Monday, 8 July 2013

The trail always wins

So my journey from my home to Alvdal Vestfjell went a little something like this: walk, tram, train, light-railway, bus, camp bed, bus, light-railway, train, train, wallet-raping taxi. It was a 24-hour whirlwind of stations, e-tickets and constant movement but the first lungful of mountain air was worth it. My annual summer backpacking trip with Thomas was underway.

We chose Alvdal Vestfjell as it was something a little different. It's not one of the 'theme park' mountain destinations like the mighty Jotunheimen or even Alvdal's big neighbour, the Rondane. It was described in one of the English-language guide books as 'wonderful alternative' to the Rondane with less peaks and far fewer tourist huts. It's lack of photo-opportunity vistas is replaced with a wildness and remoteness that really appealed to me. The few huts that remain are more 'weathered' and the trails are rockier and far less distinct than the Rondane. It's appearance typified by rolling hills, that are covered in Reindeer Moss, the beguiling ground covering that appears dry and soft but hides a saturated and slimy underbelly that yearns to break free and slip from underneath every footfall.

The weather for our visit was 'comfortable' in the most part. 'Comfortable' for me means not hot and sunny. The constant wind varied from gentle, bug-downing breeze to full-on screaming banshee. We saw sunshine and glowering clouds everyday. We wore windshirts nearly all the time and alternated the sunglasses, hats, hoods and rain gear on a constant basis. We got a bad weather forecast on the antique radio in the hut at Korsberghytta that had us wondering about bugging out but we rode out the short rain storm and adjusted our route accordingly.

Hytteliv. Hut life is often a wonderful addition to the wild camping. The need for warmth and shelter is pre-programmed within us and I appreciate the chance to rest and recoup within this wonderful system of shelters when I feel like it. This was our holiday after all so we didn't sweat the decision to blow off a wild camp if the conditions weren't optimal and a hut was conveniently close-by. I prefer the self-service versions, raiding the ample provisions room for a hearty dinner and finding entertainment in the old outdoor books, maps and visitor books. Keeping the stove lit is a job I enjoy and our sodden socks roasted slowly on the hanging ironwork rack.

We spent another night indoors, this time at a private tourist hytte where we enjoyed a feast at dinner and beer in the lounge, pouring over fjell guides and more maps. We visited some unique springs and walked a sublime trail along the shore of a lake. I played my daily game with the trail, trying to keep my feet dry as long as possible before the inevitable expanse of bog or phantom stepping stone across a stream plants my feet firmly under water. The trail always wins.

Then we swung almost 180 degrees up into the wind swept highlands, each rise and saddle revealing more open terrain. The wind increased in proportion to the gathering clouds. We had made 'good calls' every day, when to rest, where to sleep, etc, and we made another at this point. We had planned to cross another saddle into another valley but the increasing headwind had us changing our minds. We searched amongst the glacial drumlins and moraines for a sheltered pitch and found one where the wind seemed to whip over the top.

Our night on the open hill was comfortable for me. I had confidence in the SL3 to remain where I left it, pinned and tethered with everything we had, and some additional rocks besides. I had endured stormier nights with Jörgen in the far northern winter so felt a little more at ease. The wind was a bit rambunctious but the ambient temperature was warm enough in my tent.  I'm not sure Thomas was as comfortable and he told of experiencing the 'awe of the mountain' at 03.00. Unfortunately I missed it as I was fast asleep. The next morning we awoke to slightly calmer conditions and even some periods of sunshine which we we soon shunned as we packed up and headed even higher, straight into the cloud.

We experienced several swings in emotion over the next 24 hours. The dizzying spectacle of the cloud parting fleetingly above Bukletten (1532m) to reveal a column of cumulus shaped like a Himalayan peak, complete with wispy summit clouds and sun drenched ice cliffs, knocked us sideways. Alas the cloud was quicker to cover this freak of nature faster than either of us were with our cameras, perched as we were on a snowfield in the murk.

A low was experienced at the high point where minimal visibility, insidious wind and rocky trail conditions over a high mountain pass made comfortable travel impossible. Thomas especially wasn't enjoying the experience but for me building a little Type 2 fun into these trips is necessary. We checked and rechecked our position, cross-referencing with the GPS. Thomas marched in his synthetic parka and we were both ensconced in our hoods and gloves. We were never in danger, just aware that the situation could have deteriorated quickly had we gotten lost or injured. Luckily we had two heads, two maps and a GPS that got us down the other side, into the next valley, below the cloud and in short order, to a cafe where we consumed hot dogs and sodas.

Across the valley and up into the hills once more we searched in vain for a passable camp. We were in that zone between cosseted pine forest and pristine alpine fjells. We tried. We even started. We had our shelters out but the boggy ground and profusion of bugs had us packing up and heading for the next hytte where we pitched up on the lawn, drum tight. We ate well and even showered. We dried our gear in the drying room that was so efficient I discovered a couple of Spanish girls in there, drying their hair. Hola!

So we visited Disneyland, the actual Rondane mountains, for one brief day. The trails were well worn and the scenery was indeed dramatic and worthy of photography. We saw more people, hawks, fledglings, a lemming and even sunshine. The wind didn't abate though, a constant headwind down the Illmanndalen. We swaddled ourselves in windshells, hoods and sunglasses. Then, just as we felt we could charge onwards forever and the giants of the Rondane revealed themselves, our journey ended at the Rondvassbu hytte and gravel road.

So we left the Rondane National Park wanting more. Plans and schemes for the short and long term, solo and together, were formulating in our heads already. The trail had won. It survives in it's often harsh environment, drawing people back again and again. It excites, it scares, it creates wonderment and memories. It had drawn us together once more, nourished our bodies and hearts, despite the wind and rain, and sent us on our separate ways in the search for more.

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