Passion and setbacks
Four friends, one passion: Sebastian Bubmann, Tobi Deckert, Philip Kuchelmeister and Maxi Kuhnhauser unites the passion for exploring new mountain territory in remote locations with a revolutionary combination of traditional alpinism and snowkiting.
You do not like to read – no problem! 🙂 You can watch our full feature length film, which was shown on two mountain film festivals here:
Back in 2012 and 2014, Sebastian, Philip and friends launched two large expeditions in Alaska but both attempts to snowkite up preselected peaks failed due to bad weather.
At first the crew tried to catch the right weather- and wind-window to snowkite up to the peak of Mt. Marcus Baker. Whilst they scored some incredible snowkite sessions on the glacier (see video here), the ultimate goal of kiting up to the peak was not achieved. A severe blizzard did “load up” the mountain’s face with windblown snow and very unstable avalanche conditions plus little time was left for conditions to “settle”, hence the mission was aborted in favour of safety.
In 2014, the goal was even more ambitious: The crew set out for a combined ski-mountaineering, climbing and snow-kiting mission to summit the nearly 5,000 m tall peak of Mt. Blackburn. Again, the weather did not cooperate. The planned route did include a 1,000m tall exposed face, which requires good visibility and stable weather to climb. Both did not prevail during the 3 weeks time the friends did camp on the glacier, waiting for conditions to finally come together (see video here).
A new plan
The four friends are always on the quest for challenges that are NOT simple to achieve. The harder the challenge, the more exciting the project. However, the goals for both AK missions were probably a bit overambitious as it was quite clear from the start that the weather in AK is as unpredictable as it gets and the terrain is amongst the most extreme on the planet. Not a good omen for achieving an objective, which so clearly depends on having the right conditions. Despite knowing this, it was very frustrating for the team to fail twice in a row.
This is why for the two subsequent years they did only snowkite at the usual spots together with their friends: The Hardangervidda plateau in Norway, the Col Du Lautaret in France or at their homespots. Conditions nearly almost work there, but then you also have to share the spot with dozens of other snowkiters and there is no single line left unridden on the mountain an hour after the wind has kicked in – not very exciting!
Feeling the desire for a new challenge, the team sat together late 2016 to brainstorm about a new project. What could be a place that is remote and yet accessible without a skiplane and undergoing insane logistical efforts and preparations? Where can you find a mountain that is not crowded but instead offers a variety of challenging peaks to climb with a kite? Days went into the planning until finally a decision was made.
In the far north of Norway much of the area is yet to be explored by snowkiters and the steep mountain faces make it a more challenging territory compared to the rolling hills of the Hardangervidda plateau. A decision was made to explore the Lyngen Alps east of Tromso city and the Lofoten Islands. Rather than preselecting a peak before the trip, the team wanted to stay flexible on the ground based on prevailing wind conditions. On the map the area seemed to have it all: Large glaciers to wintercamp and steep faces rising up more than 1,000 m from the sea. Also flights to Tromso in the winter are cheap, it is not far away and you can easily get around there with a rental car. It seemed like a piece of cake compared to all the efforts that went into getting to the remote glaciers of AK with ski-planes and helicopters. But would the conditions finally come together?
April promised to offer the best combination of low enough temperatures for good snow and more than 14 hours of daylight. After lengthy discussions at the counter the team finally checked-in 6 large boardbags, suitcases and even managed to board with about 20 kg of handluggage per person. Arriving in Tromso the next big question was how the hell to fit all that stuff into a small stationwagon. If there is one downside of going to Norway it clearly is the price level! Renting a small van was not affordable but luckily Tobi brought along his latest invention, the so-called Shred Reck, which basically is an inflatable roof rack that packs down small and is easy to bring along on air journeys. Still the boys had to squeeze into the car like sardines in a can for the three-hour drive to Koppangen, the end of the road on the eastern side of the Lyngen peninsula.
Seeing close-up what already looked promising from the plane made them feel like they arrived in snowkiting-dreamland: Fresh powder, steep mountains left and right of the road and the wind was blowing too. After crossing the Ullsfjord with a small ferry the mountains got taller and taller until the road came to an end in the tiny village of Koppangen.
When they arrived the sun was already setting. But there was nothing which could stop them from heading out on a first scouting mission. After throwing all their gear into a beautiful little flat in Koppangen Brygger hotel the guys rushed up a spine of Goalborri peak where they scored some fresh powder turns in their new backyard, right before falling asleep – that was a good start of the trip!
Does history repeat itself?
