for different reasons, but a couple that I found especially fascinating showed a ballgame in progress and roofs—the archeological remains of stone show us how the buildings looked in plan view, but the decomposable roof materials have long since rotted away. Without the pottery building models we wouldn’t know what the roofs looked like.
Another series of interesting artifacts showed how the natives achieved their ideal form of a high, flat forehead. This first image shows the ideal, and the second shows a baby strapped into a forehead-deforming contraption.
Oaxaca is the home of mole sauce, and while there, we tried every one of the seven or nine different types. We also did a couple of mezcal tastings—mezcal is similar to tequila but is made from one specific agave plant and is limited to the Oaxaca valley in origin. We also tried a number of different mezcal cocktails at several of Oaxaca's beautiful rooftop bars.
Even though Oaxaca wasn’t on my original bucket list, I am very glad to have seen Monte Alban before I die. It (and its neighboring archeological sites) was extremely fascinating and even more impressive in person than in photographs. What a way to begin 2019!
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2018
Baptism in Småland
Joking aside, the ceremony and lunch were lovely, intimate affairs and while I’m not one for religion, the small country church, the baptism, and the church service were certainly cultural experiences. Carl and I are now officially godparents times four, although Henning is “our” first boy.
|A bell rings for Baby Henning at Tannåker Church|
I have been intrigued by how in Sweden, the most secular of secular countries, the baptism of babies is still a relatively common practice, even for parents that never attend church and who are not in the least bit religious. It’s such an ingrained part of the secular culture here that baptisms are almost like Christmas—the priest is the only one who has any religious aspirations about the practice at all. Plus, since baby showers are not common practice, it’s the only opportunity for new parents to stock up on baby gear!
The more restrained nature of this baptism celebration meant that Carl and I had all of Saturday for exploring the heart of Småland. December was really the worst time of year to try to sightsee—most things are closed for the winter and the weather was, well, depressingly drizzly and grey—but we, being us, still managed to pack the six hours of daylight with fun.
The intriguing, unusual double tower of Rydaholm Church, the medieval bishop’s castle of Kronoberg, another medieval castle ruin at Bergkvara and the estate’s mile-long allé, and the pre-Viking Inglinge burial mound which is extra unusual because it still retains its original crowning standing stone and grave ball—all fascinating, all enshrouded in atmospheric mist.
The highlight of our sightseeing day was an unplanned stop at Vederslöv Church. The parish built a newer church in the 1800’s, leaving the Romanesque Church untouched. Today, the chapel is so untouched that it doesn’t even have electricity. Many such churches just close entirely for the winter, so we weren’t expecting to be able to get in, but there was a sign on the church door that the keys were available at the first farm up the gravel road. So we walked over and outside the farmyard was a little signed birdhouse with the keys in it. I don’t know why we were so surprised, but we certainly weren’t expecting to find iron keys that were about 10 inches long and weighing at least a couple of pounds!
The church door itself was another medieval treasure in iron, and the church also has an intriguing picture stone built into its foundation—very different than the runestones that are so often built into the church foundations around Stockholm. I haven’t found a single source mentioning the age of the picture stone, but I think it’s medieval?
The interior was very intimate and serene in its unmodern simplicity. The uncomplicated, flat roof reminded me of a lot of austere Italian churches—they aren’t as technologically sophisticated as Gothic vaults, but their very simplicity radiates a peacefulness that seems very much attuned to Christianity’s early message of humility. The paintings on the interior are mostly from the 1600’s but the church’s exterior is very unusual in that it retains traces of the original medieval paintings. I never knew that churches in Sweden had been colorfully painted on the exterior, I had thought it was only an interior phenomenon!
Johannes’ mom leant us the apartment above her store in the town of Ljungby for the weekend. The apartment was absolutely lovely and provided the perfect base for our explorations. Thank you! After a glögg fika at the apartment, Johannes gave us a detailed walking tour of the town where he grew up. Ljungby is relatively bustling but is totally cut off from the train lines. While I think parts of Småland are probably quite lovely (it was kinda hard to tell in the mist, but there was real promise!), Ljungby is probably not going to be our new dream city to live in.
