For the past year I have dreamed of going and visiting places that are cold and have lots of snow. My first thoughts of this came as I cycled around America on my trusty Salsa Fargo, dreaming of where to go next. I had become very enamored with the thought of snow biking on a Mukluk and thus began the seeds of my winter expedition dreams.
When I got over to the UK, planning a trip to Norway became very high on my list. I was unsure of how I would do this and what form of transportation I would use, but I knew that I had to find a way to visit this amazing land with its mountains, forests, and snow, yes much snow. To date, I had never ski'd always afraid of something dire happening to me as I imagined myself screaming and tumbling all the way down a mountain side ending at the bottom in one large lump of pain and injury. Over the years, this fear grew larger and larger, and I began to just accept that skiing was something that I would never get the chance to experience.
When it became apparent that I would only have a few days to visit Norway, I decided that combining two desires into one single trip was the best way to get over this completely irrational fear of ski's. My goal was simple, learn some basic winter survival skills while at the same time experiencing Nordic skiing at its finest. The challenge now was how to achieve these goals within a very short period of time. Luckily Richard and I were able to convince our new friend Roger to tag along and teach us a bit of both. You see, Roger has spent his entire life mountaineering in some of the most extreme places and was thus is a duly suitable instructor. A wee bit of bribery and we had our man.
As we left England the weather reports were already beginning to get dire. Warnings of record low temperatures across Europe were springing forth from every direction. While this would not have too much impact on our skiing, it would surely have an effect on camping out. The coldest temperatures that I had experienced to date were in the very low teens (f), so warnings of 0 degrees were definitely getting my attention.
Any time you bring 3 'Alpha' males into an arena, the first thing that seems to go out the window is planning. We all were cognizant of not stepping on each other's toes, so the whole decision making process seemed to be a bit of a mess. We arrived on a Friday and the plan was to spend the night in an Oslo Hostel and then head out the next day to rent ski gear and get to the back country. The problem, well, we really only had a loose idea of where we were going and our timing was a bit off. By the time we had done our shopping, bought groceries, caught a train, rented ski gear and were ready for the lesson, it was well past 2:00 in the afternoon, only 2 hours before dark.
I believe that awareness is a key element to growth as an individual, and one thing I have become acutely aware of is that I like to have things planned out, which is quite odd for someone who is a travelling vagabond. What I have not figured out is if this is simply a function of travelling alone versus being with others. When you are alone, it is possible that the two paths merge and become blurred, but with others, frustration springs forth when plans are not set out and followed. So, it is now after 2:00 in the afternoon, with temps in the low teens, we are standing on the slopes, looking at 30-45 pound rucksacks full of gear -- darkness is a mere two hours away and I have still never ski'd and we are camping 8km from the lifts, accessible only by ski. To say that I was stressed was an understatement...
Roger then did a great job of giving me a one hour crash course, yes I do mean crash, on how to ski. He did the best he could do, but it was going to be up to me to figure this all out. We loaded our packs on our backs and within 5 feet I came crashing down on my right side, slipping on ice as we crossed the sidewalk to the path. Aching with pain, I picked myself up, cursed, made it two more feet and crashed again. This was just not the way to get started and I was feeling incredibly defeated. At this point it was not just the pain of falling, but the anguish of letting others down. Instead of focusing on learning to ski I was now filled with anxious thoughts about travelling the 8km to our destination in the dark. We were lucky that it was a clear sky and a bright moon, but neither of those items offered up much consolation.
I made an executive decision to walk. This pained my pride greatly but I saw no other way of making it in any amount of safe time. As it was, the 8km in the dark was likely going to take us 2-3 hours and that assumed we did not get lost. So with pride at bay, I began the journey of trekking by foot all the way to our appointed camp location. The only saving grace was that the pace was slow, and on the uphill I made up distance on the other two, which they then gained back on the descents. This back and forth pace continued for the better part of 3 hours.
