Monday, May 23, 2016

Oslo Ecotrail: A new level of pain

 

The race nerves came, like an unwelcome visitor, after breakfast on Saturday morning. Irrational self-doubt, anticipation and slight queasiness, a motley trio with which I have grown all too familiar. Luckily I already had eaten a solid breakfast. The race didn’t start until 1pm, and I expected to feel like I had a long time to wait around. But the flurry of pre-race rituals began, and before I knew it I was getting on the subway, headed for Holmenkollen ski jump.

As the subway (well, not technically sub at this point) worked its way uphill, the cars filled with more and more lycra-clad individuals sporting backpacks and race bibs. What if everyone here is faster than me? I thought, suddenly terrified. I tried to remind myself that the race was with myself, not everyone else.  

It was easy to find the start area by following the flow of people from the subway station. In the arena, I watched some runners who were completing the 80K distance passing through this checkpoint. They had gone so far already, and still had 45K to go! I found the port-a-potties and decided get in line there for good measure. While waiting in line, I started chatting with two jovial northern Norwegians. They were impressed by my (at least outwardly) calm pronouncement that I intended to run the course in 5 hours. Maybe everyone here isn’t faster than me after all!

I found an acquaintance, and left my backpack with him to go warm up. I didn’t want to warm up so much for the physical benefits as for the mental clarity it provided. Running along the road past the ski jump, I once again felt the magical lack of any lingering soreness in my legs. Primed, locked and loaded. I was going to crush this.

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Confident pre-race selfie.

By the time I got back from my warm-up, my friend David had arrived and it was time to stash our luggage and line up for the start. We lined up pretty far back, although David joked that I should start with the front of the pack. There was no gun to signal the start of the race; the people below the start arch simply started to move, and everyone behind followed suit.

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The crowds below Holmenkollen ski jump, just before the start of the race.

As the four-hundred-odd 45K runners shuffled into action, I quickly realized I had started too far back. I steadily passed people during the initial climbs, my heart rate telling me I was going a bit too hard. Don’t burn too many matches this early in game, I reminded myself, it’s going to be a long race, and a little slowness at the start won’t harm you. It did tick me off, though, when people walked at the first hint of technical single track.

The course climbed steadily towards Tryvann tower, and I was surprised to look at my watch and note that we had already run 3 kilometers. I was still passing people, especially any time the trails turned tricky. One stretch in particular was quite muddy, and I scoffed inwardly as people tiptoed around the muddy patches. Get over it! I wanted to shout, and I did so by example, wasting no energy trying to keep my feet dry. 

It was on this section, as I looked a little too far forward, scanning the trail for my next line, that my toe suddenly hooked on an errant branch and I fell. Knee, hip, chest, boom! 

“Are you OK?!” a girl behind me exclaimed. I jumped up, mumbling yes, as my face quickly reddened to match my Helly Hansen shirt. I was vividly reminded of a similar fall when racing Ultrabirken. Don’t start messing up this early in the game Molly, focus! I coaxed myself.

As I continued onwards, I had to laugh at my state. Race bib and tights coated in a sheen of mud, it definitely looked like I was running hard! I then noticed a dribble of blood oozing from my left knee. Ooops. I also felt a slight numbness in my right hip, and probed it with my fingers, relieved that I hadn’t ripped a hole in my tights. There was too much adrenaline pumping through my system to feel any pain.

After passing over the high point of the course at Tryvann tower, there was a long downhill on smoothly graded dirt road. I really found my stride here, reminding myself to flow down the hill with gravity rather than working against it, just like in skiing. I saw my average pace creep down below 6 min/km, and smiled. The magic number in order to finish in 5 hours was 6:40 min/km. I was banking lots of time, and I felt fierce and fabulous.

After the big downhill, there was a flat section on a dirt road in towards the first aid station. I chatted with another racer, a woman who said she mostly ran 24-hour races, including the one that goes on in the indoor track at Bislett. I have a hard time fathoming running around that endless circle for 24 hours straight, but then again people have a hard time fathoming running the distances I do. 

The first aid station was at the 15K mark in Sørkedalen, and there was a whole buffet of different foods. I had already taken one gel and a Stroopwaffel, but grabbed a slice of orange and a few chips before heading out. I didn’t want to linger here; I was racing too well. I left the aid station in 1:30:52 elapsed, the 20th woman. 

Looking at the race profile on my bib, I noted that the next 5K would be climbing. OK, now it’s all right to lose some of the time I banked! I alternated between jogging and walking, cruising passed plenty of racers who had decided to walk the whole climb. While walking, I realized that Audun must have finished his race, Oslo Ecotrail 18K, by now. I whipped out my phone and checked the results. 10th place! He had come in 10th place out of 395 racers! I was deeply impressed. I decided that I, too, was going to do great things in my race.

