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Gazette travel: Experiencing Norway from sea to summit

May 26, 2018 Updated: May 26, 2018 at 9:08 pm
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Skiing in the Arctic Circle is a sea-to-summit adventure, where you are literally skiing into the ocean. Photo courtesy of Juho Lukkari.

We split into two motorboats and sped through the crisp arctic air and anomalously calm waters of northern Norway's Lyngen Peninsula, anchoring in an eddy along the rocky shore.

In plastic ski boots, the eight of us clambered over seaweed-slicked boulders protruding from the sea, finally reaching the shore of mossy tundra softened by the May melt.

"This is probably the most dangerous part of the day," said Robert Jacobi of Germany, clumsily hopping from one boulder to the next.

Harsh terrain and potential avalanches in Colorado, the northern Rockies and Canada might have prepared me for the next five days backcountry skiing in the Lyngen Alps. But the hazards of the ocean? That was a foreign concept.

Everyone mastered the obstacle course though, and we started a five-hour climb - about 4,000 feet - through a maze of birch trees, past ptarmigans camouflaged by the snow, across the Gammvikblåisen Glacier ice field and up a sloping ridgeline to the summit of Storgalten peak.

With not a wisp of wind nor single cloud, the conditions were more like Colorado than Norway, which is known for overcast skies, chaotic storms and ruthless winds.

The absence of troublesome weather made it easier to focus on the topography. To the north was an arctic archipelago, steep mountains floating in icy water. To the south rose a jagged arête of peaks, cliffs and couloirs.

This contrast between deep sea and snow-capped summits was what I had flown across the world to find.

Liz Forster and Jaakko Vuorensola waiting for their turn to ski down Sorbmegáisá. Photo courtesy of Bob Forster. 

North of Arctic Circle

The Lyngen Alps are some of the world's northernmost mountains. Skiers reach their summits with no resorts, no lifts, no help, relying only on leg strength and mental fortitude to ski for a fraction of the time it takes to climb.

The closest city, Tromsø, population 64,000, is a gateway to the Lyngen Alps and the Arctic.

It sits 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle - 467 miles farther than Fairbanks, Alaska. It is the biggest city in northern Norway and the third largest north of the Arctic Circle.

The nearby coastline is dotted with villages - Lyngseidet, Furuflaten, Nord-lenangen. Scattered around them are red, gray and forest-green farmhouses, grazing reindeer and moose, and more tractors than cars.

Our base, shared with Jacobi, two other Germans, two Finns, my dad and our Finnish guide, Juho Lukkari, was about 3 miles from the 500-person town of Skibotn. The two-story cabin, known as the Black House, overlooked the Lyngen Fjord, an inlet carved thousands of years ago by glacial recession.

Ski season in the Arctic is limited to spring because there's no daylight from late November through mid-January. Though Scandinavians venture outdoors no matter the conditions, most tourists only come then to catch the Northern Lights.

By early March, though, the Lyngen region enjoys 10 hours of daylight. By mid-May, the sun sets, but the sky barely darkens. It's perpetual twilight until the sun rises again. So daylight rarely factors into skiers' start and end times, extending ski season until the snow melts.

From the Black House, we could see a blush-pink shadow cast across the mountains. Under each night's cloudless sky, the succession of pastel slopes extended to one of the area's last islands, Fugløya, and, like most of our views that week, to the sea.

"Out there," Lukkari said one night, pointing north, "you have one island - Svalbard - almost 1,000 kilometers away, and open ocean. That's it."

Hiking up the last steps to the summit of Kågtinden. Photo courtesy of Juho Lukkari. 

A Norwegian's pride

To explore this region by skis is quintessentially Norwegian. In "We Die Alone," author David Howarth tells of a Norwegian soldier in the Lyngen region trying to avoid capture by the Nazis during the occupation of World War II. In describing the soldier's escape into the mountains, Howarth characterizes skiing as a source of Norwegian nationalism.

"With a Norwegian's pride in his skill on skis, he knew (the Nazis) could not catch him. He climbed up and up, exulting in the skis and his mastery of them ."

