You Know Nothing of the North: We Went Skiing Where The Sun Doesn't Rise
Hitchiking and ski touring on a Northern Lights mission in Riksgränsen
After a day of ski touring we climb over a snow dune and end up on a road in the middle of the Lappish wilderness. We're about 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. To the left is Kiruna, the northernmost city of Sweden and last bastion of civilisation – a two-hour drive away.
To the right is Riksgränsen, which means our hotel, a lodge, a handful of ski lifts, a supermarket and a trailer park next to a lake that will be frozen until June. And then – weather and road conditions permitting – the Norwegian fjords.
We take pictures pretending to be hitchhiking and wonder how long the wait for a ride would be at the end of the world. Not long it turns out. The young man behind the wheel, barely out of his teens, tells us he is from Riksgränsen, works in the local supermarket and is a bone fide member of the very exclusive community of 27 people who live there all year.
Not a single one of them was born in Riksgränsen by the way. Because the seemingly unlimited supply of natural snow, the very thing that makes the most northern skiing resort in the world a mecca for winter sports fanatics, became too much of a burden around the beginning of the last century. By the 1910s the village was deserted, all the 500 inhabitants had moved somewhere else.
Looking at the almost completely snowed in wooden cabins right by Lake Vassijaure I can see why, despite the otherworldly charm of the sublimely picturesque scenery. It’s mid March after all, a time where the Alps are all about spring shredding, lunch breaks spent tanning at the top of the mountain in bikinis, and slushy snow after 11am.
Here winter feels eternal. Even though we’re nearing the equinox and days and nights are about the same length, the sun is low, the shadows long and it feels like late afternoon all day. Of course that's not a bad thing, the sunrays hit the powdery surfaces at an angle that’s too low to cause any damage, so no slush, no ice, just dry powder.
The skiing season only starts at the end of February. Before that it’s too dark for your regular punter, from mid November to mid January the sun doesn’t manage to come up over the horizon at all. This doesn’t deter the neo-locals. The characteristic blue light of the polar night is sufficient illumination for snowmobile rides – their tried and tested number one cure for loneliness apparently – and ski touring.
“And we have the moon," one tells me. Coupled with the reflective layer of snow that covers the very north of Swedish Lapland for more than half the year it’s far from total darkness. The villagers seem to be very into the dark fairytale quality of their twilight land. Another says: “It’s like Neverland here. We don’t want to grow up, we are far away from everything and want to have fun."
One night, hours after sunset and after a reindeer supper, we get the head-lights out and skin up a few miles to look for the somewhat elusive Aurora Borealis. After having watched endless ‘In Search of the Northern Lights’ type documentaries where looking for the flickering night sky spectacle is a serious week long quest with rewards only just before the credits roll in I have little hope to stumble upon them on my first try.
That’s probably why I neglect a small white cloud, which looks more like a semi-vaporised condensation trail than the first signs of the Aurora. But soon enough it expands to a nighttime rainbow all the way across the northern sky. By the time we’ve decided to stop hiking and put on all the clothes we had in our backpacks it has started fragmenting into first one, then two arcs of flickering rays.
And then the rays start dancing, moving back and forth and sideways like waving curtains. There’s very little light pollution, the stars are staggeringly bright and we see one shooting star after the other, but interestingly the aurora we see is white, or near white, with a little bit of green and red.
The classic sci-fi style glowing green only comes out with the help of the light sensitive camera our photographer brought along. But since human eyes switch to a colour insensitive rod-system at night this makes sense. The aurora would have to be extremely bright to look green to mere mortals.
The midnight descent is fairly easy, perfect wide soft corduroy slopes with no danger of crashing into trees, as we are way too far north for them to grow. Apart from a few shrubs it’s endless shades of white with treeless highlands and plateaus, wide valleys and rolling hills that get a bit steeper and rockier towards the Norwegian border.
But it’s not really about groomers in Swedish Lapland, a province the size of Portugal, where every visitor could realistically just choose their own mountain to ski on. Freeriding is huge, with the Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships being held in Riksgränsen, and ski touring and split boarding becoming increasingly popular.
Skinning up for four hours in a minor Arctic storm, past ice-covered rock formations, snow-covered frozen lakes and across the type of U-shaped valleys that can only be shaped by glaciers I try to divert my thoughts away from my tiredness and imagine I am an Arctic explorer circa 100 years ago.
It almost works, but my phone – confused by the close proximity of a national border – gives me a reality check by welcoming me alternately to Sweden and Norway roughly every 30 minutes.
Before I can decide whether it’s good or bad that the signal is significantly better at the edge of civilisation than on a train journey from London to Brighton we reach a remote mountain pass. The solitary wooden mountain lodge there doubles up as a gourmet restaurant. The end of the world is pretty civilised.
This doesn’t mean conditions can’t get extreme, at times I’m being pushed uphill by strong winds without doing any hiking myself, which is great until you try to ski down and all that’s moving is a knee deep river of snow particles blown in your direction by a mini blizzard.
Combined with bluebird skies it’s pretty spectacular and well worth a temporary lack of motion while attempting to straight line it down a moderately steep hill. It gives me time to reflect on the power of nature. And to seriously consider becoming a hermit in a cabin by my own private lake.
After all the average number of people per square kilometre in Swedish Lapland is two (compared to 118 in Europe). And considering that most of these people live in cities like Kiruna, it only takes basic maths skills to figure out that in the Lappish countryside it’s much closer to, well, zero. Being a snow-loving hermit is pretty much your only choice here.
Most of the 27 local hermits are young, there are no old people (or children for that matter) in Riksgränsen. They are here for the adventure, the winter sports and the hiking. And the solitude. After a couple of years they tend to leave. But there are exceptions, I hear about a quasi-mayor in his sixties, who doesn’t have a family and has lived here for 40 years for example.
And then I see a man with a shovel walk past the only hotel. He has a beard all the way down his chest and doesn’t look like a twenty-one year old doing an extended season. “I’ve lived here for twelve years and cleaned the hotel for ten," he confirms. “I don’t want to leave. I like the climate, it’s the best in Sweden, apart from June, I don’t like it when it’s warm."
Not that it’s particularly balmy in June of course, but the lifts are very much open, affording you the unforgettable experience of midnight sun shredding in Europe’s spring ski capital.
Britta Burger went to Riksgränsen as a guest of Haglöfs
How to get there: SAS offers daily flights from London Heathrow to Kiruna via Stockholm.
There are direct trains to RIKSGRÄNSEN from Kiruna and Narvik, and buses from Kiruna airport.
Where to stay: HOTELL RIKSGRÄNSEN for rooms and apartments, plus it doubles up as the town centre with a sports shop, doctor's office, restaurant and bar, Meteorologen Ski Lodge, an ex-customs house built in 1903, STF Hostel RIKSGRÄNSEN for bargain prices, there's also a caravan park across the road from the hotel buildings.
Here are some more amazing photos of Riksgränsen, this time in black & white, by Britta Burger: