Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Norway. In which is related a winter hike unplanned ending up in a snowstorm.
Norway, February 2015
that season of the year, you know my friend, also is the time for our mandatory winter tour, one of the first ventures of the still young year – a rather short jaunt, yet always a special kind of excursion. Naturally, it won’t be a true winter without snow – and of course you are well aware how much this depends on pure chance in our neck of the woods lately. So this time we decided to head north again. To Norway. We were pretty confident to get some share of snow there. Little did I know …
We left Germany on a thoroughly sunny and almost spring-like day, the ferry leaving Kiel in the early afternoon, arriving in Oslo the next morning – and I can tell you that alone cruising down the Oslofjord in first morning light, the town slowly rising at the horizon (and you bet, seeing the pitched roof reading “Fram” indicating the last harbourage of that legendary expedition vessel right there at the shore left my mouth open in awe and excitement!) is definitely worth that trip. Yet still – snow was a rare sight; and so was the sun actually. We did not spend much time in Norway’s capital, but made our way to the main station, boarding the next best train northwest. Into the mountains. And yes, with every kilometre the train was moving through this Nordic wilderness, more and more snow surrounded us while the service indicator in the waggon kindly announced a slowly increasing elevation. When we arrived in Finse later that evening after a train ride of about four hours (the display showing an ground level of about 1,200 m now), darkness already had fallen. The moonlight reflected from the thick layer of snow and ice covering everything. Yes, it was cold (good to have that extra jumper ready). This was winter. Finally.
Well, to be honest – Finse’s not exactly big. It has a train station. And a handful of houses (most of them did not even look inhabited that winter evening). So, we got our pulka-toboggans ready (backpacks, tents, and equipment lashed to them), mittens and woollen hats, skis and snowshoes put on, and left Finse and its station behind. Stepping through the snow … into the darkness. Not a long hike, though. Night was already falling, so we basically just watched out for a proper place to make camp in the darkness. In the snow, of course.
We woke up to a blue sky the next morning. The tent surrounded by a vastness of white – snow and ice as far as the eye could see. Finsevatn, the frozen lake right in front of our camp site glittering in the sun – a few figures in the distance on the ice apparently trying to catch the morning breeze with some kites. After a quick breakfast (some soup and tea, in that order from the same cup) we packed our stuff and went on a little recce patrol into the white – paving the way towards that glacier, almost floating upon the frozen crust in our snowshoes. Not easy to estimate distances surrounded by all-too similar snow-covered knolls and rocks and hills. We found a promising ascent up the glacier and explored that path for some while before time (and daylight) asked for our return to camp. But at least we could do so with a good idea where to best start our approach the coming day.
Yes, it was cold, my friend. Certainly cold. I learned that day that your breath definitely starts to freeze in your beard at about -17 °C or so. And so, another hot soup and tea (this time flavoured with a shot of rum) upon our return at the camp site was most welcome. The sky – beclouded. More and more. Some wind got up. Musing at the dark clouds I retreated into the tent that night. Oh, and a chilly night it was, I’m telling you. I mean, we were quite comfortable in our lined sleeping bags, but yes, it was cold.
I was woken up by some drizzle the next morning. Our breath – steaming up in constant puffs – condensed at the tent roof, raining down at us again. Freezing. The inside of the tent was covered in hoarfrost, my whole sleeping bag felt damp … well, it was time to get up anyway. Donning the parka next to my camping mat, I was reaching into its pockets for my wooden gloves. Frozen-stiff. Great start. Well, then – unzipped the tent-door to grab my winter boots. Snow-covered. Actually, the whole awning was buried in snow. Could have sworn I put my backpack somewhere here yesterday evening …
Anyway, sooner or later I’m all dressed in layers of wool and fleece, the half-thawed gloves underneath thick mittens, finally stepping outside. Of course there’s snow. Shouldn’t have been a surprise. Yet the depth it reached over night was. The camp looked changed, only the domes of our tents were reaching out of the snow flurry. The pulkas were buried, our ski sticks fortunately still marking their position. The snow storm’s still raging; not the best conditions to boil some water for a soup or tea. Or to heat the water long frozen inside our bottles. Good thing, the rum resisted to freeze. Well, basic breakfast then – I’m sure you get the point, don’t you? Discussing what we were going to do then, we’re latching onto our hot enamel cups. No chance to get a glimpse of the sky. Actually, not even of anything farther away than a metre or so. We were waiting. Trying to sit this out. I mean, this storm could hardly last forever, or could it?
It could. The situation didn’t improve. The storm kept raging, the snow whirling around. We had to face it: time for some adjustments of plans. Time to check a weather forecast and consider alternative routes. Time to move camp. Time for a strategic retreat. Back towards Finse actually, that was our plan. Packed and bundled up, the pulkas were harnessed again, snowshoes put on. Walking in single file, one after each other we were heading towards where we came from few days ago. Not as easy as it sounds, actually. Not much there to guide you in the middle of this snow flurry, those following not even able to recognise the tracks of those going ahead. At least a couple of power poles sticking out of the blowing snow in the distance gave an idea of direction.
As we finally reached the cabin next to Finse’s small train station, a snow-covered hut (actually proudly advertised as ‘hotel’), locals are greeting us – apparently a bit surprised about our emergence from the mist. Telling us they didn’t expect the weather to change soon, they were also eager to let us know how dangerous it actually was to be out there in this mess. We left pulkas and snowshoes under a protruding roof and stepped into the cosy warmth of the shelter. A roomy lounge awaited us, all wood and rustic. Outside, it still looked like Christmas time at the North Pole (well, what I imagine to look it like at least), so we kindly (yet with some regret, I have to insist) asked for a room for the night. And well, their prices definitely justified the denotation as ‘hotel’ – however, the room was simple yet comfortable and dry (well almost, dripping water later taught us about a leak in the roof …) – soon our damp clothes and equipment were spread everywhere to dry and we went for a tea.
Inside, the whole cabin was decorated with old photographs and paintings and newspaper clippings telling of this place’s long history. ‘Finse 1222‘ (as it was named after its elevation) opened in 1909 as some kind of base station for the skiing nobility. Apparently it also housed Amundsen, Nansen, Shackleton, and Scott – yes, the very names immediately coming to mind when you think of ‘polar exploration’. They all came here in preparation of their expeditions to exercise in Finse’s extreme weather and environmental conditions – turns out, this is Europe’s southernmost place with an Arctic climate. Go figure.
Yet in 1979 a film crew took lodgings in this cabin, too. I got to admit I had no idea that they were actually filming scenes for “The Empire Strikes Back” right here at the glacier! Yes, guess, this freezing cold place out there did not only look like some remote icy planet, it actually was Star Wars‘ Hoth! And while I was standing there, another cup of hot tea in my hands, watching out of a picture-window into this snowstorm (which, by the way, did not at all give the impression of slowing down), I really would not have been surprised if a tauntaun or some wampa suddenly appeared from the snow squall (thinking about it, maybe this was the danger the locals were warning us of?).
The impenetrable snow drift outside still kept raging through the darkness as evening fell. Well, we had to accept it: we wouldn’t circle that glacier. Not this time. But that did only mean one thing: we would return. To Norway. To Hoth.
PS: Of course, on our way back I had to stop by and pay my respect to Nansen’s and Amundsen’s “Fram”. I just had to. Standing there on these planks, the very planks sailing far North and South, standing there on the helm … how could one not be overwhelmed by this monument of polar exploration?