Friday, 25 April 2014

Winter Adventures in the Land of the Midnight Sun

Imagine a group of islands, far away, where steep spectacular mountains rise directly from the sea, where in the winter everything is covered with a pristine blanket of snow, from the summits right down to the wild, white sand beaches.
360 degree views like this everywhere
Small pretty fishing villages dotted around the islands, houses built perched on the water’s edge, with cod hanging to dry on traditional wooden racks as though you have stepped back in time, with a friendly, slow pace of life to match.
Cod drying on traditional racks
Where on a clear night, there are perfect views of the most incredible light show on earth. A place that time forgot, and where it’s easy to forget time, and just live simply. Sleep when it’s dark, eat when you’re hungry, forget about phones, computers, TV, and other gadgets and ‘necessities’ of the modern world that we sometimes feel we can’t live without.

Old farming relics
As well as all this, imagine if this group of islands were one huge playground for outdoor sports. With perfect conditions for ski mountaineering…easily accessible peaks where it’s possible to ski up from the beach to a summit, take in the most incredible 360 degree views of the mountains, islands, and ocean around, then pick any kind of descent, from wide mellow bowls, to steep, narrow couloirs, all with perfect powder, and finish down by the sea again. I must be dreaming right?

The magnificent view from Geitgaljen
Think again…this place exists and I’ve just been there J!

I should probably be keeping this a secret, as it’s the kind of place you don’t ever want to change and develop as more people discover it. But a) I’m not that selfish, and b) the effort required to get there and the adventurous nature of taking part in the activities on offer there will mean it’s not going to become a mainstream destination any time soon.

View from our lodge
The Lofoten islands lie north of the Arctic Circle, off the far north west coast of Norway, and are one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit.

Hilda, me, and Leanne
My companions on the trip were Leanne (by day an anaesthetist, by night a gnarly climber, mountaineer and skier, with bags of experience from first ascents and expeditions to remote places like Greenland, and Patagonia….very cool!) and Hilda (by day a GP and mother of two, by night a superfit ultrarunner, cyclist, and skier, who told me she once rode up and down the Alpe d’Huez climb 6 times in a row….for fun….my kind of girls!), who had planned the whole trip between them, leaving me just to turn up with my kit at the airport ready for 2 weeks of fun and adventure!

Celebrating another awesome view
I should add that I only met Hilda whilst skiing in La Grave at New Year, and Leanne whilst in Chamonix in January, and having only spent a grand total of about 2 days with each of them, I felt very honoured that they were willing to invite me on their annual ski touring trip! I can’t speak for them, but I had a brilliant time, and I hope there’ll be more adventures together in the future!

Lofoten Ski Lodge
We stayed at the Lofoten Ski lodge, which was absolutely fantastic. Comfortable cosy wooden cabins, with a huge communal building where we ate delicious meals each day, and cosy sheepskin rug-covered chairs by a roaring fire to curl up in after a long day out on the hills. The Norwegians certainly know how to do hospitality.
Menu board!
Getting to the Islands is not the easiest task from the UK, and involved several flights, a midnight ferry, and a long car drive at a ridiculous time in the morning, but after a short sleep in the (very full of kit) car, we arrived in time for breakfast of homemade bread, smoked salmon and eggs, cereals, fruit, porridge, and most importantly strong coffee, and were able to get straight out skiing for the day!

Still as glass
The skiing experience in Lofoten is pretty magical. There can’t be many places in the world where you put your skis on at sea level, climb to a summit, and descend back to finish at the sea! 

Adventure every day!
Every day was different but equally brilliant, with some great skiing in soft, hero powder, and some classic summits and descents ticked.
Shredding fresh pow on the way down from Torskmannen (The Cod man!)
 We were definitely in the minority as an unguided group (especially of all girls!), but with a pretty comprehensive background of experience in the mountains in winter between us, we made a strong team, and the route planning, weather watching and decision making needed were all part of the adventure for us.

Descending icy summits
Several of the summits needed a boot up in crampons and with an axe, which added nicely to the experience, and the views from the tops are something which even thinking about them now still take my breath away.
Just your average Lofoten summit view
Taking in yet another spectacular vista
 Maybe it’s the position of the sun in the sky there, or maybe it’s just the beautiful landscape and scenery around you, but the light in Lofoten is amazing.

Another day of stunning light
Everywhere you look you could take a snapshot image and it would be like a postcard view….sunlight breaking through clouds and hitting a snow arĂȘte, making the snow sparkle and glimmer in front of you. Even when the weather turns bad, and it can do….quickly!, the views are awe-inspiring and totally captivating.

And another one...
Yes, the weather is pretty unpredictable! It seems unusual to get a solid block of very settled weather, so you need to make plans quickly and go when it looks like you have chance! We had a few days of beautiful clear, sunny skies, but also some days where the weather was somewhat more ‘Scottish’, with zero visibility and horizontal sleet one minute, and brief weather windows of sun the next!

