Vail Valley adventurers ski under a midnight sun
eagle county correspondent
The skiing and ridding fiends of North America, myself included, are left with a dilemma in May ” where to find the goods?
I will be the first to say that I have had killer days of corn and powder during fifth month of the year thanks to Arapahoe Basin. But more often than not, long treks and hauls to the Basin lead to mediocre to rotten snow at best.
With the southern hemisphere season not kicking in for a couple of months, where does this leave a poor ski bum, who is just looking for some high quality H2O crystals to slide on?
I may have stumbled upon the answer on a recent visit to Elna’s (my partner in crime) homeland of Sweden. From friends’ descriptions of the Scandinavian alpine environment I had formed a image that the skiing was much like the East Coast of America: Flat, wet, and marginal snow (the three reasons I have not skied east of the Mississippi for 13 years.)
With this in mind, I was just expecting to learn about another winter resort culture, while getting a few turns in. I guess you could say my expectations were not that lofty. Little did I now that there was a big difference between the commercialized resorts near Stockholm and those of our final destination in Lapland.
Lapland is essentially the northern most reaches of Scandinavia above the Arctic Circle, about 150 miles from the North Pole. It is the home of the native Sami people, reindeer, Sweden’s space program, the famous Ice Hotel, and the never-ending winter night.
Because of this lack of daylight the resorts of Bjorkliden and Riksgransen do not open their doors to the public until February. Even then the days are quite short, but by the time May rolls around the sun rarely dips below the horizon.
Gateway to the backcountry
Even with latitude similar to Alaska, the Viking countries are protected from frigid temperatures by the warm air of the Gulf Stream sweeping up the North Atlantic. Sweden is a very long country, so our trek from the city of Kristiansdad in the south to the northern city of Kiruna is like flying from San Diego to British Columbia.
Sweden’s northern most ski “systems,” as they’re called, are about an hour and a half drive by car from Kiruna’s airport. A rental car is about $100 for a day, and if you are traveling in a group, this is most convenient and economical form of transport to the slopes.
Our first stop was a visit with our friends Tobias and Sara in Bjorkliden. Elna and I had become acquainted with these Swedish snow chasers while they were working and skiing in the Vail Valley for a season. They were not only excited to see us, but were champing at the bit to show this American what their small area had to offer.
Bjorkliden is a small sleepy little resort made up of about six surface lifts accessing some impressive, but short terrain. We spent our first day chasing Tobias and Sara around some nice chutes and small cliffs, which are accessed by skiers off the Kitteldalsliften T-Bar.
To my surprise the snow was quite good ” a little bit of windswept powder, with consistency similar to that of the snows of the Sierras and Andes. No complaints here.
The best was yet to come though, as I was picking up in our dinner conversation that evening when plans for cat skiing, touring, and helicopters were being talked about. It turns out that Bjorkliden is one of the best portals to Scandinavia’s backcountry. What this tiny area lacks in its amount of terrain, it makes up for in its access to what lies outside of its boarders.
Noses and flutes
In the morning we loaded up our packs and hitched a ride on the 9 a.m. cat up to the Laktatjakko Hut. Many people skin or cross-country ski up to the hut, but because of our big plans for the day, we opted for the one hour mechanized trek.
At 1,228 meters Laktatjakko is the highest hut in Sweden. The hut itself, painted dark red with white accents and adorned with thousands of icicles, was the closest thing to a life sized ginger bread house I had ever seen.
Upon entering the structure we were greeted with the wonderful smells of traditional Swedish desserts and the crackling warmth of a roaring fire that was fueled by winds blowing down the chimney. With overnight accommodations and out-the-door access to the backcountry, I can see why a fellow American that I met had come up for the evening, and had never left. On the other had it may have been the nice Swedish girl working in the hut, with whom he had become acquainted.
With warm bodies and a blood sugar that was off the charts, we headed out on our adventure to Echo Lake. With Tobias at the reins of our crew we stair-stepped down about 500 meters through couloirs, rocks, and huge wide-open snowfields to the high valley floor. Now it was time to throw on the skins and work for some turns.
All avalanched geared up, our group headed up to the lake, while being mindful of exposures to windblown snow. As I learned afterwards from the head of patrol at Riksgransen, the snow in Sweden is much different than that of Colorado. In some cases this makes it much safer, but in other situations, makes it more deadly.
I was just glad that we were in the capable hands of Tobias’ local knowledge.
After reaching Echo Lake we found some nice chutes, with what I would call sturdy powder in them. For our final decent into the valley Tobias showed us some nice untracked noses and flutes to play on.
With plenty of sunlight left, but not much left in our legs, we decided to start our long hike out of the valley we had skied down into from the Laktatjakko Hut, and begin a short skin to the peak of Laktajakko, about 200 vertical meters above us.
I peered over the edge and saw almost 1,000 meters of steep, wide-open terrain. Our first turns were made in sweet soft powder, which led to some tight and challenging windblown chutes.
These soon opened up into large fields caked with very fast gnarly snow ” the kind you can get going mach 2 with your hair on fire before you know it.
The sun was still high in the sky, and it felt like it was about two in the afternoon, but as I casually checked my timepiece I noticed it was almost eight in the evening. That night, even with the lack of night, Elna and I slept like rocks.
Skiing under an egg
Riksgransen is only about 20 minutes north of Bjorkliden on the Norwegian boarder. It is a bit larger, with a couple of chairlifts, and many surface lifts leading to all kinds of killer terrain, both in and out of bounds.
If you are looking for a place that has more of a resort feel, then Riksgransen is the place for you ” basically it has more restaurants, and you can schedule a massage.
From the base area of Riksgransen all that can be seen is steep rocky terrain dotted with super-sized bumps. It is a similar feel that you get when pulling into Taos in New Mexico. Actually Taos and Riksgransen are very similar ” challenging terrain on the front side, some slightly mellow slopes on the backside, and short hikes to access the goods.
On our first day Elna and I stuck to lift-service stuff, because of clam chowder thick fog. As the clouds lifted in the afternoon we were able to get a sense of the lay of the land. In the distance we could see the hikeable slopes of Nordasfjall. The temptation was there, but with dead, bumped-out legs, a forecast of evening snow, and the promise of sunshine the following day, we decided to call it and save our selves for “tomorrow turns.”
Our last full day of skiing in Sweden could not have been better. We awoke bright and early ” about anytime you get up around here is bright ” got our gear together and headed up the road to Riksgransen to explore Nordalsfjall. With a foot of fresh snow and a bluebird sky we knew it was on.
Skiing Nordalsfjall is sort of like skiing off the top of a vertical egg. It starts off with a slight pitch and just gets steeper and steeper until you feel like you are making turns on the under side of the egg. The Swedes must have come up with some kind of high-tech adhesive to make snow stick to these sheer pitches.
With the easy access of a 20-minute hike, and 360 degree skiing off the top, Elna and I made lap after lap. I’m not kidding when I say that this was some of the steepest sustained vertical that I have every skied. If you were to take a fall, it would be quite the slide to the bottom.
Having no regrets, but wishing we could have explored Lapland a bit more Elna and I headed to the Kiruna to catch a plane back to the warmer temperatures in the south. With the plans of heli-skiing foiled because of poor planning on our part and the nearby ski stations of Abiasko, and Narvik in Norway still left to explore, I can see a trip back to this special place in our future.
So, if you are looking for a cool place, off the beaten path to make some turns this May, head to Lapland and ski the midnight sun.
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