Soon enough I reached the top of the hill and the Ecotrail markers lead me off the dirt road and onto some sweet looking single track. There was a girl wearing headphones ahead of me. Get ready to be passed! I thought.

And. Then. It. Came.

Someone stuck a knife in the lower part of my right abdomen, and twisted. A side stitch, and it was bad. Ok, I guess you’re not getting passed yet, I mentally told the girl ahead, who couldn’t hear me because of her headphones anyway. I slowed to walk, and tried to focus on breathing deeply, expanding all the flesh in my stomach to try and stretch out the cramping muscles. I felt slightly better, and began to jog onwards. The cramp came back, and I was forced to walk again. Racers I had passed on the uphill began to pass me. 

I tried every remedy I could think of: stretching my right arm in the air, clenching a rock in my fist as hard as I could, breathing deeply. The pain abated, and I picked up the pace again. I noted that I was feeling hungry, and decided it was time for gel number 2. I was passing some racers again, but the gel seemed to exacerbate the demon holding the knife in my stomach and soon I was getting passed again. I clenched the rock I had picked up like a talisman, for all the good that it did.

 

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The rock that I carried for the last 25 kilometers of the race.

You just have to get through this, it will pass! I promised myself, everything goes numb in the end! I pulled my headphones out of my race vest and put in one earplug, starting the special playlist I had made for the race. The music heartened me, and I kept moving forward, riding the waves of pain. Every time I took a sip of water the side stitch flared up, and when I took one more gel I immediately regretted it. 

Somehow I made it to the aid station at Fossum, 27K. I decided to stop for a little longer at this one, and pulled out my ear plug to chat with the volunteers. To my surprise, the silicon earphone tip remained in my ear after pulling the rest of the head phone out. After rooting around with my finger a little, I was forced to admit that I wouldn’t be able to remove the earphone tip on my own. 

“This may be the strangest question you get all day,” I said to the aid station volunteer I approached, “but can you help me get my earphone tip out of my ear?” With great care and a pair of scissors, the earphone tip was removed. I stopped listening to music after that. 

At the aid station, I drank some energy drink and picked up a banana to eat. The first bit of banana made me nauseous, but I forced it down anyway. It would be the last thing I ate in the race. I left the 27K aid station in 2:47:58 elapsed, the 21st woman. I had gained a bunch of places and then lost them all in the last section.

Next on the menu was the long, technical downhill along the Lysaker River, the only part of the course I had run before. Before the race, I had imagined crushing this section. Compared to many runners, technical downhill is my forté. But the side stitch simple wouldn’t let up!

At the top of the river, I stopped and sat down on a log and had a little pity party. I was failing. How could I let this stupid side stitch happen? How did it happen? I got out my phone again, and called Audun, who was waiting at the finish line.

“I want to quit!” I wailed, startling several racers passing by, “This is so stupid, and it won’t go away."

“You have to just keep going, and walk if you have to,” Audun reasoned with me, “You were doing really well before!"

“I know, but a bunch of girls have already passed me,” I sniveled.

“Remember rule #5!” encouraged Audun.

“Yeah, the people who made that rule have never had a side stitch like this!” I growled. But I conceded that I didn’t in fact, intend to quit, and got up off my log and kept jogging as we chatted. I didn’t have to walk, I could jog, just not run as fast as my legs wanted me to. I also knew I had to get through these last 18K without eating. I didn’t want to anger the side stitch demon any more than I had to.

I soon caught a pace line of runners, mostly from the 80K distance, shuffling along the river. I fell in line, even though my instinct said, Pass them! You can go so much faster than this! I knew I had to go slow to keep this under control. I took tiny sips of water, willing the side stitch to disappear.

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Falling into line behind an 80K running along the Lysaker river

It didn’t. Nine painful kilometers down the river, and I was still fighting. Sometimes I tried to convince myself that I could break this pain, that I could ignore it. But every time it reared its ugly head, I retreated and slowed down. At its worst, the pain reminded me of the time I broke my leg when I was 17. It was all consuming, and it would not be ignored.

Things got better when I hit the flat section along the fjord with 9 kilometers to go. Downhill was the worst with the side stitch, and on the flats I could run a little better. In fact, I was feeling almost no pain! Maybe it had finally gone away! I accelerated to pass another woman who caught me, and the knife twisted again. Ah, my old friend, I thought. It felt so familiar by now, like a little person running the race with me.

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Runnin along the coast in the final 9 kilometers of the race.

