I got home from my last backpacking trip less than 15 minutes ago. I sit here, dirty, sunburnt and nursing a blister on my foot, but smiling ear to ear. As worn out as I am, I would pack up and head back out without a second thought if that was an option. The First Annual North American FjällClassic brought nearly 200 people together for a 20+ mile backpacking trip through one of the most remote sections of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. An American interpretation of one of the most extraordinary outdoor events on the planet, it walked a delicate balance between gritty backcountry camping and plush corporate partying in a way that immediately cemented it into my calendar for next year.
The original Fjällräven Classic is held in Sweden, and features over 2,000 people from 30 countries on a 100km trek through the Scandinavian wilderness. It’s a celebration of life outside, and the joy that comes with it. Day after day of grueling hikes are celebrated with a warm meal and drinks around the fire, and lasting friendships are inevitably forged. Over the last decade the Swedish event has become such a massive hit that Fjällräven decided to host a trek in North America; and I was lucky enough to be invited as a local photographer. After 3 days of Swedish Fish and Lingonberry Juice (I’m completely serious) I figured I should write up a trip report.
Pickup on Friday was set for 6 a.m. at the Fjällräven retail outlet in Boulder, Colorado. After some free coffee and light snacks around 75 of us loaded onto an enormous bus and headed out to our undisclosed launch point. The drive was considerably longer than expected, but after about 4 hours we arrived at State Forest State Park. The arrival scene was unreal; an enormous tent setup housed tons of free goodies for all of the nearly 200 participants, and a local celebrity chef was preparing fresh, hot breakfast to help us start the hike off well nourished. We all stuffed our faces and our bags, and then proceeded to the start line.
The most decisive difference between the Fjällclassic and a standard hike is the amount of assistance and refreshment on trail. Every 4-5 miles was a “checkpoint” featuring trail mix, Swedish fish, and various other treats ranging from hot soup to shots of whiskey. The first day was very much alpine autumn, so after 4 miles of hiking in rain, hail and temps in the 40’s taking a quick break for a crockpot of soup felt like a miracle.
The hike was long and damp. Eight miles of straight uphill towards our first night’s camp on the banks of a timberline lake known as Ruby Jewel. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many tents pitched in an alpine meadow, but after such an exhausting day the atmosphere was a little less “party” and a little more “survival.” We all boiled some water, ate a nice hot meal and watched as the clouds floating down valley faded from brilliant golds into deep velvety purples. We were treated to a spectacular sunset, and everyone passed out shortly thereafter.
I woke up to the sounds of people shuffling around and decided it was time to join the pack. As I unzipped my tent I was showered in frost from my rainfly and decided that maybe a 2-season tent wasn’t the smartest choice for early fall at 11,000 feet. Frosty toes went into frosty socks and into frosty shoes. It seemed that the theme for the night was shivering and exhaustion, but the crew was lively and excited to hit the trail again. After some hot coffee, freeze dried eggs, and jumping jacks to warm up we started down the trail. Day 2 was a leisurely 5 miles, with only half the elevation gain of day 1. The 5 miles to our next lake (and campsite) only took my group an hour and a half and gained us a reputation as “whippersnappers”. We were greeted with the standard snacks, plus a bottle of whiskey and a hammock. I could get used to camping like this!
Since the hike ended and whiskey began at 11am, we obviously spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the lake, napping in the hammock and socializing with the other participants. Fjällräven made some very intelligent choices on their guest list; seemingly everyone in attendance was either a professional photographer, writer, social media icon or some combination of the three. After some extreme networking and photosharing a small group of us decided our hiking wasn’t done for the day, and we headed back up the ridge to watch sunset from 12,500 feet. You know you’re really in the spirit of the outdoors when a 5 mile hike carrying a 40lb pack doesn’t quite cut it, and another 3 miles sounds like a fun way to pass the time for the evening.
I’ve never seen a disappointing sunset from that elevation, and being there with 3 other professional photographers was beyond inspiring. Without further ado, I present “Way too many pics of basically the same thing.”
The final day. Always a bittersweet mix, as the days on the trail wind to a close, but a hot shower and fresh meal draw closer. Since we camped at the lake we had a long, but gentle 8 miles back to the initial launch point. The checkpoint halfway there featured fresh cooked pancakes, lingonberry juice and coffee. I repeat: I could REALLY get used to camping like this!
As we approached the finish line we were treated to the sounds of a live band, handed beautiful medals to celebrate our completion, fresh charcuterie and a cold beer. Is this even real life? For 4 straight hours all the participants gorged on delicious food cooked by local chef Kyle Mendenhall, danced to live music, passed around cameras to share pictures and exchanged contact information.
I’m not really one for tradition. There is only one thing in my life that I consider an absolute mandatory annual experience, and it’s been in my life since I was 13 years old. After this weekend, sleeping under the stars, learning photography, writing tips from some of my major influences, and eating fresh pancakes 18 miles into a backcountry hike I now have TWO summer traditions. See ya next year.