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Backcountry skiing in the Norwegian mountains

Christian Reimers

Man skiing on mountain
Man skiing on mountain

Article and project: Marco Storm Braskov & Liv Thorsted
Published: 15/10 2023
Theme: The Lindbergh Community

We went to Norway to visit outdoor enthusiast Christian Reimers and had a chat about what motivated him to uproot his life with his family in pursuit of a lifestyle that combines a love for skiing and nature with an exciting career.

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Interview

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Christian Reimers, and I'm Danish, but I live in Harstad, Northern Norway. I've been living here with my family for four years now. I work at the Arctic University in Norway, specifically at the business school. I started as a university lecturer and am now pursuing a doctoral degree, a Ph.D. I research organizational theory and human resource management and am interested in how organizations and companies evolve and impact regional contexts.

But another significant reason we are in Northern Norway is that I've always been extremely fond of winter, skiing, mountains, and wild nature.

I grew up in Copenhagen and was shaped by city life, but I've always been drawn to rural areas and have occasionally settled in small mountainous regions, often with skiing in mind. So that's why we're here, to find a balance in a smaller place between an interesting job and opportunities for nature, wilderness, and skiing right outside our door.

- Christian is wearing a plaid shirt and a white t-shirt

Man reading map
I've been skiing since I was very young, but for the first many years, it was just a couple of weeks a year in Sweden, like many normal Danish families did.

- Christian Reimers

Have you always had a drive to travel and experience things?

I've been skiing since I was very young, but for the first many years, it was just a couple of weeks a year in Sweden, like many normal Danish families did.

My father worked in Sweden and had access to a lot of mountain cabins through his job, which we often borrowed. At the same time, we had our own cabin in Sweden a few hours from Copenhagen, deep in the forest by the shore of a lake. So, I grew up with Swedish nature both in winter and summer and have always been incredibly fond of the contrast between living in a completely normal suburban neighborhood in the outskirts of Copenhagen and the wild nature in Sweden, where there was winter, skiing, and adventure in the wilderness. I found that exciting from a very young age.

I had a cousin who went to the Alps for a gap year after school. He was about 6-7 years older than me, and I thought he was super cool. So it became clear to me early on that it was something you could do – go to the Alps and ski all day long. I was, therefore, completely convinced at an early age that it was something I should do when I was old enough.

So when I finished high school, I went to St. Anton in the Austrian Alps to work and ski. I did that for several winters and worked in Copenhagen during the summers. I alternated between the two but with the goal of spending as much time in the mountains and as much time skiing as possible.

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Man i jacket

And it has pretty much continued like that. At some point, it became more about nature and outdoor life in general. I started guiding in Greenland while studying at the university and went there for fieldwork several times. I was extremely fascinated by Greenland, Greenlandic culture, and life in the Arctic. I ended up living there for a couple of years, where we had dog sleds and did a lot of backcountry skiing.

The fascination with the Arctic and mountains has always been there. As early as I can remember, I read these expedition stories from the exploration of the polar regions 100-150 years ago. All the great polar expeditions. The Norwegian ones with Nansen and Amundsen, but also the Danish ones with Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen, Ejnar Mikkelsen, Jørgen Brønlund, and so on.

In one way or another, it has always stimulated my imagination with these mountainous wilderness areas. I've pursued that interest, of course, in a somewhat safer way when compared to the major expeditions. Now I do it in a more moderate way with skiing – sometimes a bit more adventurous and other times on a smaller scale with my family and children. I have two daughters, 6 and 9 years old, whom I spend a lot of time with in the mountains.

Combining a good and safe family life with the wilder opportunities in the mountains is something I think we achieve here in Northern Norway in a way I haven't quite seen elsewhere.

- Christian is wearing a plaid shirt, white t-shirt og black chinos.

Man in shirt
Norwegian mountains
Norwegian mountains

What made you move your family to the wild nature of Northern Norway and away from the Danish city life?

