69 Degrees North | Splitboarding In The Magical Lyngen Alps
Over 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, at a latitude of 69.5 degrees north of the Equator, lies Tromso, the capital of the Arctic. Tromso is the 7th largest city in Norway and is surrounded by beautiful mountains, deep fjords and arctic wilderness. We have come with our splitboards to climb and ride the famous Lyngsalpene; the Lyngen Alps.
Descending out of the clouds on the approach to Tromso airport is disconcerting to say the least. A snow-covered plateau gives way to the sea and for a minute something doesn’t feel quite right. At the last second a runway appears and the plane touches down. The airport is sat on its own island, across a stretch of sea from the mainland where downtown Tromso is located.
The airport’s single baggage carousel is surrounded by a mixture of backcountry skiers and Aurora watchers; Tromso is one of the most reliable places in Europe to see the Northern Lights. After saddling up the hire car we drive out into increasing snowfall for a rendezvous with a ferry that will take us across Ullsfjord and onto the Lyngen Peninsula. The ferry eventually appears out of a very stormy night. There’s a howling gale rocking the car and it’s snowing hard. It feels strange to be rolling onto a ferry but soon enough we see the lights of the shoreline and within a few minutes we reach our cabin. Within the hour there’s pasta on the hob and gear strewn everywhere.
The history of backcountry skiing in Lyngen goes back decades, but as the popularity of the sport continues to rise, more and more skiers and snowboarders are visiting the peninsula. It’s still very easy to find solitude here though. On the more popular mountains it’s usual to see at least a couple of other parties, especially during periods of good weather. Visit the more remote areas however, and it’s likely you’ll have the mountains to yourself. We spent 9 days in Lyngen at the beginning of April; a period that could be called ‘high season’ and saw very few other skiers. Lyngen might be fairly close to a major city, but it still feels wild and empty in the mountains.
The mountains on the Lyngen Peninsula vary in height and terrain. There are many easier options for the first time ski tourer or splitboarder, or for days when the weather and snow conditions aren’t playing ball. There are also mountains like Stortinden and Trolltinden that require mountaineering skills and experience to ascend and solid big mountain ski or snowboard ability to ride down. The biggest peaks in the area surround Jiehkkevarri – the Mont blanc of the north. These mountains have long approaches and are mini expeditions in their own right. Spring is generally the best time to visit Lyngen – when the daylight hours are longest and snow conditions are generally most favourable.
For a warm up we head to the very northern tip of Lyngen to climb Russelvfjellet. The drive north is a journey of exquisite beauty. Around every bend of the snow-covered road is a new vista; a new mountain scene to take your breath away. The starting point for Russelvfjellet is the tiny village of Russelv. There is one other car parked by the road, the wind blows snow around as another snow shower rolls in off the sea. A giant Sea Eagle floats by on its journey up the coast. It feels like the end of the world and geographically speaking, it pretty much is.
We turn around just below Russelvfjellet’s summit due to almost zero visibility and worsening weather so were denied the famous view from the top. The mountain is perched right on the tip of the peninsula and the expansive summit vistas are among the best in the area. Some deep turns and a playful run out through the forests and back to the sea-shore gave us a taste of what being here is all about though.
The weather eventually settled down and with bluebird skies and fresh powder in the mountains we set our sights for Steinfjellet. Steinfjellet is a very prominent peak on the northern section of Lyngen, with huge upper slopes that we hoped would provide a long, but safe, descent. The peak is situated right beside the Jaegervasstindan massif and our gaze is continually pulled towards those spectacular mountains. On the descent we carve big turns on the upper mountain, then ride into the best snow of the trip as we enter the trees lower down. A base of deep, creamy powder, topped off with Arctic blower, mean all our efforts on the up are more than rewarded on the down.
Strictly speaking the Lyngen Alps are the mountains that sit entirely on the Lyngen Peninsula. There are many other great massifs in the area too though and towards the end of our trip we take the ferry across Lyngen Fjord to climb a mountain called Storhaugen, a peak in the Kafjord Alps. Storhaugen is the home mountain of Lyngen Lodge who provide luxury accommodation and guided trips to the area. By now much of the snow is sun affected and the powder of previous days has firmed up a little. This makes skinning uphill easier and the descent still gives us huge panels of untracked snow, all the way from the summit to the trees on the lower slopes. Making big turns in several days old powder, without a track to cross, is a great experience. It’s not often you can completely let go whilst riding in the backcountry, but this is one of those times; an avalanche safe slope and fast, supportive snow at a perfect pitch.
Looking back through photos from the trip the mountains in Lyngen had become so familiar to me; I guess it’s because during my time there I spent so much time just gazing about in wonder at the surroundings. Lyngen is like a fairytale land. For years I dreamed of riding there. I studied images and read articles, building the place up in my mind as some sort of mountain nirvana, a European Alaska. On my first trip there it didn’t take me long to realise that is pretty close to the truth. This was my second visit and, again, Lyngen lived up to the billing. It’s a magical place to go skiing and will fire the soul of anyone who feels alive in the mountains.
Flights – Regular flights from across Europe through SAS and Norwegian. We flew with SAS via Oslo Gardemoen and, as you’d expect in Scandinavia, everything was smooth and on time.
Car hire – there are many car hire firms at Tromso airport. Just be sure to check the vehicle over for dings and scratches before setting off. The roads in the area can be a little rough and cars can get damaged easily. Public transport is also available from Tromso.
Accommodation – we split our stay between Svensby Tursenter and Birtavarre Camping. Svensby Tursenter is in a perfect spot, right off the ferry from Breivikeidet (ferry times here) and in a great position to access mountains to the north and south. It’s also possible to skin into really big terrain right from your door. The cabins are clean and well equipped and all have south-facing decks that provide apres sessions to rival anywhere in the world, assuming you can stretch to buying a beer or two.
Birtavarre Camping is located across the fjord from Lyngseidet and a short drive from Olderdalen. We received a warm welcome and it’s a good option for anyone on a real budget, but don’t expect too much! The place is cold and dark in winter but it’s certainly got character.
Other options include Magic Mountain Lodge in Lyngseidet, Koppangen Brygger and countless other cabins in the area. Check out Din Tur for more options.
For the adventurous out there check out Norwagon. They have some awesome looking camper vans at a great price. Lyngen is the perfect place hit in a van – just drive around and park up at the base of whatever you fancy riding the next day.
Local mountain guides – check out Ascent/Descent and Midnight Sun Mountain Guides.
Guide book – Ski touring in Troms is the highly recommended guide-book written by local legend Espen Nordahl and is a must for the first time visitor. It has recently been translated into English and has descriptions and maps showing the best days out in Lyngen, along with other neighbouring areas like Tamok and Kafjord.
General Lyngen info at Lyngenalp.no.
* Image – Tom Berridge