The course was sandwiched between a highway and the fjord, and sea salt smells mingled with car exhaust. Not the most enjoyable route, and I found myself wondering way the race organizers had decided that the course had to finish at the Opera House. This section was just so ugly.

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Rounding the bend to the finish line, the Opera house in the background.

I managed to drink some water at the final aid station, complaining a little to a volunteer about my side stitch. I was resigned to see this through, in the fastest manner I could manage. The last 5K are a blur of passing through crowded streets with oblivious pedestrians standing in the way, and willing the Opera House to appear. Soon enough it did, and I was jogging the final stretch to the finish. David, Audun and Vibeke (who had run the 30K) stood near the finish, cheering me on, telling me to sprint. I grimaced and willed myself to go a little faster. 

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Crossing the finish line, wearing the face of pain.

I crossed the finish line in 4:57, in 28th place and the last woman to finish under 5 hours. I sat down and started to cry, allowing the rock I had clutched for the last several hours to drop out of my fist. I felt mentally exhausted from battling pain for 25 kilometers and overwhelmed by the feeling of failure despite reaching my goal. I was in shape to run much faster than I did; the side stitch had stopped my otherwise strong, fresh legs. I had slowed throughout the race, rather than finishing strong as I am wont. And as we walked away from the finish area, I realized I hadn’t nearly used up the reserves in my legs. I could have gone so much faster, if only I could have stopped the side stitch. That thought has flogged me since I finished. 

At home, when I got into the shower, I noticed a scrape on my hip bone, right below the area where the side stitch had been. Apparently my fall at the beginning of the race had been harder than I realized. My current theory is that the shock of the fall on my hip radiated into my stomach muscles, causing the demon stitch. So what’s the moral of the story? Don’t fall on your face during the first 5K of a 45K event? Where did I go wrong?

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I ran 45K and all I got was this medal and a dirty race bib.

I wonder.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Friday, May 20, 2016

Pre-Ecotrail: where I stand

Tomorrow at 1pm, I’ll run across the starting line of the second race of my season, Oslo Ecotrail 45K. Oddly, I’m not nervous at all. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m racing a new distance (to me). The race is on a mixture of trails and pavement, so it’s hard to predict how long it will take. Also forty-five kilometers is kind of an ambiguous distance - is it an ultramarathon or just trying too hard to one-up a regular marathon? Whatever. I’m sure to get a solid pounding either way.

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My goal for this race is pretty simple; I want to enjoy it! However, competing (even if it is only with oneself) is part of the fun of running races. By looking at the finishing times from Ecotrail last year and my own long run times, I suspect a 5 hour finish should be within reach. So I’m going to give myself the lighthearted goal of a sub-5 hour finish.

Now let’s do something fun: sum up my Ecotrail training, pre-race! Then after the race I’ll be able to tell you how well it worked. 

The first block of my training this year, leading up up to Sentrumsløpet and an shiny new 10K PR, is pretty well documented. I had a plan, and I executed it very well, no major issues on the way. I even managed to balance lots of backcountry skiing with lots of running, which I think it probably a good way to prevent running injuries. Since Sentrumsløpet, I haven’t really logged my training here, mainly because it can be summed up by UTTER CHAOS! I won’t describe the last month of training in all of its gritty glory, but I will highlight a couple of workouts.

The day after Sentrumsløpet, I had decided I would do a long run of 30K. I know it sounds kind of idiotic, but I had this idea that doing a long run on race-thrashed legs would make for a great training weekend. Getting out of bed to run 30K the day after PRing in the 10K took some major self-trickery. In fact, if I can remember how I made myself do it I might be ready to become a motivational coach (HAHAHAHA).

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Early Sunday morning, enjoying the quiet forest on my 30K.

I had alternating snow showers and sunshine throughout the run, and rounded off 25 kilometers of technical trails with 5K of pavement pounding, simulating the Ecotrail course. Mission: trash legs, accomplished.

It took most of the next week to recover from the weekend’s hard efforts. I had a naive idea that I would be able to do a tempo run on Wednesday, but that simply wasn’t happening and I took it easy instead. At the end of the week I went to Berlin for a conference, and as I am wont, I found a park not too far from the hotel to run in. This particular park - called Treptower - was a good find, both spacious and scenic.

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No, this is not clipped from a British costume drama, I actually went running here.

In sunny weather but chilly temps, I trotted all around the park, exploring. It is fascinating how incredibly flat Berlin is and how much faster I’m able to go without hills. No wonder the last six world record marathons have been run in the Berlin Marathon!

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Pompous statues in the middle of Treptower park.

The next week was spent ski touring in Lyngen, much more of which here, here and here. After flying out of Tromsø in the pouring rain Sunday evening, it was a relief to come home to a flowering, sunny Oslo. I decided to take advantage of the summery temps and get in a longish run. I ran an extended route home from work through the forest, totalling 22K, and made the mistake of overexerting myself on what should have been a relatively easy effort.

