First published in Volume 21, Issue 2 of The Snowboarder’s Journal
In snowboarding there are many separate yet connected subcultures. Within these communities, the search for new experiences and uncharted territory is a tangible goal. Different disciplines merge with excitement and challenge, which sometimes leads to a search for a place where fairytale aspects of urban life blend seamlessly into the untamed realness of the backcountry. Vatnahalsen, an activity-based hotel at the top of Flåmsdalen, Norway, accessible only by the mystical Flåmsbana rail line, fits such a bill.
Our voyage starts on the shores of Nærøyfjorden, with lush green hills surrounding the narrow yet beautiful fjord. The Flåmsbana railroad, a.k.a. The Flåm Railway, serves as our vessel from the fjord through rugged, wind beaten mountains to the enchanting world of Vatnahalsen. Only after hurling through stunning valleys, traversing precariously across cliffs and winding through hand carved tunnels, we arrive at Vatnahalsen Hotel at the top of Flåmsdalen Valley, a true backcountry paradise. It feels as is if it’s been plucked from the pages of an old fairytale, with its aura of a bygone era and 127 years of eyebrow raising history.
Originally built as a sanatorium in the 1890s, the structure never served its original purpose. It’s been run as a hotel ever since, changing ownership numerous times and even being occupied by German soldiers for a stint during World War II. Despite changing hands, an untimely fire, subsequent reconstruction and other less than fortunate mishaps over its 115 years of operation, Vatnahalsen has long maintained its reputation as a solid place to shred (excluding that unfortunate time when Nazis occupied it). These days, its winter visitors mainly comprise backcountry skiers, with guided tours being a prominent aspect of the operation. Yet as far as we know, few snowboarders have come to take advantage of this area.
There are only a handful of other guests here and the entire area is quiet and still, except for the occasional train whistle. Carve your own path. Find your own way. Both mottos of the youth. Here at Vatnahalsen, that is exactly what we intend on doing. We splitboard straight out of the hotel, and as we begin our journey up into this powder firmament, the peaks and lines become clearer, revealing their potential for adrenaline and glory.
The owner of the hotel, Petter Andresen, shows us around. He tells us that he’s never seen people ride with the approach we’re bringing to the mountains he’s skied with so many others so many times before. Whether it’s finding rocks to pop off, wind lips to hand drag, trees to jib or even rays of sunlight to slash into, we make the most of everything we see along the way. He says he’s used to people looking at big lines to ski in full, rather than noticing all the fun spots to play around on during a tour. The big, scary lines that have attracted so many here in the past eventually come into focus for us. We ride some of those lines, as well as a first descent now and forever known as Lenny’s Ledge. But, perhaps more importantly, we introduce the area and its hosts to a new and different way of seeing, a different way of being. A new approach to interpreting the mountains, and new ways of riding them. We manage to etch a new tale into these ancient structures and the storied history of this incredible area.
As night falls, the northern lights begin to reveal themselves to the naked eye, clouding the constellations with dance. Fireplaces warm our bodies and souls, and the contentment of the day’s accomplishments breeds deeper friendships within our gang of gonzo snowboarders. Vatnahalsen is not just a destination, not just an altered state of mind, but a portal to ultimate creativity. The opportunity to step out of the front door and expand your potential and paint new history amidst the frozen waterfalls, with very little distraction and constraints of the everyday world down below. No more mundane, only challenge. No more retreads and revisits, only new opportunities. No more excuses, only potential.