The Green Ribbon Expedition
ANNA BLACKWELL heads out on a SOLO trek of over 600 MILES across Arctic and Northern SCANDINAVIA in search of SOLITUDE and the best version of herself
Opening my eyes, the first thing I noticed was the percussive sound of torrential rain hammering down on my tent. How many mornings was it now that I’d woken up to weather like this? Today was different, though; today I had chocolate chip pancakes (it was my birthday, after all) and what a gift to wake up to – pancakes and an ongoing adventure!
Almost six weeks earlier I’d set out on my Green Ribbon expedition, a solo trek of over 600 miles across Arctic and Northern Scandinavia. Starting at the Treriksröset (or Three-Country Cairn, marking the point at which Sweden, Finland and Norway meet in Arctic Scandinavia), I was making my way south following the mountains on the Swedish-Norwegian border.
I’d spent the last few months planning a route through the remote and wild mountainous regions, making sure I passed mountain stations or villages every week or so. I’d also put together meticulously prepared resupply packages, including essential food rations, maps for the following section, and the all-important Haribo. I had acquired a few sponsors to cover the equipment I needed, including a dozen maps covering the entirety of my route, and a stash of my favourite Firepot dehydrated meals.
My rucksack was full of camping and photography equipment, warm layers, and plenty of food, all of which weighed up to 28kg. I’d made life harder for myself by not training, but from experience, I knew my body would adjust in time.
My first week was spent almost entirely on the Norwegian side of the border, surrounded by beautiful mountains and not much else; I didn’t see a single person for five days, which suited me perfectly. I’d been craving the wildness and remoteness of this part of the world and the more I removed myself from signs of civilisation, the better I felt.
I quickly settled into a routine, though the midnight sun did its best to confuse things. I would often find myself still pottering about in my tent, reading, or writing in my journal at two in the morning, the brightness of the light outside misleading me. This wasn’t the only challenge posed by the time of year: my biggest grievance came from the hordes of mosquitos that clamoured around me, biting through multiple layers of clothing and insect repellent. I quickly learned that my two best friends in these situations were my mosquito head net (the height of outdoor fashion) and mountain altitude, where the wind and snow kept the biting terrors at bay.
After eight days of big mountains, uncharacteristically warm temperatures and being plagued by mosquitos and hornets, I made it into Sweden and the start of the Kungsleden.
(The Kungsleden, or King’s Trail in English, is a long-distance hiking trail in Sweden that stretches over 270 miles. Running between Abisko and Hemavan, it is one of the most famous trails in Scandinavia, taking trekkers through what has come to be known as Europe’s last true wilderness)
Having already completed this increasingly popular route a few years ago, I knew that this time I wanted to deviate and explore some new valleys and trails in the area.
This decision was quickly rewarded. I left the Kungsleden after a day, opting instead to trek through the Vistas and Nallo valleys. The Vistas Valley was lush, green and filled with sunshine. I’d left behind the crowds that populate the Kungsleden and now my only company was the few reindeer that trotted past, pausing briefly to stare at me with curiosity. I made my way past powerful waterfalls that thundered down into pools of turquoise, milky water before flowing into the fast river that coursed along the valley floor.
As the sun gradually dropped behind the mountainous valley walls, I started eyeing up places to pitch up for the night. Undoubtedly one of the best aspects of adventures like this is the views you can get from within your tent. Camping in the Vistas Valley is among the most beautiful and memorable places I’ve been lucky enough to sleep wild, and that evening as I cooked my dinner on my wood stove and soaked in the view in front of me, I felt overwhelmingly content.
It’s times like this that make the expeditions I do such a joy. So often when I‘m back home and reflecting on the experiences I’ve had, I’ll forget all about being surrounded by tens of thousands of mosquitos or having to trek through endless days of rain. The moments that stay with me and inhabit my dreams are the ones where I bear witness to the beauty and power of the natural world, where rather than trying to conquer my environment, I am able to harmoniously exist within it.