The next morning however brought a nasty surprise – it was raining! They knew that the forecast was not good and that there was a chance of rainfall at the lower altitude levels. But it was nearly 7°C down at sea-level and it was raining heavily. The worst case scenario materialised: In no time the snowpack sucked in the water like a sponge, became very heavy and avalanches went off all over the place. The warning level raised from a stable two with good snow conditions to level four of five with snow as heavy as concrete sliding down the mountains left and right. Their dreams were shattered … could this really be, after it all looked so promising?
Luckily the Koppangen Brygger is a beautiful place to stay and the owners Alf and his wife Berit took good care of them. The houses are built on a small peer and you can hear the waves breaking on the beach below you. Also there is a jacuzzi in which the guys spent most of the day, sitting in the rain, trying to make the best of the bad weather.
The first attempt
After a few days temperatures dropped below freezing and the avalanche conditions eventually settled a bit. At least it was safe to move up the mountain now and they decided to give it a go. From the Brygger it took two gear-runs to set-up camp on the stunning Strupbreen glacier. The first run was up the normal route through the Koppangsdalen valley. At the foot of Tafeltinden peak the group dug a small hole to store their kites, stoves, tents and ice axes overnight. After skiing back down they spent one last night in a cosy bed before it was time to move base up to the glacier.
The next morning Alf was so kind to give them a ride with his boat to the beautiful beach of Strupen so they could explore another way up to the glacier. With extremely heavy packs including supplies for days to come the four climbed back up to the gearstack and set up camp. Maxi and Tobi were on fire and did not get tired of digging down into the snow and building a massive snowcave. Whilst Philip and Sebastian were a bit tired of shovelling in the beginning, all appreciated the very well insulated snowcave to hang out and cook in.
During the next days conditions did not improve significantly. The weather was in and out with the winds blowing from the wrong way. Coming from a westerly direction they were disturbed as they passed over many sharp ridges. This is the one big downside of steep terrain – the wind needs to come 100% from the right direction to be kiteable. After camping on the glacier for days, climbing around in the mist with no kiting at all it was time to turn around. With two loads of gear in their packs the four skied back down to the car and drove to the other side of the Peninsula to a place called Sandneset. There they checked-in to the beautiful newly renovated lodge of Reidun called Lyngen Experience. It did not have a jacuzzi but instead a wood-fired Sauna with sea view – not a bad trade.
The first good day at “the volcano”
It turned out to be a good decision to drive to the other side because you can drive much further up north, before the road stops. This did allow them to access what they referred to as “the volcano”. The northernmost peak of the Lyngen Alps, called Russelvfjellet really looks a bit like an old crater. Its eastern side offers two long ridges that are both perfectly kiteable in southern to northern winds.
The next day the wind turned to a south-easterly breeze and after ski-touring for about 3 km the team reached a spot where the wind did blow strong enough to launch the kites. They worked their way up-wind and around the southern face of Russelvfjellet until they finally reached a rolling plateau which led them directly to the eastern side of the mountain at full speed with their kites fully powered. And what a session they should have … in total they summited the mountain 9 times, lapping a group of ski-tourers three times on their way up. It is always good to have your own private ski-lift. Each time they arrived at the top they landed their FLYSURFER PEAK3 single-skin kites, which pack down very small, stuffed them into their packs, got out their foldable skipoles and scored yet another run – what a day!
The next stop on the trip were the famous Lofoten Islands, a chain of islands reaching out more than 200 km into the Norwegian Sea. But instead of driving all the way they took the famous Hurtigruten ferry. There is some kind of a deal that you do only have to pay for a car on your way up, not on your way down and it was not too expensive after all. The breakfast buffet was amazing, although the four guys felt a bit out of place with no knitting gear and no binoculars to watch the scenery. Despite being on what they referred to as the “granny-tanker” this was one beautiful cruise, jacuzzi at the stern included!
The PERFECT day – climbing more than 5000 vertical meters
In Svalvaer, the biggest city of the Lofoten Islands they checked into a small Airbnb flat which was their base for the next days, before the flight back home left. The first two days the weather again was really bad. It was a mix of snow and rain with strong showers and gale force winds. After that calm air for a day and sunshine – time for a cruise with the car all the way to Å, the end of the road and westernmost village on the Lofoten Islands. Definitely recommended, the scenery is incredibly beautiful with vertical walls of rock rising from the blue sea.
