From the mountains to the sea in Ålesund
As always along the Norwegian coast, the weather is highly changeable. This morning, leaden clouds hang over the landscape along the coastal road and a gentle rain makes winter feel a long way off, at least when we leave Ålesund where there isn’t the slightest bit of snow.But our skipper and ski guide tell us, as they stand in the wheelhouse checking maps and charts, that rain in Ålesund means snow in the mountains, so we will have some excellent skiing over the next few days.
Ålesund is one of the most beautiful towns in Norway. The coastal community, with its classic Art Nouveau-style architecture, is a hugely popular summer tourist destination and welcomes cruise line passengers ashore by the boatload. It is also a sailors’ paradise. The quayside in the Ålesund town center is lined with grand old sailboats and small fishing boats whose skippers have just come in with the day’s catch of cod and Atlantic halibut.
Come winter, Ålesund is an excellent gateway to some of the best ski slopes in the Norwegian fjords. According to those in the know, some of Norway’s best off-piste skiing areas can be found here. The Stranda ski resort, for example, which boasts Scandinavia’s highest express lift, is an hour’s drive from Ålesund. The resort often tops the snow depth tables, with no less than 3m of the white stuff for much of the season.
But few people know that in Ålesund you can combine the two activities most loved by Scandinavians with a six-day ski and sail adventure. This exclusive arrangement is run by skipper Sven Stewart and ski guide Oscar Almgren. They take adventurers out into Hjørundfjorden onboard M/S Gåssten, a former Swedish minesweeper, and then up to the peaks of the Sunnmøre Alps.
Stewart is an adventurer with a Scottish father and a Swedish mother who bought a house in Åre, Sweden and a boat in Norway. He’s an offshore diver, fisherman and skier.
“A few years ago I was able to realize my dream of having my own boat, based in Ålesund,” he says. “It’s a real gem, one of the last military wooden boats built in Sweden. It’s from the 1970s but was scrapped by the Swedish Navy in the late 1980s.”
Almgren lives in Stranda and works as a ski guide. Through his company Uteguiden, he organizes both day trips and week-long tours of the peaks in the mountains northwest of Ålesund.
“The boat makes it easy for us to reach large parts of the vast fjord without any problem,” says Almgren. “It also means that we always manage to find good snow, so there is plenty of skiing to choose from.”
It’s a few hours since we left Ålesund and now, inside the fjord, the clouds begin to lighten. The mountains tower above us, powdered with fresh snow.The clouds will be gone by lunchtime, Stewart promises as he steers, binoculars in hand, surveying the glass like waters of the fjord. A moment ago, a school of killer whales passed a few hundred meters from the boat.
The meeting of sea, fjord and mountain is even more spectacular in winter than in summer. And the snow covered mountain peaks, the clear winter air, the views and the natural surroundings provide a refreshing contrast to the rain in Ålesund.
We alight at the village of Urke and set off with our skis on our backs since the snow cover only begins a few kilometers inland. This afternoon’s target is Saksa, a sugarloaf mountain just over 1,000m high that is fairly easy to climb with skis.
“For me, this is one of the finest mountains in the area,” Almgren says. “It’s not as high as others, but at the top you get a fantastic view of the entire fjord region.”
The clouds have now finally moved off, just as Stewart promised, and the sun is shining brightly. “Put your sunscreen on and keep your clothing light,” Almgren tells us, “because things are going to get a bit sweaty now.”
The ascent of Saksa is moderate, which makes it the perfect start to a week of ski climbing. It also gives everyone a chance to get a feel for the equipment and what shape they’re in. We start our ascent in a zig-zag pattern, after having put climbing skins on our skis and checked that the avalanche beacons are working. Almgren encourages us to move at a steady and moderate pace. “If you rush, you’ll just become sweaty and then you run the risk of starting to freeze when we stop for a break,” he says. “It also increases the risk of chafing.”
We follow Almgren’s lead and quickly settle into a pleasant rhythm that gradually turns into a kind of restful meditation in motion. We reach the fresh snow that fell last night. A layer over 10cm thick covers the snow crust, so conditions for the rest of the journey seem to be excellent.
After nearly three hours of hard climbing we reach the summit and enjoy the views of the mountain massif that is over 1,500m high and is reflected in the dark waters of the fjord.
“Time for the reward,” Almgren shouts, and he sets off in harmonic turns down the mountain. We follow.There are shouts of joy and plenty of happy faces as the fluffy snow makes it easy to sweep down the mountain slope, with the fjord and boat in view at the front of the tips of our skis.
The final part of the halfhour off piste adventure is a bit like learning to ski again and the fine cold snow has the texture of sorbet – something that really works the thigh muscles.
We round off the trip by inadvertently practicing slalom turns between the birch saplings – a final challenge before the snow ends and the earth begins.
Après-ski is enjoyed on the deck of the boat, followed by a hot shower and dinner with fresh cod and salmon washed down with chilled Chablis. Stewart and his British crew offer a tempting whisky-tasting session in the evening – single malt Scotches served in the stylish mahogany mess where a gilt framed photo of the Swedish royal couple hangs on one of the walls.
The weather forecast for tonight is clear and cold, so there should be a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights and tomorrow we should have a fine sunny trip to the summit.
Text: Cenneth Sparby