Northern Heights: Summit to sea skiing on Norway’s Lofoten islands

Words Ingrid Backstrom | Photos Adam Clark

Northern Heights

Big mountain ripper Ingrid Backstrom has gathered up some buddies and booked a lodge on a remote Lofoten fjord, where mountain walls rise from the water offering awesome summit to sea skiing

Travelling around Norway, seeing people board the public transport system in Oslo with their Nordic or Alpine gear, it’s easy to imagine Norwegians born with tiny pairs of skis on their feet right back to their Viking ancestors. Skis, however, traditionally were only used sparsely in the country, for transportation across less-populated areas, before the late 1800s. It was only then, after the separation with Sweden, that Norwegian leaders looked to promote skiing as a source of pride (look at our explorers. Sport is part of who we are!) to help develop a national identity.

Those leaders were geniuses, because Norway is made for skiing. Sliding on snow there feels as ancient and natural as the mountains and the sea themselves, and Lofoten, despite having one tiny chairlift, is no different.

A collection of islands, fjords and small hamlets populated mostly by fisherpeople and those catering to the sightseeing and tourist trade (people come from all over to ogle the fjords and quaint villages), Lofoten is more recently becoming known for its incredible backcountry terrain.

Seth Hobby and Maren Bistrup, owners of Northern Alpine Guides and co-operators of Lofoten Ski Lodge, have helped put Lofoten on the skiers’ destination map. Maren, a Norwegian, and Seth, an American mountain guide who met Maren traveling the world, fell in love with the mountains here, and made it their mission to get up in them and help others do the same. I felt incredibly lucky to get invited last February to visit this magical place.

Arriving in the Tromsø airport after over 30 hours of travel, I met up with Stian Hagen (Norwegian, mountain guide, badass, and former Matchstick Productions star who lives in Chamonix), Christina Lustenberger (Canadian, mountain guide, badass, and former Olympic ski racer who lives in Revelstoke), Austin Ross (Canadian, paraglider and speed-flyer, badass, and all-round highly talented skier from Whistler), Adam Clark (Salt Lake City-based photographer, badass, talented skier and mountaineer with an artist’s eye), and Fred Arne Wergeland (Oslo-based Norwegian filmer and editor, badass, snowboarder with a high level of patience and a huge tolerance for suffering with a massive pack).

Since frozen pizza is Norway’s national food (they consume more frozen pizza per capita than any other nation), we shared a few frozen pizzas in the airport before boarding our final flight to Svolvaer, a small fishing town located at the base of 6000 foot peaks. Seth, Maren, and their daughter Nora excitedly greeted us at the 200-year-old timber lodge, located on a fjord, and showed us around: reading nooks, large open kitchen and a downstairs bar and lounge, adorned with large rugs and overstuffed furniture. They took us to the sleeping quarters across the way, quaint fisherman’s cabins with private rooms, fireplaces, and space for 50 guests.

I collapsed in bed, only to be woken a few hours later by a pounding at our door, and a yell that sounded like someone saying “lights going off”. Christina and I dragged ourselves outside in the freezing Arctic air to catch the tail end of a brilliant Northern Lights display. I was getting the hint that Lofoten might be even more spectacular than I’d heard.

We had a few cloudy days to get the lie of the land. We got turned around from one objective due to blowing snow and rising avalanche danger, and explored a more sheltered ridge near the lodge, getting some creamy turns through the low trees and views of mountains and water in every direction. We skied an amazing couloir winding up directly off the road above a fjord, topping out a few thousand feet up, with powder at the top, a little crux air in the middle, and rain-smoothed corn at the bottom.

There’s a small ski area in Lofoten, but the heavy snowfall and easily-accessed peaks make it an even better backcountry destination. Our ski touring set-ups – carbon skis with Kingpin bindings and glueless skins – turned the area into a virtual playground. Anything we could see, we could ski.

We woke early on the third day to the sun creeping over the horizon, the kind of sunrays and pastel purples, pinks and oranges that favour far northern latitudes. Drinking strong Norwegian coffee and taking a gazillion pictures, it felt like the sunrises and sunsets in spring there might be nature’s first little present to the locals for enduring the dark winters. Luckily they don’t mind sharing.

We drove into a neighbourhood in Svolvaer and started skinning up the street and through some backyards on Seth’s instruction. Soon we gained a small lake and could look out over town and the surrounding ocean and fjords.

The farther we climbed, the more spectacular the views. We worked just ahead of the sun, skiing short shots in the small window between when the light hit but before the snow began to rollerball in the heat. Christina has a thing for summits, so she led up to the 621m peak.

 Enjoying our perch on the pointy peaks, marvelling at the ocean and mountain views, we reluctantly descended, squeezing in as many photos and film shots as we could before the sun began to set.

The next few days were stormy and rainy to high elevations. One day, we skinned for an hour or so to scout some Alaska-like spines. From several kilometres away on the road they appeared to be caked with snow, and Stian skinned ahead excitedly. Once we got up close, though, it was clear that much of the white was ice.

The blowing wind reminded us that avi danger would be high, and the lines were high consequence. We split up, with the guys skinning higher into the descending fog only to make a few white-out turns in a bowl, while Christina and I skied a heavy gully and skinned the pleasant several miles back to the lodge.

Another day I went to the local ski area, took two laps up on skins, and was having so much fun on the creamy wet snow that I asked the lift operator if he would let me up for a free ride on the Poma lift before I was due to be picked up. He waved me on, smiling at the rain-soaked American and her few Norwegian words, and I grinned like a kid the whole way up and down.

Another day we drove an hour to the fabulous surfing beach at Unstad and marvelled at the massive waves.

Evenings were spent sharing delicious home-cooked dinners – local cod, waffles with brown cheese, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables (and not a frozen pizza in sight) – and relaxing downstairs by the fire, reading or chatting, or peppering Seth with questions about the terrain, planning our next day’s adventure, or watching the cross-country ski championships on TV.

Well, the Norwegians were watching the skiing and the rest of us were watching the Norwegians, laughing at how animated they became when viewing the races!

A few times we sweated it out in the sauna and then jumped in the fjord, shrieking at its icy coldness, before sprinting back into the cozy warmth of the lodge.

We lucked out with conditions to get some sun and powder, but even the rainy days in Lofoten were kind of magical. The mountains, the fjords, the Lofoten Ski Lodge and the vibe that Seth and Maren have created, as well as the awesome crew, made it a trip to remember.

I’m still marvelling at the forethought of those late 19th/early 20th century Norwegians to bring their country together over skiing and mountains. They made the most of what they have, and over a century later I’m grateful there are people there still taking pride in their country and nature, and that we can enjoy it.

Taken from Issue 138 of Fall-Line. Order it online here

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