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Up on the Rooftop

 

 

SKIING HISTORY

Editor Kathleen James
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To preserve skiing history and to increase awareness of the sport’s heritage

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Skiing History (USPS No. 16-201, ISSN: 23293659) is published bimonthly by the International Skiing History Association, P.O. Box 1064, Manchester Center, VT 05255.
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Up on the Rooftop

By Jimmy Petterson

Built by architect Ralph Erskine, the Borgafjäll Hotel in Swedish Lapland is an enduring outpost of ski culture and solitude.

Not long ago, my friend Axel Persson and I embarked on a ski journey that took us north to Lapland—and back in time. Our destination was Borgafjäll, a remote mountain village in Swedish Lapland that’s home to Sami reindeer herders, a small lift-served ski area, extensive backcountry terrain, and a unique hotel and spa with an interesting history.

Above: Erskine built the hotel roof to be a ski slope, with a railing on three sides to prevent skiers from falling off. It opened in 1955.

Swedish Lapland, in the northernmost portion of the country, covers roughly 110,000 square kilometers and is home to only 94,000 people. That calculates to a population density below one person per square kilometer. It’s a place where skiers can still find a bit of elbow room while connecting with the sport’s heritage, which is rooted in solitude.


Looking across Borga Lake to the cliff-lined north face of Borgahällen. Courtesy Hotel Borgafjäll

Our trip began in the city of Gothenburg on April 27, a lovely spring day in western Sweden. The forest near my home was a blanket of white, and the wood anemones were in full bloom. The girls that parade under those stately trees, walking daily along Gothenburg’s main avenue, had exchanged their winter wardrobes of black clothes and long overcoats for short dresses in spring pastels. When we arrived at our remote destination, the Lapland wilderness was also covered by white … but it was snow.

After taking the train to Stockholm, a local propeller plane flew us to Wilhelmina, a small settlement of 4,000 people in the province of Västerbotten. About 1,000 air kilometers north of our original Gothenburg starting point, the small aircraft touched down in a little clearing in the woods that they call an airport. From there, we borrowed a friend’s car and drove 112 kilometers northwest. Ninety minutes and a couple of reindeer herds later, we arrived at the Borgafjäll Hotel.

Here in southern Lapland, the pace of life is slow, small is good, and skiing never has been and never will be an “industry.” They say the Sami people have 100 different words to describe snow. I suspect they need no word for crowd, as the phenomenon does not exist.


Erskine was visiting Sweden from his native England when World War II broke out in 1939. A pacifist, he stayed in the neutral country rather than return to the United Kingdom. Hotel Borgafjäll is one of his most significant works and is one of the country’s 25 designated architectural landmarks.

A remote but enduring outpost of ski civilization, Borgafjäll has a unique history. Its tale begins in 1939, when architect Ralph Erskine was visiting Sweden from his native England. When World War II broke out during his stay, the pacifist Quaker decided to remain in neutral Sweden rather than return to the United Kingdom. Hence, Erskine’s early work was done primarily in his newly adopted homeland.

One of Erskine’s first significant achievements was the Hotel Borgafjäll, a fascinating piece of architecture that today still stands out as an iconic remnant of 1950s culture. Like the great Frank Lloyd Wright, Erskine sought to create harmony between his buildings and the surrounding environment. Not only did he build the hotel primarily from local materials, but he also built the roof to be a ski slope, with a railing on three sides to prevent skiers from falling off. Inside, sections of the hotel are connected by walkways that resemble ship’s gangways, while idiosyncratic fireplaces warm the lobby and dining room. The rooms are quirky, too: Many are laid out on three levels. The double room, for example, accommodates up to four people, with two single beds on the top level, sofa bed and TV on the central level, and bathroom below. A detached ski lodge has bunks and showers for budget-minded skiers.


Ralph Erskine

Drawn by the hotel’s quirky reputation, skiers started to find their way to this remote Lapland outpost in the late 1950s. The pace picked up starting in 1962, when Erskine’s friend Arne Isaksson invested in a Weasel — a tracked military vehicle designed during World War II to move quickly over snowy terrain. For skiing purposes, it was the predecessor of the snow cat, and Arne used his Weasel to drag skiers up the slopes around the hotel.

Now 82, Arne is still around, and he reminisced with me about those pioneer days.

