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EDGE OF NOWHERE AT THE

During late spring, the sun hardly sets in Sweden’s northern mountains, creating one of the area’s most renowned attributes—Arctic twilight. Purple and red above the Nallo Range. Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

RIKSGRÄNSEN, FREESKIING’S ARCTIC PILGRIMAGE


Words Leslie Anthony

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the near darkness of a twilight blizzard, there’s no mistaking the lights of Riksgränsen.

It’s a long drive through northern Sweden, a dozen hours of rocks, trees and the occasional frightened reindeer. Only the intermittent ski hills erupting from an otherwise ice-flattened landscape have kept us alert, signaling towns and their attendant fuel, food, coffee and toilets. With Riksgränsen, a fabled resort high above the Arctic Circle, it means real mountains and our middle-of-nowhere destination shared with Norway. As we approach, the hotel-village appears as a cruise ship afloat on a storm-tossed sea of snow. Similar to other self-contained montane outposts (Chile’s Portillo comes to mind), its lobby, library, halls, bars and restaurants are lined with historic photos from when Riksgränsen (translation: “the border”) was but a checkpoint on an iron-ore railway to the Norwegian coast: there’s an old roundhouse; the first mountain station built in 1901; shots of early skiers. The most riveting is of a smiling Sami reindeer herder on an enormous pair of wood skis, the snow around him deep and inviting. With the Sami still a major presence in the area, and it being an abundant season, it seems a good omen. Regardless, Sweden’s northernmost ski area remains an odd Mecca for a North American to make a pilgrimage to, but I’ve harbored this desire for years. The easiest approach may be via the airport in the nearby Norwegian port of Narvik, but I’ve chosen the long drive from the Swedish ski resort of Åre with Mattias Fredriksson, who as a young ski bum cut both his big-mountain and photography teeth in Riksgränsen under the tutelage of icon Lars Thulin. Not only are we replicating the annual spring migration of young Swedish freeriders to the resort, but also of those who recognize its storied place in the annals of modern ski history.

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t may be famous in the ski world, but Riksgränsen wouldn’t be here without the Swedish mining town of Kiruna, more than an hour to the east. Kiruna is perched atop one of the world’s largest iron deposits, and to transport the ore they built a railroad from Sweden into Norway and the ice-free harbor in Narvik. Officials at the border checkpoint dwelt in isolation, and there was little else to do between trains but ski. Eventually they began to rent rooms to other skiers, but it wasn’t until after World War II that people thought to build lifts. The mountain was big and bold, and with a

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season that stretched long into June, also a novelty. It soon became northern Europe’s most important ski area, drawing outsiders and trendsetters. It was, however, so far off the beaten path that it couldn’t really host alpine race competitions, immediately making it a freeride destination, a place where pro mogul skiers, ex-racers, or those who’d wrapped winter in the Alps all congregated for a season-ender of fun and frolic. In the 1970s it was a vibrant hot-dog freestyle destination; in the ’80s, a snowboarding ground zero. In the 1990s, it hosted some of the first ski and snowboard freeride competitions, a scene propelled by film of Jesper Rönnbäck’s infamous jump over an iron train. Skiers and boarders built their own hits on natural wind-lips, halfpipes and other features. One of these, the Riksgränsen quarterpipe, was featured on dozens of snow-sport magazine covers in the late ’90s. Those covers were a sensation at the time, with a story of people and place behind each, and I’d wanted to know both. At least one of those will have to wait, however, when we awake to a storm so intense it closes both the lifts and the road. As a writer, I consider the weather somewhat fortuitous—given that we’re with Swedish freeski kingpin Henrik Windstedt and Riksgränsen legend Janne Aikio, I’ll learn plenty about this crucible before I even set foot on snow. As the boys spin memories for us in the library, the clouds lift outside, bathing Riksgränsen’s alpine faces in a strange Arctic light. Soon, through floor-to-ceiling windows we’re witnessing skiers tearing up powdery bowls, laying it over on the pistes, throwing flips off cornices. It’s a billboard for the resort’s potent draw—a little bit Alaska, a little bit Alps, a whole lot of fun. Interviews are suspended as we rush to the exits. Riksgränsen’s unique character is something you can really only understand from a distance on a clear day. Driving from Kiruna, a low sweep of moonscape mountains abruptly takes over the horizon, the treeline sliding ever lower as you pass Abisko National Park, northern Europe’s last unspoiled wilderness. Turning a final corner, Riksgränsen’s entire alpine drama is revealed: rounded, flattish summits looming over steep-walled faces, all riven by convoluted, corniced valleys. And with no trees for reference, visibility is almost more important than snow conditions.

