By Cody Hughes and Fred Mondale
When people dream of skiing in Europe they think of the jagged ranges of the continental Alps. But adventure awaits beyond France and Austria in the far northern reaches of Norway where lies a picturesque mountain range sharply defined by steep peaks, blue glaciers and icy fjords. The Lyngen Alps inhabit a narrow peninsula of rugged alpine summits; their flanks plunge from as high as 1800 meters directly into the sea.
The range is a backcountry skier’s paradise. The mountains are imposing yet accessible. Descents are plentiful and diverse in difficulty and position. Extreme lines as noteworthy as the Felix Couloir on Store Lenangstinden contrast with countless low-angle glacier cruises to define the wide spectrum of terrain on offer.
Inspired by the exploits of Andreas Fransson and on the advice of friends, my friend Cody Hughes and I booked a trip to the Arctic Circle in late March of 2018. Our experience in these magnificent peaks shattered all expectations.
An enormous element of our trip’s success was the discovery of a vibrant, close knit and wonderfully welcome community of backcountry skiers in Lyngseidet. We originally planned on camping out of our undersized Citroen rental car. When Cody arrived a few days ahead of me he quickly realised how miserable living conditions would be in the cool drizzle at sea level. The range’s proximity to the ocean means that the lowest elevations often don’t get very cold and even if it is snowing up high, precipitation seemed to often fall as rain on the fjord. Thanks to Cody’s outgoing nature he quickly linked up with some local skiers who in addition to taking him along on a dog-assisted ski tour and several great days of touring, pointed his attention to the hospitality at the Magic Mountain Lodge in the peninsula’s biggest town, Lyngseidet.
The inn is a renovated senior living home and it features everything you could need for a basecamp in the Lyngen Alps. The proprietors, Patrik and Henrika are extraordinary humble-crusher super-parents with a deep passion for the mountains. Their lodge and particularly the upstairs bar and restaurant, serves as an anchor for the local ski community. The comfortable space features an insane balcony view, detailed maps, guidebooks and most importantly: every afternoon a who’s who of Lyngen guides, locals and visiting skiers sharing beta, scouting lines, and shooting the breeze over beers. (A note for the typical ski bum contemplating this trip: the exorbitant price of brewskis in Norway is likely to be your biggest cost.) We quickly befriended the employees and clientele alike and received countless tips on where to ski, how to do approaches and more.
These relationships crystallised on the seventh day when we set out to climb and ski the Valparaiso Couloir on Forholdtinden with none other than Patrik, the inn’s proprietor, who in addition running the lodge is a local authority on routes, peaks and the region’s snowpack. Valparaiso Couloir is a deep gash down the North Face of Forholdtinden. The same face is home to a parallel slot called the Godmother of all Couloirs (a fitting name in our experience). The Valparasio is the Godmother’s extreme sister, a bit steeper and with a large, unskiable step of rock and ice halfway down. The 1400 m ribbon was first skied in 2012 by Andreas Fransson and Morgan Sahlen and as far as the locals were aware, hadn’t been repeated. Patrik caught wind of our plan and we happily invited him along for the outing.
After a big breakfast and gear organizing session, we piled into the tiny rental car made all the more cramped by the addition of paddles and life jackets for the uniquely Norwegian commute ahead. Early in the trip we discovered the practicality of the canoe for approaching the mountains. The first time we attempted the Godmother, in fact, we tried hiking to the base along five kilometers of wet, icy, and kelp draped rocky beach. Covering the distance took two hours longer than expected and we ended up bailing without even putting on our ski boots. The next day we borrowed a canoe and paddled to the same point we’d reached the day before in less than ten minutes.
Three grown men loaded with ski and climbing gear, gingerly paddling an overloaded vessel across a mineral-blue fjord must have been a sight to see. Nautical approach successful, we switched to ski boots and began our slow climb up a wide apron laced with icy streams, thinly spaced trees, and spongy moss. One hundred meters of vertical later we were skinning up a narrow spit of snow. As the pitch steepened, we started bootpacking into the narrowing maw.
