Scandinavia is totally worth the trek, but I always forget how long it takes to get that far away. The journey from Northwest Montana involves days of sitting on airplanes and hauling luggage, fueled by processed airport food, and bogged down by that familiar fog of jet lag. This past February, my wife and backcountry ski partner, Mollie and I arrived in Tromso, Norway - close to midnight in complete darkness of an arctic winter.
Even under clouds, the area’s sweeping vistas of large glaciated mountains and glimmering fjords always manages to take my breath away, so anticipation was high. We were still hours away from the late winter sunrise, after which we could access the conditions and start implementing our expedition plans of arctic camping and dry powder laps down to the ocean. First light would show us what was in store for the next few weeks.
We didn’t come to this region as strangers; we had been multiple times and were rather relaxed. Mollie and I return to this magical land because it resonates on what she likes to call a “soul level,” like we’ve been there in a previous lifetime. To us, northern Norway is a place of perspective, comfort, and reflection. Here the mountains rise straight from the sea. Life is hardy and earth harsh with the elements – a life that makes being so far away from our off-grid life back in Montana feel like we are actually still at home.
Grabbing our gear upon arrival, we slogged our luggage, camping tent, sleeping bags and cook wear to a local hotel to just catch up on sleep. The sun showed its face around 10:30 that morning, and we opened the curtains to get a first glimpse of terrain. I reached for my glasses to refocus my vision on the dimly lit mountains, as if I needed to verify the conditions. A feeling of heartbreak overwhelmed my soul. We both were instantly devastated with the reality of what we were seeing before us: low tide. Low, low tide.
I see northern Norway as an expedition “safe zone,” meaning there’s always snow, well into summer. In early February — the heart of the arctic winter — light fluffy arctic powder was replaced by fat rain drops falling from the polar sky and bare mountain tops. Tundra grass was showing everywhere.
With no backup plan, we scrambled and reached out to our local friend David Skirnisson, who confirmed our suspicions. Norway was having one of the warmest winters on record, and even the far north, polar-bear-filled arctic island of Svalbard was seeing warmer temperatures than where we were. I knew we had to hit the drawing board. With how far we had just traveled, our decision to leave the epic snow in Montana seemed more and more crazy. I was starting to harbor some deep resentment toward Mother Nature.
Personally, I was learning about how to deal with some new emotions already, and this expedition was putting them front and center. During the previous winter of 2015/16, I broke my ankle three times which quickly became one of the most challenging winters being forced away from the thing I love so much – snowboarding.
On top of that – the summer leading into that winter (2015) – I had been diagnosed with an incurable and rare autoimmune disease (especially in men) called systemic lupus erythematosus, which rocked my world. The winter of 15/16 was meant to be my coping and healing mechanism, but combined with a broken ankle it did the opposite. I built up a mental barrier of pain, hurt, and anger that kept burning.
Needless to say, the winter of 2016/17 was about redemption. One could say I wanted a successful trip in the land that I love, but I actually needed a successful trip for my health. Leaning on the partnership of my wife for answers, Mollie helped bring me back to perspective. She focuses her professional career these days on meditation and yoga. Through her free spirit and “open chakras” (spiritual power, I think) she was able shift my perspective out of its black hole and back into what obstacles I was actually overcoming through the entire process. The trip was more than an expedition to a snowy playground… it was becoming an epic journey back to my heart and spirit, regardless of snow quality. I was earning my turns, winter camping, and exploring just as I would have been doing prior to diagnosis.
Mollie was right. It was time for me to shut up, go with the flow, and to turn this trip into a new experience of rebuilding my confidence in my body and doing the thing that I loved the most.
In contacting David again the next morning, we learned of a polar low that was to be heading to the region in the next few days. With time on our side, Mollie and I busted out of Norway and drove to arctic Sweden’s Lapland region, which was showing freezing temps and precipitation. Although we didn’t know anything about the region, we Googled quickly and sped on our way.
Later that day, as we drove over a mountain pass from Norway and into Sweden, we watched rain turn to slush, slush to fat flakes of snow, and finally fat flakes to hearty beautiful dry pow. Pow! Almost instantly the snowpack changed and it became obvious that Sweden was a good choice.
