Friday, 5 August 2011

Dirty Black Summer - Joy & Failure on the Jotunheimstien

Well, it's a pretty well known fact now that my plans for the summer didn't quite go according to, well, plan. Maybe I should have heeded Hendrik's advice and just kept my big mouth shut. The two trails I'd chosen with two different companions didn't seem out of my league. They were just easily navigated footpaths through a variety of terrain. It was my holiday. I would take it all slowly and enjoy it. No overbearing time pressures. I had high hopes. I was prepared. But I guess you can't make contingencies for every eventuality. My Jotunheimstien adventure turned into my Dirty Black Summer.

Dirty? There was plenty of dirt. The Joutunheimstien was pretty wet and boggy this year. Some days it felt like my feet were permanently under water, from morning until night. Late thaw, lots of Spring rain. Coupled with the hoards of livestock that roam the forests and hill farms it was tough to stay 'clean'. Spending more than a couple of days on the trail you start to shift your expectation of what is clean and what is dirty anyway. Black? Black I guess certainly conveys my mood at the point on this trip when things went sour. I've moved on from then but I still get twinges of disappointment despite the subsequent positive feelings of lessons learned or personal growth attained. It wasn't all bad though. I remember lots of laughs and smiles. Grinning from ear to ear at the simple satisfaction of winning the cherry stone spitting contest. Laughing at our different approaches to playing the Guessing Game. Summer? Well it was the summer. Summer is short in Scandinavia and there is an expectation to cram in as much outdoor time as possible. Did I bite off more than I could chew this year? I don't think so. It just didn't work out the way I expected. At least this summer was warm. Some 20C nights that had me sleeping in nothing more than a layer of merino, laying on top of my quilt.

Anyway, for a far more positive, less whiny and day-to-day account of our time on the Jotunheimstien I must point you in the direction of Thomas's wonderful accounts on his blog. And a whole bunch more of my photographs can be viewed here. Instead, in this post, I'll ruminate about aspects of life on the trail as I experienced it.

Karma Bums - During our journey we were keen to keep our karma account topped up. Frequent deposits of uneaten snacks in any hut we passed. Trying not to kill mosquitoes. Doing our best to highlight deficiencies in the route marking for the benefit of any hikers following us. In return we made withdrawals on our karma fund by knocking on a few trail-side doors for drinking water and once asking cheekily to pitch our shelters on someone's lawn. This request was answered in the most emphatic and kind fashion possible (read Thomas's account on his blog of this particular slice of trail magic) and reaffirmed our faith in human kindness. This particular act of charity seems even more poignant now in light of recent events here in Norway.

Group dynamics - Backpacking trips for many of us are solitary affairs. Some people prefer it this way. Some people prefer to always hike with others. I kinda like the benefits of both and easily switch between the two. Plunging yourself into the fairly close proximity of life on the trail, for two weeks, with someone you've never met in person before can seem a little daunting to some. Happily I felt I'd gotten to know Thomas pretty well through the digital medium for quite some time. Previous trips with other 'internet weirdos' have always worked out wonderfully and we hit it off from the start despite Thomas being taller than I expected and me being shorter than he expected ;) We quickly slipped into a hiking groove and found our pace in synch for much of the time.

I think you know you're getting on well with someone when there are no such things as awkward silences. We switched happily from incessant conversations about our lives, backpacking and future projects (whereupon we would inevitably lose the trail) to total silence when we would enjoy powering through the trail, eating up the miles. Getting it done. Keep on keeping on. I never saw these short periods of silent, focused marching as negative aspects of our time on the trail. They evolved organically and we both enjoyed them immensely. It was thinking time. Exercise time. In the mornings we seemed to talk a lot about gear, in the afternoons less esoteric subjects. We had in-jokes and shared phrases and sayings from our respective cultures. "Fancy a brew?"!

We relied on each other a lot and that came naturally too. When we hit steeper climbs I liked to lead us up, used to huffing and puffing up the lumpier terrain of the west coast where I live. Whenever we needed to 'get some miles done' in the afternoon we took it in turn to 'draft' each other. I sometimes had to rely on Thomas to 'take us home' later in the day, when those last kilometres to chosen campsites or huts dragged and I got tired and quiet. We picked up gear for each other, shared snacks and tried to lift each other's spirits during times of stress or illness. I was sick for a couple of days with stomach complaints and another when I suffered splitting headaches all afternoon (initially I thought it was dehydration but pulling my pack's shoulder straps in an inch miraculously cured that). Thomas registered my mood and reacted accordingly. I gained a good friend on this trip.