I wasn’t wearing my heart rate monitor, since I have to serious chaffing issues (meaning the heart rate strap basically tries to dig a hole through my rib cage ever time I wear it for an extended effort). Nevertheless, I’ve trained enough with a heart rate monitor before to know that I was going way too hard for the steady effort this was supposed to be. But it was sunny out and I was running in shorts for the first time this year and I felt like a puppy prancing through the forest! I paid for the effort later in the week, feeling overly fatigue and kind of stupid for making that rookie mistake.

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That belly hasn’t seen the sun in months!

Last weekend was four days long because of Norway’s constitution day, May 17, fell on Tuesday. Audun and I drove to his grandmother’s farm in Sunnmøre, the region of Norway famous for its dramatic fjord landscape. We brought our road bikes, and put in two solid rides that I’ll document more thoroughly at a later date. Still, I insisted that we get in one more long run during the weekend. Duplicating a route I ran last year, we ran over a mountain (Storåsnakken) and down to the next village (Eidsdal), before cruising along the fjord and hiking the final kilometers back to the farm.

It was a run of contrasts. The final stretch of trail to the top of the mountain turned out to be covered in snow, so we ended up bushwacking in brushy forest to get to the top. At our slowest, it took 13 minutes to cover one kilometer, which really isn’t running but actually kind of slow walking. But when we hit the downhill dirt road, we were clicking off sub-5 minute kilometers while still chitchatting.

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Audun’s idea of fun is bushwhacking to the top of mountains on a ‘run’.

This week, I’ve been working a lot and taking it easy, training-wise. Today I did a 5K run just to wake up my legs, and was surprised to feel…nothing. For the first time in months, no lingering soreness, no niggles, just fresh legs. I hope this means I’ve rested enough. Tomorrow will be the judge of that.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Lyngen 2016, Part 3: Redemption

I spent the first week of May ski mountaineering in Northern Norway. Check out the first two parts of the adventure here and here

After two days of what can barely be called skiing, we picked up my sister Zoe, who is a student in Tromsø, and headed back to Lyngen to try, try again. The car ride was a tense affair. To be honest, I was sick of the rotten snow and bad weather, and felt like I would rather go home. But we were there for another three days, and ski we would, even if my expectations were lower than ever.

It was a couple hours drive to the parking area at the base of Storgalten, and I was reassured, if not overjoyed, to see a bunch of other cars parked there. Clearly others had the same plan for the day as us; maybe there was hope for decent snow conditions and less bushwhacking. 

Although we started out carrying skis from the car, that particular state of being only lasted for about 15 minutes. Soon we were sliding along on our skis rather than lumbering up hills in stiff ski boots, skis throwing us off balance in the terrain.

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Dad and Zoe finding the first snow on Storgalten

All things considered, I was feeling great. Something inside me said “click" the moment I clicked into my skis. The anxiety about the tour of the day lifted, and I was light, floating up the hill despite my heavy ski equipment. Forward motion wiped away any doubts and questions and left only the pure drive to move through the mountains.

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Two unknown skiers followed by Audun, Zoe and Dad crest the hill above the fjord.

The route up Storgalten is very straightforward, basically just a 1200-meter hill straight up from the fjord. The hill was well-worn with ski tracks, both uphill and down, but this was spring skiing, not hunting for fresh lines of powder. And it didn’t look half bad!

Audun and I climbed steadily, stopping to regroup and eat lunch with Zoe and Dad, then pulling away in the last few hundred vertical meters to the top. Someone had dug a bench into the snow at the summit, which functioned both as a comfortable seat and barrier against the chilly wind. We sat, eating sour candy and taking in the view all the way across the Gamvik glacier below us and further to the spires of the peaks of southern Lyngen. Another large group of skiers, all men, had reached the summit just before us and were discussing whether they were going to bag some more peaks in the area that day. I wanted to join them, to slide across the glacier and climb to another summit, but I knew that today, this peak had to be enough.

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(Part of) the view from Storgalten

Soon enough, Zoe and Dad arrived at the top and we prepared for the descent. The ski down from Storgalten provided turns in slushy corn snow and a steady slope in the 30-35 degree range for our enjoyment.

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 Audun and I descending Storgalten. Photo by Zoe.

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Zoe in action.

That evening, we camped along the fjord at Tytebærvika and plotted the next days ascent. The weather forecast was relatively ambiguous; it could turn out to be an overcast day with low cloud cover, or we could get some sun (I guess that’s the kind of weather you get in coastal Norway!). Hungry for a larger peak than Storgalten, we decided to try Daltinden near the center of the Lyngen peninsula.