I met my wife just before I was offered a job in Greenland. She was just as fascinated by it as I was and moved with me. We lived together up there for a couple of years and greatly appreciated the mountain opportunities. It was a huge adventure for us, but for various reasons, including work, we eventually moved back to Copenhagen. There, I had somewhat put mountains and winter on hold and was perhaps more average in my approach, with a bit of skiing or hiking trips a couple of times a year.

Then, when we had children, there was a period where we were somewhat limited in terms of the mountain activities I had previously been involved in. But somehow, it always lingered in the back of my mind that one day I would move with my family to a place with better opportunities for everyday adventures in the mountains.

Fortunately, my wife thought it was a good idea too, so we quickly agreed that when the time was right and it made practical sense for our children and work, we intended to pursue it. We loved Greenland in every way and still do, but in terms of school, education, and work, we thought a slightly larger city in Northern Norway was more interesting.

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Couple
Norway
Norwegian mountains
Norwegian mountains

Northern Norway has something special, the way Norway develops remote areas, as opposed to what I perceive to be the approach in Denmark. In Denmark, there may have been more direct centralization of many basic facilities and institutions in remote areas. This is less common in Norway, perhaps because of the geographical conditions. A city like Harstad, where we live, is a modern city with a wealth of cultural and educational institutions and a resource-rich local community. We found that very attractive as a family with children. Being able to combine the things we love without compromising on other aspects of life. Harstad is a city that places a strong focus on making it attractive for families with young children to settle down. It fits incredibly well with where we are in life.

What's the climate like up here, and how are the different seasons?

There's another contrast associated with the seasons up here that we find incredibly exciting. There are extreme conditions both in summer and winter in the Arctic. Locally in Harstad, we have a slightly more coastal climate. It's a bit warmer than the Arctic average due to the Gulf Stream, but there's still a winter that lasts at least half a year. We find that quite nice. At the same time, we are so far north that there is both midnight sun and winter darkness for almost two months, both in summer and winter. That means there is a huge contrast over the year from a very Arctic, dark, and cold period to a short but extremely productive, lush, and bright summer period. I thrive in such contrasts.

It also means that when you live up here, you're constantly in a transitional period, moving into a new season. And with new seasons come new activities and new things to do.

What can one experience in Harstad, and what is unique about the area? 

We have found that people up here typically have a wide range of interests that align with the different seasons. The seasons follow one another throughout the year. In the autumn, the lakes up in the mountains freeze early, and people start ice skating. This is followed by the first snowfall in November or December, when people begin cross-country skiing. At some point, there's enough snow for backcountry skiing and alpine skiing, and that's followed by a spring where the snow first disappears from the low-lying areas and the areas along the coast toward the Lofoten Islands. Then, people start focusing on trail running, climbing, or cycling. There are excellent opportunities for mountain biking in the mountain terrain, and the local cycling club has managed to establish a world-class bike park.

The fact that outdoor activities correspond to the seasonal opportunities means that you never really have time to get stuck or think, "Oh, now it's getting dark" or "Oh, now it's something else." Because you're always looking forward to the start of the cycling season or the start of the cross-country skiing season, and it suits my temperament to have a year-round rotation like that.

Man in snow
Man in car
Man in car
Man with skiis

How do you best prepare for a backcountry ski trip, and what does it entail?

Backcountry skiing is something we do a lot, especially in the last months of winter when the backcountry season is at its peak. It's when the daylight starts returning while there's still plenty of snow in the mountains. In Northern Norway, there are many small alpine resorts around these small towns, and there are larger resorts in Narvik.

But a big part of the attraction is to get out into these mountains where there aren't many people and no groomed slopes. Locally in Harstad, there are plenty of people who ski, but most of it is outside the alpine terrain. Currently, backcountry activities are booming. It actually aligns quite well with a recent project by a prominent Norwegian skier named Nikolaj Schirmer, who initiated a project called "Save Our Winters," emphasizing the paradox that these large ski resorts are highly energy-consuming to maintain, contributing to shorter and shorter winters. Hence, there is significant interest in returning to the basics.

Walking up the mountain by your own power – or "egen maskin" as they say in Norway – and skiing down is attracting many newcomers to the sport these days, something we do a lot and thoroughly enjoy.

