The Sunny Southern Side of Norway
“Har du din Kvikk Lunsj, Johan?”
“Ja Thorbjorn, jeg har min Kvikk Lunsj.”
Upon first interacting with Norwegians in their natural environment, it becomes apparent they’re quietly but firmly categorical about key things. That a day of ski touring can be fuelled by candy bars amounting to glorified Kit-Kats called Kvikk Lunsj(“quick lunch,” in case you hadn’t guessed). That in slightly different circumstances it makes equal sense to summit with a barbecue in your backpack to grill sausages using your special Norwegian telescoping barbecue stick. That it always makes more sense to skin up a well-trodden uptrack than to make your own – and to ski down right where your countrymen and -women have already shown the way. That Norway and Norwegians are entirely different from, and superior to, Sweden and Swedes in every way.
That living alongside isolated fjords essentially indistinguishable from the Viking era doesn’t mean you dispense with swank amenities, cool rides and good roads – including elaborate tunnels bored through cliff walls or spiralling beneath fjords. That a massive offshore oil and natural gas industry, with giant floating drilling rigs parked casually in sparkling fjords and oilfield service ships bobbing next to sailing yachts in small town harbours – can coexist with a near-perfect environment. That there’s one specific wayto cook fresh cod. And that their landscape – their country – is second to none in beauty.
While the previous points are arguable, one can hardly take issue with the last one. For, framing the scene – embracing it entirely, everywhere and at all times – are uncounted square miles of shimmering, barely describable, almost mystical beauty. The tortuous topography, the juxtaposition of wilderness and farmland, the collision of rock and forest with fjord, create a barely-real, almost dreamlike ambience. The setting for the pursuit of climbs and descents in mountains stacked and ranked seemingly without end.
I’ve had several hours this morning to contemplate such intriguing aspects of the country I’m visiting, along with my sweetheart Cindy, as I ascend a giant bowl ringed by impressive, eminently skiable peaks. I’m with about a dozen Norwegian, Swedish and British clients of Uteguiden, the local guiding company. We’re exploring the region around Ålesund, lying less than a quarter of the way up Norway’s immense coastline, far south of more famous touring areas like Lofoten and the Lyngen Alps. It’s a clear, crisp late-March morning, one of a week-long sunny string, a welcome surprise given Norway’s typically damp coastal weather. The snow is holding from the last round of storms. The terrain seems limitless. Most of the 30-minute drive from the fjord-side village of Stranda consisted of variations on, “Hey, incredible mountain, let’s skin up here!”
We’re led by Nick Letourneau, a young-ish guide from Quebec, Canada. Nick’s origins help explain the preponderance of lightly travelled touring terrain – more on that later. First, finish the climb, unskin and contemplate the descent. At around 3,500 vertical feet, our ascent falls into the middle of this area’s typical range of 1,500-5,000 vertical feet. In classic Norwegian style, the Norwegian clients want to push on for a summit, but Nick works on them to consider snow quality. “The peaks are wind- and sun-hammered,” he points out. “Why don’t we apply our climbing energy to getting the most powder turns?” He suggests ascending only until the powder degenerates, skiing down as low as the good snow lasts, then lapping.
Nick prevails, selects one of the massive bowl’s rippling shoulders and we start devouring the settled north-facing powder. It’s only about boot-top, but it’s not coastal chowder, sastrugi or crust. Powder. While it’s barely steeper than mellow, we’re in a treeless cauldron of almost 100 percent avalanche terrain, and with a major avalanche cycle just cooling down, I’m not about to argue. It’s quality skiing, the sort of nicely aged pow that lets you sink into a deeply angulated, G-force-inducing turn, then shoot out into the next big arc. Fortified by those special Scandi Kit-Kats, we do a second lap before the group runs out of gas. Then we wend our way through gnarled, stunted hardwood forest, alternately skidding wildly on icy zones, slurping along glades of surprisingly perfect corn, bobsledding the banked curves of well-worn uptracks, and at last gliding through pastures to the waiting minivans.
Cindy and I’ve been lured here by our friends Sabine and Tommy. Swedish Sabine is a restaurant manager working at Stranda last winter. Her boyfriend Tommy is as Norwegian as they come. They’re living in a charming, 100-plus-year-old farmhouse at the edge of town, its floors creaking and its walls bearing photos of its original owners, creating a link to the authentic local culture that we wouldn’t get in a hotel. Up the road a few miles lies Stranda’s ski area, with half-a-dozen newish lifts and 2,200 vertical feet of lift-serviced slopes flanked by square miles of slackcountry and ringed by essentially limitless touring terrain. It’s a neat fallback for the aforementioned, often intense bad weather phases. Thanks to Stranda’s lifts, you at least won’t be hut-bound.