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“Klumpen is one of the classic zones in Riksgränsen, a feature-filled run with cornices, gaps and natural jumps. This cornice was the biggest that formed on Klumpen in 2016, and Henrik Windstedt sent it with the majority of the resort as a backdrop.” Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

Henrik Jansson boosts out of the King of the Hill’s hand-dug halfpipe in 1998. Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON


RIGHT • The venue for Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships [SBMC] is called Nordalsfjell. It’s a steep, cliffy face on the backside of the resort, and competitors must hike it every run—one year it was 1,392 steps, as Henrik Windstedt remembers. Skiers scout their lines on Nordalsfjell during the SBMC in the early 2000s. Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

We wait patiently at the top of the one open lift, watching the waifish sun through thinning clouds. Those who know the area well slink off into the fog to be rewarded with huge, empty powder fields. When the clouds do lift, the ensuing powder frenzy is worthy of a major resort like Whistler. The steep, impeccably groomed pistes are completely devoid of humans—in a reversal of the European norm, almost everyone here skis off-piste. It storms the next two days, and to escape the increasingly packed hotel, we decide to make the two-hour drive to Narvik to hit the local ski area. There, we meet up with one of Mattias’ old coworkers at the Riksgränsen Hotel, Micke Ekenstam, who takes us out of bounds for a foggy, knee-deep powder run. Soon the sky clears, revealing the metallic waters of Narvik Fjord—and the town’s dockside heavy-industry infrastructure—just as we begin skinning from the top of an old double chair. Our original objective proves to be full of avalanche debris, so we opt to ski pow runs in the gloaming while the sun, soon obscured, slides into oblivion.

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ith exploration now a mission, the next afternoon Janne Aikio takes me on a looping, impromptu journey from the highest chairlift at Riksgränsen. Skating, poling and herringboning across rocky, wind-battered summits into Norway, we ultimately pick our way down an avalanche slope in the Bjornfjell area, ending at the spot where riders once spent two weeks digging Riksgränsen’s first globally notorious quarterpipe by hand. As we stand in silence, Aikio stares at the hillside where hundreds of spectators sat. “I can still hear the roar of the crowd,” he says with a faraway smile. With the backdrop before me burned into my memory, I can almost hear it, too. Aikio grew up skiing on the much smaller local hill in Kiruna. Once a paved road to Riksgränsen opened in the mid-’80s he made the drive as often as possible, and then began spending a few weeks each spring to session jumps with his snowboard friends. Eventually, he cut the commute and moved here. “It seemed natural because the season was long and there was so much snow,” he says. “But also because the mountain’s formations made it like a big terrain park.”


LEFT • Henrik Windstedt is a heavy-hitter worldwide, but much of his early success came at Riksgränsen, where he has a record of six victories at SBMC. Windstedt airs the course’s biggest cliff in 2002 for the win. Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

BELOW • While the New Canadian Air Force would become the face of freeskiing, Jann Aikio’s air at the 1996 King of the Hill competition would become one of the movement’s earliest iconic images. Aikio in 2016. Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

