When the rest of Sweden prepare for spring, Björkliden and Riksgränsen open for the winter season. Håkan Stenlund goes north, to the playground of the fanatics.

”Thank you for this weekend”.

”Thank you. It’s always fun to experience something that’s better than it really is”.

Outside Hotel Riksgränsen two friends thank each other for nice company during the opening weekend at Gränsen. ‘Better than it really is’ refers to the skiing. When the mountain opened on the Friday, covered in ski boot-deep powder completely unaffected by the wind and with clear blue skies, a surprisingly low number of skiers were at the ready. It’s rare that the Swedish mountains are so straightforward: cold snow from top to bottom and not a trace in the snow from the wind. Conditions where snow has fallen as restrained and quietly as a young lover wondering whether to try their luck or not. You can always hope that something will work out. But it doesn’t always end up being better than what you’ve been dreaming about.

Riksgränsen, Sweden's northernmost ski resort and on every ski bums must-visit-list.

At the top all you had to do was to point the tip of your skis down towards the Norddalsliften ski lift and just ski as much as you could. The first go runs along a safe and well-known line. The second, third and fourth line we work out from the lift. The lines get more and more demanding. This is a proper mountain, with snowdrifts and grooves created by the ever-changing weather. Just because you came here in May last year doesn’t mean you know the mountain. You move to a line nearer the Solliften ski lift. But when other skiers turn up en masse you choose to go down the main face, towards the hotel. ‘Uffes Vägg’ and ‘Branten’ are closed, probably due to avalanche danger. But the classic ‘Rimfors’ is covered in powder. Halfway down you have time to reflect on the fact that the old geezer Olle Rimfors, who gave the run its name, probably would have liked this. This was why he and all the rest came here once upon a time. Started the first skiing school in Sweden and did front somersaults using poles on their two-metre wooden skis. It was to Riksgränsen all the fanatics came to ski. There was enough winter here to go round.

It was to Riksgränsen all the fanatics came to ski. There was enough winter here to go round.

Half a day later it’s time to climb up to the top of Norddalsfjället. The run towards Sadeln looks impossibly inviting. This time you don’t mind that much that you’re not the first. When you’re climbing a trail it’s always nicer if someone has gone first; it’s not like when you’re heading down the mountain. Back at the hotel you enjoy the après-ski and make the necessary updates on Facebook and Instagram and you know that you’ve experienced a day that theoretically perhaps couldn’t exist. A day that’s better than it should be. So when you enter Grönan and spilt beer and old snus start sticking to your boots you know you’ve travelled through time. It’s a long time since it was this good. It’s been a long time since you were late to the opening night at Grönan. You’ve ordered a hot chocolate with Minttu to get quickly some feeling back into your fingers and toes.

There's enough winter to go around, all the way until the end of May (or June, depending on weather).

Riksgränsen, highest and furthest, has always been for the fanatics: for those who like to be cold, and to sweat. For those who don’t care about frozen fingers, or toes. For those who are as happy walking up to the top for an extra run as using the ski lifts. For those who live in a tent at the caravan park, or who have made it in life and can stay at Meteorologen, but are still living at the caravan park in their minds. Riksgränsen is for the true skiers, the ski bums, those staying the season, the kids. Those that know their time will come. Because fanatics and people on the margin have always been looking north. You want to be there, on the margin. It’s where you come to terms with who you are and who you want to be. Everything falls into place when you’re on skis.

Riksgränsen has had its fair share of facelifts. I like the new lobby bar. Often it replaces Grönan, the nightclub. There are simple drinks available: Jack Daniel’s, Captain Morgan, beer, wine, coffee, hot chocolate and Minttu. It’s a nice place to sit down and talk to people without having to shout at them. Also the food is a story on its own. Meteorologen Lodge, the house next door where Patrik Strömsten keeps court, is one of the best mountain hotels in Sweden according to the travel magazine RES. Patrik is the only sommelier in Sweden who has been named Sommelier of the Year twice. I often go there more for the wine than for the food. But no, that’s not really fair. I think I’ve hardly ever been to Gränsen without having the set menu Svarta Björn. Every year something changes and there’s a little twist. Nothing is the way it used to be. But the taste of löjrom – vendace roe – is always exquisite.

Meteorologen lodge, one of the best mountain hotels in Sweden.

Winter. Most of us come here in spring. Some get the boat out, or the golf bag, but others resist and remain on their boards and skis. But it’s still during winter you best understand the enthusiasm and joy of skiing. It’s during winter you’re able say that it was ‘better than it really is’. So I come for the opening week. The first day is absolutely magical. I have had one other day like it in the Swedish mountains during my 30 years of quite intense skiing. My friend Mange says that he’s had perhaps three days, but then he’s parked his caravan at Gränsen. We’re talking days when the snow lies as deep as your ski boot, cold and dry from first to last turn on the slope. After the opening day we get a day with paler light but then the Sunday welcomes us with bright sunshine again and fantastic skiing on proper snow. After that it kicks off: every morning is nice and clear but it starts getting windier towards the evening. Four days that week are so windy that the E10 road is closed at Björnefjäll as well as at Björkliden. Fresh snow falls, old tracks are covered.

On the Friday, a week after opening, it’s as good as on that first day again. That day Uffes Vägg and Branten are both open from the start. But during the years I’ve become less keen to tempt faith. So when the others bust the snow bridges on Branten I choose Keps and Rimfors instead.

It’s still better than it really is.

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