An Arctic Adventure: Skiing in Narvik

Norway’s port of Narvik is one of the northernmost towns in the entire world, sitting 220 kilometers (135 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. This location makes it a unique spring skiing destination with exciting terrain, plenty of late-season snow, and long hours of daylight.

First view of the mountains above Narvik. The ski area is visible on the right with extensive backcountry skiing options to the left.

The history of Narvik has long been tied to the iron industry. In the late 1800s, the Swedish government recognized the potential for iron mining in the north of the country, not far from the border with Norway. The problem was that there were no suitable ports nearby in Sweden, but they found their solution across the border in Norway. The construction of a railway from the mines near Kiruna to Narvik provided access to a deep port that is ice-free year-round thanks to the Gulf Stream. Narvik also played a significant role in WWII, when the Germans occupied the city so that they could control the iron ore supply. The Allies fought back and recaptured the city for a short period of time, only to lose it to the Germans once again. The city recently constructed a new war museum that tells the story of the war in Narvik.

While this corner of Norway largely remains a well-kept secret to tourists, Narvik and the surrounding region are slowly gaining a well-deserved reputation for hosting some of the best backcountry skiing in Scandinavia. When I had the opportunity to visit a friend who lives there now and spend a week skiing with some of my favorite ski buddies at the end of April, I couldn’t pass it up.

Off-piste powder turns on Narvikfjellet’s western slope

Narvikfjellet Ski Area

In this region of Norway, the mountains seem to rise almost right from the edge of the blue fjord waters. It creates striking scenery and gives the residents of Narvik some great skiing right in their backyards. The Narvikfjellet ski area is a short walk or drive from the city’s downtown. While there is some fun skiing to be done in-bounds, the mountain’s easy access to off-piste and backcountry skiing makes it really stand out.

Evening skiing at Narvikfjellet

The ski area caters primarily to kids, the local race club, and backcountry skiers. In fact, I have never seen so many skiers on alpine touring equipment at a ski area before. The groomed trails include a mellow winding road from the top to the bottom, popular with kids and locals, some of whom are just out walking their dogs without even skiing. There are also several steeper groomed slopes that cater primarily to racers and others who like to go fast. Finally, there are a handful of “intermediate off-piste” runs, like Boomerang: marked trails that are ungroomed and often full of soft moguls. Those trails were a lot of fun and they didn’t seem to see much traffic, which means there’s often still fresh snow on the sides of the trails several days after a storm.

The biggest attraction for our group was the ski area’s easy access to abundant and challenging backcountry skiing. From the top of the chairlift, you can drop right into a vast area of reasonably steep, north-facing terrain, known locally as the back side. A long run in great snow finishes up with an easy traverse back to the base area. The top of the chairlift is also the starting point for a fairly short skin to the top of Tredjetoppen (“third peak”) at 1,272 meters (4,173’). There, skiers find much steeper options like Mørkholla (“the dark hole”) on the north side, or slightly mellower sun-drenched slopes on the south side, overlooking Beis Fjord. The options seemed endless and we had no trouble finding fresh snow even in late April. It’s worth noting that none of this terrain is patrolled or controlled and avalanches can be a real danger, so it’s best to go with someone who knows the terrain.

Waiting to drop into Mørkholla, the “Dark Hole” on Tredjetoppen

Narvikfjellet’s lift system is a bit dated and inefficient; it’s not bad when the mountain is quiet midweek, but lines can be long on busy days with such limited capacity. There’s a pulse gondola that travels from the base up to the mountain restaurant at 656 meters (2,152’); a series of three t-bar lifts roughly parallel the gondola to reach the same area; and a double chairlift that climbs to Linken at an altitude of 1,003 meters (3,291’) above sea level. While those elevations aren’t very high, don’t forget that the base is just a touch above sea level itself!

The lifts operate on a unique schedule: catering primarily to locals, the ski day doesn’t start until 5:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. For much of the winter, it’s night skiing under the lights, but by springtime, there’s still bright sunshine late in the evening. In late April, the lifts keep turning until 9:00 p.m., just before the sun sets, making it a perfect spot to enjoy amazing sunset views over the fjord and surrounding mountains. Friday through Sunday, and on holidays, the mountain is open only during the day.

Sunset view over the fjord from Narvikfjellet, 9:15 p.m. in late April

The Backcountry around Narvik

While Narvikfjellet offers plenty of interesting skiing within the city limits, the mountains surrounding Narvik feature an incredible variety of great backcountry skiing options. Terrain ranges from steep couloirs plunging down towards fjords, to mellower glaciers, to secluded peaks best accessed from remote mountain cabins. After a few days of exploring the ski area and its sidecountry, our hosts were anxious to show us some of these backcountry treasures.

