[NOTE: 2020 is the tenth year of my blog at Semi-Rad.com, and since I started it, I’ve been fortunate to get to do some pretty wonderful adventures. Throughout this year, I’ll be writing about 12 favorite adventures I’ve had since I started writing about the outdoors, one per month. This is the first in the series.]
[all photos by Tommy Penick]
On Deck C of the MS Nordenstjernen, anchored almost 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, passengers clomp around in ski boots, stuff backpacks, and fuss with life jackets as snow falls through the fog into the dark water of the Stønnesbotn fjord outside. Everyone is excited, because everyone is skiing today, the first day of our three days of skiing on the Arctic Haute Route—except the one guy who drank too much in the lounge last night and missed his group’s departure to shore. He has frantically asked around to join another group, but our guide, Bjørn, has politely explained to him that we’re at capacity, with five skiers to one guide.
Another reason I suspect he says no: Bjørn is motivated to ski today, a lot. His plan for us today is to hop on the tender boats that will motor us over to shore in five minutes, take the bus 15 minutes across one of the narrow fingers of this island, Senja, to the shore just below Breidtinden (3,284 feet, the highest peak on the island), and then traverse back across the island, summiting another peak (Tuva, 2,168 feet) before skiing down to shore again. All in all, about 8 miles of skiing, and just under 3,900 feet of climbing.
There are 60 of us, including eight guides, on the MS Nordenstjernen—a 290-foot ship with four passenger decks, that served more than 50 years on Norway’s Hurtigruten coastal cruise line before it was retired in 2012. The boat is described as “nostalgic and venerable” in promotional literature, and feels more like a real ship than a fancy cruise ship, something out of a Wes Anderson movie. In the old Hurtigruten brochure, under the heading, “FITNESS ROOM, SAUNA, POOL, JACUZZI,” it says, “There are no such facilities on board MS Nordstjernen.” (For 2020, Arctic Haute Route trips will be on a newer boat, the MS Quest, built in 1992.)
The Arctic Haute Route, dreamed up by Nina Kristine Madsen Geelmuyden and her husband Fredrik Geelmuyden, owners of the Norwegian Adventure Company, works like this: Skiers board the boat in Tromsø, Norway, the afternoon of Day 1. We cruise south, anchoring in a fjord for the evening, and sleep on the ship. On Day 2, we get dropped on shore, ski all day, and return to the ship in mid- to late afternoon. We cruise south again to another fjord, spend the night on the ship, and ski new terrain on Day 3, returning to the ship and heading south again to anchor in one last fjord. The final day of skiing, on Day 4, ends at a bus that takes us to the airport at Svolvær, where we all catch flights home. The boat turns around to head north with a new group of skiers the next day. There are eight Arctic Haute Route trips per season (March 19-April 21), four southbound and four northbound, and a charter bus carrying everyone’s skis parallels the boat’s course the entire time.
The bus dropped us off for our first ski day, fat snowflakes dropping on us as we skinned up through thin trees, the peaks around us shrouded in low clouds. Our group of skiers: myself, photographer Tommy Penick, and three lively Norwegian guys from Oslo in their 50s: Ragnar, Frode, and Rune. Our guide, Bjørn Kruse, owns and operates the Romsdal Ski Lodge with his wife, and works as a guide on the Arctic Haute Route as a break over the winter.
We climbed above a fjord, Mefjorden, that opens into the Norwegian Sea about 10 miles northwest from us. Occasionally the clouds opened up to reveal peaks all around our path, on the mountainous northern coast of Senja, a 612-square-mile island connected to the mainland by a single bridge. I should have started cold but didn’t, and too many layers had me sweating as we climbed. Before the trip, I had skied exactly one day so far that season, spending most of my time running and training for a couple mountain ultramarathons. I was not exactly expecting to make great turns. When we ripped our skins off after about 40 minutes of climbing for a little 300-foot run down a gully, my fears were confirmed: my quads were burning after three turns in powder. But it was still so good.
