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As we climb through the murk, Torkel talks. All week Torkel Karoliussen, at 28 one of Norway’s best known freeskiers, has served as our guide, shepherding our group of six visitors from one little-known ski resort to the next. We travel sometimes by van but mainly by ferry, churning our way north along Norway’s fjord-sliced coast. Unlike the rest of us, Torkel—a dreadlocked Scandinavian with eyes the color of washed denim—gets chattier as the climbing gets harder, and as we push higher, he rattles off the many names that Norwegians have for skiing in the mountains:

"The skitur," he says. "The fjelltur. The topptur. The tindebestigning." Still more names I forget.

I think of the Inuit and their fabled hundred words for snow, and I’m reminded, not for the first time this week, that a ski trip in Norway is different from a ski trip anywhere else. Skiing here is not just an activity that falls between a cushy lodge and a booming après scene; it cuts to the heart of what it means to be Norwegian.

From near the summit, as the clouds spit, we rip a 3,000-foot powder run toward the fjord below. Where the birches begin, however, Torkel lets the others go on. He pops his telemark skis beside a mossy freshet. He kneels in the stream and puts his lips right to the snowmelt that rolls over rocks three billion years old, like a man involved in a sacred rite. And in a way, he is.

He comes up smiling about something that I, not Norwegian, can only guess at.

Vikings and snowflake sweaters, lutefisk and Peer Gynt—hear "Norway" and the mind summons all kinds of easily swallowed clichés. The reality is much more complicated. A sociologist once called Norway "Europe’s biggest folk museum but simultaneously a huge laboratory of the future." It’s a thoroughly modern country that still adores its king and queen. One of the world’s biggest oil exporters, it has rejected European Union membership twice, spurning a world that’s increasingly "flat" and borderless. Norwegians themselves, meanwhile, are famously self-effacing in conversation yet famously proud when they get together: In what other country would people have worn the humble office paper clip (made in Norway!) on their lapels as a symbol of national unity during the Nazi occupation? And yet, despite the lures of modernity—you’ve never had better cell reception than in some remote fjord—an anthropologist recently found that Norwegians still play in the outdoors as much as ever.

On a pleasant winter Sunday, as many as one in four of greater Oslo’s one million residents can be found kicking and gliding on a Nordic tur in the city’s woody outskirts. The draw is so great for Oslo’s annual Holmenkollen World Cup ski jump and Nordic contest (held in March) that the event has been named Norway’s second national holiday.

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