It’s Nor­we­gian for ‘free air life,’ and there is per­haps no purer ex­pres­sion of it than spring ski­ing in Fin­n­mark — es­pe­cially when you sail to the slopes

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Kate Harris

It’s Nor­we­gian for ‘free air life,’ and there is per­haps no purer ex­pres­sion of it than spring ski­ing in Fin­n­mark — es­pe­cially when you sail to the slopes

THE SAIL­BOAT has barely left the dock in Alta, Nor­way, when I no­tice a ski pole taped to the stern. The lone weather-beaten Swix pole is splinted with black elec­tri­cal tape to the rear of the Humla, the 15-me­tre sloop I’m on that’s mo­tor­ing into the Arc­tic Ocean. Mats Grim­sæth, the lanky, long­haired skip­per, no­tices what I’m staring at. “That pole came with the Humla,” he ex­plains. “I don’t dare take it off. It’s prob­a­bly hold­ing the boat to­gether!” He’s jok­ing, but I’m still re­lieved to see plenty of backup ski poles on board, and plenty of life jack­ets too. Scattered among them are fat skis wedged next to kayaks, and T-shirts and ball caps hang next to win­ter jack­ets below deck. This be­wil­der­ing mix of gear only makes sense for the month of May in the north­east­ern ex­treme of Nor­way, in a land called Fin­n­mark, where win­ter flirts with spring, the sun for­gets to set and snow-capped moun­tains melt di­rectly into the sea. These are the bor­der­lands Seil­norge, a bou­tique Nor­we­gian ex­pe­di­tion com­pany, spe­cial­izes in ex­plor­ing through hy­brid ski­ing and hik­ing jour­neys north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. On board two of

the com­pany’s sail­boats ( Humla and Valiente) for the next four days are 23 journalist­s and ath­letes of vary­ing ski abil­i­ties — from Kaylin Richard­son, the Amer­i­can two-time Olympic alpine racer, to Frankie Hill, a mag­a­zine writer from Eng­land who can barely snow­plow — who have come here to carve slopes best reached by boat, with a mod­ern-day Viking at the helm. Grim­sæth rolls his Rs like an old salt, but at 24, he’s a prodigy of the seas. As a new­born, his par­ents strapped him into a baby seat meant for a bi­cy­cle in the cock­pit of their sail­boat. He saved up to buy his own ves­sel as a teenager, then spent the first 48 hours of its maiden voy­age from Bel­gium to Nor­way retch­ing. Grim­sæth still gets sea­sick on oc­ca­sion, but this hasn’t stopped him from sail­ing more than 40,000 kilo­me­tres along Nor­way’s con­vo­luted coast, and from lov­ing ev­ery queasy sec­ond of it. Now sponsored by Helly Hansen (one of the or­ga­niz­ers of this trip), he sup­ports him­self as a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher from his floating of­fice, sail­ing wher­ever whim and the winds take him, and oc­ca­sion­ally works as a skip­per for Seil­norge, tasked with show­ing the ropes to rook­ies like my­self. But on a sail­boat, I quickly learn, there are no ropes, only lines. Grim­sæth in­structs me to grab one now to help hoist the main­sail. As wind fills the canvas he cuts the en­gine, and we surge over the inky sea in an eerie, ex­hil­a­rat­ing si­lence. All I hear is the splash of wa­ter against the hull, the creak­ing of lan­yards, the cries of gulls or­bit­ing the mast. Moun­tains rise from the ocean all around us in a se­ries of white­caps, and it’s im­pos­si­ble to tell where one range ends and the other begins. Above our heads, in the fierce wind, birds fly in place sim­ply by un­furl­ing their wings.


