Friday, 19 December 2008

"I'm as fit as ten men. Nine dead, one alive"

Tim March at Howies threw down the gauntlet and when one of your childhood heroes pitches a challenge like this you feel you should step up to the crease and have a swing at it. The idea was to get people to spend 36 hours away from their home, travel 30 miles on foot and sleep overnight in a bivy bag.

Having done plenty of this kind of thing before I didn't consider this challenge insurmountable. Then I considered my location these days, the season and prevailing weather patterns. Norway in December with -9C at night and a foot of snow. Still, totally doable with the right kit, a can-do attitude and maybe a campfire to keep spirits and body heat up! Just to complicate matters it doesn't get light until 09.00 at this latitude and starts getting dark 6 hours later. That's a whole lotta darkness...

Well, due to work, the build up to Christmas and other obligations my window of opportunity was looking more like a peephole. The weather running up to my planned effort was cold but dry and sunny and promised good times, if a little nippy round the lugholes. 36 hours were earmarked, clearances and passes obtained from all the necessary authorities and a low pressure weather system duly appeared right on cue bringing slightly above freezing temperatures, days of rain, high winds and caused the thawing of all the lovely snow. Obviously my planning had not been stealthy enough.

Now my kit was looking a bit thin. Just a bivy bag for shelter. Hmmmmm. I'd have preferred a tent and I'd already dismissed using a tarp in keeping with the spirit of the challenge. Still, how bad could it be....

08.00 on Tuesday morning and I was out the door and walking through the darkness up to the trails that start 15 minutes from our apartment with a rucksack of clothing, a sleeping bag, lots of chocolate and the necessary bivy bag. The tracks through the forest were alternating ice and ankle deep slush underfoot, illuminated by the ski trail lights and my headtorch. By the time dawn broke and weak grey light washed the sky I was high on the trail heading towards the frozen reservoirs above Bergen. Elevenses was had hunkered down in the shelter of one of the massive trail side boulders as the winds drove sleet sideways across the ice rink surface.

A week ago my plan for this trip was to hike over the Storfjellet plateau and bivy down in one of the south facing valleys in the shelter of some trees, overlooking Bergen. With the weather behaving the way it was and with only around six hours of good daylight during the day I decided to find somewhere on this side of the hills that offered some protection from the driving rain and snow. I circled round the reservoirs and headed down into the forest looking for somewhere flat, protected and near water.

It took me an hour to find a suitable spot on a 'bench' of flat-ish ground half way up a small hill from a stream with tall pine trees offering a degree of protection from precipitation but also blocking out a lot of natural light. By 15.00 it was pitch black in my camp and I realised just how long a night it was going to be. The days of rain and thaw conditions has made every single scrap of wood soaking wet. With no fire to tend or keep me warm I was left standing there in almost total darkness, watching my bivy bag getting slowly drenched and trying not to think about Dog Soldiers.

After a freezer bag meal of cheesy pasta and plenty of chocolate I tried out my salubrious sleeping quarters. The Exped Synmat is quite simply the most comfortable way to sleep outdoors in these kinds of conditions and with a full belly I surprised myself by drifting off to sleep for a few hours. I woke up around 22.00 to the sensation of my mobile phone buzzing away in my chest pocket and had a quick conversation with Base Camp to let M know that I was actually warm and actually enjoying the experience despite the lack of company or indeed a fire to keep me occupied. A quick check of the mini-thermometer clipped to my rucksack revealed a positively tropical 1C. Another hot chocolate and a bag of chocolate peanuts and my internal furnace was blazing and off I slipped into slumberland.

Due to memories of past bivy trips I had expected to wake up several times during the night to hoist myself back onto my sleeping pad or shift position to keep the rain out of the bivy bag so when I surfaced and checked my watch I was surprised to see a very reasonable 07.20 and time to prepare a pre-dawn start to the day's hiking. I slowly started to check my kit and discovered that pretty much everything around me was either damp or soaking and every grade of wetness in between. A corner of my sleeping bag had poked out the bivy bag during the night and got a bit wet too but everything inside the bivy was dry, including my Primaloft jacket that after a soaking yesterday had, as promised, dried out with a liberal helping of body heat and a waterproof/breathable bivy sack. I was up and packed in a few minutes by the light of my head torch, the stove was last to be packed as it boiled water for a freezer bag of Readybrek and a Nalgene full of coffee.

First stop of the day was to refill the water bottles so I stopped at the little stream I'd found the night before and found it running twice as deep and fast, heavy with snow melt and so cold.

To warm myself up I shouldered the Villain again and decided that a straight march up to Ulriken (643m) was in order. As I climbed the paths up to the summit it was evident that up here was not a good place to have been last night. The ice blasted vegetation told a tale of subzero temperatures and fierce southeasterly winds. This morning things were quieter but I could see heavy clouds trundling in over the city far below.

