From above, our group of skiers and snowboarders looks like a slowly moving pearl string
necklace, as we navigate our way through snow-covered thin spruce trees to the Karhunjuomalampi
wilderness hut, following the ski track laid by our guide Katja Heikkinen. The surrounding Pyhä
National Park has received a foot-deep fresh coat of powder snow and the dry flakes still continue
to fall silently around us.
For most of the group consisting solely of women (apart from myself) the
ski tour is first of its kind, and without the guiding by Heikkinen and the tips on gear and technique
given by her fellow ski school colleague, Marja Kumpuniemi, they would have probably stayed
I am at Pyhä in Lapland, 90 minutes’ drive from the capital Rovaniemi, for the annual
women-specific freeskiing event called Mimmi Free´End, or Chick Freek´End in English. This
year’s event, now in its fifth year, has attracted 40 freeskiing enthusiasts from all over Finland.
According to Pyhä ski school teachers Heljä Rahikkala and Katja Heikkinen, who have been
involved in organising the event from day one, their goal still remains the same: to organise a low
threshold event with a focus on group dynamics, while sharing mountaineering skills and searching
out great powder skiing when the conditions allow.
Pyhä is well-suited to hold a freeski event as it’s situated right next to a national park with
easily accessible steeps and tree skiing. The official trail map shows 14 slopes, nine lifts and a
modest top lift height of 500 meters, with a vertical of 280 meters.
But Pyhä’s fortitude isn’t in the number of slopes, lifts or vertical – it is in the profile; the best slopes are great for expert carvers and the off-piste terrain is steep and in parts littered with cliffs. A ski tour into the national park
extends the ski terrain to the nearby fells too.
After the participators are divided into three different groups according to their skiing experience
the previous night, day one starts with a roll-call in the Hotel Pyhätunturi’s Colorado bar. I join in
the advanced group, who will be learning mountaineering skills today from legendary Finnish
freeskier Arto ‘Ape’ Majava and snowboarder Miikka Hast.
Half an hour later we are standing on top of steep off-piste section just off the start of the Sininen Rinne slope.
Bitter cold temperature, together with gusty wind and whirling snow, make the conditions
suitably extreme for Arto’s lesson on how to use an ice axe on steep descents. Having skied
descents like the Denali in Alaska and participated in the Verbier Extreme competition, his steep
skiing tips come from experience.
I watch as the women descend in to the blizzard one by one, poles on one hand, ice axe on
the other. Surprisingly the first fall takes place on the blue slope on the way back to the lift, when
34-year-old Mari Havola from Helsinki pre-releases her Marker Kingpin binding. She gets up
laughing and says the fall probably earned her the colorful tea kettle cover she and her friends
brought along as a trophy for the person who crashes first during the event.
For the next lesson we find ourselves standing below the Tajukangas ice climbing wall and
Saunakuru gorge, which is part of Pyhä’s famous freeskiing zones. After Arto and Miikka help the
women to put on crampons and climbing harnesses, we set up our course upwards towards the
intimidating-looking cliffs, that remind me of the famous Palisades in Squaw Valley, California.
When we have reached a midway ledge, Hast attaches the first climber on a rope and advises her on climbing the mixed route with ice axes and crampons, while Arto handles the rope on the top.
Mari Havola is one of the first to go, she clears the bottom section easily, but has to work
finding grip for the ice axes on the top section. When I watch her climb, it is hard to believe that the
same route is also a ‘secret off-piste run’; you can access the Saunakuru gorge directly from the
Sininen Rinne slope, where you’ll often find pockets of powder days after a snowfall.
After rappelling down, Mari is full of excitement, she hopes to put her mountaineering skills
in good use in the future: “I’ve attended similar courses before, because I am interested in doing
long ski tours that would maybe cross the Alps.” When the last of the participants has rappelled
down it is already four o’clock and everybody is starting to feel cold, despite the improvised fitness
routines. A serving of hot chocolate and sparkling wine at the local après ski bar is a welcome sight.
