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EXPLORING SWEDEN

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Kebnekaise: How I tamed Sweden’s highest peak

The Local's Oliver Gee has returned from climbing the highest mountain in Sweden. He talks about the adventure, facing certain doom, and mosquitoes the size of golf balls.

Kebnekaise: How I tamed Sweden's highest peak
Sitting on top of Sweden.
I was 150 kilometres north of the Arctic circle and the mosquitoes wanted me dead. I was already itchy just minutes after leaving Nikkaluokta – a tiny dot on the map that marked the end of the road and the start of the trip.
 
Thwack, thwack, thwack.
 
I was armed with a backpack (including tent, sleeping bag, food, clothes, water, and insect repellent), my girlfriend, and a 19-kilometre trek to the base camp of Kebnekaise. 
 
Halfway along at a lakeside pit stop, an exhausted Serb heading the other way got talking to me, scratching his festering ankles as he spoke.
 
“I'll give you one word of warning, my friend” he said, thwacking a mosquito on his arm, revealing a small pool of blood. 
 
“If you make it to the top, don't look over the edge. I did. It's certain death off both sides. I got a serious dose of vertigo and no one needs that in their lives.” 
 
Lucky I'm not afraid of heights, I thought foolishly. And oh, how wrong I was.
 
The scene of the lakeside pit stop
 
Five hours of walking and we were at the base camp, setting up our tent. I was already struggling after lugging the gear, but glad I didn't have to take the cheapest mattress space at the lodge for 520 kronor ($75). 
 
The trek was a little tough on my ankles (I was wearing sneakers), and I eyed up the rack of hiking boots available for rent.
 
The man behind the desk laughed when I asked if the mountain would be much tougher than the hike that day. 
 
“That first bit was a walk in the park. I could do it in flip flops. If you want to tame Kebnekaise, you're going to need hiking boots,” he said with a smile. 
 
These turned out to be the wisest words I'd hear. I rented the boots for 200 kronor (If you want my advice, bring sturdy boots – read my top five tips here) and we planned to set off at sunrise the next day.
 
 
The ascent
 
I learned quickly that there's no such thing as sunrise in far northern Sweden during the summer. In fact, there's no sunset either. Just sun, 24 hours a day. So we set off at 8.30 as a fair compromise. 
 
I'd say there were around 50 people doing the climb that day, spaced far apart. Many of them gave up. Most, perhaps. You see, it's a steep ten kilometres from base camp to the peak, followed by another ten on the way down. And the average hike time is around 13 hours. And on this day, the sun was pounding down. 
 
The climb winds slowly into the mountains, and it's several hours before you can even see the peak. Red painted dots mark the track every now and again, and it's recommended you take a compass in case visibility is too low to see them. 
 
 
See the picture above for a rough idea of the climb. First, you have to veer left, scale the lower peak (to the top left), then descend 200 metres in that big dip (oh cruel, cruel world), before hiking up the other side to the summit (far right).
 
And this takes hours. About seven for us. The ascent gets steeper, the rocks get looser, the running water from the melting glaciers gets scarcer, until it's just you against the mountain. Man versus nature. 
 
 
At times, you have to cross streams, scale glaciers, and dodge tumbling rocks. You have to avoid the people turning back on the path who've given up, and who have defeat written all over their face. 
 
“We've seen the view from here, how much better can it get,” they say. But you can see it in their eyes. Kebnekaise has claimed their souls. 
 
But we persevered. And after about seven hours, we stumbled over a rocky ledge and saw the peak up close for the first time. Snow-capped, magnificent, and manageable.
 
We stopped for water, took our sweaters out of our bag and started the final ascent through the snow. 
 
Eventually we couldn't climb any higher. We were on the top of Sweden. We'd done it. 
 
 
They say you can see ten percent of Sweden from the top of Kebnekaise and I'd believe it. But I was too numb, cold, and tired to think about percentages. Unfortunately, I was also too tired to remember the wise words of the Serb as I looked over the edge.
 
“Wow, look how steep it is,” I said to my girlfriend, and then immediately froze. I sat down. Off both sides of the peak, there was a sheer drop. 
 
And it was truly frightening. It was vertigo-inducing. It was horrible. I couldn't tell if my legs were shaking because of climbing 2,106 metres in seven hours or because my life had just flashed before my eyes and I wasn't very impressed by it. 
 
But either way, after my peek off the peak I was keen to head down. No one ever needs to be cornered by two cliff peaks. 
 