Skiing was growing in popularity in the early 1960s, and within a few years, he owned five Weasels, each driven by one of his brothers. Each Weasel could carry six passengers and haul an additional 25, each holding on for dear life to one of three ropes tied to the back.

Meanwhile, his wife was also active in this budding ski enterprise, serving waffles, sandwiches, sausages, coffee and soft drinks at a small hut on the slopes. The first surface lift was installed in 1967. Because it only took beginners about 165 vertical feet up the nearest slope, it didn’t provide much competition for Arne’s Weasels, which transported skiers about 1,300 vertical feet up the local mountains. When the first long T-bar was built in 1973, Arne retired his fleet.

Perhaps the most interesting bit of trivia regarding Arne’s early days is the manner in which he purchased the Weasels. He bought them from the U.S. Army, which had no use for them after the war.

“A lumber company bought such old military equipment per square kilometer,” Arne told me.

“Sorry, Arne. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said. “How can one buy a Weasel by the square kilometer?”

“Well,” the old timer drawled, “the lumber company negotiated a price for whatever old army vehicles were situated on one square kilometer of land. Everything remaining on that chunk of earth was theirs for that price. Later, the lumber company sold some of the equipment to me and others.”

While Ralph Erskine and Arne Isaksson have certainly left their legacy on the little ski area, an important person in today’s Borgafjäll is Magnus Nilsson. Magnus now owns the lifts and slopes, and at the time of my visit, he also ran a cat-skiing operation—a descendent of Arne’s Weasel business. Over the years, in addition to transporting skiers and boarders up the mountains with his snow cat, Magnus has also taken people off-piste with a chopper and guided them on touring skis.

When we arrived, the cat skiing had finished for the winter because the reindeer had begun to return to the mountains, but Magnus took some time to show Axel and me around. The ski area has two lifts. The longer and higher Borgalift, which serves a vertical drop of 950 vertical feet, is by far the more interesting. It has five pistes of differing gradients, all facing the picturesque Borga Lake and cliff-lined north face of Borgahällan (3,378 feet) on the opposite shore. The shorter Avasjö Lift and beginner lift on the east-facing side cater to families, but does access some nice off-piste tree skiing. After a trip to the sauna and four-star dinner of reindeer carpaccio and butter-fried whitefish, I slept like a baby.
 


Skinning up 4,273-foot Klöverfjäll with local guide Magnus Nilsson in May before descending in perfect spring corn snow. Jimmy Petterson photo.

The following day, we traveled by snowmobile with Magnus to the base of Klöverfjäll (4,273 feet), where we strapped skins to our skis and replaced the machines with manpower. As we skied, Magnus explained the long-running conflict between skiers and snowmobilers in Lapland. Nothing is more disturbing to a skier in search of solitude than a noisy machine cutting deep ruts through virgin snow. Meanwhile, snowmobilers want to race around the valleys without worrying about some errant skier who might end up as collateral damage. Magnus hoped his resort could be a melting pot where the two would coexist.

For the next few hours, we glided up through a moonscape of undulating white. The higher we skied, the farther the eye could see, and the panorama that unfolded as we approached the top was breathtaking.

Just under the summit, we paused for a short picnic. Near the peak, the wind had blasted the rocks with a coat of rime. It was early May, but the day was cold. Magnus had told us that the best time of day for corn snow would be between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, and he was right.

After our first few turns, the spring snow turned to the perfect texture. Little kernels riffled off our ski edges like a May hailstorm. Skiing corn is so effortless that one hardly requires a pause, and before we knew it, we were back at the snowmobiles, gazing up at our tracks that glistened in the sunshine. Later, sitting by the pool, I reflected on the common ground that skiers and snowmobilers share. Sure, snowmobiles are noisy and leave a trail of exhaust in the air that I can’t avoid breathing as I glide silently uphill to my destination. Both sports, however, share a love of speed, a sense of freedom, and a desire for communion with nature.

And then I remembered Ralph Erskine and the reindeer. They are the rightful rulers of this territory. They, too, want to roam freely in the mountains. Magnus had recently compromised his financial interests and shut down his snow cat operation for the season in deference to the return of the herds to higher ground. It was all about respect. 

American-born writer Jimmy Petterson has produced 15 ski films and written and photographed Skiing Around the World, Volumes 1 and 2. See www.skiingaroundtheworldbook.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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