Words by Sam Haddad | Photography by Mikal Nerberg
I’m snowboarding in a place so beautiful it’s making my head spin. And I know that isn’t to do with the altitude, as the highest I’ve ridden all week is 1,251m, lower than most lifts in the European Alps.
My trip isn’t to a regular ski resort. I’m in the Lyngen Alps, high in the Arctic Circle, surrounded by bright white snowy peaks, which I’m cruising down while gazing at the deep blue fjord snaking through the valley below.
"There are no ski lifts, every turn I take I’ve earned by hiking up the mountain…"
To further add to the ethereal experience of the place, there are no ski lifts, every turn I take I’ve earned by hiking up the mountain on my splitboard - a snowboard which splits in two so you can tour uphill like a skier.
I’ve seen sea eagles, a white hare, elder trees with their bark stripped by elks, and, while up the mountain, just four people for about forty seconds as they whizzed past on their way down from the summit to the sea. I’ve heard no cars; seen no planes. One night I saw the Northern Lights. Lyngen is like nowhere I’ve ever been, and the closest I’ve come to being in the wilderness.
So when my local guide Mikal Nerberg tells me there are frequently plans to develop a European Alps-style ski resort here with actual lifts, condos and even a conference centre carved into a mountain I feel sick.
Nerberg, whose grandparents fished and herded sheep here two generations ago, is also a Green Party representative at a local level. He says his other clients feel the same way: “They say: ‘Why are you even considering it? That’s so far from our image of Lyngen!’ but then again who is to say what Lyngen is? Is it the ones who come as visitors or those who live here?"
"Who is to say what Lyngen is? Is it the ones who come as visitors or those who live here?"
I ask Nerberg what exactly is being proposed. He says: “There have been many projects… one of the big ones involves drilling a tunnel through a mountain to the summit, inspired by Grindelwald in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland. It’s a super expensive project and would need a couple of hundred thousand visitors a year, which would definitely change the local community."
“They say they are still working on it but they need investors. For me it’s important to have an open debate and to start discussing the issue, to bring the trolls into daylight."
Many local people think a ski resort would bring prosperity to the area, a lifeboat in these uncertain economic times.
It gets me thinking, who should get to decide what the essence of a place is? A location has no inherent identity, it’s us who ascribes meaning to spots. I fell hard for Lyngen in its wild, untamed state but what business really is it of mine, or any of the groups of touring skiers and snowboarders who come here, in increasing but still relatively small numbers, from the European Alps each year?
Nerberg thinks Seth Morrison’s backflip in the ski movie Focused in the early 00s first put Lyngen on the map amongst the global ski community, while regular photos and stories in the ski media since have helped cement its quasi-mythic status. European ski guides bring groups here but they also come to play themselves as the season here typically runs until June, long after European resorts have closed.
Yet popular as it is amongst skiers and splitboarders in the know, Nerberg estimates less than 10 per cent of Lyngen locals go ski touring. And many don’t get the appeal at all.
"For centuries people have been dying in the mountains… so it’s hard culturally to accept that people go to the mountains just for fun."
He says: “It’s a different way of thinking. It’s hard [for them] to accept that people actually go and do something that [to them] looks meaningless and stupid in your mountains that you know are dangerous. For centuries people have been dying in the mountains because they had to go there to make a living so it’s hard culturally to accept that people go to the mountains just for fun."
The town is also experiencing the biggest population decline in the county. He tells me: “We have good schools, good kindergartens, clean air, a good local society; it’s quiet and safe, lots of good things that would make people come here but people move away because it’s hard to get a job and it’s hard to get a place to stay."
He tells me AirBnB has crippled the long-term rental market as landlords now prefer to rent their houses, which are cute, wooden-painted cabin porn-style dwellings, to ski tourers or weekenders for short lets rather than for long term leases as the profit is that much greater.
The appeal of a new ski resort to some local people is also tied into the fact they believe there is little money to be made from the ski tourers. Nerberg is the only professional local guide and you don’t need a permit to go ski touring in Norway. Could he imagine that changing in the future? “No because Norway has a strong right-to-roam ethos. Anyone can go wherever at anytime. It’s so strong in the Norwegian culture it’s impossible to change, which I think is beautiful actually."
"Norway has a strong right-to-roam ethos. Anyone can go wherever at anytime"
But it also means people can come on day trips from Tromso, the nearest city which is about two hour’s drive away, or even Finland and bring their own food and spend no money here at all. There are a few lodges and hotels that cater for their guests including the atmospheric Magic Mountain Lodge and across the fjord the more luxe Lyngen Lodge, but there aren’t really any restaurants or cafes, so guests staying in private lets just self-cater from the supermarket, which feels like a missed opportunity for locals to make some money from the tourers.
Aside from how it might affect the vibe of the place, it’s essential to also ask what the environmental cost to one of Europe’s last wildernesses would be and whether it’s worth such a risk to the unique and fragile Arctic flora and fauna found here.