Saturday morning brings good and bad news: a nocturnal power cut has broken the high-speed
chairlift, but the on-going the heavy snowfall has stacked more than a foot of new powder in the
trees. After a quick group photo, I jump aboard a bus that takes us to the slopes on the resort’s north
side. The day starts with on-slope ski technique training by Rahikkala and ex-world cup skier Merle
After a couple of runs Rahikkala suggests the group a change of focus, due to the plentiful
fresh powder snow. Not surprisingly, everybody seems OK with the change and we soon find
ourselves heading skier’s right from the not-too-inventively-named Pohjoisrinne 2 slope (Northern
slope 2), towards the Aittakuru off-piste area.
We pass the steep cliff-lined bowl that serves as the venue for the annual Finnish Freeskiing
Championships and dive into the trees on the skier’s left instead. Watching the women ski down the
last steep section – the snow light and knee-deep – before the traverse back to the lifts is a proof of
the universal child-like euphoric feeling that skiing powder snow gives you. Everyone wears a big
grin on their faces and some laugh out loud mid-descent.
On the third final day I follow Katja Heikkinen and Marja Kumpuniemi, who lead the beginner
group for a ski tour to the Karhunjuomalampi wilderness hut in the nearby national park. Most of
the women have never been on a ski tour before, so Heikkinen and Kumpuniemi show carefully
how to attach and take off the skins, as well as how to activate your bindings or split-board into
There is so much new snow, that taking off your skis means sinking almost waist-
deep in it. The ambiance is a mixture of accomplishment and excitement of the group over their
first-ever tour and total silence and peace of the surrounding national park.
By Monday morning most of the participants have already left Pyhä, but I´ve chosen the overnight
train for my return trip, which gives me one extra ski day. My skiing partner for the day is Jani
Laukkarinen, a 41-year-old physiotherapist from Savitaipale, Finland. Despite the nearly 900 km distance between his hometown and Pyhä, the freeride enthusiast managed to ski here ten times during last season, sometimes on his own and at times with his wife and two sons.
I was introduced to Jani a couple of days earlier by Janne Mukkala, who I´ve skied with in Pyhä since our mutual
tourism studies in the nearby town of Kemijärvi in the late nineties. A couple of years ago Janne
bought a house here with his fiancée Heljä Rahikkala, one of the MimmiFreek´End organisers, and
moved to Pyhä permanently. It´s a small community, especially during the off-season, and people who live here or who, like Jani, ski here often, will eventually get to know each other.
Excited about the bluebird day, plenty of fresh powder and nearly no other skiers on the mountain,
we decide to head straight to the Aittakuru ravine, just off the Pohjoisrinne 2 slope on the northern
side of the mountain. We find pockets of knee-deep powder in the middle one of the three bowls
lined next to each other.
After skiing all the way down to the amphitheatre, which serves as an
unusual stage for the performers during the Pyhä Unplugged concert in the summer, we hike our
way out of the bowl and back to the Pohjoisrinteen t-bar. Although the skiing is not bad, the prevailing winds have mostly cleared Aittakuru off the powder snow, so we opt to take a look atfeatures on the other side of the mountain.
Like Aittakuru, the Saunakuru gorge also consists of a series of bowls linked to each other, there are
just more of them. The bowls are also very small, so you only get 2-4 turns before you´re at the
bottom. For locals Saunakuru is all about dropping the cliffs that line the top of the gorges, and that
is our intention as well.
We pick a mini-bowl in the middle of the roughly 6 gorges and choose our
own lines. Jani goes in first and I watch him do a couple of turns, before airing a small cliff. I go for
a 4-5 meter drop and find a perfect steep powdery landing, but then hit a hidden rock, which sends
me off-balance. Luckily the powder cushions my fall.
We then have to climb up, before we can drop in the next bowl, where Jani slashes a couple of
perfect powder turns against a backdrop of endless-looking tundra. After a quick climb out of the
bowl, we´re standing in the place where Arto was handling the ropes for the MimmiFreek´End
participants climbing up here a couple of days ago. It also marks the entry for a ski route, which
takes you on the bottom of the Tajukangas ice-climbing wall.
We´re standing right next to the top of the icefall – venturing too far to the skier´s right would mean a 10-meter plunge to the flats. I sidestep on the slope, only just wider than my skis, and make the mandatory leap off the large rock
below me, making a quick speed check before the cliffs close in on the ledge.
