Words: Jaakko Järvensivu, Photos: Juha Laine
The wind is moving the snow like a fast magic carpet on top of the rock-hard snowpack that is covering the surrounding fells under a layer of white wavy formations, with rocks protruding here and there like small islands. The whirling snow stings you when making contact with exposed skin, so I try to keep my head low and use the protection provided by the hood of my gore-tex jacket. The photographer raises his hand for an ok sign and I start ascending once more towards the windy ridgeline.
After reaching the top of the ridge leading to the Kellostapuli fell, I admire the view on the Ylläs ski area, then the clouds move in once again. This time it looks more permanent and we decide to call it a day and ski in to the Varkaankuru gorge, where local photographer Juha Laine leads me in to the small café at the bottom of the Jokeri ski lift.
While sipping hot coffee to warm up, we study the historical photos on the wall, showcasing the birth of local ski tourism here in the northwestern part of the Finnish Lapland. Back in the 1930´s, people from southern Finland started visiting the area during their annual “ski holidays”. Accommodation meant an extra room at a local farmer´s house. The very first lift, relying on old VW engines for pulling power, was built right here in Varkaankuru in 1957.
Ylläs has come a long way since then and has a lot to offer even when the off-piste is not in prime condition: for skiing in-bounds, the area has 28 lifts and 63 slopes. While the top station height at 718 m (highest lift-serviced skiing in Finland) might not sound that high compared to the Alps, the well-maintained slopes and great made-for-carving-turns profiles make up for it. And with no time wasted on valley-crossing lifts, you get a lot of repetition. This will eventually make you a better skier. The area also features a big terrain park, hundreds of kilometers of cross-country and snowmobile tracks, husky and reindeer farms and accommodation in a snow village.
After the coffees, we stay on the north-facing Äkäslompolo side of the ski area and enjoy linking carving turns on almost empty slopes. Then, we take the connecting Kuru lift to the top and traverse back to the Ylläsjärvi side. Here we find more people, perhaps enjoying the somewhat warmer temperatures during this time of the season on the southern side.
Despite the national ski holidays, the only visible queue is the one winding towards the area´s only gondola lift. It was made famous by the fact that there is a sauna inside one of the gondolas, which is possible to rent by the hour. We do laps with the gondola, skiing down the Maailman Cup, or World Cup slope, which is wide and has a steady steep angle, giving you lots of speed and a great 180 degrees view on the surrounding arctic landscape. For the last run, we head for the skiers right to Ylipitkä, which at 3000 m is the longest slope in Ylläs. The last section of the run is in the woods, giving you precious shelter in the windy days.
The next morning, Juha and I drive to the Äkäslompolo side via the so-called scenic route, which has been connecting the two villages since 2005. Running on tree level, it still offers a great view on the valley below with the frozen tundra and forests continuing as far as the eye can see. We have decided to spend the day on cross-country skis, venturing into the Ylläs-Pallas national park via the 330 km network of maintained cross-country ski tracks, which is the best nationally and some argue even globally speaking.
We start our day at the Kellokas nature center in between the Äkäslompolo base area and the village. From there we head towards the snow-covered Kesänkijärvi lake, with the steep rocky face of the Kellostapuli fell (502 m) on our right side.
We soak in the natural beauty and quietness as we eat our sandwiches and drink the freshly cooked coffee by the open fire in the lean-to at the end of the lake. Feeling refreshed we ski around the Kellostapuli fell and into the ravine, which cuts it and the neighboring Keskinenlaki fell. This very narrow ravine is beautiful and quiet, but can be also dangerous, as it is vulnerable to avalanches. Climbing back from the ravine we see the ski area and ski down following the track to the Jokeri lift.
Ylläs is situated just 50 km from the Kittilä airport and 180 km from the Rovaniemi airport. Rovaniemi, the self-proclaimed home of Father Christmas is regarded as the capital of Lapland and makes a great stop-over to Ylläs. You can also take a night-train with a sleeper car from Helsinki to Kolari, which is only 35 km from Ylläs.
For accommodation in Ylläs there are two villages with distinctively different characters on either side of the ski area to choose from.
Ylläsjärvi village on the southern side of the ski area lacks a traditional village center, but has a recently built modern ski village with hotels, restaurants and shops right at the base of the ski area. So if you want to stay closer to the mountain and enjoy the benefits of south-facing slopes and the only gondola-lift on the mountain – choose Ylläsjärvi.
The Äkäslompolo village on the northern side of the ski resort has a historical village center with services ranging from cafés and shops to snowmobile safaris. On the minus side, the north-facing slopes can be cold early in the season and the lifts are further away from the village than in Ylläsjärvi, meaning you have to either take the ski bus or drive to the ski area. If you prefer a quaint village to a modern ski village – choose Äkäslompolo.
For more info: http://www.yllas.fi/en/accommodation
This story was published by the In The Snow Magazine in the U.K. in their November 2015 issue. http://www.inthesnow.com/
Here´s a quick video scenery tour of the neighbouring Pallas ski resort.