“IF THERE’S ANY­THING a coast im­parts,” ob­served the poet Kather­ine Lar­son, “it’s pa­tience with im­per­fect lines.” But im­per­fect lines are what this trip is all about: the tacks of a sail­boat through nar­row fiords and is­lands on the Fin­n­mark coast, and the tracks of skis up and down the peaks edg­ing them. As for pa­tience, you won’t find much of it on board the Humla, where Helly Hansen­spon­sored ath­letes Richard­son and Den­nis Risvoll, a Nor­we­gian pro freeskier, be­gin plot­ting their dream ski lines down moun­tains from the moment we set sail. They seem ea­ger to plunge down steep chutes of snow hung be­tween ragged cliffs, the sort of death run that at a dis­tance re­sem­bles light­ning frozen in its flash. Given I’m no dou­ble-black-di­a­mond skier, I’m re­lieved when Grim­sæth an­chors the boat a few hours later next to a rather less ver­ti­cal slope, on the north­east end of the Øks­fjord penin­sula. We cram into in­flat­able dinghies that look like pin­cush­ions with all the skis and poles stick­ing out of them. “My el­bow is coming for you,” Grim­sæth warns me in charm­ingly lit­eral English, mean­ing I should watch out for his flail­ing arm as he pulls the en­gine starter cord. Three tugs later, each suc­cess­fully dodged, the mo­tor putts to life. He drops us off on sea­weed-slick cob­bles with a re­minder to leave our life jack­ets and ski bags on the snow far­ther up the beach. “That way,” he ex­plains, “the tide won’t steal your stuff while you’re gone.” It’s 10 p.m. but I wouldn’t know it if I hadn’t checked my watch. The Arc­tic sun tilts above us, tire­less. Salt tangs the air to the point that I ques­tion whether the white sub­stance we’re skin­ning up is truly snow. The higher we climb, the crisper the air and the more pow­dery the slopes. From a dis­tance, the wa­ter in the bay looks blue-black, a sea of bruises. We ski down in hon­eyed light that lingers long after we’re back in our bunks on the where I lie buzzing with joy and jet­lag. I stare out the port­hole next to my pil­low at moun­tains distorted through drops of sea­wa­ter and curse my in­som­nia, be­cause the sooner I fall asleep, the sooner I get to wake up and ski some more. I’M BE­GIN­NING to un­der­stand why ski­ing is a na­tional ob­ses­sion in Nor­way — and has been for mil­len­nia. Be­fore fly­ing to Alta, we vis­ited the Hol­menkollen Ski Mu­seum in Oslo, which show­cases repli­cas of 5,000-yearold rock carv­ings of skis on the is­land of Tro off this country’s north­ern coast (the orig­i­nal carv­ings have sadly been van­dal­ized). Also on dis­play was a model in minia­ture of the cross-country ski trails web­bing the out­skirts of Oslo, a

net­work so ex­ten­sive, at 2,600 kilo­me­tres, you could go a dif­fer­ent way ev­ery day of the year. “Are those trails free to ac­cess?” some­one asked the mu­seum guide. “Of course,” she said, ap­palled. “You mean you have to pay to ski where you’re from?” Yes, we gen­er­ally do, per­haps be­cause where we’re from — Canada and Amer­ica and Bri­tain and France, among a smat­ter­ing of other na­tion­al­i­ties on the trip — there’s no word or way of life quite like friluft­sliv. Nor­we­gian for “free air life,” the term is em­bod­ied by the likes of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amund­sen, na­tional heroes who slogged across Green­land and the South Pole be­fore any­one else. The mu­seum holds ar­ti­facts from their pi­o­neer­ing expedition­s, from old wooden skis to lin­seed oil-soaked anoraks to … dogs? The guide ex­plains how Amund­sen’s team re­lied on dog teams for added mus­cle on their way to the South Pole, and for ex­tra calo­ries on the way back. “One by one they put the dogs on the ta­ble,” she grimly ac­knowl­edged. “It was about sur­vival in na­ture.” Our sur­vival in na­ture in Fin­n­mark, to ev­ery­one’s re­lief, is both less harm­ful to canines and more scrump­tious. Cook­ing for Seil­norge is Qaaqqut­siaq “Tipi” Lynge, a renowned chef from Green­land, who some­how con­jures mouth-wa­ter­ing, multi-course feasts from a cramped gal­ley: Korean tacos with pork, kim­chi and peanut sauce; roasted broccoli with sweet pota­toes and fresh-baked bread; bratwurst and ap­ple crum­ble with whipped cream for dessert. The serv­ings are so gen­er­ous that even our crew of tired and hun­gry skiers barely man­ages to clean our plates. To­tal si­lence en­sues when­ever meals are served, and not be­cause we have noth­ing to talk about. We take turns do­ing the dishes and tidy­ing up, en­sur­ing the cup­boards are firmly latched and loose ob­jects are tucked away be­fore set­ting sail. The quar­ters below deck are com­fort­able, if a bit cramped, in part be­cause there’s wet ski gear hanging ev­ery­where to dry, in­clud­ing in the two bath­rooms that the 10 peo­ple aboard must share. But who needs show­ers when you have the sea? “I wash ev­ery­one,” Grim­sæth an­nounces a lit­tle too glee­fully after a wave crashes broad­side into the boat, soak­ing me and the others on deck.

