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FEATURE

Norway moves mountains to bring skiing to the people

Norwegians, the saying goes, are born with skis on their feet. But with a lack of snow and the pandemic this year leaving many in despair, authorities are bringing snow and ski trails to downtown Oslo.

Norway moves mountains to bring skiing to the people
Photo: Petter Berntsen / AFP

For the past few weeks, big trucks have been dumping hundreds of cubic metres of fluffy white stuff, made by snow cannons perched on the hills outside the capital, in the city’s still-green parks.

Packed down or groomed with cross-country trails, the parks have transformed into winter wonderlands for skiing enthusiasts of all ages: little children on excursions with their daycare groups, active seniors, and office workers taking a break from their work-from-home schedule.

“For three months, we’ve had very strict corona restrictions in Oslo, but we can still go outside,” city councillor Omar Samy Gamal says, as a grooming machine behind him prepares a snowboarding hill in the Torshovdalen park.

“Since we haven’t had a lot of snow this winter, we’re doing what we can to bring it to the people. We’re bringing them a little bit of ‘marka’,” he says.

What’s marka? 

The word refers to the wooded hills outside Oslo, popular among urban dwellers for long walks, or more frequently, skiing after work or at the weekend.

The first snowfall of the season in early January caused long traffic queues, and, more worryingly during the pandemic, crowded commuter trains.

“We don’t want people packed together. We want them to keep their distance from each other, and the best way to ensure that is to make use of local public spaces,” Gamal says.

Four Oslo parks — including that belonging to the royal palace — have already been or will be partially covered in artificial snow to quench locals’ thirst for sledding and skiing.

“It’s extremely important to keep people active without everyone having to take the same train to leave town,” says Miriam Heen Skotland, a psychologist out cross-country skiing in the Voldsløkka park on her lunch break.

Before working her night shift as a nurse, Karen Margrethe Igland has also strapped on her cross-country skis, just 10 minutes from her home.

“I try to limit how much I use public transport. If I want to go to the ‘marka’, I have to take the train. So it’s better to be able to come here on foot,” she says.

Climate change has made winters in Norway shorter.

According to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Oslo has over the past 30 years lost 21 winter days, defined as days where the temperature dips below 0 degrees Celsius. 

The city could lose another 26 winter days by 2050, the Institute has warned.

“When I was young, it wasn’t hard to predict the weather in winter: it was often cold and there was usually a lot of snow,” Norway’s Education Minister Guri Melby said in January when new climate measures were presented.

“But for Christmas this year I wasn’t sure whether I should buy my kids a sled, because the winters nowadays are much milder with a lot fewer snowmen and ski days,” she said. 

And in an almost sacrilegious move, Norway opened its first indoor ski centre in early 2020. It is however currently closed to the general public because of virus restrictions.

With Oslo fighting its battle against the thermometer, is it really reasonable to transport tonnes of snow by truck? 

The vehicles run on biodiesel, with hydrotreated vegetable oil, the city notes.

“Using these carbon-neutral trucks to bring snow to the people so that they won’t use their own car to drive to the ‘marka’, I think it’s a pretty beneficial equation for the climate,” says driver Tom Kjetil Tangen.

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TRAVEL

Could Oslo-Copenhagen overnight train be set for return?

A direct overnight rail service between the Norwegian and Danish capitals has not operated since 2001, but authorities in Oslo are considering its return.

Norway’s transport minister Knut Arild Hareide has asked the country’s railway authority Jernbanedirektoratet to investigate the options for opening a night rail connection between Oslo and Copenhagen.

An answer is expected by November 1st, after which the Norwegian government will decide whether to go forward with the proposal to directly link the two Nordic capitals by rail.

Jernbanedirektoratet is expected to assess a timeline for introducing the service along with costs, market and potential conflicts with other commercial services covering the route.

“I hope we’ll secure a deal. Cross-border trains are exciting, including taking a train to Malmö, Copenhagen and onwards to Europe,” Hareide told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

The minister said he envisaged either a state-funded project or a competition awarding a contract for the route’s operation to the best bidder.

A future Oslo-Copenhagen night train rests on the forthcoming Jernbanedirektoratet report and its chances of becoming a reality are therefore unclear. But the Norwegian rail authority earlier this year published a separate report on ways in which passenger train service options from Norway to Denmark via Sweden can be improved.

“We see an increasing interest in travelling out of Norway by train,” Jernbanedirektoratet project manager  Hanne Juul said in a statement when the report was published in January.

“A customer study confirmed this impression and we therefore wish to make it simpler to take the train to destinations abroad,” Juul added.

Participants in the study said that lower prices, fewer connections and better information were among the factors that would encourage them to choose the train for a journey abroad.

Norway’s rail authority also concluded that better international cooperation would optimise cross-border rail journeys, for example by making journey and departure times fit together more efficiently.

The Femahrn connection between Denmark and Germany, currently under construction, was cited as a factor which could also boost the potential for an overland rail connection from Norway to mainland Europe.

Night trains connected Oslo to Europe via Copenhagen with several departures daily as recently as the late 1990s, but the last such night train between the two cities ran in 2001 amid dwindling demand.

That trend has begun to reverse in recent years due in part to an increasing desire among travellers to select a greener option for their journey than flying.

Earlier this summer, a new overnight train from Stockholm to Berlin began operating. That service can be boarded by Danish passengers at Høje Taastrup near Copenhagen.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about the new night train from Copenhagen to Germany

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