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Going on a late ski spree
World's northernmost race, opening of tow lift comes as places elsewhere end season
dogsled
Racers start the Svalbard Skimarathon at Mine 6 on April 25. The world's northermost ski race attracted a record 453 participants.

As ski resorts elsewhere were closing down, Svalbard's snow bums were just getting off to the races and lifts.

Hundreds of outsiders joined a throng of Longyearbyen residents for a weekend featuring the world's northernmost ski race and the opening of maybe the last free ski lift on Earth (which anyone with an hour to spare can learn to run).

A record 453 people participated in the Svalbard Skimarathon beginning at Mine 6 on April 25, covering all or half of the 42-kilometer course along the valley to Fritham with varying competitiveness. Skies were clear, the temperature a tolerable -10C and winds light.

For Joakim Bolteus, 37, of Göteborg, who's raced for nearly a decade, including the 90-kilometer Vasaloppet race in Dalarna, Sweden, the big adjustment this late in the spring was going straight from training on roller skis to unfamilar snow.

"The hard part for us is the ski waxing, because we're not familiar with the conditions," said Bolteus, who arrived in Longyeabyen without time for a practice run.

An article about the race in the Göteborg newspaper also caught the attention of Hannasofie Pedersen, 31, another Vasaloppet participant who said she tries to compete in some events, but Svalbard's half-marathon course was strictly for fun.

"The big difference is you have ice bears," Pedersen said, adding it wasn't a huge worry "because you have people guarding the race."

A rescue helicopter keeping watch for polar bears hovered overhead and armed guards on snowscooters patrolled the course as racers gathered at the start line. Volunteers at several stations along the course also stood ready with food and beverages, although all racers were required to carry a pack weighing at least three kilograms containing extra clothes, food and something hot to drink.

Youths catch a lift on the rope tow across the street from Longyearbyen School as it opens on April 26. The lift is open Thursday and Sunday evenings, and can be operated other times by people who receive an hour of instruction.

Heavy favorites Erlend Hoff and Sara Svendsen won the men's and women's divisions, respectively, the third straight victory for both. Hoff's time was 2:03:43, Svendsen's was 2:27:49.

Coming in more leisurely were Turil Endresen, 55, and Göril Sguve, 55, both of Tønsberg, who had the makings of a decent picnic in their packs and expected to complete the half-marathon course in four hours.

"We are going out there looking at the view," Sguve said. "When we go on the scooter we don't see anything."

The next day featured youths participating in a series of races on a short course at Longyearbyen School, followed by the opening of the 180-meter rope tow lift on the hill across the street.

The lift was scheduled to open during the Solfestuka celebration in early March, but permitting issues resulted in delays, said Stig Ganstad, a culture and recreation official with Longyearbyen Lokalstyre.

The lift is open and free of charge ("maybe" the only such opportunity in the world) Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 5 p.m. until whoever is operating the lift closes it, Ganstad said. He said anyone interested in being an operator can do so by contacting his department (postmottak@lokalstyre.no).

"They can spend one hour learning to drive it and the safety routes, and then they are accepted as a driver," he said.

A dozen people knew how to operate it on opening day and about 20 skiers –mostly kids – showed up during the first couple of hours, Ganstad said.


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