Sunday, April 3, 2016

Jotunheimen Haute Route

“It’s never as bad as the weather forecast says, right?"

It was a couple days before Audun, Vibeke, David and I planned to complete Jotunheimen Haute Route, and the weather forecast was pretty terrible. High winds, low visibility and snow… all things you don’t want coming your way when you attempt a ski traverse of some of Norway’s highest mountains. We had discussed all the possibilities from cancelling the trip and going skiing somewhere else, to bringing lighter touring skis and skiing the low route instead of the high route. But optimism won out, and we spent Friday evening stage cars at either end of the route, not getting to bed until midnight. The only way forward was across.

Day 1: Bessheim - Memurubu

We woke to clear skies and wind that nearly blew us off our feet as we walked from the bunk room to breakfast hall at the road side hut of Gjendesheim. The A plan for the day called for climbing Besshøe, a peak 1300 meters above our starting elevation. Given that the winds were so high even at this elevation, we assumed they must be gail force up high. Not to be forced into skiing the flat route across frozen Gjende lake however, we decided to ski towards Besshøe, and traverse below the summit we still felt that skiing higher was unsafe.

We initially climbed a hill that was sheltered from the wind, and marveled at what a beautiful day it was. As we rounded a corner, the wind picked again, and we slowly shrunk into the protection of our hoods. The wind created a low pitch roar around my hood, a constant reminder of the force we were fighting with every step.

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David and Viebke skiing above Sjodalsvatnet lake.

By the time we crest the slope to Bessvatnet lake, the wind was so strong we had to yell to talk to each other. We could see the summit of Besshøe in the distance, with clouds racing by it.

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All packed into our hoods, but having a good time! Besshøe is the mountain in the left side of the picture.

As we slogged across the lake, I became confident that today was not a good day to summit, and I said as much to the others. They tended to agree; the summit ridge looked very exposed. We settled on our plan B of traversing below the summit and rejoining the descent to Memurubu hut.

Then, a few hundred meters away, three figures emerged from behind a large rock where they had taken a break and started skinning towards the summit. I started to second guess our decision. If they were going for the summit, why shouldn’t we? But ‘someone else is doing it’ has never been a good argument for decision-making, and so we stuck to our plan.

Bessvatnet lake was more than 5 kilometers across, and the monotony of the skiing lead me to cloud watching. The clouds were racing through the sky, constantly evolving. My favorite started as a large blob, and slowly performed mitosis into two smaller clouds.

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The mitosis cloud above Bessvatnet lake.

Finally (finally!) we reached the end of the lake and started first to climb, then skirt around, Besshøe. There was very little snow, and we were forced to take off our skis on several occasions. The summit of the mountain above us was now encircled clouds, and I congratulated myself on the good decision not to go to the top.

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Gazing at the weather front at the end of Gjende lake. Photo by Audun.

As we prepared to take of our skins and slide down to Memurubu hut, we saw three figures descending the summit couloir. Somehow, knowing that someone had reached the top and we had not irked me, and I became thoroughly grumpy. I didn’t want to talk to the other group unless they were going to tell me how awful the summit had been. Our paths crossed on the descent though, and Audun and David began chitchatting with them.

“Oh, there was no wind on the summit!” they said, “The worst wind was on the lake! The descent hasn’t been much fun though.” Most wind on the lake?! And we had suffered through the whole crossing thinking it must be worse up high! Although this bothered me then and there, I recognize the importance of making your own decisions.

The descent was crusty and choppy and I was glad to final slide down to the hut, where dinner and rest awaited.

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No snow at lake level at Memurubu hut.

Day 2: Memurubu - Glitterheim

Memurubu is relatively sheltered from the weather, so we couldn’t tell if the wind had died down or if we just weren’t in it. The sun was still shining, and I felt determined to reach the summit of the day, Surtningssue. To reach the base of the mountain, we could choose either to traverse rolling hills or ski flat through a valley and strike more directly for the top. Eying the bare patches, we thought the rolling hills would require more ski carrying, which we were not interested in. So we followed snow mobile tracks through the valley. The group of three who had summited Besshøe the day before opted for the high route. I eyed them as they set off, wondering if they had made the right decision once again. I had begun to refer to them jokingly as our ‘enemies’ since they were trying to complete the route at the same time as us.

I couldn’t believe how little snow there was. Easter is early this year, and normally one would expect there to be snow cover at this altitude until late May. It must have all blown away.  Although had felt some lingering fatigue from a long training week the day before, by day 2 I felt like I was endurance mode. Just put calories in and keep moving at a slow, steady pace, and I can go forever.

