Chapter 5 - History, Culture, and Backcountry Skiing in Norway and Sweden - February 17-March 1, 2019
This is the fifth of a six part series on Adirondack Hamlets to Huts Senior Advisor Jack Drury's trip to Norway and Sweden this past winter.
Chapter 5 - The Jämtland Triangle Experience
Although it had taken me a while to discover the Jämtland Triangle when planning our trip, it was obvious from our arrival at the busy buzzing bastion of skiing that the people of Sweden were well aware of it. People from 7 to 70 were scurrying about with XC skis, AT skis, pulk sleds and other winter outdoor gear. We had arrived at the right place to experience Scandanavian cross-country skiing.
The Storulvån Fjällstation I later learned is one of the more upscale fjällstations. STF has four kinds of lodging; hostels, hotels, mountain stations or fjällstations (19) and mountain cabins (42). The winter season in Jämtland typically starts in mid-February to late February and runs until the end of April. The summer season runs from June 20 until the end of September. Storulvån is a beautiful facility with a capacity of about 150 people. The three of us stayed in a room with two sets of bunk beds with four separate beautiful bathrooms down the hall. They told us that it was possible we would have to share the one bunk with another visitor but it didn’t happen. We saw another room that was similar but had a private bath. We talked to families who stayed in “family” rooms. Amenities include; dining room, family room, guest kitchen, equipment rental, sauna, gift/equipment shop, wifi, drying rooms, laundry room, luggage storage, guide services, rock climbing wall, and special rooms where pets are welcome. On top of that trails and routes up trailless peaks start less than a kilometer from the lodge.
We decided to take the meal option and didn’t regret it. The three course dinners were outstanding. A sample dinner included homemade reindeer black pudding with pork, apple, leak, and lingonberries for the first course. The second course was local Arctic Char with parsnip and potato puree, herb sauce and juniper cucumber. For dessert we had raspberry and blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream. Breakfast was a bit simpler but delicious and hearty. We made our own lunches from a luncheon table that include filling our thermos with hot cocoa or tea and a water bottle with our choice of scandinavian fruit drink. How much for all this you ask? A bunk in a 12 bunk room is around $44 while our rooms were $62 per person. Dinner was about $25 per person. There are also charges for linens and towels. We had sleeping bags, or sleep sheets and our own towels. It’s an a la carte way to get families into the outdoors. You don’t have to spend a lot. We saw some folk winter camping and just using the kitchen or sauna at a very reasonable rate.
After an afternoon of exploring the facility, Bennett renting skis, making plans to store our suitcases for the three days we would be gone, purchasing a map, packing and organizing our gear and a delicious dinner we headed to bed.
I should mention Bennett’s skis. We think of our contemporary athletes endorsing products. Whether it is basketball players like LeBron James or Stephen Curry, we’re used to seeing their photo endorsing a variety of products. Some folks have staying power like Michael Jordan who is still hawking underwear for Hanes even though he retired in 2003. But do any of them have the staying power of Roald Amundsen? Amundsen was featured on Bennett’s Amundsen BC Åsnes skis with half a portrait of Amundsen on each ski. For those who don’t know, Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911. Now that’s staying power!
In the morning after our breakfast, making our lunch, and packing away and leaving our belongings we wouldn’t need, we headed out on the trail. There’s a sparse birch forest around the lodge but once you head down the trail you’re in open country with unlimited visibility on a clear day, which our day wasn’t. It was slightly overcast with temperatures around 35F. That made the snow soft enough for good skiing. Our plan was to ski ten miles gradually uphill to the Sylarna Mountain Station which was located in a cirque like area surrounded by treeless peaks and take a layover day to explore the area. Our trip went smoothly encountering few people along the way. The first person we met coming towards us was a young man with a long red beard. He told us he was from Åre which is a small community with a world-class ski area not too far where we were. He said he is an outdoor guide there but not very familiar with this area, so he and his friend were exploring the mountains near our destination. I told him that I was a guide in my part of the world. He was surprised to see Americans observing that he didn’t see many Americans in this part of Sweden. He asked to take our photo which we gladly obliged.
Because the country is mostly treeless there are no place to naturally put trail markers. As a result they have ten foot high poles about four inches in diameter with a red X similar to a railroad crossing sign located every forty meters. When the clouds roll in, which they do on a regular basis, or the snow is blowing hard limiting visibility the posts are literally life savers.
We continued on at a pretty leisurely pace and got to an emergency wind shelter at lunchtime. We found these small emergency wind shelters on each of our travel days located just halfway to our destination. Because the land is so open they have these huts, which had firewood to be used only in emergency, allowing people to get out of the sometimes severe winds. Another group caught up with us. They turned out to be a group of Swedish and German tourists being guided by an STF guide. It was interesting to hear the guide use English as the common language to talk to them in. I got to chat with the guide the next day and told him I was a guide and would like to bring American tourists to the area and felt I could guide them but would it be possible to hire a guide to give us some cultural and natural history. It turned out that the young man was the head guide and said he would be glad to do that. We also met a middle aged man and two young men who were backpacking about 75 miles winter camping most of the way although they did stay in a lodge one night. After our lunch we continued on and once again spread out from our Swedish/German colleagues. There was one more, in this case brand new, rescue cabin about a mile from the Sylarna Mountain Station at the base of the hill leading up to it. It was a beautiful afternoon with clear skies, no wind, and great ski conditions. The only downside was that it was steadily uphill and as we gained elevation the sun started to set behind the mountains and the temperature dropped.
