69° NORTH: Sailboat-Based Ski Touring Above the Arctic Circle
How one British mountaineer discovered pure happiness over two weeks in the far north fjords of Norway
*words and photography by Paul Caddy
When a friend asks whether you want to go sailing in the Arctic, you think about it (I'm not a sailer). When your friend adds, “Oh, and we'll be ski touring too,” you go. You drop everything and just go.
Arctic Norway has some of the best sea-to-summit and summit-to-sea ski touring in the world. At almost 70 degrees north—the same latitude as the far north of Alaska—you'd think that you'd need a state-of-the-art, nuclear-powered icebreaker to reach the shores of this Scandinavian country. But you don't. Thanks to the relatively mild Atlantic currents which slosh warm waters from the Caribbean's white sand beaches to the far north of Europe, the coast of Norway pretty much remains ice-free throughout the year (with water temps hovering in the 40s Fahrenheit). And yet, wonderfully, the mountains remain caked in snow. It is a paradise for sailing and ski touring.
Timing is key though. For six weeks every winter the sun doesn't rise. This is the "mørketid" ("dark time"). It isn't the ideal time for exploring the mountains on skis, even though some muted sunlight from below the horizon washes into the sky for a fleeting few hours a day. The locals hibernate in their homes with candles and thick, fuzzy blankets and dream of the time after the spring equinox when the days grow longer by ten minutes each day.
By the time we, a group of four ski tourers and sailers of varying abilities, arrived last April the sun rose at about 5.30 a.m. and didn't set until past 8 p.m. Two weeks later, the sun rose an hour earlier and set an hour later. It never really got dark.
In anybody's book, that's a generous amount of time to get into the mountains. And that's the joy of skiing in Norway: not having to feel rushed. Rushed to get out of bed and out of the door. Rushed to get up the mountain and down it again. Rushed to squeeze as much skiing in as possible before the sun sets in the late afternoon. There's none of that, just the luxury of taking as long as you like to schlep up and blast down the local mountains, or, fjells, as they prefer.
At times we hired a guide, such as when we climbed Tafeltinden (4,576 feet from sea level) in the achingly handsome Lyngen Alps, a thin sliver of angry terrain sandwiched between two equally thin inlets, the Ullsfjorden and Lyngenfjorden to the east of Tromsø. According to our guidebook this area is Norway's wildest for ski touring. At times we struggled to contest this claim, as we skinned across the Koppangsbreen glacier surrounded by a devil's amphitheater of needle-like cliffs, couloirs and gloomy, intermittent mist. It felt like 69 degrees north. And then some.
The mountain alternated between flat glacial expanses and steep, icy sections which betrayed the rocky slopes a yard or so beneath our skis. It demanded a singularity of purpose. Slip here and things could have gotten, well, interesting. I suppose that this is why the guidebook rated the trip as "difficult." By the time we reached the summit, having clipped off our skis and trudged the final hundred yards or so, the wind had gotten up and visibility was reduced to about fifty yards. For a fleeting couple of minutes we could proclaim our victory: the summit belonged to us and we were happy.
"Who can resist spending time in a country of such raw and otherworldly beauty?"
This is what skiing in Norway does to you: makes you happy. Happy in a gotta-work-for-it, you-might-have-to-get-a-bit-sweaty sort of way; happy knowing that if you skin up through powder snow, you can ski back down through it too.
But don't get me wrong, the place isn't perfect. (Where is?) It wasn't all powder. Sometimes the white stuff was more akin to ice than snow. Often it was frustratingly crusty. But isn't a bit of imperfection what makes a place real? Even happiness has its rough edges.
For me, there truly is no better time and place to go ski touring and, frankly, who can resist spending time in a country of such raw and otherworldly beauty? The problem is you might never want to get back on the plane back home. I certainly struggled...