We are all Vikings now….
I’ve always loved to travel and explore new places. As a semi feral 16-year-old I bought an Inter-rail train ticket that let me ride the rails throughout Europe and North Africa for a month and I sucked the experience dry. It felt like quite a thing to step from the Marrakesh Express at 5am, after sharing a carriage with a semi reformed heroin addict from Brixton called Dino, then wander through the city souk to a rising desert sun. Well it was in the early 80’s anyway – and if you didn’t do it to a Crosby Stills and Nash bootleg tape playing on your Walkman then it didn’t count. From that first train journey I was hooked.
One of the great things about backcountry skiing is that it lets you explore cool parts of the world that you may not otherwise have been on your radar if they didn’t promise fresh snow and untracked peaks. The first time I went to ski in Alaska, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Having climbed in Denali park a couple of times previously I was pretty unphased at the prospect of day touring the smaller peaks around Valdez. More often than not, I find that reality rarely lives up to the hype: e.g. blockbuster movies, cocktail happy hour, blonde chicks that ski hard… but man, Valdez skiing really is all that. Really good I mean. Take my advice - if you like steep skiing in wild places you really should go to Alaska.
In the last couple of years I’ve become enchanted by exploring mountain ranges closer to home. Last year fellow Avalanche Geek and ‘Titan of Touring’ – (he really hates that title bestowed upon him by Fall Line magazine, so I use it as often as possible) invited me to tail guide with him in Finnmark, a remote region of Arctic Norway a couple of hours drive out of Alta from where the famous Utah ski town namesake took its title. And I was really impressed, skiing above the ocean is always something very special and confined to just a handful of locations around the planet.
For a start it confirmed a theory I’ve been developing over the years about a belt of homogenous human culture that circles the northern hemisphere at a latitude of 66 degrees North. My theory runs that at this latitude the culture of nation states has been superseded by man’s need to wear plaid shirts, drive 4.0 litre engine pick up trucks (ideally with a snow mobile on the back), drink copious amounts of bad black coffee and eat hotdogs – lots of hotdogs. I’m not kidding, Norway has the highest hotdog consumption rate in the world per head of population – who knew right? As an avid consumer of American ski culture I felt right at home in northern Norway, the trip felt like a week in Western Canada but with fewer people to poach my ski line. Actually there was nobody to poach my ski line. The only other backcountry skier we encountered all week was greeted like a long lost cousin with the pin number to my dead grandma’s savings account. Frankly the place delighted me.
So this year, I aimed to test my latitude theory further by heading to ski up in the Troll Peninsula of northern Iceland. With EasyJet flying there from a variety of UK airports for the price of a hotel room in Aviemore, it seemed like a good deal. People, I’m here to tell you that it did not disappoint. In many ways it was very reminiscent of skiing in northern Norway but somehow different. The plaid shirts and opportunities to eat petrol station hotdogs sat next to a display rack of chain saw lubricant and HGV windscreen wipers were still in healthy abundance, but the place was somehow a bit rawer…wilder. Raw and wild it may be yet the skiing in the big mountains above oceans is still remarkably accessible. Unlike Canada, there’s no endless thrashing around in the timberline before finally breaking through to the alpine here – the goods start right from the road.
As with Norway, the eye watering cost of living is best tempered by figuring out some form of self-catering option and the foresight to stock up at the airport duty free. But if you’re heading there with any expectation of having a plan of where you want to ski and the kind of skiing you’d like to do, then it’s probably not going to work for you.
Matt Spenceley, one of a new generation of outstanding hard charging ski guides the UK is now producing has been to the area previously and together we poured over a map of the northern part of the Troll Peninsula one evening in January. I was hoping for some beta for specific lines,] and I was a little put out when he pointed to a sizable chunk of the map approximately 20km square and pronounced vaguely: ‘This is one of the good areas.’ He wasn’t being deliberately cryptic, you just have to work stuff out for yourself in these places as there are literally hundreds of potential ski lines and link ups.
See a line from the road that appeals, check it out on the map and Google Earth, then go for it is the style of skiing in these parts. Maps are basic and tough to come by, guidebooks non-existent, and the weather is always going to provide a challenge (it can get a bit Scottish up there). However, if you’re starting to get fed up with the backcountry being the new cool thing and punter types ‘exploring’ the ‘side country’ in the very latest touring boots and bindings on your favourite ski hill, then the likes of Finnmark and Iceland will bring you some of the enchantment of exploration and wild snow skiing that means so much to old geezers like me. It’s that 5am Marrakesh feeling…
Bruce & Mike run guided trips to Finnmark every April and May. They have a growing collection of plaid shirts