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.