The heli-gods of Swedish Lapland

Niehku, a high-end heli-skiing lodge on the edge of Riksgränsen in Swedish Lapland, is the first of its kind in Scandinavia. But more than adventure or luxury, it’s really about the two ski bums behind it all

An edited version of this piece appeared in Conde Nast Traveller’s November 2018 issue. Photographs by Jenny Zarins

In the mountains of Swedish Lapland, more than 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a group of four skiers are experiencing perhaps the ultimate first-world problem. We are in a tiny helicopter above a track of sun-specked powder, heading for the summit of the Påssustjåkka mountain, pondering the tracks we might joyously carve into it.

But then the pilot points to something, and I see his helmet shake. Following his arm, I spot a herd of white-and-brown-furred reindeer moving in tight formation up the mountainside. Soon, the helicopter makes a sharp turn, and we watch the reindeer, and those potential turns, recede into the distance.

Jörgen Karström, our craggy-faced, ponytailed mountain guide, turns from the seat next to the pilot and gives us a “What can you do?” shrug. Five minutes later, we’ve been deposited at the top of a mountain across the valley, to ponder yet another wide field of icing-sugar powder, glinting in the April sunlight. “Sorry about that,” says Jörgen, as the roar of the chopper gives way to a low hum. “We can’t land too close to the reindeer herds. It disturbs them, and we might get a phone call from one of the Sami herders.”

If there were only one or two runs to be had here, a beautiful herd of reindeer might—almost—be a problem worthy of an apology. But here, on the western fringes of Europe’s largest wilderness area, the supply of white powder is not an issue. On this Friday, I gorge on it, muttering gleeful swearwords under my breath as each unsighted dip reveals yet another long, wide powder field, ready to be carved with luxuriant abandon. There are 12 runs in the day, and around 8,000 vertical metres. At the end of most, we cruise right up to the helicopter. I can barely stop grinning.   

In this portion of Lapland, there are 60 or so skiable peaks that run south and east of Riksgränsen towards Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, via the Abisko National Park. The mostly curved, glacial mountains contain more than 5,000 square kilometres of wide open powder fields, couloirs and steeper faces, with runs of up to 1,400 metres, all yours with a tap on the shoulder of a helicopter pilot.

On Thursday morning, I’d been picked up from my Hackney flat at 4am. Not long after lunchtime, having been driven along a bleak, snowy stretch of the E10 road from the mining town of Kiruna, Riksgränsen came into view—a cluster of red-barn buildings, sandwiched between the mountains and the frozen Vassiljaure Lake, with two snowmobiles whizzing across its surface. Before 1903, this wasn’t a place—just somewhere that the indigenous nomadic reindeer herders passed through—but that year they built a train station to service the new line transporting iron ore from the mine at Kiruna to Narvik, 30 miles west on the Norwegian coast.

My final destination was Niehku, a brand new, 14-room lodge on the edge of town, beside the Norwegian border. Clad in Lappish fir, it was built onto the semi-circular wall of the Iron Ore Line’s old roundhouse, which serviced the steam trains until 1928. Heli-skiing lodges have been in vogue over the past few years—think Deplar Farm, which opened on Iceland’s windswept Troll Peninsula in 2016, or Alaska’s implausibly remote new Sheldon Chalet—as has the Arctic region, driven in part by a global re-branding of the Northern Lights.

But Mainland Scandinavia’s first heli-lodge isn’t about trends, or business opportunities. At its core, it’s about the two best friends who run it: Johan “Jossi” Lindblom, one of Sweden’s top mountain guides, and Patrik “Strumpan” Strömsten, a skier and restaurateur who is the only person to have twice been named Sweden’s best sommelier. Niehku means “dream” in the Northern Sami language, and this is their vision: an unfussy, egalitarian place where the food, wine and music are as good as the skiing.

Niehku is also defined by the legacy of the roundhouse. The stone wall cuts straight through the building, and a sense of oily industrialism permeates the design, from Swedish firm Krook & Tjäder, not least in Patrik’s beloved wine cellar, set in the old engine pit, which you can look at through a perspex floor in the communal dining room.    

I get to know Patrik and Jossi in snippets over a long weekend at Niehku, joining three groups of guests, all of them Swedish, most of them male and working in finance, property and construction. Jossi is the more taciturn, with his straggly ginger hair, darting blue eyes and bone-dry humour. Patrik is an elfin, evergreen 50, with straight, shoulder-length blonde hair, and the charisma and ready quips (though none of the creepiness) of a 1970s entertainer.

