I was here because of snow. Or rather, lack of it. Good snow was hard to score in the Alps last year, and when you’re looking for a reliable source of the white stuff, Norway can hook you up. In season, you can even ski on the outskirts of the capital. Where I was headed, the houses skirt the edges of the endless snow. This is no domesticated Alpine winter. A couple more hours north and I’d have been where Scott trained for the Antarctic.
I brooded nordic noir-style, gazing out at wide, flat vistas with the gleam of old pewter. Approaching Lillehammer, the train hugs the shore of Mjøsa, Norway’s largest and one of Europe’s deepest lakes. Thin white birches whipped by. Mist, lying low on the water, drifted toward the dark patches of trees on the farther shore.
Troll legends start to make sense in this weird, greyscale landscape. The only drops of colour were occasional clumps of cross-country skiers strung out along a trail.
This is a place where you ski on the flat. It’s not big in Britain but the Europeans – and especially the Scandinavians – love it. Give it a try: you’ll be in the best shape of your life.
Then the pressing darkness of the ranks of trees was lifted by a sudden glow of sun breaking through streaks of cloud, big and low at as it started to set, at 3.30pm.
Yes, this is also a place where long winter evenings really mean something. Bring books. On the bright side, all that cross country skiing means you are going to sleep well.
A quick bus ride from the station brings you to the wood-lined charm of the Rustad Hotel in Sjusjøen.
Imagine the polar opposite of the icy world outside. Warm and cheerful, Rustad was busy celebrating 80 years and four generations of family ownership. They seemed to have got it pretty much down by now; only a Jo Nesbo hero would have felt out of place. I gave up practising my brooding look.
Several sprawling lounges with fireplaces provide the heart of the building, a place to unwind after a hard day on the ski trails and compare troll sightings. It isn’t luxurious – the only toiletries provided in my room were two small bars of soap; and the hearty, tasty restaurant food is served without a menu. It felt like a very well-appointed youth hostel, but full of families and people of all ages. It was everything I needed. I’d packed lots of books.
Sjusjøen is pronounced Shush-ern, and with Snorvillen nearby it certainly sounds like a sleepy little village, especially to worn-out skiers nodding off by the fire. Step outside, though, and the landscape is anything but.
Its mood changes with the weather. In the sun, it is spectacular, glittering. From the top of Lunkefjell, one of the local peaks, a desert of ice spread out around me in every direction. Lower down, the landscape becomes more eerie: I glided past trees, shrouded and tentacular under the weight of snow, then through a dead village of closed-up summer cabins. Right by the Rustad there was the spectacular frozen lake: a still, white sea, hanging like a mirage under the setting sun.
In the fog it was different again. Not so clammy or chilling as you might think, but dry, windless and blank. At times I could only see 10-20 metres ahead. It was like skiing inside a ping-pong ball. It becomes a meditative experience – you, your breath and the rhythm of the skis. A good time to focus on technique, or perhaps pick a suitable mantra.
There is a good cafe in Nordseter, a welcome source of hot chocolate, especially when the wind gets up. The wind has teeth. When it’s windy you should ski in the trees, otherwise you may find yourself as I did one day, far from the warm bubble of the Rustad, nowhere near any roads, with no way back but to battle the elements.
Take a map. Take a compass. Take a flask of solbaer and a Kvikk Lunsj (Norwegian versions of hot Ribena and a KitKat). It’s exhilarating, and later you can defrost in the Rustad’s sauna. And you can count on the snow. Just don’t expect it to be tame.
Snow it allCross-country skier Bjorn Dählie of Norway holds the record for the most medals won at the Winter Olympics with 12.
NEED TO KNOW
Inntravel (01653 617000, inntravel.co.uk) offers a week at the Rustad Hotel in SjujØen, Norway from £1,095pp based on two sharing, including seven nights’ half board accommodation, seven lunch packs, return flights (Heathrow-Oslo), connecting travel by rail and transfer, and use of cross-country trails. The holiday operates between 20 December 2015 and 3 April 2016.