One hundred ten miles north of the Arctic Circle, dawn crowbars past the room’s blinds before 4 a.m. There is no sleeping. We rise and find a groaning board of Norwegian cold cuts, herring, and brown cheese the color and shape of industrial soap. Outside a van rumbles to life, coughing exhaust among the towering racks of drying cod that line a small harbor. We pile into the vehicle, skis stowed beneath the seats, and drive into the morning chill, tracing the hem of a long fjord until the road ends. Clipping into bindings, we push away on the slushy path of the local Nordic ski club. When it ends, we move farther into the untracked mountains.
According to the guidebooks, the Lofoten Islands are a postcard—a 70-mile-long archipelago built from some of the oldest rock on Earth. On a clear day, they resemble the jawbone of a shark and bear the aggrieved purple color of an approaching squall. Today we have to imagine them: That awful grandeur is swaddled in low clouds. Salt-shaker snow sifts down as we push slowly up the 3,560-foot Geitgaljartinden, the islands’ second highest peak and their best ski descent.
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.
But, for all its domestic popularity, skiing in Norway has historically drawn few outside visitors. Part of the reason for this is simple geography. Norway is all mountains and water, a pinched spine of peaks fissured with deep fjords. And while this should be a skier’s dream, it can make getting from one ski resort to another a logistical migraine. Or at least it used to. Today, a company called Alpine Legends has taken advantage of Norway’s extensive ferry system, piecing together boat-to-slope trips that explore the country’s huge range of ski areas. Ironically, skiing’s next terra incognita isn’t Alaska or Asia, but the cradle of skiing itself.
We gather in Bergen, Norway’s second city, to meet the first of the ferries we’ll use to hopscotch up the coast toward Harstad, some 700 miles north. Along the quay brightly colored houses lean against each other like old women worrying some gristle of rumor. Though only mid-April, it’s café weather in Bergen. This doesn’t happen, I’m told. The city, on the western coast, is one of the world’s great natural harbors, with deep inlets at its feet and hills at its back. That same geography also makes it a catcher’s mitt for bad weather: Norway’s City of Rain. As we wait to board, somebody offers up the Bergen chestnut. "When does the rain stop in Bergen?" a visitor asks a little boy. "I don’t know," the boy answers. "I’m only eight. . . ."
In bright sunshine Torkel drives our van into the belly of the ship. When I heard we’d be taking a "ferry," I expected a school bus with a keel. The 16,500-ton M.S. Trollfjord is anything but. Instead, it’s a tricked-out, multideck Scandinavian Love Boat—only more tasteful. At 8:01 p.m. it eases from its berth with Nordic punctuality, scarcely trembling the wine in our glasses. That evening, as we motor 175 miles north to our first stop at Ålesund, we wander the Trollfjord’s hallways looking for a sauna rumored to be on board. The blond wood, glass, and muted metal decor is the very antithesis of the cruise ship purgatories I’ve been sentenced to in the past. It seems a bit like the Norwegian people themselves—modern yet understated, cosmopolitan but not snooty.
We finally locate the sauna on Deck 9. In good Nordic fashion, we strip down and step inside. It’s one of the nicest saunas I’ve ever seen: pine paneled, room for eight, floor-to-ceiling windows. As we sit and sweat, I look out as the Trollfjord plows the fathoms white and humped mountains scroll by in the distance. Norway has some 150,000 islands and a coastline that, when its miles are tallied, rivals Africa’s. Though nearly half of the country lies above the Arctic Circle, the Gulf Stream keeps its waters ice free year-round. Water has always been the sensible way to get places, whether for trade, marriage, or war. And while Norwegians are often said to be born with skis on their feet, it’s just as true that salt water runs through their veins.
The entire 1,250-nautical-mile ferry journey from Bergen to Kirkenes, near the Russian border, long ago became a tourist attraction. Today the Hurtigruten line’s 11 coastal ships, of which the Trollfjord is one, constantly ply Norway’s jigsawed coastline, providing traditional whistle-stop service to 34 cities and hamlets. "The most beautiful voyage in the world," it’s been called—which helps explain the vacationing Swedish pensioners who are on board with us. (I’m surprised, and relieved, they haven’t yet sought out the sauna.)
In the off-season, however, the ferries are just as much Greyhound as cruise ship. The next morning before breakfast we’ll stop at an island where a dozen red crackerbox houses lie strewn across bright green hills like tossed dice. A few people waiting on the wharf will wave a "Velkommen!" to relatives stepping off. Then the Trollfjord will sound its bass note, and the man who’s been forking supplies out of the hold will climb from his lift to cast off the mooring ropes and set the big ship free, leaving the island alone again until the next ferry arrives.
After 20 minutes, the sauna gets too sultry for us, and we dash to the hot tubs on the deck outside. They’re smoking in the cool evening, and we sink to our noses in warm water, watching the stars wink into being. White mountains are starting to show in the north, and a dinner-plate moon chases the ship’s wake as if not wanting to be left out.
Stranda, the first place we can get off and ski, waits an hour’s drive outside Ålesund, counting wrong turns. The ski area has been described to me over the years as "the La Grave of the North Countries."
This seems ambitious. We kill the van’s engine at a gravel parking lot atop a mellow pass in the Sunnmøre Alps. The road bisects a meager-looking ski area—bald hills on either side with ancient surface lifts trailing up their faces. There’s a snack shack pouring bad Norwegian coffee. A few traditional turf-roofed hytter, or vacation cottages, are scattered about with pines sprouting from their eaves, like hobbit dens. Speakers at a lift house blare a Norwegian hair-metal song. None of this seems particularly auspicious. We pay a parking fee to a guy who’s sitting in a folding chair and collecting donations for a local sports club, clamber over a snowbank, and ride the T-bar into the warming day.
