Now this is summer skiing. (Photo: Kristin Folsland Olsen)
In the far northern reaches of Norway a group of ski bums just shooshed past polar bears — in June.
Lit by the midnight sun, the third annual Toppturfestivalen Svalbard — the world’s northernmost ski touring festival — took place May 29 to June 1 on its namesake island. The Svalbard archipelago is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole with Greenland as its neighbor, deep in the icy Arctic Ocean. Not surprisingly, it has snow all year round. Also not surprisingly, it’s not on the radar for most ski bums.
Hamming it up during the Toppturfestivalen Svalbard (Top Photo: Ståle Schumacher; Bottom Photo: Kristin Folsland Olsen)
Enter six young dudes living in Svalbard and their idea to create a ski touring festival in order to introduce this exotic place to their ski-loving friends on the mainland. Because Svalbard is like nowhere else: Polar bears, midnight sun, dogsledding under the northern lights and fine dining with “arctic tapas” (local seafoods, cheeses, meats) are only a few of the things that attract tourists.
Mountains made for ski tours. (Top Photo: Kristin Folsland Olsen; Bottom Photo: Ståle Schumacher)
And it’s working: Tickets for the festival are becoming hard to get, the snow bird equivalent of Charlie’s Golden Ticket to the Wonka factory (although here, instead of chocolate, they’ll be noshing on whale meat).
This year a group of 80 hardcore skiers refused to end the season — it’s old news that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet, but most embrace the short Nordic summer with open arms — and chose to head north where the sun never sets and the snow is perfectly slushy. Skiers from Germany and Russia made the trek, too.
Great snow — better views. (Photos: Ståle Schumacher)
The trip starts with a 3-hour ferry ride to the Ice Fjord where the camp gets set up in Trygghamna (meaning “safe harbor”). Everyone helps with luggage and building the camp, but people are all smiles due to the excitement of just being here. Skiing in Svalbard means no lifts and not the highest mountains to climb, but offers amazing scenery and the never-ending excitement of running into polar bears: The big white fella can weigh a ton and is almost invisible in the snow. The festival therefore has two guards 24/7 scouting for the big beast to make sure the camp is safe.
Smiles all around while setting up camp. (Photos: Kristin Folsland Olsen)
Toppturfestivalen volunteers are not your every day festival volunteers just tapping beer and carrying trash. In order to even be considered for the job you need a license to carry a rifle, to know how to scare off polar bears, and be willing to carry human poo. Because Svalbard has very strict laws to protect the arctic environment, the Governor requires that everything is transported back to civilization — and that means everything. Every day during the festival a RIB boat is filled up with black rubbish bags containing you-know-what and bringing it back to Longyearbyen, the largest town in Svalbard. “Think of me when the wind direction turns and I am in the middle of the fjord barfing!” one of the drivers joked as he started the journey.
Cross-country in the backcountry. (Photos: Kristin Folsland Olsen)
On guard for a polar bear. (Photo: Henriette Bjørge)
Days are spent going on different ski tours to nearby mountains, bear guard always in tow. Après ski starts as soon as the skiers return to camp, and it basically never ends. Why would you go to bed when the sun is still shining at 3am, the music is pumping, and you are in the middle of the most beautiful surroundings a skier can imagine?
Ski by day, party by night — plus a comedy show! (Photo: Kristin Folsland Olsen)
Just try to guess what time it is… Okay, it’s midnight! (Photo: Ståle Schumacher)
This year, rainy and snowy conditions gave people a rough start to things, but as soon as the sun came out — at 10pm! — the party went off. The next evening a cruise boat entered the fjord filled with tourists having paid a significant amount of money to experience arctic tranquility and wildlife. God knows what they were thinking when spotting almost a 100 people singing and dancing around to Calvin Harris’ “Summer” in the middle of nowhere. (For the record, it was a balmy 39 degrees Fahrenheit.) People waving at the tourists from outdoor toilets with no doors made the irony complete. Wild-life, indeed!
Polar bear, what? Festival goers take an icy dip in the Arctic (Photos: Kristin Folsland Olsen)
Tickets cost 4400 NOK (~$750 USD) and include the ferry ride, delicious local food for four days, campsite, polar bear guards, entertainment (like stand-up comedians), as well as seminars from well-known adventurers. To snag one you have to be ready in front of the computer the minute they are released in January. For more pictures and info, check out Toppturfestivalen.no.
And for more adventures in Norway, photographer Kristin Folsland Olsen’s travel guide to the Lofoten Archipelago offers 50 awesome itineraries — all by foot, bike, kayak and skis — with detailed maps and gorgeous visuals.
A keen skier from the west coast of Norway, Henriette Bjørge runs a ski school for girls in Afghanistan and splits her time between there and Oslo. This was her first time in Svalbard, but definitely not the last.