Hundreds of miles from the crowded slopes of the Alps, on the shores of a remote fjord in Arctic Norway, a new lodge is offering skiers a unique thrill – the chance to travel by boat to a different pristine mountain each day. Henry Druce is captivated
For a split second we are airborne as the boat speeds over a 2m wave and comes thumping down the other side. ‘Whoa!’ shouts one of my fellow passengers as the bow returns to the water and we land back in our seats. Peter, the young Norwegian skipper, is totally unfazed as he continues to steer our vessel towards Tafeltinden, our mountain destination for the day – one of many impressive peaks thrusting straight out of the sea on the other side of the fjord. This is already squaring up to be unlike any other skiing trip I have been on and we haven’t even reached the slopes.Seven other thrill-seeking skiers and I had boarded the Spirit of Lyngen, a muscular 500-horse power vessel with the reassuring look of a RNLI lifeboat, at one of the tiny harbours that hug these far-north Norwegian shores. The snow-coated mountain backdrop and -5C temperatures made it feel slightly less incongruous to be walking down a pontoon in between brightly coloured fishing vessels and motorboats while carrying skis, poles, rucksacks and ski boots.
Our £200,000 boat was acting as a high-speed water taxi service between our lodge on one side of the Lyngen fjord and the mountains that lay on the other side, on the Lyngen Peninsula. This 60-mile-long, 10-mile wide peninsula is home to Norway’s most impressive mountain range, the Lyngen Alps.
These Norwegian mountains have all the pointy peak perfection and jagged lines of their larger European cousins, without the scale. The highest peak, Jiekkevarre (1,880m), is less than half the height of the Alps’ highest mountain, Mont Blanc (4,810m), and more common are peaks at 1,200m-1,500m. But what they lack in size they make up for with sheer grandeur, as many of these mountains rise directly out of the ocean, enabling you to ski literally all the way to sea level. Snow cover is consistently good thanks to a happy combination of Arctic air temperatures and the Gulf Stream. Northerly winds pick up moisture and are forced upward as they reach the Lyngen Alps where the water is dispensed as bounteous quantities of powder snow.
All of this is possible at this relatively low altitude because of the area’s extreme northerly location. The peninsula points due north from the very top of Norway, at the same latitude as Alaska and Siberia, and only 2,000km from the North Pole. Its unique location and impressive snow record is what attracted British mountain guide Graham Austick to the area where he set up his ski touring company Summit to Sea. He says: ‘There is nowhere else in Europe where you can do this. You would have to go to deepest Alaska to get a similar experience and this is only a four-hour flight from the UK.’
It feels very remote though, as we speed towards the peninsula in the Spirit of Lyngen on a perfect blue-sky day. We see one or two fishing boats during our 20-minute journey across the deep blue fjord waters and only a handful of buildings on this stretch of the peninsula’s eastern coastline. The peninsula has a population of just 3,200. We drop anchor a short distance from the ribbon of rocky shoreline at Strupbreen bay, created by a receding glacier that only 100 years ago carved into the Lyngen fjord, and make our final leg of the journey by dinghy.
‘Skins on,’ cries Graham once we are all ashore, referring to the strips of sticky material you attach to the bottom of your skis to enable the bases to grip when sliding them uphill.
Well, you weren’t expecting a chairlift were you? The Lyngen Alps are totally undeveloped and a protected area with the aim of maintaining the range’s raw natural qualities for future generations. This includes not allowing any ski lifts or heliskiing operations, so the only way to reach a peak and access potentially awesome slopes of untouched powder is under your own steam.
We set off up a steep, narrow slope on the Strupbreen glacier flanked by rocky walls, and traverse from side to side, leaving zig-zag tracks in our wake. The group soon slips into its natural pecking order from fittest and most able first, to the less fit or willing trailing at the back.
Whether banker (there were three of them), builder, businessman or journalist, each of us quickly establishes our own rhythm, co-ordinating swinging arms, sliding skis and pole plants to create the strange sensation of climbing up a mountain on skis. It is -5C but our physical exertions and the stillness of the day make it feel much warmer. We end up toiling for about five hours to reach the 1,395m summit of Tafeltinden, including a three-hour stretch on a mostly flat section on top of the glacier.
From the summit, we are presented with another jaw-dropping panorama: the unbroken sunshine turning the snow-clad mountains, which stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions, into blurs of brilliant whiteness. The scene is calmed and complemented by the deep-blue backdrop of the sea washing up against the numerous mountain shorelines.
The icing on the cake – the descent – is as thrilling as the ascent has been physically challenging. Graham leads us to a 300m-long slope of untouched powder on a 40-degree pitch, which translates as ‘scarily steep’ for this particular skier. ‘If you fall here, you won’t stop until you reach the bottom,’ says Graham reassuringly. He goes first and we follow one after another, carving big arcs, flying through the ankle-deep powder and savouring every moment of each hard-earned turn. Everyone makes it down without falling and has Cheshire-cat grins by the time they reach the bottom. The rest of the half-hour descent is gentler but no less spectacular as we follow the Koppangsbreen glacier to a small fishing port where skipper Peter is waiting to pick us up in the Spirit of Lyngen.
Every day with Summit to Sea is a variation on this theme. Graham decides where to go depending on weather conditions on the day and chooses from well over 50 routes that he has painstakingly mapped out (the number is constantly increasing). On one occasion the boat takes us to an island and a classic, unbroken fall line descent of 1,142m all the way from peak to shoreline. Another day we are dropped at the bottom of a 38-degree slope where the wind is so strong it feels as if it could peel us off the mountain; the next to a spectacular ridge walk and then descent through untouched, knee-deep powder – so good that after a long day we hike up to do it again.At the end of each day we return by boat – sometimes stopping mid-journey for a spot of fishing – to our luxury accommodation, Lyngen Lodge, completed in March. The £1m eight-bedroom lodge has a spacious feel with an open-plan dining and living room area. The theme is rustic with the lodge made from Scandinavian pine and the dining table from oak; the fireplace uses rocks from nearby beaches. There are pictures of wildlife on the walls and overlooking the guests is a stuffed muscox head. ‘The idea is to bring nature inside,’ says Graham’s partner, Liz, who runs the lodge.
The lodge has giant windows letting you gaze in awe at the mountains on the Lyngen Peninsula and check out some of the routes you skied, while munching on a perfectly baked slice of cake. Or you have a similar view while sitting in the lodge’s outdoor hot tub.
In the evenings Liz serves up top-quality food using produce from the local area – reindeer with pan-fried vegetables and turbot with sweet potato mash for example. The wine flows like the conversation as we chat over the day’s events and what the following day has in store.
And so to bed: happily knackered, superbly well fed and slightly quizzical as to whether that slight lack of balance is due to physical exhaustion, lack of sea legs or the extra can of Arctic beer …