An Arctic Transition
Written by Sophie Nicholson // Photography by Bruce Goodlad
The rhythmic slide of skins on snow. The sensation of heart and body working both independently and in unison as the ascent begins to steepen. The note-to-self to regulate, monitor and maintain this effort throughout a long day in the mountains. The familiarity of being part of a team of brightly clad skiers making steady progress towards a summit. The excitement at the top as individual lines are chosen and harvesting the fruits of our labours can begin. The collective grins on faces as we come back together again at the base of yet another life-affirming ski descent in a spectacular mountain environment.
As winter transitions to spring, the act of ski touring becomes the most glorious of routines. By the time April rolls around we’ve spent many days heading away from the confines, chaos and clatter of the ski resort in the direction of untracked powder descents. Techniques have been refined and countless metres of vertical have passed underfoot; when the spring snow-farming season really gets underway, we are conditioned to respond both physically and mentally. By this time of year, adventures in the backcountry can feel natural, habitual, easy.
Yet right now this feels far from what I’m used to because this place is unlike any other I have skied before. I am in Finnmark, Arctic Norway – a county situated at 70 degrees north, the northernmost part of continental Europe and the largest yet least-populated municipality in Norway. A place of extremes and superlatives, the wilderness of Finnmark also happens to be home to some of the best ski touring on the planet.
I slow my rate of ascent and raise my head for the nth time today as I attempt to absorb the enormity of the environment around me. Everywhere I look, there are mountains exploding up and out of the ocean to reveal a panoramic canvas of skiable lines. From dramatic steep couloirs to glorious rolling descents, this place is a jewel in the crown of summit-to-sea skiing destinations. There may be accessible and challenging skiing as far as the eye can see, but the only other tracks on the mountain belong to the white mountain hares who spend the winter months patrolling this landscape and seeking out their own hard-fought rewards. The signatures of their labours serve as a reminder that the Arctic regions demand desire, effort and patience in equal measure. The ability to work with the natural environment and make the best of what you are given is key.
The far-off call of a sea eagle awakens me from my inner monologue and brings me back into the moment. I take another deep breath, shake my head and conclude that any attempt to fully absorb the enormity of this place will have to be work in progress. It’s day one in the Arctic wilderness and I’m experiencing sensory overload. It’s time to refocus on the task in hand – there is a summit to be reached. I push on.
Like most of our group, I knew next to nothing about Finnmark before landing in Alta airport last April. I take no credit for having pioneered this journey. Finnmark only appeared on my radar thanks to the tales and experiences of my good friend Bruce Goodlad who was leading the trip. As an International Mountain Guide, Bruce has made a career out of exploring some of the most remote and spectacular corners of the Earth on ski. Finnmark has become something of an annual month-long pilgrimage for the Alps-based Scottish guide in recent years.
Bruce first discovered Finnmark in 2014 whilst on a trip to the Lyngen Alps, a well-known ski-touring area 200km to the south. Having visited the Lyngen peninsula on many occasions over the years, Bruce found himself disillusioned with the increasingly crowded skin tracks near Tromsø and on the lookout for something different this time around: ‘We had enjoyed some great skiing in Lyngen but were a bit disappointed by the number of people on ski tours in areas that we’d had to ourselves a few years back. We jumped in a car and drove north to almost 70˚ and discovered a ski-touring paradise just waiting to be explored. We met two other skiers over the course of that 10-day trip and thought we had lucked out. Having returned the following year and encountered the same situation again – no other skiers in sight – we realised that this was actually the norm in this part of the world. There are hardly any skiers in this area of Norway, so if you want unspoiled wilderness and amazing views of high mountains and Arctic fjords, then Finnmark really is the place to ski.’
Whilst a significant degree of solitude may be a certainty in Finnmark, beyond that there are no guarantees. Unpredictability comes with the territory up here – and as long as you can cope with challenging weather, variable snow conditions and are prepared to adapt to whatever cards the Arctic winter decides to deal, then adventure is a sure-fire thing. Should things get tough on the weather front, just remind yourself that bad weather systems tend to move through at speed up here. With long hours of daylight to play with, there’s no need to force the issue. Skiing at sea level also comes with the added benefit of zero acclimatisation period, so relax, exhale, accept – there’s plenty of time and definitely plenty of space.
By the time I caught up with the rest of the group on the summit of Middagstinden they were stripping skins, digging out extra layers, switching boots from walk to ski mode, taking a drink, grabbing a bite to eat. I followed their lead, changing my focus and equipment from ascent to descent. The process may have been the same as every other ski tour yet each of us knew that we were on the cusp of something extraordinary. No wind, perfect visibility, benign temperatures and 923m of pristine north-facing Norwegian summit-to-sea skiing lay in wait. The soft spring snow promised a relaxing descent.
As heart rates settled and we began the gentle skin back to our starting point, it became obvious that we were moving through a landscape in the throngs of its very own transition. Winter was relaxing her grip and spring was rushing in with a vibrant intensity that further invaded the senses. The sounds of bubbling streams, the emergence of dark brown heathers contrasting with the glare of the snow, the soft wet slides coming down the mountains in the afternoon all heralded the evolution of the seasons.
As I packed up my car on the final morning and prepared for the inevitable disappointing transition back to real life, I caught sight of a startlingly white mountain hare perched just metres from our waterside cabin: completely still, eyes blinking in the bright sunshine, his fur drinking in the warm spring rays. We locked eyes for what seemed like the longest of seconds before he turned on his heel, disappearing and taking with him the final indication of winter. Neither of us was quite ready to say goodbye but we knew it was time. Resisting was futile; it was time to move on. The dusty trails and soft scent of summer were waiting.
You can experience Finnmark with the Ski Club of Great Britain. Full details can be found here.
Sophie Nicholson is an outdoor adventure and travel writer with a particular penchant for ski touring, mountain running, fat biking and craft beer. Talks about gear a lot. Doesn’t do well indoors.
Photography by Bruce Goodlad