Why an Englishman and his Norwegian wife set up a company to showcase the fast-growing sport of ski-touring – and the almost unfair beauty of central Norway’s Sunnmøre Alps
(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2016. Photography by River Thompson)
When Sir William Cecil Slingsby first climbed Slogen mountain in central Norway in 1870, he declared the view – a spectacular straight line down the iconic Hjørundfjord – “one of the proudest in Europe”. He also said: “The wildest alpine valley I ever saw was not in the Alps, it was the valley Norangsdalen at Sunnmøre.”
The great Victorian mountaineer knew what he was talking about. Barely known in his native England, Slingsby is a mountaineering legend in Norway, having logged at least a dozen first ascents of mountains 2,000m or higher, all of them in central Norway – an area he had fallen in love with in his own stiff -upper-lip way. Norwegians know him as the godfather of Norwegian mountaineering. He’s also regarded as one of Europe’s ski-touring pioneers, having crossed the 1,550m Keiser Pass on skis in 1880.
I’m being versed on the legend of Slingsby by Brendan Slater, another English convert to Norway who knows a bit about ski touring and the unadulterated beauty of central Norway’s mountains and fjords. We’re sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Union Øye, which was founded in 1891 in the small fjord-side village of Øye. The family-run hotel still has a dimly lit air of Victorian splendour, from the suit of armour in the lobby to the historical photos, the rumours of a ghost and the charming manager who looks like she’s just stepped out of a Nordic-Bavarian costume drama.
Along with his wife Sissel Tangen, Slater is the cofounder of Headnorth, a new company specialising in ski-touring trips around central Norway, from the Sunnmøre Alps to Sognefjord to the south and Romsdalen to the north. We’re here for a three-night taster tour around Hjørundfjord, Sunnmøre and Stranda, all of it a few hours inland from the pretty Art Nouveau town of Ålesund on the coast.
“I’ve travelled all my life but I’ve never found a part of the world as stunning as this,” says Slater. “The Lyngen Alps and Lofoten are better known in Norway as ski-touring areas, but for me it’s more spectacular here because you’re looking at fjords rather than ocean, and there’s more contrast. At the summit of most of the mountains here you get these classic mountain-fjord vistas, and you can ski right down to the water. There’s also this great mix of old Norwegian culture and cutting edge Scandi design. As an adventure destination, it has it all.”
If Slater has a Slingsby-esque love of the mountains and fjords, and a desire to share that with the world, he admits he’s not quite got the same mountain chops. Having moved to Oslo in 2006, it wasn’t until he met Tangen in 2008 that he was encouraged to try ski touring.
“I’d never skied at all, not even on a piste, and I was pretty ropey,” he says. “I probably still am. But, you know, I still have the same wonder, because I see this place just like a traveller, and I still have that sense of awe every time I go up these mountains on skis. I just want to share this area and introduce more people to ski touring here, whether they’re beginners like I was or experts. I also want to help to sell the area – I feel like some locals don’t quite grasp just how special it is.”
Special it certainly is. On our first day, after a night at the Hotel Union Øye, we put skins on our skis, switch the bindings to cross-country mode and head up from the car park of the Villa Norangdal guest house to the Blæja peak at 1,420m. I’m a ski-touring novice, but it’s a simple and curiously relaxing activity. We head slowly, rhythmically uphill, all the while looking at the sun glinting on the virgin marshmallow snow that we’re going to ski down.
Two-and-a-half hours and 1,000m worth of suspended gravity later, we reach the summit. On on the far side of the peak, the Hjørundfjord reveals itself far below, glistening among the reflected mountains. Ski touring has all the satisfaction of hiking up a mountain – except that, after that smug sense of conquering a piece of nature, you get to put on a pair of skis and point them downhill. Descending is a glorious grin-and-whoop experience, and after every section of mountain you can look up and see your tracks, including the odd powdery stack. That night we stay at the smart fjord-side Sagafjord Hotel in Sæbø, finishing our sauna session with a run into the Hjørundfjord in our underwear. It’s not a pretty sight, but it helps contribute to a night of deep baby-sleep.
