5,000 square kilometres of skiing terrain. More than 60 mountain peaks. Downhills under the midnight sun. Welcome to Swedish Lapland and the best ski region you’ve never heard of. The season starts on March 17th.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know of Riksgransen. Straddling the Sweden-Norway border, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle on the 68th parallel, this wilderness region is mostly known by Sami reindeer herders and professional polar explorers.
One of those explorers was Johan “Jossi” Lindblom, co-founder of Niekhu Mountain Lodge. He says:
“The variations of terrain and size of the area gives us the ultimate playground for all levels of skiers. I’ve guided all over the world and knew that here we could deliver some of the best heli-skiing imaginable.”
Lindblom teamed up with former ski racer and Swedish Sommelier of the Year Patrik “the Sock” Stromsten, to open Niehku Mountain Lodge in 2018. Stromsten explains another part of the lodge’s philosophy:
“I used to serve wine at night and ski during the day. It showed me how many adventurers like to sleep in a good bed with a nice glass of wine.”
Claimed to be the world’s most northerly heli-ski hotel, Niehku is built into a repurposed railway building from the early 1900s. Its design is very much in keeping with the laid-back vibe of its owners. There’s absolutely nothing pretentious about the lodge but it’s still decadently cool, mixing local materials with high brow comforts in a very original way (what else do you expect when the founders were in a rock band called the National Borderliners).
In one sense the itineraries are fixed. Three days of heliskiing with Thursday arrival and Sunday departure, or four days from Sunday to Thursday, or a full week. In 2022 the heliskiing season is March 17th to May 22nd, which from February 24th to March 17th there’s an off-piste and ski touring option.
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Just a glance at the all-inclusive menu proves it’s a destination for people serious about their skiing. There’s no fancy fondue or dainty high tea here. Breakfast is high on carbs, with homemade pastries, muesli and eggs. The helicopter packed lunch is likely to be a thermos of reindeer stew with fresh bread and organic Swedish beer. Evening time is for a multi course menu paired with wine, but don’t get too full, as there can be time for another heli-ski run at midnight.
Sommelier Stromsten didn’t hint at what’s on his wine list, although we know there are ten cases of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in the cellar. And what a cellar! It’s a plexiglass-covered converted coal-pit in the restaurant’s cellar. Still, for Stromsten, it’s mountains first, wine second. When first waiting tables he served cherries to a guest who asked for sherry, which started his self-education in wine. By 2005 he’d opened Meteologen Ski Lodge, in the same building he’d lived in squalor as a seasonal ski bum. In between he was competing in mogul skiing for Sweden.
“Thirty years ago, Jossi and I used to boulder on the rock that’s now a wall of the lodge. We left a few litres of blood on it.”
While it’s nice to think about sitting in a glass sauna with a Swedish microbrew as the Northern Lights emerge, or staying in a property that won a UNESCO Prix Versailles for World’s best hotel interior, let’s get back to the slopes.
Unlike the Alps, there is very little regulation over heli-skiing in this Lapland region. In the Alps heli-skiers are restricted to a schedule of pre-determined landing points each day. From Niekhu there’s freedom to freely explore 5,000 square kilometres of fresh, late-season snow.
You may have seen the landscape before. This is where freeride pros go to shoot dramatic off-piste footage for their sponsors. These mountains are big and guests at Niehku can expect up to 8,000 vertical metres a day. It’s a mix of high-altitude, wide-open powder runs and short, adrenalin-hitting steeps, spread across over 1million acres. Skiers go off in groups of five with a professional guide as part of the standard semi-private package. Fully private packages are also available. Lindbolm has guided in Alaska, the Caucasus and for a decade in Chamonix, but maintains that Riksgransen has the world’s best ski terrain.
“Everyone who comes to us gets what they want, regardless of their level and experience. There’s endless enjoyable cruising for the common skier, but also steep faces and technical runs for the expert.”
So the best ski region you’ve never heard of? Well, that’s always going to be subjective and there’s always going to be somewhere new to discover. At Niehku you’ll find a ski region with wide appeal and a very personal atmosphere. There are many amazing ski lodges with great locations and sheer opulence, but only a few where the owners have really lived and breathed skiing their entire lives. Owners who will be discussing the 2009 Brunello di Montalcino vintage while gliding down a powder covered glacier with you. Niehku means “dream” in the Sami language and Lindblom summarises the vision perfectly.
“Niehku celebrates the simple things in life. We love skiing, but at day’s end we also value eating and drinking well, and reading a book in front of the fire.”