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Pining for the Fjords

Pining for the Fjords Climbing from a different beach to a different summit every day; and the skiing back down. Tom Hutton combines his sea legs and ski legs for a unique week of ski touring in Arctic Norway

Pining for the Fjords

“Ski boots don’t grip very well on seaweed”.
 
Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. But then again I never really thought I’d begin a day’s ski touring by scrambling off the deck of a 24m yacht into a rubber dingy. I guess it’s good to change things around now and again.
 
The short voyage from deck to deserted shore took just seconds and after a difficult scramble onto the beach, where I stumbled, quite literally, over the startling revelation made in the opening line, myself and my fellow ski tourers unload a multicoloured jumble of skis, packs and poles and wave goodbye to the skipper of the small, bouncy boat.
We watch as the bright red inflatable skips noisily back across the dark icy waters and as the engine fades we adjust boots and fiddle with packs accompanied only by the sound of the lapping waves.
 
 There’s little doubt that this particular day is starting right at sea level – good job really as my hands are too cold to remove my gloves and check my altimeter. Thankfully the summit we are heading for stands just 1,400m above that sea level rather than the 3 or 4,000m I’m used to.
 
Our small band gathers itself and makes a few final checks – transceivers, crampons etc – and then we clamber clumsily over more giant pebbles to the point where beach meets snowy slope. Towering above us now are the rather imposing jagged peaks of the Lyngen Alps.
 
It all seemed very laid back. In the Alps, the days tend to start at some ungodly hour – the only way to get to the top and back before the overnight freeze releases its grip on the snow and ice, making things more and more dangerous with every upward movement of the mercury. Here, we rise as the sun comes up – around 7ish for those not familiar with the lighting up times inside the Arctic Circle – and then eat a comfortable breakfast before plucking up the courage to sacrifice the warmth below deck for the icy cold above.
 
But that isn’t the only difference between this trip and an ordinary ski trip. My dorm is now a cabin; my dining room, a mess; the kitchen, a galley; and the loo has become a head! Still at least it looks like a toilet, even if using it does involve more opening and closing of taps and pumping of handles than a day spent driving Ivor the Engine.
 
One thing remains the same though: there is only one way I’m going to reach the top of this mountain and that’s by sliding one foot in front of the other. With my boots now tight and clicked into bindings, I fall into line.
 
The climb starts as all the others have, with a short flat section that leads easily from the pebble and weed covered beach to the foot of the steep slope. Then, with bindings clicked up a step in anticipation, the gradient suddenly jacks up to a rather brutal 20-25° and the work begins in earnest.
 
The snow is firm – a pleasant revelation. Some mornings it has remained light and powdery and new trails have needed to be broken. But the line choice on these lower slopes is more about an uphill slalom around the trunks and branches of countless hazel trees than it is about easing the strain on ski weary legs. I know I will have to do battle with this army of closely knit saplings again on the way down. By then snow will be softer and my legs even more weary.
 
The trees relent as the slope jacks up further, and the challenge now is just keeping going. The open slope funnels into a narrow couloir, bound on both sides by steep rock, and as this tightens, the spacing between each precarious kick turn gets shorter and shorter.
 
The trick is to keep sliding my skis forward, step after step, whilst applying as little downward pressure through the bases as possible. If either ski gives just a little, there’s a good chance I’ll be back on the beach before I’d intended to be. Think skiing uphill on egg shells that you don’t want to break and you won’t be a long way off.
 
Life on the Southern Star had been a whole new experience for a self-confessed land-lubber whose only previous time spent on boats was downing Guinness in the bar of the Swansea-Cork ferry. First impressions were slightly claustrophobic – hey, I live in a sprawling old farmhouse in the wide open spaces of Mid Wales – but I needn’t have worried, the cabins were surprisingly spacious, even when every available surface was draped with an item of drying ski touring clothing. And the luxury of sleeping in my own space, albeit it on a bottom bunk, and being just a few metres from the nearest loo (alright, head!) couldn’t be overstated.
 
As a rule, we skied all day and sailed through the evening – sadly only ever under engine, as we were a few crew members short of being able to hoist the sails. We then ate together – eight skiers, one guide and a crew of three – all crammed around a huge mess table before playing cards or talking a while before bed.
 