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Reading in camp with my flask of whisky. Photo by Zoe.

As forecasted, the weather was kind of everything at once the next day, alternating between overcast, rainy and hot sun. My optimism swung with the bouts of sunshine. Once again, we were carrying skis up a brushy valley, but at least there was a tractor road to follow. Well, it stopped being a tractor road rather quickly and became a trail. Well, a trail mostly created by meandering sheep, but there was hope in the faint trace going in the right direction.

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Dad and Zoe on the ‘trail’ to Daltinden.

We spent an hour or so walking up valley before we finally strapped on our skis and headed uphill. The first hundred vertical meters on snow were spent zigzagging through an endless garden of sharp rocks. This was not shaping up to be fun downhill skiing. Still, gazing up at the mountain above us, we could see a lot more snow in our future.

The climb above the valley brought sweeping views of glaciers spilling out from some of Lyngen’s highest peaks: Kveita, Jiekkevarri and Balgesvarri. Their summits were capped by clouds, lurking for another day.

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Dad, Audun and Zoe above the beautiful braided glacial outwash in the valley

Zoe grew tired on the climb, and complained of a sore hip. Audun, Dad and I, however, were single-minded in our drive to go to the top. We were not about to turn around and admit defeat after another long seance of ski carrying! So we coaxed Zoe up the hill, moving slowly and taking frequent breaks. I felt kind of bad, forcing her to go to the top if she wasn’t feeling great, but I knew she could make it.

A layer of clouds lay around the summit of Daltinden. Frequent breaks of sun on the climb left me hopeful that it would clear just as we reached the top. The clouds didn’t budge despite my wishes, and on the summit plateau there was zero visibility. We turned somewhere on the summit plateau, not willing to waddle around in the fog looking for a summit cairn.

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Enjoying the view from the summit (not).

The descent soon brought us below the summit cloud cover.

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Audun skis through the weather divide

Despite the high temperatures in the region for the last couple days, we were high enough that some of morning’s rain had fallen as fresh snow. Even though it was just a thin layer, I’ll claim bragging rights to having skied pow in May!

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Zoe and the meager fresh pow.

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Me on the descent. Photo by Zoe.

Elated by our success and another good descent, the 5K walk back through the valley seemed almost pleasant. That is, until I realized we had been out for nearly 10 hours and my stomach started growling!

For the last day of skiing, we set our sights on a peak close to Tromsø called Andersdalstind that had been recommended to us by a local. His recommendation was on point; we were able to ski directly from the car rather than carrying our skis as we had grown both accustomed to and weary of.

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Ascending Andersdalstinden, before the weather really started to come in.

Only half way up the mountain, the weather went from mediocre to terrible. The clouds crept lower and lower, and it started to snow heavily. Additionally, upon reaching the main bowl to the summit we discovered that it was filled with packed, icy snow - not enticing conditions. Still 400 vertical from the summit, we decided to turn in the deteriorating weather. After descending in heavy falling snow that turned into driving rain at the base of the mountain, we were happy to relax over a cup of coffee in Tromsø while watching the rain come down outside. After all, we had earned it.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Lyngen 2016, Part 2: Building character

I spent the first week of May ski mountaineering in Northern Norway. Check out the first part of the adventure here!

On Tuesday evening, Dad flew to Tromsø to join Audun and I for the rest of the week of skiing. The sunny weather from the first days had passed and the weather forecast called for dreary grey. As long as the cloud cover stayed high, we should be good to summit some more peaks. After consulting various guide books, Audun and I found a suitable goal for the next day, a mountain called Durmålstinden. The route called for 4-5K of pretty flat skiing up a valley before climbing to the top of the peak. I imagined us gliding through the valley, quickly covering the distance and summiting the peak.

As we drove towards our goal, we were surprised to see how little snow there was on this southern part of Lyngen as opposed to the region we had skiied the first two days. We parked at a remote farm house called Skogly, from where we could see the top of the mountain, distant up the valley. As far as I could see, the peak was completely devoid of snow. Panicking, I was certain we had picked the wrong peak and alternatives started to run through my mind. Daltind? It’s a lot of extra driving. But there really wasn’t much snow anywhere in this region...

“There’s no snow up there,” I stated matter-of-factly.

“That’s not the face we’re going to ski though,” reassured Audun, “There’s like a bowl on the backside… I bet that’s filled with snow!” Skeptical, but willing to be optimistic, I agreed, and we strapped our skis on our pack and started walking into Rypedalen valley.

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Dad and Audun, excited for some adventures in ski carrying.