HIGHS AND LOWS
That feeling stayed with me for the next few days as I moved into the Nallo Valley, a starkly different environment to Vistas. Here, the previously green valley floor was replaced with dark grey boulders, the almost vertical, dark mountain walls standing upright all around. Watching over everything was the jagged peak from which the valley takes its name, Nallo, a Sami word that suitably translates as ‘needle’.
Over the coming weeks I progressed south on the 85-mile-long Padjelantaleden, a hiking trail in northern Sweden. A quieter and shorter alternative to the Kungsleden, this trail is a wonderful mix of huge mountain views, barren plateaux and valleys thriving with colourful wildflowers. Aside from the regular helicopters taking tourists to the national park, the route was relatively peaceful, and I pressed on undisturbed.
Reaching the end of the Padjelantaleden meant time to cross over the Kvikkjokk Delta to re-join the southern section of the Kungsleden. Hikers are taken across by Björn the Boatman, an incredibly knowledgeable and charismatic chap. Björn has been offering this service for decades, all the while keeping track of the comings and goings aboard his small boat. Chatting to him as we made the crossing, Björn told me that the biggest change he’s observed in recent years is the number of solo female passengers he’s met who are hiking the Kungsleden and Padjelantaleden. As a young woman who regularly takes on solo adventures and expeditions, I was delighted to hear this.
Within a few days of leaving Kvikkjokk and continuing on the Kungsleden, my luck changed. The grey clouds that had been stalking me for some time unleashed their fury and the relentless wet weather coincided with me being struck down by a temperature and streaming cold. Determined not to turn around and retrace my steps back to the relative safety and comfort of Kvikkjokk mountain station, I persevered, feeling utterly dreadful and exhausted. Each evening as I nestled into my sleeping bag and wolfed down a warming dinner, I felt relief that I’d completed another day, mixed with the hope that I would wake up feeling miraculously better and that the sun would be shining.
Eventually, after a much-needed rest day, I started to get back to normal. Climbing up through a forest above a small village where I’d spent a few nights, I realised I was once again noticing the little things in my surroundings that filled me with joy: droplets of dew and rain clinging to impossibly thin leaves, the dappled pattern on the ground as the bright morning sunlight broke through the tall trees overhead, the bursts of orange against green indicating the first signs of the changing seasons. That night, I set up my tent on a high fellside and watched as a herd of reindeer peacefully grazed close by. I felt like I was back.
SOLITUDE AND CELEBRATIONS
Not long after, it was my 26th birthday. It may seem strange, choosing to spend your birthday far from civilisation, friends, and family, but over the last five years, I’ve made a point of being on an adventure on my birthday. Waking up alone in my tent was therefore not an unusual start to the day. As it was a special occasion, rather than forcing myself out in the miserable weather, I decided to stay encased in my sleeping bag, reading, drinking coffee, and cooking up the pancakes I’d carried specially. I didn’t break camp until early afternoon, a worthy birthday present in my mind. That evening, as I re-pitched my tent some 10 miles further along, nature treated me to a truly magnificent sunset, and yet another memorable birthday was complete.
Arriving at the end point of the Kungsleden a few days later was an odd feeling. This marked the completion of so many people’s adventures and treks including my own, three years prior – but this time I still had over 180 miles ahead of me. After picking up a food resupply package that I’d shipped ahead, I was back on the move.
What lay before me provided a sharp contrast to the Kungsleden: gone were the countless people I would pass on the trail each day and the staffed cabins offering shelter from bad weather, and small shops to buy snacks from. The section I was starting now was one of the quietest and least popular stretches of trail on my whole route. There was often no sign of a physical path in front of me or even marked on the map, meaning I now had to really focus on navigating.
This felt like the most remote section of trekking I had done. Looking out at the views of expansive forests and distant mountains, I could see no evidence of humans anywhere. No paths, no buildings, no phone signal… this, for me, is absolute bliss. Being alone in that sort of environment and able to support myself was an incredibly empowering feeling.
