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A snowboarder going down a steep line with rugged mountains in the background.

Snowboarding at Vatnahalsen: A soulful freeride experience

"It's one of the best places I’ve ever been to. You reach there by train. You get up to a hotel. No distractions from anything other than going up to the mountains."

-Len Roald Jørgensen

Snowboarder setting out from a cliff seen from beneath.

In snowboarding...

...there are many separate yet connected subcultures. Within these communities, the search for new experiences and uncharted territory is a tangible goal. Different disciplines merge with excitement and challenge, which sometimes leads to a search for a place where fairytale aspects of urban life blend seamlessly into the untamed realness of the backcountry.

Vatnahalsen, an activity-based hotel at the top of Flåmsdalen valley, Norway, accessible only by the mystical Flåmsbana rail line, fits such a bill.

A man jumping on snowboard on a mountainside. Views to Vatnahalsen Hotel and Flåm Railway below.
A snowboarder going down a steep mountain side with cliffs on each side.

From fjord to mountain

Our voyage starts on the shores of the Nærøyfjord, with lush green hills surrounding the narrow yet beautiful fjord. The Flåmsbana railroad, a.k.a. The Flåm Railway, serves as our vessel from the fjord through rugged, wind beaten mountains to the enchanting world of Vatnahalsen.

Only after hurling through stunning valleys, traversing precariously across cliffs and winding through hand carved tunnels, we arrive at Vatnahalsen Hotel at the western edge of Skarvheimen high mountain area, a true backcountry paradise. It feels as is if it’s been plucked from the pages of an old fairytale, with its aura of a bygone era and 127 years of eyebrow raising history.

A man with green shirt with patterns, goggles and brown hair in front of a red wall.
A man in striped, colourful hoodie, white pants and long blonde hair on the snow in front of red wall.
A snowboarder freeriding at dusk. An illuminated cloud of powdersnow behind him.

Vatnahalsen Hotel

Originally built as a sanatorium in the 1890s, the structure never served its original purpose. It’s been run as a hotel ever since, changing ownership numerous times and even being occupied by German soldiers for a stint during WWII.

Despite changing hands, an untimely fire, subsequent reconstruction, and other less than fortunate mishaps over its 115 years of operation, Vatnahalsen has long maintained its reputation as a solid place to shred (excluding that unfortunate time when the Nazis occupied it).

These days its winter visitors are mainly comprised of backcountry skiers, with guided tours being a prominent aspect of the operation. Yet as far as we know, few snowboarders have come to take advantage of this area.

"The mountains are friendly in one way, but you can also get some really steep skiing and more advanced skiing here, but it's mountains for everybody."

- Petter Andresen

Two snowboarders on a ridge at Vatnahalsen.
The Flåm railway on the tracks between two tunnels along a steep mountainside. Snowy landscape.
A train in winter landscape by Vatnahalsen near Flåm. Blue sky.

Lenny's Ledge

There are only a handful of other guests here and the entire area is quiet and still, except for the occasional train whistle. Carve your own path. Find your own way. Both mottos of the youth. Here at Vatnahalsen, that is exactly what we intend on doing. We splitboard straight out of the hotel, and as we begin our journey up into this powder firmament, the peaks and lines become clearer, revealing their potential for adrenaline and glory.

The manager of the hotel, Petter Andresen, shows us around. He tells us that he’s never seen people ride with the approach we’re bringing to the mountains he’s skied with so many others so many times before.

Whether it’s finding rocks to pop off, wind lips to hand drag, trees to jib or even rays of sunlight to slash into, we make the most of everything we see along the way. He says he’s used to people looking at big lines to ski in full, rather than noticing all the fun spots to play around on during a tour. The big, scary lines that have attracted so many here in the past eventually come into focus for us. We ride some of those lines, as well as a first descent now and forever known as Lenny’s Ledge.

A snowboarder jumping off a cliff, seen from underneath with lots of dry snow in the air and blue sky behind.
A snowboarder mid-air after jumping of a building. Snowy mountainous landscape and blue sky.

"You can even grab some vaffles if you're back early. That's maybe the best part about it"

- Len Roald Jørgensen

Colourful show of northern lights above dark mountains.

Not just a destination

As night falls, the Northern Lights begin to reveal themselves to the naked eye, clouding the constellations with dance. Fireplaces warm our bodies and souls, and the contentment of the day’s accomplishments breeds deeper friendships within our gang of gonzo snowboarders.

Vatnahalsen is not just a destination, not just an altered state of mind, but a portal to ultimate creativity. The opportunity to step out of the front door and expand your potential and paint new history amidst the frozen waterfalls, with very little distraction and constraints of the everyday world down below. No more mundane, only challenges. No more retreads and revisits, only new opportunities. No more excuses, only potential.

This article is part of Norway's best Presents, a film & photo series.

Note: This text was first published in The Snowboarder’s Journal.