A short, but incredible trip spending three full days’ ski touring on the magical island of Lofoten, in the far north of Norway’s fjordlands.
A long day of travel either side made people question my sanity before I set off – would 3 days really be long enough? How could it be worth that journey? I flew from Geneva to Evenes, via Munich and Oslo and left home in Morzine shortly after 0300, to arrive at our accommodation in Svolvær at 2030, with no time difference. But I can happily report back that this trip was 100% worth the 17-and-a-half-hour journey either side! Next time, I will definitely be staying longer though…
We had a group of eight with five of us coming from the Alps and three from the UK. Of the team, I had never met either Aaron or Dave before, but by the time Dave and I stood next to each other in the bag drop queue at Geneva, we had almost had time to exchange life stories (he had just returned from a month in the Himalaya in Nepal, guiding a team up 2 peaks out there, so was feeling pretty tired and jetlagged). I then ended up having to run for my flight which was on final call by the time I got to the gate (not helped with ridiculous queues to go through security too – and why is it that you always seem to manage to get stuck behind the person who has seemingly never flown before and therefore decides that the x-ray machine is the place to try and squeeze all their many bottles and tubes of liquids and pastes into one little plastic bag?!).
The boys who also flew from Geneva had a slightly later departure than me and went via Vienna, then Oslo, but we saw each other in Geneva and then congregated by our gate in Oslo for the last flight. This was where Aaron and I first met and it wasn’t long before the rest of the Geneva-subgroup were regaling me with tales of lunch at TGI Fridays served by a waitress with very small hands, who made a lasting impression on Aaron (according to the rest of the group at least!).
We picked up one of the hire cars and, thanks to some forward planning by Marc - who had packed ratchet straps and some foam tubes to protect the roof, we managed to load four ski bags on top of the car (the hire car company doesn’t need to know that the roof did sink in a little bit at that point!) and squeeze the five of us in for the final leg of the journey – the 164km drive to Svolvær. After 2-and-a-half-hours tucked in the middle seat between Aaron and Dave it didn’t feel like we’d been strangers only a few hours before and my excitement for the adventures ahead grew now I had met everyone on the team!
It had been gloriously hot and sunny when we landed in Oslo (20°C), but when we got to Evenes, it was raining, gloomy, overcast and pretty chilly (9°C) – it made us feel a bit like we were back in the UK and we hoped that the forecast was right in that Monday would be the worst day of our trip, weather-wise. Despite the rain, the drive in itself was pretty special. We followed the coastline along the south of the islands of Lofoten along the E10 road, crossing bridges and passing through tunnels. We drunk in the scenery and kept our eyes peeled for whales in the water, especially after George reported seeing a whale from the plane as we descended into Evenes (this sighting is unconfirmed, but he said there was a big shadow in the water, followed by the surface being disturbed and then the shadow faded as if its creator was diving back into the depths).
Within a few minutes of leaving the airport, we saw a herd of reindeer grazing on the left hand side of the road, but these proved to be the largest animals we spotted, which was mildly disappointing after road signs warning of elk. We saw plenty of avian life, although Aaron seemed to get confused between herons and swans, which caused a bit of amusement. We saw many quintessentially Norwegian houses, painted red with white edging perched along the waterfront, with a variety of boats and fishing nets and dried fish outside. No whales though!
The journey passed quickly amidst discussions of whether it felt like we were in the start of a horror movie or what genre of film we had moved into, and it wasn’t long before we were in the seaside town of Svolvær. We managed to find a supermarket and check its opening times (they stay open until 2300!) before going in search of our accommodation and checking-in. The boys were in a traditional Norwegian house, painted red of course, with incredible views out over the fjord. Us girls had a little penthouse apartment 2 minutes walk from the boys with a modern feel and a sweet little balcony pretty much over the water.
The other three flew from London, via Oslo, with a much more civilised start time, picked up the second hire car and reached the accommodation at 2230, to be greeted by spaghetti bolognese and chocolate brownies for supper.
We then had a discussion about what we were going to do over the next 3 days and Dave, our IFMGA-qualified mountain guide extraordinaire, managed our expectations by telling us that there had been a significant melt in the warm weather of the previous week and that there wasn’t as much snow as perhaps we might have hoped (which we had seen from the car windows as we drove from Evenes). He informed us that the avalanche risk was at 2/5 for the week and we would be seeking mainly north or north-east facing slopes to ski. Dave asked that we embrace a sense of adventure and be open to what we had to work with. We were all on board with this and duly retired to bed excited for what lay ahead.
Svolvær sits just beyond 68° North and in May it is light pretty much all the time. Technically sunset is around 2300 and sunrise around 0300 at the beginning of May, but it never really gets dark, just less light. As we ate that first evening we all felt like it was about 2030, given how light it was, and we didn’t really get used to the amount of light in such a short trip. Going to bed each night did slightly feel like we were wasting the opportunity to do more and see more of the incredible place.
