Jørgen Aamot pauses next to a set of animal tracks heading obliquely up and across the fall line. They look to be a few days old, made indistinct by spring rain and intense subarctic sunshine.
The tracks are deep, and it’s clear they belong to a large and heavy animal, and something that knows how to move efficiently in this mountain terrain. They gain altitude steadily, gently, just like a well-set skin track, which is probably why Aamot had been leading us roughly parallel to them before I had even noticed they were there.
“Reindeer,” he says, explaining that it’s actually unusual to see these tracks, or the animals themselves, on a mountainside. Naturally avalanche savvy, reindeer typically stick to ridge tops, though the search for food occasionally necessitates crossing slopes where the avalanche risk is higher.
We start skinning again when Aamot does. There are seven of us, five Americans and two Norwegians, following our guide up the north slope of Sætreskarsfjellet, a mountain in the rugged fjord country of western Norway.
Aamot, a slim and strong Norwegian in his forties with a close-cropped reddish beard and the quiet patience of someone accustomed to leading clients through the mountains, is an IFMGA-certified mountain guide and ambassador for Sweet Protection, a Norwegian manufacturer of helmets and protective equipment for skiing, biking, and whitewater paddling.
I fall in directly behind him and we continue discussing the travel habits of these famous local ungulates. Not long ago, he says, a mountain traveler came upon the aftermath of a large avalanche that had taken out hundreds of reindeer at once. So many rotting carcasses littered the slide path that authorities had to airlift them away before microbes overwhelmed the watershed and endangered the drinking water in downstream municipalities.
At the start of our ski tour, we’d crossed a stream and I’d been briefly tempted to drop to my knees and drink deeply from what was surely the pure and wonderfully clean issuance of these pristine mountains. We’d seen gorgeous waterfalls and rivers everywhere, and Iselin Næss and Andreas Reutz, our Norwegian hosts, had told us how long days of bright Northern sun and the churning action of tumbling brooks and streams have a purifying effect on Nordic water, rendering it generally safe to drink. With Aamot’s tale, my temptation had dissolved.
It’s early June and I’ve come to Norway to learn about the unusual origins of Sweet Protection and the country and culture that spawned the company. To my delight, what Iselin and Andreas had in mind was not some dry PowerPoint in the brand’s Oslo corporate office, but a five-day, 700-mile road trip across Norway to experience the country’s astounding natural beauty, surprisingly North American cultural tilt, and deep infatuation with outdoor adventure sports.
Two days earlier, in the parking lot of a hotel in Oslo, Norway’s cosmopolitan capital city of 670,000 in the country’s southeast, the seven of us piled into a little rented Volkswagen diesel minivan with loads of food and beer. Heading north, things got rural quickly as the city’s outskirts gave way to small villages and then to boreal forest punctuated here and there by modest houses and barns with wood-lap siding and sod roofs.
Andreas—an artist, former Norwegian armed forces member, and graphic designer for Sweet Protection—is our rock at the wheel, expertly navigating Norway’s country highways while the Americans in our group sleep or force him and Iselin to listen to hours of Grateful Dead. Iselin, who until recently worked as Sweet Protection’s PR and content manager, is our guide. Cheery and gregarious, she points out landmarks and helps us with Norwegian pronunciation. After this trip, I think, her intonation coaching might help me better understand my Minnesota friends.
The Norwegians—or at least Iselin—are passionate about baked buns and big American-style burgers, and we stop for each over the course of the three-hour drive to Norway’s forested eastern interior. A gas station called Bolleland (translation: Bunland) claims to have the world’s best buns—I don’t disagree. A burger joint a bit later on, complete with a mud-spattered GMC pickup parked outside, proves that Norway does big, juicy, and delicious just as well as Americans do.
Buildings gradually begin to appear with more frequency in the forest, and we arrive in rural Trysil, home to Norway’s most-visited ski resort and the birthplace of Sweet Protection. Soon we are on an evening mountain-bike ride among the spruce and granite with Atle Enberget, a founder of Sweet Protection and son of Trysil ski instructors who spent his youth bombing the slopes and playing in the woods, on Trysil resort’s brand-spanking new bike trail network. As I learn the next day at Sweet Protection’s original Trysil office, it is fitting to be with Atle in the forest because the forest is where Sweet Protection was born.
To understand the brand’s origins, you must first know that skateboarding was illegal in Norway between 1978 and 1989. Yes, skateboarding, and yes, illegal. Citing the number of American kids killed and maimed while skateboarding in the late ’70s, Norwegian authorities banned the sport outright and confiscated the boards of whatever miscreants they caught. But it was too late for the gang of boys with whom Atle ran, which included Ståle Møller, another eventual co-founder of Sweet Protection. They were hooked on this American import and the Norwegian ban only drove them underground, or, more accurately, into the woods.
To be able to skate in peace, the boys constructed ramps in the forest. Skateboarding, and the sale of skateboard products, was allowed in Sweden, and the border is only a half hour from Trysil. Alcohol was cheaper in Sweden as well, and the boys’ parents would occasionally make illicit runs to Sweden to stock up. Knowing this, the boys would often ask their parents to pick up decks, trucks, wheels, and copies of Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding magazines.
As a little boy, Møller was fascinated by the Norwegian cult stop-action film “Flåklypa Grand Prix,” in which a tinkering inventor who works as a bicycle repairman invents a revolutionary race car in his own home shop and wins the Formula One world championships. A young Møller eventually turned his parents’ Trysil garage into his laboratory. Cloaked by the east-central Norwegian forests, equipped with a DIY ethic, and inspired by Southern California surf and skate culture, he built skate decks for the crew under the name Bushmade.