As I calmed myself from the embarrassment of walking, I found a beautiful calm peace in the forested winter wonderland. The three quarter moon shown brightly and other than reading our maps and the sign posts, no lights were needed. It was a beautiful experience hiking through the snow, exactly the sort of winter adventure that I had been seeking.
We made it to the hut, and a team decision was made to spend the night inside. Richard had a nasty cold and it was decided that getting him better was the priority lest we not be able to sleep out the next night. Our dreams of snow holes turned to warmth as the lovely caretaker, Gretta, allowed us in to the great hall and stuffed our bellies with warm stew and fresh rolls. Given how the day had gone, there is no doubt that it was the right decision. While we desperately wanted to work on our winter skills, the threat of 0 degree temps and Richards condition made the decision a simple one.
We woke the next morning to the smell of wood on the fire and the first light trickling through the windows. The lodge was built back in the 1930's and the great room was stunning. Tables lined the hall with a fireplace on one end and pot belly stove on the other. Carvings in the poles represented ancient traditions with a huge animal fur hung on the far wall. The smell of coffee drifted in as we slowly crawled out of our nice warm sleeping bags.
Today we would set out and simply ski, leaving our packs at the lodge where we would camp out upon our return. This was a much better plan as small day packs were significantly easier to deal with than fully loaded touring packs. I personally woke with a commitment to figuring this ski thing out, something that in all honesty I was ready to bin the night before. As we set out it was slow going, but with each fall I got better and with each downhill I gained more confidence. Before long I was making it down the hills and only crashing as I crested the bottom and began the ascent, something that really drove me nuts. It seemed impossible that I could make it down these little hills only to be tossed to the ground in the transition. Eventually it all came together and I finally began to ski.
As we travelled the trails it became clear that we had an option to cut our own path down what is a road during the summer. Fresh snow covered a pristine path with no visible sign of footprints or ski tracks. We worked our way patiently down the forested path, taking turns in the lead in order to give each other a rest. Whomever was in the lead used significantly more energy than those that followed, so we found a rhythm of switching off every 5 minutes. The path led to an intersection with another trail, one that we hoped to pick up, but it was clear that this too was a summer route. We would have to continue breaking trail, but this time down hill, through trees and a bit of forest. It took a bit of discussion before there was a consensus.
With everyone in agreement we set off down the hill. This was obviously a first for me, but I think Richard had issues as well. The challenge was to find angles that allowed you to ski/slide for short distances before jigging back in the other direction. Were you to simply go straight, speed would build up, and in my case a crash was bound to happen. Without going into too much detail, I must have become a little to confident as I raced down the hill, desperately reaching for the tops of pine trees in an attempt to stop my descent.
Anyone that has ever traveled in fresh powder before knows that as the snow builds in these areas it begins to cover up the trees. However, the pine needs and branches create a sort of hollow hole surrounding the actual tree. As you get closer to the tree, you stand the chance of sinking into this hole very quickly. I can tell you now from first hand experience that this is not only no fun, but also down right scary! I eventually grabbed a tree to arrest my descent and quickly found that I had gotten in way too close, thus feeling the sucking motion of me sliding down the hole. Visions of rescues danced in my head as I flailed a bit in an attempt to stop my fall. I am sure at this point that it was no where near as dire as this sounds, but in the moment, I can honestly say it was darn scary. I have a new appreciation for those that ski deep powder amidst the trees.
The three of us had worked hard by mid day and were quite happy to have successfully navigated to another little Kafe shop. We took off our ski's and headed into a room warmed by a very large wood burning stove. On the table were luscious pastries, cookies and sandwiches. Behind the little bar a woman was serving coffee, tea and hot chocolate. We opted for all of the above, and set about devouring our snack while warming our bodies and drying out our layers.