I for­give him in­stantly. Who wouldn’t, with his goofy grin and equally goofy (yet un­de­ni­ably warm) fur hat with ear flaps, which he wears to ward off the wind­chill as we sail? His buoy­ant charisma is un­der­girded by the quiet com­pe­tence of some­one who has weath­ered, all alone, the cra­zi­est seas the Arc­tic can throw at a sail­boat. He’s es­sen­tially a poster boy for friluft­sliv: part ath­lete, part artist, part philoso­pher of the deeps. “In the val­ley of a wave, you feel like noth­ing else ex­ists,” he says, as the boat plunges into ex­actly that kind of obliv­ion. “But on the crest of a wave,” he ex­ults as the boat rises, “you feel on top of the world.”

THE SKI POLE that’s taped to the Humla’s stern holds fast through­out the trip — a per­fect fig­ure­head for sea-to­sum­mit sail­ing jour­neys, only it’s lo­cated at the back in­stead of the front of the boat. Tra­di­tion­ally, Vik­ings would dec­o­rate the prow with an or­na­men­tal carv­ing or paint­ing to ward off evil spirits, but the Humla only has a nar­row wooden seat on which we all take turns sit­ting. Cruis­ing low and fast over the waves, with the wind singing in my ears, I un­der­stand why Vik­ings some­times wore hel­mets with whole birds fixed to them, in­stead of the horns you see in cartoons: isn’t sail­ing a kind of flight? Wind and wa­ter let you soar, if only in spirit, if only for a lit­tle while, un­til your face gets too cold and the waves get too big and it’s time to re­treat below deck. Grav­ity and snow en­able an­other kind of flight, and this is our last chance to ex­pe­ri­ence it: to­mor­row we’ll dock in Tromso, the end­point of the trip. On our sec­ond last day of win­ter in May, we ski up a peak called Stølf­jel­let, mean­ing either “sum­mer farm” or “mus­cle sore­ness moun­tain.” The lat­ter in­ter­pre­ta­tion seems most apt as we stumble across the tun­dra in rigid ski boots to reach snow­line. “This is men­tal,” says Frankie Hill as she trips over a tus­sock. So it goes with the free air life. What it of­fers is not comfort and ease, but the sort of ab­surd slog­ging that, if you stick at it, can take you some­where sub­lime. In this sense, climb­ing a moun­tain is like sail­ing in big seas. Noth­ing ex­ists as you switch­back up a peak ex­cept for the snow di­rectly in front of you, at least un­til you reach the top and the view turns oceanic. Un­der blue skies on the sum­mit of Stølf­jel­let, the wa­ter below looks so turquoise, and I’m so warm with ex­er­tion, that I can al­most be­lieve we’re in the trop­ics, slip­pery white stuff un­der my skis not­with­stand­ing. Then the sun ducks be­hind a cloud and I re­mem­ber that win­ter lives year-round at a cer­tain lat­i­tude and altitude in Fin­n­mark. I put on my jacket and soar back down to sea level, stop­ping only when the snow runs out and the tips of my skis touch kelp.


ABOVE: Skiers get fer­ried ashore at Troll Bay. OP­PO­SITE: Gabriella Edebo carves a slope on the is­land of Kå­gen.

ABOVE: Philip Tavell goes air­borne on Kå­gen. MID­DLE: For­mer Olympian Kaylin Richard­son takes a break. BOT­TOM: The Humla and Valiente.

ABOVE: Flo­rian Kunck­ler (left) and Aurélien Du­croz at Altafjord. LEFT: A wet and windy fiord crossing on the Humla.

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