The descent
 
The next five hours were mostly auto-pilot. One foot after the other. The more and more frequent stops for a rest or a drink of water. The mechanical thwack, thwack, thwack of mosquito patrol. 
 
The scenery, however, was truly stunning. It's more enjoyable on the way down because you're not focused on your goal of reaching the top. And the fatigue means more stopping for photo opportunities.
 
 
After almost exactly 12 hours, we reached the base camp again and collapsed. We joined the rest of the zombies limping around, taking a sauna, drinking soup. Asking others we'd passed along the way how they'd fared.
 
And as I sat outside the lodge in the evening air with my heavy hiking boots by my side, I felt overcome by a very primitive sense of achievement. 
 
Man verse mountain. Achieved. Unlocked. Done. Now to get some sleep before tomorrow's 19-kilometre hike to the bus stop, I thought. 
 
Thwack. 
 
Click here for more pictures from the trip, and here for Oliver's top five tips for climbing the mountain (with more pics too). 
 

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IN IMAGES: Spain’s ‘scrap cathedral’ lives on after creator’s death

For over 60 years, former monk Justo Gallego almost single-handedly built a cathedral out of scrap materials on the outskirts of Madrid. Here is a picture-based ode to his remarkable labour of love.

IN IMAGES: Spain's 'scrap cathedral' lives on after creator's death
File photo taken on August 3, 1999 shows Justo Gallego Martinez, then 73, posing in front of his cathedral. Photo: ERIC CABANIS / AFP

The 96-year-old died over the weekend, but left the unfinished complex in Mejorada del Campo to a charity run by a priest that has vowed to complete his labour of love.

Gallego began the project in 1961 when he was in his mid-30s on land inherited from his family after a bout of tuberculosis forced him to leave an order of Trappist monks.

Today, the “Cathedral of Justo” features a crypt, two cloisters and 12 towers spread over 4,700 square metres (50,600 square feet), although the central dome still does not have a cover.

He used bricks, wood and other material scavenged from old building sites, as well as through donations that began to arrive once the project became better known.

A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A woman prays at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The building’s pillars are made from stacked oil drums while windows have been cobbled and glued together from shards of coloured glass.

“Recycling is fashionable now, but he used it 60 years ago when nobody talked about it,” said Juan Carlos Arroyo, an engineer and architect with engineering firm Calter.

Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid.
Men work at the Cathedral of Justo on November 26, 2021 in Mejorada del Campo, 20km east of Madrid. Photo: (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The charity that is taking over the project, “Messengers of Peace”, hired the firm to assess the structural soundness of the building, which lacks a permit.

No blueprint

“The structure has withstood significant weather events throughout its construction,” Arroyo told AFP, predicting it will only need some “small surgical interventions”.

Renowned British architect Norman Foster visited the site in 2009 — when he came to Spain to collect a prize — telling Gallego that he should be the one getting the award, Arroyo added.

Religious murals on a walls of Justo's cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Religious murals on a walls of Justo’s cathedral. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The sturdiness of the project is surprising given that Gallego had no formal training as a builder, and he worked without a blueprint.

In interviews, he repeatedly said that the details for the cathedral were “in his head” and “it all comes from above”.

Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Builders work on the dome of the Cathedral of Justo on November 26th. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

The complex stands in a street called Avenida Antoni Gaudi, named after the architect behind Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familia basilica which has been under construction since 1883.

But unlike the Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Justo Gallego as it is known is not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as a place of worship.

Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral's completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
Visit gaze at the stained glass and busts in of the cathedral’s completed sections. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

‘Worth visiting’

Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, the maverick priest who heads Messengers of Peace, wants to turn Gallego’s building into an inclusive space for all faiths and one that is used to help the poor.

“There are already too many cathedrals and too many churches, that sometimes lack people,” he said.

“It will not be a typical cathedral, but a social centre where people can come to pray or if they are facing difficulties,” he added.

A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
A photo of Justo Gallego Martinez on display at his cathedral following his passing. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)
 

Father Angel is famous in Spain for running a restaurant offering meals to the homeless and for running a church in central Madrid where pets are welcome and the faithful can confess via iPad.

Inside the Cathedral of Justo, volunteers continued working on the structure while a steady stream of visitors walked around the grounds admiring the building in the nondescript suburb.

“If the means are put in, especially materials and money, to finish it, then it will be a very beautiful place of worship,” said Ramon Calvo, 74, who was visiting the grounds with friends.

FIND OUT MORE: How to get to Justo’s Cathedral and more amazing images

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