May 1, 2023

Filming an Arctic Expedition - Caught in the Middle

Expedition photographer and film maker Martin Olson takes us through his latest epic skiing expedition in Sweden
Written by
George Beesley

The thought of a hot meal and a gallon of water to pour down my dusty throat dominated my mind as darkness started to settle. The peaks of Påretjhåkkåh faded away as we moved further east, desperately longing to be back at camp. This would be my first marathon on skis, spiced with a 2000-metre elevation gain, a backpack full of video gear and a half eaten saucisson.

I was accompanied by two mountain guides from La Grave; couples Erin Smart and Benjamin Ribeyre, and Jackie Paaso and Reine Barkered, two freeride athletes from Sweden. I felt like the biggest fifth wheeler in expedition history - a view they probably also shared.

Today was the first summiting day of our project to climb and ski all the 2000-metre peaks in Sweden. A quest to be completed in one go, completely unsupported, involving a traverse of roughly 400 km through the miraculously beautiful and notoriously weather beaten part of the Swedish Lapland above the arctic circle.

Swedish Ski

My mind nagged me, telling me I should have worked out more, done more ski tour laps in my local mountains and worked on my ‘ski tour and bootpacking with crampons’ transitions. But with a one year old son demanding attention, a pregnant wife and a massive workload, my priorities were challenged. 

I turned on my head torch, staring into the dark void. There were at least 3 hours left before we’d  be back.

Being the camera guy in this setting means running back and forth to shoot the athletes from different angles, stopping to shoot footage of the landscape, sprinting to catch up, shooting some dialogue during snack breaks, have my own snack break and catch up again. I was fairly used to doing this with a normal group, but doing it at the speed we had to travel, covering a very long distance in one single day, that was something my whole body was leaving a strong message about to my brain’s complaints department.

On the brink of dehydration, exhausted but determined to eat a large amount of Pringles crisps before today was over, I was delighted when we finally reached the tree line. At this point, Erin was pulling Jackie by a rope and Benjamin aka “Benj”, blasted his phone speakers on maximum volume, pumping psychedelic techno music to boost morale. I was wearily moving forward, trying to skate on the flats. We must have looked hilarious to an outsider..

Earlier in the  day, we had successfully summited and skied down our first two of the twelve 2000-metre peaks. It was a special day, since we had to push for these summits one day earlier than planned, due to bad weather coming in. And bad weather was definitely coming in. 

Pure will-power was now pushing me until my body was finally allowed to lay down in the frost covered tent with my left hand half way in the Pringles container and my camera hanging like a disappointingly empty whiskey jar round my neck. Finally this day, which we’d strongly suspected would be a type two fun day, was done after 16 hours.

Swedish ski expedition 2

To understand more about the crew, Benj is our youngest team member at  30 years old, but probably the most experienced when it comes to expeditions. As he has been part of the French national climbing team, it is also fair to say that he is a very skilled climber. And French… very French.

Benj’s partner Erin is from Washington state in the US, but moved to La Grave where she now works and lives together with Benj. Being a mountain guide, Erin was an instructor on an avalanche course a few years back, where she and Jackie met for the first time and later came up with the idea of going on an expedition together. Due to the pandemic, the original plan was changed a few times, but eventually ending up being here in Sweden.

Jackie, the brain behind the whole project, is a freerider with a background in mogul skiing. She has had multiple victories in the Freeride world tour and has also won Verbier Xtreme.

Her husband Reine is also well known in the freeride community and is maybe one of the most experienced freeriders out there, notorious for stomping high cliff drops and also being victorious in the Freeride World Tour. And just like me, Reine is very Swedish.

The team setup seemed to be perfect. Strong climbers and strong skiers working together to achieve something that to our knowledge and diligent research, no one else had previously done. Especially with the inclusion of the ‘new’ 2000-metre peak, which was discovered during a remeasurement five years before this expedition. 

So here we are, a skiing camera guy with two mountain guides and two freeriders crossing the vast wilderness of Swedish Lapland, the largest province in Sweden where the biggest mountains are located and where the phone reception is the worst. Unless you are standing on the top of one of those mountains of course. 

Our starting point Kvikkjokk is located about 50 km north of the arctic circle and lays roughly in the middle of the famous Kungsleden trail, which is internationally recognised as being  one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the world. It’s also heavily populated by Germans with low cut trekking boots during summer season.

