WORDS PAULINA HERPEL // PHOTOS DAN PETERMANN
Paddle up to a remote mountain, climb to the summit and ride your split-board down powder slopes into the valley. Then surf a perfect, lonely wave. All in one day. Stretching it a bit? Far up north, Paulina Herpel and Valentin Illichmann embark on a cold triathlon.
A Munich native, Valentin drove up to Hamburg in late spring to pick up me and our home on wheels, equipped with split boards, inflatable SUPs and wave SUPs. All packed into a white Ahoy Bulli that would be our best friend for the next 6,000km. Equipped with heater and everything else your heart desires we started our trip up north. We were excited and could not wait to finally smell the sea again at the end of winter. We went from Hamburg first to Denmark over the Öresund Bridge over the Baltic Sea to Sweden. Stockholm welcomed us with spring sunshine and delicious cinnamon bun ice cream. But then it started to get really cold and windy, as expected.
We passed a lot of lakes and rivers and they were all frozen. I was not used to that as a Hamburg girl. The Swedes simply used the frozen waters as roads for their snow mobiles. Even the Gulf of Bothnia was frozen. They were walking across the sea. Everywhere ice-fishermen stood next to the holes they’d cut, hoping for the big catch. That’s exactly how I always thought Sweden would be in winter: white, cold and strange. We drove on because we still had about 1000km to go to our final destination.
“ It was a strange feeling to stand on a SUP with thick boots. It was awfully shaky and the heavy backpack with drinking water and our snowboards did not contribute to the stability ”
What’s that big sign there? Did it really say Arctic Circle? Yes – we had just have driven into the Arctic Circle. As far north as we had ever been. However, I’d expected it to be a bit more dramatic to be honest. As if the landscape would suddenly change. But it didn’t, the strange winter seeped in slowly.
The best way to describe Sweden’s roads is as follows: curves, no signs and a passing car every few hundred km. “Stop, stop, a reindeer!” I was so happy when I saw two reindeer in the snow on the side oft he road. One was a calf, brown, white and fluffy. Beautiful animals that unfortunately are not afraid of cars.
We’d been travelling for 96 hours now. The days were getting longer the further we headed into the north. It only got dark at half past eleven. Shortly before the border to Norway we found a block of ice on a lake that had been cut out of the ice. The block was about two meters high and shimmered in turquoise. I had never seen such a thick layer of ice before. The next morning we reached Lapland. We were both keen for snowboarding and the mountains were calling us.
There were only a few small trees and some large white open slopes as far as the eye can see. We stopped somewhere on the roadside with our Ahoi Bulli and unpacked our split boards. It was my first time on a split board. Valentin had been working all winter on the Zugspitze and was frequently split board touring. Till now, my only backcountry tours were with snowshoes. I was really curious how it feels to go up a mountain on furs. After Valentin explained how to put on the the skins and fix the bindings, we started. Ten minutes in and I was blown away. Snowshoeing is exhausting and slow but with the split board, even the climb up is fun.
I slipped over the snow and got into a great rhythm. Then there is this stunning view. Completely untouched nature. No cities or towns in sight. Only one street where our white Bulli merged with the landscape. “Look across, can you see all the frozen lakes?” Vale asked. “Yes and look there are more reindeer.” “No, look there’s a whole reindeer herd crossing the lake” About 60 reindeer passed through the valley. It was breathtaking. There is not much untouched nature left on this planet and but we were allowed to see a small part of it.
We pulled down the furs, removed the bindings, put the boards together and off we went for the first descent. Big carves around the individual trees in the snow, it was pure fun. Unfortunately, the run was way too short as always. We had to keep driving to reach our destination in time. The waves in Unstad were waiting to be surfed by us.
One and a half meters at 19 seconds. The sort of prediction you might expect at Hossegor or Sri Lanka. The Gulf Stream transports warm water to Norway and therefore warms up the air, making surfing up here possible. When we saw this forecast, we were even more in a hurry to reach the Lofoten Islands. Now the landscape made an abrupt change. From open slopes to rugged, steep rock faces. And the sea came closer and closer. We drove past fjords and bays. The climate got a bit milder, although we were headed north. But it was still very cold.
We plunged into the darkness in a single-lane tunnel. Blinking into the light and as soon as the eyes adjusted, we beheld of the most beautiful views in Norway: a bay framed by two large mountains, with a dozen houses and a super clean wave in the middle. It was a Nirvana for outdoor athletes. After driving for 3500km we finally parked our Ahoi Bulli in Unstad at the beach looking right at the breah. We were full of joy. Finally surfing again, and in such a scenery. But getting changed in the snow would be a challenge.
We slipped on our boots and were warm. Equipped with gloves, hood and 5/4mm wetsuit, we went into the cool water. A Norwegian who apparently suffers from too much heat, surfing without a hood, greeted us from the water. The waves were only head-high but clean as string of pearls. You don’t want to be rinsed too often. After my second dunking, my face felt like it was blast frozen. Brain freeze means something else here.
How could that local surfer survive without a hood. One last wave. Paddle, paddle and then you feel the swell and push of the wave.
