Monday, 21 February 2011

Do not speak unless you can improve the silence

This trip was born out of a combination of factors. Foremost was the need to get out of the bustling city after the write-off that was January and find myself some peace and quiet. Then there was the need to spend some quality skiing time and the desire to try some kit and techniques before I head north in March. I chose Mjølfjell, two hours by train from Bergen, to stretch my legs for two reasons. A cold but stable weather forecast and I knew the area well, working there as a ski guide last winter.

I might know the area well but what I didn't expect was the amount of snow that greeted me when I alighted at the station on Saturday morning. The drifts on the side of the road as I walked from the station were above head height! Stepping onto the trail and into my bindings I pulled a deep breath and drank in the atmosphere. Deathly silence. Cold, clean, sun-infused air filled my lungs, cleared my head and instantly froze my nose hairs.

First order. Lash myself to my incarnation of Jörgen's Incredible Rulk concept. My experience with pulks is narrowed to just a couple of days last Spring with a traditional fibreglass one combined with a solid trace and full body harness. The Incredible Rulk is plastic, has a paracord trace and simple hip-belt. It's waffer light in comparison but still feels weird compared to wearing my usual rucksack. I felt like a Husky dog, pulling at the leash, eager to get going. It didn't take long to get into my stride and after bombing the first descent, and not being wiped out from behind by the runaway Rulk, my confidence soared.

So I spent a sublime afternoon exploring the Mjølfjell valley, keeping away from the prepared trail in an effort to familiarise myself with the Rulk's behaviour over a myriad of terrain. Off-camber descents and ascents, herring boning, deep powder, wind crust and through tight trees. Along the river bank and in the shadow of Mjølfjell itself the temperature dropped significantly and I stopped to melt snow to refill my water bottle and eat some lunch. After butter-laden lefse and blueberry toddy I set off again, heading south through the flatter, sparse birch and pine forest. I continued to tinker with my Rulk's cordage and started to think about dinner. Skiing does that to me. No sooner is one meal or snack consumed than I start thinking about the next.

Picking a spot to set up camp was easy. Endless kilometres of almost perfectly flat snow. Work hardening a platform for the FirstLight didn't take long either, once I found an area of wind crust amongst the pockets of powder. With the shelter up I set about melting more snow, enjoying one of Real Turmat's Wolfish Casseroles and sitting back to watch the sun slip over the ridges. In place of the light an insidious cold crept up out of the snow. Donning all my layers I went for a ski around my chosen neighbourhood, taking photographs and following rabbit tracks.

After some jumping jacks to get the blood really pumping it was time to turn in. One of the downsides to winter camping are the long nights. One of the joys of winter camping is the almost guiltless consumption of calories. Babybel cheese and chocolate for supper. Burrowing into my sleeping bag and over-quilt I prayed for a long deep sleep.

Yeah, that was never going to happen. I slept fitfully. Sometimes I was warm, sometimes I felt cold. My dependable, rugged 14mm foamy, along for testing, wasn't as comfortable as my usual 7cm insulated air mattress. A need to urinate in the middle of the night didn't help. Awake I decided to find out the temperature. I slipped my Suunto watch off my wrist and set it beside my head, watching the numbers on the thermometer slowly drop. The last digits I saw were -25C before the whole unit blinked once and give up the ghost.

I slept best in the early hours, after a thorough session of isometric exercises warmed me up again. Weird dreams and the buzzing of my phone, buried deep below layers of down and synthetic insulation, made for a bizarre rousing. The text message was from a friend. Inspired by my digital musings of blue skies, sunshine and deep snow the previous day she had decided she wanted a piece of the action and was on a train bound for my locale. With a deadline to meet her at the station in a couple of hours I packed up camp quickly in the bone chilling greyness and headed down the valley. The early sunshine that slowly filled the valley was heatless but full of promise. All was suddenly right with the world again.

I made the decision at the station to leave my camping gear there. Despite the renovated station buildings there were no lockers at such a small rural outpost. So I buried my sleeping gear and tent in an anonymous snowdrift, trusting that the hoards of inquisitive school children that pass through this station on a daily basis from the near-by hostels would be too keen to sit in the warm waiting room rather than play in the snow and uncover my treasure.