The Fjordland scenery was absolutely magnificent and we had spent more than one early evening up on deck, huddled together to keep warm, gawping at the sunset and photographing the alpenglow as it slowly slipped upwards off the tips of the highest peaks. A couple of nights after dinner we were treated to the aurora borealis – the greatest lightshow on earth. One particular night I was so enthralled with the laser-like display throwing its various hues all over the jet-black sky that I lost all feeling in my fingers and toes before I finally had enough. It gets very cold in Arctic Norway in March.
 
A short but exposed traverse led out of the couloir and onto easier-angled slopes covered with the lumps and bumps of terminal and lateral moraine. And after a few minutes of easy skiing, we spilled over the top of the highest bank onto the billiard table flat plateau of the Strupbreen Glacier.
 
It felt a little like arriving at the edge of a vast desert after the steep ski up, and although the sea of ice seemed almost without end at first glance, it was actually set in a surround of jagged peaks, with our objective, the 1395m Tafeltinden, dominating a cluster of very sharp, snow-covered teeth at the head of the valley.
 
I always struggle with long, flat skis. I’m just not mentally strong enough to keep putting each foot in front of the other without some sort of technical challenge to keep my mind occupied; especially if the scenery appears unchanging and my objective never seems to get any closer. While one or two of the group were revelling in the ease of it all – no falls to worry about and no gravity to push against – I just hunkered down, like I would if it was pouring with rain, and resigned myself to an hour or so on something that resembled a cold, icy treadmill.
 
This was actually the first glacier we’d crossed all week as we’d worked our way east from Tromsø, stopping daily to climb a different peak from a different beach. That wasn’t so surprising as we’d only just nudged above the 1,000m contour line a couple of times. This far north, it was of course the Arctic climate rather than the altitude and year-round snow cover that had provided us with the excellent skiing we’d enjoyed so far.
 
It was also the first time the scenery had really looked even remotely alpine. So far most of the skiing had been on lumbering whaleback mountains that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Scottish Highlands, especially with their windblown ridges plunging dramatically into long, slender fjords. We’d even sent up the odd flock of ptarmigan, resplendent in their dazzling full white winter plumage.
 
The glacier finally relents – am I the only person that is pleased to see the back of such easy going? And as my ski tips point uphill once again, I raise the steps on my bindings with an audible sigh of relief. The sharply-angled slope makes easy work of the final 100m or so to the top. And 30 minutes later, breathing hard yet grinning from ear to ear, I rest my skis against a giant cairn.
 
It is the high point – both literally and mentally – of a trip that has had so many highs. And whilst I’m looking forward to the ski back down –who wouldn’t look forward to an uninterrupted 1,395m of unpisted downhill amongst some of the most amazing scenery on earth – I’m in no rush at all to get started, and am glad, in a non-spiteful way, that one or two of the others are still some way beneath me, allowing me plenty of time to savour the moment.
 
It’s at times like these that I wish I smoked a pipe, or could at least write a poem or something. Instead a thousand thoughts rush through my mind as I tuck down in the shelter of the cairn. The Norwegian summits had proved to be quite windy and at these temperatures, a strong wind would soon suck the heat out of me.
 
One by one the others arrive. Each as out of breath as I’d felt just minutes earlier, and each grinning just as widely. Hands are shaken, hugs exchanged, and various flasks containing various types of hot liquid are eagerly passed around. But all too soon, before hands have time to get too cold, we make the necessary adjustments to our boots, skis and bindings and click into them for the big descent.
 
One of the biggest differences between ski touring and skiing on piste is the ever-changing surfaces you encounter; and so far the Norwegian mountains had managed a fair selection. This always calls for a wary approach, especially when wearing a heavy pack that makes standing up from even the smallest tumble quite an effort.
 
The first section of this particular descent was made in heaven though, and after just a few cautious warm-up turns, I am relaxed and slipping sweetly into the swing of the whole thing. The short, steep gulley leads onto a huge tongue of easy-angled glacier, and I give my skis a chance to run for a few seconds, before pulling up a little slower for the next steeper section.
 
This is what skiing in Norway is all about and as I stop to take a few pictures, I watch some of the others carving sweet, easy turns far below me. Their silhouettes look wonderful against a backdrop of virgin snow, high above the glistening gold waters of the huge fjord. I only wish I could see the yacht as well to give the scene some real perspective.
 
