Fire & Ice: Heli-skiing in Norway from sailing yacht Firebird
by Chris Madigan
Forgoing chair lifts and even helicopters to experience skiing in its purest form may sound like torture to regular slope-goers but, lured by the floating ski chalet of sailing yacht Firebird, Chris Madigan boldly takes on the challenge of the Norwegian fjords
The skipper pops his head into the saloon and says two words: “Northern Lights”. There’s a flurry of grabbing coats, hats, life jackets and cameras before everyone rushes up on deck. And there they are – strands of pale green, fringed with pink and orange, stretching out from the peaks of the Lyngen Alps and dancing gracefully above the tall mast of Firebird, the luxurious 27 metre Oyster 885 RS, moored at a remote fishing boat fuelling station in a Norwegian fjord deep in the Arctic Circle.
Most yachts of this class would be in the Caribbean in March, but Russian-born British businessman Andrey Yakunin and his wife Natasha are ski mountaineering fanatics as well as passionate sailors. “The first time we tried touring, walking on skis away from a resort, the peace and grandeur of the landscape made us fall in love with the sport,” says Yakunin. So, in commissioning Firebird, he always had Norway, not Antigua, in mind as the winter charter destination: “You don’t have to fight for a berth up here.”
On the map, the coast stretching north-east from Tromsø looks like coral, with fingers of mountainous peninsulas clutching at archipelagos. The whole area, particularly the Lyngen Alps peninsula, is the holy grail for ski mountaineers. Apart from at a few local ski centres close to the city, there are no ski lifts here and heli-skiing is banned. If you want to descend these mountains, you have to climb them first. Brian Farquharson, a qualified mountain guide who joins our party, says: “You could spend four or five seasons here and still not ski half the peaks. If you’ve skied in Norwegian resorts in the south, you might associate the country with rolling hills, but this far north it’s different – true Alpine terrain. And the snow is excellent, even though it’s maritime. There is little temperature change between day and night, so there’s not so much freeze-thaw effect.”
Having a boat as a base gives skiers a unique opportunity if the sea is calm. The fold-down transom platform doubles as a pontoon for the tender. On the island of Vannøya, for example, the group can be dropped on the east coast, make a steady climb to a 1,000 metre peak before a long, gentle run down through trees to the west coast, while Firebird sails round to meet you.
The morning after the Northern Lights, we leave the boat early for our first ascent: Storehaugen. It’s my first attempt at uphill skiing and I’m recovering from a chest infection, so I go only halfway, climbing to just above the 500 metre treeline. Turning around, I look across Lyngenfjord. Along its length, mountains rise dramatically straight up from the water, like New York skyscrapers from the East River. Below me, it’s easy to see my way back home – Firebird’s mast is the tallest object, jutting above the cod drying racks that run along the shore.
If I’d been a little fitter, I could have joined the others climbing to the 1,142 metre summit. Climbing from sea level, rather than an Alpine base of 1,500 metres or even higher in the Rockies, means you don’t lose days acclimatising to altitude. Who’d have thought such a remote place would be an ideal destination for the time- poor? The pictures my companions come back with from the summit show that what looked from this lee side like a smooth snow-covered dome, suddenly ends in a sheer cliff dropping into the ocean to the north.
From the moment it was commissioned, Firebird was intended to be sailed in the frozen north. Heating and insulation of pipes is way beyond standard. Because of the geology of fjords, the chain is twice the normal length to allow anchoring in 50 metres of water. It is compliant to Maritime and Coastguard Agency category zero (unrestricted) standards, with four independent compartments, and can float with three quarters of the boat suffering ingress of water. The cockpit is protected by a thermal marquee and also heated. Skipper James Micklem says: “The crew has a lot more to be aware of. We spent a lot of time before departure on specialist cold water and medical training. That ensured we had no illusions about running a safe boat up here.”
We certainly take it seriously when the skipper calmly states that it takes around 20 minutes to weigh anchor and come about to rescue someone in the water, and we’d be at the very least unconscious in 15 minutes. When the first-night briefing concludes with the first mate putting on a survival suit that makes him look like a Doctor Who monster, we laugh, but nervously.
Ski touring is an equally serious endeavour, with danger threatened by avalanche and, on glaciers, crevasses. The necessary equipment – skis, the skins you stick to the base when walking up to stop you sliding back, telescopic poles, boots, two types of crampon, harness, transceiver and avalanche probe – makes a regular piste skier look like they’re popping to the shops. All of it can be hired from Tromsø Outdoor, close to Firebird’s mooring in the city harbour.
