Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Tale of Snow and Ice

I spent my last week in France hoping for cold weather. I was sick of sweating in 35 C every day. I wanted to shiver. I wanted snow. I wanted rain. I wanted Norwegian summer.

Be careful what you wish for.

Last Monday, 12 hopeful glacier initiates and three instructors shouldered their packs and steeled themselves for 1000 vertical meters up to the stunningly located Flatebrehytta. Some packs were heavier than others. Mine, unfortunately enough for myself, was very heavy.

Eirik the instructor tells the group about a huge landslide that happened a few years ago at the beginning of the climb.
I gritted my teeth and hiked directly behind someone, staring at their boots. Just focus on keeping the boots the same distance ahead of you. One foot in front of the other.

The first 300 vertical were the most painful. As we headed further up, we started taking short breaks to pick wild blueberries, and everyone began to chitchat. I started to forget about my overloaded pack. Then we rounded a corner on the top of a ridge, and there it was.

The glacier.

Blue ice spilling over the hillside, like a static, frothy river.

First glimpse of the glacier.
We finally arrived at the hut to a breathtaking view of the fjord below. We were sandwiched between fjord and glacier, and headed up to the latter.

We had all come to Flatbrehytta to learn to safely navigate over glaciers. Glaciers are huge masses of shifting ice that move slowly through the landscape, grinding up whatever is in their way. They are also covered in cracks, or crevasses, wherever the ice is forced to bend in its path. Crossing glaciers requires patience, and a rope team to work together to make good, safe decisions.

Ryan and Anna on the edge of a glacier moraine.
The first day we learned how to use our crampons and ice axe to grip the ice efficiently. Using crampons is surprisingly difficult - attaching spikes to your feet makes moving around really different! A few good tips from our instructors (Stand like a cowboy!) had us feeling more comfortable.

Getting ready to go out onto the ice.
Out onto the ice. Note that Anna the instructor isn't roped in - she didn't trust us the first day!

Obligatory selfie.
The next couple days we learned how set up pully systems to rescue people from crevasses. This was really cool - in both senses of the word! Rescues involves a lot of standing still and tying knots, and on snow and light rain this gets cold quickly. It was also really interesting to be the 'victim'. I got lowered into crevasses twice, and got to hang there for about twenty minutes while I waited to be rescued.

Heidi hangin' out in the same crevasse as me. Instructor Torgeir looks on.
Cramponed feet dangling over the abyss. I couldn't see the bottom of the crevasse. I figure it must have been 20-30 meters deep.
My life line, and instructor Eirik looking down at me from the edge.
It was hard to keep warm, standing and sitting still so much. Fortunately Anna had a trick up her sleeve - the Banana Dance, to be repeated until you were warm.

Bananas of the world unite!
Peel banana, peel peel banana

 Shake banana, shake shake banana

 Go banana, go go banana!


The view from the glacier every day was nothing if not spectacular, and sometimes you had to just stop to take in the view.

Ice and mountains and fjord.

We learned to set ice screws to protect our way across dangerous crevasses...

Kenneth sets an ice screw before crossing a crevasse.
 ...and how to test snow bridges (some were sketchier than others)

Solfrid probes a beautifully shaped bridge.
We braved our way through the fog and the rain,

Eirik, Kenneth and Solfrid make there way through the fog
but were sometimes rewarded with beautiful light (usually in the evening, after we came back to the hut)

Sunset over the fjord
Evenings in the hut were crowded. We had two tables that barely fit the 15 of us. Luckily, everyone was friendly and willing to shift around so that we all somehow fit. The big challenge was drying clothes - there was a small drying rack over the woodstove, but everything else had to stay in the damp entrance room.

We also had the challenge of having no running water. Water had to be collected in buckets from a stream 5-10 minutes walk from the hut. Dishes also had to be done outdoors. One day brought particularly nasty weather, and two heros spent nearly an hour outside the hut in the pouring rain washing everyone's dishes. When the weather was nicer, dishwashing became more popular - just look at that view!

Tuva, Solfrid, and Anne Sophie - dishwashing with a view


The last couple days we were able to tackle more challenge blue ice.

Kenneth hacks down a block of ice before crossing a gaping crevasse.
The other rope team demonstrates safe crevasse crossing.

On the last day, we set out to cross the whole expanse of blue ice to the upper part of the glacier. About half way up, I glanced around at the fjord and saw rain moving towards us. I pulled my hood up over my helmet and braced myself to get cold and wet.

The rain came, and with it a wall of fog that moved so quickly up from the fjord I literally didn't have time to take a picture of it rolling towards us. The rest of the glacier crossing looked like this:

Preben followed by instructor Torgeir in the fog. The picture doesn't accurately depict the gale force gusts of wind and driving rain.
When we finally arrived back at the hut several hours later, I was soaked to the skin. You wished for this, I thought, you wanted to be cold.

The glacier course at Flatbrehytta was an incredible learning an experience. I definitely feel ready to tackle more glaciers (Monte Rosa, I'll be back!). Our three wonderful instructors taught us well, with laughter, jokes and good advice.

Eirik, Torgeir, and Anna get ready for a day on the ice.

I'm also grateful to have met all of the wonderful participants at the course. You guys are great, and I hope to see you in the mountains again someday!
'OK, everyone make a stupid face!'



- The Wild Bazilchuk

P.S. Here's a parting shot of the fjord. Cause it's beautiful and I love it.