Arctic adventure: skiing in Sweden's most northerly resort

The Swedish resort of Riksgränsen offers skiing under the midnight sun and some of the most exciting backcountry in the Nordics.

Helicopter pickup at Niehku Mountain Villa, high in snowy Swedish Lapland.
 

Photograph by Mattias Fredriksson
By Alf Alderson
Published 17 Nov 2022, 06:03 GMT

The shadowy figures ambling along the roof of the covered passageway above the railway line look like fugatives as they cross the border. But the skis and snowboards they’re carrying tell a different story. 

The ‘renegades’ are, in fact, skiers and boarders who have just completed the ‘Norvege Svången’ (Norwegian Bow): an off-piste descent from the summit of Riksgränsen ski resort in Sweden that swings briefly across the international border into neighbouring Norway before returning into its home country, ending at a railway line. 

I’m observing all this while enjoying a beer on the deck of Niehku Mountain Villa, my home for three nights in Riksgränsen, Sweden’s most northerly ski resort, 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The award-winning lodge was built within the curtilage of a former railway shed once used by steam trains on the Ofoten Line. As well as bringing skiers to Arctic Sweden for over 100 years, the line has transported iron ore from the world’s biggest iron ore mine in Kiruna to the permanently ice-free port of Narvik in Norway.

More than one billion tonnes of iron ore have been shuttled along the line since its construction in 1902, and without it Riksgränsen wouldn’t exist, as the town was developed initially to service the railway. Indeed, before it developed as a skiing and outdoor destination, Riksgränsen was briefly abandoned as the residents struggled to cope with the phenomenal snowfalls it receives most winters.

But with the installation of the first ski lifts on the slopes above the railway line in the 1950s, locals and the soon-to-follow visitors were finally able to take advantage of all that snow — as does Niehku Mountain Villa and its unique heli-ski operation. 

After a 17-hour overnight journey on the sleeper train from Stockholm, the transfer to Niehku is about as smooth as it gets, with the villa almost in sight of the platform. Here I meet Niehku’s co-founder and manager, Jossi Lindblom, who’s also a qualified mountain guide. Laid-back and unhurried, Jossi tells me that they could take me out heli-skiing later that day. “But no rush,” he smiles. “It won’t get dark until September.” 

One of the boons of skiing in this northerly part of the world is that there’s snow to be found right through to early summer. So, it isn’t until around 6pm that I find myself standing atop the 5,725ft Tjåmohas peak in the Abisko Alps, with Torneträsk lake glinting in the sunlight way below as the helicopter clatters off into the distance. I’m in a group with three Swiss skiers and our smiling, easy-going guide, Bernie Adler from South Tyrol. Before we set off, Bernie takes time to point out the various peaks we can see from our vantage point, including Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise, which sits at around 6,890ft. (Locals calculate the height of Kebnekaise depending on the amount of snow it receives each winter, which, as with nearby Riksgränsen, is usually a lot.)

And then we’re off, following Bernie down Tjåmohas’s north face where we find boot-deep powder, all the more joyful a month away from midsummer. Our next descent takes us from the summit of 6,532ft Kåtotjåkka, this time down sun-warmed, south-facing slopes, where butter-smooth spring snow and a warm, lemony light diffuse the landscape, with plenty of whoops of excitement from us.

A room at Niehku Mountain Villa.

Photograph by Lars Thulin

Cloudberries and cloudless skies

The sunshine, warmth and knowledge that the daylight will last for several weeks gives the whole experience a mellow, unhurried feel I’ve rarely encountered when wilderness skiing, let alone heli-skiing, which is usually a bit of a frantic, nonstop affair. It also gives us time between descents of between 1,600ft and 2,950ft to take photos and admire the views of the truly wild Arctic landscape of northern Scandinavia. And what a view: a perfectly crisp panorama that stretches all the way from the deep blue inlets of Norway’s fjord-riven Atlantic coast past the vast, whaleback peaks surrounding us, on to a wilderness of rolling hills, lakes and low birch forest in the east. All bathed in the golden glow of the Arctic summer.

With around 2,000sq miles of terrain and more than 60 skiable peaks at its disposal, Niehku’s heli-ski operation could have kept us occupied until the sun went down in September, but eventually the fun ends, and we have to fly back to the villa. But the skiing doesn’t have to stop there, because Riksgränsen’s ski lifts and slopes are open until midnight. But they’ll have to wait for another day — there’s the small matter of dinner to attend to.

Even by gourmet Scandinavian standards, Niehku’s menu is exceptional, focusing on regional Arctic produce such as smoked reindeer, Arctic char, local cloudberries and, tonight, moose hunted and shot by Jossi. The international wine list is also remarkable.

Dining at Niehku which specialises in seasonal Arctic ingredients such as smoked reindeer and cloudberries.

Photograph by Mattias Fredriksson

Jossi tells me over dinner that his family have lived in Swedish Lapland for 400 years, working as hunters, fishers and lumberjacks. After spending some years working as a mountain guide in the Alps and North America, he feels that it’s a real privilege to be able to introduce people to some of the world’s wildest ski terrain. “We have so much variation in the landscape, from steep couloirs to open glaciers, as well as in the snow conditions, which vary from early season powder to late season spring snow,” he says.

And then there’s Riksgränsen itself, which I ski the next day with Jossi. Yes, it’s tiny by international standards, with just six lifts, most of them drags, and around 1,000ft of vertical, but this is where — it’s claimed — the first freeride event in the world took place and the world’s first quarter pipe was built. The skiing is excellent and it doesn’t stop on the groomed slopes; a good number of locals only really use the lifts as a means of accessing the extensive backcountry, while freeride and extreme skiing competitions are still a fundamental feature of the Riksgränsen scene.

On my final day, I enjoy more sunny skiing in the resort’s lovely spring snow. I leave myself just about enough time to grab a coffee at the resort’s lone mountain restaurant before my last run. The barista pauses to change the music booming out above the outside deck. A few seconds of silence and then Dancing Queen by Abba is blasted out across the mountains. It couldn’t have been better — great snow, great skiing and, with the addition of Sweden’s gift to the world of pop, a proper Swedish send off. 

How to do it

Niehku Mountain Villa offers three days’ heli-skiing from SEK50,500 (£4,100) per person, including three nights full board, all equipment and guides. niehku.com  

Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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