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‘Skiing'

Between the idea of a trip conceived using a map and actually covering ground in the mountains there exists an strange divide. Counting kilometers and vertical meters, one might estimate that a ski will take a certain amount of time, but I never seem to be able to grasp the feeling of the passage of that time until I am in the moment. Skinning the flat valley felt slower than any map could have told me.

We stopped for lunch at the base of the climb towards Surtningssue, nervously eying clouds that had begun to swath the high points around us. I was mentally committed to the summit though, and didn’t even want to talk about the possibility of not reaching it.

The true climbing started, and as the slope steepened the snow was hard enough that we carried our skis, climbing with crampons and ski poles. Transitioning to and from crampons twice made for slow progress, and I was starting to feel edgy, not only about the weather, but about the lateness of the hour.

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Climbing the hard snow towards Surtningssue

The peaks around us appeared, intermittently in the shifting in and out of the clouds, but we miraculously remained in the clear. As we passed the emergency shelter hut that marked only 100 vertical meters left to the summit, I felt a surge of energy. We were going to make it! I picked up the pace and was the first of our group on top.

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Vibeke and David on the summit slopes of Surtningssue

From the top, we could choose to traverse along a ridge, taking a couple more summits, or descending to the glacier directly below. In the interest of time, we opted for the more direct route, although we learned from our ‘enemies' that the ridge crossing wasn’t as time consuming as we imagined.

To reach the glacier below, we had to navigate a steep drop. There was a smaller cornice which we dug through before dropping onto the steep, wind-packed sloped. The drop was intimidating, and I almost wanted to take my skis off and boot down. But that would be a waste of both vertical and time, so I womaned up and dropped in. After the initial drop-in, the ski down the glacier was fairly flat, alternating between icy snow pack and wind ridges. We found some better conditions when descending from the glacier to the valley bottom, and I found myself smiling as I dropped into my first graceful telemark turns of the trip. 

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The sunshine bouncing of the glare ice gives you an idea of the horrible snow conditions. The summit of Surtningssue is above Audun, Vibeke and David, slightly to their right.

From the valley bottom, we had to climbed one final hill before descending to Glitterheim hut. We had been out for north of seven hours at this point, and everyone was feeling fatigued. I gnawed on a frozen Snickers, hoping the sugar would carry me over the hill the way my enthusiasm had carried me to the summit of Surtningssue.

A half an hour later, we came over the top of the hill and were hit by a wall of wind. The wind was so strong that we started downhill with our skins on, afraid to loose them if we tried to take them off. When we finally took off our skins, we stuffed them in our jackets, racer-style, to avoid too long of a stop.

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The others meet the wall of wind.

It wasn’t all downhill to Glitterheim - after the descent was a long stretch of flat. The wind was hitting cross-wise in gusts, and I struggled to make forward progress. We tumbled into the hut 15 minutes before dinner time, feeling disheveled and exhausted. But we had summited, and there would be dinner, and that made it all worth while.

Day 3: Glitterheim - Spiterstulen

Although the roaring wind died down significantly during the night, the visibility became worse. Day 3 was an ‘all-or-nothing’ day - we could either take the boring, flat but safe valley route, or we could try the high route over the summit of Norway’s second highest mountain, Glittertind. If we bailed on the summit route, we would have to descend all the way back to the hut to take the valley route. Despite the ominous clouds shrouding the mountains, the valley route was so unappealing we decided to strike for the summit.

The weather could always improve! I thought. Fat chance.

There was still very little snow, exposing a rock-strewn maze of snow patches through which we weaved. A little higher up on the mountain the snow cover improved, although it was still so thin that we could see the cairns marking the summer trail with their characteristic red ’T’s.

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Audun makes his way up Glittertind.

The wind picked up, and we shrunk into our hoods, thick mittens, and eventually goggles. There was a lot of stopping and messing around for a while until everyone was sufficiently packed in, and I grew a little cold. The visibility hadn’t improved, and was growing worse as we ascended. Luckily those cairns with the little red ’T’s let us know we were still on track.

Eventually, the cairns disappeared, and more stopping ensued as we got out GPS, maps and compasses. I was definitely getting a kind of ominous feeling that we probably shouldn’t have gone for the summit today. Although we’d been out for many hours, I wasn’t even thinking about eating. Forward progress, and getting off this cold mountain, seemed much more important. 

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High spirits and low visibility.