The ski area isn’t why Ascentreaders would cross an ocean. The region’s mountains are. They’re unlike Norway’s typically rounded, convex shapes resembling the Appalachians or Scottish Highlands. More like the Alps in miniature. Pointy peaks, concave bowls and gullies, aprons and fans, and broad lower slopes. While they top out at barely 5,000 feet, the snow usually starts down near the saltwater and the treeline is at barely 2,000 feet, creating an up to 3,000-vertical-foot alpine playground.
Though it appears isolated, this part of Norway was settled thousands of years ago. Many valleys are dappled with the charming Norwegian heritage-style farms, and there’s a village or small harbour town every dozen or so miles. The main valleys have paved roads and many side valleys have farm tracks or trails. But while this isn’t a wilderness, it’s barely developed – let alone spoiled. Much of the land is private, but Norway’s land ownership laws allow strangers to cross. So access is a dream even though helicopters and snowmobiles are basically banned.
Nine years ago, into this landscape stepped Oscar Almgren. The young Swede from Stockholm worked patrol at Stranda ski hill, living in a primitive hut with no running water, while exploring the virtually untraveled backcountry. He couldn’t believe what he’d found, for even the most obvious tours saw barely a handful of tracks between storms. After four years of touring for his own enjoyment, Almgren decided to become the first local commercial ski guide. Today, with ski touring having exploded in popularity and Norway on the ski touring world’s radar, Uteguiden’s specialty is getting people to little-traveled terrain.
“There are almost endless possibilities, and after nine years and people coming from all over the world, we’re still doing new summits barely 20 minutes’ drive from here,” Almgren enthuses as we sip beers in the bar of the Stranda Hotel, just across the village street from Uteguiden’s office. “If you know how to read a map, you can see that it will be good skiing, but it isn’t written up in guidebooks or talked about on forums. And every time you do a new summit, you see another one over the ridge.” The access roads and trails make hut overnights almost redundant, Almgren says, although there are a few huts around. And he’s working a region that’s enough to create multiple micro-climates, so if the snow is bad in one area, a smart skier can usually find good snow a few ridges away.
Almgren hasn’t even attempted to put numbers of separate tours, summits, or square miles to this playground. With just a trace of a smirk, he does say local Norwegians have the habit of touring where other Norwegians go, sometimes skiing right in other people’s tracks when uncut slopes lie within view. A local caricature of this, he says, is Bleia. Meaning if you hunt around a bit, you’re likely to find plenty of space. One of Almgren’s favourites is Slogen. Starting at the Norangsfjorden, the long ascent provides an incredible mile of peak-to-oceanside skiing, including 2,300 vertical feet of 35-degree northeast face.
The next morning, Tommy and I set out not for Slogen but a beautiful side valley above the fjord containing a few farms, cradled in skiable ridges and crowned by a peak, Blåhornet – Bluehorn. Tommy’s intensely proud of his Hummer H2 and as we push into the dense forest he expresses certainty we’ll devour the steep, icy track leading up to the valley. “No problem, it’s a Hummer!” he says with a huge grin. But, halfway up an inclined skating rink the roaring beast loses momentum before sliding into the left ditch. The other side is a near-cliff. A couple hours of digging, pushing, winching, arm-waving and cursing later, we’re out but no closer to our tour. Meanwhile, locals with perfectly ordinary vehicles but studded tires grind happily up and down the road, including a wizened geezer in a greasy wool hat driving a rear-wheel-drive, 1960s VW Beetle.
Humiliated, we eventually manage a truncated tour, failing to bag anything major but gaining an incredible view of Storhornet– the Bighorn. Soaring 3,000 vertical feet to a pointed tip from flat farmland and a pair of U-shaped valleys, it’s indeed prominent and horn-like. A saddle just below the peak drops into a 40-plus degree north face running virtually full-length. I’d noticed Bighorn on the topo map and, when I asked Almgren about it, he called it one of the area’s best descents. The locals fear it and leave it alone. With his telltale smirk, Almgren confided he once skied both faces on the same day – the sunny side in corn snow, the shaded in cold powder. As Tommy and I gaze at it, the Bighorn’s north face is also blanketed in powder. I’m sure you’ve been on a trip where some incredible piece of terrain just screams at you, but you somehow know it ain’t gonna’ happen. That was Bighorn. The avalanche danger was still significant, my guided days were done, Sabine was working and Tommy had a bad knee. It wouldn’t be today.
