Riksgränsen: Scandinavian Strut

Big air and Bacchanalia get equal play above the Arctic Circle

Nov 1, 2003
Outside Magazine
The Facts

Summit Elevation: 3,447 feet
Vertical: 1,807 feet
Skiable Area: 700 acres
Annual Snowfall: 315 inches
Price: An all-day lift ticket costs $32
When to Go: The resort opens in February and closes in late June, with the best powder falling in late March/early April, and 24 hours of sun by mid-May
Contact: 011-46-980-400-80, www.riksgransen.nu

"THAT'S RIGHT BABY! You know what I like! Kill me now!" the lead singer of Riksgränsen Hotell's employee band screams into the mike. A sweaty knot of drunken snowboarders slam-dance at his feet, tackling one another to the beer-soaked floor. Everyone is fired up from competing in today's Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships, an extreme freeriding contest, but Grönan isn't like any hotel bar I've ever been to. Black shades are drawn over the windows, because it's endless spring 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle and the sun hasn't touched the horizon for weeks.

A tiny oasis in the vast expanse of Sweden's glacier-carved Lapland wilderness, 625 miles north of Stockholm, Riksgränsen is a cluster of about 20 red-painted wooden buildings with one small market and one hotel. This motley assemblage crowds the edge of Lake Vassiljaure, backed by 5,000-foot mountains rising to the south. For years I've heard rabid skiers and boarders throughout Europe whisper about the surreal feeling of skiing under the midnight sun on Riksgränsen's monolithic, Sierra-like snow, and a quick pass through the bar reveals that they're all here. Various groups of Northern Europeans, plus some Frenchmen and a couple of Nicaraguans, are sporting dreadlocks, nose rings, and tight-fitting T-shirts with cheeky sayings.

This is an athlete's resort, where skiers and boarders come to take full advantage of the long days and the maritime climate—315 inches of snowfall annually. Spring skiing is what Riksgränsen is famous for, and on the weekends the lifts shut down at 1 a.m. Everyone heads out onto the slopes after dinner, and on sunny days the mountain swarms with crowds dressed in Speedos and drinking chilled shots of licorice schnapps. Despite being almost 100 miles north of any tree I might hit, I enlist a guide, Pär Lövgren (a.k.a. Pancho Snowfall), to keep me from winging off the resort's unmarked cliffs and into crevasses. "I haven't touched a ski pole in ten years," Pancho confesses on the lift. I follow his advice, ditch the poles, and use my upper body like a snowboarder. After following Pancho's waving arms for a couple of runs, I tune in to the reckless spirit of the place and strike out on my own.

In a comic twist of rainy weather and jet lag, I never get to see the Big Mountain Championships competitors do their stuff. Instead, I spend the week becoming increasingly obsessed with carving up the slush on my own little "big mountain" course on Klumpen, an off-piste black-diamond run off Nedre Stolliften, the chairlift by the lodge. As the sun spins overhead in a circle, I zoom through the natural-terrain park and get into a rhythmic trance. That's right, baby. You know what I like.

To reach the steep chutes and open faces that provide the setting every May for the Scandinavian Big Mountain Championships, hike 500 feet up Nordalsfjäll, off the resort's back side.

Life in this town buzzes around the 164-room, three-story Riksgränsen Hotell, with guests lounging in the couch-lined halls and gathering in the bar for thumping DJ music. Rates: $400 per person for four nights, which includes three days of lift tickets and enormous breakfasts.

The hotel restaurant, Lapplandia, serves Swedish classics like moose and reindeer, with a surprisingly big wine list.

Internationally certified guides lead clients down 3,000-foot runs off several nearby peaks. The best deal costs $230 per person for three helicopter flights.

Fly from Stockholm to Kiruna on SAS ($240; 800-221-2350, www.scandinavian.net), then take the train ($12 one way; 011-46-862-950-00, www.lappland.se), or rent a car and drive 70 miles northwest on Highway E10.