Much of this kit is sharp. With most crews, the sight of someone on the pontoon in high heels has them twitching like the inspector in the Pink Panther. Micklem is more sanguine: “We don’t encourage crampons on the teak deck,” he says. There are mats laid out to help with grip, a box for sharps, a ski rack in the sail locker – and a lazarette fitted with boot heaters. “I have had too many experiences of putting on cold, wet boots at dawn in a high-mountain hut,” adds Yakunin.
Other boats operate sailing and skiing in this part of the world but Firebird is the first to introduce superyacht (or chalet) luxury. Four cabins, with en suite heads and rain showers, are high-ceilinged, with Heirlooms linens on the beds and an iPad touch-controlled entertainment system. Most importantly, the heating and dehumidifying system is so efficient, the heads work as drying rooms – hang up wet skiwear pieces and they are dry in under an hour.
Although guests can enjoy privacy, there is something about skiing that draws everyone to the saloon table to swap stories, compare GoPro footage, pore over maps... and eat cake. Chef Mel White provides a chalet tea every afternoon for hungry returning adventurers (as well as refuelling snacks for the climb). Dinner is a gourmet affair but reflects the calories people are burning. The menu can include Norwegian specialities such as reindeer casserole, and local cod, salmon, lobster and prawns. “You can order international brasserie food (and some of our favourite Russian dishes),” says Yakunin, “but a charter should not be like a fast-food restaurant – it should give you a sense of place, of cultural integration.”
Culturally, there is a surprising amount to do, apart from ski touring. Firebird’s crew can arrange dog sledding, snowmobile tours and even horse riding in the snow. Tromsø’s Polar Museum is fascinating, and diagonally across the water from our next destination, Hamnnes harbour on Uløya, lies the northernmost distillery in the world – Aurora Spirit – where they make gin, aquavit and vodka, aged in bunkers built by the occupying German army in the Second World War.
Despite the allure of alcohol, I am keen to ski tour properly. As we climb from Hamnnes, my heartbeat and temperature rise dramatically and my muscles cry at the effort. I keep pausing to suck oxygen into my lungs. But I also joyfully drink in the sight of cloud shadows playing on the water below us. Mountain guide Brian takes this as a good sign: “For powder skiers, if the descent isn’t perfect, the whole day’s ruined, whereas ski mountaineers just love being in the mountains and enjoy the walk up. If that’s the cake for you and good skiing is just the icing on top, you’re never disappointed.”
In the end, low cloud frustratingly stops us a couple of hundred metres from the summit. But the fast return is great fun – smearing powder turns in open terrain before scooting through pine forest to our ski-to-the-hatch accommodation. The weather sticks in for 24 hours and we motor deeper into Lyngenfjord, to Lyngseidet. The woods above the village provide a playground, where we skin to a mountain hut, meet locals with hunting rifles for ptarmigan – a relative of grouse – then act like kids, jumping off natural rollers (giant snowballs) and kickers (jumps).
Then comes one of those days that stays with you for ever. On the island of Arnøya, the northernmost point of our itinerary, we climb in the sun from a virtually abandoned settlement. This time, with supportive words from my companions, I keep a steady pace. After two hours, the only thing above my head is a huge concrete telecoms mast, coated in rime ice. I am at the summit of Trolltind. I spin 360 degrees in a whirl of emotion and light, and take in the panorama of rock, snow, sky and ocean on all sides.
After stripping the skins from the skis comes the icing – bouncing turns through the lightest of snow as we seem to plunge towards the ocean. The ground flattens out and we race each other through low birch trees, dodging saplings. As we climb jubilantly back aboard Firebird, the crew announce the cherry on the icing... the weather is warm enough to raise the sails.
The crew has to raise the main very slowly, as chunks of ice, frozen to the Kevlar, break loose and crash on the deck. But once it and the blade jib are fully unfurled, the sailing is remarkable. Firebird feels smooth but powerful as we tack between Arnøya – our tracks still visible on the slope – and the majestic Lyngen Alps.
There is such a crossover between skiers and people who love boats, particularly sailing boats, because it powerfully combines adrenaline and love of nature. When you take the mechanical out of skiing as well, that symbiosis only magnifies. Yakunin agrees: “The effect of ski touring is similar to sailing for me – like an early- hours watch, when the sun is just breaking: it is an experience bordering on meditation.”
Firebird is available to charter for ski and sail adventures in Norway from €47,700 per week.
All pictures courtesy of Mike Jones / Waterline Media