The summit was plastered with snow despite the thaw below and my early start meant that I was having to break trail, following the metal way-markers where I could and making up the rest. I peered over my left shoulder and watched helplessly as a snow shower flew in at breakneck speed.

After pulling on the waterproofs, shooting a bit of video and munching a bag of nuts and raisins it was time to start my circuitous route home. At first I lost altitude fast down the main rock staircase then dived right towards the city and hid in some trees to avoid the worst of yet another hail shower. It was as good a time as any to stop for lunch and I ate the last of my hot food and drank my last coffee serving, saving a couple of sachets of hot chocolate just in case.

Refreshed I traversed back across the ridge in another hail shower which proved to be the last of the bad weather as sunshine reminded me what it looked like and gazed kindly on my way home.

I was heading back to where I camped last night, the reservoirs were visible in the distance with my wooded sleeping quarters beyond. The wind that had been blowing since I started yesterday morning strengthened and waned over each ridge and valley that I walked through.


As the sun dipped behind Lovstakken in front of me the sky boiled up again with one last burst of rain, hail or sleet. It held off while I made my way down through the darkening forest and finally out onto the road behind the recycling bins again. I wasn't going to make the full 36 hours or the full 30 miles that the Howies Bivy Challenge had required of me but with darkness almost upon me again I was happy with 33 hours (only 12 of which were daylight) of total solitude in weather and at a time of year when most people wouldn't think of spending the night camped out in 'The Nature' as the Norwegians call it.

I guess sometimes failure IS an option. A very enjoyable and rewarding one.



Nielsen Brown said...

Well done, a well written tale that captures the challenges of the trip as well as exemplifying your preparedness. Had to laugh about the 10 pm phone call, we are never alone (unless we choose to be).
Would you bivy again at this time of the year?

Have a great christmas and New Year.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic report, it makes an old git wish for younger bones....or is that just an excuse!!!?? Makes the Wareham forest seem a bit on the tame side,great blog as usual see you when you get back to blighty

Holdfast said...

Nielsen - the phone wasn't for the benefit of the person sleeping in the dark forest, it was for the benefit of the person safely tucked up in the apartment with under-floor heating :-)

Yes, I'd happily bivy again at this time of year. I'd take a tarp if I expected rain again but I'd be happy to go colder if it stayed dry.

Anonymous - yes, it's just an excuse! That Exped Synmat is as good as a feather bed, perfect for older bones! See you next week.

Martin Rye said...

Short epic that. Santa needs to bring you a tent.

Holdfast said...

Martin - I think with a proper shelter it wouldn't have turned into the mini epic it did! I'd be a much happier and drier bunny if Santa brought me a tent but I don't think Santa's pockets are deep enough this Christmas. Looks like it's more bivy trips for me for the time being! With drier weather and a fire I would have been cozy beyond belief.

Also I'm not sure where I'd fit the tent into my Villain, I only took a bivy bag but still managed to completely fill it! I've been through my gear list a couple of times to see where I could shed some weight/volume. All I can think of is that having a tent means I could have left one baselayer, one light fleece, the bivy socks and possibly one of the Duomats behind. That would possibly give me the required 900grams margin.

Anyone know how to put Excel files on as a comment so you guys can critique my gear list?

Martin Rye said...

I don't know how to put excel as a comment. Copy the excel sheet and open it in Paint.Net. Save as a JPeg and upload to the blog as a posting. Set size 800 x 800 and we can click on it and it will open up in a large size to read. Comments follow soon after;)

Nielsen Brown said...

"it was for the benefit of the person safely tucked up in the apartment with under-floor heating"

Fortunately I also have a person who takes an interest in my whereabouts : )

Have a great new year with family and friends.

Hendrik M said...

Going through your old posts because I'm considering a winter set-up. Great story and nice photos.

What sleeping bag are you using?
Any reason you've a Synmat and not a Downmat?
What Bivy did you use?
What Tarp would you use?

You can answer via Email, and let me know when you come ;)

Holdfast said...

Hendrik - thanks for taking me back in time! :-)

The sleeping bag was an Alpkit PipeDream 400, rated to -3C.
The reason I have a SynMat and not a Down Mat? The SynMat is slightly lighter, much cheaper and only marginally less insulative.
The bivy I used was a cheap Alpkit Hunka which actually worked quite well. If I buy another wp/b bivy though I would go for a WP base with an eVent top, something like the Rab Alpine or from Integral Designs the Micro or South Col.
Wen I buy a tarp next year I will definitely go for an MLD, so many good reports.

I'll be in touch!