Swedish ski expedition cooking food

The traverse route  covers a distance that partly uses Kungsleden, but more interestingly passes through two of Sweden’s 29 national parks; Sarek and Stora Sjöfallet. Sarek is often referred to as Europe’s last wilderness with almost 100 glaciers and beautiful river deltas that run through long winding valleys, dramatically populated by weather beaten birch trees with fewer branches than freshly made flag poles. 

Leaving our first camp after our marathon day and heading out towards the other peaks, it became obvious that there was tension in the group, among other things a divided opinion on our travelling pace. The La Grave couple wanted to go a bit faster and the Swede couple wanted the pace to be a bit more on the calorie saving side. As I was trying to make the best film possible as a one man band and also trying to grab some stills, I was leaning more towards the calorie saving idea, especially with all the daylight the Arctic offers during this time of year. We could of course split up and go at whatever pace we wanted, but for sake of safety and filming it would be a bit impractical. 

As we went deeper into the dramatic valleys of Sarek, we faced storms and blizzards, climbed more mountains, had some sketchy ridge walks and an incredible descent in ridiculously perfect spring slush snow on the beautiful massif of Sarektjåhkkå. Overall life was pretty good and totally miserable at the same time. I mean, it’s wonderful to be out in an extremely beautiful landscape, , but you had to constantly fight for your survival in an unforgiving hostile environment. If the fast-paced lunch lacking traverse days didn’t steal more calories than you could consume, the cold did for sure.

One day we were pulling our heavy sleds on a frozen river. Jackie and Reine quickly realised that ripping the skins off the skis made us go quite fast with little effort. And all of a sudden, Jackie, Reine and I found ourselves ahead instead of our usual position; behind. This was very  unexpected, and led to a massive argument. That an argument itself would break out sooner or later was certainly expected, but on this perfect day it popped up like a hungover jack in the box. Our views differed regarding navigation and pace and this turned into a whole spectrum of opinions.

Swedish ski epedition team

From the viewfinder of my camera, Benj was on the far left side, speaking in a way that to me indicated frustration and anger. Erin was next to Benj, agreeing with him but being a bit more diplomatic in her responses. Reine was next to Erin, agreeing with him and Jackie, while also being a bit more diplomatic. Jackie on the far right, was raw and honest about her feelings towards Benj.

After about 20 minutes of arguing, there was silence and no one seemed keen on taking the position as point man. A minute passed, and still no one seemed keen on taking the position as point man. It was like the position was unchallenged and no one wanted to challenge it. Meanwhile in the far distance, two moose were  looking for food on a mountainside. 

It’s  hardly a surprise that hardships follow an expedition. Along with internal obstacles we were also facing the obvious, previously mentioned external obstacles. But also the lack of crisps. 

Eating crisps in the outdoors combined with cheese spread after a day of pulling a 40-50 kg Pulka uphill is probably one of the most satisfying meals available in the universe. Or at least in my opinion. Having your comfort food was a good morale booster after days of tension and fighting the elements, when you knew the only other comfort you had was spooning up with your camera batteries to be able to shoot the next day.

Yes, all in all it is easy to remember hardships. But I would state that the moments of joy and happiness are still my strongest memories when I re-visualise this journey. 

Now that  ski touring has become such a popular activity, you have to go further and further out in the wild to be able to dig down your steel edges in untouched snow-covered mountain sides. This was a trip were these mountain sides were basically unchallenged by other skiers. And even though most of the runs were pretty shitty, the good ones had some extraordinary qualities.

Ski sweden expedition summit

Being out like this, alone in the wild, without any warm hotel or pizza restaurants nearby, you really go back to the basics, fighting for food, melting snow for water, digging shelter and what many would see as most important; searching for a 4G connection. In other words, trying to survive at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But it sure is an effective way of putting perspective into society and also gives time for well needed reflection of our fast-paced lives.

There were fights and arguments, there was cold snow blowing onto cold bums while doing your business and cold toes in even colder ski boots. But there were also amazing and warm sunny days, laughs and high fives. And in the end, we all held together throughout the whole journey, coming back to civilisation with new insights and as a team.

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Article Author
George Beesley
Adventurer & Founder of Call To Adventure
George just bloody loves a bit of adventure! Imagine someone who not only hikes up mountains for breakfast but also bikes across continents. Got a case of wanderlust? This guy's been to over 50 countries and comes back with stories that'll make your grandma want to go bungee jumping.

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