A familiar, catchy keyboard lick blasts from the stage and echoes off the wooden walls of the banquet hall as hordes of skiers, loosened up via copious amounts of Carlsberg, swing their arms and stomp their feet in dance. Fredrik “Fritz” Wallin, the lead singer of the cover band Bad Influence, struts toward the audience, making his way from the stage onto the long, wooden community table. He snags a beer from an ecstatic young lady and downs it. Beverage ingested, he raises the mic to his lips and bellows, “It’s the final countdown!” causing the already raucous partygoers at the Hotel Fjällgården in Åre, Sweden, to lose their minds.
This après extravaganza, or “afterski” as the Swedes call it, stands far above any post-shred soirée I’ve experienced in the States, reinforced by the fact that it is a Tuesday at 4 p.m. And the celebration couldn’t come at a better time, right on the heels of an unforgettable day tearing up Scandinavia’s largest ski resort
Located an hour and twenty-minute drive from the city of Östersund, smack dab in the middle of Sweden, the Åre Ski System encompasses three areas: The intermediate slopes of Duved, the family-oriented terrain of Åre Björnen and the challenging runs of Åre Village, all overlooking the frozen waters of Åresjön. The three areas together encompass 105 trails of varying terrain, multiple backcountry access points and top-notch terrain parks serviced by an impressive 42-chair lift system that includes an aerial tram and gondola.
The base elevation of Åre stands at 1,280 feet, while the summit of Åreskutan peak towers above the region at 4,659 feet, providing a solid 2,920-foot vertical drop.
While the big-mountain opportunities and hefty vert are a huge draw, the lower mountain is much more indicative of the strong racing and jib culture that pervades Åre and Sweden as a whole.
After an overcast morning prevents exploration of the upper mountain, I spend my time lapping the VM8, a highspeed eight-seater and the Störtloppet run, which serves as the training ground for the World Cup races held in Åre. The serpentine trail is steep and expertly groomed; I carve trenches deep into its blanket of snow while the expansive Åresjön stares back in my direction.
Following another ride up the gondola, I head skier’s right and drop into the Åre Snow Park, a terrain park that has bred some of the best freeskiing talent in the world. Åre is where skiers such as Jon Olsson, Henrik Windstedt, Henrik Harlaut and Jesper Tjåder cut their teeth, a testament to the size and quality of the parks. “The park in Åre was way bigger than in Gustavbergsbacken, my home resort in Östersund,” says Tjäder. “I learned all my bigger tricks there.” And those names aren’t the only proof. Each April since 2005, the best big-air skiers in the world have posted up in Åre to blast off at the prestigious Jon Olsson Invitational (JOI). Additionally, from 2007 to 2010, Olsson—one of the early icons of freeskiing—invited skiers the world over to Åre to compete in a jib-centric film contest called the Jon Olsson Super Sessions (JOSS).
I sample the bevy of creative features running parallel to two jump lines before hitching a ride back up via T-bar. From the top of the surface lift, a skier’s right traverse deposits me at a bucket-list lunch spot: Buustamons Fjällgård and Distillery. The interior has a distinct cabin-in-the-woods type of feel, with crackling wood stoves warming the room and gas-fueled lamps, candles and reindeer pelts helping to provide a cozy ambiance. After indulging in a delectable meal made predominantly from local ingredients—mouth-watering salmon and potatoes drizzled in cream sauce—I head to the basement and try one of ten spirits produced right there in the restaurant’s own distillery.
Back in the coatroom, I meet with Philip Harlaut—CEO of guiding company ÅreGuiderna, older brother of Henrik Harlaut and one of the rippers who will lead me into an afternoon adventure in the Åre backcountry. The 31-year-old’s appearance is a bit conservative compared to the younger Harlaut, but I’ll find out soon that Henrik isn’t the only one in the family with talent on a pair of planks.
Following a beacon check, we traverse to midmountain and board the gondola where a quick ride unloads us just below the true summit of Åreskutan. I’m welcomed at the top of the resort by absolute whiteout conditions, where wind and ice have worked together to form ghostly faces along the edges of the tram station’s roof. From the peak, we have easy access to the majority of the resort, but perhaps the most enticing terrain sits on the backside, a short traverse out of the resort boundary. These killer backcountry zones—vast bowls, steep routes, rock drops and gullies all funneling from the apex of Åreskutan—can be explored on your own or with the aid of ÅreGuiderna.