That evening, Tommy consoles us with a home-cooked meal of Norwegian pork ribs. The secret, he’s already told me multiple times, is to get not merely a rack but an entire side of lightly cold-smoked ribs from an authentic Norwegian pig. This is slow-roasted with the skin on, which holds in all the juices and flavour while allowing fat to slowly drain out. Tommy is true to his word. Sabine prepares the rest while Cindy and I contribute wine from the astronomically expensive Norwegian government liquor store, a cultural relic that the Norwegians stubbornly cling to. The ribs are as tender and flavourful as any we’ve ever eaten, the skin crisp and delicious. Tommy’s huge smile is restored.
If you’re planning your own visit, the Stranda Hotel is an option, but better scenery and ambience can be had in the nicely done wooden rental chalets owned by the ski resort. Access is easy thanks to the wee Vigra International Airport at Ålesund, about 90 minutes’ drive from Stranda. It offers direct flights from Amsterdam, meaning you can get here from the U.S. with just one stop. Ålesund is both a historical heritage town dating back eons and a bustling modern port. In addition, Norway’s most photographed fjord scene – Geiranger – is barely two scenically stunning hours’ drive from Stranda (the fjords here never ice over), and the switchbacks of the infamous Trollstigen pass aren’t much farther. While there’s plenty of shopping in Ålesund, only a crazy person would visit Norway to shop, as nearly everything is eye-poppingly expensive. Unfortunately for tourists, few things more so than restaurants. That’s why most Norwegians party at home and, consequently, you’ll find far fewer restaurants and bars than you’d expect.
Several more nice tours follow, the snow continuing to transform. Despite unbroken sunshine, the melt-freeze isn’t strong enough to create more than pockets of corn snow. At last we turn to the ski area. It rises onto rounded mountains to either side of the highway pass connecting Stranda to Ålesund. One side has a valley-to-peak gondola, the other a high-speed chair plus a T-bar and platter lift. After ripping each of the gondola’s wide-open, perfectly buffed groomers, Tommy and I head along the ridgetop to one of the three big slackcountry bowls. The sort-of weight-bearing crust has transmogrified into not-quite-corn. We head up the opposite side’s lifts, slide away from the marked runs and skin up. A near-superhighway uptrack points the way, flanked by innumerable tracks that a stream of locals still feel the need to hammer into utter submission. We summit after 90 minutes or so and come upon a kid-in-a-candy-store array of touring options: a high, Alps-like peak with an exposed ascent and a few tracks, a long descent on shaded slopes of former powder (now crust) to the highway, or a sunlit, empty untracked valley. We opt for the latter.
Three broad shoulders roll away steeply, reappear in a massive bowl and roll away again into a forested valley empty but for a few small farms. Across the valley – gleaming and pristine – rises Bighorn. I can see the entire route I would follow from valley bottom. I shake my head, we push off and, with an entire valley to ourselves, accelerate into fast, wide turns unencumbered by space, cliffs, concerns or other skiers. The snow isn’t powder, nor corn, nor crust, nor wind-buff, but a bizarre melange that’s somehow perfectly skiable. I must have gone a mile before turning to look back, for 6’2”, 240-pound Tommy is a dark speck. He rips the face and pulls up beside me, grin wide and face ruddy and windburned. It’s magical. As we drop into the gnarled hardwood forest, the snow becomes more akin to corn, although it’s tight going. Eventually we burst out onto fields and the turning gets easier. Fields lead to a farm track, farm track to road, road to a large and well-kept farm, where Sabine’s waiting with the H2.
That evening, Tommy cooks us his other favourite specialty: several pounds of fresh Norwegian cod and garden potatoes. “If the basic fish is good,” Tommy explains, “You just poach it in not-quite boiling water and it’s totally amazing.” He’s once again true to his word. To make his cod that little extra bit more flavourful, it’s accompanied by melted pork fat from the previously discussed ribs. Keeping our stomachs from erupting, in turn, requires successive shots of linjeakevitt – Norway’s killer caraway-seed-flavoured grain-potato liquor. Good we weren’t skiing the next day, though I was also doubting the wisdom of boarding a turboprop. Despite eight days of almost continuous ski touring, we didn’t leave Norway much lighter than we arrived.
General – Stranda: https://visitstranda.comTel: 011 47 45 16 40 00
Guiding, maps, equipment, rentals, beta –Uteguiden, Oscar Almgren, owner. https://uteguiden.com/en/ Tel: 011 47 40 554670
Stranda Ski Resort –http://www.strandafjellet.no/winter/stranda-ski-resort/