We skinned up two shorter, mellow climbs, before dropping down into a valley for our final climb, 1700 feet into sunny blue skies to the summit of a peak called Tuva. From the top, we looked down to see our tiny ship parked in the fjord. I skied down last, not so confident in my wobbly legs, and also not wanting the rest of the group to observe my sloppy survival skiing through the trees to the road. Bjørn, it was clear, would find the best possible skiable snow, partly for us as his clients, but also because he just loves to ski. We arrived at the bus at 3:30 p.m., and after a short ride and a quick tender boat ride, I plopped down to drink coffee and watch the mountains go past a lounge window as the boat cruised out of the fjord and on to our next stop.
Mention Norway to someone and one of the first things you will probably hear them say is the word “expensive.” Compared to traveling to a lot of places, like Mexico or Thailand, it is. The Arctic Haute Route, for three and a half days on the ship, costs 19,900 Norwegian Kroner per person, or about $2,230 in U.S. dollars. Which is objectively not cheap—but includes all food, transportation, and lodging during the trip, plus three days of backcountry ski guiding. It is certainly one of the most expensive trips I’ve done, but in full disclosure, my trip was paid for by the Norwegian government’s tourism body, in hopes that I would write about it. I don’t do many press trips, and I don’t seek them out, but when this email landed in my inbox, it sounded like a trip I shouldn’t pass up. The question for me to answer was: If I had to pay for it out of my own pocket, would I? Now that I know what it’s like, yes. I can’t pretend to be 100 percent objective about it, but I can say this: if it sucked, I just wouldn’t write about it. And it didn’t suck.
There are only a few places in the world where you can go on a “ski cruise”—Norway, Alaska, Antarctica, and Svalbard (which is of course, part of Norway), and the Arctic Haute Route is one of the more affordable of those destinations. And much more “ski” than “cruise,” or at least my idea of cruises, which is something like David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” A bright-white ship 20+ times the size of the MS Nordensjternen plowing through bright blue Caribbean ocean water in all-day sunshine, fancy dinners, activities on the ship, and 10 times as many passengers on board, most of whom make way more money than I do and who don’t necessarily want to spend six hours and 3,000 calories a day skiing uphill and downhill. That sort of thing.
The similarities between a luxury cruise line and the Arctic Haute Route were probably limited to the fact that they both utilize boats. Although I’m sure some of the folks on our trip had some money, if you lived in Norway, something like the Arctic Haute Route is pretty affordable, not much more expensive than a four-day trip to ski Breckenridge or Vail if you live in Chicago. The food on the MS Nordenstjernen was fancy (the menu was developed by Gunnar Hvarnes, Norway’s 2009 Chef of the Year)—but no one wore fancy clothes to dinner. I can’t speak for other passengers, but Tommy and I didn’t shower our entire time on the boat, and no one seemed to notice. It was just enough of a cruise to feel like we had nothing to worry about besides eating, sleeping, and skiing, but not so chichi that it ruined the feel of an adventure.
Tommy and I went up to the bridge to visit the captain on the afternoon of Day 2, and found the Polish first mate instead, looking over his 180-degree view of the ship’s course and navigating us straight down the middle of the almost mile-wide fjord, snowy mountains poking out of the water on the horizon. His tools, brightly colored charts on multiple computer monitors and electric panels, were laid among and on top of a few of the ship’s remaining old instruments. He explained that the old stuff was no longer in use—just decorative now. Tommy took photos around the bridge, and then pointed at one lever, suggesting that a human hand on it might make for a better photo with the old Norwegian markings: Halv, Sakte, Ganske Sakte, Klar, Stopp, Vel. I grabbed it and moved it just a half-inch, and the first mate very gently noted to us, “We still use that one.” I jumped back and apologized, even though he seemed unconcerned.
I asked, “What is it for?”
“Speed.” We all laughed.
