Mike's email captured my interest immediately. Would I be interested in hiring a camper van and ski touring in Norway at the start of April? How could anyone decline such an offer? I leapt at the chance. Granted, the prospect of a camper van in Arctic Norway, in winter, may not appeal to the masses, but it definitely should! Adventure, world class powder, enticing terrain, stunning views and stories to embellish forever more await those who break from mainstream touring in the European Alps.
Beating the airline's baggage allowance was as fun as ever. It's always so much fun; ski boots and duvet jackets on, pockets crammed with gloves, socks and strangely this time, my own bodyweight in dried fruit. Sweat streaming down your face, shuffling awkwardly in your boots, all in stifling heat, you feel almost euphoric in beating the system. But alas, the folk checking us in don't even care that the bags are all over! So the sweating, increased blood pressure and thought of additional charges were in vain. Norwegian Air we salute you.
Caroline's touring guidebook (indispensable) whetted our appetites as we poured over the pictures. Every photo promised epic panoramas, long descents and virgin slopes. Troms' latitude of 70° North, well within the Arctic Circle, ensures a long season and reliable snow. Most mountains sit between 1000 and 1200 metres above sea level, the highest, Jiekkevarre is 1833m; which is fantastic, negating the need for acclimatisation. Unfortunately the avalanche forecast wasn't the best for us, depth hoar and wind slab on every aspect preventing skiing the steeps. That said, it really didn't matter; although we didn't ski anything steeper than 30°, the snow and terrain was fantastic on gentler slopes. After speaking with a local guide it seemed that late February to early April is best for skiing powder, thereafter it's best for skiing steeps in the more settled spring snowpack. We'll just have to go again... the drama!
Flying into Tromso is a spectacle in itself; fjords and peaks stretch out in the vast wilderness, winter coat resplendent in the moon's rays. A couple of orange specks in the distance announce habitation of some form... you can't help but wonder what daily life entails for those people. Stepping off the plane wasn't as harsh as we'd expected, winters are relatively mild here given the temperate sea. Snow carpets everything from sea to summit, though at sea level it was often an amenable -1 or 0°. We'd no real idea of the size or quality of our camper van. I'd set low expectations to avoid any disappointment, I had a knackered, cold, rickety chip van in mind. Jan (the rental owner, wonderful service) met us at the airport and walked us to the 'Challenger'. It blew our expectations; two years old, 7.2 metres long and in perfect nick, it was ideal. Jan explained the essentials of turning the heater on (we were never cold and our kit always dried out overnight) and how to use the chemical toilet. I don't think any of us were overly keen to test it- nobody wanted to be the first person! Then, we were off in search of some skiing.
Our plan was loose. We'd consult the guidebook, drive over to the base of the mountain and take it from there. It was my first time to Norway; it's like Scotland on crack: the Lyngen Alps rise steeply from a sapphire sea, rocky ridges bristling into the distance, huge cliffs dominating valleys, instigating a sense of foreboding. Birch trees stand to attention, lined up in perfect formation a few hundred metres up the hillside. Driving anywhere takes a long time, each road bend revealing a new view, each requiring a photo stop, none of which do justice.
I'd not met all the others before, a week in a motor home with strangers can go one of two ways I suppose! As I'd known it would, it went the right way, and we had a fantastic week. As a team, we were well rounded; Caroline's and Sam's medical expertise were much appreciated, Tom's and Mike's mountaineering skills invaluable and my ability to make a fine brew (Yorkshire blend of course- we really tried to show Caro the error of her ways in drinking Earl Grey).
The mountains looked serious, previous avalanches and crown walls were visible from afar. The snowpack had a lot going on; similar to Scotland's with ever changing wind speeds and directions as well as prolonged low temperatures. I'd just spent the winter ski instructing in Japan where avalanche conditions frequently stopped me from getting into the back country, I was glad to see the others felt equally cautious in this regard; Norway's mountains aren't the place to risk it for a biscuit.