We climbed steadily uphill through the forest, and I spotted a red fox slipping through the trees ahead of us. Soon small patches of snow morphed larger patches of snow and we decided to put on our skis. We followed in the labyrinth of snow patches and ending up skirting along on the north-facing valley walls. Still below treeline, we had to bushwack through tightly packed stands of thin birch trees. The progress up the valley was slow to say the least, but since there was no impending darkness to worry about we weren’t in any real rush.

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Me and Audun skinning through birch trees, with the summit of Durmålstinden visit ahead of us. Photo by Dad.

Still, it was frustrating when we realized all our uphill progress was for naught. The valley walls grew too steep to follow, and looking at the map we realized we needed to get to the other side of the rushing river below us. We slid down to the river and skiied along the river for a ways, scanning for a good place to cross. Our plastic ski boots are pretty waterproof, but woe betide the skier who gets their boots wet above the ankle! We finally found a suitable crossing, and put our skis back on, began skirting around the shoulder of the mountain.

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Audun crosses the river.

The name ‘Rydedalen’, meaning Ptarmigan valley, proved exceedingly appropriate as we saw at least 10 ptarmigan total during our ski. The ptarmigan were still in their white winter coats, and emerged suddenly, wings flapping furiously yet still barely lifting them off the ground and away from us. A brave one stopped and tried to stare us down. Undeterred, we snapped photos of it before skiing onward, still navigating patchy snow even though we had started to gain considerably elevation.

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The bravest ptarmigan in Ptarmigan valley.

As we reached the shoulder between Biellogaisi and Durmålstinden, where the real climb to the summit should have begun, two things happen simultaneously. Firstly, the weather began to sour. Grey clouds descended on the mountain tops around us and a few drops of rain landed on the sleeve of my jacket. Secondly, we could finally see the bowl and upper part of the mountain, and my gut feeling had been right. There was almost no snow. All that bushwacking for nothing.

We sat down for a snack break, rather dejected. Looking around though, I realized it hadn’t been for nothing. We were in a beautiful valley, with mountains towering around us and glaciers spilling out from above. It was remote, it was wild, it was everything I love about Lyngen. But with the weather and conditions as they were, we decided it was time to throw in the towel.

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Lunch break at our high point for the day in the ever-worsening weather. Photo by Dad.

Usual descents give you something for free on skis, but descending the valley turned out to be nearly as hard as ascending it. We decided to follow a lower line, closer to the river, and had to take our skis on and off several times. The weather continually worsened and we were soaked by a light, cold rain. “Guess this builds character at least!” we joked. 

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Dad and Audun pole down the last patch of snow before we capitulated and, once again, strapped our skis to our pack.

The cherry on the ice cream Sunday was several kilometers of walking on a barely-there, marshy trail with our skis on our back; since we had chosen a lower line, we walked more downhill than we had uphill. Dejected, but not yet despondent, we were happy to reach the warmth and safety of the car, and vowed to pick something with less bushwacking the next day.

By the time we set up camp in Lakselvbukt, the weather cleared off and we could sit outside to cook dinner. Gazing up at Fugldalsfjellet, the majestic peak above our campsite, we all agreed that was a worthy goal for the next day. Although there were some rocky patches on the mountain, there was a continuous line of snow all the way to the summit. And since it’s basically straight up from the fjord, we reasoned any necessary ski carrying on the lower part of the mountain couldn’t last for too long.

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The campsite at Lakselvbukt. Photo by Dad.

We set off from our campsite towards Fugldalsfjellet early the next morning. We followed a trail for a kilometer or so before striking more directly towards the south-east face we hoped to ski. After leaving the trail, the walking went from pleasant to horrendous pretty quickly. To avoid the bushy forest, we crossed numerous open boulder feels. I felt like a old lady, using ski poles as support as I stumbled along in my stiff-soled boots.

Rockfield

Crossing the boulder fields below the Fugldalsfjellet massif. Our intended line was up the bowl on the left side on the picture. Photo by Dad.

Eventually we hit snow, and I vowed to myself that today - today! - we would make it to the top and all the bushwacking would be worth it. Everything seem to be going swimmingly; we were climbing rapidly and there was more and more snow, albeit rather rotten in places. Even the weather was more promising that the previous days failed expedition.

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Dad skis through the patchy snow on the lower slopes of Fugldalsfjellet.

Then we drew close to the mouth of the south-east facing couloir we hoped to ski, and all of my optimism was blown away in a single breath. This wasn’t the snowy wonder we had convinced ourselves it must me. Most of the snow had been scraped clean from the face by an enormous slab avalanche. Even more ominous was the upper part of the face, which was intact and pristine. Did it have the same dangerous slab potential, or would it be safe to cross? As far as I could tell, we couldn’t judge the snow properly until we were on the potentially dangerous upper part of the slope. Still, I agree to continue a little ways, to attempt to find a way around the avalanche runout and into the intact upper face.

