The silence of awe: skiing & sailing above the Arctic Circle
Norway: where the landscape is so searingly beautiful it crashes your vocal cords. Usually, there’s enough time–just!–to let your jaw drop, but then scenery-induced laryngitis kicks in. You open your mouth to say ‘wow’ and nothing comes out. Nothing. Just the silence of awe.
I always get a childlike frisson of excitement when the weather forecast shows tiny flakes of snow. Most broadcasters have dispensed of virtual clouds — they get in the way — so nowadays these flakes appear from nowhere and cascade onto the weather map like feathers falling to earth after a pillow fight.
Where I live, in the North of England, you need to look hard to find these animated snowflakes. If your eyes remain fixed on the British Isles, for most of the time you’ll have no luck. Drizzle, rain and fog: that’s your lot.
Instead you need to look to the far right of the screen, and then up a bit, to where the fjord-sliced mountains of Norway stand, proud but ignored.
This is Vestlandet or West Norway. Here, weather systems from the British Isles hotfoot it across the North Sea and crash into the mountains which march their way up the coast. Moist air forces its way up, cools and, lo and behold, it starts to snow.
It might be mild and sunny in London but at the edge of the weather map a mountain blizzard is raging unseen (unless, of course, you are willing to look.)
That’s the joy of Norway. It snows. A lot. And often.
It is perfectly placed for snow.
The country is in that wonderful sweet spot of being next to an ocean, far enough north, and stuffed with mountains where the white stuff dumps and dumps and dumps, for days, weeks and months at a time.
Its neighbours around the North Sea are some of the most densely populated in Europe and yet it is all too often shunned by winter sports aficionados, who typically head elsewhere for their snow fix.
The country remains a bit of a secret.
To be honest, I suspect Norwegians are keen to keep it that way. Why would they want to ruin a good thing?
What’s more, they have the killer weapon to keep numbers down: the £5 loaf of bread and an average pint of beer which costs … well, let’s just not discuss how much that costs, eh?
Simply put, Norway is extravagantly pricey. It ranks among the world’s most expensive countries to visit. This fact alone no doubt discourages many visitors.
To be fair, I was one of them until a friend, Mark, called me earlier this year with an offer I couldn’t refuse: did I want to join him and two of his friends on a boat for a few weeks of sailing and ski touring in the Arctic?
His friend from a previous ski trip to Greenland, Patrick, and his wife Virginia had sailed the boat across the North Sea the previous year and now their craft was moored above the Arctic Circle near the city of Tromsø.
‘How much?’ I asked.
‘Oh no, you don’t have to pay anything, just help out around the boat, contribute towards the food kitty and various bits and bobs and that’s it really.’
How could I say ‘no’?
Although I was supposed to be at the end of a mini-sabbatical and throwing myself into the search for full-time work, I remembered Arthur Conan Doyle’s quote that the Arctic is a ‘training school for all that is high and godlike in man’.
I could hear my calling. Who was I to ignore it?
I had to go.
On arrival, it soon became clear that nothing quite prepares you for the onslaught of beauty when you sail and ski in the Arctic.
The late A.A. Gill once said of his time in Patagonia that it was like having ‘ocular tinnitus’; the beauty never lets up. There’s a ‘deafening of the eyes’.
Norway’s no different: visitors struggle to describe the sublime beauty of the country without referring to a potentially terminal medical emergency.
Fjord view ‘A’ is ‘breathtakingly picturesque’.
Mountain vista ‘B’ is ‘heart-stoppingly pretty’.
It is as though the beauty cuts through us and shocks the body into hitting the pause button for a fleeting moment. ‘Woahh! Stop! Look at that! Look!!!’ your body seems to scream.
This remarkable Scandinavian land does this to you: it steals your breath and stills your heart.
After a few days skiing up and down mountains outside of Tromsø, I thought that I was immune to this phenomenon; that I was becoming used to my new surroundings.
But no, I would turn my head around for a fleeting moment, whilst skinning up a new hill or adjusting a rucksack strap, and an achingly handsome scene would hove into view.
Stunned by the beauty, I’d sully the air with a choice expression, typically containing something quite Anglo-Saxon in nature (oh the shame!).
You don’t mean to, you don’t want to, but the there’s nothing else for it but to stop and swear, like when you carelessly bash your finger when trying to bang a nail into a wall and a profanity sneaks out.
That’s Norway. It’s a coping mechanism.
If scenery-induced swearing became a thing, so did silence.
There were countless times when, quite simply, language wasn’t up to the task; when, like a comfortable pause in a conversation between old friends, nothing needed to be said.
After a few days ski touring in Lenangsstraumen, we needed to move the boat from where it was moored to the fishing village of Oldervik, 25 miles north east of Tromsø.
We set sail just before dusk during that unsettling time when neither day nor night is in charge and nothing is quite what it seems.
Almost instantly, the views from the boat made our vocal cords submit to the inevitable, a contemplative silence descended and was only interrupted by the odd splash of seawater against the hull.
Now and again, I’d head down into the galley to make cups of tea for the captain and the crew, and then head back onto the deck to hand them out. There’d be mouthed ‘thank yous’ back.
Their attentions were elsewhere.
Soon, the sun was barely above the western horizon and its light was being washed from the sky. The snow on the mountains to our west was transformed into a palette of muted pinks and burnt oranges.
Early travellers to the mountains used to speak of a billion flashes of fire lighting up the snow, as if from underneath. From our vantage point in the middle of the fjord, the billion fires raged, not only in the mountains, but also in the sky above where copper-coloured cumulus clouds flirted with the highest summits and, above them, lenticular clouds watched over the scene and glowed the colour of cooling embers.
Little by little — almost imperceptibly, given how slow dusk falls this far north — the fires burned themselves out as the source of their energy, the sun, sunk even lower out of view.
On the port side of the boat, the earth’s shadow crawled up the vertiginous ridges of the Lyngen Alps and then into the clear, frigid sky above.
Yet dusk had one final, muted flourish: the ‘blue hour’.
I had to admit that I hadn’t really heard of this ephemeral event before.
Like a flame which turns blue when it burns more intensely, this is nature’s last light show, late in the dusk, which takes place before the day’s lease expires and night finally takes over.
Away from the Arctic, this spectacle is easily overlooked. Most of us miss it, distracted by artificial lights and the dozens of screens which fool our retinas into thinking the day hasn’t passed.
In the north, where civilisation’s writ isn’t as easily asserted, you can’t miss it. This is when the sky is bathed in ultramarines, cobalts and a thousand other shades of blue before the inky black curtain of night is drawn.
In the pure Arctic air, the scene appeared to be almost unreal, almost too perfect, as though it was rendered not by nature, but by a couple of over-caffeinated creatives in a visual effects studio in Soho.
By the time we found a jetty in Oldervik, negotiated terms with a few grumpy fisherman and adjusted our mooring lines we were all drained. A day of ski touring (on chopped up snow at best, and crusty at worst) and then several hours of sailing was a long day in anybody’s books.
Perhaps we had scenery-fatigue?
That’s the beauty of Norway.
In most areas, there are no chairlifts and there is no après-ski.
Sometimes the snow isn’t the best, but epic adventures and views which almost wind you lurk around every corner.
Whilst I have a soft spot for many Alpine resorts (hello Chamonix!) there is nothing more exciting than to head to the edge of the weather map and experience the majesty of a landscape like no other.
And if you can combine it with a bit of sailing, then you really are onto a winner!
Check out more of the story of this trip to this remarkable part of the world here:
© Paul Caddy 2017