- Ian Mckellar
Skiing in The Magic Islands of Northern Norway
The snow-covered mountains rise straight out of the northern Norwegian Sea creating landscapes covered in skiing potential, from wide-open cruisy slopes to the steepest, narrowest couloirs, and all with stunning fjordscape backdrops. Being inside the Arctic circle, the long 18 hour spring days provide sunrises and sunsets that last for two hours and some relatively benign weather conditions compared with the brutally cold and dark scenes earlier on in the winter. In 2014 I'd put it on my 5 year plan to acquire the equipment, time, fitness and skillsets necessary to come on a ski touring and photography trip to these majestic landscapes. In April 2019, this dream was realised and here is the story of our adventures.
On the trip was fellow Avoriaz Alpine Instructor Amy Marwick alongside Matt Milsom, Angus Bently, Fi Pascall, Nathan Kluff and myself, George Treble
With limited budgets we avoided any form of pre-packaged trips and skiers' lodges and went for the full freedom approach - hire a car, rent airbnb properties and self-guide our way through the vast labyrinth of verticals, horizontals and varying gradients of diagonal. Well aware of the dangers inherent of ski touring and mountaineering, we took safety extremely seriously but were confident in our abilities and decision making. We came across wide, low gradient slopes, steep cathedral couloirs, exposed Alpine ridges, and lofty crows nest summits. We skiid a spectrum of snow types from the firm and icy to the soft and wet, including the golden creamy corn at the perfect stage of it's softening. We studied the guide books, maps, weather forecasts, avalanche reports and juggled the equations of snow pack, gradient, aspect, slope shape, weather conditions and group management. The risks were well understood and the rewards were awesome.
With none of the group having skid here before, we decided to explore four separate regions of Northern Norway. From the airport in Tromso, we drove 6 jaw-dropping hours along the fjords to Lofoten for four nights in the slightly milder and more maritime climate of these fairy-tale Islands. We then fled spring and chased winter north, to the Islands of Senja (3 nights), Kvaloya (3 nights) and finished our trip in the mighty Lyngen Alps.
Splitting car rental and Airbnb houses 6 ways made the famously steep expenses of Norway totally reasonable and the £25pppn waterfront home we settled into was little short of perfect. Having read reports of the persistent weak layer in the Northern Norwegian snow pack and the subsequent potential for large skier-triggered avalanches, we headed for a gentle first day tour on sub 30° terrain. After a familiarisation waddle up a 600m summit, Amy led a session on emergency avalanche procedures and safety equipment and I dug a pit to check out the snow on southerly slopes with a view to skiing the South Gully of Geitgaljetind the next day. Our findings from day one were encouraging as spring had begun here - the snow had clearly gone through multiple freeze-thaw cycles and the avalanche risk was mostly limited to the relatively predictable wet snow surface slides. Our upcoming adventures became a game of timing, balancing the icy conditions in the morning with the unstable loose snow of the afternoons.
After a relaxing afternoon playing living room games and eating carbs we went for a 700m sunset tour up the chutes directly behind our house. As we ascended the view south along the fjord was literally breath-taking and I found myself repeatedly pinching myself to realise that I was actually here.
Confident with the snow-conditions we headed for the prize Alpine summit on the Lofoten Islands - a more complex route with steep summit slopes to the lofty crows nest perched above sheer cliffs, covered in rime ice. Likely the most stunning summit I have ever stood on, I'll let these views talk for themselves in the video below. We then skid the south gully right down to the ocean and toured back to our house, before a refreshing dip in the 2°C fjords.
On day 3 the cloud level was hovering at around 400m and constantly coming in and out, with a deteriorating forecast through the afternoon. Unsure if we would be caught in white out conditions, we headed for relatively mellow terrain and were rewarded with stunning breaks through and above the clouds as we ascended a ridge toward Kvittinden, before some wide open turns on beautifully reformed spring snow. A fitting end to 3 amazing days in Lofoten, a place we all vowed to return to in the future.
Next up we headed 6 hours North to the wild west coast of Senja Island. With deteriorating weather, high winds and heavy rain, the sheer cliff faces and seemingly larger mountains gave off a far more moody, powerful and intimidating atmosphere.