We got to the Sylarna Mountain Station, entered the ski and boot room and headed down the hallway to a newly renovated lobby and dining area. We checked in, headed down another hallway with large gorgeous photos of the region during all seasons of the year on the wall. The bunk rooms were in an older section of the building. Not as new as our lodging at Storulvån but very nice. Bathroom and shower down the hall and sauna a little farther. A separate building had rooms for those who had dogs, a bunk room, and a self-service kitchen. There weren’t many people staying in the main lodge with us. Just the three of us and the Swedish/German group of about six adults and three children. All the lodges had large digital screens with the weather forecast. It was clear that the weather the next day was going to be extremely windy. Windy also meant, in all probability, poor visibility. We were glad we had planned a layover day, and while we probably wouldn’t be able to do the exploration of the area that we had hoped, at least we didn’t have to make it to a specific destination. Sure enough we woke up to winds of 40 MPH seemingly blowing snow in every direction. We went to breakfast and the Swedish/German group’s guide was breaking the news to the group that because of the severe weather he didn’t want them to ski to their next lodge and they would take the snowcat. They were disappointed but I thought it was the right call. We had a leisurely day with a Google Duo call home, lots of reading, and a ski about a mile up the trail and back in some of the most windy conditions I have experienced since I climbed Denali in 1971. The temperatures were mild though (30F) so it was a good test of our gear. The conditions were icy and we were glad to be using our skins. After a couple of miles of those conditions we were happy to be back at the lodge. It turned out that we were the only customers that evening so we enjoyed chatting with the young chef and quiz as many of the staff as we could about the eleven mile plus day we had the next day. They were confident we’d have no problem but after the windy conditions we had just experienced we weren’t.
The next day broke clear and windless. It looked awesome and the only question I had was how hard the snow was going to be. It turned out to be great. We packed up after breakfast and headed out. We had a wonderful ski down the long hill we had trudged up two days before and could each pick our own route across the treeless open landscape. Time passed quickly skiing through the beautiful open country. It was a see-saw ski of down, then up, then down, then up to the Blåhammaren Fjällstation, our third STF Mountain Station. We made good time to the midpoint, the Enkälen wind shelter. As we sat in the cabin eating our lunch the clouds slowly rolled in so the second half of the trip was in whiteout conditions. Fortunately there was little wind but it was snowing lightly as we slowly plodded the uphill sections. The temperatures started dropping and by the time we got to Blåhammaren it was quite icy and a challenge to get the last 100 yards to the lodge. As we arrived we encountered a middle-aged couple with a teenage son that had skied directly from Storulvån. They planned to spend a day skiing around the mountain station and then go back to Storulvån.
The Blåhammaren Fjällstation is the highest of STF’s mountain stations at 1086m (3563 ft). It is smaller than the other two and appears older but is well maintained with, what appears to be a new sauna, with a round picture window overlooking the mountains. The building has a welcoming quaintness with, like the other lodges, an incredibly friendly young staff. After the nearly 12 mile somewhat snowy ski we took advantage of the lodge’s drying room, a room of about 200 square feet with a heater and dehumidifier designed specifically to dry out guest’s clothing and equipment. From there it was off to the sauna. The saunas typically had single gender hours and coed hours to meet everyone’s preferences.
It turned out that we were three of eight guests that evening and were bestowed another gourmet dinner. Once again the weather forecast wasn’t too promising so the family decided to head back to Storulvån the next morning. The final leg of our trip was the shortest at about eight miles mostly downhill. The conditions were boilerplate icy and I was wishing I had my alpine ski equipment. I left my climbing skins on for the first four miles as we descended open country through what normally I would have considered a dream ski, but this day was a minor nightmare of digging my metal edges into the ice, trying to slow my turns. We descended over 1200 feet to another wind shelter where we encountered a number of friendly people. For some reason natives wanted to take a photo of the American tourists and we readily obliged once again and took a picture of them in return. The descent provided us with warmer weather and a light drizzle. The last four miles the drizzle ended and we had a wonderful ski through the softer snow back to Storulvån.
After a hot shower we were ready for yet another incredible meal. This time it was a starter of Jerusalem artichoke soup with sourdough croutons, a main course of local lamb with potato cake, carrot puree, with a red wine sauce and black currant gelè and for dessert apple pie with vanilla ice cream. One of the most pleasant surprises of the trip was the outstanding quality of the food.
We sorted through our clothing and gear transferring from backcountry to “civilian” travel mode and preparing for the last phase of our trip. Our plan was to get a taxi the eleven miles to the tiny village of Enafors to get a train to Östersund, a city of 50,000, where our friend Beret offered to put us up at her apartment for a night before Edie and I were to fly home while Bennett was going to spend a couple of more weeks in Sweden working on a couple of projects.