Riksgransen first came to fame in 1996 when Ingemar beckmann graced the front cover of pretty much, every Snowboard magazine of the time with his record breaking 6.5m backside air launched out of a hand built, windswept, Riksgransen quarter pipe at the Diesel 55 Big Air comp.
Riksgransen quickly became known as the stomping ground of Terje haakonsen, ingemar, Johan Olofsen and the rest of the Scandinavian rippers that raided down, vikingesque, from the frozen North to the snowy Alps, to return with their swag of medals, trophies and movie fame.
After its initial moment of fame, Riksgransen quietly faded back into obscurity, possibly due to the locals down playing its potential in order to stop the rest of the World from shredding their lines, but also because it really is in the middle of nowhere and simply isn’t that big a resort that you’d want to travel all the way up from the Alps to shred there unless you were looking for something specific.
Fast forward 20 years and add the explosion of Splitboarding and Backcountry Freeriding into the mix and you’re suddenly not confined to the limits of the Ski resort or pistes and Riksgransen suddenly starts to look a whole lot more interesting…
Add in the possibility of Heli boarding in an area of 5000km/sq, containing 100 peaks, and things start to look very attractive indeed…
Needless to say, after 20 years of almost nothing, in 2016 Riksgransen suddenly popped up on my radar again and I started to make plans to get myself there.
Like all these far off places, the best way for me to get to ride there is for me to organise a trip there with like minded souls.
I immediately set the wheels in motion and in April 2017 I flew from Geneva inbound for Iron ore mining town of Kiruna, some 150km inside the Arctic circle.
Strangely enough, I’d just finished a Splitboarding Voyager trip to Lofoten and had flown back to Chamonix from the Harstad/Narvik Airport found just across the Border from Riksgransen in Norway.
In order to get to Riksgransen therefore, I’d made a slight detour of some 5000km when I could have just driven across the boarder… Oh well, you live and learn!
Kiruna is a home to one of the Worlds biggest Iron ore mines, the whole town exists simply because of the mine (and infact, the whole town is in grave danger of falling into the mine and is slowly being moved 3km away, one brick at a time).
A railroad, built to transport the Iron Ore, leads from Kiruna to Narvik, from where it is shipped around the World. With the building of the railroad a few isolated villages grew into existence, small accommodations for the railroad workers offering harsh living quarters in a brutally cold and desolate environment.
Eventually, Many years later, some of these isolated outposts began to attract those in search of wilderness and adventure and as the Winter sports industry began to boom a few of these small railroad villages grew lifts and became small Ski stations, one of which is located on the Border between Sweden and Norway and is the Swedish ski capital, known as Riksgransen.
With my BC Voyager team assembled in Kiruna we headed past the sign that directed you where to park your traditional dogsleds and jumped in the more modern 4 wheel drive sled variety for the Long drive to Riksgransen.
It doesn’t take long to leave the town of Kiruna with its snowy roads busy with massive pick up trucks laden with powerful Snowmobiles behind and immediately you are surrounded by the cold and harsh landscape of the Frozen North.
Sparse 200 year old trees barely head high, that grow so slowly due to the almost permanently frozen ground, line the roadside and beyond them a cold desolate mountainous terrain shaped by ice and wind fills the skyline in every direction.
The kilometres and time pass in what seems like stillness, the horizon never seems any nearer, but slowly the peaks get higher and the snow gets deeper. After a warm, snow starved winter season in the Alps, this cold snowy world is like music to the ears and after a journey through the wilderness some signs of life and a few isolated houses begin to pop up along the road side a sure sign that we are nearing our destination.
We pass by a few small villages, houses scatter the side of the road, old settlements from the building of the rail road that now host a deserted looking ski lift or two. A heard of reindeer search for food under the frozen snowpack on a windswept mountain side, a group of, out of place looking, brightly clad youth roar across a frozen lake on powerful looking snowmobiles. A few more cars appear on the road, more snowmobiles, their riders look more like they’re dressed for motocross or a Redbull video clip than for racing through the Tundra and then after 130km of nearly nothing we have arrived at the busy bustling Border village and ski station of Riksgransen.
This place is cool… Snowmobiles roar across the frozen lake below the road, everybody has one here, it’s how they get around and also sport, possibly more, or at least, as popular as the skiing?
The houses are all made of wood, and scatter the hillsides in clumps either side of the road, Caravan parks seem popular and a large, old looking, hotel complex sits above the road and above this a huge railroad tunnel splits the hillside in two. A few, cold looking, old chair lifts lead upwards on a glacially sculpted hillside equally covered with snow and rocky outcrops.
The snow looks great, the terrain equally so… the excitement bubble is growing…
We are staying in the big hotel here, this is pretty much all there is for those that don’t own property here and the hotel is right below the lifts. The hotel is like a step back in time to the movie, ‘the shining’, but the hospitality is a little friendlier and the facilities are great with buffet style food, a ski shop and bars that run late into the night.
We’re here to both Split and Heli. I’ve never helped here before so I’m not sure what we’re in for, but on paper and from what I’ve seen on the drive over it looks the bomb.