Our original plan had been to take the high speed train down to Småland and rent a car from there, but the train tickets proved so stupidly expensive that we drove from Stockholm instead. And actually, compared to all of our other long-distance road trips in Sweden, this one was easy-breezy: it wasn’t until the last few miles that the highway narrowed down to two lanes!
At some point, I’d really love to spend a lazy summer week exploring this part of the country. There’s a lot of nature and a lot of history to explore here. But the problem is, are we ever going to prioritize a lazy week in Småland over a week of skiing in the Alps or hiking in the Norwegian fjords?
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2018
Four Millennia of Stone Architecture on Gotland
When we awoke the next morning, a low fog hid the water from view.
An unplanned stop was Dommarlunden, a group of Bronze Age grave monuments in the middle of a farmer’s yard. On one side of the farmhouse, there are several very squished-together stone ship settings where several people were buried in the middle of each ship. They are squeezed so close together that they share stones at the widest part of the boat. Why were they placed so tightly together? On the other side of the farmhouse, there’s a giant mound of stone, also a grave.
We then drove out to St. Olofshem, an ancient church on a peninsula jutting out from the eastern side of the island. It is here that Christian King Olof from Norway is said to have landed on his way to Russia in 1029, bringing Christianity to Gotland. Who knows how much of the legend is true, but there has been a pilgrim’s chapel on the peninsula’s high point since at least the 1100’s. When the original chapel was destroyed in 1536 by German merchants, a new chapel was built just beside the ruin. It is this later chapel that is visible today, although it looks more like a farm shed than a church. After the Reformation and the end of pilgrimage, the religious site was more or less abandoned to the local property owner who used the building as a storage shed and as barracks for the workers in a nearby limestone quarry. Nowadays, the chapel is once again used for religious purposes and it’s apparently a popular site for weddings.
I was also intrigued by the nearby windmill, which aside from being scenic, was used as a look-out in WWII. The peninsula is also quite beautiful with a number of limestone sea stacks making the coastline extra dramatic.
We made another unplanned stop along the road at medieval Hellvi Church. The church portal is a good example of how runes were used well into the Christian era. One might expect that the rune inscription is a welcome to visitors or a prayer to God, but it is actually the master mason signing his masterpiece: “Lafrans, Master Botvid’s son from Eskelhem, built this church.”
Our next stop was an extensive Iron Age grave field at Ihre. The grave field consists of about a thousand graves, and it was used continuously for about a thousand years. The graves are small mounds of stone, some of which are covered in turf, some of which are just stones. The mounds lie close together and the edge of one mound touches the next mound. A couple of the mounds make clear that the mounds weren’t just piles of stone, but were careful constructions of stacked stone under the “randomly” piled stones on top.
The last stop of the day, Kauparve, blew my mind. It was a 3000-4000 year old grave monument, much like the giant mound at Dommarlunden. But here, the stone mound has been excavated. The “random jumble” of stone covering the mound has been taken away, revealing a dry-stacked stone structure underneath. There is an outer ring of stone wall which is about a half meter tall surrounding an inner stone wall which is about two and a half meters (over eight feet) tall. Two stone burial chambers containing three skeletons were found inside the inner ring. Intriguingly, it seems that the inner wall and burial chamber was built first; a millennium later the outer wall was built, and then another millennium later the entire structure was covered in stones. I had never realized that all the giant stone mounds we’ve seen through the years are actually stacked stone structures on the inside. Amazing! These aren’t just piles of stone, they’re architecture!
The dry-stacked stone structure reminded me of a low Scottish broch (brochs are considerably younger than the structure at Kauparve.
|Mousa Broch in the Shetlands|
There’s another stone burial chamber about thirty feet outside of the monument. The monument was built on furrowed limestone bedrock. It’s not hard to understand why this spot would have been thought to have a special presence or power.
Being November, dusk fell pretty early so we spent the long evenings in front of the fire place. Perfect!
The next day, we woke up and the sea was visible and dramatically lit.