They’ve been best friends, and regular fixtures in Riksgränsen, since the early 1990s, when both had come from around Kiruna to work at the town’s massive hotel. Patrik was a waiter and Jossi a guide, but it was as a bassist and drummer that they came together, in a band called the National Borderliners, whose brand of rock n roll didn’t quite have the longevity of Patrik and Jossi’s friendship. “We got up to a lot of things that are entirely unprintable,” Patrik tells me one night, over a 2015 Weingut Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner. “The guitarist used to say that his girlfriend was terrified of us.”

The guitarist in our band used to say that his girlfriend was terrified of us.

Patrik had arrived in 1985, a year after the road to Riksgränsen had been built, to ski and wash dishes. There’d been a chairlift since 1952, but until 1984 visitors had to come on the same train line that brought the iron ore. In the 1960s and 70s, it had been a relatively exclusive retreat, when dinner at the hotel meant smoking jackets and frocks.

Patrik was a promising skier, part of the Swedish junior moguls team, but he’d become fixated on the workings of the hotel’s kitchen and restaurant. In 1988, as a cocky, newly-promoted waiter, he was sent over to the table of a wealthy Swedish industrialist. “He asked me for a sherry,” recalls Patrik. “When I brought out a plate of cherries, the guy just looked straight through me. I remember thinking: This can never happen again. I became the only ski bum in town drinking vintage Bordeaux reds.”

By the time Jossi arrived, the smoking jacket crowd were being outnumbered by a new crowd in baggy pants, as Riksgränsen embraced the snowboarders still frowned-on in the Alps. Soon, punkish videos and magazine spreads showed Scandi snowboard pioneers like Terje Håkonsen and Ingemar Backman carving vast powder fields or flying off monstrous kickers into limpid Arctic skies. As the world latched onto this new, grungy-cool sport, it also asked: Where’s that?  

Word spread that there was a near-mythical place in the Arctic wilderness, where you could ski at midnight in June; where the runs rivalled those in Alaska or Kamchatka, and where the heli-skiing was limited only by fuel, unlike in the strictly-regulated Alps or neighbouring Norway, where it is banned.

“The 90s was when it became the late-season hangout of Europe’s best skiers and snowboarders, which it still is really,” says Patrik. “There were people camping everywhere, and we were swapping gear with [legendary American snowboarder] Craig Kelly, Terje and all those guys.”  

The 90s was when it became the late-season hangout of Europe’s best skiers and snowboarders, which it still is really. 

Things changed, of course. Jossi became a fully qualified mountain guide, taking wealthy, adventurous types on bucket-list adventures to Kamchatka, the Himalayas or the Caucuses—but he kept coming back to Riksgränsen. It was the same with Patrik, who worked in restaurants in southern Sweden and the Alps, where he’d chase powder and grapes with equal vigour.  

Patrik’s most notable project, though, was managing Meteorologen, a more premium, 14-room offshoot of the Riksgränsen Hotel, just next door, which opened in 2006 in what had been the staff quarters (before that it was a customs house, and meteorological office). With good local food and world-class wines, it was a welcome upgrade to the increasingly tired hotel and became the place to stay for discerning heli-skiers.

One of those visitors, in 2012, was Clas Darvik, a Gothenburg-based real estate mogul, who was visiting for the first time. On Sunday, 20th May, heavy snow meant no heli-sking, so he took a walk to the Norwegian border on the edge of town, where he spotted the crumbling wall of the old roundhouse, on an appealing plot of land overlooking the town.      

That night he asked Jossi and Patrik to join him for dinner. As Jossi tells it: “He was all excited. Over a bottle of wine, we told him the history of the roundhouse, and the story of the town. At the end, he just said: I want to build a heli-skiing lodge for you two. We laughed.”

For three years, Clas gathered investors and wrestled with the necessary permits to build around the listed site. But, in 2015, he wrote to Jossi and Patrik, and told them it was a go. “We knew it would mean us both changing our lives,” says Jossi. “But we both agreed, if we were going to do it, we’d have to go all out. We didn’t go to a marketing agency and ask what people wanted—we built our dream lodge, the place we’d want to stay.”

We didn’t go to a marketing agency and ask what people wanted—we built our dream lodge, the place we’d want to stay.