Our first day ski touring above Skjomen Fjord

For our first excursion, we day-tripped from the city to the end of Skjomen Fjord, about an hour’s drive from Narvik. We spent several hours climbing nearly 6 km (3.5 miles) to the top of Gengis Sekla, with stops along the way to eat lunch and dig a pit to check the stability of the snow. We were blessed with bright sunshine and enough warmth that we skinned up in t-shirts from sea level to the 1,315 meter (4,315′) summit, which offered spectacular mountain views in all directions and a glimpse of the fjord far below. The trip back down was fun, starting with a few steep pitches covered with dry, dense powder towards the top, then becoming more variable and spring-like as we transitioned to the mellower lower sections. Still finding a few pockets of dry snow here and there amongst the trees, we managed to ski almost all the way back to the cars we parked just a few meters above sea level.

Our next adventure took us further out of the city and higher into the mountains for a real taste of Norwegian mountain hut culture. We loaded up our ski gear, some extra clothes, and a few days’ worth of food and took the east-bound train out of Narvik. The Ofoten Railway, built for iron ore transport, is an engineering marvel that offers incredible views as the tracks cling to steep hillsides overlooking the fjord. After 30 minutes we arrived at the remote Katterat station, where we began the adventure.

At 375 meters (1,230’) above sea level, there was enough snow cover around the station that we were able to put on our skis and start skinning right from there. Our destination was 12 km (7.2 miles) from the station, a long but mellow skin that climbed gently uphill with just a few small downhill sections, gaining about 325 meters (1,066′) overall. Our amazing hosts did the hard work of towing our food in their pulka, a tow-behind sled, making the trip even easier for the rest of us.

Skinning to Hunddalen
Relaxing in the sunshine outside Hunddalshyttene after a great day of backcountry skiing

For the next three nights, Hunddalshytte (literally “Dog Valley Hut”) was our cozy mountain home. DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, has a series of similar huts throughout the country, providing a fantastic resource for skiers and hikers. They provide beds, pillows and blankets (bring your own pillowcase and sheet), firewood, and even a basic kitchen with a gas stove so you can prepare full meals in the hut. There are two separate huts sleeping a total of 18+ people–when the beds are full, there are extra mattresses that can be laid out on the floor–plus a caretaker’s cabin and an outhouse building. The hut was in a beautiful location and gave us the opportunity to meet many other skiers, both cross-country and alpine touring, who were exploring the area. We enjoyed “apres-ski” snacks and drinks in the sunshine each afternoon, followed by tasty dinners we cooked in the hut’s kitchen.

From Hunddalshytte, we explored the surrounding valley and two of its most prominent peaks. Skiing Sealggačohkka (1,567 m, 5,141’) and Ristačohkka (1,688 m, 5,538’) both required substantial climbs from the hut’s 700 meter (2,297’) elevation, but we had generally good conditions for skinning and we were lucky to enjoy continued sunshine. Both mountains featured scenic glaciers up high, amazing panoramic views from the top, and great skiing. Starting several hundred meters higher in elevation and further inland than Narvik made a big difference in the snow, and we found dry, if not deep, fresh tracks nearly everywhere we skied.

Skinning up Sealggacohkka
A scenic spot for a lunch break on the climb up Sealggacokkha

A couple big days of ski touring tired us out, but the excellent skiing and wonderful time in the hut were well worth the effort. Our time exploring Hunddalen was certainly one of the highlights of a spectacular trip that we won’t soon forget!

When to Go

April seems to be prime time for the ski season this far north—the days are long, the snow is good, and the chances for sunshine are relatively high. In December and January, known in Norway as the “dark time,” there is no direct sunlight and the only skiing is on the floodlit trails next to the t-bars. In fact, the chairlift doesn’t even open for the season until the last week of March. Easter is primetime for the mountains, so our visit a week later was timed perfectly to avoid crowds. We’re told that we were also incredibly lucky to have enjoyed nine straight days of sunshine. The lift-served ski season officially closes at Narvikfjellet on May 1, but ski touring opportunities should still be worthwhile even later into the spring.

Skinning in Hundallen

What to Eat

The food in Narvik is very ocean-focused. From fish—fresh, dried, or in the form of fish cakes—to shrimp, the seafood is all excellent. Norwegian lamb is also very good and you’ll find a reasonable selection of vegetables, but most are shipped in from further south. The restaurant at the top of Narvikfjellet’s gondola serves up moose burgers, waffles, and a fun après-ski scene. Down in town, the small cafe in the Fiskehallen (fish market) has excellent fish burgers topped with cole slaw and fried onions, a fantastic lunch. Restaurants are somewhat limited in the city, but Viva Italia is nice and offers some local specialties, fresh fish, as well as Italian fare.

Getting There & Away

The quickest way to reach Narvik is by flying to Harstad/Narvik airport in Evenes (EVE). Most flights connect in Oslo. From the airport, you can either rent a car or take the Skybussen buses, which are timed to meet arriving flights and travel to the city in about an hour.

Train approaching Katterat station

For a more scenic option, you can travel from Stockholm to Narvik by overnight train. The journey takes about 19 hours, leaving in the evening and arriving midday the next day. The train has sleeper compartments and a dining car and finishes the journey along the scenic Ofoten fjord; that section of rail is considered some of the most scenic in the world.

View of Skjomen Fjord from the top of Gengis Sekla

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