Looking back up, Jani is standing on top of the cliff, planning his route down. He finds a batch of snow on the skier´s
right, drops in and makes a sweeping left-hand turn to where I am standing. From here on the route
is more survival than skiing, but we finally manage to navigate our way to Tajukangas, through the
labyrinth of tree branches and rocks.
For our final run, we cross the top section of Saunakuru and traverse our way skier´s left towards to
an area affectionately referred as Perse, or Arse. Like the name suggests, the zone consists of a
series of rocky crags slapped on top of each other.
When the conditions are right, like today, you can get surreally good powder pillow-runs here. There is one catch though: while most of the drops are only 1-2 meters, there are bigger – also with flat landings, so you have to do regular speed checks, especially on the steeper parts.
We traverse to the skier´s left off the zone, where the terrain is moderately steep, allowing for good
on-sight route navigation. Jani goes in first and I witness him linking fluid turns with the leaps and
bounces off the small drops.
I pick a route to the right of his and bounce my way through the powder field, before making a final two-meter drop to the Tajukangas service road. We find our way back to the resort´s high-speed six-seater lift and make several more laps, always ending up in a slightly different exit point in the roughly 100-meter-wide powder-filled rock garden. It´s a perfect
ending to an action-packed weekend at Pyhä.
PYHÄ: THE FIRST CARBON-NEUTRAL SKI RESORT IN SCANDINAVIA
Besides freeskiing, Pyhä has also gained reputation for its environmental program: in 2017 the
resort became the first carbon-neutral ski resort in Scandinavia. Pyhä currently relies on
hydropower for its electricity and a woodchip-fueled district heating plant for heating.
The resort also compensates the CO2 emissions caused by its slope grooming: a sum equating the CO2
footprint (they use a calculator that gives them the amount of money it takes to off-set the CO2
emissions) is donated to WWF-supported renewable energy projects.
According to Jusu Toivonen, who started the environmental program in Pyhä in 2008, one of
the first steps was to start using electricity made 100% with renewable energy sources. The resort
then joined the EU energy efficiency contract, which involved a decrease of overall energy
Toivonen says it made the resort analyse its energy consumption, how much energy
was consumed for example by the snowmaking and slope-grooming. This resulted for example in a
more ecological way of driving the snow-cats, for example reducing engine idling.
One way to cut down the energy consumption of snowmaking was better use of snow
fences, which Pyhä studied together with the University of Applied Sciences in Rovaniemi.
Toivonen is pleased with the results: “we have developed the snow fences a great deal during the
past five years and now we can gather a lot of snow with them every time it snows and it is windy”.
Toivonen thinks that global warming has already made predicting the climate in Lapland
difficult: “You can all of a sudden have +5C and rain in the beginning of January and then have –
30C the following week.” He believes that ski resorts should have a moral responsibility to be
ecological. “We’re living off snow and winter, so to me it is very odd that you would use coal
power”, he adds.
There are direct flights to Rovaniemi from Helsinki by Finnair and Norwegian,
which takes approximately one hour 20 minutes. There is a connecting bus from
the airport to Pyhä 90 minutes. Alternatively, you can take an overnight train (14 hours)
with a sleeper car from Helsinki to Kemijärvi VR Railways, and take a 45-minute connecting bus to Pyhä (no connection on Sundays!).
Hotel Pyhätunturi is centrally located, ski in and out, with rooms from €120 per night for two people during the ski season. Following the road a couple of hundred metres from the hotel takes you to a ‘commercial centre’, where you have
a grocery store, sport shop, café, souvenir shop and the national park visitor centre with a restaurant.
Pyhä Suites 43 is centrally located, ski in and out, spacious apartment sleeping up to five with a kitchen and sauna. Seven night stay from €300.
Ski passes cost 46,5 euros per day.
More info about the Mimmi Freek´End event here
Mimmi Free´End prices for the 2020 event: 140 euros until the end of January, and 155 euros after February 1st.
The dates for the 2020 event are: 5. – 8. of March.
The local ski school offers organised off-piste tours into the national park.
Pyhä backcountry guide including a freeride map.
Words and photos by Jaakko Järvensivu. This story was first published in the Fall Line Skiing Magazine.