Røldal – o – rama

The tale of a tiny Norwegian hamlet that became a freeride capital.

“Rider 18 ready in 30 seconds!” A walkie-talkie crackles inside a big, black tent up on a snowy mountain flank in a spot between no place and nowhere in Western Norway. Around the tent, several hundred spectators sit and stare at the mountainside across the valley. Way over there, on top of what appears to be a cliff, we can just barely discern a person. Through binoculars, we see that it is a snowboarder.

“15 seconds.”
“5 seconds.”
“Rider on course!”

This is the story of a little, bitty settlement in western Norway that until recently was completely unknown to the world outside Norway. But in recent years it has become a center for groundbreaking freeriding on skis and snowboards. What are the key ingredients in this saga? That’s easy :

1. Snow.
2. Snow.
3. Plus, not in the least, some very innovative enthusiasts.

Let’s start with snow. The Røldal local history book from 1960 devotes an entire chapter to the snow depths in Røldal. Specifically, it describes all the horrific avalanches t hat have hit the area throughout history. The chapter starts with this : “The winter of 1906 was a big snow winter. An avalanche came from Midnuten with so much snow that it ran over Skorane and swept away the house and barn at the Ripleflåt farm.” Four people were killed. Later in the book, it says : “The avalanche in Ekkjejuvet in 1816 took four lives.” And then, “In 1855, Tore Monsson Bratteteig and Sjur Ljomanes died in a snow-slide at Maurlid between Odland and Botnen. Both were found dead and Sjur was laying there naked. The avalanche had torn his clothes off.” It doesn’t stop there. The book tells of many other terrible avalanches and extreme snow winters. There is no question that Røldal is a snowy and demanding place to live.

“People here are the real thing,” says Pelle Gangeskar. “Really genuine.”
The 36-year-old head of marketing for the Røldal Ski Resort stands outside his house at Røldal Lake and looks up at the mountains that surround the village. He can safely be described as an innovative enthusiast. In many ways, Gangeskar has become Mr. Røldal. He came to the village for the first time on May 20, 1995. Gangeskar remembers the day as if it were yesterday. He had read on Norwegian broadcaster NRK-TV’s text pages that the ski area was still open and that there was three meters of snow… at the end of May. He didn’t believe it. But after a long drive from south-eastern Norway, he stood at the base of the ski slope and realized that an additional half- meter of fresh powder had been added. Gangeskar took the lift up and had the run of his life. Afterward, he was invited for coffee by the Bratteteig family, who ran the ski center. They wanted to know more about this traveler from distant realms. Gangeskar felt like he’d come home. “There is something unique about Røldal. This is a village that has been isolated by snow for much of the year for hundreds of years. The way they have learned to live – with scant resources, subsistence farming and hunting – has created some very good human qualities. People in Røldal have a strong sense of community, voluntarily working collectively. The 500 people who live here help each other. Everyone knows everyone. And the terrain and weather are a godsend to skiers and snowboarders.”

The ski area Gangeskar visited in 1995 had been built in 1977. Two enterprising brothers, Jan and Rolf Bøen, with their buddy Lavrans Fossaaen started the project. They decided to build a ski area in the Håradalen area just above Røldalsbygda, unquestionably a good choice for downhill runs and off-piste skiing. The area was eventually taken over by the Bratteteig family. For years, they used the enormous quantities of snow to draw people from their own village, the surrounding Odda area and the coastal town of Haugesund two hours away by car. But the ski area was by no means well-known. And the Bratteteig family hadn’t the slightest inkling of what having young Gangeskar over for coffee was going to bring about.
“I travelled a lot to ski at that time,” recalls Gangeskar. “In 1996, I competed in the Nordic freeride championship at the (Swedish ski area) Riksgränsen. I realized that the slopes we had skied at Røldal were much better suited to that kind of skiing than the mountains at Riksgränsen. That’s how I started to dream about organizing a freeride competition at Røldal.”
The dream lay dormant for several years, until Gangeskar and his friend Bettina Gavoll-Hansen decided to go for it in 2001. They signed up some other carefree souls, a handful of sponsors, and, of course, Røldal Ski Resort itself. The very first Røldal Freeride Challenge saw the light of day.
“I remember that first competition very clearly,” says Gangeskar. “The Swedish freerider Fredrik Ericsson jumped off a cliff in the middle of the mountainside, fell and just lay there. We had not considered the possibility of someone getting hurt up there. We didn’t know how to get him down. Then there were some very long seconds as I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. But then Fredrik got up and skied down the mountain under his own power, luckily.” Later, during the awards ceremony, the mood was buoyant. Participants who had travelled 12-13 hours by car were already saying how much they looked forward to the next year ; to the next Røldal Freeride Challenge. Gangeskar and Gavoll-Hansen realized that they had hit the spot for skiers.

