Meet Sweden’s first mountain guide
Stefan Palm is one of Sweden’s most experienced mountain guides. He has an instinctive ability to find the best snow out there. In Chile, he’s known as Sabuezo de Sueco – "the Swedish bloodhound” – because he always manages to find the deepest, coldest and highest quality snow when he’s visiting the Andes. Strangely enough, 52-year-old Stefan grew up in southern Sweden, in Skanör Falsterbo in the province of Skåne. In our elongated country, it's about as far from the mountains as you can get. It’s a little mysterious how someone from this region, known for its endless flat fields, could be so taken by the mountains that he has dedicated his life to skiing and climbing.
“My dad was from Hälsingland in central Sweden and he could basically smell snow. He took us to the mountains every school holiday, so my interest in skiing took root early on in my childhood.”
When Stefan was 13, he became friends with Anders Swensson who turned out to be a soulmate with exactly the same interests. The two of them began exploring the world together, skiing in the winters and climbing in the summers.
“Our parents gave us a lot of freedom and let us go away together during the holidays to ski and climb, it was really great that they trusted us and we grew a lot from it.”
As soon as 18-year-old Stefan and Anders finished school they hightailed it straight to Chamonix to spend their first winter as ski bums. Powder skiing close to the ski lifts was soon replaced by skiing the steeps of the Alps’ northern faces. And eventually the Alps were replaced by Nepal and New Zealand. Slowly but surely their interest in the mountains developed, but there was never any plan to turn their passion into a career.
“It was never my teenage dream to become a mountain guide, there was no such thing in Sweden when we were growing up. I dreamed more about being a sports star. I played all kinds of sport and had no academic ambition at all.”
This was a point of contention around the family dinner table in the Palm household. If you grow up in lovely Skanör Falsterbo, it’s expected that you’ll study something serious and make something of yourself, not travel the world living the life of a skiing and climbing bohemian.
After a ten-month trip away, when Stefan first spent the winter in Chamonix and then went straight to Nepal to climb, his mother presented him with a stack of papers on his arrival home. They were application forms to a guiding and tourism programme in Kiruna, northern Sweden. It was the only course of its kind in the country and as close to a guiding course as you could get back then.
“It became my new future. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was what got the ball rolling for me to eventually become a mountain guide.”
Via the company “Sporten” in Riksgränsen, he began guiding everything from alpine ski groups to heliskiing tours. Stefan, together with Anders, was part of the first group of Swedes who started to train towards becoming internationally certified mountain guides. They graduated in 1994 and began working straightaway, spending their first three years in Sweden.
In 1997, Svenska Bergsguideorganisationen (SBO, the Swedish Mountain Guide Association) became part of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations and the first five Swedish guides received their prized mountain guide badges. Twenty years later, Stefan is an experienced mountain guide who works all over the world and guides his guests in exotic places such as Hokkaido in Japan, the Chilean Andes, India, the European Alps, northern Norway and, of course, Swedish Lapland. Each winter is finished off with a couple of months north of the Arctic Circle, with Abisko as his base.
“Most people talk about the Arctic light, but for me it’s the terrain and the snow that are unique, and how they're so different from year to year. The amazing feeling of wilderness is also really special. There is nothing but mountains and open expanses for 350km south of the E10 highway that connects Kiruna in Sweden and Narvik in Norway. There are literally hundreds of peaks and endless open plains, and this is something that our clients truly appreciate.”
In Abisko, Stefan works with mountain guide colleague and life-long friend Dick Johansson, who runs Abisko Mountain Lodge. They’ve known each other since the late 1980s and have worked together before. Two years ago, they started working together again when Stefan took over the skiing tours at Abisko Mountain Lodge.
“Stefan finds the finest terrain and has an amazing ability to see lines and find the best snow. His routines and knowledge of these mountains are totally unique,” says Dick.
Stefan now lives with his wife Pia and children Robina, 19, and Max, 14, in the little village of Servoz at the foot of the Mont Blanc massif, just below Chamonix. Before this, they lived in Serre Chevalier for ten years, and La Grave for ten years.
“The Chamonix valley is fantastic, but I don’t guide very much there. Once you’ve had the chance to travel all around Chile, India, Japan, Kamchatka and Swedish Lapland with all the amazing experiences of being alone with your guests in those mountains without seeing another human, it’s hard to get a queue number for the Aiguille du Midi cable car and manage the stress of working up there with all the risks it involves.”
Of course, mountain guiding is a high-risk job, but it’s all about calculated risks according to Stefan.
“I’m naturally much more careful now than when I was a teenage ski bum in Chamonix only skiing the steeps. I have no need to show anyone that I can ski something extreme and I have never felt that need. My profession is all about working with people, getting them out of their comfort zone and giving them a great experience in the mountains so they, too, can fall in love with them."