Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Under The Weather - Ultralight adventure in the Hardangervidda

This was supposed to be a 7-day adventure across the stunning Hardangervidda, testing myself and the suitability of ultralight backpacking gear in a mountain plateau environment. My planned route was basically a north-to-south crossing, starting at Finse and exiting somewhere near the town of Odda and it's transport links back to Bergen.

I experienced plenty of adventure and stunning scenery but I also suffered a bout of illness and poor trail conditions that changed my plans. I will cover how my UL gear stood up to the test in a later post but for now here is a report of what happened:

(more photos can be viewed here)

After a ball-up with the trains on the day I left Bergen I found myself alighting at Finse train station (1222m) slightly later in the day than I had planned. The sun was still glowing but a cool wind blew across the lake. I walked down the Rallervegan for a while before crossing the dam. I left the crowds of tourists behind and with the Hardangerjokulen glacier on my right I headed into the Hardangervidda.

Across granite slabs and fields of talus I followed the DNT trail south. It felt good to be finally underway and the fresh environment soon rinsed away the detritus of modern life. Those first few hours, with the sun starting to set over my shoulder, felt cleansing as my legs got stretched, my lungs breathed deep on fresh mountain air and thoughts of the sights and sounds I might witness over the next few days filled me with excitement and apprehension. The weather forecast was mixed and my pack felt ridiculously light considering I was carrying seven days supply of food.

Making camp on the first day was relatively simple. Once I found a slightly more sheltered patch of bare ground to set my tarp it was simply a case of using some rocks to augment the pegs in the loose, thin soil. Foraging for some wood for use in my stove was also an easy task. Despite the total lack of trees there was plenty of dried twigs from low lying bushes hidden amongst the boulders. Once the sun dipped behind the sentinel glacier the mercury dropped significantly and I was thankful for a warm supper and hot drink before getting into my bivy and easily drifting off to sleep.

The next morning there was a shift in the wind direction and some early low lying cloud. More wood was gathered to heat water for breakfast and I was soon heading south, passing chains of glacier-fed lakes sporting different hues of aquamarine, powder-blue and forbidding black. Walking down the banks of the Viero river the sun started to shine between short, sharp showers. The Viero finally emptied itself into Sysnevatnet, a huge lake that looks prehistoric from the wild northern shore but is in fact a man-made reservoir, it's southern boundary, some 4kms away, consisting of a huge dam.

The trail turned east, following another river upstream. The water cascaded over rocks and churned through gorges, scoured through the granite by eons. Across one of the familiar high, bouncy bridges and I was soon passing by the cozy buildings of the Kjeldebu tourist hyttas. Several people were enjoying the warm, cosseted microclimate afforded by the folds in the geography. We shared waves and I headed on. Climbing again in the fierce sunshine I was soon feeling tired and frazzled. I dug around in my hip-belt pockets for a sugary snack but found nothing. Fantasising of food I stumbled across a chocolate bar, still perfectly wrapped, lying right in the middle of the trail. Obviously dropped by one of the hikers resting at Kjeldebu it was a much appreciated dose of unintentional trail magic. I checked my map again for water sources and saw what looked like a potential campsite for the night. After checking out a couple of likely spots I eventually chose one right next to a high alpine lake.

Despite a few mosquitoes it proved to be a nicely sheltered campsite. I washed my clothes and dried them in the late evening sunshine. During the day I'd managed to get myself slightly dehydrated during 7 hours of hiking. I drank long from a cold stream and felt much better as I turned in early and watched the sky burn orange, pink and red through the triangular end of the tarp.

My early bedtime meant I awoke really early the next morning, early enough to watch more dazzling colours paint the opposite side of the sky. I was on the trail by 07.00 and spent two hours walking across wide, wet, windswept moorland. I crossed the high road that crosses the Hardangervidda east to west and decided to stop for a second breakfast in the cafeteria at Dyrnaut. Ham and cheese rolls, dark, strong, slightly over-brewed coffee and a very welcome thick slice of cheesecake had me brimming with energy as I headed south once more, down towards the river and the gateway to heart of the national park. Now, the trails here in Norway are well marked, as many of you will know, with big, bright 'T's' painted on rocks and cairns along the way. Maybe I was drunk on the cloying stodginess of the cheesecake but somehow I missed my turning and instead of heading south west on a trail that would take me towards the wild centre of the Hradangervidda I ended up heading due west, skirting the edge of where I wanted to be. It was a mistake I only discovered after an hour of traversing the lumpy hillsides and I made the decision to keep heading west, knowing that I could head south again tomorrow, rejoining my intended trail.