I took my big fat sleeping mat and stove along for the ride as we climbed back up the valley. We stuck more to the trails today, easier on my companion and faster, allowing us to cover more ground. I was grateful for the lunch stop, in the direct path of some of the sun's finest winter glory. I was actually warm again. We shared hot chocolate, coffee and musli bread smothered in blue cheese. Skiing past the hostel below Ornaberget we climbed the Rallarvegen, unrecognisable from last year thanks to five feet of snow that obliterated the track, blending our trail into the 45 degree traverse of the hillside. We rested once more in Uppsetdalen, revelling in the views of the rugged, avalanche scarred mountains contrasting with the perfectly flat frozen lake surface. It was here that we really felt the silence. It's not often in our modern world that you get to feel silence like that. Mesmerising and total. We zoned out, somehow de-tuned to the world but completely at one with it's rhythms. A thundering goods train rattled past us, tooting it's horn as it passed each tunnel along the side of the valley, bringing us back sharply into focus.

Our train was due in a few hours and we still had lots of good skiing ahead of us, starting with that fun descent back to the valley floor. No silence here. Excited whooping, a sudden 'Oh shit!', wind rushing past my tingling skin, fishscales and nerves buzzing on patches of ice.

Go and find your own silence. Appreciate the moment. Then break it with your favourite soundtrack.

28 comments:

Nielsen Brown said...

Excellent story the enthusiasm and the enjoyment of the trip really comes through. As always great photography. Looking forward to more skiing tales.

Hendrik Morkel said...

Fine writing, mate. Talk about fitfully sleeping, try to get a good sleep in a Army tent with ten other people, some snoring, some stirring around, one on fire watch...

The Odyssee said...

Just brilliant. Enjoyed it all.Thanks for sharing it. It's such a beautiful country Norway.

longdistancetrail said...

Well written and beautiful photos... leaves me only one option -to start following your blog:)
-Antti

Maz said...

Eloquent as always and you must have been grateful for the weather - it made for great photography. You must be refreshed after the serenity of that trip juxtaposed against the excitement of getting out on your beloved skis. Skiing always makes me hungry too but it's been years since I strapped on a pair and made a fool of myself - Lord knows what I'd look like now. Still, if you took some video of me we'd get some money from 'You've been Framed'...

Mark Roberts said...

Excellent atmospheric post, Joe. You leave me envious as usual, of both the place and your apparent fitness level! I got my Eons yesterday and took them out for a quick slide around my neighborhood. I was exhausted after just 2km!

David Lintern said...

great piks and fine text, sounds like it was a much needed trip. thanks for sharing

kate said...

great writing, really inspiring stuff. do you ever use chemical hand/foot warmers? at -25 i would be covered in them!

Yeti said...

Nice story and the photography is excellent. I'll have to put your blog on my follow list.

Joe Newton said...

Roger - thank you. More skiing will follow I assure you.

Hendrik - ha ha, I can imagine sleeping with ten in a tent is a nightmare. Me? Absolute silence.

Alan - you're welcome. Yes, she's a stunningly pretty country.

Antti - thanks for following!

Maz - I'm no expert believe me. I'm self-taught too so I'm sure I have some bad habits. But as a method of transport in terrain like this, it's my passion.

Mark - I hope you get on with the Eons, I'm looking forward to hearing how you get on with them. My skiing style is not like you see on the televised weekend Nordic races! One foot in front of the other. Repeat.

David - thanks for dropping by. Yes, I needed this trip. A lot.

Kate - yes, they're always a good idea to carry (they can help with defrosting frozen boots in the morning).

Yeti - thank you.

Angelo R. said...

How was the new spirit quilt? I'm assuming you brought it along.

Joe Newton said...

Angelo - the Spirit quilt worked well. It's light and protected the down bag from most of the frost from condensed breath and on a longer trip it SHOULD collect most of the moisture in the sleeping system and still provide insulation. It also shed any frost on the inside of the single skin shelter easily, especially around the foot area. Downsides? It's bulky but that's less of a problem with a pulk or indeed The Incredible Rulk.

Thomas W. Gauperaa said...

Great post! Love photo 4 and 5. So you used two quilts?

Joe Newton said...

