Monday, 27 September 2010

Hytte me with your best shot

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town service station and sample the local 'dubious meat snack' (Phil Turner would approve I'm sure) so amongst the out-of-date crisps and X-rated car air fresheners we polished off a hot dog, smothered in ketchup and mustard as a 'second breakfast' and hit the trail.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...


Tormod said...

Nice trip report! :)
14 people in a "click" is probably not a good sign anywere, unless you're able to rip of your shirt and go right into whatever mood they're in ;)
I've only done 3 overnighter in hytter, the first of which was an accident. Basically I found out the weakness of my watertight shoes(the hole at the top), it was raining and midnight and nowhere to pitch a tarp. I found Kjeldebu hytte on Hardangervidda and decided to wait out the morning on the porch. A hut guard invited me to sleep on the sofa :)
I spent most of the next day there to dry out my shoes in the great company of a German couple, a German girl and a Norwegian thru-hiker. Very positive experience.
If you plan to go to Hardangervidda again, do not pass up a stay at Rembesdalseter hytte even if you plan to camp out for the remainder of the trip. Awesome place! Wake up early to watch the strange interaction between moon sun and the fog. I have never seen anything quite like it. And it is a more difficult route so you may not find it belligered by hordes of partylions :)

Joe Newton said...

Tormod - The big group weren't particularly boisterous but they were certainly inconsiderate towards the smaller groups and families. For instance they could have taken the 14-bed attic dormitory and left the smaller rooms for the families and couples. But it was their domination of the communal living space that pissed everyone off. Maybe it's just me, maybe I'm not used to such communal living arrangements. Maybe I'm too polite but I know I would have done things differently if I had led such a big group into that situation.

The hytte is very popular and as well as the weekend having some of the best weather of the past few weeks it was also one of the last weekends of the hiking season so we expected it to be kinda busy. There is also a much shorter, easier route to the hyyte from the east that makes it a popular choice for families. It is a self-service hytte too, I'm sure if there had been a warden we would have been looked after better and 'shown the ropes' so we would know what to do in future.

The trail from Finse to Kjeldebu hytte is beautiful. The scenery around the glacier and along the powder blue Leiro river was some of the best I've seen in Norway.

I will check out Rembesdalseter next year, I've not been on the other side of the glacier yet.

Rhett said...

Hei, I walked this trail early in september on an extremely wet weekend. Nice to see some blue sky pics! My hood was up the entire time, and although i spotted the toy truck, the camera didn't make out of my pack the whole trip..

The normally trusty red T's are a little elusive through høgabu and on to vending. Not that I made it all the way there, torrents of water pumping through a steep and rocky valley 2/3rds of the way to vending sent me back. The upside was having høgabu all to myself to dry out in. Solitude and comfort!

What I saw through of the scenery through the rain and fog rivals hardangervidda for beauty, and being so close to Bergen I can see myself heading that way more often for some "solitude"

Great blog, by the way!

Maz said...

I doubt you hate people - more like you just hate the inconsiderate blaggards who consider a hut to be their own private party domain. That's deeply unimpressive. We Brit are not built for confrontation so we simply sit and stew whilst it goes on. Ho hum. Been thinking about some hut-to-hut walking in Norway in 2011 but too much focus on the Alps at the moment. Another nice post Joe. Been busy lately? Not much sign of you.

-maria- said...

I find the hyttes as a nice emergency shelter if the weather turns really bad or you break your gear etc. But I prefer the privacy of my own tent. And it's not just the privacy - carrying your own shelter gives you a sense of freedom as well; you can pitch it where you like, it is never too crowded, ...

A nice post and beautiful pics!

Joe Newton said...

Rhett - thank you. I am pretty sure it was the beautiful weather that encouraged so many people to descend on Høgabu at the same time!

It is funny that in all that wilderness you spotted the ice cream truck toy too! I agree that much of that area is similar to Hardangervidda but the fact that it is only 25 minutes away on the train from Bergen makes it far more accessible.

Maz - Yes, I am far too polite sometimes.

I have been very busy with work recently, a rare occurrence as a substitute teacher and suffering from a lingering virus that has left me feeling slightly under the weather so I have been quiet on the blogging front lately. Normal service will be resumed.

Maria - thank you. I prefer the privacy of my own shelter too. Seeing the guys who arrived really late at the hytte asleep on the veranda because there was no room inside reinforced my suspicion that maybe it would be a good idea to carry some kind of shelter and stove just in case you arrive too late at a hytte...

harttj said...

Great post Joe.

Group dynamics is an interesting study. Imagine what Antarctic groups have to look for in people with regards to how they interact with others. Seems to me Ryan J is covering the same material in his new course.

On the flip side, imagine how magical your experience would have been if the group had been the complete opposite. Keep looking for that encounter, as it will be well worth it.

Love the writing and your twitter sense of humour. Keep posting. :-D

Joe Newton said...

Harttj - I've not given up on the human race just yet ;-) Hopefully my next tourist hytte experience will be more positive.

Nielsen Brown said...

Joe as always your photos and report are entertaining. For many years, wherever I have hiked, I have always avoided huts and popular hiking campsites for the reasons you have described. A big party often takes over the area (perhaps understandably) without thought for others. My first experience of this was in Oz where groups of 4WD's would arrive late at night and then start drinking around a huge fire, I have experienced similar in Skåne where Danes or Swedes arrive late and consume the local beverage as well as having large fires and ... you know the rest. It is true that in Sweden there is All Mans Rights, but but what seems to be lost is that one persons actions impact on anothers. Thus I prefer to avoid popular areas or try to hike during the week.

looking forward to your first ski reports.

Anonymous said...

Great blog man.. Nice pics, excellent info etc! Keep it up!
Zlatko from Oz...

David Lintern said...

lovely report, as ever.

I work as a teacher sometimes too - part of the draw o the hills for me is getting away from people, i must confess....we who stand at the front of the class are allowed to recharge sometimes I reckon! People in groups can be greedy too...saw nuf of that in the mountains this summer.

all the best


Hendrik M said...

Super pretty photos, Joe, especially the b/w moon is epic.

I have slept in plenty of huts in Finland (no larder, normally no kitchen, no beds, but also for free), and it seems the kind of people in them are the same here as in Norway. I avoid them and take my open shelter, and camp where I have the area for myself.

Joe Newton said...

Roger - thanks. My plan this week is to hike mid-week, to avoid the crowds. My chosen trail goes near another hyyte and I may give it a go if the weather is particularly bad.I am looking forward to my first ski trip too!

Zlatko - thank you!

David - periodic recharging is an absolute necessity in our profession! I never understood the teacher's need for so many holidays until I started working in the sector.

Hendrik - thank you. I like the moon photo a lot too, it was a great sky to walk under first thing in the morning, despite the cold.