Kicking steps 100 at a time then switching, Cody and I traded leads to the foot of the difficulties. Out came the ropes and rack for a thin pitch of mixed climbing. When the couloir was first skied in 2012, this step was water ice but we found it much drier this time, with rock and loose snow. The previous day’s telephoto reconnaissance from my point-and-shoot on the opposite shore had revealed a weakness in the diagonal rock band that separated the skiable bits, so today I was careful to traverse the dry rock until the way up became apparent. Fortunately, the corners of rock harbored good styrofoam-consistency alpine ice but transferring from one corner to another across the snowy rock was unnerving. The conditions also didn’t provide much in the way of protection, so I slung some horn shaped rocks (of dubious looseness) and headed up for 50m of exciting, mixed climbing.
Rope length exhausted (should’ve brought a 60 m!), I excavated down to the underlying rock where I found suitable cracks to build a solid rock anchor with a few nuts. Cody and Patrik followed up and I continued for one more pitch of climbing up to and across the skiable couloir above. As I belayed Cody up, a big slough ripped down the couloir. For about 30 seconds a massive torrent of snow rushed between us. I was looking uphill when it started and shouted “slide” just as
Cody was stepping out into the line of fire. He managed to step back into relative safety but he was still pummeled by the cold white waterfall. Once he and Patrik reached me we discussed whether or not to continue.
It had started snowing harder the higher we got, and we concluded that the new snow was what was causing the slough and that we could manage the hazard by picking a safe route on the edge of the couloir outside of the slough’s runnel. We were also confident that the first slough would be the biggest because it had entrained so much of the new snow on the face. After the face had been wiped clean, subsequent sloughs would be smaller and hopefully more localized.
Continuing to bootpack up, we noted three much smaller sloughs, each about 15 minutes apart. We also felt safer moving up the line as more height meant less hanging snow above us. Forty-five minutes later we reached the couloir egress to the ridge and found it pretty much un-skiable. It was about 10 meters of very narrow snow and ice with a rocky bulge. Though it would’ve been an easy climb, the pitch wouldn’t ski and we wanted to head down quickly to avoid the growing hazard from falling snow. Agreeing that the best skiing and climbing was already below us, we transitioned to downhill mode and took turns skiing from safe zone to safe zone. The snow was soft and edge-able outside the central runnel with pockets of deep powder on the periphery. The new snow and exposure below made slough management extra important and we cautiously continued downward in yo-yoing pitches.
I arrived first to the top of the rock step where I built a two-nut anchor in a clean crack. We managed to rappel diagonally and reached the skiable exit in a single rappel. Packing up the ropes once and for all, we all relaxed and enjoyed the best skiing of the day just below the rappel. The pitch was steep and the snow felt consistent and confidence-inspiring.
Patrik had been waiting for the opportunity to ski this unique line for years and Cody and I were thrilled to have been able to share it with him in thanks for all the hospitality and kindness he and his wife had shown us.
As our departure date approached, one last objective sat in our sights. Shifty weather up high had kept the range’s tallest peak, Jhiekkevari, shrouded in clouds for much of our trip. When we awoke to bluebird conditions on our final day, the plan was set. Our specific objective for the day was the 1800m peak’s Northeast couloir. The line makes a deep gash from the domed summit glacier down through a complex face replete with hanging seracs and towering cliffs. Proximity to the icefall makes climbing the couloir a risky affair so we opted for the circuitous but significantly less exposed approach.
Starting from the fjord, we trudged our way upstream along a glacial river, rising little in the first 10 miles. Rounding a corner onto a long lake, the mountain revealed itself in the distance. The peak is reminiscent of Mont Blanc; it’s flanks rise steeply from neighboring peaks but the summit is plateau-like and capped with an impressive rolling glacier.
As we hiked around the massif toward our ridge of egress, the sun warmed the hanging glacier’s ice and big chunks came booming down the rocks until settling into a skyscraper-tall debris cone on the glacier below. We were roped together on the glacier and got into a glorious skinning rhythm, mesmerized by the free geology show unfolding beside us.
Before we knew it, we had arrived at our ridge and turned towards the summit. The ridge had looked pretty complex on the approach and I was intimidated by its burly appearance. We tried staying on the spine proper, but quickly found ourselves cliffed out. Instead of rappelling, we backtracked and snuck below the gendarme by traversing some very steep snow. This strategy got us to the top but felt pretty spicy at points. Cody cruised through the incredibly steep but reassuringly secure spiny faces as I carefully plunged my axes and proceeded one step at a time.
