Under the Open SkiesInspiration
In Conversation with Markus Torgeby
Written by Harriet Osborne // Photography by Frida Torgeby
Markus Torgeby was a promising ultrarunner until an injury ended his career and triggered a life crisis. With nothing but an axe, a sleeping bag, and the clothes on his body, he bought a one-way ticket from Gothenburg train station, Sweden, to the Jämtland forest, where temperatures plummet to -40°C in winter. For four years, in perfect solitude and harmony with nature, Markus lived in a hut he built by hand, slept on reindeer skins, and survived on oatmeal, berries, and fish. Here is how the move saved his life.
Sidetracked: When did you first discover running? Why is it so important to you?
Markus: I did my first competition when I was 12 years old, but I trained more seriously from the age of 16. I would train 13 times a week and run distances anywhere from 300 to 500km. I like the feeling of my legs moving and my heart beating – it’s what makes me feel alive. I try to do all my long runs in the mountains and on the trails in the forest.
When your foot arch collapsed you say your mind ‘fell apart’. What happened?
Life was tough when I was young. My mother had MS and I didn’t get on well at school. I soon discovered that going out running was always a big relief, taking away some of the pressure; I ended up doing a lot of it. Before long, I wanted to see if I could make it to the European Championships, so I did more high-altitude training. But I was training really hard, and it was too much. My foot completely collapsed. I used running as a stress release, and when I didn’t have that I couldn’t cope with the thoughts in my head.
How long did it take for you to recover from your injury?
After a couple of years in the forest I started running again, and later competed with the Swedish national team. That period spent alone in nature was the reset I needed.
You were 22 when you decided to live in the forest. What prompted the move?
Running was my way of living, so when my foot collapsed, I had no direction. I realised that I must find a new way to live. I thought if I could put myself in a situation where everything is closer to a human being’s basic needs then maybe I would find something to live for. So I just followed that feeling. I got the train from Gothenburg up north to the Arctic Circle and followed a thought. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do. The move saved my life.
You lived in the forest for four years. Do you remember the first night? How would you describe it?
It was wonderful. I walked for three hours from the train station out into the forest until I found an opening. I made a bed about 20cm thick out of branches from a fir tree. That first night, I slept under the open sky, and after that I made a hut out of canvas. But I had no survival skills – I had to learn by doing it. I started in late summer, so I had time to learn before the cold winter came. Problems had to be fixed as they came. I didn’t want to push too hard at the beginning. It’s like running. You can’t start training 250km every week; you must start with maybe 10km and then build your way up. It’s the same way of thinking when you live out in the forest.
What fears did you face while living in the hut?
I was really afraid of the dark. I would just stand in darkness and be with the feelings. It took four months to overcome my fear, and then I was free.
What did you learn from the experience?
When I’m out in nature, I have to find a way to cope with things that are out of my control. For example, I can’t control the weather; sometimes it’s warm, sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s windy. Today it’s really cold and if I don’t start a fire I will die. I like that. Everything becomes very clear and you see what’s important.
Two months could pass without speaking to anyone. What was that like?
Very small things felt very big. I can still remember that after two or three months without speaking, I went to a store to buy some groceries. I talked to the cashier for maybe 15 seconds. I can still remember what she said because I was starving in the head. When I got some words, they meant a lot. It’s the same with food. If you eat too much, the food will not taste good. I think it’s important to be a little bit hungry.
You credit nature for allowing you to be present, to listen to your heartbeat, and to just be. What is it about today’s society that makes being present seem like an impossible task? How can we find calm in such a busy world?
There are so many distractions in the life we live now, with the media, TV, Netflix and so on. We always have our heads down looking at our phones. I think we must seek a different direction. One way into your own heart is to just take it easy a bit more – and put the telephone away. I think this is so important.
You consumed 90kg of oatmeal a year and said that you would be dead without it. What else did you eat in the forest?
In Sweden most berries are edible. If they are sweet, you know they are safe. I also caught fish in the river and made curry from vegetables. I’d drink sap from the trees in spring. I probably didn’t eat enough food, but it was ok because I was free from stress and, mentally, I lived an easy life.
How did you earn enough money to live on?
I worked a couple of days a year, sometimes helping an old lady if she needed to change a window, fix something in her house, or paint a wall. I lived on a very small budget – around 600-800 Swedish krona (£50-£70) – so money was no problem. The only things I kept with me were an axe and a sleeping bag. These were most important things I had.
You slept in wool underwear on reindeer skins. What makes these materials so good for survival?
Reindeer skin is extremely warm to lie on. Wool never smells, it doesn’t burn, and it’s easy to wash. My whole family were fishermen and always wore wool. I knew that it was the best material for the clothing I’d need.
Could you have done it without your axe?
No! The axe is the most important tool in the forest. Buy one axe and you can build anything. You can chop down trees for the fire, build a house – anything you need.
What was your morning ritual like?
In the winter it was as cold as -40°C, so when I woke up and left my sleeping bag I was quick as hell to put clothes on and start a fire. I would melt some snow in a pot so that I could make porridge. Then I’d put skis on and go out into the forest. In spring I just woke up, put my trainers on, and went for a run. I’d wash myself in the river, then eat porridge and climb a tree. In the afternoon I’d go out to catch some fish. I like the winter because you have to be more focused on survival. If you make a mistake then you will die – and I like that feeling, that intensity. I felt most alive in winter.
You now have a wife and three daughters. What are the lessons you want them to learn from this experience?
That in life there are ups and downs – and that’s the way it should be. They should focus on the things that they can control, and have a positive connection with nature. I want them to experience the water and the forest. Being outside is free for everyone, and I know that if they watch the sunset they will feel rich. Focus on the right thing, live in harmony with nature, and increase your chance of a happy life.
Under the Open Skies: A Practical Guide to Living Close to Nature is out now (£20.00, Simon & Schuster UK) and offers advice on how to survive in the wild including how to build a fire, which plants are edible, the best techniques for chopping wood. Today, Markus lectures on heath and nature, and is an builds houses and outdoor beds. Markus and Frida have three daughters and live in Jämtland, outside Undersåker. You can follow and reach Markus and Frida via markustorgeby.se and on Instagram @markustorgeby.
Heartbeats, a story by Markus Torgeby features in Sidetracked Volume 19.