Biscuits and brews accounted for a good proportion of each day. Tom and Mike are men after my own heart, considering it downright impudent to leave the sanctuary of the van without at least three brews. Hydrated and well nourished, we'd put our skins on and begin the ascent. Handily, skinning tracks were in place everywhere we went, although it was rare to come across any other skiers and we never skied anything but fresh lines... utopia. Day one revealed all great minds actually do think alike; Mike, Tom and I glamorously attired in blue jackets and black pants, Sam and Caro matching in black tops and purple pants. We could have been a sponsored British ski team…
Putting skins on by the sea is surreal. Skinning through small villages, past houses, petrol stations and supermarkets feels completely weird. Now and again we even skated along the road, cars overtaking us, drivers waving as they went past. They'd have known we weren't Scandinavians, our technique not honed enough, my fall in the face of oncoming traffic (!) was certainly a giveaway, but I did wonder if they could guess we were Brits? Do we have a winter look to rival the stereotypical Brit abroad- straw hat, t-shirt, short shorts and sandals with socks? Let's hope not.
Walking uphill is hard work. Skinning uphill is different somehow though. The gentle swishing of the ski in soft snow, knowing every 10 steps gifts a turn, and not quite making that kick turn- face planting to the delight of your mates, all results in being at the top in no time. Skins off, skis on, hats off, helmets on, boom! You're ready. Glory slopes surround you. Open bowls and faces yield turn after turn on perfect pitch in perfect snow. Skis rip through the featherweight snow, 40 cm deep, blasted into the air like a plane's vapour trail. Skis compress, rebound powering you into the next turn, euphoric grins visible miles away. Half way down we meet up, it's too good to stop otherwise. Bowls and faces give way to rollers, gullies, trees, ridges, drops and jumps. And all still in exquisite snow.
Seven days of skiing granted us five summit days and two tree skiing when the weather was too iffy up high. If you like the sound of what I've described above, just imagine it every day! We had a couple of bluebirds, allowing plenty of opportunity for sunburn(!) and photos. It snowed every night, erasing the day's triumphs of short turns, manicured for another day's activity. Wind halted us from the upper mountains twice; rapid windslab accumulation and a high reading on the 'ming-o-meter' meant it was futile to continue. The beauty is it doesn't matter, if the weather's bad up top you session the sheltered trees, freshies all day long!
Aside from the quality of skiing, I'd love to return to Norway. Locals were all friendly and helpful, happily informing us about the weather and ski conditions. Shops and garages were very understanding when it came to filling our water bottles. It seemed people appreciate how tricky winter can be and look out for one another, a nicely reassuring virtue. Wildlife is abundant, a moose played chicken with our motor home, dodging into the trees at the last moment, much to our relief. Whales revealed themselves in the fjords whilst squadrons of birds flew in perfect formation over them. Everything added up to create an unforgettable experience which I can't wait to repeat.
Between us, we've amounted years of skiing, visiting the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, the European Alps and even Antarctica. Bearing this is mind, it's a testament to the quality of Norway's touring that we agreed we'd had some of the best runs of our lives. The problem is waiting till next year!
Our trip cost us roughly £500 each for flights, motor home hire, fuel, food and a few wee drams.
Norway's notoriety for exuberant prices isn't a myth; food is two to three times more expensive than the UK. A pizza place at Tromso airport offered half a pizza for £25! We paid for an extra hold bag and filled it with food and some booze from the UK. It's well worth doing.
'Ski Touring in Troms' by Espen Nordahl holds enough adventures to dream about for years!
Motor home rental with 'I Caravan Rental' was £1000 for the week, sleeping five. Fuel at the time of our trip (April 14) was only about 10 pence more per litre than the UK. Ferries were pricey but useful, generally at £40 each. Check: www.icaravanrental.no for details.
Norwegian Air is a budget airline, our return flights from Gatwick to Tromso were £150 each. www.norwegian.com
Lyngen Lodge provides updates on weather and avalanche conditions. IFMGA mountain guides run ski touring courses and if you're feeling plush it looks like a stunning place to stay. www.lyngenlodge.com
'We Die Alone' by David Howarth recounts the incredible true of story of Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian commando evading capture after a compromised mission in World War Two. It took place in Troms and is a remarkable read, all the more astounding when you're there.
Service Aurora provides forecasts for the Northern Lights. It was too cloudy during our trip, but Troms is well known for being a likely place to see them. www.aurora-service.eu
- SKILLS: Part 5 - Observations on the Hill 17 Dec, 2020
- SKILLS: Part 4 - Planning and Decision Making 10 Dec, 2020
- SKILLS: Part 3 - How to Use the SAIS Website 3 Dec, 2020
- SKILLS: Part 2 – What to Look For in the Weather Forecast 26 Nov, 2020
- SKILLS: Part 1 - How Forecasts Work Together 19 Nov, 2020