Six years and six successful Røldal Freeride Challenges later, Gangeskar went ahead and moved to the village, together with his wife Tonje and children. It didn’t take long before he was making big plans for his new hometown. “The Røldal Freeride Challenge became the qualifier for the sport’s world cup – the Freeride World Tour – in 2008. People from all over the world started to come and word spread. And I thought : What if we could organize a Freeride World Tour competition as well?” says Gangeskar.

The winter of 2011-12 started off as usual in Røldal : Heavy snows came early. By mid-December 2011, the Røldal Ski Resort already had two meters of snow, more than any other ski area in the world at that moment. And it just kept snowing, snowing and snowing. At the end of February, in the middle of a snowstorm of course, a giant semi-trailer rolled into Røldal. The graphics adorning the sides of the truck left no doubt about who owned it : The Freeride World Tour. Gangeskar, now head of marketing at the same ski area he first read about 17 years earlier, could finally stand there and watch the world’s freeride elite take over the little village. “It took time,” says Gangeskar. “But we did it. Thanks to my wife Tonje’s unlimited patience and capacity for work. And thanks as well to many committed people, the township of Odda and Norrøna.”

Back to the snowboarder on the edge of the precipice. It is Feb. 26, 2012, and a competition day in the Freeride World Tour. The Røldal Ski Resort is filled to the brim with the world’s best skiers and snowboarders, plus intensely interested spectators. A helicopter flies overhead. The air is filled with high expectations. Way up there Norrøna ambassador David Underland has a start number on his chest and is listening to the countdown. Underland has won the Røldal Freeride Challenge an amazing five times. Now he is giving his all at the Freeride World Tour on his home slope. Everyone has their binoculars trained on him, watching as Underland, as always, impresses, and runs a demanding line with several cliff jumps. Safely at the bottom, he is not entirely satisfied with his own performance. “I feel like it didn’t go that well this time,” says Underland. “But I didn’t want to play it safe. I wanted to push myself a little more now that the Freeride World Tour is at home. The level in this competition is so high that you always have to push yourself to the limit.”
Underland has competed in the Freeride World Cup several times, and thinks it’s a good thing that the event has come to Røldal.
“This place and this competition can stand comparison to any other Freeride World Tour venue. Røldal is second to none. We competitors can see that Pelle (Gangeskar) and the others are professionals and have a lot of experience. And it is nice to be able to show off Røldal from its best side. It’s not just a pile of snow. This is a great ski area with accessible and cool skiing. If you can be bothered to walk a bit, you can make runs as steep as you like,” says Underland.

It is now May 2012. The Freeride World Tour circus has long since left Røldal, on their way to other
and much bigger ski destinations. But even though summer is coming, quiet has not yet descended on the Røldal Ski Resort. There is still a lot of snow. Now the area is staying open for World and Olympic champion Aksel Lund Svindal and the rest of the Norwegian Alpine ski team. Gangeskar himself uses the beautiful weather to do alpine ski tours in the surrounding area. Gangeskar says he’s not sure what’s next, or whether there will be more Freeride World Tour events in Røldal. “I don’t know,” says Gangeskar. “It was a really good experience. It was fun to show off the mountains, the snow and a world class event. And we may well do it again. But a Freeride World Tour event costs 3 million kroner. During the Easter break, we held a junior Norwegian Freeride Championship in Røldal. Children as young as nine participated and the entire budget was just two packs of batteries, which were sponsored by the local grocery store. But just
the same, it was a much more fun event than the Freeride World Tour, I must say.”