The strong wind was now at my back and the intermittent rain thrashed at my pack and hood. There were brief glimpses of sunshine that allowed me to drop my hood but these seemed to occur just prior to the next rain shower and I spent much of the day ensconced in my rain jacket. The trail was easy to follow but underfoot it changed frequently. One minute I would be trundling along at a fair clip on firm, dry trails before my pace was slowed by bog, tussocks and swathes of mud. Much later in the day the trail dropped into a series of quieter valleys, sometimes following beautiful bubbling brooks that snaked the valley floor in natural, granite lined aqueducts.

High above the Veig river valley and the hyyte at Hedlo I decided to make camp in the shelter of some granite boulders, calved from what seemed like a natural quarry that was also home to a stream and small waterfalls. The soil here was just a thin carpet on the solid bedrock and it took quite a bit of effort to get a secure pitch. Despite the shelter of the quarry and the boulders the wind raked my camp all night. The thin titanium pegs flexed in the shallow soil. It took a while to get my stove working well and it was not long after dinner that I started to feel ill. Cold and achy to start with I was soon feeling sick to my stomach and had to lie down for a few hours until the worst of it passed. Later in the evening I wondered if my navigation error earlier in the day, that now placed me closer to an exit point, was a blessing in disguise.

Still feeling like crap when I woke up I couldn't even bring myself to brew up and have a warm breakfast. I mixed my cereal cold, packed in a few minutes and hit the trail. I wasn't sure what to do. I could still head south towards the interior or cut my losses and head west towards Kinsarvik, following part of the trail I backpacked last summer. I could even hole up in one of the tourist hyttes for a couple of days. I'd give it a few hours and see how I felt.

I dropped down into the valley and crossed the Veig, running far lower then when I saw it earlier in the season last year. Climbing hard again I took a final look at the Veig. To my dismay the sky was turning black and the accompanying rain was visible in the air as it swept across the valley and caught up with me as I crested the valley wall and trudged around the many small lakes.

After several hours the rain abated and I got short bursts of sunshine and blue skies. Through one valley I was harried by an hawk or kite that screamed and bombed over my head, probably trying to scare me away from a chick, hidden somewhere high on the cliffs above me. The tables were turned soon after however when a group of small birds mobbed the bird of prey and I was left in peace to continue my trek around the lakes that lead to the head of the Stavali valley. I passed a large group of young Norwegians, the front runners fresh faced and smiling, heading away from Stavali. In contrast the three trailing youths trudged past me with downcast faces, carrying their monster backpacks and guitar cases...

I could have stopped here at the Stavali hytte and looking back at the trip this would have been the best thing to do. I could have rested in relative comfort, seen how I felt it the morning and if I wanted I could have headed back into the interior of the national park with just an hour or so of back-tracking up the valley. If I had still felt sick in the morning then it was just five hours back to civilisation. As it was the rain was pouring and all I wanted to do at that moment was get off the mountain. Stupidity, bloody-mindedness, call it what you want but I made my decision there and then to cut my trip short and basically compress two days hiking into one in an effort to get out as quickly as possible. By then I'd been hiking for about 5 hours and thought, possibly through the judgment-impairing fug of pharmaceutical pain killers, that I should just keep going. I regret it now but at the time it made complete sense.

I don't want to make this sound like a completely negative experience. I was still enjoying the majesty of the hills and cliffs that encircled the trails but I can't deny that it wasn't turning into something of an endurance test. Just keep walking. One foot in front of the other. Across the drenched Grondalen I was basically walking with my feet constantly submerged in mud and water. I kept breaking the journey down into smaller chunks. Just get across Grondalen. Just climb out the other side. Just descend into the rocky, corridor-like Vierdalen.

The end of Vierdalen is a wall. A wall of water vapour and noise erupting from the mighty Kinso river and the half a dozen waterfalls that cascade down the massive gorge, descending from the Hardangervidda plateau to the fjord. A fall of nearly a kilometre.

On foot the descent is pretty brutal. Most of it is steep, smooth granite slopes that I remembered well from last year. This time the slabs were slicked with rain. My feet, softened by submersion and by now around 9 hours of hiking, felt like raw hamburger meat in my shoes. My route down was a zigzag of searches for cracks, weaknesses and vegetation that offered more grip than the rock slopes. Last year I spent hours exploring the valley and photographing the waterfalls, this year I trudged on by, barely glancing over my left shoulder at each of the thunderous maws as thousands of gallons of water crashed into each abyss in sequence.