It’s not a black and white issue and it brings to mind the debate around the building of a ski resort in the Canadian wilderness, which was the subject of Jumbo Wild, a Patagonia-funded Sweetgrass Productions film, released at the end of last year.
The movie recently played in Tromso to a sold out audience. I asked the screening’s organiser Selena Raven, a Tromso resident, who regularly skis in Lyngen and is originally from British Columbia near the Jumbo Valley, what the response was. She said: “It was very interesting. Some people saw it as a beautiful movie, which gives you a taste of Canada, they were like: ‘Oh we should go to Canada!’ But for a lot of people it made them think it’s happening in their own backyard."
Last year Raven organised a protest against a new heliskiing operation, which had been approved at the local level even though heliskiing is illegal in Norway. She says: “I heard about it and mobilised a few people on Facebook, we had 1000 likes in 24 hours and it kind of snowballed. There was a really good response from the local community and the skiers in Tromso, a lot of people were strongly against it."
“I knew at the county level [they] would probably not accept the heliskiing but my goal was to raise awareness about it, and also for it to be recorded that the population is not 100 per cent ok with things like this for the future. I’m not against heliskiing but this place is super special because it’s wild and up in the Arctic so why spoil it? It doesn’t take much to change the atmosphere of a place."
Raven believes the same applies to building a resort here. She says: “If you ask people why they come here, the Europeans will say because it feels like the wilderness. On a traditional model of development of course a resort sounds like the logical step but on a non-traditional model where you value other things then I think it’s not really very sustainable."
I ask Raven if she could imagine a Jumbo Wild-style film being made about Lyngen? “When the heliskiing campaign was going on someone said it would be nice if someone made a movie about it. Films are such a powerful way of connecting with people, at transmitting a message, and Lyngen is such a beautiful place…"
“It might make the local population take more responsibility. A lot of people are born and raised here, but they don’t see it as special, which is normal as it’s their backyard, but they’re starting to realise now." Perhaps it sometimes takes an outsider to raise these issues and show an alternative perspective? Nerberg agrees: “When people come from the outside telling you this is magnificent, this is beautiful, then you start to see things with different eyes I guess."
"This place is super special because it’s wild and up in the Arctic so why spoil it? It doesn’t take much to change the atmosphere of a place…"
One of the most compelling arguments against building a ski resort in Lyngen is how hard it would be to actually make it profitable. To recover the massive initial investment you’d need lots of visitors, lots of apartments to sell and ideally a strong summer season too, and even then you might not turn a profit. There’s also the strong chance that resort development could turn off the summer tourists, especially those who come from southern Norway and beyond precisely for the wilderness.
It’s a sentiment also voiced in the Jumbo Wild film. Hans Cole, Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Campaigns and Advocacy told me: “There are currently eight ski resorts within a four-hour radius of Invermere [the proposed Jumbo Valley site]. None of these resorts are running at capacity. So, we think it’s very reasonable to look at a special place like Jumbo and say: ‘We have enough, let’s protect this place for its cultural and environmental value.’"
I suggested to Cole that opposing a resort development seems like a contradictory position for a snow-clothing manufacturer. He said: “We’re not anti-resort. We look at this on a case-by-case basis. In the case of the Jumbo Valley, we feel strongly this is an area that is too special to turn into a sprawling ski resort."
"What should we do with our few remaining wild spaces, and how much development is enough?"
"The Jumbo Valley is recognised internationally as a vital part of one of North America’s most important wildlife corridors. Grizzlies depend on this connected habitat to maintain healthy populations in the region and beyond. Also, the area is of profound spiritual and cultural importance to local First Nations, and the resort would undermine beliefs and practices at the core of the Ktunaxa First Nation culture and identity."
“The film poses some big questions: what should we do with our few remaining wild spaces, and how much development is enough?"
I asked the team at Sweetgrass Productions, who made the movie, what the response to Jumbo Wild had been. They said: “The film has garnered lots of attention all around the world, and they've collected more than 20,000 signatures against the development as well as raised money for the local organisation who runs the Jumbo Wild campaign. In communities outside of British Columbia, people are not only inspired to protect Jumbo, but are also inspired to get involved in protecting their own wild backyards."
This will hopefully prove the case in Lyngen. It’s complex of course. The developers point out tourists have been coming here for hundreds of years and until the 1960s cruise ships even stopped here. Perhaps there could be a middle way where just one lift opened up some hikeable terrain for adventurous skiers and snowboarders, as is the case in Silverton, Colorado or La Grave, France, but maybe that would open the floodgates to larger-scale development.
As a one-time visitor I feel I have no right to have an opinion on the Lyngen’s outcome but I also know that I do. I want it to stay exactly as it is now and I think if you went there you would too.
To hire the local guide Mikal Nerberg Lyngen Guide visit lyngenguide.no
Norwegian flies directly from London Gatwick to Tromsø twice a week during the winter months, head to norwegian.com