Garda Church is known for this Romanesque nave because the interior is practically untouched since the 1100’s with its flat, wooden ceiling (Gotland’s churches didn’t get stone vaults until the 1200’s), the stone benches around the exterior walls where the congregation once sat and listened to the service (wooden pews came much later), and the stone baptismal font. I was also intrigued by a couple of other details like the stone portal carved like an opening in a carnival tent, the Byzantium-inspired painted arch between the tower and the nave, the original painted medieval cabinet for storing the sacrament built into the church’s wall, and the churchyard’s four portals, the largest of which was also used as a storage magazine.
Our next stop was a prehistoric site at Bandeläins Täppu. Here, two stone ship settings, a stone circle, and a lone standing stone mark graves from about 900 B.C.. More picking of blackthorn berries.
Just down the road was a Culture Trail at Lausbackar through an intact agricultural landscape that has been farmed in much the same way from the Bronze Age to today. These Bronze Age farmers were likely the same people who were buried at Bandeläins Täppu. It was a gorgeous walk with beautiful views out over the fields to the sea.
Another stop at another Bronze Age mound of stones at Digerrojr. It wasn’t the most spectacular stop ever, but we did enjoy the big mound, especially now that we know that there’s a drystone structure underneath the seemingly random pile of stones! Another high point of this stop was finding and picking tons of autumn chanterelles which, fried up in butter, became a delightful addition to our dinner.
A high point of our trip was another Culture Trail at Visne Ängar or Visney Meadows which was inhabited in the Bronze and Iron Ages. The Meadows were the grazing and domestic areas for four farms and were surrounded by agricultural land. It’s a gorgeous landscape of rolling hillocks, a tumbling stream, towering oaks, hazel groves, and grassy meadows under the mighty oak branches. It’s a very open landscape, certainly carpeted with wildflowers in the spring, and its beauty appeals on a visceral level. It feels very natural, but the entire landscape was in fact methodically planted and cultivated by the farmers. Oaks provided building materials and acorns (feed for pigs) while the hazels provided hazelnuts (feed for pigs) and hazel branches (winter feed for livestock). The grassy meadow provided summer grazing for the livestock and a beautiful setting for everyday life.
Nature or nurture? It’s hard to know if our innate love for this type of landscape is nurtured, born of millennia of farming—this type of landscape provided the base for a good diet and was therefore beautiful—or if we naturally were drawn to this type of landscape—we created it because it was innately beautiful to us and then developed a farming system that thrived upon it.
It was approaching dusk as we left the meadows, and on the way home, we stopped in at Visby’s large cemetery and ambled through, enjoying all the small points of light: the All Saint’s candles on the graves. We hadn’t procured grave candles ahead of time, but we stopped to say to hello to a couple of Carl’s distant ancestors nonetheless.
The next morning, we took time out of our busy touristing to visit one of Carl’s distant but living relatives, Lola. Lola is in her 80’s, sharp as a tack, and physically robust. We had a lovely chat, and visiting her made me think that aging isn’t always dreadful.
Lola lives right outside of Visby’s medieval walls, and after our visit, we walked around the southern half of the city wall, completing the circuit we had started in the spring of 2017 (see Gotland, Sweden's Provence). We continued walking along the wall that separates the city from the water, then continued on the inside of the wall up to the top of the cliff that separates the lower and upper halves of the city. From the cliff, we enjoyed a fika break of coffee and tea from our thermoses and a bar of chocolate and sat looking out over the rooftops, church ruins, and wall towers toward the glistening blue sea.
Our last stop before heading to the ferry terminal was to visit Visby’s Cathedral St. Maria. This cathedral is almost certainly Gotland’s largest church, and it is immaculately maintained, but I am not as drawn to or intrigued by this church as I am to Gotland’s smaller churches which are sprinkled throughout the island’s rural landscapes. Perhaps, having been built by German merchants, St. Maria doesn’t have the same “native” spirit as Gotland’s other churches. Or perhaps, because it has always been the dominant church with no lack in funding, it has been “modernized” too many times throughout the centuries, loosing its medieval charm. Or perhaps it is too big, not having the intimate feel of Gotland’s rural churches. Or perhaps, being the cathedral in the island’s big city, it’s not so unexpected as finding jewels of medieval art and architecture out in the countryside.