Getting ready to drop-in for the descent during a sunny weather window

Heading up to a summit in slightly more "Scottish" weather!
As the time went on, we settled into a routine involving skiing hard all day, heading back to the lodge for delicious waffles and mugs of tea, taking part in the exhilarating Norwegian tradition of alternating Sauna with a dip in the sea (definitely the coldest water I’ve ever been in…there was sea ice just around the corner!), eating more tasty food, often involving fresh cod, Lofoten’s main industry, then sleeping….lots. Must have been all that fresh air. It was simple, and wonderful.


It's good for you.....honest!!
During the second half of the trip, we organised a boat trip into the Trollfjord, Norway’s deepest and most famous fjord. Incredibly remote, with no road access, inhabitants, or phone signal, it’s a place where you are very much on your own, from when the boatman drops you off until you are picked up.

It’s also home to some amazing looking steep skiing lines. Unfortunately on the day we went (the best looking weather day of the days we had left), the weather was a bit changeable, and after breaking trail through the fresh overnight snow, sheltering in a bothy shelter when we lost all visibility and the wind picked up, we only had time to make it to a hut.

Hilda booting up a short icy section 

Leanne breaking trail in the remote Trollfjord
But it was a great recce trip, when the skies cleared we could see the possibilities for future tours all around, and the hut was well stocked with wood for the fire, comfortable beds, and even a sauna, meaning it’d be a great place to base yourself for a few days and do trips out of there…next time! Norwegian hut!

Outside the Trollfjordhytta
I’d thoroughly recommend Lofoten as a ski-mountaineering destination, but it’s not for everyone, and definitely not a place to go for your first trip, unless you hire a guide. There are none of the lifts to help you gain height that you find in places like Chamonix, far fewer people to help if anything goes wrong, less predictable weather than the Alps, and little chance of being able to call for a chopper rescue as it takes several hours to get there from its base on the mainland. It’s wild and remote terrain where you are much more on your own, but if you’re prepared for that, it all adds to give the place a sense of adventure that it’s hard to find in the busier places in the Alps.

Wild, remote, spectacular
One of the things I’d been most excited about for the trip, as well as all the great skiing, was the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. I’d never seen them before, and it’d been on my wishlist of things to see and do for a long time. Being so far north, lying under the Auroral belt, and having so little light pollution, northern Norway is one of the best places in the world to witness the Aurora, and I was desperately hoping we would. As the trip went on however, and even after sunny days, the sky became overcast each night, it seemed like it was just going to have to wait for another trip.

The Hurtigruten....slightly more upmarket than your average Dover-Calais ferry!
But on our last night, aboard the overnight Hurtigruten ferry back to Bodo, I got lucky J From midnight until 2 am, I sat out on a deck chair underneath a perfectly clear sky, watching shooting stars, and the most amazing natural phenomenon I’ve ever seen (as well as getting mildly hypothermic!)

A bit blurry but they are not very easy to photograph on a moving boat!
The whole sky was alive with light. A constantly changing curtain, rippling in waves across the sky, then more vivid shafts of light, almost unreal, as though they were being generated by a huge spotlight. It was so silent and unbelievably magical. It made me really emotional to think how lucky I was to be witnessing something so special, and I spent a long time sitting on my own with silent tears running down my face. I thought of Gareth and how much he would have loved to see them there with me, and of how he would have loved the adventure of the whole trip.

A beautiful final sunset from our last night in Norway
Ever since losing Gareth, I feel like I am so much more grateful and appreciative of the opportunities I have and the things I see and places I go. I take much less for granted, realising that life can change so suddenly and all these wonderful things can be gone in a second. Gareth loved life and was full of energy and joy for life, and it would feel like a dishonour to not be incredibly grateful for the opportunity to see things like this, when he no longer can. Although it hasn’t always felt like it this winter as I’ve moved from one place to another, my pace of life is so much slower than it used to be, and that means I’m lucky to be able to spend time taking in everything around me…the sights, the sounds, the feel of places, to experience everything more fully.  Whatever I do and wherever I go in the future, I hope I don’t lose that, and can always remember not to take anything for granted.

Yes it's uphill and yes, I am smiling! It's hard not too when you're in such a stunning place

Feeling very fortunate to be doing the things I have this winter
So as you can probably tell if you’ve read through to here, I thought Lofoten was an incredible place and I’d love to go back! There are loads of lines to ski that I spied for future trips, the climbing on the huge granite cliffs rising from the sea looks amazing, and don’t even get me started on how much potential this place has for some out-of-this-world mountain biking!!

Hilda and me jumping to stay warm on one of Lofoten's wild beaches

No comments:

Post a Comment