Exploring the Lyngen Alps

Last spring, the crow Guillaume Saenz along with his road buddies Jérémy Gey and Réza Nassif decided to spend the last of their season’s budget on exploring Norway and in particular the Lyngen Alps. A reconnaissance mission recounted in depth by Guillaume and enriched by glorious photographic inspiration.

Norway. To the collective conscience the name of the country alone conjures images of stunning landscapes, between majestic fjords, wild coastlines, exuberant wildlife and the aurora borealis…This country, where skiing is absolutely part of everyday life and the history of its inhabitants, is a dream destination for all ski-touring nature and landscape lovers…For me, as an amateur photographer, skier and mountaineer, this trip was a given.

With my road buddies Reza and Jérémy, we had decided to organise an end of season trip in this part of the world and we homed in on the Lyngen Alps, a little corner inside the Arctic Circle where the snow braves the summer..

 

Latitude 66° north

After leaving Oslo, we arrive in Tromsø whose nickname is “The Paris of the North”, a mandatory stop if you want to ski in the Lyngen Alps. This town of 70,000 people is the gateway to Svalbard and the starting point for great polar expeditions. We have yet to set foot on Norwegian soil and it’s already putting on quite a show! It’s dusk, there are fjords and snow as far as the eye could see…The sun ‘sets’ at about 22:00 and rises around 3:30. In reality there’s no more “black night” any more at this time of year and the sun just seems to bob beyond the horizon.

We have 1.5 hours of driving and a ferry still to go before reaching the island where we are staying. The road is bad, battered from salt, snow and snow clearing. Cars are covered in a thick layer of dust and salt. How atmospheric and what a landscape with all these mountains all around! Tired yet enthralled, we sink into an appropriate slumber.

The following day we head for Koppangen, a typical little fishing village on the north side of the island. As with many itineraries in the region, the distance to reach the bottom of the face is great. We encountered many plateaus on the magnificent Koppangsdalen glacier before reaching a col at 1000 metres altitude and admiring a panorama of grandiose proportion.

As soon as you gain a bit of elevation, this view of mountains surrounded by blue green fjords with the raking light makes for a otherworldly backdrop. In ski touring it’s quite normal to encounter different mountain environments and playgrounds but this is something else. A blend of magnificent summits with lovely faces to ski but at low altitude, snow-covered mountains and weather conditions worthy of a French ski resort but surrounded by islands, beaches, fishing ports and crystal clear water on a par with the Caribbean…Totally breathtaking!

The skiing conditions are quite particular at this time of the year. The French people we met at the start of the tour warned us that it had snowed quite a lot a few weeks before we arrived and with the spring conditions in recent days the snowpack might not be very stable. Also, with a sun that rises at 3:30am we’d have to really think about the aspect of the faces you want to ski. Many accidents-some of which were fatal- had occurred in recent days so it was worth being cautious. For the first day, we wouldn’t go past 30° slope angles and we’d stay on the west- north-west faces.

Patience

The weather forecast for the coming days was not great. The northern countries don’t always guarantee sun and warmth every day (thankfully). When you imagine life here you see a winter with almost permanent darkness, extreme temperatures and metres of snow, all stuck on a tiny island surrounded by ice-cold ocean…

The moisture and wind from the ocean along with the cold doesn’t really inspire us to leave the lodge. But with bad weather forecasted for a few days to come we decide to go for a little outing onto one of the summits on the other side of the fjord. It ended up being a lot better than we’d ever thought with an incredible glacial atmosphere. Absolute silence reigned for miles and miles. Afterwards we headed back down and shut ourselves in the lodge. The following day proved rainy and long. We learn that patience is an appropriate virtue for Norway…

Hope

After a torturous day, locked inside waiting for the battering rain to subside, we regain hope of exploring the landscapes that we dreamed of on our arrival. When we started our tour we were sceptical about the quality of the snow we’d find on the way down. It had rained buckets and the snow is wet. But, after 1200 metres of ascent, a welcome surprise came! The rain/snow limit was around 1000m so we had a good 200 metres vertical of powder skiing with a remarkable cinematic backdrop before hitting the heavy snow. So good to have the sun back and smiles on faces, finally some good spring skiing in the land of the Vikings!

You should never give up because there’s always something to enjoy in the mountains.

The Spectacle

That day, after a long rainy day checking the weather hour after hour, we had to make a decision. Either we try and leave in the afternoon between two storms for a bit of skiing or wait until early evening to see the sunset but risk skiing pretty average snow. After lots of deliberation we finally opt for the latter and at 17:00 we set off towards Russelyfjellet, the most northerly peak in the Lyngen Alps. Heading out at the end of the day with uncertain weather, deepening cold, hungry and fatigued is not always the most motivating…but as always with photography, the most beautiful photos are not taken on the roadside in the middle of the day.

The way up is through a 5cm crust and 30cm of rotten snow before we climb up the couloir with skis on the back sinking in up to our knees and dreaming of skiing this same couloir in powder with the ocean in the background…At the half way point we accept that it’s unskiable and we should not come down on this side. Also, the weather is not as good as predicted and the clear spells seem to be banished a hundred kilometres to the west. Doubt is creeping in. How can we hope for a sunset in a few minutes while there’s it’s all just grey?

The view from the summit is stunning, all we need now is the last ray of sunlight to light it up but given the cloud cover it doesn’t seem likely, it would be a fleeting sight at best. The more minutes go by the more hope we have of getting lucky.

Suddenly our star was dipped enough, almost ready to set and we congratulated ourselves for the effort. It only lasted for a few minutes but it was truly worth it, imagine if we had turned around half way, missing a magical moment. We drank it all in until the last second, frozen to the bone but smiling from ear to ear!

Return to Koppangen

On our first day Jérémy had spotted a few faces to ski over the Koppangen glacier, the day was lovely and we set out hoping to ski the beautiful sun-kissed slopes. Again, the landscape is stunning but we’d started to get used to it. The best surprise was that we were going to ski spring snow that had just got some sun on it, on a face overlooking the glacier!

Once at the bottom we noticed an entry into the glacier covered in several metres of snow so we took the chance to go and see this incredible natural sculpture.

Inevitable end

The end of our trip was approaching and I felt like I was getting used to my surroundings, these landscapes, this climate, the days that never end…Norway is unfortunately not immune to global warming and at this time of year it influences snow quality and conditions massively. Here we don’t have the chance to get very high up to go and get fresh snow. Luckily the atmosphere that the place radiates is unbelievable. The feeling of being alone in the world in the middle of a nature that’s both wild and sublime.

We didn’t have the best weather and yet, I miss the country already. The calm, the nature, the landscapes, the light and the time that seems to go by slowly…I’m sure that what we were able to see was just a minute part of this country’s potential. I also know that when I come back, nothing will have changed. As if time stopped a few hundred years ago.

Without effort there’s no reward. This phrase takes on all its meaning here. If you can withstand the rain, the wind, the fog and the cold, you are sure to be rewarded. And when the conditions are right, there’s no better place in the world. Welcome to Norway.

 

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