Down into the forest and the trail still wasn't done with me. The rocks and tree roots along the trail are lubricated with rain and spray. The earth around each rock and root is a quagmire of mud and water from a wet summer. I was using my Lightrek 4 poles almost every step just to keep me upright. Another hour later and I was finally at the trail-head. I sat down for just a few minutes, conscious that I didn't want my legs to think the effort was over just yet and flood with endorphins. There was still an hour to go, down the soft gravel road and the 'turveg' that snakes through the trees on the outskirts of town. Finally, I poured out onto the fjord-side road in Kinsarvik, 11 hours after breaking camp. A short walk brought me to the front doors of the hotel and despite it being the weekend, during holiday season, they found me a room. I peeled off my clothes, stood under the shower and, like the cleansing I had felt at the beginning of trip, I let the warm water wash away the trail. One final chore. A short walk to the store and I returned to my room with a cold cider, more ibuprofen, a family sized bag of chips and ice cream.

Buzzed on fatigue, sickness, the celebratory cider, pain-killers and saturated fats I fell asleep.


Martin Rye said...

Sorry to hear you got unwell on the trip Joe. You'll be back. Good wild camp locations and as ever fantastic photos. Good dynamic range in them. Seeing them makes me want to go to Norway more than ever. That and Sweden. I reckon seeing the photos you took will spur you on to plan another trip. Hope it's soon for you.

Nielsen Brown said...

Joe, wonderful photos and an important story line. Being unwell on a trip, especially when travelling alone, is perhaps the hardest thing to overcome, you are challenged mentally and physically. It is times like these that another person whether walking with you or passing you on the trail can provide so much. We all need to experience the not so good times and learn from them for the next trip.

It seems to me that the tarp and gear held up well which should be a comforting thought and at least allowed you to complete what was undoubtedly a very scenic walk, one that appeals to me for the future.


samh said...

Joe, the landscape you were traveling through looks amazing and I must now peruse some maps of that area.

Maz said...

I had a pretty tough day this weekend but I learned a lot from it and also realised how much I could cope with. However, I wasn't ill and it was only one day/overnight. Also, I was not alone. Job done, Joe, a worthy achievement - it's a mental challenge and your approach - the "one foot in front of the other" and small emotion/mental landmarks are something I can identify with. Sorry it didn't go as well as it could've done but sometimes, these trips are the ones you remember and from which you learn the most. As usual - amazing photography.

Bet you that cider, ice-cream and crisps tasted so damned good!!!

Dave Hanlon said...

First Martin then you. Hope this isn't some sort of lightweighters plague! Always dread the though of sickness coinciding with a trip. Ahh well, that which does not kill us....

"watched the sky burn orange, pink and red through the triangular end of the tarp"

"Buzzed on fatigue, sickness, the celebratory cider, pain-killers and saturated fats I fell asleep"

two beautifuly captured moments that feel strangely familiar to me.

Mark Roberts said...

Can't win 'em all, Joe! You struck a nice tone in the post between poetry and the hiker's apocalypse. I especially liked the warm water that washed away the trail. That feels very familiar to me!

Still, all-in-all it looks like a good experience, and a wise decision to bail.

I'm wondering how your Bristlecone fared - perhaps you'll write a review?

harttj said...

Excellent post! On reflection of the trip, how would you make the decision to stop at the hut rather than walk the 11 hours to the hostel? What cues would you now use to make that kind of choice?

Joe Newton said...

Martin - Thanks, yes, I'll be back. Just being back for a few days and seeing what everyone else has been getting up to via Google Reader has inspired me to plan the next trip already!

Roger - it's funny you mention about travelling alone. This was my first trip alone for some time and I wondered if I missed sharing the experinces with someone else. I also wonder if I had been travelling with others whether my mind-set might have been different about cutting the trip short so soon.

Sam - the whole national park is amazing, so many hidden valleys with their own character.

Maz - Yes, I learnt a lot from this trip, maybe not the lessons I thought I might but I certainly learnt about my own decision making process.

Dave - watching the sunset and the post-hike blow-out are two rewards I think we all enjoy. Especially the blow-out. That's the real reason we go, right? ;-)

Mark - The Bristlecone was flawless. I will do a review in the next week or so.