Now an award-winning industrial designer, Møller is a soft-spoken man in his mid-40s whose eyes gleam with intelligence and maybe a bit of mischief from behind eyeglass frames he engineered himself. He recounts the Sweet story, the day after our evening ride with Enberget, as he shows me around the company’s original office in Trysil, which shares a building with the local police and fire departments.
Walking in, I notice what looks like a Viking helmet on a shelf, made of riveted metal and sporting wooden antlers. Seeing it catch my attention, Møller hoists it and explains that it is, in fact, a thousand-year old Viking helmet unearthed near Trysil, and that it served as the original model and inspiration for Sweet.
I nod, baffled, and then he smirks and I realize he’s joking. But the message is soon clear: this is a guy, and a company, who inhales bits and pieces of the sports and culture and mythology he knows and admires, and exhales inspired and meticulously engineered gear for outdoor athletes.
Each room is strewn with works in progress—helmet shells, utility knives, chips of foam, and shavings of carbon fiber, the detritus of buzzing minds. Led by Møller, the gang that became Sweet built whatever they were into at the time. Finding big standing waves on the nearby Klarälven River, Møller designed and built sleek composite whitewater kayaks so the crew could shred those waves. High-altitude mountaineering apparel followed, as did helmets and padding for skiing, snowboarding, and mountain-biking.
After incorporating in 2000, Sweet Protection released the Strutter, a composite baseball-cap-style whitewater helmet that swept the industry, and the now-ubiquitous Rooster snow helmet, a modified version of which—the Rooster Corsa—now adorns the precious dome of Norwegian World Cup ski superstar Aksel Lund Svindal. Since then, the company has developed deep product lines for skiers and riders, mountain bikers, and whitewater paddlers.
All along the way, skiing and snowboarding were the foundation, sports in which the boys grew up and which they learned from their parents and one another. This fall, 2019, after nearly twenty years of experience building snow helmets, the company introduced an eyewear line, including snow goggles and sunglasses, with lenses designed to enhance contrast without distorting color. And judging from my experience on the final full day of our adventure, a pea-soup day at the Stryn Sommerski ski area in Norway’s western fjord country, the technology is effective.
But first, we go to the Stryn Festival.
If this were a story about exquisite foreign dining experiences in outrageously beautiful places, I’d use a lot more space to tell you all about Brimi Fjellstugu, a destination restaurant and lodge on the edge of Norway’s mountainous Jotunheimen region, home to Northern Europe’s highest concentration of mountains over 6,500 feet. But it’s not, and Brimiland, about halfway between Trysil in the east and the tiny hamlet of Hjelledalen in the west, is just another in a sequence of mindblowing spots on our journey across Norway.
We pull into the Hjelledalen Hyttesenter, a collection of sod-roofed cabins in Hjelledalen, and check into a three room cabin. Hjelledalen is basically a truck stop—convenience store, campground, a few cabins and old farms—but the prettiest truck stop you can imagine, surrounded by lush forest, waterfall-striped cliffs, whitewater rivers, peaks laden with velvety corn snow, and, nearby, the frigid waters of Oppstrynsvatnet, a glacial lake that drains into nearby Innvikfjorden and the North Atlantic.
Hjelledalen is an action-sports paradise and home to the Stryn Festival, an annual shoulder-season gathering of Norway’s outdoor tribe, where the ambitious can ski, climb, bike, paddle, swim, skateboard, and dance all in one day. The Stryn Festival is one of a series of festivals hosted year-round, across Norway, by Norwegian ski magazine Fri Flyt.
In terms of being a shoulder-season Mecca for people into mountain sports, western Norway may have my home state of Colorado beat, and it’s not just because of the adjacency of world-class ski-touring, mountain-biking, paddling, and climbing in places like Hjelledalen. It’s also because of the amount of daylight. We pull in around 8:00 PM, which looked, to my Colorado eyes, to be about 2:00 PM. In Norway, it never gets totally dark in June, just dusky for a couple of hours around midnight and then the birds start chirping again. That means you could fit a full peak-bagging ski-tour, followed by your other two or three favorite mountain sports all into one day.
It also means you can accidentally party for way too long, without sunset to remind you to stop quaffing and go home, which is what happened to us this night, and the next night, at Stryn Festival. Between Ringnes tallboys, my most vivid memories of the festival involve being among throngs of pleasant-mannered Norwegians wearing those slim-fitting color-blocked tech pants popularized in the US by Fjällraven, plus either Gore-Tex jackets or woolen Nordic sweaters. I also remember looking up at sun-kissed peaks far above me, wishing it would get dark so I could go to bed.
We spend our final day in western Norway at Stryn Sommerski, a small resort not far from the Stryn Festival, and the site of the Festival’s freestyle ski competition. Though fun—and certainly worth a visit should you find yourself there in late spring—the weather alternated between dense fog and heavy rain, and besides a couple of runs and a quick skin-and-ski, we mainly hunkered down in the lodge over draft beers and big burgers.
It’s the day before I’ll remember best, standing on the summit of Sætreskarsfjellet with guide Jørgen Aamot, looking out across a sea of corn-striped peaks sparkling in the northern sun, eating a gas-station lunch of Norwegian pastries and cured meats, with friends new and old. One by one, under Aamot’s supervision, we drop onto a wide apron of soft snow, arcing turns to the valley, and to our little Volkswagen van, far below.
At the tailgate of the van, on a pull-off beside the highway that leads down to Hjelledalen and then to Hjelle and the shore of Oppstrynsvatnet where we would later swim in view of even more shining peaks and glaciers, we pull off our boots, sip on water (from our cabin tap, not the stream)
and Ringnes beer, and try with mixed success to pronounce a new phrase we learn from Aamot.
“Takk for turen,” he says. Thanks for the trip.