Thomas - no, I used the Spirit quilt over a Western Mountaineering Ultralite. I was also wearing synthetic pants and two light synthetic jackets. I will post about the gear and my reasons for trying out this combination.

Jake Willits said...

I really enjoy the story, even though I don't have the climate for the skiing here. Keep it up!

Jörgen Johansson said...

Great story and great test, Joe. I'm glad to read that you experienced the sure-fire impressive line from the old adventure storied of grim men in the far north: The thermometer froze...

korpijaakko said...

Great story! The atmosphere was very well presented and I could feel the silence of the fells. My reports are unfortunately more like... reports. =P

Some tips for a good nights sleep from my own experience:
- enough insulation (I think that 14mm CCF is not enough for winter)
- a pee bottle (it is almost essential though not UL, if you don't find multiple use for it... =D )
- ear plugs if sleeping in a group tent

For the long nights, especially in the darker time of the year, a stove inside the tent makes really a difference! It is not UL but it is sheer luxury on longer trips. Maybe you could find an old Optimus Hiker and put it in a Trangia with a conversion kit. That might be the best stove construction available...

samh said...

A pleasurable read, Joe. Thanks.

Dave Hanlon said...

"Stepping onto the trail and into my bindings I pulled a deep breath and drank in the atmosphere. Deathly silence. Cold, clean, sun-infused air filled my lungs, cleared my head and instantly froze my nose hairs. "

This puts me right there!

What do I see in the photos? That jacket looks suspiciously un-vapour rise! You sneeked some paramo into the mix?

Joe Newton said...

Jake - I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Jorgen - I wish I had taken my little mercury thermometer, it's scale goes to -30C and it would have been good to check the accuracy on the failing Suunto.

Korpijaakko - I will be reviewing my sleeping mat combination for sure. I have a pee bottle or use empty Real Turmat packets (?!), it still meant I had to get up and fumble around to use them! :) I often use ear plugs, even when I'm on my own, unless I'm near the soothing sound of a waterfall.

Sam - thank you

Dave - well spotted. I will be using Paramo up north so I wanted to test it out. The weather forecast last weekend would have normally had me reaching for soft-shell.

Dave Hanlon said...

Can I ask which model you went for? It's looking like I'll be leaving the vapour rise and hard shell combo at home this time too. Finisterre made an offer I couldn't refuse :-)

Joe Newton said...

Dave - I'm currently using a standard Velez smock that I very generously given by Phil Turner. It was great to get to try out the concept without the financial risk. Paramo works for me when the conditions are right. Basically when the weather is shit! It's perfect for ski touring, especially for longer trips when you can't accurately forecast the weather. The Velez is a little heavy and cut a little boxy on me though so I will be buying either a Vista or Quito and passing on the Velez for someone else to 'try before they buy'.

Dave Hanlon said...

Generous indeed! I've been hovering over paramo for a while but I can't even run my hands over it here in NL since it's just not available. Uncle CT's enthusiam keep me coming back to it though. I run too hot to even think about using for anything other than winter touring but for taht purpose the combination of warmth, breathability and wind resitance looks ideal. Vapour rise takes some beating but it calls for an extra wind resistant shell I'd rather leave at home. The vista would be my choice in the paramo range. CT also pulled me into Finsistere with his recent review. The amazing 50% reduction Finsitere are offering sealed my fate. I'll post on it when I've got some use out of it but rarely have I been more convinced by an item of clothing straight out of the box.

Martin Rye said...

Terrific photos and read Joe. Big thanks for that and short trips to try kit combinations out before week long adventures makes sense to me. Build skills and test what kit works and does not is sound planning.

Philip Werner said...

I think you'll enjoy this sticker from Cafepress. Great post title.

http://www.cafepress.com/+john_muir_quote_oval_sticker,340107449

Joe Newton said...

Dave - looking forward to hearing about the Finistere.

Martin - thanks. I'll be posting the details of the upcoming trip here next week.

Phil - it is a great quote.

The Dude Abides said...

Great read and photos as usual Joe. We're heading your way soon, well, Finse in Sept so probably not your way at all.......or soon! Doh!

Joe Newton said...

The Dude - Finse is a gateway to many great adventures as well as being the location of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back! I'll hopefully be there at Easter. Let me know your plans in September. It's only a short train ride away from me here in Bergen.