Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hiking in Norway....Reflections

Looking down on Andalsnes
Having climbed (at a very modest level) and hiked fairly widely across Europe by now I thought it would be good to visit somewhere new this year, so I went twice to Norway. I am fully aware that in my two short trips that I only skimmed the surface of what this outdoor paradise has to offer but I think I experienced enough to be able to form an opinion on what makes Norway so special.

These days I seem to concentrate mostly on hiking and I have been to both the Alps and Pyrenees in summer and winter and also of course Scotland, Wales and Ireland in all seasons, but in my visits to Norway I think I found somewhere that is somewhat of an amalgam of all the places I have been. The mountains are neither as high nor as rugged as either the Pyrenees or the Alps but nevertheless they are certainly alpine in nature. Having said that they at times resemble the Highlands of Scotland, yet only in a superficial way as the scale of the landscape makes it very different. Then you visit the Fjords and you find that here Norway has vistas that are all its own and as spectacular as anything to be found anywhere in the world.


I suppose I might as well start at the beginning and describe what I felt as I trundled from Oslo to Andalsnes by train on my first visit in June. Leaving the clearly prosperous Oslo I was fascinated by the typical Scandinavian architecture of the farmsteads and houses we passed on the way. Also the wide open valleys and lakes and copious evergreen forestry immediately intimated that this was a big country. Its almost as if there was a sense of "room to breathe". On the roads could be seen lots of twin trailer-ed trucks that while not exactly like the road trains found in Australia, nevertheless spoke volumes of the long distances that are between large settlements here. Initially I was somewhat underwhelmed by the landscape and I suppose it was inevitable that I would try and compare it to the spectacular scenery that you find in Switzerland etc but that was somewhat unfair. I guess I also had all these pictures of spectacular Fjords in my head and subconsciously thought the whole landscape would be the same but of course it is not. While the valleys are generally neat and developed for agriculture and in places industry, the overall impression you get is one space and a sure knowledge that you wouldn't have to go very far to find yourself in unspoiled countryside. The further north I went the wilder the landscape became and by the time I reached Dombas (where I changed trains for Andalsnes) the over developed world of central Europe was certainly not in evidence and there was a wildness and openness to be found that excited the senses and promised adventure. It was therefore a bit of a disappointment to arrive in an overcast and rainy Andalsnes and find myself in a gloomy and enclosed world.

Towards Trollstein

The Troll Wall

The weather of course plays a huge part in everything involved in the outdoor experience. One day the overcast sky hanging low in deep valleys gives a sense of claustrophobia but when the cloud lifts and the sun shines, towering majestic peaks pierce blue skies and the world is transformed. So proved to be the case for me in Andalsnes. After a couple of days in the rain I got to see the glory of a Norwegian fjordscape and it was all I had hoped it would be and perhaps more. The huge vertical drops from 4000ft plus right down to sea level, peaks that offer fine mountaineering adventures and serpentine ribbons of deep blue sea provide a landscape that is rightly famous throughout the world and draws visitors from far and wide. I got to see it in all its glory and that in itself would have made the trip worthwhile but I moved on after a few days for a short couple of days in the Dorve Mountains and here I found a vast and vastly different landscape that I feel offered me some of the purest wild camping experiences I have yet had. I should say at this point that self sufficiency and camping in the wild is my favourite way of hiking. I generally shun huts and hostels and I'm happiest just carrying all I need and seeking out quiet secluded places to make my home for a night or two. I had read about Musk Oxen roaming the Dovrefjell national park and it was in the hope of seeing these beasts that chose to visit this area. The fact that I got up close (if not exactly personal) to the oxen and found a truly wild exciting landscape made my couple of days here very special to me. Here was a place where it was possible to walk for days in remote wild country and leave all vestiges of modern life behind. Large flat(ish) plateaus at an elevation of over 1200mtrs stretch for miles and from these rise stand alone mountains that reach over 2000mtrs. The scene is in some ways reminiscent of northwest Scotland but yet is very different and is also a world removed from the fjords that lie just 50 miles to the west. I had lovely  mid June weather but I can just imagine how bleak and unforgiving this place would be in wild and cold winter days.


After my all too brief visit to Dovrefjell I caught the train for the short hop to Otta from where I could access the Rondane national park. This area is quite similar in a landscape sense to Dovrefjell but it didn't have quite as remote or wild a feel about it. That said when on the second day I headed towards the spectacularly situated (and very popular) Rondvassbu hut the mountain scenery was majestic and the landscape once again felt different to what I had come before. Over the next couple of days I got to experience the highs (literally) and lows (copious mosquitoes) as I reached the end of my first trip. I had already seen enough to know that I wanted to see more so thanks to cheap flights by Ryanair I found myself flying back again at the end of August. This time I opted to visit the Jotunheimen national park to see the highest mountains in Scandinavia.

Heading into Rondane


Once again I was traveling by public transport and once again I was a couple of days outside peak season so my options for bus transfers were somewhat curtailed. I found myself in Lom catching a bus to near the hut at Leirvassbu from where I would have a six day odyssey through the mountains. I hadn't expected to find a very different landscape but that is what I got and with its more enclosed feel and glaciers spilling from almost every coum, Jotunheimen is much more Alpine in both stature and appearance. Everywhere rose 2000mtr plus peaks and many of these offered technical mountaineering challenges. Gnarly ridges separated the many glaciers that seemed to end quite gently on the mountainside. Nowhere did I see the chaotic icefalls that hang from the end of most Alpine glaciers and neither did I see and seracs loom over the higher slopes. I'm sure on closer inspection there are many crevasses and dangers to these glaciers but they are certainly a much tamer variety of ice flow than their cousins further south. That said I would still think twice about venturing out on them with the security of being roped to someone else. Again I had some rain but this only made it all the sweeter when the sun made its appearance. Climbing Galdhopiggen (at 2469mtrs Scandinavia's highest) in warm sunshine and entering a snow and ice bound world was a truly alpine day and gave scenery of a completely different nature to what I had found in my previous trip.
Heading into Leirvassbu


Galdhopiggen summit


So that is two trips down and four distinct areas and landscapes found. Hiking in Norway gives a rougher wilder experience than I had found in the Alps or Pyrenees and while there are marked trails, they are not the engineered masterpieces of the Alps and they can offer rough rocky and boggy ground which if you are carrying a heavy bag, make for tough progress. The huts in places are almost like small villages and they offer full hotel service but I cannot comment on their quality as I didn't stay in one. People are very friendly and they all seem to speak English (which was just as well as I didn't have a word of Norwegian) so it is easy to get information and communicate effectively.  It is exciting to think that I have really only scratched the surface in my exploration of Norway and if I return I can reasonably expect to find new experiences and regions that will offer a new set of challenges. Who knows where I will go but perhaps it will be further north. Time will tell.

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