The wind is fierce. I’m bent double against it, the biting chill doing its best to burn into any exposed skin it can find, as I work quickly to remove the mohair skins on my skis and pack them away in my avalanche bag. I adjust the bindings on my skis and boots from ‘walk’ to ‘ski’ mode, shovel my gloves back on, and inch sideways to join the rest of my group, huddled together against the wind.
If it sounds like hell, that couldn’t be further from the truth — each of us is sporting a huge grin, feeling nothing but invigorated and alive standing on the icy, 2,556ft peak of Skolpan in Senja, within the Arctic Circle in Norway.
All around us are mountains and fjords. On the way up here, we’d stopped to peer over the edge at Bergsbotn and Nordfjorden way, way below, feeling like we were standing on the edge of the world. Senja (population 650) is the second largest island in Norway, and at 69.29 degrees north, it’s utterly, blissfully remote. The snow we’ve just spent two hours climbing up through has been falling thick, fast and dry — the Gulf Stream location making relatively mild conditions out of such a northerly latitude.
We’re all soon ready to descend, once our guide Oscar has scoped out the line and offered advice on where to ski.
“Let’s charge!” he shouts. Needing no encouragement, our group of six set off bounding through thigh-deep, light, white fluffy snow. It’s the stuff of dreams: having been in a wide open bowl, we head into the trees, mountain birch trees just far enough apart to provide a fun challenge. I’ve never skied in Japan, but some of our group has, and say this is better.
Senja has come to the notice of the ski touring world only relatively recently — my guide, Oscar Wahlund, explains that the only available ski map of the island contains just four routes. Yet look around, and there must be at least 4,000. Locals here ski, but its cross-country rather than ski touring, although the latter is growing in popularity all time.
This is no hut-to-hut hardship trip. Nights are spent luxuriating at the Hamn i Senja, a hotel owned by a local family, set in a former fishing village. Tired legs were soothed in the traditional Nordic hot tub, but you can’t come here without running barefoot along a snow-covered dock to jump in the freezing Norwegian Sea.
Suffice to say it’s cold. But over a four-day trip, we experience every condition under the sun, including a total white-out blizzard, in which we still managed to ski through the trees at Karperdalen, and tackle the south-west-facing slopes lying in the lea of the Sørfjellan mountain range. It wasn’t planned, as such, but having followed the creeks up through the forest to around 1,640ft, the weather turned foul, so we removed our skins and bounded down through soft snow — all around us utter quiet.
Day four dawned clear and bright, so we beelined it up Sørfjellet, a pyramid-shaped peak at 1,653ft, giving us 360-degree views (to the far west, on a really good day, you can catch a glimpse of Iceland). The ski down, alongside a fjord, was nothing short of magical.
The base on Senja is solid and the avalanche risk is low — around a grade two most of the time — making touring a pretty safe bet, particularly on the slopes we skied, which were never steeper than 30 degrees. We encounter pockets of wind-affected drifts but our expert guides only broached these areas when visibility was good enough to eyeball the risks. And knowing that there’s limited risk simply adds to the enjoyment of this special place — allowing you the freedom to tour from beach to peak, climbing around 3,300ft a day, without the usual complications altitude can bring.
In this remote wilderness on Senja, it couldn’t be easier to earn your turns.
Published in the Winter Sports 2018 guide, free with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)