On top of the world
Unlike the beer, heli-skiing is an affordable proposition at a tiny Swedish ski resort, finds Tom Robbins
HE nightclub in the basement of the Riksgransen Hotel is full of surprises. The first is the hefty bill for the equivalent of about $25 for two pints of lager. Then the barman pulls back a curtain to reveal that, even though it’s 10pm, because it is May and we are so far north, it’s broad daylight.
But the coup de grace is when a helicopter swoops down and lands right outside and four weary but beaming skiers unfurl themselves from its cramped cockpit and clomp inside for a drink.
Riksgransen is the world’s most northerly ski resort, a frozen border post between Sweden and Norway, 300km north of the Arctic Circle. Such latitude gives it a key selling point: a ski season extending until late June. When the snows melt in Chamonix, St Anton and Verbier, the ski bums who can’t face heading home migrate here to prolong winter for a few more precious weeks.
But there is another lesser-known reason for making the pilgrimage this far north. Ironic as it may seem, Riksgransen is probably the cheapest and easiest place in the world to get a taste of heli-skiing.
For any skier or snowboarder who has ventured offpiste and felt the addictive thrill of floating in light powder snow, heli-skiing is the stuff of fantasy. Rather than queuing for busy cable cars and chairlifts, heliskiers are whisked away to remote peaks, below which kilometre after kilometre of virgin powder await. The only drawback is the cost of chartering helicopters.
In Riksgransen, however, things are far more lowkey. You can do as many helicopter lifts as you like, typically paying the equivalent of about $100 a time, including a guide and hire of transceivers, shovels and probes. Most take a three-lift package, which will take a full afternoon and allow you to ski the biggest peaks of the area.
There’s no need to book months ahead either; just sign up at the hotel reception desk in the morning, leave your mobile phone number, then head out to the pistes. An hour before your helicopter slot, the guides ring to call you to the helipad, right outside the hotel.
It has to be said that the pistes here are rather limited (there are only six lifts) but then Riksgransen isn’t really a resort in the conventional sense. There’s just one hotel, around which a cluster of red wooden outbuildings have grown up, and a maximum capacity of about 600 people.
The whole place owes its existence not to skiing but to the single-track railway that runs through its centre, built to transport iron ore from the mines of Kiruna in the south to the port of Narvik, on Norway’s Atlantic coast.
The railway was completed in 1902, when rails being built from the Swedish and Norwegian sides finally met at Riksgransen. To celebrate, a hotel and elaborate wooden station were built, and the railway company started trying to promote it as a tourist destination.
Initial attempts foundered (there was, after all, no real reason to get off the train) until the country’s first ski school was established here in 1934. Its popularity has slowly grown since, although today it still feels more like a frontier outpost than a proper town.
When our call comes, we rush down from the pistes and gather excitedly at the empty helipad. Soon the little helicopter comes into view across the frozen lake that fills the wide valley floor. As it gets closer, I start to suspect there’s a reason heli-skiing here is so cheap; to be blunt the helicopter doesn’t exactly look new.
Most helicopters I’ve been in before have been all lightweight fibreglass and carbon. This is made from painted metal and rivets and glass and has big silver door handles that look as if they’ve been borrowed from an Austin Allegro.
Later inquiries reveal it’s an Alouette 3, of a type first built in 1970, but Krister, our guide, assures us that the exhaustive maintenance regime means its age makes no difference.
Far horizons: Skiers clamber aboard the helicopter at the start of their Riksgransen heli-ski adventure on the pristine Arctic plateau
Cheap and cheery: A range of accommodation at Riksgransen ski resort
Soon the rotors are spinning, smacking the air with a slow thud-thud-thud that gradually speeds up into a frantic whirr. Then we’re soaring up over the hotel, leaving behind the few skiers on the pistes and heading off into the Arctic wilderness. We touch down on the 1463m summit of Vassitjakka, clamber out and crouch in the snow as the pilot lifts off and veers sharply away to pick up the next group.
There’s a moment of exquisite silence as we take in the view stretching over kilometre after kilometre of white Arctic plateau, past the ancient blue ice of glaciers and down, in the far distance, to the half-frozen fjords of Norway. Then everyone’s bashing snow off their boots, clipping into bindings, banging poles and talking about the run ahead.
It doesn’t disappoint. We carve huge high-speed arcs in the buttery spring snow, leaving enormous S-shaped signatures on what had been an untouched mountainside. The initial steep slopes level and open out into a wide hidden bowl, devoid of any sign of human life.
While the big helicopters in Canada can carry groups of up to 10, the Alouette has space for just five, so our group is small enough not to destroy the peace.
Halfway down, a family of reindeer is pulling at an exposed clump of grass, and Krister warns us to give it a wide berth in case the animals panic and scatter into our paths.
We take our time, each choosing a separate route, then regrouping at the bottom, where Krister radios for the helicopter to collect us for two more wonderful runs. There hasn’t been any new snow for a couple of weeks, but the temperatures here and the lack of other skiers means that conditions are still great.
To be honest though, the thrill is less about the helicopter and the powder snow, more about the feeling of skiing in a tiny group in a wilderness utterly unlike Europe’s Alps.
When we land back at the hotel, the party is in full swing. On the terrace young freeriders from across Europe are drinking and soaking up a rare interlude of Arctic sun. Though there’s only one hotel, it does a good job of catering for everyone. So while the smartest rooms in the Meteorologen Lodge, a boutique-style place housed in Riksgransen’s oldest building, go for about $350 a night, there are also rooms with bunk beds for young ski bums that cost about $80 a person a night.
In the Lapplandia restaurant the tasting menu includes lightly smoked leg of reindeer with chanterelle sformato, followed by rowanberry granita, and will set you back about $85, but there’s also a coffee shop and small food store selling far cheaper fare to satisfy the young, impoverished snow addict.
We ease off our boots and head back to the nightclub to count our krone. We’ve saved so much on the heliskiing we can afford another beer . . . just. The Observer
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has released special business and economy class fares from Australian ports to more than 40 European cities including Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki via its Copenhagen hub; SAS also has services from Stockholm to Kiruna. For sale until August 31 for departures to December 31, business class starts at $4849 return (taxes and surcharges included) ex Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, via Bangkok. Economy class specials start at $1679 via Bangkok or Tokyo; departures ex Cairns available. Complimentary transit packages, including accommodation and transfers between airport and hotel, are available between flights in Bangkok or Tokyo for passengers with connections of six hours or more. More: 1300 727 707; www.flysas.com.au. www.riksgransen.nu www.visitsweden.com www.visitscandinavia.com.au