Unfortunately, the frozen North is frozen for a good reason, it receives a lot of cold windy and storm weather and so more often than not, the Heli’s can’t actually operate! It is for this reason that I have packaged the trip as a Splitboard adventure with Heli-boarding as a bonus.
In order to Heli, you have to hire the heli time before hand and so we have a heli ‘option’ covering the first 4 days of our trip, which is not negotiable. If its bad weather and we can’t fly and then the weather clears after 4 days, the Heli is no longer ours!
Fortunately for us, the weather forecast seems unusually good for the first day of our trip and it looks like we’re on for some flight time!
The next day dawns clear, still and bluebird. Buffet breakfast and we’re at the Helipad. We are a group of 8 plus myself and local Guide Robert, two Heli teams, one with me and one with Robert who will show us around. I chat with Robert and the Pilot to learn how they want things done and then we’re off, the Heli is ours for the day…
We drop a couple of warm up lines on the way out towards the middle of nowhere… the terrain is great, the snow a little blown out in places, but I’m soon learning which aspects are working and by run 3 we’re riding longlines of untracked powder with peaks stretching out as far as you can see. Group one do a drop with Robert, whilst they ride, I fly to another peak with group 2 and so the day goes with a stop for a picnic whilst the Heli heads back for a refuel…
On the next rotation I spot a mountain side littered with steep lines of spines and couloirs and point it out to the pilot to see if he can land there?
No one has ridden there before, but the drop looks simple enough and next thing we know we are standing above my dream line, with another and another either side of us. We ride line after line here until the tank is empty and our heli time is done…
With mixed weather for the next few days and perfect conditions today we have opted to ride out all our ‘pre paid’ Heli time in the one day. We still hold the option to buy more time over our remaining 3 day heli window, but with the weather forecast and the team buzzing, we have decided to ride the ass off it today and then see what happens…
Riksgransen, and the whole region, is renowned for flat light, whiteout conditions and (tricky to negotiate in low vis) terrain and the next day the weather has turned, the wind is up and the light is flat.
On Robert’s suggestion, we jump in the van and head to a small nearby ski station with 1 very slow chair lift and a herd of reindeer the only other occupants of the mountain. It’s more sheltered here and the sun breaks out sporadically to reveal line after, untracked, line of wind blown powder leading into the sheltered trees below. The days turns out to be epic!
It snows all night and clears in the morning so we opt to ride powder off the lifts in Riksgransen, which seems to be a great idea.
In the afternoon we make a short hike out to a peak behind the resort, the descent is steep and rolling but the light goes flat and we get the famous ‘zero’ vis experience.
A storm rolls in though the night and the day dawns cold with strong winds up high. W head down to the lake and hire Snowmobiles for the day. The rental guy asks us if ‘we know how to ride’, to which we all obviously say ‘yeah for sure!’ and so he lets us have them non guided for the day!
As soon as we are out of sight, we immediately hit full throttle and head down the lake and up into the stormy mountains, taking our local Guide Robert along as security for when we get lost.
Before we head up into the blizzard, Robert asks me if I think we should go ‘up there, with these conditions?’ ‘Always’ I reply, ‘we should always head up there if we have Snowmobiles!’ and off we go! I figure, we can always turn around? We make a 60 or 70km loop, find jumps to launch off and some hills to highline before heading back to the centre in a nice neat line at a moderate pace…
Mixed weather again, but it looks better over towards Narvik, and the ski area over there looks great and is open, so we head over there. Narvik looks amazing, a great little ski hill above the Iron ore docks, a real mix of nature and heavy industry side by side.
We find powder in the resort and then make our fist split board tour of the trip, heading up and along the heavily corniced skyline ridge as the weather, cloud and vis blows in and out… As we line up to drop into the Backbowl in zero vis, the skies clear and all is glory for the descent which takes us right back to the town where a short walk takes us back to the lifts. A few more turns here and back then back to Sweden.
For our final day, we plan a big Splitboard tour on a peak a short drive away and within easy access of the road. We cross under the railroad and don our Splits for the hike. The weather clears and its on…
The hike is great, the views are amazing and the snow is perfect. We make great time and a few hours later stand on the peak with incredible views for 360 degrees. Obviously the best is yet to come, every summit is only half the journey and the Powder awaits below.
It snows all night and I drive to the airport through a total mid winter blizzard with 30cm of snow on the road and zero vis. It doesn’t look like we’ll be flying home today, the solitary plane stands out on the snow covered tarmac under a deep layer of white and its getting deeper by the minute. With a half hour to go, the flight crew turn up, the pilot starts to warm up the plane and the ground crews swing into action. Half an hour later, the runway is cleared and we’re on board ready to fly home.
It’s been an amazing journey of exploration and discovery, some of the best riding I’ve done all winter with a great crew of enthusiastic riders who’ve been a great laugh both on and off the hill.
The flights back go to plan and it snows back in Chamonix just in time for my annual Spring shred weekend!
A few days later I’m repacking my bags for my next BC Voyager Adventure to Iceland… (Iceland blog post to follow)
Riksgransen will definitely be back on the calendar this coming winter so watch this space!