The night was set to be cold again, somewhere in the 0-5 temp and we had about 4km to ski before we were safely back to our kit. Our plan had been a short day, so we had neglected to bring some essentials, so with a bit of urgency we set out to make it back before dark. It was here that I finally learned the art of going uphill, a skill that to this point had alluded me. It is a strange frogger/contortionist act that one must make to work your way up steep inclines without sliding backwards. As best I can tell, it is a coordinated set of actions between the ski and poles that when done properly allow you to make quick work of these ascents. Watching the local Norwegians was breathtaking as they barely broke stride, always making quick work of these difficult ascents.
Temperatures on Saturday night were not quite as extreme as the night before. The ski wax thermometer read -14C and that was early in the evening. Clouds had rolled in and a light snow was falling, both of which would conspire to keep the temps from dropping much further. We had found a set of lean to shelters that we would use as camp platforms for the night. Since we only had bivy sacks and a tarp this made the most logical sense given the time of day and the snow that was now falling. For me, this would be the coldest temperature that I had camped out in. I was confident that I had brought a reasonably appropriate set of kit.
Using a 15F degree bag, with a bivy sack and all of the clothes that I brought, I hoped that I would make it through the night in relative comfort. The weakest link was a lightweight sleeping pad that I had borrowed from Richard. This pad in particular is very thin, and while fine for summer, it would be a stretch to stay comfortable on it as the temps dropped. I inflated it early on as we made camp, with the intention of further inflating it right before bed. When you are in these cold temperatures and you have an air pad, you must account for the fact that you are filling the pad up with warm air from your body. As that air cools, it will compress and your pad will shrink. Thus, right before bed, the idea is to 'top' it off before falling asleep. This is what I have done in the past and it has always worked well. However, this particular pad has a bronze valve and the moisture from my breath had frozen the valve shut. Not being able to inflate the pad was going to cause me some discomfort and cold, but there was no getting around it, the valve would not budge.
Richard on the other hand, for whatever reason, had chosen to bring a 3 season bag to the frigid Norwegian environment. I never understood this, and once it was revealed that he had a perfectly good 0 degree down bag at home, well it made even less sense. For Richard, it was a long and painful night as he tossed and turned struggling to stay warm. The only option he had to get any additional warmth was to go all the way into his bag and bivy. While this provided short term comfort, it would have been a dangerous choice if we were camping more than one night. When breaking camp the following morning he discovered all of the ice crystals on the inside of his bivy and the outside of his sleeping bag. This was caused by all the moisture in his breath moving out of the 'warm' zone and into the freezing zone. Had we been out for multiple days this moisture/ice would have built up inside of his bag making things even worse.
Besides pads and moisture, the other great revelation or affirmation is how poorly cannister stoves work in any type of cold. While I knew this to be true, it was good to see it in person when things were not life threatening. Attempting to melt snow or boil water in 0 degree weather was simply painful. It took forever to get any type of burn going and that was using a cannister that I had kept in my bag the night before. The lesson learned is that liquid stoves are the way to go when the temperatures drop that low.
The final day was a mixture of clouds and snow, making for a beautiful ski back to the resort. The tracks were filled with people ranging in ages from 3 - 80. It was an amazing sight to see all of these people out enjoying the slopes, the weather and becoming one with nature. Little kids aged 3-5 were bundled up and learning to ski. Kids in the 7-10 range followed their parents up and down the slopes without blinking an eye. Dads and moms towed infants in little sledges akin to those used by cyclists to pull babies. Then there were the dogs. Dogs, dogs, and more dogs, of all shapes and sizes bounded through the snow with what could only be some form of doggy jubilation. It was without a doubt one of the most amazing experiences of my life, seeing people of all ages out and enjoying everything that nature had to offer.
The trip was way to short and I am already plotting my return. Going back soon I will either have my Mukluk or if not, it will be ski's again. While we were only right above Oslo, my goal next time is to head much farther north and experience more of the frozen and remote locations that Norway has to offer. They have an amazing hut & trail system that allows you to travel light and fast, going from one hut to the next. My intention is to follow one of these routes and perfect my winter skills before going on with my more extreme winter plans. While I would love to just get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, I do recognize that safety is paramount and learning what you don't know is critical to survival.