Though skiing has transitioned from transportation to leisure for most Norwegians, the sport's predominance in the culture was showcased when we shared summit celebrations on Storgalten with 20 other Norwegians off work for the country's Labor Day.

Norway's ski culture is a manifestation of what Scandinavians call friluftsliv, or "open-air living." The lifestyle is based on a person's experiences of the freedom in nature and the spiritual connectedness with the landscape. In the city or countryside, friluftsliv is embedded in many Scandinavians' daily lives.

My group adopted the Norwegian way and quickly became more comfortable on skis than feet.

Our second day again was sea to summit, minus the boats. From a pull-off beside a road, we ascended through dense forest, then up into whipping, 50-mph alpine winds. Head down, muscles stabilized, the only choice was to charge to the summit. By the time we reached Sorbmegáisá's peak, at 4,226 feet, the winds had ceased, and we peacefully enjoyed panoramic views.

Looking east, the mountains flatten into glacial plateaus until subsiding into arctic plains just over the Finnish border.

Our descent faced west, toward mountains that seemed to crash into the ocean without the slightest foothill to ease the way. Each peak was its own unique feature: a sharp, rocky pinnacle; a rounded crown above a glacial bowl; a swooping wave.

From the Sorbmegáisá summit, we skied into a bowl of thin spring slush. The stimuli were overwhelming. Do I focus on the staggering peaks in front of me, the whitecaps in the ocean below or the euphoria of a perfectly carved turn?

I quickly realized it was a useless debate. The three elements combined epitomized the sea-to-summit experience. A fresh breath of arctic air in my lungs, I skied back to the ocean.

Refueling with fresh-caught salmon at the Black House, we reflected on this new frontier. For many of us, it was one of the farthest into the unknown we would access.

And we did so among strangers who spoke a swath of languages I didn't understand. Hiking to a peak, I was surrounded by German, Finnish, the occasional Spanish melody and English. The orchestra of tongues could have divided us. Instead, it became a source of cultural exchange, providing me with my newest summit cheer: Hammergeil, German slang for super awesome.

Our true bond, though, stemmed from the desire to share the bliss of a successful summit and exhilaration of the descent with others equally passionate about the sport.

"These are my favorite type of trips to lead, where I get to know and interact with a group, to ski with them all day then eat together at night," Lukkari said at the table. "There's just something special about those types of relationships."

The summit of Storgalten offers views of the peaks of the mainland of the Lygen Peninsula. Photo by Liz Forster. 

Infinite terrain

The next three days, we would travel to Perstind (3,008 feet) at the southern tip of the Lyngen Peninsula, then northwest through an underwater tunnel to Kågtinden (4,029 feet) on the island of Kågen, and finally to Rihpogáis (4,622 feet), an unassuming peak near the border of Finland. We ended the trip having climbed about 18,000 feet and skied everything from powder to spring slush to unbreakable wind-blown crust. And we hadn't even scraped the surface of the region.

"You could spend years exploring this area, and you'd never come close to running out of new places to go," Lukkari said repeatedly.

Northern Norway, usually known for its cloudy and overcast weather, surprised us with five days of sunshine. Photo by Liz Forster. 

Skiers are completing first ascents in uncharted areas of the Lyngen Alps every season, pushing the limits of what backcountry skiers deem "accessible."

That requires long days skinning through miles and miles of flat valleys before reaching the base of the intended peak or a winter camping spot. Though such treks are not uncommon in Colorado and other mountainous areas, the volatility of the weather in the Arctic adds an extreme element few places can match.

We didn't log any first ascents, but our ventures from sea to summit still induced the flow-state many experience while backcountry skiing.

This is "quiet, more natural" skiing than at a resort, as German companion Max Riekert aptly described it.

Maybe it's the pace. A ski lift can take you thousands of feet in less than 20 minutes, but a 4,000-foot backcountry climb can take all day, depending on the terrain.

You have time to analyze a single snow crystal or count the layers in a metamorphic rock jutting from the snow beside you.

In the Norwegian Arctic, it's just enough time to begin to comprehend the millions of years of geologic movement that sculpted the fjords and towed chunks of the mainland into an uninhabitable sea.

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