First Published in Fall-Line Skiing Magazine
Words & photos: Kendall & Kendall
When I first heard about the Lyngen traverse, from south to north of the peninsula in Arctic Norway, it was the ups, downs and alongs which caught my attention. They make most other ski tours look like a picnic: on three of the seven days of the trip you climb over 2200m vertical; the shortest covers 1700m of uphill over 16km; and there are no days off. Total ascent is well over double that of a classic Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route. Faced with these impressive statistics, it was hard to see past them, even if the point of it all is that you’ll spend a week exploring one of the most beautiful environments on the planet, climbing glaciers which flow to the sea, summiting craggy peaks, and enjoying monster ski descents in epic snow.
Preparations consisted mostly of taking very seriously the advice, from behind the world’s best beard, of route-finder and guide Mikal Nerberg: “Make sure you do your PT. The best preparation is to go skitouring. A lot.” His other stipulation (he’s quite strict) was to carry a pack which weighs no more than 10% of your bodyweight, crampons and ax included. Which leaves two options - go on an intensive pie-loading program in the weeks building up to the trip - an extra 10-20kgs round my waist and by Mikal’s calculations, I can carry 9 or 10kgs rather than eight. But I don’t think that was what he had in mind. More a question of finding the lightest of everything, starting with the pack itself, and taking absolutely no more nor less than is absolutely necessary. So far, so familiar, in preparation for a multi-day ski tour. Except this time it really matters.
Day one is a monster - one of the longest of the entire trip at 24km - and all the more challenging after a sleepless night of ‘shall-I, shan’t-I bring it’ decisions. Our last square breakfast is attacked as if we’ll not see proper food again for a month (it’s breakfast in a bag from here in), and finally we’re away, thrashing up from the outskirts of Nordkjostbotn through Norwegian forest of a density which would be tight on foot, never mind ski. Emerging above treeline, it starts to feel Arctic in the best way, with swirling mists and good snow, and the bulge of a big hill rising ahead - our first proper objective, and a chance to find our rhythm.
Then something funny happens. A zen-like calm descends as I stop worrying about what is or isn’t in my pack, whether my boots will give me blisters, if there’s a solution to the Irish backstop, do red Haribo taste of strawberry or cherry, you name it. All the big questions. Vanished.
Apart from one: lefke. At just above freezing point this traditional Norwegian potato pancake filled with butter and sugar - prized by Scandinavians as a survival snack - is the textural stuff of nightmares, like biting into a block of soft wax and about as tasty. But we’re carrying it because it’s the most calorifically concentrated foodstuff ever invented, and is sufficiently unappealing, unless you’re Norwegian, that it’s there when you need it rather than scoffed at the first chance like chocolate or jelly babies.
I don’t have to wait long to confront my demons. Mikal’s strict rule is to stop every hour for a drink and a feed right through the day. It proves to be the simple but oh-so-effective solution to getting up and down with energy to spare, just like Mikal said it would. He’s worth listening to on the subject of kick-turns too.
A couple of hours on, and I’m into an even deeper meditative calm, which is barely interrupted at the top of our first hill by a ghostly ski descent of a high bowl, and down through a broad gully, in a luminous, spooky light which gives a sense that your downward flight might never end. And to prepare us for the rest of the week, there’s not a ski track in sight. When we finally reach the bottom there’s a magical traverse of complex rolling terrain which Mikal revels in navigating by compass and map, despite the challenge of snow flurries and mist.
Then another funny thing happens: across a frozen lake we spy a proper snowy cabin in the woods, rather than a big alpine hut rammed with sweaty ski mountaineers and a rack full of minging plastic clogs. This is most promising. Hansel and Gretel have apparently just left, kindly leaving a stack of food for us (actually, one of Mikal’s helpers and his husky, who stocks the cabins in advance). In a trice we have a fire blazing in the wood stove, water is fetched from a nearby hole in the ice and the dinner is on, with everyone mucking in once they’ve finished retrieving bits of their feet from inside soggy boot liners.
As we turn in for the night, snuggling under multiple quilts in creaky little bedrooms, we feel (and are) miles from the nearest civilisation - or other human being - and the silence is total. The downside is revealed the next morning as you slip bare feet into cold hard boot shells for a quick trip through deep snow to the thunderbox.
There’s enough variation over the ensuing days - both mountains and lodging - to keep us well amused. Every new hut vies for favourite of the trip, whether thanks to the bedding arrangements, the power of the wood stove or the proximity of fresh water. The one on the shores of the frozen Jaeger lake takes the cake for sheer idyllicn-ess of situation, and comes with a surprise bottle of wine. We were obviously good children that day.
On skis, every day is a highlight. Though the topography has an inevitable consistency (snowy mountains, the odd glacier, glittering waters of the fjords etc.) there’s endless variation too. The first three days across the southern part of the peninsula, home to Lyngen’s highest peak, 1833m Jiehkkevárri, and some big glaciers, gives us the best snow. Then after dropping down to the outskirts of Lyngseidet - and nearly back to sea level - where the peninsula is almost split in two by the long Ullsfjord, the northern section holds some of the most dramatic climbing and toughest ski descents.
Five days in, heading up the steep final meters from the broad Lenangsbreen glacier to a ridge, I’m looking forward to the ski down the other side. Except that another funny thing happens: one glance over the top tells me skiing down is not an option for cliffy, mountainous-type reasons. Mikal and his pet beard appear to have failed us. But no: out comes rope, crampons and axes and we shin up a mixed snow and rock climb which proper mountaineers would describe as ‘airy’ and I won’t describe at all, to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities. Suffice to say that all the zen-like calm I’ve accumulated over recent days is rapidly used up as we head towards the 1543m summit of Store Jaegervasstindane.
It’s all good practice for the next funny thing which happens: the mountaineering crux of the trip is to cross the east ridge of Storurdtinden on the last day. It involves a massive abseil on a rope wrapped round a lump of snow - a ‘bollard’ to give it the proper name and make you feel better about a potentially very bad idea. Of course, this sort of thing’s as easy as falling off a log (it’s just a bit further) and it’s not as though there are any options. Which is half the fun: having set out to make this journey over the top rather than round by the coast, this mountain barrier across the peninsula is an entirely uncontrived obstacle. Tackling it in the pursuit of our objective feels so right, like making mayonnaise from eggs and oil rather than getting it out of a jar. No shortcuts.
Views north from beyond this barrier of rock are expansive - the broad sweep of the Gamvikblaisen glacier and, for the first time, a sense of the sea to the north as well as east and west. Admiring a herd of reindeer cantering across the middle distance, we head for a weary ascent of the 1000m bump of Russelvfjellet and a sublime final ski - with cracking views towards the North Pole - down to a beach. We abandon skis to continue on foot, scrambling over a rocky headland to find a lighthouse and tiny rickety cabin. We’ve run out of peninsula. The final funny thing has happened: we made it.