Through The Wardrobe
Nat Segal // Photography by Linus Meyer
We’ve all heard of the tales of Narnia, hidden behind fur coats in a cupboard in the English countryside. Narnia is a land that few are able to enter from the outside world – a magical place where the inconceivable is possible. Looking back on a recent trip to Narvik I have found myself thinking about these two places, one real, one fantastical. I couldn’t help comparing their similarities.
Before visiting this seaside town on the west coast of Norway I had heard many stories about the region. Fairytales of hidden snow chutes cut into the mountainside that only ended at the shores of the fjords. The best ski lines you would ever ride. But beyond hearsay shared over beers, and images flashed on the screen during steep-skiing movies, Narvik was still a mystery. That made me want to visit it even more.
Arriving in this mythical place, however, wasn’t what I expected. Narvik is industrial, built on an economy that runs on fishing and exporting iron ore. The mountains don’t boast epic ski lines towering directly over the town. They are subdued, often floating in a white cloud, hiding treasures from plain sight. Unlike the mountain communities that I had come from, where ski and climbing paraphernalia dot every shopfront, the town itself comes across as a normal coastal town. But just under the surface simmers a mountain-hungry clique who have spent years exploring the surrounding granite heights.
Just like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which it takes time for the children to uncover their quest, piercing the heart of these mountains isn’t as simple as taking a lift to the top and pointing your skis down. Some pioneers, such as Mikael af Ekenstam, have spent a lifetime exploring the local mountains on skis, building a repertoire of beautiful descents. He has eagerly shared his knowledge with the world. Equipped with his guide book, which was dotted with notes by Australian skier Kaj Sønnichsen, I set out with Swedish duo Linus Meyer and Johnn Andersson to see if the rumours were true.
Narvik is industrial, built on an economy that runs on fishing and exporting iron ore. The mountains don’t boast epic ski lines towering directly over the town. They are subdued, often floating in a white cloud, hiding treasures from plain sight.
Hiking in clouds always feels eerie. It’s easy to imagine that you are alone, the only people in the world. As the slope flattened out, the clouds began to lift and we could make out the rocky summit of Tverrdalsfjellet. Despite our new-found vision, it was still difficult to make out a clear route to the couloir we were searching for.
Despite the beta, Narvik hid its secrets from the naked eye with a blanket of clouds. Clunking up a rutted trail that tested every inch of suspension that our little camper van could muster, I craned my head outside of the window, searching for confirmation that something was out there. We’d coaxed Kaj to join us for our first descent, and after a lot of friendly banter, we pulled up at the trailhead for Skamdalsrenna (Shameful Valley Couloir).
Mild temperatures had plagued the spring, stripping back the snow, so we began the approach on foot. For half an hour we dodged through classic north Norwegian trouble terrain, which consists of a lot of swearing and the occasional boulder move between mossy rocks and low-lying tree branches. It is difficult to explain the pleasure derived from perfectly balancing on the tips of your ski boots while you try to cling onto moss. You don’t celebrate a successful manoeuvre but rather sigh in relief when you don’t fall. We stumbled up the mountainside, dodging holes between rocks and trying not to get our skis stuck in unruly shrubbery. Scrambling gave way to undulating ski touring. The clouds made it difficult to see beyond the flats we were hiking along, but a steep snow slope gradually came into view, along with the promise of a descent. We changed from skis to crampons and ice axes, and boot-packed up to a white oblivion.
The wind cracked against our gear as we neared the top of the slope. Hiking in clouds always feels eerie. It’s easy to imagine that you are alone, the only people in the world. As the slope flattened out, the clouds began to lift and we could make out the rocky summit of Tverrdalsfjellet. Despite our new-found vision, it was still difficult to make out a clear route to the couloir we were searching for. If it weren’t for Kaj’s route-finding knowledge, I would have assumed that all points led to cliff drops. I began to wonder if we would need a rope as he led us along the exposed top of the mountain. Kaj came to an abrupt stop and poked his head down a gap in the rocks. Below him a narrow couloir of snow dropped away, hugged by granite walls on both sides.
It was difficult not to grin as we prepared to drop. Here, up a pot-holed four-wheel drive track, behind deserted summer cabins, we were about to ski one of the most aesthetic lines I had ever seen. I felt like a character in the last few pages of a novel – just as the story was coming to an end, the real adventure was only just beginning.
Together we leap-frogged down the couloir that twisted and turned between 40-45˚ slopes. It was a perfect steep skiing pitch: tight turns at the beginning that opened up to a wide tongue of spring snow that slowly disappeared into the boulders beneath.
After that first line, the days began to blur as the snow conditions only improved. Like treasure hunters we trolled the outskirts of Narvik for ‘X’ marks shown in the guidebook. Every morning required a stretch of the imagination and a dollop of persistence to find ski lines concealed beyond head-high shrubs, frozen lakes and rock faces.
After spending a winter fighting for fresh tracks in the French Alps, we found ourselves alone in the mountains. Sometimes the lack of crowds was unnerving, and our departure points were unusual. Setting off from our camper van parked on the side of the road or beside an electrical station always felt random – like stepping through that wardrobe into Narnia. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t wonder if we would find our goal.
My concerns weren’t unfounded. Often, we wouldn’t stumble upon our prize until we were standing directly above or below the fabled descent. But our perseverance paid off time after time. The game of uncertainty we played only helped to make each turn sweeter. There was no-one to respond to our hoots and hollers as we descended powder-filled couloirs day after day, the sound of snow hissing in our wake.
For many of us the leap between reality and fantasy is quite small. What makes a moment magical is all in the eye of the beholder. It is up to the individual to decide whether the inconceivable can be real, whether we can take that step through to the magical place we dream about.
Nat Segal is a freeride skier hailing from Melbourne, Australia. For the last six years Nat has pursued a career in competitive freeride skiing. Now based in Chamonix, France, she has hung up her competition skis and is currently working on a two-year documentary film titled ‘Finding The Line’ with her sister Anna Segal and adventure film maker Bjarne Salén.
Linus Meyer is a freelance photojournalist based in Stockholm, Sweden. Linus has a background in adventurer photography, ski mountaineering and climbing. If you can’t find him at home working on the next project, he is probably in the woods working on a bouldering problem with his family.