There was no one here at all. Even the reindeer had gone, leaving behind ribbons of Kool-Aid-orange piss in the hard-pack. From the ridge where we stripped our skins, we could see salmon pens at the end of the fjord, an outbuilding on the frozen banks. That was it for civilization, for any signs of life, really, save reindeer urine. To the south and east, hundreds of square miles of rolling massifs broke up into open country, then at their easterly limit climbed to the horizon. To the west, a coastal tongue of cut-bank crags and black-water bays shone against the sky.
A bunch of us had skinned up from the road, a 2,700-foot, haul-ass alpine ascent in two hours, the aftershocks visible on some more than others. My ankles were meatloaf, swollen and Twizzler red. While the rest of my team toasted our summit, I fumbled with skis, boots, and bindings, all of a brutalist design, thousands of dollars of state-of-the-art ski tackle. I raved, sputtered, cried out, feebly, to no one in particular. It’s a poor craftsman… Still, I thought I made some valid points.
We clipped-in and headed back down. Straight down, through rollers of snow that splashed over my shoulders and rooster-tailed behind me. Just like that, I was wearing a white suit, baptized in Nordic powder, the stuff a Midwestern kid could invent growing up in a low-altitude void (my home mountain vertical drop: 240-feet). It wasn’t the same snow I knew in Michigan, where we screamed across toboggan ice and wore jeans under our bibs to absorb wipeout burns. This was pearly, unfamiliar, high-flying matter — about 13 feet of it, all told — so inviting and yet corresponding so poorly to my anaerobic threshold that I nearly barfed.
But I forgot my ankle pain and doubled over in laughter as we spun into a glade the color of summer wheat. The trees, some kind of dwarf birch, were spaced widely like an orchard. The eight of us dipped under frost-riven bows while floating downward, sun on our cheekbones. It was all I could do to keep my skis in front of me, until I no longer could, and went cartwheeling, landing in pillows of white. We skied straight to the van, which was laden with cold beer. As I pressed a bottle to alternating ankles, I tried explaining why none of this made sense. Something was wrong. This place was too good to be true. Low-angle sea-to-summit approaches, thick mattings of snow, a landscape of perennial quiet, and nobody seemed to know about it.
It’s difficult to travel in Norway and not be stunned by the natural beauty, but Senja, located in a far northwest tip, is something else. It doesn’t seem to derive from this world. In Greek myth, the distant north was the winter home of Apollo, his chariot drawn here by pairs of white swans. Hyperborea, it was called (Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind, as in aurora borealis), was a realm of endless warmth, free of warfare and disease, where, Aeschylus says, an eagle-lion hybrid, the Griffin, inhabited golden peaks. There were no signs of griffins, but it was easy to see why the place so fired the Greek muse.
Imagine a common variant of glaciated fjords and milky blue, crystalline ridges, the sea stenciled black against a rocky shore.
The Scandes range — a scoliotic curve of mountains that stretches the length of Scandinavia and spills into Senja — is connected by a magmatic umbilical chord to the Appalachians. Imagine a common variant of glaciated fjords and milky blue, crystalline ridges, the sea stenciled black against a rocky shore, with towns just big enough to hold a few houses, a church, perhaps a brewery. Were you to travel in Senja long enough, you’d eventually find people, but not many. In the harbor village where my lodge was, there lived five year-round families. Evenings, gray seals poked their cat-like heads out of the water and sniffed the air, and a white-tailed eagle banked in the low sun.
This is Amundsen country — or rather, a grim parenthetical to the famed Norwegian explorer’s life, which ended not far from here, off the coast of Tromsø, where in 1928 he went on a search-and-rescue mission and promptly vanished. Tromsø is sometimes called “the gateway to the Arctic,” and the surrounding area is known among outdoorsy types for its rough approximation of polar climes. But it’s relatively uncharted ski-touring terrain. In four days in Senja, apart from the 30 members of our expedition, I never saw another skier. Several of the soaring, granite-rimmed couloirs here have never been skied before. Most days it was just a handful of us, huffing up a mountain, flashing back down. Repeat. No resorts, no helicopters, no condo developments. Fresh tracks were a given — as were, for me, combustive, scattering wipeouts. Still, I had four or five of the best runs of my life.
