After a long ascent, I caught up with my fellow skiers at Hestlægerhøe pass. I removed my climbing skins and stowed them in my pack, grabbed a bite of chocolate, and added layers of clothing before pushing off for the gentle descent to Glitterheim hut. New snow lay feather-light over a firm base, and joy surged in me as I swooped in wide curves down the broad valley. Conditions were perfect; this was my reward after a long ascent. I dropped 300 metres to the valley floor, and made my way to the well-appointed and welcoming mountain hut.
This was the third year that my husband, Chris, and I had joined a Norwegian Trekking Association group to travel on Nordic skis across mountain regions of Norway. We’re not normally joiners and we guard our independence on extended bike tours, but for our first Norwegian ski venture in 2014 we’d joined Den Norske Turistforening to learn the workings of their extensive hut system. This set us on a positive learning curve for choosing equipment, understanding potential safety issues, and getting to know Norwegian mountain weather. We so enjoyed that first tour in 2014, that in 2015 we signed up for two separate week-long tours, allowing rest for our aging bodies between outings.
Now, in 2016, we were on a two-week 240-kilometre tour. There was only one rest day scheduled, and many of the daily distances would be challenging. How would we manage? Our 60-plus bodies were used to maintaining a steady pace on bicycles or on foot, but we got in very little skiing at home. Would we hold the group up?
We’d met our tour leaders and four of our fellow skiers in the Oslo bus station, and another skier joined us as we changed buses. When we arrived at Gjendersheim hut – our starting point – our group was completed by a venerable Dutchman with whom we’d skied the previous year. This brought our number to 10, with only three amongst us under 60, and our determined Dutchman well past 70. This is not unusual in Norway, where the mountain culture meant we were among fit and able companions.
Our leader was Albert, a retiree in his mid-sixties. He led from the rear, while assistant leader, Charlotte, forged ahead. It was always comforting to know that Albert, with his huge pack, was trudging steadily behind. We knew he carried a satellite phone and an extensive first aid kit but, beyond that, we could only guess what else might make his pack so large and heavy. If any of the speediest group members were to have complained of his pace, he could simply have suggested they share his load.
The trekking association’s hut system is a network of 500 cabins, which, in conjunction with a few privately operated mountain lodges, allows skiers the freedom to travel through mountain areas with relatively light backpacks. Some DNT huts are staffed lodges that provide meals; some are self-service cabins with stocked food lockers; and some have no-services, providing only shelter. These accommodations are connected by 7,000 kilometres of ski routes, usually marked with branches that stand out in an otherwise treeless landscape, and which can be followed in all but the worst conditions.
Arriving at Glitterheim – a staffed lodge - we stood our skis and poles outside the hut, and stamped snow off our boots as we entered. Every hut has a drying room, and we always made use of these - not only for boots but for gaiters, gloves and skins. At dinner, many nationalities were represented. That evening, we placed our thermoses on a table near the kitchen, each with a label indicating our hot drink choice for the following day.
In the morning, after a hearty breakfast, we assembled sandwiches from an array of cheeses, cold cuts, pickled herring, and hearty breads, and packed these along with our filled thermoses. Once we’d waxed our skis, our group assembled outside the hut and donned packs ready to set off across the expanse of white.
Conditions early in the trip were ideal. Sun glinted on powdery crystals, and waxes worked well. Our steep descent to Spiterstulen was challenging due to insufficient snow coverage over a jumble of large rocks, but carrying skis over these got us safely down to our first private lodge. Here we shared the dining room with a crowd of excited 12-year olds who’d come to learn natural history and outdoor skills as part of their schooling. As for our own skills, Albert and Charlotte went over emergency bivouac procedures, and we compared the equipment we carried in case of an unplanned night out. Mountain weather can change quickly, and there is always the possibility of not reaching the next hut.
The following night, we reached Olavsbu, our first self-service cabin, in the heart of Jotunheimen National Park. Chris and I enjoy the atmosphere when we stay at these; we find we get to know our companions well as we share tasks such as lighting the stove, fetching water or melting snow, cooking, and washing dishes. At Olavsbu, we all quickly found jobs to do. As cooks, we chose supper ingredients from the food locker and, having arrived quite early, we also made an afternoon snack of jam-filled pancakes, which we served with tea.
Continuing through the southern part of Jotunheimen, 2,000 metre peaks stood tall above broad valleys, but when we crossed to the Filfjell area, the terrain became gentler as we approached Sulebu, a self-service hut with a panoramic view. We prepared for an early start from here, because the next day would be our longest at 32 kilometres.
We skied together over a pass and down to the road-crossing at Breistølen, where we huddled in a farmyard for lunch, then split into two groups for the long ascent to Bjordalsbu hut. Charlotte and the faster skiers were to have the stove lit and dinner on the go by the time we slower skiers arrived. Our group climbed steadily and arrived somewhat weary. This was March, and the lengthening daylight hours allowed us time to move at a comfortable pace.
In the morning, the snow had turned to slush due to an overnight rise in temperature, so it was a good thing it was mainly downhill to Iungsdalhytta in the heart of the Skarvheimen region. After eight days of travel, Chris and I were looking forward to a rest day here. Some of our crew did a day’s outing, but we were not alone in dozing by the fire for much of the day.
Three more days of travel followed as we worked our way southward towards our final destination at Finse. The temperatures had dropped and slush had frozen to solid ice, meaning our shoulders got a good workout as our arms propelled us forward. In some spots, the ice had formed a breakable crust, and we’d lurch when it broke beneath us. We learned to read the surface ahead and choose downhill routes carefully. At times, strong winds drove ice crystals horizontally, and land merged with sky in a disorienting expanse of white. As I traversed down the last slope towards the cluster of buildings at Finse, the wind had dropped and the fog surrounding me had become still. A train pierced the silence with its whistle as it shot out of a tunnel into the station, and I braked judiciously before crossing the tracks to the lake. Finse lies at the highest point of the Oslo to Bergen rail line. It serves fjell skiers and hikers, and has no road access.
We gathered in the lee of the train station and waited for our indefatigable Dutchman to join us, so we could ski together across the lake to our last hut. As he crossed the tracks to join us, I shared a celebratory piece of chocolate with him, and we skied as a unit to one of the largest huts in the DNT system. After two weeks together, we knew each other well and the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly as we toasted our leaders in the busy lounge area of the hut with a song we’d composed.
In the morning, we skied to the train station, where backpacks and skis were everywhere as we boarded for our return to Oslo. Naturally, passenger train cars in Norway are equipped with ski racks. We were a quiet group as we returned, some slept, but I gazed out the window at the passing landscape. Where would our next adventure take us? The possibilities seemed endless.
Margo Mactaggart and her husband, Chris Oram, maintain a website at https://candmwanderings.wordpress.com/ Although the site focuses on their world travels by bicycle, there are also blog posts describing each of their four Norwegian ski tours.
IF YOU GO:
The Norwegian Trekking Association operates all tours in both English and Norwegian. For information, start at https://english.dnt.no/ Under “Need to Know” choose “Winter Safety in the Mountains” to see a complete equipment list.
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