Skiing at its primal best
The Arctic Ski Pass gives you seven days of big mountain skiing in Lapland, Europe's last wilderness for 1795 Swedish Kronor (US$248; GBP).
The first three are in Sweden, while Narvik is in Norway. There are 18 lifts and 75 groomed slopes, plus unlimited offpiste and a heliski area the size of Austria.
Björkliden: 2010 Swedish Alpine Championships
Björkliden was a must. As the venue for the 2010 Swedish Alpine Championships, and where superstar Anja Paerson will race a final time, the place had to be seen and tested.
Sweden is well known for its technical skiers, the greatest of them being Ingemar Stenmark, Pernilla Wiberg and Anja Paerson (the latter two branching out into speed events), but it does not have a strong reputation for downhill or super-g. The country only has two FIS-approved downhill runs: one is at Åre, the other is at, you guesed it, Björkliden.
The resort makes much of this fact by describing the place as
Real skiing in real mountains, i.e. not hills, not fells but mountains with long runs. These are not mountains with jagged peaks as in the Alps or Tetons, but they are craggy and wild nonetheless with a feeling of untouched majesty about them.
The problem for Björkliden is that its mountains are located well above the Arctic Circle and subject to all the harsh extremes of Arctic, or at least sub-Arctic, weather. Put simply, it is often very windy and very cold.
This means strong, icy winds, temperatures down to minus 20°C (4°F) and below, hard-packed snow, ice, and drifts across the slopes. Weather improves in April, when days are long and sunny and temperatures are a more acceptable minus 5°C (23°F) or so. But we visited in mid-March and were battered for an entire day by howling winds and minus 14°C (6.8°F) -- that's without the windchill.
Björkliden powder runs in the Svarta Björn offpiste area
Riding a snowfield on Svarta Björn before hitting the steeps
Björkliden: Traversing cliffs to reach a powder run
Bjorkliden: Fun in the sun on the Svarta Björn offpiste snowfields
Björkliden is a mountain for locals and skiing purists. It's not a place where a family with young kids is going to have much fun in the early part of the season, that is unless you enjoy spending your days warming cold feet and numb faces. Arrange your family trip in late March or April and there's a decent chance you'll all have some fun.
We have received good reports about the ski school. Plenty of Laplanders, plus skiers from further afield, learned slalom technique at Björkliden, and many families return to the tiny resort year after year, especially at Easter.
Speaking of slalom, when you are chattting with Swedes about skiing, many will use
slalom synonymously, which indicates the long and strong tradition of technical skiing in the country. Freeride, or offpiste powder skiing, is seen by the older generation as a youth affliction.
There are no chairlifts at Björkliden. It's all T-bars, five in total, including one, Kåppasliften, that's 1.675 (1 mile) long and is steep, icy, and often rutted. Be prepared to perform some of your fanciest footwork as you ride that lift.
The downhill and super-g run at the Swedish championships start at the top of the mountain high above Kåppasliften. It's a shame that lift doesn't take you all the way to the top. Instead you have to ski down and east to another lift called Kitteldalsliften to reach the mountaintop.
From there, you have the steep, fast, and hair-raising downhill and super-g course in front of you, which will use existing blue and red runs with added steeps and jumps and much ice.
Perhaps of greater interest than trying your hand at downhill racing is the fact that Kitteldalsliften drops you at Björkliden's best offpiste area, a mixed bag of gentle snowfields, long traverses, cliffs, steeps, and a few frightening but skiable narrow chutes with a very steep plunge at the bottom.
In the offpiste areas, only the most obvious hazards are marked. It is quite easy to find yourself above cliffs with long vertical drops. Extreme caution is called for in places, especially as visibility can deteriorate in seconds.
Most of these issues can be avoided by staying inside the patrolled area and sticking to the most well-used runs. They quickly become worn and rutted, but then you know you won't ski onto a cliff or hazardously steep terrain. The two main, and safe, black offpiste runs are called Svarta Björn (Black Bear) and Tunneln (The tunnel), which are numbered 21 and 21 on the trail map. They are not so much runs as entire areas where there's freedom to choose a safe and fun line down.
Björkliden: Venue for the 2010 Swedish Alpine Championships.
Björkliden: Road signs, distances in km
Downhill: Sweden has two FIS-approved downhill runs: Åre and Björkliden.
Lifts: Five lifts, no chairlift. Longest T-bar lift is 1.675 km (1 mile) long.
Marked slopes: 24, which include one, Grytspåret, rated as offpiste.
Offpiste: Accessed from the Kåppasliften. Areas called Svarta Björn and Tunneln.
Accommodation: Available in the ski village. Björkliden and Riksgränsen are good bases from which to use the Arctic Ski Pass.
Worth a visit: Låktatjåkko Mountain Station, 1228 meters above sea level, Sweden's highest manned mountain station with cafe.
For anyone who thinks that the job of skiing writer is easy, we suggest you spend an entire day at Björkliden when the wind is whipping ice crystals at your face and the temperature refuses to budge from a feet-freezing minus 14°C (6.8°F).
We were on the lifts at 9.30 a.m. and rode those lifts all day until we were last off at 4 p.m. From 3 p.m. onwards, there can't have been more than five of us on the mountain.
Riding the mile-long T-bar toward the end of the day, I comforted myself with the thought that skiing is both an adventure and a winter sport. Some discomfort must be endured if you are going to ski the world's more exotic locations.
Björkliden: gentle approach to the steeps
That said, the offpiste area was relatively sheltered and sunny for most of the day. We didn't see more than five people, including ourselves, at any time on the offpiste. In places there was completely untouched powder, not just pockets of it but entire snowfields.
The north facing "groomed" slopes (as in groomed below an inch or two of snowdrift) were horrendously cold, as in Arctic cold.
We love our ice skiing, the sound of edges slicing through ice, the fright when edges lose their grip, the comical sight of skiing companions sliding out of control and cartwheeling downhill at great speed. But we admit, ice skiing is an acquired taste and skill.
Powder purists will probably hate it, but skiing is an all-round sport requiring the ability to ski on all surfaces. Our fun was no doubt enhanced by not skiing on fat skis but on more ice- and piste friendly Blizzard Cross Mountain Pros and Rossi Zenith 9s.
Some powder days we wished we'd brought fatter skis, but on the whole we made the right choice to go with all-mountain skis, and at Björkliden our skis were perfect.
By David Hay Jones and Athina Simonidou