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Though most experts now think skiing was born elsewhere (namely in Central Asia’s Altai Mountains, at least 6,000 years ago), the sport was nurtured in Norway, a country where peaks and hills cover three-quarters of the land. And it was the Norwegians who showed "what you could really do with two brown planks," says Karin Berg, director of Oslo’s Norwegian Ski Museum, one of the country’s most visited attractions. The sagas report the Vikings skiing, and skiing well, by a.d. 1000. The Norse gods Ullr and Skade were often depicted on skis.

You could even go so far as to say that skiing helped bind the modern nation of Norway. By the late 1800s the country was chafing from centuries of Swedish and Danish hegemony. Nationalists like Fridtjof Nansen, who became a Norwegian icon when he skied across Greenland in 1888, claimed skiing as idræt: a character-building activity that makes men who make nations. Skiing took on a significance it didn’t have elsewhere in Scandinavia, much less the world. It was something done fervently and locally. That’s why today this country with a population not quite double that of metropolitan Denver supports 1,132 ski clubs (the latter, by contrast, has about a hundred).

And that’s why you probably can’t name a single one of Norway’s 95 alpine ski areas, besides Lillehammer, host of the 1994 Winter Olympics (and which, technically, isn’t even a ski area). They’re smallish. Glitz doesn’t translate. And they’re mostly remote. Even in Stranda, our only company is a handful of telemark skiers crouching down the slopes in their high-speed genuflections. All morning, we almost never cross another track—and it didn’t even snow last night.

In the afternoon we head to the other side of the road and ride what feels like the longest platter lift in the world, then hike to the summit of 4,035-foot Roaldshorne. A cyclorama of mountains wraps around us—not the usual peak-and-valley scene but a topography cribbed from the work of some crazed genius draftsman: One peak is a coxcomb, the next an abrupt hacked stump, the third as cleanly isosceles as any Alpine beauty. The eye is never given the chance to be complacent. Far below, the mountains dip their feet in the fjord, and we can see a Hurtigruten ship returning to Ålesund, dragging its chevron wake through the channel, a toy ship in a bathtub.

"Everything you see is ours," says Torkel grandly, joking at the lonesome scene. He may be more right than he knows: A beautifully simple, one-sentence 1957 law actually gives the Norwegian public the right to cross any outlying property—a nod to just how important outdoor access is here in Norway. All we survey really is ours, in a sense.

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