Despite being a cornerstone of recreational Norwegian life I had yet to spend a night in a tourist mountain hut, or 'hytte' as they're known over here. Often owned and run byone of the local DNT organisations these hyttes provide safe, welcome refuge for the hiker and skier.
So when my friend suggested we try out one of these hyttes as an alternative to a tent I thought it was about time. Besides I was still suffering from a minor but persistent flu virus picked up from one of the kids at school and my hiking partner doesn't do tents when the mercury is in single digits overnight.
A quick phone call to Bergens Turlag for ideas and we were on the train to Vaksdal, just 25 minutes from Bergen. Obviously it's the law to stop at any small town service station and sample the local 'dubious meat snack' (Phil Turner would approve I'm sure) so amongst the out-of-date crisps and X-rated car air fresheners we polished off a hot dog, smothered in ketchup and mustard as a 'second breakfast' and hit the trail.
It might only be September but the seasons have decided they've had enough of being known as 'changing' and now just want to be called 'changed'. The wind was keen and in places it shook the birch trees free of their thinning leaves and showered us in gold confetti.
The last few days of high pressure had done a good job of drying the trail but as usual there was plenty of elixir-like fresh water to quench our thirst. We were travelling light, a lot lighter than I normally do at this time of year in the mountains and my thoughts drifted to this concept of not carrying a shelter or cooking equipment. I thought about my first music festival. Sleeping in a tent, poorly pitched on the side of a car park. Then I remembered getting older, still going to festivals but the tents getting more sophisticated and the pitches more refined. Even older now I still like the idea of going to festivals but the idea of going back to a hotel room at night appeals. Is this what will happen to my backcountry adventuring? Eventually abandoning my tent for a comfortable hytte with a stove, drying room, soft beds and a fully stocked larder?!
On the way up we passed a few signs of human life. A few beautifully positioned private hyytes, a farther and two sons hunting team and even an abandoned toy ice cream truck. It was old and battered but probably sorely missed by some young child, left here after a day out with the family to weather the elements. A foreign object, conspicuous by it's colour and straight lines but somehow totally at home in the autumnal hills.
I've walked many trails in Norway and they are generally well marked with the famous painted red 'T' on strategically placed rocks, almost to the point where a map is just a back-up. This trail was different though. Despite being one of the areas most popular trails it was poorly marked and in places the map seemed to contradict the trail markers. This led to several detours, one of which cost us a couple of hours of unnecessary climbing to re-gain the trail.
Eventually we topped out over 900m and entered a world not so warm in colour or temperature. Up here the wind really did try and cut us in two and we clambered around the rocky shorelines of the chained lakes before we found Høgabu hytte. Unfortunately it was incredibly busy and we were lucky to get the last couple of beds in the 14-bed attic dormitory. The more regular hytte users clocked us instantly as newbies but seemed reluctant to show us the correct etiquette or procedures. With our limited Norwegian and some common sense we managed to cook ourselves some well earned stew. It was then that a big group of 14 people decided they were going to take over the entire living room and kitchen area and turn it into their private party domain. We retreated to the dorm upstairs and amongst some other shocked guests we quietly shared a wee nip before turning in, mindful to block out revelry with ear plugs.
I actually slept really well and we didn't stir until around 07.00. We were the first ones up and along with a couple of Norwegian girls we collected two buckets of fresh drinking water from the stream, fired up the stoves and put some water on to boil. Unfortunately the big group from last night didn't like us having some space to ourselves in the morning either and descended on the living quarters, almost literally pushing the rest of us out. Still unsure of proper etiquette but pretty pissed off with the big groups attitude to anyone else we filled our thermos with boiling water, selected some breakfast and lunch from the larder, settled our bill and hit the trail under the gaze of a reluctant moon. Our black mood lifted slightly along the shore of the first lake with the sighting of our first wild lemmings.
After 40 minutes of cold, gray light, dicey trails along the sides of the black lakes and a lack of caffeine we decided to stop for breakfast in the lee of a boulder and watch the sun rise over Gravatnet. Short on hot water we discovered that two packs of Via in a kuksa packs a beautifully powerful punch.
The way back was far easier in every respect. Being mostly downhill we found it really easy to find our way, even with the slightly eccentric trail markers. The cruel wind that had buffeted us on the way up yesterday was now at our back and actually dropped to almost nothing by the time we reached the tree-line. The sun shone and warmed our bones and hearts. We forgot the overcrowding and rudeness of the hytte and revelled in the autumnal colours.
As if to complete our healing descent from the madness of the hytte we were passed by a car as we left the trailhead car park, before we made our way down the road to the train station 6kms away. The car stopped and a very kind old man offered us a lift all the way into Vaksdal. He chatted with us about the mountains, excited that these foreigners were so in love with the wilderness he had enjoyed for years. My faith in humanity was restored. It wasn't the hut system that was broken, it was just a few idiots that spoiled it for the rest. Staying in hyttes isn't my first choice of accommodation in the mountains but I feel better for giving it a try and better prepared for what to expect should I have to seek refuge in one in the future.
I still prefer my own shelter though. Maybe I just don't like people...