Conditions prevent us from hiking to the true summit and dropping into this area. Given the unfavorable weather, Harlaut leads myself and a few other skiers a bit lower down the mountain to the 1,000-meter mark in elevation. Lurking just off in the distance is Östa Ravin, a steep face littered with cliffs that is a rite of passage among locals. “You must jump [the cliff bands] to be a pro skier in Åre,” says Harlaut. Many a photo has been taken there of Åre’s finest hucking their meat for all to see.
We cross the resort boundary where families of downy birch form the timberline. Their crooked figures conjuring thoughts of the mangled, foreboding trees you’d imagine reside in the dark, haunted forests of Hansel and Gretel or other childhood fables. After a quick briefing, I drop into Baksidan (the back side), and pick a short, steep fall line run that I envision is intoxicating on a pow day, its splendor heightened by the spectacular view of Åresjön to my right.
From the bottom of our line, we traverse skier’s right back into the resort and hop on the Hummelliften chair for another go around. After a short descent to the bottom of the aerial tram, we’re once again whisked towards the summit, where additional sidecountry lines are in our sights.
The tram pulls into the station, and the car full of skiers makes an exodus for the slope, like the mass reindeer migrations that take place in the Jämtland Härjedalen region where we’re skiing. Once beyond the ropes, a long traverse skier’s left, around the backside of Åreskutan, brings us to the edge of the Baksidan zone. This area features wide open bowls with tons of small rollers and hits that’ll grant your aerial fix. As we stand above our lines, light snowfall begins, providing an idyllic setting to make slashes in the soft snow. A flowing tree run called Lillskutan funnels us back to the lower mountain lifts and right to the doorstep of the Hotel Fjällgården, where the aforementioned bash is set to bring the house down.
I manage to keep my wits about me through the show and return to the Granen Hotel, where I’m shacking up. The lobby lounge’s subtle woodworking details, roaring fireplaces, cushy armchairs and stacked library amalgamate, and I find myself humming the tune to “over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.” The lavish cuisine and bartender Andy White’s Scotch recommendations (try the Scapa, it’s divine), however, are decidedly un-grandmotherly.
To even further appease the devil on my shoulder, I round out the evening at the Bygget Night Club. The standard protocol there is to post up at a table with your crew, order a bucket of Carlsberg and get groovin’ until the lights turn on. I find that the locals are particularly receptive to dance offs amidst the thick clouds of smoke billowing out from multiple machines strewn about the club.
Åre is the epitome of Europe’s “other” skiing experience. Think comfortable, challenging, mom-and-pop, backwoods skiing with only a bit of Euro-luxury sprinkled on top. It should be near the top of any well-traveled skier’s list. Come prepared with your drinking shoes, a healthy appetite and strong legs. Whether it’s throwing back small batch brandy at Buustamons, sampling exquisite Scotch at the Granen, dropping into challenging backcountry lines from the peak of the resort, trying your hand at the pro-level jump line in Åre Snow Park, stomping ski boots during an après concert or letting loose on the dance floor at the Bygget, in Åre, you’re either all in or you’re not at all.
Where To Stay:
Lodging options range from the ultra-luxurious, five-star Copperhill Mountain Lodge situated on top of Åre Björnen to the rustic charm of the Granen Hotel. The Hotell Fjällgården is located at midmountain, providing easy access to the lifts. Those looking to be in the thick of things would do well by Hotel Åregården, located in the center of town, while the STF Åre Torg offers hostel-style accomodations.
Where To Eat:
Upscale diners should check out the Vinbaren, Villa Tottebo and Fjällpuben. If you’re hankering for pub food, be sure to check out the Parkvillan – Åre or Broken for a burger, fries and a sampling of local brews.
How To Get There:
The closest airport to Åre is Åre Östersund Airport (OSD). Book a flight to Stockholm Arlanda (ARN) and then connect to OSD from there. Once on the ground in Östersund, arrange for transportation to take you the final 80 kilometers (49.7 miles) to the ski system.