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Our intended line and the avalanche runout.

Things grew pretty hopeless from there, and I soon realized that we wouldn’t be reaching the summit that day. I had a bad feeling about the upper face, compounded by the extremely rotten snow we were skinning up. Halfway in vertical to the summit, we decided that today was not a day to die in the mountains, and once again turned.

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Audun enjoying the meager descent from Fugldalsfjellet.

I fell into despair as we descended.  How could we choose the wrong summit, two days in a row? Why hadn’t we thought a little more about what aspect to ski, or gone back to the northern region of Lyngen where we were sure there was snow? I was a failure and this whole trip was a waste of time if all we were going to do was carry our skis around in the forest.

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Grumpy Molly descending more boulder fields after a failed attempt at Fugldalsfjellet.

We decided to go back to Tromsø and regroup (and shower!). Clearly the heat of the week before combined with the lack of freezing nights had melted more snow than we realized initially. We needed more information about where there was still snow. We needed to find a peak we could summit, or bust!

To be continued.

- The Wild Bazilchuk 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lyngen 2016, Part 1: Fun in the sun

The weeks before going to the Lyngen Alps in Northern Norway, I was travelling so much for work I didn’t have time to really think about the trip or look forward to it. Before I knew it, it was May 1 and Audun and I were on the plane to Tromsø. It was bright and sunny as we stepped off the plane. Although the ground was bare at the fjord, the white-capped hilltops in the distance foreshadowed a promising continuation of the ski season.

Arriving in Tromsø on a Sunday meant the entire world was moving with great laziness. First we spent an hour waiting for the car rental place to open (it didn’t open until 1 PM, which seems pretty ridiculous to me considering how many tens of people were waiting for cars), then another hour looking for what must have been the only open grocery store in Tromsø. By the time we had driven to Lyngen, including a half an hour wait for a ferry, it was late afternoon. Not that the sky seemed to notice. May 1 is three weeks until the midnight sun starts up there, and that means it’s basically light all the time.

We found a gorgeous tent site near the edge of Jægervatnet lake, complete with picnic tables and a fire pit. It was rather close some houses, and kept wondering if it was someones private spot. In Norway, you are legally allowed to camp almost anywhere, but we were close enough to some houses that someone probably could have kicked out if they wanted to. We soon realized that this was a spot set up to attracted fishermen, so that the local landowner could make money selling fishing permits. With no fishermen in sight, we put up the Palace of Spaciousness and Luxury and started to plot an afternoon run.

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Zen trail mode

“We could go around this peninsula!” I exclaimed, tracing my finger around a leaf-shaped protrudence to the north of us. There was a trail marked on it, which turned out to be the faint, narrow kind of trail you only find in areas that don’t see heavy use. It weaved along the coast line, surging up and down along and above the beach. The air smelled of heather and sea salt, and I felt my mind grow quiet with the singular focus on where to place my feet next. In the distance were more mountains rising directly from the sea, but beyond that, the open ocean.

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Audun and the islands that proceed the open ocean.

A sailboat trailed along the peninsula with us as we ran. It was moving very slowly, making basically the same progress as we did, although it was tracing a larger circle. Occasional wet patches soaked our feet, but life was sunny and we had dry socks in the car. The last bit to the car was 4K along a road, which was incredible straight. The farthest point along the road we could see never seemed to draw any closer, and I ran faster and faster in an attempt to catch up with it. Then Audun pointed out that we had 7 days of ski touring ahead of us, and maybe this wasn’t the moment to run quite that fast. Point taken.

We spent a tranquil evening in the sun, admiring the surrounding peaks and planning the next day. We settled on Fastdalstinden, mostly because it looked relatively uncomplicated, and we wanted an easy start so we could evaluate the conditions.

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Self-potrait of the couple reading Kindles at their campsite.

The seagulls kept waking me up, and it was light every time I opened my eyes. I had no notion of time until my alarm went off, which meant it was time to get skiing.

The drive to the trailhead of Fastdalstinden brought us up a rutted, muddy road. “Abuse of rental vehicle, part 1000,” I joked, remember some of the previous ordeals we’d put rental cars through. We managed to get to the parking area without wrecking anything, and soon we were plodding up a tractor road that was just barely covered with snow. The jeep road was relentlessly steep and bare in places, forcing us to take off our skis. Soon we arrived at the power station that was the terminus of the tractor road, and the mountains opened up before us.

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Audun takes in the view, Fastdalstinden on the right and Store Kjostind on the far right.

