It’s a few minutes to midnight; the soft violet-blue sky to our north is split in two by a pillar of deep rose pink light as the sun disappears behind the powder-blue snow-covered fells and sinks towards the frigid surface of the Barents Sea. This is one of the last sunsets that will be experienced on Båtsfjordfjellet, above the town of Båtsfjord on the coast of northern Norway, before the midnight sun rises on the 14th of May. The sun will then not drop below the horizon again until the 28th of July.
I drain the last drops of warm fish soup from my mug, and the empty is immediately replaced with another containing a shot of vodka. “Keep you warm tonight,” said Kine, swigging from the bottle. We’re almost 400km (250miles) north of the Arctic Circle, further north than both Murmansk, Russia and Deadhorse, Alaska, and we’re going skiing.
We leave behind the warmth of the bonfire and join around 70 other women fitting their skis ready to head out onto the fell, to take part in Båtsfjord’s Midnattski for Kvinner (Midnight Ski for Women). Some women are wearing their traditional regional dress, others have taken cartoon characters as their inspiration, and one or two have raided their children’s dressing-up box, as a pink fairy princess demonstrates.
This year’s event is the 20th anniversary, and women have travelled here from across Norway, Finland and Sweden to take part in the ski challenge, although numbers are lower than usual as a result of a strike by the local air carrier. My travel buddy Rachel and I are the only British participants, and we’re rather concerned our limited nordic skiing skills will leave us stranded on the mountainside. We both have one day’s experience of cross-country skiing under our belts, which comprised a lot of falling down and a long time spent drinking hot chocolate in a cafe before we could muster the will to return to our log cabin.
But the emphasis of the event is to enjoy being out in the mountains, experiencing the night light and the time away from daily life, and to push yourself physically as much or as little as you want. Our route is marked by several bonfires, where we gather to rest, warm ourselves, eat and drink. Ladies from the local choir sing traditional songs for their visitors. We drink a little more.
The skiing is both easier and harder than I’d expected. Uphill and on the flat, the movement is like sliding across the kitchen lino in your socks, with some extra arm work. I’m soon sweating and stripping off layers (I am wearing several though). The downhill slopes as we cross the rolling terrain are exhilarating, and I love the feeling of speed I get, just before I catch an edge or cross a patch of rotten snow and take a tumble. Once I think I get the hang of not falling over to the sides, I fall backwards, and then fall forwards. When I try to avoid landing face-first in the snow, I end up falling to the sides again.
But Rachel and I aren’t the only ones; everyone seems to take a spill at some point, and then we all encounter sections where it seems easier to take off our skies and walk, despite occasionally sinking thigh deep into the snow. After a few hours of skiing, trekking and stumbling in slush, we spot the Arctic ocean, lit up with the gold and crimson of sunrise, tucked between the folds of hills. A glowing bonfire awaits us at the foot of the mountain, where most of the other skiers are now gathered, thinking about their breakfast. A snowmobile rider offers to pick us up and take us down the hill to join the others, but in our best Norweglish we say, “Takk, bare bra, we can do it.”
We finish last of all, arms and legs burning and bruised, pleasingly tired but still completely wide awake. It is daytime now, 5am, but it never got beyond dusk on the mountain, with light thrown back into the air by the covering of snow. Its a strange feeling that we’ve travelled through the night never losing sight of the landscape in darkness; inspiring and energising. How will I manage to sleep?