Skiing Through the Polar Night

It’s the 28th of November. In Tromsø, it’s the first day of the polar night - yesterday was the last day the sun managed to drag itself above the horizon. For a few more days it’ll still be possible to get direct sunlight by topping out some of the higher peaks in the area at noon. After that, there's nothing left but light through scattered clouds, the moon and the atmosphere itself. This gives some challenges to the avid skier - but also some unique rewards, and some things about skiing when the darkness sets in might not be what you think.

Words and images by Oscar Frick

As winter is ramping up with colder weather and snow in the forecast, the days simultaneously ramp down, growing shorter with each one that passes. If you’re far enough North, then the days eventually disappear completely, the sun never quite enduring the climb to peek over the horizon.

To no one’s surprise, this has a quite big impact on most outdoors related activities. From commuting to work to alpinism and ski touring. The impact might not be as drastic as you think though, and the polar night definitely brings some upsides as well. Let’s start with the basics!

First things first – polar night does not mean it’s pitch black 24 hours a day. I understand that this might whisk out some of the magic out of it for those having had that belief, and while I definitely see the poetry in the idea of having pitch darkness all day round, I assure you that truth surpasses fiction in this case.

Instead of complete darkness the polar night days offer hours on end of the softest sunset light you have ever experienced – for skiing this means hiking up with the whole horizon burning in red and orange and skiing down with light that’s never harsh, yet gives you plenty of vision. While pictures from this time of year tend to be beautiful I have yet to see an image that makes the colors and lighting justice.

While I find the images beautiful, they can’t compare to the real experience.

In fact, it would definitely be possible to do a full polar night period, at least from around Tromsø and southwards, without having to touch a headlamp – and still squeeze in a fair amount of skiing. That is, as long as the weather permits you. One thing that really affects the lighting when the sun never breaches the horizon is the weather, especially around the solstice.

Naturally, the worst for visibility is a complete storm. What would normally produce a white-out instead becomes something closer to a complete black-out. Without a headlamp though, even just thicker clouds quickly make quite a big difference. Days that are normally just a bit overcast are replaced with a dark environment that is challenging to navigate without bringing along your own light.

Despite optimal conditions, photography during the polar night is often challenging.

Also, just because it would be possible doesn’t mean you should. During polar night, a headlamp, preferably with backup batteries, is a mandatory part of the backpack contents. When the tour is longer than just a few hours, you’re going to be spending at least some time with quite low light conditions. Add to that that you’ll likely want to ski down at about noon to get as much light as possible and you soon end up starting the tour in darkness.

It’s also about safety. Without a headlamp that small hiccup that ends up costing you an hour quickly takes you from ending the tour in reasonable lighting conditions to stumbling around with your arms outstretched trying not to hit a tree. Should something really bad end up happening the headlamp is also key. It keeps the darkness from robbing you of being able to assist someone that’s injured, and should a rescue mission not be able to reach you before the darkness sets back in, it makes a night and day difference for them to be able to find you if they know the can look for the dots of light instead of dots of black.

What’s more, for any activity outside of the hours around midday, say for example skiing after work, headlamps are an absolute necessity. So if you end up spending wintertime above the arctic circle, you’ll need one anyway. You might as well make sure it’s suitable to ski with.

Squeezing in the last few turns without a headlamp for the day.

As winter continues, the polar night deepens and darkens. Come solstice, which in Tromsø is a little more than a month from now, the tides turn. Despite the change being very slow in the beginning, there is a definitive shift in the mentality of the skiers up here. Part of it has to do with the fact that winter tightens its grip on the surroundings. In November, if you want to get skiing, you really need to work for it. At the end of December it usually starts getting to the point where you can easily start skinning directly out of your car, even if your tour starts at sea level. Going forward conditions are only expected to improve.

The big thing, however, is just knowing you’re heading towards a lighter time. The change is slow at first – in fact it’s barely noticeable, but the mental shift definitely is easy to see. Despite being beautiful and definitely a unique experience, living through a month without seeing the sun takes its toll. Knowing that you’re halfway through, and that you’ll soon start to notice the difference in light for each day that passes, gives a big mental boost.