With a half day weather window during our time in Senja, we opted for an early start and two tours before 2pm to take in the sights of these awe-inspiring mountains. First up we tackled Store Hesten (874m) in gale force winds and in contrast to the calm sunset vibes we had encountered in Lofoten, here the mountains were demanding more respect and we didn't see another soul on our first tour. From the summit we could see the infamous Segla peak rising straight out of the water across the bay which provided a perfect 550m second tour to the viewpoint peak (Hesten) to it's north. With only a short period of good visibility in Senja, we were overwhelmed by the mountains, landscapes and views we encountered.
Our third stop was in Kvaloya, or 'Whale Island' - where we were treated with even more coastal mountain views and deep Fjord valleys. As we travelled north, it felt as if we were going back in time, fleeing spring conditions and re-winding 6 weeks to more wintery slopes. Where we had seen copious glide cracks, wet spring avalanches and full depth slides further south, Kvaloya offered vast, snowy landscapes and another lifetime of opportunities for ski adventures. We managed an 893m afternoon tour to Gratinden after parking in a lay-by on our journey between our previous and upcoming accommodation. Again, windy summit conditions gave a fairly wild feeling to these panoramas and after a super fun spring snow, sub 30° descent, we took the Reindeer-strewn roads to our mountain hut style home nestled up a dirt track towards the woods. With a chilly 'hang-a-sack-of-water-in-a-tree-and-sprinkle-yourself' shower and an outdoor composting toilet, this cosy £7.50pppn wooden abode cut corners on cosmetics and made up for them with a 'tour from the door' location and an ideal outdoor fire-pit. We spent a rainy day shouting at a shuffleboard in Tromso and then took the hazy sky opportunity to explore on the following day. With high avalanche risk, wet and heavy snow conditions, we were once again searching for sub 30° terrain. We ended up clocking 1500m ascent and 18km around Finnkollen, Nattmalstuva and Mjeldscartindenn and had an awesome day soaking up the empty landscapes of this beautiful Arctic Island - check out the video below for the scenes we encountered.
After a late night enjoying the fire pit, it took a while to pack up our equipment the next morning before getting on the road towards the Lyngen Alps. We had chosen a tour en route and hoped to summit Leirholstinden, although we were aware that we were late starting considering the warm, sunny conditions. When we decided the summit slopes were too risky in the current snow conditions, we chose an alternative summit with a lower gradient approach and were rewarded with the viewpoint seen below.
We completed our trip with 3 nights in the mighty Lyngen Alps. This 90km long, 20km wide range of mountains sits surrounded by deep and wide Fjords and boasts much larger and often glaciated mountains. With mind bending scenery and seemingly unlimited couloirs, summits, ridges, slopes and cliffs everywhere we looked, we felt like we had left the best till last on what was an already amazing trip. After again settling into a comfortable old Norwegian family home, we headed straight for our biggest day of the trip up Daltinden (1533m) where we would get immense views across the valley at Jiehkkevarri, the highest summit of these Alps. After a 6km undulating approach crossing countless streams and obstacles, the 1533m ascent to our objective made for a tiring 9 hour outing but seemed a fitting way to sample this much larger and awe-inspiring scenery. Hearing numerous falling seracs and rumbling avalanches, these mountains felt very much alive and the thought of this glaciated landscape enduring two months of 24/7 darkness each year creates an image of an awesomely harsh environment.
We finished the trip with one of the most scenic tours we had encountered, skinning up Russelvfjellet (approx 750m) which perches above the northern peninsula of the Lyngen Alps, offering panoramic views of the surrounding Fjords. The gully down the west face offered a 700m vertical drop on a 35-40 degree gradient in perfect spring snow, allowing us to ski bigger faster turns to the bottom and sits in the memory as the most fun descent of the trip, as well as being the last of my winter season.
So there we have it - two weeks of exploration and ski touring in the awesome landscapes of Arctic northern Norway with a great group of mates. Not sure a 'holiday' could get much more rewarding and memorable and it has certainly lived up to it's dream trip reputation. We are well aware of how fortunate we are to travel to locations like these, as well as being aware of the glacial retreat and warming temperatures in these pristine environments. Yet another reminder of how significantly our climates are changing and on a timescale within our lifetimes. Whilst showcasing natural beauty and a love for the wild with my films and photography is nice, I am becoming increasingly hungry for some sense of purpose for my admittedly hedonistic adventures and look to analyse more closely my personal footprint. Whilst we earned every single turn skid on this trip through hiking, ate largely meat and dairy free diets and filled every seat in our hire car, our use of aviation seems the most glaring contribution to our footprint and easiest potential room for improvement.