About halfway up, we were forced onto the rock and I roped up to lead a quick pitch of easy mixed climbing. The remainder of the ridge looked straightforward by the day’s standards and we pushed on to the 1600 meter tall south summit. Happy to trade crampons for skins, we began traversing the summit glacier for a quick descent and final 900 m of climbing to the true summit. The views were incredible from the glacial plateau, the foreground dominated by gently rolling fields of snow that appeared to plunge into oblivion. Beyond this perimeter, the vista of Norway’s Arctic coastline beckoned like a fairytale. Conditions on the summit did not let us forget we were 69 degrees north of the equator: the wind howled from seemingly all directions, mini snow tornados whipped up funnels of frigid snow, and our wet gear quickly froze solid as we transitioned to ski mode.
Navigating on the edge of the summit glacier was nerve-wracking. We needed to make sure we approached the edge of the plateau in the right spot where there was a skiable couloir instead of a calving serac cliff. A little bit of numb finger fumbling with the gps paid off and we found the couloir entrance where we roped up to safely explore the corniced edge. I planted myself deeply in the snow as Cody cautiously poked around the edge, eventually finding a safe roll off to the side where we could enter. Cody dropped first and I watched as he gracefully smeared from heel to toe and back down the slope. The first pitch skied better than any steep line I’ve ever skied. It was about 50 degrees for 300m with boot deep powder and progressively edge-able snow beneath. We regrouped in a midpoint safe zone, ecstatic, swapping high fives. The bottom of the couloir became increasingly firm as we entered the serac fall impact zone. This was no place to stop and eat lunch! The same huge glacier we’d watched crashing down throughout our ascent still loomed above us. The late hour meant the sun was no longer hitting the hangfire but nevertheless, we moved as quickly as we could through the imposing debris cone.
Where the cone met the glacier we found two really gaping bergschrunds that we carefully wound our way through. We regrouped again on the safe glacier below relieved to have snuck through the most dangerous part of the day and psyched on the incredible conditions up high in the couloir and the perfect nature of the line: an instant classic!
We scooted towards the fjord quickly to try and make last call at the Magic Mountain Lodge bar and to hopefully bid farewell to Patrik and Henrika before our 2am departure the next morning. We arrived back to the lodge to find Patrik waiting up for us with a look of relief on his face, but twinkle in his eye. He had skied the line years before and knew what a wonderful adventure we must have had. We shared our day with him over beers and the bar’s last drops of scotch. We thanked Patrik for the incredible hospitality throughout the trip, and for eagerly filling us in on the local terrain and snowpack. With grins on our faces, but fully exhausted from the day’s work, we said our farewell to Patrik and promised to return.
After two hours of sleep we were on the road headed for the airport in Tromso. It was an unforgettable polar sunrise. The lazy drift of the dawn sun crested the horizon slowly. The clouds that lingered over the peninsula’s magnificent heights were illuminated above ribbons of crystalline light threading dim rock faces. We’d skied our legs to complete satisfaction and managed a more than a few unforgettable days in the mountains but as we drove we couldn’t help but admire more than a few peaks, faces and couloirs we wanted to explore.
There are very few places in the world with access to terrain, beauty, and amazing skiing like the town of Lyngseidet. We forged some incredible relationships throughout those 3 weeks and shared some laughs and great times with a community of welcoming locals and tourists that all subscribed to the same tenets of life: be happy and keep skiing!
The journey truly is the reward. We had low expectations going into the trip because of the dangerous persistent slab avalanche problem the region was experiencing. It was lucky that early in our trip it rained up to the highest peaks for an afternoon and then turned to snow overnight, locking up the snowpack. A few days of patience and letting the snow settle was all it took to get out onto previously unsafe slopes. We had our ups and downs with weather, but overall the trip was a huge success. We were able to step into some incredible ski terrain in amazing conditions. Ultimately, you don’t know until you go and sometimes you get lucky and score.
Cody and I parted ways at the airport and I boarded my flight back to Denver. We were both exhausted and preparing ourselves for the long journey home. We were flying right back into the middle of ski mountaineering season in the Rockies, so we agreed to try and meet up for a spring mission once we got home. Four days later we found ourselves skiing off the summit of the Grand Teton… But that’s a story for another time.
If you ever get the chance I highly recommend Northern Norway and the Lyngen Alps for anyone who loves a rich culture in backcountry skiing and a lifetime worth of mountains to explore. Have a stay at the Magic Mountain Lodge and when you do, please do us a favor and tell Patrik and Henrika that Cody and Fred say hello and happy turns!