Another upside to the polar night is that you get a period where you’re more or less forced to get used to living with your headlamp. Despite the number of bright hours increasing rapidly, and the sun peeking back above the horizon a month or so after the solstice, any outdoor activity taking place after work will require you bringing your own light for some time still. Usually the first after work ski tour not requiring the use of a headlamp comes around some time in late february. Without the polar night to force your hand, making you get used to the headlamp, I think there’d be a risk that at least I would end up being lazy and not bothering with the extra hassle that the headlamp circus brings. In the end that would cost me many really nice tours.

But… Headlamps? Doesn’t that take the joy out of skiing?

Well, no. In a lot of ways skiing with a headlamp is the exact same thing as any other skiing, Naturally, in some ways, it’s completely different. Of course the basics are the same – it’s just skiing. But skiing when it’s pitch black behind every pillow and rollover, when there’s a constant flurry of shadows and shapes that makes it difficult to make up from down, or when your line of vision is limited by how long your headlamp’s beam reaches, makes for a contrasting experience.

When going downhill it’s definitely more challenging staying on top of things as the speed picks up, especially below treeline.
Speed management is key. It’s usually a good idea to dial the downhill back a notch or two, otherwise that branch you couldn’t make out among the shadows might cause you to have an unnecessary accident.
As much as you don’t want to get hurt no matter the state of the sun it’s definitely worse in darkness. Everything is more of a hassle, including for you to get out on your own when injured or, should it be needed, arranging a rescue operation.

In the alpine, the downhill presents less of an issue. Sure, in the end there’s a limit to your usable vision due to the maximum range of your headlamps beam, but today’s high output headlamps give ample light for just about anyone to feel comfortable at their cruising speed. There’s also less things around that mess with your vision. All those shapes and textures that are present below the treeline are usually replaced by open fields and the odd cliff band is more often than not easily distinguished in an otherwise quite monotonous landscape.

Alpine cliff bands are usually so distinct enough not to present any problems for headlamp users.

The uphill in the alpine is quite different though. While the light from a good, modern, headlamp is definitely enough to ski fast with, there might not be quite enough light to easily navigate with. Now, this doesn’t necessarily present much of a problem, but some care is needed to avoid problematic situations.

The easiest solution is simply to stick to routes you’re very familiar with. If you know the area you’re in like the inside of your own pocket, limited visibility won’t present any challenges. Think of what you’d be comfortable navigating through in intermediate fog to get a rough idea. This solution quickly reduces your options though, and with polar night extending for 2 months it would get tedious. Luckily it’s possible to mitigate this issue with other methods as well.

For one thing, it always takes some time to get into the alpine. Sure, above the arctic circle the treeline usually isn’t at a very impressive altitude, but if it’s an unfamiliar route having a solid hour or so of skinning before you get above treeline is not uncommon. If there’s an approach it only adds to this effect. This lets you use the very darkest time of the day in an environment where the visibility range doesn’t make that much of a difference.

Below treeline the lack of light doesn’t affect the uphill very much.

Also, as mentioned previously, weather plays a large role. If the sky is completely clear, there’s enough light to navigate by surprisingly early (and surprisingly late) even during polar night. Especially if you turn off your headlamp for a moment and let your eyes start adjusting to the low light.

You might need to get used to navigating using other features than you normally would though, for example making due with seeing the outlines of nearby mountains silhouetted against the sky.

Turning off your headlamp every so often and looking up when it’s dark outside also comes with an additional upside – you get a chance of spotting the northern lights. Having the aurora visit is another thing that is special about winter time skiing above the arctic circle. If you spend a season above the arctic circle, skiing most every day, chances are you’ll get at least one skiing experience that’s illuminated by the magic looking shimmering curtains dancing in the sky.

The polar night is definitely a special and unique time of the year. It has its charm, but it takes some getting used to it. Personally, I think it’s worth experiencing even for people not aiming to permanently live above the arctic circle, if so only to try it out for a single trip.

Oscar Frick

Originally from Sweden, Oscar grew tired of living in flatland and headed westwards to Norway, ending up in Tromsø. There he spends his days enjoying the 6-7 months of snow season doing ski mountaineering and ice climbing. When summer eventually arrives he continues his high altitude lifestyle, switching ski boots for climbing or trail running shoes.

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