Monday, 25 April 2011

Adders and Bandannas

It's nice not to have deadlines and goals sometimes. Too often trips into the wilds are sandwiched between other obligations. We rush around clocking miles with one eye on the timetable. Wouldn't it be nice, just once, to take a trip out to the mountains and forests and not have a planned itinerary beyond getting back to civilisation? Not even a definite route? To just follow your nose?

Dreams do come true and over the Easter break I got to wallow in a self-gratifying trip that had little more in the way of plans than 'get to the mountains, walk home'. With the public transport system shutting down to an almost stand-still over the holiday week I was lucky enough to have good friends save the day and offer to drive me the short distance to Ulvvatnet, the scene of many of our glamping trips last year. I exited the car and waved goodbye before turning around, squelching my feet instantly into ankle deep mud and thinking to myself 'Right, which way?'.

I had some vague ideas about making the summit of Svenningen at some point of the trip but this depended purely on how much snow there would be. I have to admit to being firmly in a summer state of mind now, all vestiges of winter well and truly swept out of my mind after Finnmarksvidda, so I carried no crampons or ice axe and had shunned snowshoes in a last minute pang of UL-itis during packing. No, I was here with a light pack and heart. I started threading trails together from a variety of previous trips along with unknown trails and roads and hoped they would coalesce into a workable and diverse journey back home.

I didn't just stick to trails. In order for the unfolding route to work I had to link together cross country rotes with roads, farm tracks and jeep trails. This brought me into contact with a lot more human evidence. Houses, holiday homes, gates, deserted farm yards. Far from taking anything away from the journey they added colour and life to these stretches. I'm not about to abandon my quest for the quieter, deserted swathes of the Norwegian countryside but it's nice sometimes to get that contrast. Instead of my existence being squarely in either the city or the wilderness this was some kind of middle ground, both environments juxtaposing each other nicely.

When I'm on a trip like this I'm not usually one for stopping and talking to everyone I meet beyond a smiling salutation. Sometimes I do if I have information about difficult conditions about the trail in the direction the other person is travelling but mostly I keep myself to myself. Then I met Jimmy.

On the trail up to Svinningen I bumped into a guy with a great big white beard, a pink knitted hat set at a jaunty angle and two hiking staffs in his hands that looked freshly hewn from oak trees. He tapped my spindly carbon Gossamer Gear LT4 trekking poles with his behemoth hiking staffs with such force I thought they were going to snap in half. "Two poles. Good idea" he said. We had a brief discussion about the trail ahead. He didn't think I would make the summit of Svenningen. Another month at least before the snow receded he said. I thanked this crazy mountain man for his input before informing him that I would camp up ahead and consider my options in the morning. He smiled, tilted his head and bade me good evening, leaving me to march up the trail onto ever deepening snow-pack. Along the way I came across what can only be described as 'installations'. Hand painted signs of Bible verses, poems and even one with a cuddly troll and bottle of schnapps that, when I later had it translated to me, welcomed travellers to take a nip to fortify their weary feet and increase their bravery but warned against taking the whole bottle in case they ended up in hell. Unable to read it fully at the time I was pretty sure it was telling me to partake of the hooch lest I came a cropper later on the trail. So I took a shot. Every trail should have one of these. When I got home I did a little research on the area and discovered that the crazy mountain man I had encountered is a character known as Jimmy Øvredal.

More 'installations' appeared, another one imploring me to imbibe yet more alcohol (with more schnapps, shot glasses and empty bullet casings...), a metal crucifix fixed to a tree and one sign encouraging and subsequently festooned with women's bras and panties that quite frankly left me speechless. At the time it was all very surreal and even a little sinister given that I was concerned about the condition of the trail up to Svenningen but now that I know it's all Jimmy's work I've come to look back on his installations with a smile. Next time I meet him on the trail I'll be sure to sit a while and to listen to anything he has to say.

The combination of the worsening trail conditions, creeping darkness and the dawning that exiting the valley via Svenningen was not on the cards had me heading back down the valley in search of camp. This took forever. Everywhere I looked the ground was sodden. Not just damp but literally swimming. Every enticing looking clearing was nothing but moss and grass floating on water. Eventually, after climbing another trail in search of firmer terra firma, I found a small clearing that afforded something approaching solid ground underneath.

The next day I backtracked again down the valley to the crossroads I had passed the previous day. Looking at my map last night I reckoned I could join two trails, either side of a steep ridge, that would take me around the back side of Svenningen, well below the snow-line. My powers at finding trails that don't exist are matched only by my powers at not finding trails that allegedly do. More artistic route finding when I left the trail at Baggeskardet had me heading towards a chain of small lakes, still in the grips of winter ice. But in this heat, surely not for long. Trying to go around these lakes was sweaty work. The bogs that surrounded them were endless and their steep sides thick with scratchy bushes and trees. Eventually I discovered faint animal trails right on the edge of the lakes that made discernable forward progress possible again.

During all my bushwhacking adventures on this trip I had thought about snakes. As in England, the only one to worry about here is the Adder and I was pretty sure they would beat a hasty retreat as soon as they heard my less than stealthy approach. So it was with a certain amount of surprise that I took my eye off the trail for one second after lunch that I nearly stepped on an Adder sunning it's self in the blazing afternoon heat. I caught it's movement out of the corner of my eye, coiled like a venomous, hissing firework ready to go off at any moment. By the time my body reacted I was almost straddling the damn thing. It had a half-hearted attempt at striking out while I regained my balance and reached for my camera. By the time I had the camera in my hand it was snaking (...) off into the undergrowth, hissing it's indignation at being disturbed from it's solar powering. I spent the next hour with my eyes rigidly focused on the trail ahead until the adrenaline worked it's way out of my system.

