Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Eagle has Landed

Kvitskardtinden, originally uploaded by Glencoemountaineer.

As most of you have probably figured out or heard by now, I came back early from Norway.  The plan was originally to stay out for a full month and tour the entire region of Jotunheimen, an idea I now appreciate to be a little over-ambitious for a first solo expedition into this area.

The start of my journey was Gjendesheim:  the end of the road, and the gateway into Jotunheimen.  I spent the first day fighting my way up an enormous valley known as Leirungsdalen.  My first mistake was to avoid a river crossing I thought to be unnecessarily dangerous, leading to a massive detour in an attempt to find a way across the river.  After eleven hours of trekking through scrub and (eventually) moraine, I decided to make my camp at the foot of a glacier coming down from the highest peaks in the Gjende Alps.  At 1,660m it was quite a high camp by Norwegian standards and, although exposed, it proved to be an idyllic spot.

My forays into the Gjende Alps were foiled by the baffling weather.  A day would begin fine, with high pressure, only for a massive storm to suddenly appear over the space of minutes.  On one occasion, high on the glacier on Austre Leirungstinden, a snowstorm hit with such force and speed that I was forced to run back down the glacier and flee to my tent for shelter, afraid that the inevitable lightning would follow (snow and lightning when on a glacier, or an exposed ridge like the one I would shortly have been following, are not good things!)

On that evening the wind turned through ninety degrees and began battering the exposed broad side of my tent.  I spent an uncomfortable "night"--it does not get dark at those latitudes--using my body to stop my tent from being blown into Sweden.

The next morning, as soon as it stopped snowing, I packed and crossed the Leirungsdalen Pass, losing height as soon as possible.  My next camp would be 600m lower next to Lake Bygdin.  It was from this spot that my only successful climb was conducted:  Kvitskardtinden, 2,193m, a massive pyramidal mountain standing in the centre of the Mesmog Massif and guarded by a large but dying glacier.  It was the only day of really good weather on the entire trip, and the only day in which the wind got low enough to actually climb a high mountain.

The weather got worse again; I decided to get across the Slettmark Pass before the wind became too bad.  That long day trekking over moraine and the stubs of old glaciers was also sunny, but far too windy for any mountaineering.  I eventually crossed over to the western side of Jotunheimen and began the long walk to Olavsbu.

Olavsbu is a tiny locked cabin in the centre of the biggest wilderness, the farthest hut from any road or inhabited place.  It is surrounded by several glaciated 2000m peaks.  On the walk in it truly struck home how remote it is:  even Knoydart doesn't quite make the mark.  I encountered rivers whose bridges had been destroyed by floods, and had to be precariously forded.  Eventually defeated by fatigue after a very long day, I made my camp at 1,424m, still six miles from Olavsbu.

Predictably, another huge storm came in.  It rained for 24 hours non-stop, and the wind was ferocious, again swinging round to attack the vulnurable broad side of the tent.  I spent a miserable day staring at the four walls of my tent.  I had plenty of time to think about my situation, which was not great at that stage: my food had almost run out, and I was banking on finding more at Olavsbu.  What would happen, I wondered, if I made it to Olavsbu only to find no food?  I would be a full day's march from the nearest point of retreat (Gjendebu), and between those two places were several large rivers that would need to be forded.

The fording had been bad enough in low water.  After 24 hours of rain, with more on its way, I did not fancy my chances.  The very real risk of getting cut off in the most remote place in Jotunheimen with no food and no chance of escape meant that I had to make a decision.  After a day sitting in my tent brooding it was an easy decision to make, and I got out of there as soon as I could.

The clouds evaporated on the walk out, but it remained incredibly windy and the barometer was still low.  The rivers were indeed high but still passable--just.  I made it to Gjendebu and took the ferry back to Gjendesheim.  The next day another huge storm struck and the campsite guardian at Fagernes said that the storms in Jotunheimen were the worst they had been for years.

So:  a partial success and a solid lesson in respect for a mountain area that is a great deal more serious than any region in Scotland!  A week was a good length of time for an initial expedition.  I will now be better prepared for future ventures into Jotunheimen.

I have started to upload photos into my Flickr account. When they're all up, I'll post some more entries with links to the relevant sets. I might also publish my journal from the trip on here if there is demand for it (it goes into a lot more detail than the notes above).


  1. No shame in beating a safe retreat. Sounds like you had fun and learned a lot in the process.

    I'd like to read your journal entries - interested to know how you experienced it mentally and emotionally.