Sitting on the ferry for four hours back to Stockholm, I reflected on our wonderful long weekend. I realized that we had journeyed through four thousand years of architecture in stone from the Bronze Age mounds to Iron Age grave fields to medieval churches and defensive towers.
The common architectural story of Sweden goes something like this:
“Vikings built in wood; in fact they didn’t know a thing about stone masonry until Christian missionaries brought both the technology and experienced masons with them starting around the year 1000 A.D.. Sweden then began building in stone, but only for palaces, defensive castles, and religious structures because building in stone was too expensive. Everyday buildings continued to be built of wood out of necessity.”
But Gotland’s tangible prehistory brings a lot of questions to light. If Bronze-Age “natives” could build advanced stone structures that have lasted for four thousand years, had the knowledge of stone just disappeared by the time the missionaries arrived? Are Viking rune stones not evidence of a facility for working stone? Did the “natives” really need the Christians to “save” them from their “backward” wooden huts? It seems obvious to me that Vikings had the knowledge and ability to build in stone, how could they not considering that they travelled to and terrorized Constantinople, Paris, York, and considering that their ancestors had been building structures in stone for millennia? The better question is, why did the Vikings choose not to build in stone? Had stone architecture become a symbol for foreign and therefore inferior cultures? Was stone reserved for monuments to the dead? Was stone simply too cold and draughty in a climate like Sweden’s? Or was stone too impractical, not being nearly as portable as traditional wood timber buildings which were frequently disassembled, moved, and reassembled? A seemingly innocuous history—with Christianity came the technology of building in stone—is revealed to be pro-Christian propaganda at the slightest scratching of the surface.
The world-wide story that the Christians came in and saved the natives from their own inferiority seems to ring, falsely, even in Sweden. Today, Sweden is so established as part of the wealthy, Christian, western world that it is almost shocking to remember that Sweden was once outside the “civilized” world and that its people were regarded as barbarous, needing to be saved and enlightened. Stone architecture (along with fruit trees), was one of the “civilizing gifts” that the Christians brought with them, convinced that their way of life was the better way. Ironically, though, it appears that Sweden didn’t really need the gift of stone architecture. Swedes had already been building with stone for at least four thousand years.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2018
Week(end) in Malmö
Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city after Stockholm and Göteborg. It’s obvious that I am head-over-heels in love with Stockholm, but while Göteborg has its lovely districts, I’ve never fallen in love with the city. Malmö, on the other hand, could just be my second-favorite city in Sweden. The compact, canal-encircled, medieval-based core is walkable and charming. While the castle isn’t intact enough to charm, medieval moats-cum-canals around the city as well as the castle park, a green buffer between the city center and the turn-of-the-century suburbs, give the city a continental appeal while blending historical necessity with modern-day amenity. The sea and seaside parks are easily accessible and a part of daily life for many Malmö-ites. The city is large enough to have an opera and a modern museum of art, yet it is small enough that it takes only about half an hour to walk from the more historic suburban districts to the city center. It’s a livable yet lively city. (And it doesn’t hurt that Copenhagen is only 40 minutes away by train.)
My office booked a really charming hotel for me in a historic building, right in the city center and a five minute walk from the Malmö office. I lucked out with a room on the attic floor with charismatic wood beams and sloping ceilings. On my walk between the hotel and the office, I passed by the Malmö City Hall everyday and just had to laugh at the restoration architect’s lack of humility: Link.
|Mayfair Tunneln Hotel|
And then over the weekend, our friends let us use their hard-won gift certificate for a weekend at Malmö’s new, hip OhBoy hotel. The hotel is a pretty smart concept—the rooms are on the ground floor of a recently built apartment building. Most Swedes really don’t like living on the ground floor due to the lack of privacy, and the hotel rooms have direct entry access from the street with a key-pad entry system meaning that the hotel is basically reception-less. You get a text message with your room number and the entry code, and you just show up, punch in the number, and enjoy your hotel room. It’s a great use of hard-to-sell residential space along the sidewalk while requiring very little effort on the part of the hotel administration.
|OhBoy hotel and the nearby Turning Torso|
The hotel is in Västra Hamnen (Western Harbor), a seaside area that used to be very industrial with ship building, but which is now in the process of being redeveloped into housing and office space. Calatrava’s Turning Torso is the best-known project in the area, but the area is filled with interesting projects which I’ll have to explore at a slower pace on another trip.
