Joe Schuster, Riley Leboe, MIke Henitiuk, and Matt Margetts pack their bags and head North for the trip of a lifetime
This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List
words:: Riley Leboe
I tie off a rope to a cleat on the ship’s deck, wrapping it in a figure eight motion, ensuring it holds. Up the 18-metre mast, the air fills our sail with the energy of a giant carpet being shaken clean. Aslak, our captain, barks earnest orders for us to, “raise the main and hoist the jib”. We then trimmed the massive lofting sail of Framstig, his 1914 wooden ‘ketch’, or twin mast sailboat, tight till the wind caught. The possibility of being flung overboard in the turbulent sloshing of the Norwegian Sea is an unconventional peril for a ski trip.
We are under sail, travelling up Romsdalfjord in the Romsdal area of coastal northwest Norway. The fjords are lined with mountains so high, it feels as though they create a canopy overhead. It is otherworldly. We hope to bag one of the region’s big game couloirs that run like stripes between the sheer rock formations. Across the deck, Joe Schuster, Matt Margetts and Mike Henitiuk are smiling and wide-eyed, mirroring my excitement and disbelief. Gathering with Aslak at the helm, sitting under a century-old canvas, it’s clear the journey ahead will be awash with new experiences.
The weathered boards creak with each wind change, as though calling out to us with tales of the past. Aslak begins telling us Framstig’s saga from across the seven seas. Still in his late 20s, Aslak comes from a line of explorers; his father salvaged the vessel we are on from a shipwreck, resurrecting her to sail around the world through the 1980s. Aslak points to artifacts: masks, a spear, and photos all collected during the circumnavigation. The spear, he explains, was a gift from a tribe in the Solomon Islands, that supposedly had taken a life.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Aslak has started his world travels aboard Framstig, cutting his teeth on the unforgiving seas surrounding Norway, the UK and Europe. The depth of the connection he and the Romsdal locals have to the ocean makes you wonder if they have seawater running through their veins. Emboldened by lore of navigating lost islands and harrowing crossings, we share stories of our own travels, and connect with our experienced captain, cementing a new friendship with the likeminded seeker.
After running downwind a couple of hours under a shower of rose beam lights from the sky as the sun makes its way closer to the horizon, we lay anchor at our moorage in a sheltered cove for the night. We spread a series of topographical maps on the galley table; the tight contour lines confirming the steepness of our surroundings. Contemplating the vastness of this glacially carved landscape, we pick out potential couloirs in the coastal maze.
The following morning, gear assembled, we step off Framstig and onto dry land (and snow) to begin the ascent to our first chute. For us, each step on the lengthy approach is new; there is thrill in that unknown.
Gaining the summit ridge in sweat-soaked layers, we arrive at the crux of the approach. We pull a rope, set gear and mull over the nuances of the rappel to the entrance of the couloir. Looking down the exposure, a mix of snow shelves and sheer cliff face, my clammy hands clip in my belay device and I begin the rappel. My skis periodically bounce off protruding rocks sending jolts of adrenaline with each unbalanced move. Taking a moment to calm my nerves, I look around at the panoramic view of mountain peaks and disappearing horizon line of the open ocean.
After surviving the scramble to reach the line, Margetts indicates that after our touch-and-go rappel entrance, his nerves are ready and the skiing is the last thing he’s worried about now. Clicking into my bindings, I also find refuge in the familiar feeling of snow. We enjoy excellent corn snow turns down to the large basin below. As we ski back to Framstig, floating in the cove, I reflect on the surreal first endeavor of the trip. Aslak greets us on deck and we cheers a round of Hansa, a local Norwegian beer, to the successful 16-kilometre, 1400-metre day.
The sun retires, and we start a fire a short distance from the boat. Aslak yells up something about leftovers to cook over the fire and approaches us with plastic bags hanging heavily in each hand. Smirking, he reaches into a bag and pulls out a sheep’s skull, split down the middle from crown to chin, and informs us that this often-overlooked smoked delicacy holds some of the most tender meat on the furry ruminant. I try a piece of tongue. He wasn’t wrong.
In short order we are acting like kids, daring Schuster to eat the eyeball. Popping it into his mouth, nearly gagging, he chokes the eyeball down amidst peals of laughter from onlookers around the campfire. Sitting under a clear night sky, trading stories while picking at morsels over the open fire, we discuss time travelling to far-off places physically and mentally and seeking out new experiences. Feeling connected to the location and events that unfolded, I wonder to myself if the Vikings may have been staring out into the universe from this same cove millennia ago.
We enjoyed several days of alpenglow turns and stunning vistas before travelling east to approach our most ambitious line: a 700-metre couloir off the northeast face of Ryssdalsnebba, a peak that rises 1618 metres from the sea. As we tour up the Sunnmore Valley, a cloudy ceiling quickly descends upon us. Reaching our entrance after the four-hour tour, we find ourselves encased in heavy fog and blowing snow. With rimed faces and hoods donned, we assemble our shovels to tunnel through the remaining few feet of cornice to see down the line. The thick fog doesn’t provide any reassurance of safety. Standing on the edge of our objective, hoping for a change in weather, we watch the storm intensify, eventually forcing our hand. Disappointed and defeated, we ski down our skin track to reassess the plan for our fleeting time left in Norway.
The next morning, our final day, we all feel a bit anxious after having been rejected on the edge of a bucket list line the day prior. We decide to try again, and as we approach our previous turnaround point, the weather starts to improve–a much-needed stroke of luck. Walking up the ridge to guide Margetts into the narrow, supported entrance, I can hear the relief in his voice over the radio as he looks down the line. Traversing under the cornice, he places a couple of tight turns, his slough pouring beside him as he starts the descent. Being the fourth skier down, with much of the new snow already slid off, I notice the crystal blue sheen of the ice running down the center of the couloir, and cautiously carve turns between the cavernous walls.
Exiting the couloir, lungs burning, a sense of calm washes over me after a focus-fueled descent. As I ski toward the group, Henitiuk is reclined; smiling while massaging out the lactic acid running though his thighs after what he claims was one of the best lines of his life. There are now but a few clouds in the sky. Victory is ours, this time.
Sailing off with the couloir in the distance and reveling in the success of the day, it feels as though the journey has just begun. As much as we enjoyed each ski descent, it was the moments in between the turns that are most ingrained in us. We filled in some new spaces on our map, and while we feel fortunate to write a new chapter in Framstig’s extensive book of adventures, we also recognize that we’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible in this region. Looking down the fjord, the open ocean still calls. Sitting on the weathered boards once again, we want nothing more than to continue sailing around the next corner, up the next fjord. With an ocean of possibilities on the horizon, the only thing on my mind is what the next adventure has in store. —ML