Norway: Strap yourself in for a ski tour de force
Accessing the Norwegian slopes via a speedboat in the Arctic, Colin Nicholson discovers new thrills high above the fjords
Sunday 24 February 2013
If you want the adrenalin rush of downhill skiing, but in a virtually untouched landscape, there is a solution: ski touring. By boat. In Norway. Not only will it save you carting your worldly goods on your back, as you would going touring from hut to hut in the Alps, but you'll also be rewarded with spectacular views over the Arctic Ocean.
Early last May, I flew to Tromso, some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the crystal-clear waters were ringed by bright white mountains. After a three-hour transfer along the fjords, spotting sea eagles and reindeer on the way, my group arrived at the stylish Lyngen Lodge. Here the giant head of a musk ox set above a roaring fire gazed impassively over the bare log walls and Nordic-chic furniture towards eight en suite bedrooms. The lodge was built by an Englishman, Graham Austick, who founded the Piste to Powder team of ski guides in St Anton, Austria. Having been seduced by the beauty of the fjords when he came skiing here on a yacht, he wanted to create something more permanent.
Two Austrian ski guides were to lead us through the mountains. The experts set off with Paul, while Burkhard guided our group, which included two newcomers to ski touring. Before we were let loose on the boat, we set off to conquer the mountain near the lodge.
On the face of it, ski touring is a parallel skiing world, and one that you might never guess existed. However, if you've seen fit-looking people trudging up the side of a piste on skis, then the chances are that on the bottom of their skis are "skins", which stop them sliding backwards. Once you are kitted out with this sort of gear, anywhere in the mountains is yours to discover.
Trudging up our practice hill, everyone fell into step, our poles moving in a wave-like rhythm, so that our phalanx of eight ascended the mountainside looking like a centipede.
After two hours of zigzagging up the steep incline, we stopped for avalanche training, doing timed searches for the transceiver buried in Burkhard's bag, deep in the snow.
"Faster, faster," he commanded. "My sandwiches are freezing."
Two hours later we had climbed 1,000m. To descend, we had to peel off our "skins" – traditionally sealskins were used but ours more closely resembled strips of carpet – and lock the heels of our bindings to our skis. While he was helping us, one of Burkhard's skis slipped straight down the mountain, so he descended, elegantly enough, on one ski, as we kept close behind.
Further down, the risk of avalanches and hidden cliffs lessened, so we could find our own lines down. Carving S-shapes on the wide open slopes, we followed the water back to the lodge, where we collapsed into oversized armchairs while Burkhard headed back up the mountain to search for the missing ski.
Our time in Norway came just before the longest day of the year (which lasts two and a half months). It never got dark. Had I not been exhausted, I would have taken up Graham's offer of midnight skiing, which you do on north-facing slopes to get the full glare of the midnight sun.
Instead, after a suitably Arctic dip in the sea, I basked in the outdoor hot tub and the sauna, and admired the view of aquamarine glaciers flowing through the waves of white peaks. It was just after we had sat down to a magnificent dinner of reindeer meat when the elated figure of Burkhard burst through the door, clutching the errant ski.
The next day, having proved ourselves more or less capable, we went to the tiny harbour down the road, where the lodge's Spirit of Lyngen speedboat was bobbing in the clear blue water. To augment our collection of ski touring gear – skins, shovels, transceivers, probes – we added life jackets. Cutting through the calm waters of the Arctic Ocean, Burkhard and Idse, the skipper, consulted the charts for the best ascent of the island of Utoya. This remote isle had no dock nearby, so we launched the dinghy, piled high with skis, and picked a sandy beach for our landing spot where we could set up.
It took me a while to get the hang of things, foolishly sticking one of my skins on back to front and then wondering why I couldn't move my left ski. Once I'd rectified the problem, I discovered that part of the pleasure of ski touring is stopping to admire the scenery. After just half an hour's climb, the boat looked like a tiny toy in a huge bathtub, before disappearing entirely from view.
What kept me going – other than the thought of my glorious packed lunch – was knowing we were in for another brilliant descent on slopes that at times appeared to drop straight into the sea. You don't have to be a pro to get down them either. Even on the steepest slopes, the deep powder slowed down our skis beautifully. The only other people we saw were some fishermen, who waved at us when we put out our own lines from the back of the boat to catch supper for the cook to prepare at the lodge.
The third day had us practising our kick turns, which are necessary for the steepest climbs. It was the sunniest day so far. However, as we neared the top, we ran into the clouds; I saw Burkhard consulting his GPS ever more regularly as we inched our way forward in the white-out.
Had I been paying more attention the evening before, I would have realised why he was being so cautious. Over the dinner table hung a picture of skiers peering down a sheer drop of 1,000m – and we were at the very same point. Our view was utterly obscured yet there was still the reward of skiing down pristine slopes, and the search for the way home through the maze of forest back to the sea.
And if we were deprived of an incredible view at the summit, we had a far more amazing sight on our return. From the shore, we saw a school of porpoises put on a fantastic acrobatic display of corkscrew jumps. Now that's the way to finish off a ski season.
Colin Nicholson stayed as a guest of the Lyngen Lodge (00 47 476 278 53; lyngenlodge.com), which offers week-long stays in a double room from mid-February to the end of May for Nkr25,500 (£2,948) including full board and transfers, as well as boat, 4x4 and snowmobile rides, but not equipment hire or drinks. Ski-touring hire packages start at £150.
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