The view from the summit of 1,230-metre Roaldhorn channels every scenic alpine cliché. First, the deep blue of Storfjord stretching into the distance reminds you that you can ski to the sea from here. Second, unlike Norway's usual flat-topped domes, the rugged Sunnmøre Alps hemming the fjord well-deserve their evocative moniker. Finally, directly below you lies Stranda Skisenter — a powder paradise of high-speed lifts, perfect pistes, a surfeit of wide-open terrain, impressive off-piste... and no humans.
Oscar Almgren well knows this skiers' dream come true. The Swedish guide has not only made it his home, but has singlehandedly parlayed these attributes into a destination du jour for the international ski-touring cognoscenti. Growth has been so explosive that in busy times this spring, Oscar had to hire up to 16 other guides to work for his nascent company, Uteguiden.
We've climbed to the top this morning after a warm storm to find lingering powder, and that we do. As the sun rises, passing veils of high cloud regularly change the chromatic scale like Instagram filters. It's also warming, and, as conditions change, the surrounding peaks become a 3D game board for Oscar, on which moving pieces are groups, guides, vehicles and boats. While I fill my cellphone with photos at the speed you'd pour coffee into a thermos, his own fills with call after call from the field. Of course, things weren't always this busy and the rosy picture isn't without challenges. During ski-touring the previous two days I've extracted the story from Oscar, and later, as we lounge in the sun with coffee outside the Pavilion Roalden on Stranda's main slope overlooking Storfjord, he fills in the blanks.
After finishing his wilderness-guide education at Campus Åre in the eponymous Swedish ski resort, he'd worked for a heli-ski operation before spending a summer as a rafting guide, a job he hoped to return to after a whitewater kayaking sojourn in Uganda with a friend. But checking emails on a small computer at their Ugandan digs one day, sweat stinging his eyes, Oscar found his job had evaporated. Quickly firing out a CV, he landed work at Abisko ski area in northern Sweden where he guided ice climbing, snowshoeing and ski touring. Then a friend at Stranda Skisenter extended an offer to work for ski patrol. He did so for five years, the last few of which he also guided. Though he's been out on his own the past two years, he still helps the ski area with various projects.
Uteguiden took off, largely because the timing was right: more moneyed, travel-savvy people were looking to exotic backcountry destinations, and Oscar actively promoted on the surging upslope of social media, with the good fortune to have the trifecta of Warren Miller, Salomon Freeski TV and Norway's Field Productions visit the first year. Success, however, was less prescient than practical. No soothsayer gazing into the crystal ball of the near-future, Oscar was instead someone with a good grasp of the present. Unlike tradition-burdened Norway, where a national gestalt contra the customer-minded service industry makes adapting to any kind of zeitgeist difficult. It's OK to hang out a sign and wait for someone to call if you repair oil platforms or fish-processing equipment, but it doesn't work for a niche outdoor experience, in which case the newfound levers of digital promotion should be your best friends. Swedes are more proactive in this regard, seeing need and rising to the opportunity. Oscar's efforts have become even more critical because, well, there's trouble in this ski paradise.
The 4,500 citizens of Stranda are an anomaly in having Norway's lowest unemployment rate while being saddled with the country's highest per-capita debt. Some of this accrued when clueless politicians overextended the community-owned ski area with 20 million in modern lifts that put the hill far over capacity (there are only 300 beds) and unable to cover operating costs. Even on a busy Saturday there is no line at the gondola. A glut of private cabins built by well-off fishing and oil types without occupancy stipulations (sounds familiar?) are used only a few weeks a year. Though the ski hill passed from the town's hands (at a huge loss) to private interests, it has no marketing director, and leans increasingly on Oscar for support. Stranda isn't easy to reach, the only end-to-end airport transfer, ferries, and accommodation packages are those Oscar offers his touring groups. In two short years he has become the biggest customer of the town's single hotel. This extends to other businesses as well. When there are too few of us in the hotel for its restaurant to open, the local pizza-and-kebab place we find ourselves in is occupied only by us and a group of Swiss ski-tourers — also here with Oscar.
But while Stranda struggles to find its feet and Uteguiden keeps hiring more, one thing doesn't change: the skiing, which, as I lay long, wide, high-speed turns through perfect snow down towards the water without a single person in sight, still seems like a dream come true.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.
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