It’s little wonder that people are starting to really catch on to this part of the world, which has always been best known for the Geirangerfjord, a World Heritage site and probably the most famous fjord on the planet. Åndalsnes, to the north via the serpentine Trollstigen road, is attempting to rebrand itself as “the Chamonix of the north”. Sports like riverboarding (a kind of white-water bodyboarding) and caving are joining the more traditional adventures like ski touring, hiking and mountain biking. The Romsdalen area has seen an influx of cool accommodation options, like the smart Romsdal Adventure guest house, which runs mountain bike trips and hiking tours.
Around Hjørundfjord, Slater is helping to map out the Hjørundfjord Haute Route, an epic 33km ski tour to rival the famous Haute Route in the French Alps, albeit with swankier accommodation along the way (Headnorth like to mix adventure with comfort). The timing is good. Ski touring is booming in Norway, and new ski technology means there’s ever less compromise in quality of enjoyment between going up and coming down.
But it’s not just adventure tourists who have been discovering this part of the world. The drive to Hotel Union Øye on the first day takes us along bleakly beautiful roads used in Norwegian dark fantasy Trollhunter. Matt Damon was recently in the area filming for Downsizing, which will be released late next year.
But the most famous use of the area by Hollywood came in last year’s spooky robot thriller, Ex Machina. When director Alex Garland wanted a gorgeous home for the movie’s billionaire CEO, his production team embarked on a year-long worldwide search which ended when they found the Juvet Landscape Hotel, a stunning series of modern eco pods at Gudbrandsjuvet in the Valldal valley. “We knew that if we found a spectacular landscape it would provide a lot of the power of the guy,” wrote Garland in the film’s production notes. “If he owns this landscape, he must be spectacular, too.”
Juvet is where we stay on our final night, after an another epic day of ski touring at Ytstevasshornet. We’re welcomed by Knut Slinning, Juvet’s owner, who has virtually nothing in common with Nathan, the manipulative billionaire CEO in Ex Machina. Slinning is self-effacing and outdoorsy, with a gentle, wry smile. He’s not quite part of the Wallpaper* set who coo over his hotel in magazine spreads, and says his favourite part of welcoming people to Juvet is “seeing their shoulders drop; just seeing that peace that comes with being here”. He insists that everyone eats together in the elegantly rustic farmhouse, whether that means former Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg, Scottish band Travis, or Pippa Middleton.
Juvet was the result of a series of coincidences, and Slinning is at pains to play down his role in putting this part of Norway on the international design map. He worked in property in Ålesund and had a cabin nearby. By chance, in 2005 he met modish Norwegian architects Jensen & Skodvin, who were in the Valldal valley as part of Norway’s National Tourist Routes project, which involved architects and designers installing architecturally striking viewing areas along the routes.
“They’d mentioned to me that they wanted to design a different hotel around the area,” recalls Slinning. “I hadn’t thought too much about it, but not long after I was on the old farm here at Burtigarden, which is on a stretch of land I’ve always loved. The farmer came out and just said to me, ‘Since you’re so fond of this place, would you like to buy it?’”
The rest is history and, with the help of funding for the tourist routes, Slinning and the architects set about designing and building the hotel, which opened in 2010. “It was important to us that we didn’t blast any rocks or alter the terrain in any way,” he says. “The nature should be the star, and all the rooms have their own little view. When you’re inside you can’t see other rooms, and there are no curtains, so it feels like you’re part of the landscape.”
Another aspect was respecting both the heritage of the farm and the local area. All the old farm buildings were restored, so you get a striking contrast of old and new, and the hotel tries to use local suppliers wherever possible. For example, the traditional crisp wafers served at Juvet are made 10 minutes down the road by the wonderful Nikka Myren Grønning, a 99-year-old with a glint in her eye, who has lived and baked at the same old house since the war, when she would sneak supplies out to Russian soldiers fleeing the Nazis. In her kitchen she shows us a local newspaper article about her and three contemporaries about to turn 100, and she bids us farewell with a huge hug and her only words of English: “I love you.”
On our last night, after a gorgeous meal of smoked whale carpaccio and bacalao (salted and dried cod), we drink Mack beers in the outdoor hot tub at Juvet, by the glass-walled sauna and spa around which many of the scenes in Ex Machina were filmed. All is still, except for the semi-rhythmic rumbling of both the hot tub and the river below.
I can understand how Slingsby fell for this part of Norway, and why people like Brendan Slater are falling for it all over again. He and his wife are fantastic hosts, not least because they do still seem to take a very pure joy in it all. It’s not at all hard to see why.