Following old ski tracks, we skinned to the top, stopping more than was strictly necessary to take in view of the glacier on the neighbouring mountain. At first, I saw what I thought was an impassable ice fall, but as we climbed higher on Fastdalstinden and saw the glacier from above, we could clearly see ski tracks on the upper part. So there must be a way!

There was only a slight breeze on the summit, and we took a long break to take in the beautiful day.

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Audun chilling out on the summit of Fastdalstinden.

The ski down was decent. The main face of Fastdalstinden is south facing, so the snow had been cooked by the sun, but on the upper slopes there was enough resistance in the snow to make for some good turns.

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B- skiing, A+ views!

The lower down we got, the musher the snow became, until you didn’t have to do turns anymore and had to pole to make progress in the slush.

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Teleing in the slush above the Rotenvikglacier.

Intrigued by the ski tracks we had seen up the glacier, we studied our maps that evening and concluded that they could lead to a backside route up Store Kjostind. The main route up Store Kjostind, which is south facing and goes straight up from the fjord, had melted out to an altitude of several hundred meters and would therefore involve a tiresome climb on foot. So we decided to try this alternate, glacial route the next day and see where it would lead us.

Repeating the start of the previous day, we were surprised to see at least 20 people heading up the steep tractor road. The previous day we had only met two small groups, but apparently the word that the conditions were good on Fastdalstinden had gotten out. Soon, we veered off the beaten path from the previous day and headed towards the glacier. I still hadn’t seen a way around the bottleneck of crevasses in the middle of the glacier, but assumed it must be on the slope hidden from our view.

The route up the glacier turned out to be fairly simple, but we couldn't decide how to attempt the summit. Either we could climb a steep, exposed snow ramp that was clearly visible from the glacier, or traverse around the backside of a mountain to pick up the main route to the summit. The upper slopes of the visible snow ramp were directly over a cliff; it was definitely a no fall zone. Eying the cliff nervously, I suggested it might be better to attack the summit from the backside.

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Audun on the Rotenvik glacier, with the crevasse field in the center of the picture. The exposed line to the summit is the band of snow above the cliffs in the left of the photo.

We reached the col in the early afternoon, finally catching up with a group of 4 frenchmen who had been ahead of us all day. They were turning at the col, and I grew uncertain of my own summit prospects. We still couldn’t see the main line to the top, just ski tracks that rounded the slope not far from were we stood. After some debate, Audun and I strapped on our crampons and headed off into the unknown, leaving our skis at the col.

To reach the main couloir we had to skirt around several steep, rocky bands. The snow near the rocks was so rotten that we sunk to our thighs at places. At the first rock band, the only obvious route was to down climb, dropping through the rotten snow with shifting rocks beneath us. As I turned around and carefully began stepping downhill, I felt my enthusiasm for this project waning. Why was I doing this? Why do I always have to put myself in the such uncomfortable, scary positions? I stopped, to take in the view and contemplate.

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Audun in the rotten snow

“Do you want to turn around?” asked Audun.

“Do you think this is dangerous?” I countered, looking for an excuse to whimp out.

“No, not really,” Audun shrugged, “The snow conditions are pretty stable, except for this crap around the rocks. We can still turn if you’re not having fun."

I considered the prospect. “The thing is,” I said as I propped myself up on my ice ax and prepared to keep going, “If I don’t make myself do stuff like this, I’ll never get good at it.” 

And so we continued on.

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Climbing the main couloir of Store Kjostind

The down climbing on the rocks actually turned out to be the worst part - the couloir to the summit didn’t feel exposed because the hillside below wasn’t very steep. Besides, the whole couloir was what I would called a skiable grade (probably 40 degrees or less). I felt a little sad that we were going to have to boot down a perfectly skiable couloir, but I don’t think I would have made it to the couloir with my skis on my back to throw me off balance.

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The view from the top of Store Kjostind

After taking in yet another breathtaking view, we turned to start our down climb, only to see three guys on top of the neighboring peak, Istinden. Interested to see what line they planned to ski, we kept our eyes on them as we walked down the summit ridge. They started to ski off the summit, and skied straight down to a bunch of cliffs.

“OK, either these guys are like pro skiers or they’re idiots!” I exclaimed. Audun tended to agree. “They could be planning to rappel?"

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Three skiers nearly ski off a cliff from Istinden. Can you spot them?

They weren’t. They were idiots, and eventually they realized it themselves, strapped their skis on their back and boot back up to the summit. I was glad we didn’t witness a serious accident of any kind.

After reaching our skis, we cruised down the glacier in the afternoon sun, pleased with our little adventure.

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To be continued...

- The Wild Bazilchuk