I get to live in Patrik and Jossi’s dream on my four days at Niehku, including a full Friday and Saturday. It’s a place of unfussy simplicity, where the important stuff is done with painstaking quality, and the rest simply isn’t available.

My days begin by rising from my cloud-like Swedish Hästens beds, and dawdling downstairs to breakfast: think quality granola, boiled eggs, fresh-baked sourdough bread, local cheese and salmon. Patrik’s wife, Ulrika—also a sommelier and wine writer, who runs a highly-rated restaurant on the island of Gotland in the summers—promptly serves up excellent coffees.

The helicopters start roaring at 9am, with one helicopter to two groups, each with a guide. Like Jörgen, Jossi’s long-term guide partner, all the Niehku guides are maximally certified and hand-picked by the boss. In summer, they’ll lead hiking, biking, fishing and hunting trips. The scariest part of the trip is on the first night, when we’re trained on how to use our avalanche packs, with giant air bags and transceivers. Getting in and out of the helicopter is done with near-military precision, involving lots of reverential crouching. Lunchtimes feature thermos flasks filled with slow-cooked reindeer stew, or chicken and vegetable broth, served with half a ham and cheese baguette, a wafer and a slice of lemon drizzle.

The rest is pure joy, and I ride more powder in two days than I have in the rest of my life. I’ve heli-skied in the Alps, but never had more than three runs in a day, and only from designated landing sites. This, by contrast, feels like a glorious free-for-all. My fellow heli-skiers are more experienced: these are guys whose dinner-time conversation involves tales of heli-skiing in Kamchatka and Alaska, ski-touring across Svalbard, or racing the Sydney-Hobart yacht race. And they’re as childishly wowed as I am.   

Back at the lodge, usually by 3pm, my afternoons involve asking Fredrik Mosesson, the manager, to recommend one of the 26 bottled beers, all organic and from small Swedish breweries (my favourite is a lager called God from the little Nils Oscar brewery). Then I’ll amble into the blonde wood sauna, where at some point I’ll vacantly watch the iron train snake through town, as it does every two hours, every day, carrying 64 carriage-loads of ore. Some good quality easy listening will be bleeding from the speakers at an unobtrusive volume: think the XX or Nancy Sinatra. If you want a massage, there are just three to choose from, all designed for skiers.   

On the comfy leather sofas of the mezzanine floor, I’ll browse the bookshelf, finding a punk anthology (Patrik’s taste), or Barbarian Days, William Finegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning surf anthology. Downstairs, ski bums from town will be wandering in for a beer, along with other curious locals. They’ll be greeted as warmly as the guest who has a private jet waiting for him at Kiruna Airport.

There’s not much art in this place of grey-scale minimalism, with the interior designed by Swedish firm Stylt—the rooms feature black-and-white shots and architectural drawings of the old roundhouse. But, on the mezzanine, just by a ‘Dream’ Fender guitar designed by Stylt for Patrik and Jossi, there’s a work you might miss, framed in a glass case: a ski pass from May 20th, 2012, the day that Clas Darvik couldn’t go up in a helicopter.    

Like the rest of Niehku, dinner is an exercise in purity. You get a six-course meal of what Patrik calls “skiers food”, prepared by 29-year-old Meteorologen alum Ragnar Martinsson. Ingredients are almost all Swedish, and most of them local: think Narvik skrei or langoustine, Kebnekaise Arctic char or reindeer from the Sami shop near Kiruna. Ragnar describes his food, when pressed, as: “Interesting, Swedish, quality, but nothing… weird.”

On my final Saturday night, I’ve just finished a course of wild duck smoked with hay, with a duck-leg rillette, sprouts and blackcurrant. My adopted group of 30-something Swedish property developers have been joined by two girls staying in a cabin in town, and we’ve had in-depth discussions about Swedish pop production and the recent impact of the Metoo movement. Patrik is dancing round the tables, reeling off anecdotes of irascible winemakers as he pours wine from his oenophilic greatest hits, periodically disappearing down into his cellar.

In one corner, Jossi is having dinner with his girlfriend, visiting from Stockholm. I notice him look around, then back to his girlfriend. For a good few moments, he’s stock-still, seemingly lost for words, and a little glassy-eyed. This no-frills mountain man looks a whole lot like someone who’s just realised he’s living in his own dream—and that it’s a pretty nice place to be.   

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