Harttj - good question. I think I would exercise better judgement in future, simply because I've experienced the consequence of my decision this time. I would exercise a bit more patience.

Thomas W. Gauperaa said...

Excellent report, sorry to read that you got ill. Next time will be better!

Heber said...

Excellent post. The pictures are incredible, especially the ones with the cloud formations. Sorry about the sickness. But it seems that every good trip has some adversity in it.

ROBERT said...

Hi Joe,

Super photos as usual. I followed the link to Picassa and your “old man’s balls” are of course Cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium. Here in the North of Scotland they appear in their billions in June and July as they do in all Northern countries. As a user of a woodburner stove you should pick some – take them home and leave in an airing cupboard or some other dry place and then bag them as they make excellent tinder – they will light readily from a steel & flint. The Inuit have used them for this purpose.

And you really should learn about mushrooms :-)


Rob fae Craigellachie

Joe Newton said...

Thomas - thank you and yes, there is always next time!

Heber - I loved the 'big sky' on this trip. Last year it was wall-to-wall sunshine which made for easy walking conditions but the brooding clouds in sky definitely made it more atmospheric this time.

Rob - thank you so much for identifying the Cottongrass! The name is very apt. And yes, I need to learn what is safe to eat in the wild, that's why I left the fungus well alone this time!

Gustav Boström said...

A real pity that you became sick Joe. I'm very happy for the excellent photos you managed to take anyway. You started from a high level, but you still seem to get better every time!

Speaking of Cottongrass I've used it successfully as tinder for the Bushbuddy. By picking a fairly large amount I could ignite crowberry roots without using any birch bark. A good thing to know when you are running low on bark high above the treeline.

Chris (i-cjw.com) said...

Hells bells, what an epic, I hope you're fully recovered now.

It looks like a fantastic route you chose, though, and I'm thoroughly taken with your vivid descriptions as well as the phenomenal photographs. Utterly entrancing. Mrs CJW, who has been reading over my shoulder, keeps asking me when we are going to Norway...

Martin Rye said...

seen this Joe:


Joe Newton said...

Gustav - thanks. Next time I see some Old Man's Balls, I mean Cottongrass, I pick some up.

Chris - thank you. Yes, I'm better now thanks. Come to Norway, you won't regret it!

Martin - WOW! That is some stunning time-lapse photography! Thank you for bringing it to everyone's attention!

Mark Roberts said...

That time-lapse video is amazing. The mist on the water was great. It's spoky how low the clouds seem over the landscapes. I noticed while back in Finland the other week that the clouds seemed lower. In the states it really is 'big sky' country.

kate said...

that trail looks absolutely stunning and totally wild. i've made similar mistakes in this past, pushing on and not taking the time to clearly think through decisions. i find it's difficult when you're on your own to actually stop and take stock of your situation. the temptation is always just to keep going. when sometimes the best thing to do is, stop and have a brew.

still, it sounds like you had a great few days of solitude in wilderness and probably learned a few things too.

Astrid said...

Such a detailed description of your trip. Wow! Seems like you had a great hike despite of the illness. During our weekend hike at Hardangervidda, we actually talked about hiking to Kinsarvik - a east to west hike.

Gaute said...

Sorry to hear you had to abort the trip due to illness.

I'd like tip you of a great trip thats doable as a daytrip from Bergen with car (might be possible with bus as well?), namely Kjepsostølen nearby Ålvik which
is a fantastic route as these pictures can attest (not my pics, didn't even bring a camera when I did this years ago, silly me!) http://blog.turban.no/2008/09/kjepsostlen-i-hardanger.html
Best done on a fine day as this is not the place to be when its slippery and wet...

Art said...

Adventure and stunning scenery is what we are looking forward every outdoor adventures. But sorry to hear about your sickness. This is indeed a challenging adventure for you, I suppose. That is why every backpackers should have first aid kit. We never know what will happen.

Joe Newton said...

Mark - it's truly an amazing video edit.

Kate - very true. Stopping to have a cuppa or having a partner to bounce ideas off at the time may have resulted in a different plan of action. We live and learn!

Astrid - this was the year I wanted to cross the entire Hardanervidda, north to south, but sickness forced me to change my plans. Maybe next year!

Gaute - thanks for the trip tip! It looks great!

Art - yes, a first aid kit is vital and while mine is stripped of excess 'fat' it still contains sufficient supplies to deal with most minor ailments.