Day 1: Tuesday: Rundfjellet (Rundtindan) – 803m
After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, eating our fill from the buffet, we loaded up the cars and drove from Svolvær north on the E10, then turned off to head west just before Vestpollen, parking up on the left hand side of the road just beyond Vestpolleidet. The banter in the car was amazing of course and Marc’s driving was splendid.
Before we set off, we practiced transceiver searches and quickly realised we weren’t as slick as we should have been with our searching. Some of us would not have passed our Mountain Safety transceiver search (where you need to find a buried transceiver from out of range (approx. 40m) within 3 minutes), let alone EMS (where you need to find 2 buried transceivers within 8 minutes). This definitely flagged up the importance of practicing these skills – if it came to a real-life avalanche situation, you want to be able to do a transceiver search on autopilot and the clock is ticking: 90% of people buried in an avalanche will live if they are dug out within 15 minutes, but beyond this, their chances of survival drop off rapidly.
Feeling a bit more competent, we set off on foot up to the snowline and then we put on our skis and skinned up through the Kudalen valley alongside the river for a while before moving onto a steeper slope, requiring some kick turns. We then swapped to boot crampons and got our ice axes out at an altitude of around 600m for one short, steep pitch. This was both Gus and Gen’s first time wearing crampons and both took to it admirably. Once it flatted out, we transitioned again and returned to skinning, but approaching the summit slope the snow had been windblown, which made skinning difficult as there was not much grip on the icier pitch. It also got a bit steeper, requiring a much higher level of skinning skill, so for safety’s sake we swapped back to boot crampons and attached our skis to our backpacks before boot-packing the rest of the way to the summit.
After a bit of challenging wind and some trickly steps where our legs would sink in the snow up to thigh depth, we reached the summit of Rundtindan at 803m. We enjoyed a picnic lunch next to summit cairn with the most incredible views. This was to become a theme of this trip! We then skied down the east-facing slope from summit. The three Walton brothers charged straight down the steep face just below the cairn, whereas the rest of us followed the summit ridge and dropped in where the slope was a bit more mellow.
After some lovely turns (one of mine ended up being more akin to a telemark turn as my rear binding worked itself loose and the next thing I was eating snow!), we then traversed south and took about 15 minutes to boot-pack up a short couloir – to the west of spot height 650m on map. We skied down this (Aaron and I map have opted for the side slip technique at the top of the couloir as it was rather narrow and certainly a bit outside of our comfort zones!) and then we traversed to the north around the 500m contour line to the east of the lake Hellskarvetnet. We then had a small skin (approx. 10 minutes) up to col between Rundtindan and Hellskarnuten, where we attempted removing skins without taking our skis off. I was pretty chuffed as this was the first time I have succeeded at doing that – possibly helped by having little short touring skis! We then dropped back into the Kudalen valley and skied down through the trees and over the river to the cars. It was a fun descent although Aaron learnt not to follow George too closely whilst adventure skiing.
We returned to our accommodation for showers before going out for pizza: yum. All-in-all, a pretty good first day!
Day 2: Wednesday: Pilan Durmalstinden – 828m
We had an earlier start with a good breakfast in the boys’ house (although some people learnt that milk left in the car overnight when the sun barely sets is neither yoghurt nor sour cream, but just gone off milk...!) and again headed north along the coastline on the E10 past Fiskebøl and continued round to Morfjorden, where we left the cars (after a little 4x4 experience!). The drive proved to have a few challenges particularly when one of the roadside poles (used to guide the snowploughs in winter) attempted to attack our car, jumping out and clipping the wing mirror. Marc was in the driving seat at the time and kept insisting that: “it was on the piss!”
After leaving the car we had a short walk up to the snowline, where we mounted our skis and enjoyed a fairly gentle skin up through a valley alongside a river (including a bridge crossing on skis!) up to the col at Morfjordskaret. By this point, the day had already become quite hot and we could feel the snow getting slushier under our skis. We had initially had the plan of summiting Piktindan (662m) as a first peak of the day and skiing down the west face back to the col before going up Pilan Durmalstinden, which was our primary objective of the day at 828m. However, with the heat, we decided to abandon our aspirations on Piktindan and focus solely on Pilan Durmalstinden instead.