Learning by doing - I felt we both learned a lot from each other and the trail. We were both new to hiking for more than a few days in a row (my previous longest trip was six days) and we each brought different techniques and gear to try and cope with trail life. Thomas taught me useful knots (from his world of hammocking) and how to use more creative aspects of my camera than IA (Idiot Auto not Intelligent Auto) mode. He also taught me on one occasion a more positive attitude to a particularly irritating section of trail which was making me inadvertently teach Thomas new Anglo-Saxon words that he didn't need to add to his excellent English.

Together we learned about keeping safe and hygienic on the trail. Not taking chances on slippery rocks and roots for the sake of a slightly easier stream crossing. The abundance of animal shit on some sections of the trail meant we had to keep aware of contaminating not just ourselves but also water sources for others. This was the first trip where I'd had to treat pretty much all my water. We also learned about how our bodies coped with distance, pace, sleep and food. Gear was discussed a lot, we can't help it, we're nerds like that. It was strangely comforting to be in the presence, for once, of someone who also fretted over the same practical details. It was interesting that we were moving towards very similar systems yet we still had areas where we saw things differently. We discussed our findings together. The lessons learned will stand us in good stead for future trips.

The simple life - this was a concept we had discussed previous to our trip. A state of mind that intrigued us. While we were nowhere near any kind of true 'living off the land'/bushcraft kind of existence our daily needs did distil to common denominators. Water. Shelter. Food. We made no claims to be completely 'getting away from it all' on this trip. We wore watches. We carried keys. We both carried phones that allowed internet connectivity in places (some to greater success than others...), I carried a GPS SPOT Messenger and Thomas a regular GPS unit. Are we still 'getting away from it all' or is the seeping of digital technology into our outdoor existence just progress, in the same vein of nylon, velcro and plastic sporks? That's down to the individual to decide. All I know is I enjoyed sitting in the gutter of a forest track, heating my water for breakfast on a recycled cat food can stove with the sun on my face and nothing on my to-do list that morning except 'find water', 'appreciate the trees' and 'keep walking'.

Final lesson - disappointment. I think it was the ninth day of hiking. After our 'zero day' at a B&B we pulled two 30km+ days and were feeling strong, comfortable with life on the trail and full of energy. A short time after leaving one of the DNT huts where we had spent the night we decided to dump our packs and catch a quick summit off the trail that, according to the guide book, offered our first glimpses of both the Jotunheim mountains and also the Rondane range. The view was magnificent. Wide open country, finally above the tree line after nine days in the forests. The trail promised to be more like I was used to hiking in the west, drier, rockier and open with great views. Back to our packs we hit the trail. I started to get a niggle in my left shin. A momentary tightness. I stopped a few times to shoot more video and pictures of Thomas and gave it a bit of a stretch. Half an hour later I asked Thomas if we could stop a bit earlier for a break. My shin was getting painful. Ibuprofen. Stretch. No good. The further we hiked towards our lunchtime goal of waffles at a roadside cafe the more painful it became to walk. The pain stretched now from my ankle to under my knee. A couple of times I had to pull up instantly. Shooting pains. It was slowly dawning on me that I wasn't go to walk this off. It wasn't going to get better overnight either. Thomas looked back. "I think this is it for me" I said, "I'm off the trail". In silence I managed to hobble to our lunchtime stop where I slumped dejectedly on a picnic bench. That was me done.

Phone calls were made. My extraction organised. Plans for the rest of the trail adjusted. Plans that didn't include me. I would never have expected Thomas not to finish the trail but it still hurt when he left the next morning while I sat around waiting for friends to come and rescue me. The only silver lining to the situation was that it happened where it did. We'd managed to get to a road and my exit from the trail was carried out without little effort. I was left feeling disappointed and frustrated. Would I come back and finish this trail? Completing it as a thru-hike seemed a bit arbitrary one moment and the whole point of our journey the next. Why had I gotten injured? It wasn't the result of a moment of recklessness. I felt stronger and fitter in the last few days than I had for a long time. We had been careful not to push too hard. We stretched often and rested well. What was life trying to teach me here? What could I learn from this situation? Time for introspection stretched out before me. I left a generous pile of unneeded snacks at the road side hut as my final instalment to the karma fund. For Thomas.

What I needed now was rest. My friend's whisked me back to their summer house, nestled in the folds of rolling farm country, a few hours drive away. The car effortlessly unwound the miles we had toiled to accrue. There were still a chance to visit the mountains of the Rondane. If I rested well and my injury relented then maybe I could be back on the trail in a week or so?

No comments: