What’s the best way to remember a war hero? Parades and monuments? In Inner Troms, they do it like nowhere else, by organising one of the toughest ski races in the world, timed to coincide with the best skiing conditions.

Reistadløpet – a skiing classic

Ever since 1958, the Reistadløpet race has been held in Inner Troms. The 50 kilometre (30 mile) route runs from Setermoen over the mountains to Bardufoss, with a total ascent of over 500 metres (1600 feet). In 2017, the Reistadløpet will become part of the Visma Ski Classics, a series of 13 classic long-distance ski races.

A tough route

The route doesn’t creep along the valley bottom, but runs right over two mountains. After starting in the Artilleriplassen plaza in Setermoen, it passes through gentle forest and marshy terrain for a while, and then the endurance test really starts. Orta Mountain is almost 600 metres (2000 feet) high, and the ascent is pretty steep. Then it descends rapidly to Kampenhytta cabin, before another 250 metres (820 feet) of ascent over Sundlifjellet mountain, and a final descent into Bardufoss.

Diagonal stride on natural snow in the Easter sunshine

The Reistadløpet takes place at the start of April, which is the best time for skiing in Northern Norway. The winter storms have been and gone, the biting cold has eased its grip, and there is plenty of sun and good weather. On the sunny side of the mountain, the temperature is usually well above zero. There isn’t a single flake of artificial snow; even in this era of climate change, the meter-thick layer of natural snow has fallen all by itself from the sky. The steep terrain makes it extremely challenging to tackle on unwaxed skis. You can’t do it without wax, which makes it a good, old-fashioned ski race.

See you at the bottom, lads

Ole Reistad was an officer and a sportsman, and in 1928 he competed in the first Winter Olympics in St Moritz in ‘military patrol’, which was the forerunner of the biathlon (the skiing/shooting combo). Before a long descent, he said to the others on his team ‘see you at the bottom, lads’, which then became a catchphrase. The fast descent secured victory for Norway, ahead of the favourites such as Switzerland and Finland. 

War hero

In 1940, Reistad was head of the Scout Flight at Kjeller, near Oslo. When the Germans attacked, he ensured that his unit’s Fokkers were transported to Bardufoss, and was given command of the air services in the north. He was a prominent figure in the battles for Narvik. At the end of 1940, he made his way via the Soviet Union to Canada, where he built up the Norwegian Air Force from the Little Norway base near Toronto, using his trademark exemplary and motivational manner. After the war, he was head of the Air Force in Northern Norway, which he continued enhancing until his death in 1949.

Since 1958

The first Reistadløpet took place in 1958. At that time, many of the participants were in the Armed Forces, so shooting and distance judgement were natural elements of the race. Over time, the Reistadløpet has become more of a civilian folk festival, with strong local participation in many classes, down to the recreational class, which is not timed. However, the 50 km (30 mile) long endurance race still attracts many elite racers.

The big ski races

In 2017, the Reistadløpet will become one of the prestigious ski races included in the Visma Ski Classics series. The Swedish Vasaloppet, the Italian Marcialonga and the Birkebeiner race in Eastern Norway are some of the more famous of the 13 races. They attract the best long-distance racers in the world, both women and men, and the Reistadløpet has become an important arena for an increasingly popular branch of skiing.

Ski the route in your own time

If you don’t feel like taking part in the race, you can ski the route on your own. Alexander Os of the Reistadløpet suggests starting at the skiing stadium in Setermoen, then taking a shortcut past the Kampenhytta cabin, which is a superb trip of around 30 kilometres (20 miles). Our recommendation is to do the trip between the end of February and end of April, but make sure that you take plenty of food and the right outdoor equipment; see the Norwegian Trekking Association’s recommended packing checklist. This is because the route is entirely unpopulated. After the last mountain, there are excellent views from the fjord in Sørreisa as far as the Swedish border.

 Come and join in the fun

If you would like to experience the great skiing atmosphere at the end of winter, it’s easy to get to Inner Troms. The airport at Bardufoss is only a few kilometres from the finish line. An interesting alternative would be to fly to Tromsø or Harstad/Narvik, and stay in one of the hotels in the centre of Tromsø or Narvik.