In praise of Vårvinter 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - SPRING WINTER How's vårvinter looking in your neighbourhood? Last week in Swedish Lapland near the town of Abisko.
  • SPRING WINTER How's vårvinter looking in your neighbourhood? Last week in Swedish Lapland near the town of Abisko.

It has been exactly five years since I kicked off this column in Pique with the tale of a week of ski-touring from a two-masted, 24-metre, wooden ketch around Stjernøya (Star Island) in the far north of Norway, hundreds of kilometres above the Arctic Circle ("Star Power," May 22, 2014).

The touring on that trip was varied but superb, most of it map-in-hand exploration, its daily theme a half-day tour followed by a single, 1,000-or-so-metre descent from a nameless summit in perfect weather—a spell of bluebird warmth unprecedented for late May so far north. After each day out, we'd Zodiac back to the mothership, jump into the ocean to cool and cleanse our sweaty bodies, then lounge on deck with beers while tracking dolphins, whales and sea eagles, and ogling ski lines on the horizon. Though most of us were veterans of enjoying Norway's significant mountain bounty during the winter, after only a day of skiing off the boat we'd all had the same thought: this was the best trip ever.

Since the mountains that far north are generally low, a lot of the appeal and stellar conditions had to do with the interaction of latitude and time of year. Here, the well-settled maritime snowpack lingered lower and longer in the fjords, with the added bonus of being relatively safe, our quotidian missions enriched by days that stretched past midnight, with only a dusky blue, three-hour twilight before the sun rose again.

So addictive was this combination that few of us who were on that trip have missed a year of far-north spring skiing since. While most in North America are done with sliding by this point (exceptions being the ski-mountaineering crew in the Rockies, and, at least last week, the California Sierra), the circumpolar second season is just beginning, and airports in Ottawa, Oslo, Stockholm and Reykjavik bustle with folks dragging ski bags northward. Instagram feeds at this time of year are packed with reports of touring, ski-mountaineering and heli-skiing from Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland's Westfjords and Akureyri region, the Abisko, Riksgrånsen and Kebnekaise lodges of Sweden, and Norway's Stjernøya, Lyngen Alps and high-Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. No small number of these folks are on boat-ski trips like the one I wrote of, all lured by something captured in the delightful Swedish term vårvinter (pronounced var-vinter).

Vårvinter translates simply as "spring winter," and refers to the long, slow dissolve from one season to another emblematic of the far north, which can also be loosely seen in the alpine areas of most mountain ranges (certainly we've enjoyed it here in Whistler this year). Vårvinter is characterized by spring flowers like snowdrops, melting snow and flooding streams in lower altitudes/latitudes, and extensive, slow-to-disappear snow at higher altitudes/latitudes. With the latter, snow-covered areas start to experience above-zero day temperatures, below-zero night temperatures, and sunlight that feels much stronger as it reflects off the snow. These cyclical daytime thaws and nigh time freezes result in hard crusts that morph into soft surfaces during the day—ideally the perfect, ego-boosting corn snow skier's rave about. In general, it's a definitive transition time which sees no prolonged typical winter weather, yet no prolonged spring weather either, making for a happy set of alternating conditions. As I discovered in a Swedish language blog, compounding the noun "vårvinter" can precisely describe the experience, as in the expression Det var en vacker vårvinterdag—"It was a beautiful spring-winter day." (Such conditions are so common in the far north of the country that the Swedish national weather service apparently treats vårvinter as a de facto fifth season.)

Though big storms aren't uncommon and snow occasionally tumbles from the sky in high volume, when the sun's out during this period, the snow-and-ice-covered land has a tendency to reduce relative humidity because its lower temperature relative to the air reduces evaporation. Once snowmelt starts in earnest, however, it warms quickly because of the strengthening sun, length of daylight, and increase in humidity. In alpine areas like we have in Whistler, the great contrast in heat/humidity between valley and mountaintop results in thermals boiling up around the peaks as the sun gains strength; at higher latitudes, daylight is added faster but the sun is at a lower angle relative to the earth, and its strengthening not as acute.

During our final 24 hours of that boat trip five years ago, we knocked in two huge tours during the day, and then, while anchored in a gorgeous fjord ringed by tinsel waterfalls, added a post-dinner tour in the midnight sun, enjoying genuinely amazing skiing under copper light that ended at the water's edge.

Having learned the term, I now celebrate the many opportunities I've had to enjoy this special time of year around the White Planet, and can recall many a golden vårvinterdag in my own backyard that I hadn't characterized as such at the time—a June fishing/skiing mission in Bella Coola, a late-April trip to the Kootenays that turned into an unexpected powderfest, and some gorgeous, picnic worthy days touring off of Whistler Mountain in May.

In fact, in retrospect, vårvinter may be my favourite part of winter—oh, and spring.

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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