The power and the energy. I’m totally focused and full of adrenaline. I would always drive that many kilometers for this feeling. Super happy but also just as cold, we drove to our Novasol cottage, one bay away. If you want to go surfing and snowboarding in such temperatures it is an important luxury to have a house. Although vanlife is really cool sitting by a fireplace in the evening and being able to dry clothes definitely has something. “What a great view” Valentin stood in front of a huge glass front in our house and looked at a foggy white mountain and a dark blue fjord. No other house around us. Only untouched nature. We were able to walk to the water. “I really want to go paddling out there”.
He plans to get us up at four am. When I hear that, I picture creeping out in the deep black night to enjoy the sunrise. No way. In Lofoten, the sun rises at four o’clock in the morning in April. And its sets only at 11 o’clock again. It’s actually perfect for us. Endless days, lakes, waves and mountains – here we finally realized our idea to use all the different phases of water in one day. We drove to the beach and were lucky. Small perfect waves and of course no one around.
“In such temperatures as house is a nice luxury. Although vanlife is really cool, sitting by a fireplace in the evening and being able to dry clothes definitely has something.”
In a minute we were in our thick wetsuits. After three hours of surfing we were ready for the next adventure. We wanted to explore the great mountains around us. But before that we had to have a homemade cinnamon roll. In the only surf camp in Unstad you can get the tastiest cinnamon rolls I have ever eaten. When you get into the cafe you get a mixture of butter, cinnamon and, as always in surf camps, waxy scent in the nose and it makes your mouth watery. Strengthened, we drove to a fjord near our holiday home and packed everything. We unloaded our inflatable back packs and snowboard gear from the car. The mountain we had chosen was only accessible by water; good that we love the water. No snow without water and no snowboarding without snow. And of course no waves.
After the little pumping warm-up workout, we put on our ski clothes and carried the boards to the lake. It was a strange feeling to stand on a SUP with thick boots. It was awfully shaky and the heavy backpack with drinking water and our snowboards did not contribute to the stability. But the view was definitely worth it. Around us white peaks stretched out, reflecting in the water. Thus, we almost paddled through the mountains.
We arrived at the foot of the mountain and pulled the boards ashore. It felt exciting to be standing on a section of the mountain that maybe nobody has ever walked up to.
Always following Valentine’s trail. To see such a vastness was perfect. At Valentin´s home in Bavaria, it feels very different. You walk through forests and past small huts. In Norway everything is much bigger and lonely. No one is on the mountain besides us, the snow and always the sea. “We’ll be right there” Initially motivated, it will be more strenuous, step by step, and despite the cool air, I’m sweaty. But the view from the top is priceless. It’s definitely worth sweating for that.
Tighten your shoes, remember to put on your Zeal goggles – we’re ready for the descent and our adrenaline levels are rising every second. Valentin is in his element. Full power down the slope with huge turns. A few more powder butter slides and he starts grinning widely. I have to hurry to keep up with his speed. The snow is not quite as nice as we had imagined. The last week was unfortunately too hot, so the snow is pretty heavy. But it’s still fun. We take a short break and continue. We already see our colourful iSUPs lying on the white snow. My legs hurt from the long descent but I am so overwhelmed from all the impressions and full of adrenaline that I just can take one turn at a time.
Back on the SUPs and back to our Bulli. First we had to get some food. There is nothing better than pasta with pesto after such an adventure. It is seven o’clock in the evening. But the day is still long. We have a few more hours of light. We decide to explore the fjord in front of our doorstep.
The iSUPs under our arms, neoprene shoes on our feet and we are on our way again. Through the knee-deep snow in front of our terrace we walked to the fjord. The water is partially frozen. Ice pieces slowly flowing past us. It feels strange to paddle through ice on a SUP board. The mountains around the fjord are rugged and steeper than the mountains we rode earlier. We still enjoy the evening sun and exploring our front yard. It is low tide and on the way back to the house you can see the sunset reflections in the small puddles.
Completely exhausted, we are sitting in front of the fireplace. Wet wetsuits and smelly snowboard socks and gloves are hanging around us. But we are so blissed out by this day that nothing can bother us anymore. Surfing, snowboarding and paddling in one day. Our dream is finally reality! At that moment, we don’t imagine it can get any better. But we were lucky. We can check weather maps to see where the best waves and snow conditions are. But star and sky maps, we do not know. On the internet there was a 30 percent chance that there would be aurora lights this night. We trust the internet. We set our alarm clock for 3 am. I would love to see auroras. It is certainly an unreal feeling to see the sky glow green.
We went to bed, completely exhausted from the long day. But Valentin cannot sleep, saying “check again to see if it’s shining”. I watch and can´t believe it. A thin, long, green thread stretches across the sky. “It’s shining, it’s shining!” We jump up, throw on a jacket and run out. The sky is slowly turning green although the lights are not moving as fast as most of the videos on the web, it’s a little miracle to see some auroras in April. Two big tracks are crossing the sky. One poison green, the other one shimmers rather dark green. I cannot say anything, just put my head back and being stunned. I can´t absorb enough of this view.
Our dream, our idea of this journey has come true. How different the water is, how unpredictable the sea is, the snow you cannot influence. How important the water is to us. For us athletes it´s the foundation stone. Without the water, we could not practice our sports. And just the unpredictable makes it so exciting. That’s why we travelled 7000km. We experienced the water in all its facets in one day. SUP International