Of course, it's clear that this becomes a different type of activity. You must truly enjoy hiking uphill for hours and a relatively short downhill run. It becomes more of an experience where you are immersed in nature on its terms and a physically demanding activity. Backcountry skiing essentially involves having special skins and bindings that allow you to walk uphill with your heel free, without sliding backward. Then, you can secure your heel and remove the skins to ski down in deep snow, similar to regular alpine skiing, once you've reached the summit.

- Christian is wearing a beige fleece jumper og knitted beanie

Man on mountain

The balance between skiing itself and the more physically demanding activity is different from what the typical Danish ski tourist might be used to in European ski resorts. However, we find it incredibly exciting. This also means that you often venture into mountain terrain where there are risks, and help is far away if something goes wrong. It requires some knowledge and thorough preparation for the chosen trip.

For example, it's not possible to regulate avalanche danger everywhere in a wilderness area like this. Avalanches are a very real risk, and people die in avalanches in this area every year. So, it's crucial to take it seriously. This involves being well-informed about wind, weather, and the nature of the terrain. It involves understanding the weather history. How has the snowfall been? Where has the wind come from? What has the temperature development been recently? This is necessary to make an assessment of the current snow structure and, therefore, an assessment of the day's avalanche risk. We use these assessments to choose which backcountry ski trip may be safe to undertake on a particular day.

Of course, it's clear that this becomes a different type of activity. You must truly enjoy hiking uphill for hours and a relatively short downhill run. It becomes more of an experience where you are immersed in nature on its terms and a physically demanding activity.

- Christian Reimers

Man Skiing
Man Skiing
Man Skiing
Man on mountain
Man on mountain

What should one specifically know before embarking on a backcountry ski trip?

Based on knowledge of temperature, wind, sun, precipitation, and the historical development of the snow layers, you assess whether it's safe, for example, to go up through a valley or if it's better to stick to a ridge formation. Or whether it's best to stay in terrain with less steep slopes or if the conditions are safe enough to venture into steeper terrain. It's about thoroughly orienting yourself and then planning a route that matches the current risk profile.

It naturally requires some skills and knowledge, but it's something you gradually build up over time.

In addition, there are some fundamental mountain behavior rules that it's wise to adhere to. Things like typically traveling in a group and rarely going alone. Always carrying avalanche safety equipment so you can locate each other if needed.

All this knowledge of terrain, mountain behavior, and equipment is an additional dimension to regular alpine skiing, which I find interesting. It means that you have a different perspective on the mountain and nature when you move through it this way.

mountain
man on mountain
man on mountain

How does backcountry skiing differ from other activities?

It's like when you're dog sledding in Greenland, you look at the mountain in a special way because you're orienting yourself around where it's possible to move. How can I get the dogs and the sled over this terrain? Up this mountain ridge? What would be safe for everyone? That combination of having a specific activity and equipment that enables the activity gives you a unique perspective on the mountain, which I find fascinating.

Of course, the nature up here stimulates the senses, and a day in the mountains is always incredibly beautiful, filled with natural aesthetics and out-of-body experiences. But for me, it's also tied to a specific way of approaching the mountain because I have an activity that requires me to understand how I can get to the summit fastest. Or what's a safe route for today? It becomes very practical. You read nature in a different way with that in mind, and it changes your focus when you're in nature, as you're engaged in an activity within it. It does a lot for me.

I also appreciate the aesthetics of nature and its beauty immensely, but in combination with having a specific activity, it means that I can detach myself from everyday life, which ultimately is what you do when you move around in nature

It's a kind of escapism; you move out of the everyday routine, immerse yourself in a different context, and give your mind the opportunity to follow different tracks undisturbed. For me, that's what happens when I approach the mountain this way, where all the other things that can occupy your mind in daily life are removed.

Man on mountain
Man on mountain
I also appreciate the aesthetics of nature and its beauty immensely, but in combination with having a specific activity, it means that I can detach myself from everyday life, which ultimately is what you do when you move around in nature.

- Christian Reimers

Man on mountain
Man on mountain
Man on mountain

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