Travel: Skiing - Seduced by an Arctic roll

Riksgransen is not only Europe's most northerly ski resort but it is also a Mecca for snowboarders. By Stephen Wood
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The Independent Culture
For most European ski resorts, stocktaking has already started. With the two peak periods of Christmas week and the February holidays over, they can now assess what sort of season 1998/9 will prove to be. For some of them, of course, the simple profit-and-loss account will be overshadowed by the cost - in terms of avalanche damage and loss of life - of the heavy snowfalls which, a few weeks ago, were a source merely of optimism.

Things are different up in Riksgransen, 150 miles inside the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. There the season has only just got under way: because of the short midwinter days, and the flat light cast on the slopes by the low sun, the resort opens in the middle of February and closes - after a March/April peak - in late June. Stocktaking at Riksgransen will begin in May when, on a good day, skiers will be out on the slopes dressed only in T-shirts and shorts.

As a winter-sports destination, this small corner of the Arctic wastes has a reputation which varies between "Where?" and "Wow!". To Swedish skiers and boarders, Riksgransen has a truly international name, one which translates literally as "state border". Originally nothing more than a spot where Sweden and Norway met, it still - so the resort's marketing manager told me - sounds to non-skiers like an incomplete address. For skiers, however, its location permits the rare pleasure of going down a piste, the Gransleden, which begins and ends in one country but switches for most of its length into another.

The "Wow!" response comes from snowboarders: for them, Riksgransen is one of the world's winter-sport capitals, a reputation based on the terrain - the undulating dips and crests of its off-piste area make it a natural "fun park" - and built up by the resort's clever marketing and snowboarding sponsors' desire to keep their brand-names in the public eye until the early summer. With only a 400m vertical descent, it doesn't seem to offer much to downhill skiers. But for anyone seduced by the singular atmosphere and miraculous landscape of Arctic Scandinavia - since this is the third season running that I have travelled there to ski, I must count myself a victim - visiting Europe's most northerly ski resort is irresistible.

Oddly, Riksgransen owes its existence to Europe's biggest iron-ore mine, based 75 miles to the south-west in Kiruna. To exploit the rich seam of ore a railway was built across the mountains to the port of Narvik, on Norway's Atlantic coast. Built in several sections from 1884 onwards, the single-track railway was finally completed when Norwegian and Swedish rails were linked at Riksgransen in 1902.

At the time, the two countries were also linked, in a national union; and this symbolic junction demanded an appropriate gesture - a railway station which was then the second biggest in Sweden (bigger even than Stockholm's, so I was told), with separate waiting rooms for all three classes, an adjoining hotel, and enclosed tracks with doors at either end to keep the cold out.

A dozen years later this absurd white elephant was demolished, its timbers taken away to be used for building houses. But in 1930, Swedish Railways embarked on another attempt to make something of Riksgransen, by building a hotel for visiting skiers. Taken over by a national youth organisation soon afterwards, the resort flourished, and the country's first ski-school was established there in 1932; a succession of subsequent owners installed more lifts, and built apartments.

The original 1930 hotel has become the reception area of a large complex - still, admittedly, with something of a youth-organisation flavour, except down in the basement, where the Lapplandia restaurant serves extraordinarily good food at up-market prices (main courses from about pounds 10). The menu supposedly reflects Lapland cuisine; whether the indigenous Sami people usually put an avocado and feta cheese crust on their salmon I couldn't say, but I certainly didn't complain.

A ski area whose lifts (one two-seater chair and one three-seater, plus four drag-lifts) climb only to 909 metres clearly couldn't match the heights achieved by the cooking in the hotel's basement. The pistes, mainly easy reds, all run down a north-facing slope into the huge valley; and you could cover them in a single morning. But as was obvious from a first ride up the chair-lift from the resort base, on-piste skiing is not what Riksgransen is about.

Beneath the lift, snowboarders darted down the gulleys between the rocks and searched out ridges from which to attempt - usually unsuccessfully - ambitious flips and spins. Elsewhere, on off-piste areas between and beyond the marked runs, telemarkers knelt into the soft snow on their way down, and tourers used their ski-skins to climb up. Alpine skiers such as myself were easily outnumbered.

Riksgransen habitually opens with one-and-a-half metres of snow; this season it had only 70cm. With the limited snow cover available, many of the pistes had not been groomed. So the one black run remained a very challenging lumpy snow-field; and the blue run down to the bottom of the lifts was a switchback ride with some significant ascents between the descents.

The latter was, however, the resort's most enjoyable run, a lonely trek across the ski face towards an escarpment from which, across the railway, the road (built only in 1985) and the frozen lake, the awesome Arctic valley opened up, spreading about 25 miles to the east.

Was it cold? Yes, freezing: at least minus 10 degrees centigrade. But it was good, too - with another dinner at the Lapplandia restaurant still to come.

Sweden Tourism: 0171-870 5600

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