Finally, on their last day conditions looked promising. The wind was blowing straight from the East. The crew toured from the side of the road to Stor-Kongsvatnet lake where they set up their kites. With a single gust they made it from the middle of the lake to its western end, where the kites were barely staying up in the air. Trying to navigate more or less successful through an area interspersed with small trees and bushes they slowly progressed until the foot of the mountain, where the wind finally died off. The main issue here was Tjeldbergtinden, a small hill that was blocking the wind down on the lake. So again, untangling the kites from treetops, packing them down and proceeding with skis for the first 200 vertical meters up the mountain. On the way up the wind slowly got stronger and stronger again until it was time to throw the kites back up. The first meters were really slow as the wind still was not very strong but with every kiteloop the distance covered uphill got bigger and bigger. What a feeling, it finally worked! Eventually they did not even have to loop their kites anymore and were just cruising up the hill.
The area below the Stortinden, Varden and Smatindan peaks turned out to be one of the best snowkiting-playgrounds ever. The wind was smooth and strong enough to power them all the way up to Stortinden summit. That was a great ride on a small ridge above a steep mountain face, sketchy but super fun. Again, the ski-tourers could not believe what they saw – they got up so early only to be lapped that many times on their way up by a bunch of friends with small singe-skin kites. The guys did countless laps, skiing back down, kiting back up, then speedflying down and exploring peak after peak. After four hours or so the sun was setting and it got dark and cold on the eastern side plus the winds got more gusty with the thermals dying off. They decided to do one final climb up to the Smatindan summit. As they steered their kites over the ridge, they started to glow in the rays of the setting sun. The team arrived just in time for a stunning sunset with an incredible view around the area. A quick look at their Garmin GPS watches revealed, this afternoon they each climbed an altitude difference of more than 5000 vertical meters – something you could never achieve by foot!
After enjoying this moment they skied and flew back down on their speedwings and landed on Stor-Kongsvatnet lake where it was absolutely calm. All had a big smile on their face and they had to admit that this was a lifetime session, if not the best ever. They were all very tired, trudging back to the car and falling right asleep after some beers at the flat.
Time flew by and the next day thew crew already had to load up the car and drive all the way back to Tromso to catch their flights the next day. During this drive they passed by countless perfectly kiteable peaks. There is SO much terrain that remains to be explored up there in the far north of Norway.
It felt really good to them that they finally succeeded to climb up new mountains, explore unridden terrain and ski or fly back down. It was good to see that even with relatively less preparatory effort you can achieve so much. Whilst the mountains in AK remain a dimension of their own (“Everything is bigger, tougher and harder than it looks” – Paul Claus / bushpilot legend), Norway is just around the corner! It’s only a four hour flight and you can find snowkiting playgrounds you thought only exist in AK or other places far away. The terrain on the Lofoten Islands or the Lyngen Alps is perfect for combining traditional alpinism (i.e. ski-touring, climbing) with new approaches such as snowkiting and speedflying. You can freedom camp on a glacier and ride steep slopes or you can find the one mountain ridge that is perfectly exposed to the wind and ride it up and ski down until your legs fall off.
Even in the plane taking off they were pressing their noses against the window armed with a pen adding cross after cross on the map. Sebastian, Tobi, Philip and Maxi will definitely be back!
Best time of year
In April you will have more than 14 hours of daylight and chances are high that you will still have good snow. Considering the according to locals very unusual warm front encountered it is recommended to go there from mid-March until mid-April. According to locals the Lofoten sometimes have less snow than the Lyngen Alps which is why it would make sense to first visit the Lofoten Islands and then the Lyngen Alps.
How to get there
SAS offeres frequent flights to Tromso and you can buy additional baggage at decent rates.
How to get around
You will definitely need a rental car to get around the area. These are super costly and renting a big van with friends does not really pay-off. The four guys squeezed into a stationwagon and tried to get as much stuff up on the roof as possible. The Shredrack came in very handy for that!
Where to stay
Gear to bring
When visiting the area it is definitely a good idea to bring regular ski-touring gear. Also this is an alpine environment with an avalanche hazard, so the usual set of beacon, shovel and probe is a must.
There is a great online map called UT.no where you can find cabins, tracks and more. You can also purchase standard topographic maps. If you like to mess around with spatial data you can also download the raw data of the official topographic maps at www.kartverket.no, which is an online portal of the Norwegian Mapping Authority. QGIS is a recommended open-source geographical information system tool, that can be used to display the data.
Norway is not cheap! The flights to get there are ok but when you go shopping, especially alcohol or meat, prices are
The locals recommend to check the weather at www.yr.no.
Text: Sebastian Bubmann
Pictures: Sebastian Bubmann, Philip Kuchelmeister, Tobias Deckert, Maximilian Kuehnhauser