Then we begin to spin laps. "La Grave," the most spectacular off-piste terrain in the Alps, may be overstating it, but Stranda is a gem. Trail markers are little more than suggestions, and the untracked snow is as smooth as clotted cream in the shivering stands of arctic birch, even a few weeks into spring. In the lift lines (if you can call three people a line), there are none of the pretensions that can haunt big-business resorts in the Alps or Rockies. Stranda’s unassuming, let’s-just-ski vibe speaks legions about Norway’s long and complex relationship with the sport.
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.
As if to test the point, we drop off Roaldshorne’s backside and lay down loopy parabolas through untouched powder, then corn snow. In Colorado, we’d arrive in a mining town; in the Alps, an achingly quaint farming village. Here, we run out of snow in a farmer’s field a hefty snowball’s toss from the fjord. White homes on the shore stand as crisp and restrained as a set in an Ibsen play.
After a day of skiing at Stryn Skisenter, another Silverton, Colorado–like locals’ hill with a few lifts strung up in the wild, we head to sea for a day aboard the Kong Harald. Amazingly, after we cross Arctic Circle, nearly half of Norway still lies ahead. Even going as far as our destination of Narvik, nearly 150 miles north of this cold dotted line, we’ll glimpse just a snatch of it.
It’s a shame; the Arctic helps define this country. The near blackout of a northern winter (about eight weeks in a high-latitude city like Tromsø) blends with deep isolation to help create that stereotypically dour Norwegian character. That’s why the houses start appearing in garish, characteristically Norwegian colors like Kodachrome yellows and barn reds: to stave off the "dark-sickness" brought on by December’s gloom.
At Glomfjord, in Meløy, the country has made still another scene change. Lone peaks knuckle up beside tight fjords. The Arctic sun shines cartoonishly yellow overhead, fat spokes raying out from its yolk. It’s a staggering setting, which makes Glomfjord town doubly discordant. It’s a gray mini-Murmansk anchored by a sprawling industrial plant whose banging busyness ricochets off the fjord walls. At the edge of this company town also lies a hill, home to Norway’s only commercial snowcat skiing operation.
The bull wheels of the all-volunteer lift stop spinning as soon as we reach the top of the hill. (The liftie, apparently, has to go back to work.) No matter, we’ve got the speedy snowcat to whisk us higher to the ridgeline! Then the cat appears. It’s a 35-year-old German Kässbohrer, a true relic, with no cabin for passengers. Another smiling Norwegian volunteer knots a ratty rope around some steel, then ties off bights for seven handholds. I grab one, intending to get hauled about 1,500 feet to the top. Several more skiers pile into a cage directly behind the cat. A little leery of the arrangements, I give a halfhearted thumbs-up to the rope-tier, a rare non-English speaker. He grins and climbs into the driver’s seat.
Norwegians may seem reserved and straitlaced, but when they get out of doors, another side emerges, one that is freer and more self-reliant. Instead of doing what is appropriate, you do what works—like grabbing a fraying rope and hitching a ride behind an antique snowcat. Coming from the U.S., which can feel straitjacketed by the fear of lawsuits, this mindset is a breath of fresh mountain air.
It’s also, well, risky. On the steepest portion of our ascent the snowcat gets mired briefly and the driver reverses—backing downhill to where I stand, attached to the rope and unable to flee. Waiting to be tenderized by the churning treads, I finally don’t look like an American tourist. Rather, I resemble Edvard Munch’s "The Scream."
No damage is done—except, perhaps, to my ego. The skiers in the cage laugh at my fright as the driver jams the cat into lower gear and charges up to the ridgeline. From there, we tuck into swooping giant-slalom turns. The slopes look as if they’ll tumble into the fjord below, which shines as bright as a one-krone coin. We’re only a few thousand feet above sea level, with that cartoon sun working hard above, but the Arctic-refrigerated powder remains cold and light, bow-waving over boot tops.
When he catches up to us, the snowcat driver doesn’t need to understand any English to know what we want. He spins the cat around, tosses out the ropes, and readies the rig for another haul.
Our last day in Norway, we disembark the final ferry and drive to the port of Narvik, the scene of a ferocious World War II naval battle, where ships are still being discovered in the depths. In a fjord called Skjomen we pile our skis onto a loving replica of a knarr, or sturdy Viking cargo ship. We’ve arranged to ride the boat up the fjord to ski. For a while we take the oars like galley slaves in some white-collar man-of-war. The novelty quickly wears off as we tire and go in circles. Saving us from ourselves, the captain fires up the purring Volvo engine somewhere below deck.
That afternoon, after some off-piste skiing on Frostisen glacier near the fjord’s head, we try sailing the knarr using the classic Viking sail—hoisting it on its wooden pulleys, tacking back and forth—and toss the fish we’ve caught to entice the sea eagles that spiral lazily above.
Nobody seems to mind that we are worse sailors than we are rowers, and we make little progress. Uncrowded, uncollared, and with the freedom to hunt down adventure wherever the wind blows—the day is a perfect metaphor for a Norway trip. And the boat, then, is a bit like the country itself: respectfully in touch with the old ways, but with a modern engine running on oil, moving it forward.
Back at the pitching dock at day’s end, a bottle of Norwegian akevitt the color of furniture polish appears. The captain pours healthy shots, then pours seconds we didn’t ask for.
The shots burn like insecticide when they go down.
If the snowy mountains appreciate the toast, they take it stoically as they stand in the cooling evening light. We walk up the hillside to the van, put our backs to Norway, and head for the nearby Swedish border and its smaller, landlocked peaks.
More than once I look back for a glimpse of high mountains beside salt water, already wanting to return.