Bjornfjell indeed looks like a natural park with rolls, ribs, cornices and steep landings everywhere. In May 1996, Riksgränsen ski bum Robert Gustafsson organized a multi-event snowboard competition called King of the Hill. A snowboarding friend asked Aikio if he could forerun the quarterpipe on skis, but Aikio missed the practice session while cleaning hotel rooms and reached the quarterpipe after the pro snowboarders had warmed up. Without knowing how high people were jumping or where the best drop-in point was, Aikio chose a spot 150 feet above the snowboard start. It would be the hit seen around the world. “People told me afterward that I put pressure on the snowboarders, but I didn’t know it at the time because I was just there to do someone a favor and have fun,” Aikio says. “Before I dropped in, I remember thinking, ‘Am I calculating this right?’ I was pretty nervous and the in-run was sketchy so I was forced to do a little cliff jump to gain speed to get into the track. The compression hit my body like a wall, but I tried to remain calm and focused in the air. I didn’t do a grab because I just wanted to land. I heard cheering, so I knew I’d done something good.” Not just good, but unprecedented: boosting 23 feet into the air on his one and only hit, Aikio set the bar high. It took Ingemar Backman six tries and a longer snowboard to max out at 28 feet, a world record at the time. German Richard Walch got the shot of Aikio, which would appear on the cover of the November 1996 issue of Powder Magazine, and ripple around the globe as a clarion call to freeskiers everywhere. “I was moving south from Kiruna to Åre that fall,” recalls Aikio. “I had a cell phone, and as I was driving, one of the editors from [Swedish ski mag] Åka Skidor called and said, ‘Hey, you’re on the cover of Powder!’ Of course I didn’t believe him. But when he insisted, I almost drove off the road.”

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very aspect of the ski scene was blowing up in Norway, Sweden and Finland during the 1990s, and groups of skiers would gather at Riksgränsen each spring, often taking the overnight train from Stockholm. It was only logical that friendly competitions like King of the Hill would spring up, and soon the Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships—first held in 1992 as the instantly iconic and certifiably mad Nordic Extreme Championships—became a significant draw on its own. With both Internet and ski movies almost nonexistent at that point, Riksgränsen was but a name in a magazine to

young aspiring skier Henrik Windstedt. His first trip there was as a 12-year-old vacationing with his family in 1996. “I already knew it was a holy place, and my idols Janne Aikio and Jesper Rönnbäck were there the same week,” Windstedt says. “I saw them doing these huge gap jumps and flips and I was blown away. I didn’t have any friends to ski with so I taught myself a 360 and skied under the lift to try and impress them.” All Windstedt really knew was that people came up here and partied and skied hard for a month, and he was determined to find out why. “On my first run, I wiped out on a wind compression,” he recalls, “but I quickly learned how to use those features for fun. We had a really good weather week and one day my sister and I went for a cross-country tour. By the railway tracks we saw ‘the idols’ taking down a kicker they’d used to jump over the iron train the night before. I stood in their bomb holes—I was so stoked.” At the time, Windstedt was just getting into the mogul scene, and back home in Åre, his coach got word from freerider friends in Riks that they’d seen one of his kids doing passable 360s. “It was like the trip to Riksgränsen actually got better after it was over,” Windstedt says. He returned for a week-long stint the following February, and has been back every year since. “My parents didn’t allow me to do any comps until 1999, when I was 15 and did the three-day King of the Hill,” he says. “I won and it was my international breakthrough. All the big names were here that year—Jon Olsson, Candide Thovex, the New Canadian Air Force guys—so we were all just shredding quarterpipe, slopestyle, skiercross. I did my first freeride comp the next year, and won my first Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships in 2001.”

Riksgränsen, Sweden

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ABOVE • From hot-dogging in the 1970s to the first SBMC in 1992 to Jesper Rönnbäck’s gap of the local iron ore train in 1995, Riksgränsen has always been a bastion of progression. Photo: CALLE ERIKSSON RIGHT • Until 1915, steam locomotives were used to transport ore between the iron mines in Kiruna, Sweden to the ice-free harbor of Narvik, Norway. These often got stuck in Riksgränsen’s enormous snow drifts. So in 1915, the line became the first electrified railroad in Sweden, able to handle larger snowplows, like this one in 1925. Photo: BORG MESCH/ RIKSGRÄNSEN ARCHIVES OPPOSITE PAGE • JP Auclair styles out his signature mute grab in the halfpipe at the 1998 King of the Hill. JP was a regular at the resort, so much so that for the past two years a memorial contest has been held there in his honor. Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