We continued to skin westwards from the col, up a slightly steeper pitch and took a break when we got out of the wind to practice some skills, namely self-arrests. We put a slide in down a slope with a safe run-out and then zipped up our waterproof layers, donned our gloves and grabbed our ice axes before throwing ourselves down our snow slide, with varying rates of intensity. Dave talked us through the process of the ice axe arrest and then gave us tips and pointers as we practiced. We started with a seated slide with our ice axes in our preferred hands – then we were to twist onto our fronts and bring the ice axe in below the shoulder of the arm we were holding the axe with. Using the other hand at the base of the axe (across the body) we were then to drive our weight over the head of the axe, taking care to keep our heads up (looking back up the hill) and our feet up (having knees on the ground, but keeping feet up as if self-arresting with crampons on there is a risk of breaking your ankle as the crampons will catch in the snow and then cause you to flip back over). We then practiced falling in a number of different positions (penguin diving on our tummies head-first, feet-first on our backs, head-first on our backs) and practicing the self-arrest from these different positions – if going head-first down the mountain, making sure we turned ourselves around first to get our head uphill by using the ice axe out to the side as a pivot point.
Once we were thoroughly covered in snow and sufficiently tired from hiking back up to the top of the slide, we got back on our skis and continued to skin up towards the summit. Upon reaching the summit ridge we stopped up and swapped skis for crampons. Dave led the way along the ridge, emphasising that we needed to be aware of the cornice to the right and follow in his footsteps.
After about 50m of cramponing along the ridge in the snow we reached a band of rock that was the final hurdle to overcome en route to the summit. It was quite exposed and a mix of rock and snow so Dave went ahead and set up an anchor with the rope – we then used the rope as a handrail for a bit of extra support or were able to be attached to it if we were a little bit less confident on the rocky terrain. Even though I have used crampons before on mixed terrain, I still feel like they are going to slip on rock and definitely feel my confidence ebbing away. It was amazing to see how well Gus and Gen in particular coped given it was only their second day ever having crampons on.
20m up the rock band and we all made it to the summit together. This was a definite highlight of the trip for me with all eight of us up there after being pushed out of our comfort zones (to varying degrees at least – although I’m fairly sure neither Dave nor George were even remotely bothered by the exposure or terrain!).
We got the obligatory summit selfie and then proceeded to down-climb back to our skis, where we were very happy to chow down our sandwiches. Then it was time to remove skins and ski down. It was so fun!
When we were back at the col at Morfjordskaret we again considered whether we wanted to go up Piktindan, but at this point the wind had got up and a lot of menacing-looking clouds were coming in from the north-west. We decided with the weather coming in it was more sensible to retreat towards the cars and we had also planned to do another skills session that afternoon on building snow anchors. So we carried on skiing down and once we were back in the valley and out of the worst of the wind, we found a spot to do some skills practice. We made snow anchors using buried skis and tested them with seven of us attempting a tug-of-war with the rope and not even managing to make the anchor budge at all. We then practiced lowering each other off the anchors, both directly and indirectly by putting ourselves into the system and using a body belay technique.
With new-found confidence in our anchor building skills, we dug our buried skis out and clipped back in to continue our descent back to the cars, just as the first drops of rain started falling from the sky. The remaining ski down was so fun with a few crossings of the river on some quite narrow snow bridges, which kept things interesting. Once the snow ran out, everyone else did the sensible thing and removed their skis and walked, but I was determined to ski back to the cars – cue a further kilometre or so of finding patches of snow and carefully picking my way over grass and mud and rocks trying not to damage my skis. I made it back to the cars, grinning from ear-to-ear like a crazy girl having persevered and kept my skis on!
We drove back to Svolvær as the rain came down, but it wasn’t too long before it brightened up into a lovely evening again. After a tasty dinner of fajitas, Dave, Marc, George and I headed west past Kalle and found a climbing spot by Bremvika where we did a fun, hand-jammy route on some crags by the sea. The rock is amazing grippy granite and it just reawakened my love for climbing and made me want to get out more. We did get savaged by monster mosquitos though and Marc’s shoe ended up in a rock pool, so as the sky faded to a pinky-purple, we returned to the car and snuck back into our rooms so as not to wake the others.
Day 3: Thursday: Geitgallien couloirs – 1,085m
Repeating Wednesday’s breakfast setup in the boys’ apartment (although thankfully without gone-off milk), we were on the road by 0830 again heading north on the E10. Shortly after Laupstad, we turned off the main road and headed south along the eastern shore of Austnesfjorden until we passed Liland, where we parked up and loaded our skis and boots onto our backpacks and set off in trainers in search of the snow.
The first 250m of ascent was pretty hard work going up through the trees on steep ground – occasionally getting caught out by the added height that came with having skis strapped to backpacks or, in my case, the extra width that came with having my boots clipped into my skis on my back. The temperature was pushing 22ºC and it was hot and sweaty work!
We were pretty pleased when we crossed a stream (a very big stride required for those with little short legs!) and were able to fill up our water bottles before having a bit of a break and getting our skis on. We still had a bit of forestry to navigate, but before too long we broke above the treeline and found an appropriate rock to abandon our trainers on.