A short road stretch and I was climbing again. In the heat of the afternoon it was a relief to be walking alongside the Sandelvi river and it's crystal clear waters that crashed and boiled their way down from the retreating snow on the surrounding hills. More than once I stopped along this short stretch of sublime river to tank up my fluid reserves, sit in it's cool air and wash my face and neck in it's elixir-like properties. With no tight schedule or transport connections to worry about I enjoyed this pressure free travel. I stopped wherever I wanted, even if it was 20 minutes past the last spot that look inviting. This also was refreshing in a way deeper than the waters of the Sanelvi could ever reach.

Never stop learning. Whilst waiting for the next Mike Clelland instalment to hit my post box I had been reading his earlier Going Lighter! tome as well as Jorgen's Smarter Backpacking and Ray Jardine's Trail Life. I pick up pearls of wisdom every time I read these books and hope I never get to the point where I feel that these people can't teach me anything. The humble cotton bandanna was case in point on this trip. I lost count of the number of ways it got used: neck drape, towel, face cloth, lens cleaner, oven mitt (for holding freezer bags full of hot porridge), etc. Jorgen and Ray's musings on footwear had me make subtle changes to my own system that lead to more comfort and blister-free 'plates of meat'. Reading rocks.

Cowboy camping was fun. Inspired by Helen's recent blog post on this style of ultra minimalist camping I found the perfect conditions to emulate her night out. Warm and dry with hardly a breath of wind. I fixed up a simple hiking pole configuration to hold the bug netting of my bivy bag off my face and winked out under a sky full of stars. It was bliss. The camp was made even more comfortable by finding an old fire ring that allowed for an evening of quiet contemplation, staring into the flames for a couple of hours. Packing up in the morning took minutes.

Linking up the trails back towards Bergen was not without it's low points. One valley became an hour long slog through horse-shit infested icy slop and the trails that lead to Livarden were an obstacle course of rotten snow, mud, ice and stream beds. My way linked all kinds of thoroughfares. Tarmac roads, bridleways, trekking association trails, footpaths, game trails, no trails. Sometimes I got to a trail and decided at the last minute to go another way, sometimes I went the wrong way altogether but all the time I walked with the air of not rushing. There was no need to beat myself up about getting down a trail quickly.

The only time I felt any pressure to get out of an area was the descent of Furedalen. This valley is obviously rarely, if ever travelled and I now know why. It's hard to appreciate a valley that is full of shin deep bog and dead trees. But even here I found myself taking positives from the situation. Sure it was energy sapping, not very pretty and difficult to find in the first place but it was path to better trails and times later on. And it least it was all downhill. If I had to have walked up that bastard I might have changed my mind. Plus I got to see a lady frog wearing a man frog as a backpack in the middle of the path. What's not to love?!

With Furedalen not providing any particularly enticing campsites I ploughed on a bit longer than planned for the last night until I found this sweet grassy shelf on the steep sides of Hauggjelsvarden, part of the hills that make up the plateau that sits to the north east of Bergen. My house lays directly on the other side and I thought about my evening sun drenched balcony as the sun dipped over the hills behind and washed up over the peaks and ridges in front of me. The sun's passing first filled the valley below with shadow before retreating up over the contours changing their colour's from grey to brown to ochre and pink. The next morning I had the simple task of a 15 minute cowboy camping pack-up before striding up and onto familiar trails at last. The clouds rolled in to provide some final heavenly drama on this Easter morning. I stood and looked at the rays of sunshine filtering down and smiled as I looked back on a few days following nothing but my sun burnt nose.

Lots more photos, including some more of Jimmy's work can be seen by clicking here.


Nielsen Brown said...

That is a pretty fair looking snake mate, enough to make an aussie feel at home.
Jimmy Øvredal sure sounds like a character, I need to practice my reading of Norwegian a bit more before I read his writings I think.
I agree about needing to take the time to wander as opposed to end to end behaviour which I know I often get sucked into. Yep it is definitely summer hiking mode now. Looking forward to hearing more of your summer exploits.

Unknown said...

That water looks so crystal clear I can almost taste it. I like the cowboy camping - if conditions are suitable, why not!

I'm also done with winter now, and the weather this week is tempting me out. I only wish I had your mountains nearby, bogs and all.

Unknown said...

Aah. It'll be that time of year when a good Norwegian friend of mine says he leaves the country; Neitehr winter nor summer, bad snow or soggy mush. Nice to read about somthing other than snow and ice.

Martin Rye said...

If the weather is fine for an overnight trip why take a shelter. Liked the versatility of the bivy or tarp. Liked the photos even more.

Joe Newton said...

Roger - it was my first encounter with an adder so I'm not sure if it's a big one but it's poisonous so that good enough cause for me to stay as far away as possible!

I know it's easier for me to make trips like this happen with my fewer obligations but it was still nice to be free from transport time-tables and work commitments.

Mark - yeah, the bogs aren't so bad, you're feet can only get so wet ;)

Dave - the snow has been crazy this year. Absolutely dumping during the winter, so much that ski instructors from Europe's finest resorts were visiting Norwegian resorts on their weekends because we had all the best powder. Then WHAM! Huge spike in temperature, torrential rain and it's a major thaw. Hopefully the transition to summer will be swift and complete.

Martin - thanks. Yeah, I enjoyed the ridiculous simplicity of the cowboy camping. Minimal space, time and gear required. If you have the conditions...

Thomas W. Gauperaa said...

Yay! Spring is here! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Nice touch to add a link to extra pictures

Mac E said...

I don't like the snake much, fortunately we have no snakes in Ireland (thanks St Patrick)

The cowboy camping looks great and as others have said cheers for the link to the other pic's.

Unknown said...

So you got drunk with adders and hence are wearing that funny bandanna?

Also, I insist on you growing a proper beard :D