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RIGHT • “The heli skiing in the mountains just south of Riksgränsen is impressive: There are more than 100 skiable peaks with runs up to nearly 5,000 vertical feet, and in the spring you can even rip them at midnight. Leo Ahrens drops into a big line in the Nallo area of the Kebnekaise Massif, about 30 minutes from the resort.” Photo: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

With 180 participants across several classes, the SBMC was by then a benchmark for Scandinavian skiers. “If you wanted to place top-10 you had to ski the best you’d ever skied and take some chances,” Windstedt says. “But it was such a good vibe during the event that people went for it. The easiest way into the industry is to win a big contest, and if you did well in this one, people knew you were good.” He should know, having won it seven times over while also becoming a two-time Freeride World Tour Champion. “The coolest part is that over 20 years later it still brings together the pros and the ski bums and everyone in between to ski together,” he says. “If you want to be part of the ski scene in Scandinavia, you almost have to be here. You could read magazines and try and figure out what that scene was all about, but if you came to Riks you were in it.” It’s an end-of-season goal of many to return to Riksgränsen and do well. Conditions change every year—sometimes frozen crud, others slushy or full-on powder; sometimes one run on a super-small face, other years four runs with a qualifier. “The venue, Nordals, is 650 feet high and 50 degrees in the steepest part, so you can’t hesitate,” Windstedt says. “When international freeriders come, they tend to ski it slow during inspection because it’s scary. A 15-20-minute bootpack gets you to the top and you have a choice of steep technical lines or long open runs. It was 1,392 steps one year—I counted. And during the comp week, you hike it maybe 15 times.”

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ikio’s and Windstedt’s stories reveal a lot to us, and anything missing is filled in by other Riksgränsen characters and legends I meet. Patrik Strumpen, for instance, was there the day of Aikio’s infamous jump. He also competed in the SBMC several times, and watched Windstedt develop on the slopes of Riksgränsen. Now in his 31st season here, the congenial owner of the four-star Meteorlogen ski lodge and

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restaurant also happened to be Sweden’s Sommelier of the Year in 2004 and 2014. The building itself has an interesting history. Beginning as a weather station in 1925, it was eventually decommissioned to become much-needed staff housing for the resort. Strumpen actually lived there as an employee with friend and SBMC founder Robert Gustafsson, who would later help Strumpen found Meteorologen before subsequently selling his share and going on to manage Riksgränsen for a few years. Gustafsson still puts on the SBMC every year and it’s still as big as ever, but the fun-and-frolic torch of Riksgränsen is being sparked anew these days by other gatherings. The first incarnation of the Armada-sponsored JP Memorial, a tribute to the late JP Auclair—who put in his own fair share of time here—took place in May 2015. Advertised as a ’90s throwback event (all recordings are encouraged to be analog), it promises good times the way JP would have liked them, sun, rain or ice pellets withstanding. In the lounge at Meteorologen, I sit down for a glass of wine one day with guide Stefan Palm and his wife Pia, a twotime women’s Big Mountain winner. The couple is well-known around these parts despite currently residing in Chamonix. Stefan is here to lead heli-skiing clients, a burgeoning industry and another of Riksgränsen’s draws. He and Pia join Fredriksson and I for an end-of-day climb up Nordals. To the west rises another set of formidable mountains, bathed in a fiery purple sunset. One is Sweden’s highest, the 6,909-foot Kebnekaise, where Mattias and I will spend the next week ski-mountaineering from a remote lodge accessed only by snowmobiling Samis. But that’s later. As we walk up, for now we’re content to hear Stefan tell stories of the early days. Breaking onto the flattened summit we’re washed by beautiful afternoon light, and Palm pauses in his tracks. “You have to feel something from the light up here,” he says. “It’s a really different, really special kind of thing.”

The Ski Journal

The Ski Journal

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Profile for Leslie Anthony

The Ski Journal/At the Edge of Nowhere  

High above the Arctic Circle in Sweden lies a world-famous outpost that, despite virtual invisibility, still sends ripples through the ski w...

The Ski Journal/At the Edge of Nowhere  

High above the Arctic Circle in Sweden lies a world-famous outpost that, despite virtual invisibility, still sends ripples through the ski w...

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