We headed into the backcountry winter wilderness that surround Riksgränsen and Abisko National Park for the next few days. The snow would come in at night and clear during the day and revived our trip with dry arctic powder turns in unfamiliar zones. I love having Mollie at my side, hooting and hollering while I scan the terrain looking for the next fun and creative feature to slash. My sorrow and sadness lowered my expectations at the beginning, and now I was feeling a bipolar high of wispy faceshots that left such a lasting memory of this trip for me. I was overcome with personal adversity in many ways.
On our final night in the Swedish wilderness, arctic winds whipped snow at our tent in a blizzard that had moved in. For the entire night while northern lights made short appearances between openings in the storm clouds above - I didn’t get much sleep, instead I was focused on keeping our tent unburied and worrying if we would even be able to get out safely. Before daylight came, a break in the storm arrived, I rallied Mollie so we could pack up our gear and get out of the area before we got struck with the next heavy rounds of snow and wind.
We set our sights back on Norway and headed to the Lofoten Islands, a beautiful arctic archipelago. We made it after a pounding that had just delivered two feet of fresh snow. It was as if Mother Nature was toying with us upon arrival, as conditions were literally turning in our favor.
Our camp setup was on our own snow covered beach. The sound of waves crashed in front of us and throughout the long nights the northern lights danced above whenever it was clear. Comfort of down booties, cooking meals under headlamp, and the tangy smell of salt air made this camping experience romantic and enjoyable. The days were partly sunny with some peaks shrouded in clouds and others not. As we skinned up to our goals, we were overwhelmed by the incredible views of the Norwegian mainland and other outer arctic islands with their peaks rising straight from the sea. The Lofoten Islands are referred to as the Magic Islands and the winter light and conditions we were treated with – we understand why.
Because our trip was nearly over, we figured we might as well make it a Scandinavian Trifecta and head northeast to Finland’s Lapland region. Our only knowledge was that mountains were sparse, beer was cheap, and the language would be unlike anything in Sweden or Norway. We landed in the tiny village of Kilpisjärvi, where wild reindeer walk freely throughout the village. This Finish borderland is surrounded by beautiful mountains. However, most of the beautiful mountains in view are actually Swedish or Norwegian; we learned that when Finland’s borders were drawn – they drew the short end of the stick, literally, when it comes to vertical endeavors. Although sparse, there were a few peaks with fun lines. For a few days, Mollie and I climbed and rode some of the local offerings, each night finishing with a classic Finnish sauna, slices of reindeer bacon, and passing shots of Salmiakki Koskenkorva while watching northern lights.
After a few days, we returned back to Lyngen Fjord in Norway to fresh powder. On our last morning, Mollie and I found ourselves at the foot of a mountain with a beautiful slope up to a summit ridge that looked southwest down the entire length of the fjord.
With each step up this mountain, I thought about how quickly things can change in our lives. It clicked for me that our experiences on the trip mirrored how I cope with chronic illness. When we arrived in Scandinavia, my spirit was crushed; the healing journey was fraught with unexpected challenges, just as is in life itself. With Mollie’s support, I was able to address issues head-on in a multitude of conditions that including my true mode of healing — snowboarding.
I always knew snowboarding helped me deal with negativity, but I never actually considered that snowboarding works as a mediator in tough times. It makes sense – you just can’t solve a problem simply by being present. Problems that need solutions require work and work requires effort. Just showing up, strapping in, and riding down is not a solution for me. But walking up a mountain presents its own challenges. From that you learn to face the challenge; you find your way to the summit of the challenge so you focus on problem solving and personally you reflect on many things and the decisions you are making. You reach your solution when you gain the summit and with that you understand the entire challenge you have been going through – that you just worked through. You ride down and have the moment of clarity and understanding. Each turn you learn or relearn so that you can continue to face challenges and find solutions in the future. Each new step, each new turn in the snow, each new summit - always learning further about who I am and how strong I actually am.
As I gained the summit on this last peak of our trip, I did just that. I thought about and processed all of the cumulative experiences I encountered and learned about myself through this arctic journey. As I reached the top, I understood more about myself and the journey I have been on. Mollie and I stood side-by-side near a tall cairn as we watched the mountain beneath us turn to a copper glaze with the sun setting further on the horizon. I thanked her for this experience and the guidance she gave. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath in, exhaled as I opened them back up, and dropped in. I was ready to learn, and more than ready to face future problems.
-Sean Busby 686 GLCR Advocate @seanbusbyPhotos: Sean Busby and Mollie Busby