The thin skin of ice sounds like chandeliers tinkling as we slide through it, heads tucked down in the howling wind. We're on the rim of a peak called Keipen, one of the tallest mountains on Senja, an island off the coast of northern Norway. To the north, everything spills down, sheer, into the sea of Norway, and on the other side of the ridge the mountain drops, just slightly more gently, into the snowfield we just skinned up. We rip skins, switch to goggles, and drop, one by one, over the leeward side. The wind scour lasts for three turns, and then switches to perfectly soft, spongy snow. By the time we hit the road, 3,000 feet down, everyone has a half-out–of-breath, holy-shit-that-was-good, grin on their face.
It takes a long time to get to the top of the world. Two days of plane rides from the West Coast, a missed boat then a late bus. Ski bags gone lost—slung on the side of the runway in Stockholm or Oslo or somewhere. Rubbery reindeer slices at the Tromsø Pizza Hut. But once you're there, it's easy. The inside of the Arctic Circle is much less mean and lonely than I thought it would be. That wind swirls in, free-refilling the fjords and you can ski pretty much everything you can see.
The word "ski" comes from Norwegian, Ullr was a Norse god, and there are rock drawings of Norwegians on skis dating back to 5,000 BC. They have reason to be a little bit picky about ski terrain, which is why they've come north to Senja.
The landscape is dotted with tiny towns, boats loll in harbors, and low-slung fishermen's cabins line coves. The mountains stretch straight up from the road or the water, open and expansive, and they're filled with open bowls, straight-liney, super-aesthetic couloirs, and perfectly-spaced birch trees.
I'm here on a trip organized by Swedish guide Camilla Antosson, who is good at seeking out the nicest skiing in the northern reaches. I ski with Mats and Caroline, an older couple from Stockholm who crush on the uphill and make pristine ski instructor turns on the way down; David, a mountain biking environmental scientist who is in a metal band back in Gothenberg; and a couple of guys from Jackson and Santa Fe. It is obvious—from the get out—that the Americans can't hang. It's not that we're not fit, it just feels like the Swedes and Norwegians have an ingrained cultural ability to already have their kit switched to downhill mode while I'm still futzing with my skins and chugging water. Skiing seems like it's built into their muscle memory, and the more the Scandos tell us about their day-to-day lives, the more that seems true. When you live in a place where winter is cold and dark and long, getting out on skis is considered a public health program. They all grew up on skis, skinning to school, and they get an extra week-long winter vacation, spread out across the season to make sure ski slopes aren't too crowded. It's been that way basically forever. The word "ski" comes from Norwegian, Ullr was a Norse god, and there are rock drawings of Norwegians on skis dating back to 5,000 BC. They have reason to be a little bit picky about ski terrain, which is why they've come north to Senja.
Despite how good it is, we don't see anyone else when we're out. Senja isn't that big—7,000 people live on 600 square miles—but the people on the island tell us about the difference between the coastal and in the inland folks. The chatty fishermen who live on the water and the stoic remotes from further in. I think, if I could figure out a way to live here, I'd want to be an inlander, happy to keep to the deserted mountains. We drive past the world's largest troll in the town of Senjatrollet (obviously), and we pull into a gas station that only serves chips and hot dogs. I hadn't thought much about the snacks when I thought about skiing in Scandinavia, but it turns out the food is almost as good as the skiing. In the morning we slather caviar onto eggs and fresh bread and make salmon and brown cheese sandwiches to take with us. The gas station chips are delicious.
Every morning we drive to the base of a mountain that looks interesting on the map, park the van and start skiing up. Again with the no-nonsense, Norwegian, “of course we explore on skis" attitude. We're guessing, sort of, but it all goes, and each day the skiing is better than the next. The tree line is low and from the road, everything feels both visible and like it extends forever. The scale is screwy in a good way, maybe because there is water and mountains and not much else. It reminds me of the granitic loneliness of New Hampshire, just with a little bit more room to breathe. It's rocky and northern and the air feels clear.
It's the end of winter in the Arctic, so the sun never rises very high above the ridges and the light switches from blue to clear to gold as we ski down at the end of the day. At night we can see the northern lights rolling through the sky. Surprisingly, since we are so far north, it never gets that cold. The jet stream, rolling in off the Atlantic, pulls in warm air. I've never skied this close to the coast before. I keep forgetting about it until every time we get on top of something, and look down, straight to the sea.
The thing about skiing so far from everywhere is that it comes with the achy heart of not knowing when you'll come back. It's hard to get to the top of the world, and it's hard to leave, too.
Marquee photo: Heather Hansman