I spent the weekdays working, but I spent one evening jogging along the canals and spent another lovely evening with Susanna and Johannes and family and enjoyed a casual family dinner at their place. Then on the weekend, Carl arrived on the train and we had a cozy stay at OhBoy. We spent most of the weekend helping Susanna and Johannes paint their new electric cargo bike, the family vehicle of choice in such a flat city as Malmö, but we also took time out for a couple of lovely walks through Malmö’s historic residential districts, along the beach, and through the new Västra Hamnen.
And then before we knew it, we were back on the train heading to Stockholm.
|Malmö train station|
Thank you for a lovely weekend Susanna and Johannes and family!
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2018
Work Inspiration Trip to Western Austria
Carl always teases me for taking zoomed in photos of bricks. This trip, it wasn’t bricks in the lens but the tiny wood shingles which have historically been used in the region. They’re tiny because they’re traditionally made of cheap, left-over wood and bigger pieces would cup. Left untreated, the shingles last about 80 years.
Contemporary architecture in the region is focused on using local materials, especially local silver fir. And by local, I mean cut down and milled in the same town as the new building. Designed by local architects, the projects are built by small, local construction companies which still have an extraordinarily high level of craftsmanship. Nothing is prefabricated, everything from handrails to elevator cars to bookshelves to desks are custom designed and made. It’s a dream come true for architects, especially for us Swedish architects who are subjected to extremely high rates of standardization and prefabrication. (I have not drawn a site-built stair since I moved here and many of our clients have a packet of standard construction details and pre-approved products to choose from. In contrast to my job in the U.S. where I drew quite a lot of custom cabinetry and furniture, the closest I have come in Sweden is drawing a reception desk.)
Here are some of the projects we visited:
|St.Gerold Community Centre by Cukrowicz Nachbaur Architekten|
|Parish House Krumbach by Bernardo Bader + Bechter Zaffignani Architekten + Architekten Hermann Kaufmann|
|Kaiserstrand Bathhouse by Lang+Schwaerzler|
And some of the amazing details of craftsmanship we witnessed:
|wood on the exterior, sometimes even over windows|
|Some incredible custom-built shelves, not a joint or screw to be found. Even custom-welded bookends and rails.|
|stairs, kitchen cabinets, everything exquisitely crafted from local wood|
|furniture, coat and shoe racks, benches, desks, tables, chairs, shelves, all built from local wood|
|floors, ventilation grates, walls, window frames, ceilings, all crafted from local, untreated wood|
Even this community craftsman’s center is structured with wood columns and a wood space-frame roof:
|Workroom Andelsbuch, Peter Zumthor: Concrete shear walls were planed to the tiniest detail.|
And some buildings that weren’t on our itinerary, but that I thought were interesting in passing:
|an apartment building and fire station|
|an insurance office and a store|
One community has invested in architect-designed bus stops and invited international architects to design them. In payment, the architects received a week’s stay in the valley.
|Left: Bus stop designed by Sou Fujimoto from Japan. Right: Bus stop designed by Rintala Eggersston Architects from Norway.|
On one beautiful afternoon, we hiked for about an hour through a nature reserve/agricultural landscape. The hike started at this rest pavilion which is designed to frame the landscape.
|Moorraum Krumbach by Bernardo Bader Architekten|
Some non-wood projects:
I was surprised and heart-warmed to see a rammed earth wall surrounding a cemetery,
|Voralberg Museum by Cukrowicz Nachbaur Architects|
|Kunsthaus Bregenz by Peter Zumthor|
Our first dinner out was truly gourmet and the setting was pretty if not architecturally memorable. Our last supper was up at the top of a cable car on a mountaintop. The food wasn’t great but the view was amazing!
Our group flew in from Göteborg, Stockholm, and Malmö and gathered in Zurich before renting two vans and heading into Austria. The Stockholm flight was delayed, so one car had to wait for us for five hours...ouch. We used the vans throughout the trip—without them we never would have been able to see so much, but the downside was that the trip did feel very sedentary.