From there we had a nice skin up a slope of maybe 20-25º. The snow was a bit slushy and our skis would break away from us sometimes, but it was fine to zig-zag up gently without excessively challenging kick turns. We reached the bottom of the first couloir we were going to ski and swapped our skis for boot crampons before the pitch steepened up excessively. From there we had a boot-pack of about 300m vertical on a slope approaching 40º. This was pretty hot work and we were glad when we got into the shade of the couloir!
After about 40 minutes of boot-packing the pitch mellowed and we found ourselves on the plateau where the col joins the route up the west face up with the route we took up the couloir (the other route had melted a lot in the previous week and would’ve involved a lot more faff with taking skis off and on picking a way through the various streams, waterfalls and rocks). This plateau was an ideal spot for lunch and we were definitely ready for it after the climb up the couloir! Yet again, Lofoten treated us to the most incredible views and sitting at the top of that couloir enjoying our sandwiches really was a special moment.
The more energetic of us then decided to skin up the last snow pitch towards the summit (we had already decided that we would not summit as it would have involved a technical rocky scramble at the top and the snow was in the full sun, with the avalanche risk rising so we didn’t want to spend too much time up there). After a quick skin up and a few glorious turns down, we all regrouped at the top of the couloir and dropped in one at a time. It wasn’t too narrow to be terrifying, but the snow was quite hard work and the legs and heart definitely got pumping! It was super fun though and great to be challenged with the steepness and the snow condition, but not so much that it wasn’t enjoyable.
Once we regrouped at the bottom of the couloir and caught our breaths, most of us we decided we definitely had the legs for another couloir! Aaron instead opted to chill out in the sunshine at the bottom of the second couloir and get his proper DSLR camera out. The rest of us went through the now familiar process of strapping our skis back onto our backpacks and began the 45-minute boot-pack up the second couloir.
The first section ranged from 35-40º and certainly got the heart rate back up as we felt like we were on a stair-master in the gym. It then steeped up a bit beyond 40º, at which point I refrained from looking down anymore. Although perhaps this wasn’t the best idea as I think that let the exposure get inside my head more by trying to ignore it, rather than confronting it and dealing with it. The slope flattened out again as we approached the top of the couloir and the rock band that separated it from the summit and we regrouped in the shade by the rocks. I took a bit longer than I should have done sorting myself out at the top and getting my skis back on – as much as I would like to say the steepness hadn’t got to me, it certainly was in my head.
David got the drone up in the air and Dave skied ahead to the crest of the steep section and then signalled us to come down individually. George set off with no hesitation and flew down, followed in quick succession by Marc, Gus and Gen, all handling it like pros and not appearing phased at all by either gradient or the width (or lack thereof) of the couloir. All-too-quickly it was my turn and I couldn’t put it off any longer! I dropped in and happily skied down the first section, but I’ll admit that when I came over the crest onto the steep section I seemed to lose the ability to turn my skis and instead copped out with a bit of a side slip down that bit. Once I got beyond the rock spur that separated the two route options for the steep section, it widened out again and I got turning again. The snow was pretty heavy and slushy in places, but it was still a fun ski, even if I reached the bottom feeling like perhaps it was verging on being Type 2 Fun (i.e. not actually fun at the time, but fun in the memory of the experience, upon survival!).
By that point we were all pretty whacked and all flopped onto the ground when we came out of the couloir. After a few moments to catch our breaths and drink in the views some more, we skied on down and returned to the rock where we’d left our trainers. It was very easy to find as a large grey rock, surrounded by white snow... But we did manage to locate it, picked up our trainers, adventure skied some more until we ran out of snow. We then rehydrated ourselves at a mountain stream of fresh melt water as we gratefully extracted our feet from our ski boots for the last time and put our trainers back on.
The walk down was easier than the walk up as we took a less steep route with less trees to manoeuvre ourselves around. We did however have to ford a large stream as it flowed into Austnesfjorden – it was rather chilly on the toes and certainly helped freshen us up at the end of the day. From there we passed a mountain refuge with a difference – a tepee! Then it was a little walk along the 4x4 track we had started the day on to return us to the cars, pretty shattered, but very happy after an amazing 3 days!
We returned to Svolvær and the craziest of us braved a quick dip in the Norwegian Sea – it was certainly some of the coldest water I have ever been in. Gus was definitely the most certifiable maniac as he stayed in for ages and it was also his second swim, although I guess as a lifeguard in Bournemouth he is used to getting into chilly water! Then it was time for a final meal together, before packing and bed as we were leaving at 0630 and 0800 to return to the airport and head home. Another 17-and-a-half-hour journey passed in a blur full of happy memories of 3 magical days adventuring on Lofoten!