It is the first run if the day, and the morning sun glitters on the pristine, white blanket of new-fallen snow. From the top of the lift, we glide out onto the deserted piste, the wind freezing our cheeks to immobility as we pick up speed. It doesn’t matter.
We have the sun, our own tracks cutting through the virgin snow, and a cup of coffee waiting for us very soon.
We are skiing at Hemsedal Skisenter. This is Norway’s best place to ski when the sun is shining and the snow is at its very best early in the season. It is also where you will find the most popular off-piste skiing. It has been dubbed ‘the little Matterhorn’, and snakes along the side of the stubby mountain that is called after one of Europe’s most imposing peaks.
The body is still stiff this early morning, but a delicious, life-saving cup of coffee is waiting down in the birch wood at Skarsnuten Hotel. The skiing is so steep and demanding that a caffeine shot seems superfluous, but it will be good to have a hot drink and a break, and allow the muscles to recover from the shock of this early morning exercise.
The hotel’s façade of glass and stone is by no means ostentatious, but when you duck inside the warm reception you are surprised by its size. The room extends up over three floors to the bar and restaurant. A double latte thaws out frozen fingers, while we gaze out over the resort from the comfort of the bar, which offers panoramic views over the whole valley.
The tiny dots out on the mountainside multiply as more and more skiers take to the slopes. It is time to get going again.
It is tempting to take a few carving runs down Hemsedalsløypa to warm up. The previous night’s prepping to ballroom-floor smoothness is still intact, and the slope begs you to make wide, swinging turns. The eight-seater chairlift keeps the queues short, so we soon have a mass of height under our feet. And since we are already in the swing of it, we duck down the black. Såhaug run. That certainly lights a fire in the tight muscles.
And now it is suddenly time for lunch. Since the Skistua lodge is starting to fill up, we decide to head back to Skarsnuten. A fabulous off-piste run later, and we are sitting at a table so vertiginous it would kill the appetite of anyone afraid of heights. Even in the Alps, you rarely find a hotel that puts you so dizzyingly close to the edge.
Through the afternoon we try out a variety of different runs. Everyone who skis in Hemsedal agrees on one point: the best thing about the place is the variety to be found here. From extensive nursery slopes and green runs to black runs and precipitous off-piste skiing, both high above the tree line and through the woods.
The terrain park is also famous for the challenge it offers to both expert and novice snowboarders. And parents thank their lucky stars for Trolla, the supervised play area at the bottom of the hill.
One thing everyone should do while they are here is to take the lift up Tottenfjellet to a height of 1,450 m, and then walk the last 10 minutes to the top. The views are spectacular. Afterwards you have 800 m of drop to ski from the top of Norway’s highest lift. Experienced skiers who have a guide with them can choose to make the descent off-piste from here. But that is not something to be attempted by just anyone.
When you have come to the end of your last run of the day, down the pristine slopes of the Little Matterhorn (or taken lift, like most people), it is tempting to quench your thirst with a drink in Skarsnuten’s precipitous bar. The bar is frequented by a grown-up clientele, who chat over the day’s achievements to the accompaniment of light music.
Meanwhile, the après-ski is getting into full swing at Skistua at the bottom of the lift. Hemsedal Café in the center of town is also a popular venue. On Saturday nights the nightlife is impressively exuberant. When midnight approaches, Hemsen nightclub is the place to be, though Skarsnuten nightclub, The Edge, also has its devotees.
Thanks to an excellent terrain park and varied off-piste opportunities, Hemsedal is popular with snowboarders. Among those with apartments at Skarsnuten are veteran snowboarders, Olympic team members and snowboarding athletes. As a result, this small Norwegian mountain resort ends up on the pages of the world’s biggest snowboarding magazines and in the dreams of hopeful young snowboarders the world over.
Facts about the resort
21 lifts, 48 runs, season from mid-November to 1 May. Highest altitude at the top of a run, almost 1,500 m, with a drop of up to 850 m – if your legs can stand it. Information about avalanche hazards is posted at the bottom of the hill.
Skiing on the Sunny Side in Norway, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top) Off-piste in Hemsedal