Once we stepped onto the boat on the first day in Tromsø, we never stepped foot onto land except to ski—every morning we had a buffet breakfast (and packed a lunch from the buffet breakfast, to eat while skiing), and dinner again, on the boat. Some days we saw several other groups from our ship, some days we hardly saw anyone. We got up at 6:15 a.m., hopped in the tender boats between 8:00 and 8:40 a.m., and were clicking into our skis by 9 a.m. or earlier every day, skinning up, dropping in off the top of a peak, and skiing until 3 p.m. every day.
Depending on how you measure it, Norway has either the second-largest or seventh-largest length of coastline of all the countries in the world. Either way, its coastline is at least 36,000 miles long, and is comprised of tens of thousands of islands and more than 1,000 fjords. The majority of the land in the country is rugged, non-arable, and mountainous. To be on a ship cruising through the fjords, on a day with decent visibility, is a large part of the fun of a trip like this.
As the MS Nordenstjernen motored past the southern coast of Hinnoøya in the late afternoon of Day 2, I sat on the port side of the empty restaurant sipping coffee and writing in a pocket notebook as the daylight started to fade over the coastline. I looked out the window over the black water, to the shore, waves of snowy mountains rising out of the fjord. One triangular rock face stood out, its sheer north face dropping almost straight down for hundreds of meters. I recognized it from photos: Stetind, Norway’s national mountain. I had obsessively scoured the Internet for information about climbing it a few years ago, then decided I couldn’t justify a special trip for one route. I figured I’d never see it in person, let alone from a ship 15 miles away, in the winter. Through the glass, I took the best iphone photo I could, then admitted defeat and decided to just enjoyed the moment instead of faffing around trying to capture it. William Cecil Slingsby, an English climber considered the father of Norwegian mountaineering, famously called it “the ugliest mountain I ever saw.” I guess I would disagree, along with all the people who voted it Norway’s national mountain in 2002.
Our final ski day was supposed to be a short one, since everyone on the boat was flying home later in the afternoon. I felt less than great, tired from the previous two long ski days and still unable to shake a bit of a cold I’d had when I left the U.S.. I looked out the window as I ate breakfast, watching rain mixed with snow fall on the water next to the ship, halfway wishing someone would just say I should take the day off. Tommy was tired too, but around the boat, no one seemed to be making moves to not go skiing.
We hopped on the last tender boat off the ship at 8:40 a.m., saying goodbye to the MS Njordenstern, and clicked into our skis again to skin up the south slopes of Sautinden, a 1,955-foot peak. The wind grew increasingly hostile as we gained the open slopes of the upper half of the peak’s west face, and in 40 mph gusts, we bailed to a saddle on the east ridge, and then across the north face, where the sun came out and the wind quieted. After a few laps up and down the north side, Bjørn took us back up to the saddle, where Frode decided he’d had a good day, and joined another group to head back down to a waiting bus. We skinned up the east face of Sautinden, still pretty windy but tolerable, on snow with a half-inch-thick crust on top that made it difficult to climb, even with ski crampons on. Directly south of us, the sun poked under the afternoon clouds and bounced off the waters of the Austnesfjorden, pointing almost straight south for eight miles. I tried to take an iphone video, noticing immediately that the wind was vibrating my phone, and put it away.
A few minutes of insecure skinning later, we stood on the wind-packed summit of Sautinden, our last peak of the trip, and looked down on the water below. Bjørn led us off the summit to where he thought there would be good skiing, a sunny bowl on the east face of the peak—which probably meant a sizable walk at the bottom to the bus, parked on the edge of the fjord on the other side of the mountain. After about 150 feet of crusty garbage down the steep face, it turned to powder, and I linked eight or 10 of my best turns of the entire trip, finally getting my shit together and actually skiing at the end of the last day. We kept going down, paying for our great snow and turns with an exit through tight, short trees, over a barely-covered boulderfield, stepping over a 2 ½-foot tall fence into someone’s backyard, where a mellow golden retriever greeted us and got a healthy ration of ski-gloved pets as we popped off our skis for the 20-minute walk back to the awaiting bus, and then the real world.