On top of the world

Un­like the beer, heli-ski­ing is an af­ford­able propo­si­tion at a tiny Swedish ski re­sort, finds Tom Rob­bins

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Check­list

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

Pic­tures (ex­cept mid­dle, be­low): Mat­tias Jo­hans­son

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