That sensation wore off very quickly soon after. Being away from popular trails meant leaving behind the infrastructure and support of touristy routes and I found myself following trails that are supposedly accessible in summer and winter. In reality this meant spending day after day traipsing through endless bog and marsh, the water and mud squelching up around my ankles. My boots and socks were perpetually saturated; living in a tent and the occasional basic A-frame hut meant there was very rarely an opportunity to dry my kit properly, let alone wash it.
It will undoubtedly sound bizarre, but it’s experiences like this that I was seeking by taking on this adventure. I wanted to challenge myself, to test my grit and push the boundaries of my comfort zone. I am very much driven by intrinsic motivations, pursuing the things I find interesting and rewarding rather than needing any external rewards or recognition, and I’ve learned that overcoming challenges on adventures is one of the most fulfilling things I can do.
Sometimes those challenges come in the form of a particulary steep climb or tricky descent, other times it’s perservering through adverse conditions like sodden trails. Whatever it may be, it’s the process of working through that challenge to come out the other side having learned or experienced something new that motivates me to keep heading out on these great adventures.
ENDINGS AND BEGININGS
Finally, I escaped the wet and found myself in Jämtland, trekking towards a beautiful snow-capped mountain massif in the distance. It took a few days to reach them and unsurprisingly, the day I crossed through the highest pass I was entirely enveloped by cloud and had absolutely no views. Being high in the mountains, however, with the wind and clouds pressing in, heightened the feeling of nature’s power and my sense of isolation, and somehow, I still enjoyed it.
The final week of my trek was a mixture of cloud, rain, and brief periods of glorious blue skies and sunshine. The temperature had dropped significantly since I started almost 600 miles further north under the midnight sun. Rather than layering up with mosquito repellent, I now had several layers of clothing on, my hood or warm hat constantly keeping the wind and rain at bay. The temperature wasn’t the only thing that had changed; the colours of the landscape and tundra around me were now completely different. Gone were the vivid greens and in their place were brown and orange leaves and a distinctly autumnal feeling.
I never particularly enjoy the last day of any adventure or expedition as I know the end is imminent, and the Green Ribbon was no different. I woke up before sunrise and unzipped my tent to watch the spectacle unfold from the comfort of my sleeping bag. A thin layer of mist hung lightly above the still lake in front of me. Gradually at first, the sky began to change as the sun made its way up. Then, suddenly, it burst over the mountain beyond the water, its rays immediately filling my little red tent with light.
Reluctantly, I packed up for the last time, donned my many layers and set out. It was a beautiful day and the unusually clear sky disguised the crisp chill in the air. I was not ready to finish. Regardless of how much rain and cloud there had been over the previous few months, this had become my life. Being in the remote mountains of Northern Scandinavia, living out of my tent, the few possessions I needed in the rucksack on my back, just a camera, journal, and a good book for company… that’s where I feel most at home, the best version of myself.
As I slowly made my way down towards the mountain station that marked the end point of my adventure, I reflected back on what a truly incredible experience it had been, from the sensational views, to places I’d enjoyed my morning coffee, even the foraged cloudberries and wild blueberries that had become a part of my daily routine. I may not have loved every minute but persevering through the soggy socks and days spent surrounded by cloud was worth it for those many moments that filled me with joy.
ANNA’S TRIP BY NUMBERS
• Total distance covered: 640 miles
• Total number of days: 59
• Longest duration without seeing another person: 5 days
• Heaviest her rucksack weighed: 28kg
• Number of hornet stings: 2
• Number of mosquito bites: innumerable
• Number of times her kit was chewed through by mice: 2
LONG DISTANCE TRAILS COVERED
• Nordkalottleden: 497 miles
• Kungsleden: 273 miles
• Padjelantaleden: 87 miles
• Jämtlandsleden: 131 miles
Anna Blackwell is an adventurer, writer, speaker and photographer with a love of the outdoors and pushing her limits. This has led her to pursue numerous adventures, from kayaking across Europe to spending three months walking 1,000 miles across France and Spain alone. To keep up to date with her adventures, follow her on Instagram (@annablackwell).