I join them, swinging left then right at will, but mainly hugging the fall-line in a series of short-swings that leaves me wanting to scream with pleasure. The wide, open spaces of the middle mountain finally give way to the steeper, tree-covered slopes we did battle with on the way up. Style goes well and truly out of the window; only care and decorum are called for to get through this lot in one piece.
 
I emerge from the trees onto the pebble-covered beach. The Southern Star sits just a few metres out into the bay. I wait for the others and we loosen our boots, babbling like children with the excitement of the descent. Within seconds our voices are drowned by the engine of the dingy and just minutes later the small red boat is pulling up onto the stones. We load skis, poles and packs first. And then we scramble aboard, ski boots again fighting for purchase on the slippery seaweed.
 
Minutes later, we’re back below deck supping on warm, sweet tea, with the conversation still raging on about the day’s skiing. After a day like that, I’m guessing it’ll carry on for some time yet…
 
LET’S GO
 
The Lowdown
The Lyngen Alps form a dramatic mountain range deep within Arctic Norway, east of the small university town of Tromsø. They actually sit astride a slender peninsula that points northwards from the mainland, slicing between two impressive fjords: Lyngen and Ullsfjorden. Ski touring here is becoming quite popular, with most boats sailing from Tromsø, and taking a few days to wind their way around to the Alps, stopping off at a different beach or harbour each day to make a tour.
 
Skiing from a boat is quite different to a hut to hut tour, as returning to the boat each night makes it possible to climb with a light pack yet still have luxuries such as an iPod, book and spare clothing when you return every evening. But the boat shouldn’t be thought of as a hotel as there are some limitations such as limited hot water, limited power to charge batteries, limited supplies of alcohol on board etc

Getting There
There are more and more low-cost flights to Norway with Norwegian Airlines now offering a direct flight from Stansted to Tromsø (www.norwegian.no). We were able to find Saturday to Saturday returns from less than £300. But most go via Oslo, from where internal flights need to be taken to Tromsø. SAS are the best bet with flights from Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham as well as the LondonAirports. Prices will be around the same or perhaps a little cheaper than the direct flights (www.flysas.com).
 
Getting around
This trip would be quite difficult to organise independently so assuming you book a package with a ski operator, they should provide transfers from the airport to the boat. From there on, you’re either on board or skiing.
 
When to go
Most of the touring is in March, when the temperatures are still quite cold, and the snow still good, yet it’s not completely unbearable!
 
Is it for you?
Most of the skiing is within reach of good intermediate skiers, with experience of off-piste, and knowledge of basic ski touring techniques such as kick turns and climbing on steep icy snow. Altitude isn’t an issue but a good level of fitness is required as you are likely to climb between 800m and 1500m every day. If you’re new to ski touring, you may be better off checking out some kind of introductory course, like the one featured in AT61.
 
What to pack
Unlike alpine ski touring, where you are often climbing in a t-shirt and are still too hot, you’re more likely to be climbing with a jacket on and hood up. For this reason, pack as if packing for hillwalking in full UK winter conditions, with temperatures dropping well below freezing at times. A 30-35L pack will suffice, and then go for a lightweight Gore-tex or eVENT jacket, with a good hood, and similar pants or very breathable soft shell pants with a pair of long johns to wear beneath them if it gets really cold. A good alternative is Parâmo gear, which tends to be warmer but more breathable than hard shell, and proves ideal in this kind of climate. Beneath, go for plenty of layers that can be added or taken off depending on conditions. And definitely go for warm gloves and a warm hat. A lightweight down jacket or vest is useful if for stops and for evenings on deck. A small, lightweight vacuum flask is useful for hot drinks.
 
Specialised touring skis, skins and boots can be hired from the operators – as can an avalanche transceiver, shovel, crampons and an ice-axe.
 
Who goes there?
The Author joined a tour organised by British Ski-touring experts: Pyrenean Mountain Tours. Take a peek at their website on www.pyrenees.co.uk or call them on (01635) 297209. Zubaski etc etc (Not sure what you want to say here)
 
Useful Books
Rough guide to Norway – particularly if you take a few extra days to explore either Oslo or Tromsø.
Backcountry Skiing by Martin Volken, Scott Schell, and Margaret Wheeler pb The Mountaineers Books
 
 
 
 
 

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