I’ve always come away from the work study trips both inspired and depressed. Inspired because of all of the beautiful projects I’ve seen, and depressed because I don’t always get the opportunity to work on such beautiful, detailed masterpieces. Last year, I was saturated with starchitect, capitol A architecture. This year, the projects were humbler and more modest, but every bit as beautifully detailed, perhaps even more beautifully detailed. It was a truly successful trip, and I didn’t even come home quite as exhausted as usual! Thank you to my groupmates for a great trip!
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2018
Anniversary Paddling to Vattungarna
We left work a bit early Friday evening and bussed up to the city of Norrtälje then on a local bus to the little community of Gräddö where our reserved kayak was waiting for us. (All of that bussing and we were still on our Stockholm subway card!) We were impressively efficient in getting the kayak packed up and were soon on our way. We didn’t paddle more than half an hour before dusk settled in and we needed to find a place to camp. Luckily, a tent-sized, flat-ish rock outcrop with a ledge perfect for getting in and out of the kayak was just a couple of paddle strokes away. By the time we unpacked the kayak and set up the tent, it was pretty dark.
Despite being September, the temperatures were still summer-warm and we were able to sit outside and enjoy the night sounds of lapping waves and chirping crickets without getting chilled. Since kayaking allows for a whole different level of camping food than backpacking, we had a bag of wine with us as well as chocolate chip cookies—the wine and the desert were lovely accompaniments to the evening orchestra.
I slept surprisingly well considering that our tent was actually pretty slopey. We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast with a beautiful water view before packing up camp, loading the kayaks, and setting off toward Vattungarna. After crossing an open channel, we entered a series of narrow but natural canals between islands. The canals are a beautifully intimate setting; from the kayak, we could see all the details of both sides. Parts of the canal were deep and bedrock plunged from the islands down under the water’s surface; other areas were shallow and we had to navigate slowly and carefully between rocks. Other parts were lined with reeds swishing and sighing in the breeze, blocking all views so that the world seemed to consist of nothing but sky, reeds, and the winding channel of water.
From the canals, we emerged into a more open landscape of groupings of small islands separated by wider bands of water. We wove through the islands until we emerged into another completely different area, this time a warren of teeny tiny islands, really just little points of rock sticking up through the water’s surface. While we did see a few other kayaks enjoying the maze, the area is much too shallow for any motorboats. We found a perfect tiny island, maybe about 200 square feet, for lunch. A tiny little canal split the island and provided the perfect place to “park” our kayak while we ate our picnic. The only problem with our island was that it was much to small to provide any privacy for a bathroom break!
From the warren of skerries, we paddled out to the outermost band of islands. We had chosen Vattungarna as our destination for the evening because it looked unusually interesting for exploration on the map. The island is almost sliced in half by two long canals that are separated by only a small bulge of island. We first paddled deep into the outer canal before paddling around the island and finding a tent site deep inside the even more sheltered canal facing in toward land.
Our tent site on Vattungarna was much flatter than the previous night, but it was up on a rock ridge sloping gently upward until it suddenly dove into the water. After setting up the tent, we spent an hour or two exploring the island on foot. We even found a few mushrooms to fry up as an appetizer (unfortunately they turned out to be worm-eaten) and picked a few lingonberries to spice up our granola breakfast. The island’s topography was very undulating with low, marshy areas and even a few ponds, medium-high forested areas, and higher areas of bare bedrock.
Between the long day of paddling and all the rock-hopping around the island, we really exhausted ourselves. We enjoyed our nacho dinner, the wine, and chocolate pudding dessert while watching the sunset and listening to the sounds of a summer night falling around us. Even after it got dark, we sat out in our camping chairs and read a bit by the light of our headlamps before turning in.
The next morning dawned warm and sunny, and we enjoyed a long, lazy, sunny breakfast with our canal view before packing up and setting out.
|Left: Freeze-thaw cycle at work. Right: Lunch view.|
It didn’t take us long at all to get back to the kayak rental, and since we had a little extra time, we paddled around a few extra islands before returning the boat. We had more than enough time to catch our intended bus, and soon enough we were home and snuggling with our poor, abandoned cat. It was such a lovely weekend out in the archipelago!