Norwegian Winter Magic in Finse
Story & photos by David McKay Wilson
At the highest point on the Bergen-to-Oslo train line you’ll find the magical vacation hideaway called Finse.
Only accessible by train in winter, the resort, at 4000 feet above sea level, lies at the foot of the Hardanger glacier in an Arctic landscape, where the wind can whip at 40 knots for days, and the snow remains long into May.
In Finse, you follow trails marked with small branches stuck in the snow, and cruise on cross-country skis along the flats or on the climb up to the glacier’s summit – another 2,000 feet of vertical. Other skiers ride the wind on alpine skis, harnessed to billowing kite foils that whisk them across the frozen Finsevatn lake.
Some Telemark skiers skin up, and make lines down the steeps on one of the glacier’s many faces. We skied on Asnes back-country skis branded with the portraits of famed Norwegian explorers Roald Amundsen, who led the first Antarctic expedition to the South Pole, and Fridjof Nansen, who was the first to cross Greeland’s interior by skis, and almost made it to the North Pole in the mid-1890s.
There are three choices for accommodations at Finse. Your best-appointed choice is Finse 1222, the hotel that opened in 1909 when the train line was complete. There’s a corner with pictures of Amudsen and Nansen, and Nansen’s acceptance letter to the Explorer’s Club in New York City in the living room with the early 20th century stone fireplace, carved in traditional Norwegian characters.
There’s a new wing to the hotel, which is connected to the historic section through a 1940 Bergensbanen coach. We were traveling lights, so we rented boots, skis and poles for $19 a day.
Next door is Finsehytta, a hostel-type operation with 162 beds in rooms that range from 2 to 6 beds per room. There’s also a dormitory, and room and two meals goes for about $90 a night a person.
The third choice, which we had the remarkably good fortune to enjoy, is to stay in one of Finse’s 124 cabins, which go by the name, hytte, in Norway. A few are for rent. Hytte life is all the rage among Norwegians, with many of my friends there with a cabin up in the mountains, down along a fjord, or even out on a private island.
Our Finse hytte was an upgrade over my first hytte experience in 1972, during my year as an exchange student in a western Norway fjord village, when she skied up to a 18th century cabin by Josteldals glacier in Sogn og Fjordane. A horse pulled a sled piled high with our provisions, and the cabin had an outdoor outhouse, and wood stove.
At Finse, our hytte was two miles from the hotel, so after arriving at the Finse train station following a two-hour trip from Bergen, we hired a guy at the hotel for $100 to take us out with our gear on his snowmobile. When we arrived on the Finsevatn’s southern shores, snow drifts had encircled the hytte, six feet high.
This place had electricity, a refrigerator, wood stove, and a comfortable coach to slouch down on. There was no running water. The toilet was electric, and we used the wood stove to melt snow in a big aluminum pot with a spigot that we drained into 10-gallon containers.
We skied. We read. We wrote. We cooked meals. We played cards. We snuggled up by the woodstove. We listened to the wind.
Finse has a storied history. It was the training grounds for Norwegian Arctic explorers in the early 20th century. Norwegian underground commandos made camp here during World War II as they prepared for their daring attack on heavy-water facility where the Nazis were developing nuclear bomb technology. And in 1979, it was the film location for the ice planet, Hoth, in the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
Today, it’s a destination for cross-country skiers in the winter and spring. Alpine skiers strap on sail harnesses, and zoom back and forth across the flats in the never-ending winds that blow and blow and blow. Come summer, mountain bikers pedal on the Rallarvegan trail alongside the train line. The ski season climaxes with big gatherings on May 17, when the Norwegian celebrate their independence from 400 years of Danish hegemony.
A word of warning for springtime Finse visitors: be prepared for wintry conditions.
When we ventured out to ski, we learned quickly why wind-proof gear and top-notch eye protection was essential. Finse is located in the Hardangervidda, a sprawling plateau that’s far above the timber line. The son was bright, the winds intense. We found our way on trails that were marked with three-foot high tree twigs, placed about 20 yards apart. That’s quite useful if snow squalls arrive, as they did one day, with the wind blowing a gale and you can basically see from twig to twig to make your way.
Our best day came when we set out for the glacier, whose summit is at 6,200 feet. I smeared the Swix Special Blue wax on the Nansens, and felt the pleasure of the kick-and-glide I’d first learned 45 years earlier while high school student. We followed the twigs east across the Finsevatn, and then began our ascent through the gloriously white landscape, punctuated for a few jagged boulders jutting up through the snow.
After an hour or so, we came over a lip, to see the glacier spread out in its snow-filled glory. It was a basin of white, the snow firm underfoot as we continued our climb.
We never made it to the top as howling winds and descending clouds convinced me to err on the side of caution and return. The descent on cross-country skis was a hoot, as I sat back to keep the tips up, and powered some wide sweeping turns through the windswept powder.
We then headed back to the hotel – to catch up with the world on our phones using the hotel’s wi-fi, and to quaff our thirsts with one of the micro-brewed IPAs that are all the rage in Norway.
In the hotel, we met a group of Norwegians who were among 12,220 cross-country skiers entered in the 2016 Skarverennet – a 37-mile long ski marathon from Finse to Geilo. There were elite skiers who would compete for the best times. But most of those who participate do so for the fun of it.
What little lodging there is in Finse fills up a year in advance for the event, with thousands taking the trains from Oslo and Bergen to the start, and then taking the train home after the post-race party in Geilo.
We left on the day of the race, packing up our back packs and skiing the two miles to the train station. We hadn’t made it to the glacier’s summit this year, but it’s on my bucket list for my return.