Photograph by Max Lowe
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Olof Larsson and Karsten Gefle walk across a roaring mountain creek primed with spring runoff, en route to the glacier.
Photograph by Max Lowe

Forget the Beach—Go Skiing in Norway's Fjord Country

For early summer skiers in Norway, just getting to the snow line is half the adventure.

Water permeates the world here, bringing spring in its wake. Snowmelt has begun to swell the stark Valldøla River beyond its winter low water line, creeping slowly up toward the thick blanket of moss that splits the colors of dark black rock and rotting, off-white snow. A thin layer of water from the morning's rain creates a mirror on the dark wooden deck of the Juvet Landscape Hotel, reflecting the mountain’s roots, which rise up into a shifting mist, veiling the snowcapped peaks beyond.

I look through the steam of my coffee at an awe-inspiring landscape of tiny red farmhouses amid fields of melting snow that slowly make their retreat into the foothills, revealing the lush green that will blanket this world in a few short weeks' time.

The alpine peaks that sit out of view beyond those clouds, the high rugged peaks of Norway’s fjord-cut coastline, a bastion of winters holding even with spring's impending arrival, are the reason why I, along with skiers Johan Jonsson, Marcus Caston, and Olof Larsson, have traveled to Norway this April. But it's the space between a waning winter and the vibrant ingress of spring's thaw that's what I'm coming to understand will dictate our journey—to explore the spring-sprung mountains and quiet fjord country of southwestern Norway.

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Wille Lindberg, captain of his own small sailing ship, joined our ski posse after sailing to Norway in heavy spring seas from Stockholm as his first major ocean voyage. 

The winding roads that we traversed out of the small coastal fishing town of Ålesund and into the Norwegian backcountry had already taken us through some of the most dramatic landscape I've ever seen. As we skirt along high cliffs that drop hundreds of feet directly into icy, dark blue fjords, the sun plays hide-and-seek with snowcapped peaks shrouded by shifting silver clouds. The clash of light and shadow matches the contrast of the landscape over which it dances, one unlike almost anywhere else on the planet, where fingers of the cold North Atlantic ocean reach deep into the contours between mountain ranges to rival most any in America’s Northern Rockies.

Without going more than a hundred miles from Ålesund, we've jumped from one rustic hotel or guesthouse to the next over the first eight days of our trip, chasing snow in the high peaks and skiing some of the best spring powder any of us has experienced, and beyond that wandering amid the quickly thawing valleys, already blushing to life in vibrant green glacial lakes clear as gin flowing, heavy with meltwater, back to the fjords.

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The Wyvern sails up Hjørunfjorden en route to our ski missions at the head of the fjord.

After days of driving through tiny mountain hamlets, which are buried in the depths of deep canyons and perched upon the fjords' edges, and skinning into the high peaks above to nab turns in the refrozen spring snow that remains from a fruitful winter, we arrive in the little fjord town of Sæbø. Moored at the all but empty docks, beyond several small cod-fishing boats in their signature white, is our home and conveyance for the crowning days of our journey, the Wyvern, a 62-foot double-masted wooden sailing ship designed with a thick hull and a rounded bottom to thrive in the storms and rough offered up by the North Atlantic through which she sails.

Captain Erlënd emerges from the forward hatch and greets us with a silent wave, stoic as any self-respecting Norwegian boat captain would be. We load our ski bags onto the deck, excited for the prospect of accessing amazing corn snow in the days to come via hull, sail, and anchor. We've been joined by local legend Karsten Gefle, referred to casually by all the Norwegians and Swedes as “the Fjord Stallion,” and together we help move the ship out of its mooring and into the beginning of our voyage.

As seabirds cry out to each other and play on the growing wind above the main mast, we sail out of the little sleepy harbor and head inland and north toward the big peaks. The sun sets low on the horizon, lighting the high alpine above and around us with a golden, ethereal glow as we drink overpriced beers in the cockpit and watch the black water moving past the Wyvern for the rising dorsal fins of the killer whale pod that haunts the waters of these fjords. A chill, and with it night, set upon us.

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Johan Jonsson cuts into a slope of spring refreeze powder looking down on the fjords below.

We wake the next morning to find ourselves at the fjord's end, tied up at a stone dock across the water from a cloister of ancient red farmhouses, the mist rising from the frigid landscape warmed by morning's first light. Our guide for the day, Oskar, has driven through the morning twilight and over a high mountain pass to meet us for coffee and for the day's skiing in a nest of high peaks we can see on the distant horizon above.

After pulling on our ski boots and loading skis into his Land Rover, we head for the snow line. One of the things that makes spring skiing a grand adventure is the means by which you reach the high peaks. Once on the snow, you don your climbing skins to travel up and into the snow-covered high alpine with ease, but getting to the snow line presents half the adventure.

We walk through gushing spring runoff that's turned fields to bogs and push our way through thick bushes, trying not to get our skis tangled in the dense undergrowth. As Oskar leads us across a small, crystal-clear creek that rushes over a series of falls below, we step from soaked moss to snow and start our ascent to the summits above.

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Olof Larsson looks out on the town of Ålesund from the lookup bluff above the tiny fishing town.

The snow beneath our skis is of the perfect corn variety, a result of spring temperatures warming the surface crystals on the snowfields each morning after their overnight freeze, creating a wet but soft layer of three to four inches: fast and perfect for carving at high speed. As we crest an epic ridgeline, moving slowly toward the high point above and our subsequent drop, long shadows cast out from the skiers in front of me, cast across the glacier below us by the low-set boreal sun.

It’s often my inherent instinct to run in the opposite direction of the crowd, putting in that extra effort to venture beyond the expected and high-trafficked travel destinations.

“I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world, my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.” This is one of my favorite quotes, from the novel Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It can be interpreted in many ways, but I take it into consideration when planning my foreign adventures. When summer's knocking and everyone is running for the beaches, the mountain bike trails, and the rock climbing crags, maybe let them get ahead of you a little ways, then turn back toward the snowy peaks. In Norway, or in your own backyard, the solace of solitude awaits.