Arc’tyrx Voltair Avalanche Airbag 20L $1,650
Pieps DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon $319
Black Diamond Helio Link 105 $950
Marker Kingpin 10 Touring Bindings $599
POC Fornix (treated with Polygiene for odor control) $99+
Lobe Goggles $119+
Ski touring requires some frontal-lobe realignment. The solitude and self-reliance feel anathema to the whole US ski industry ethos. There are few frills, package deals, waterslides for the tykes, and nobody to sue – the closest hospital is a three-hour car ride away. We carried with us bulky avalanche bags, beacons, shovels, probes, and probably an unearned faith in snow-pack solidity. But at night, as we gathered at dinner, we felt — to a person, I think — a fairly uncommon pleasure, on a level with which many of us had never reckoned. The only downer was the ever-elusive Northern Lights. It was the March high season, and we greedily scanned the sky before bed each night. But no dice.
My final good run, on the 2,600-foot Svanfjellet massif, was the one I want to remember. At the risk of overstating things, because, to be totally honest, I was out of my depth here as a skier, but if you’d known me in Michigan, had seen my teeth-clattering, wind-milling, rip-chord descents across the rope-tow ice at Timber Ridge, you’d have marveled. I still don’t know how I managed it — the snow, that is, which was doughy and luxuriant and in places threatened to disappear me altogether, as each rise contained hidden storage chambers of yet more snow.
Back at the lodge: Euphoria. Beer after beer, a sauna, a dip in the Norwegian Sea, followed by a hot tub, more beer, the beginnings — only the beginnings for some reason — of Swedish drinking songs, a dinner of a rare local salmon that tasted exactly like salmon. Stumbling to my cabin, eager for bed and the lull before the next day’s departure, I was distracted by my phone, texting with my wife, and almost missed them. I just happened to glance up. There they were: the Northern Lights.
Hakuba, Japan (pictured above): This village in the “Japanese Alps” (the Hida, Kiso and Akaishi mountains, topping out at 10,476 feet) averages around 35 feet of snow per year, more than many western US resort towns, and its slopes are higher and steeper and less crowded than Niseko’s, a popular (and overrun) ski area on Hokkaido island. Hakuba’s off-piste tree skiing is some of the best in the world, as is its food — the town is famous for izakayas, a kind of Japanese bistro that specializes in sake, sushi, and soba. Days tend to be filled with secret powder stashes, nights with long, après-ski soaks in traditional onsens, or hot springs. Pure Ski Touring, a Swedish outfitter with years of back-country expeditions under its belt, offers a six-day ski touring package with Japanese UIAGM-certified mountain guides.
Val d’Aran, Spain: The northwest Pyrenees are still the Mars of the ski-touring world: a distant, under-explored alien planet, though one with excellent tapas. Pure Ski Touring leads a four-day, cabin-to-cabin expedition through the heart of Val d’Aran’s wildest terrain, with help from famed Basque mountaineer Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb all fourteen 26,247-foot peaks in the world. The trip is light on baths and cell-phone reception and heavy on wilderness thrills and alpine endurance. You pack in your own gear and food (the latter prepared beforehand by a Catalan chef), eat in your underwear at communal tables, and frolic in one of the most untouched and prepossessing backcountry landscapes imaginable.
Dalvík, Iceland: From March to April, Iceland’s Troll Peninsula is awash not only in trolls wearing funny hats, but in thick, velvety “spring snow” (another name for “corn snow”) that turns eight colors of white. We’re talking virgin powder, several feet of it, with 5,000-foot vertical descents, the Arctic Ocean pounding the rocky shores below, and the sun beating relentlessly down. The place was manufactured in an off-piste skiing laboratory. For four days, Pure Ski Touring‘s local UIAGM mountain guides lead you from base-camp at the Húsabakki lodge (in the fishing village of Dalvík) to the area’s most extravagant and deserted slopes.