With the ongoing success of athletes such as ice hockey icon Peter Forsberg and skiing queen Anja Pärson, Sweden is a well-established winter sports nation. But the icy fun doesn’t stop there — more extreme ice activities are getting thrill seekers out of the house and into the cold.
The onset of winter has long been an eagerly awaited time of year for the Swedish people. When the temperature drops, the skis and the skates are dusted off and readied for use. But the scope of winter activities goes beyond cross-country skiing and turning figure eights — activities like Kitewing, ice yachting and tour skating have recently attracted a growing popularity on Sweden’s many lakes, while more and more climbers are discovering the added thrill of ascending frozen waterfalls.
Alexander Larsson holds the honor of being the first ever Swedish National Kitewing Champion, earning his 2007 title in January 2008, after the championships were pushed out of last year and into this one by mild weather.
National Kitewing Champion Alexander Larsson speeds across Lake Hemfjärden, outside Örebro. Photo: Lars Wall
“It’s not like a tennis court — always there and ready to go,” says Larsson. “We often have to wait on the weather, and this adds an extra element to the sport, making for a lot of last-minute decisions and travel. Kitewing teaches you to live in the now, to take advantage of the ice and snow when you have it.”
A Kitewing is a hand-held, wing-shaped kite that has been attracting global attention for the past decade. Originally designed for gliding with skates on ice, the lightweight personal sail has successfully crossed over to other surfaces, including snow, grass, concrete and sand. But cold weather Kitewing enthusiasts like Larsson are quick to point out the benefits of speeding around frozen Swedish lakes on a Kitewing.
More and more Swedes are discovering Kitewing. On a windy day on Lake Tämnaren, outside Uppsala, scores of people can be seen enjoying the thrill of Kitewing. It's a good thing Sweden has a lot of frozen lakes to choose from. Photo: Göran Larsson
“It’s a feeling of freedom unlike anything I’ve experienced,” Larsson explains. “And since there’s very little friction between your blades and the ice, you can just let the wind carry you for long stretches at a time.”
The Kitewing is light and easy to travel with, meaning that individuals can get set up and be soaring across the ice in no time at all.
Harnessing the wind
Although requiring more preparation work than Kitewing, ice yachting draws thousands of adventurous souls to the frozen lakes and waterways of Sweden. Swedish Ice Sailing Federation Chairman Mats Åkerblad says: “Unlike Kitewing, getting an ice yacht out onto the lake requires a bit more planning. Assembly, transport and logistics are things that take time.”
But that hasn’t hindered the historical transition of ice yachting from a mode of cargo transportation into a recreational pastime. “Swedish focus on ice yachting as a sport really started to take shape during the early 1900s,” Åkerblad says. “Before that, ice sailing was transportation. Sending goods over the ice proved to be time-saving and energy efficient.”
A running start to get the ice yachting adventure under way. Photo: Ulf Torberger
The conditions in and around central Sweden have helped to put the region on the ice yachting world map. The winter climate is cold enough for lakes to freeze, yet the area doesn’t typically receive much snow. Ice yachting weekend warriors in the Stockholm and Uppsala area can drive to good ice in a few hours, and often, in just a matter of minutes.
Going on tour
The fact that there are many lakes to choose from is also a key reason behind the growth of another sport: tour skating. This thigh and calf-powered activity allows participants to experience the thrill of gliding across natural ice without the need for wind-filled sails.
Tour skating might not always seem extreme to the uninitiated, but the danger lies underneath, and this is a sport one should never have a go at alone. Photo: Johanna Waernquist
Englishman Mark Harris has been tour skating on the lakes around Uppsala since he moved to Sweden 15 years ago.
“I not only get a chance to get out into nature,” Harris says, “but since there’s so much ice to skate on, I can choose a different lake every weekend if I want.”
Over the years, Harris has noticed a definite jump in the number of tour skaters in Sweden. “In addition to simply seeing more people out on the ice, the increased interest is reflected in the equipment – it’s now cheaper and more readily available than ever,” Harris says.
And if the challenges of navigating horizontal ice aren’t enough to contend with, ice climbing offers the chance to take advantage of the many frozen waterfalls that a Swedish winter conjures up. The northern Swedish region of Lapland is home to many such falls and New Zealander Rick McGregor, who lives in Kiruna, has been climbing them for the past ten years.
“There’s great ice climbing in Norway as well, but since we’re less affected by the Gulf Stream here, the Swedish climbing season lasts a bit longer,” McGregor says. “From Kiruna, it’s quite easy to get to several good falls.”
McGregor, who completes 20-35 climbs each winter, is driven by the challenge and the adventure of the sport. “I recognize the risk factor,” he says, “but making something that is dangerous as safe as it can be is a great challenge. It’s a thrill to overcome the hazards and do something that nobody else has ever done.”
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Anders Porter is a freelance writer and journalist from California. He lives in Grythyttan, Sweden, about 250 km (155 miles) west of Stockholm. Anders participates in a number of winter activities, his favorite being ‘full contact competitive snow shoveling.’
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