The spine of Glittertind shrinks to 50 meters across near the summit, and it’s common knowledge that a big cornice forms on the north side of the ridge every winter. As we approached the top, we could no longer distinguish snow and sky and there was no way we were going to see either the summit or the cornice lurking just past it. We opted to follow our GPS past the summit rather than over it, to make sure we stayed on the correct side of the long drop.

I was skiing just behind Audun, followed by Vibeke and David. As I skinned past the summit, I felt elated. The downhill would start soon, and we could get below the worst of the weather again. Everything was going to be alright! Then I realized Vibeke was no longer immediately behind me. I turned around and looked back, seeing that they had stopped and David was rummaging in his backpack.

“What’s wrong?” I exclaimed.

“David just needs a snack,” came the reply. I snorted incredulously. How could someone possibly need a snack when we were in the middle of such a perilous endeavour? It was only a few hours later when I started eating myself that I realized how depleted I had become.

We continued down the mountain, and the visibility seemed to be growing worse. It was so bad I barely make out Audun 2 meters in front of me. Or was it? I stopped and rubbed my goggles with my hand. They were coated in a thin layer of ice. The fog swirling around us was depositing tiny water droplets on us which would immediately freeze to a layer of ice. 

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Audun coated in ice fog.

Soon everyone was stopping frequently to scrap their goggles. Audun asked to no longer ski first when he started to get seasick due to the lack of visual reference points. Eventually rocks started to appear, and a valley materialized in front of us. The final descent to Spiterstulen was icy and involved a lot of poling across flat run-out, not exactly a reward for our ordeals. But we made it to the hut in good time (since we took almost no breaks all day!), and I vowed not to put myself in the situation of going to the summit in a white-out again.

The forecast for the next day was rather ambiguous, and the next day was supposed to be the most ambitious and spectacular of the whole trip. We spent hours discussing what to do the next day. How could we avoid just skiing the flat, boring valley, but still pick a route that wasn’t too ambitious if the weather turned on us?

Day 4: Spiterstulen - Leirvassbu

The weather was just as iffy as I feared. There were clouds shrouding some of the mountains, while some were in the sun, and the forecast called for everything to get worse in the afternoon. Over breakfast, we finally decided that we would ski up the Tverrå glacier and descend the Bukkehol glacier. If the weather was better than forecasted, we would still be in position to take some tops. If not, the route wouldn’t have to be very demanding.

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Styggehøe was out of the clouds as we set out from Spiterstulen

To get to the glacier, we had a long slog up Tverrå valley. The peaks around us shifted in and out of the clouds all the time, and we even got some sun. At first I felt nervous about the prospect of skiing through bad weather again, but decided that going up the glacier was worth the risk of more GPS navigation and white-out. If we had summited Glittertind in the horrible weather of the day before, we could do anything!

We stopped at the base of the glacier to snack and put on climbing harnesses in case we reached an area where we wanted to travel in a rope. Snow-covered glaciers in Norway are fairly benign during the winter and we didn’t need the rope.

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Skinning up Tverrå glacier, below Nørde Bukkeholstindan.

As we approached the saddle point that marked the transition from Tverrå glacier to Bukkehol glacier, the weather really started to sock in. I had studied the map, and noticed that there was a small peak (the Eastern most of the three West Bukkeholstindane, to be exact) just above the saddle, and became determined to summit it. Given that I had expressed my misgivings about even going this high earlier, everyone was surprised I was so gung-ho about reaching a summit. But once I smell a summit, I will not be deterred, and we stopped and got out our ice ax and crampons and booted the 60 vertical to the top. It was so worth it.

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Yet another summit in low visibility!

After descending Bukkehol glacier, we had a bit of a flat slog to Leirvassbu hut. Pockets of sunlight appeared as we skinned up the valley, and I was flooded with the feeling of self-content that comes from traveling through the mountains under my own volition. Kyrkja, the cone of a mountain that is immediately visible from Leirvassbu was spectacularly on display as we skied by.

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Vibeke below Kyrkja.

Leirvassbu was way more crowded than all the huts we had visited previously, and as a result we had to eat dinner at the second serving, which was at eight thirty. Eight thirty might as well be midnight for people who have been skiing all day, and despite snacking I was so hungry I almost felt dizzy by the time we were admitted to the dining hall. The delayed dinner gave me an excuse to go out and practice photographing the night sky. I was trying to take a picture of the full moon over Kyrkja, but it wouldn’t come out from behind the clouds right when I took a picture. I got this cool shot (not of Kyrkja!) though:

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The weather forecast of the next day was excellent, and I looked forward to a great final day.

Day 5: Leirvassbu - Krossbu

I woke up early, too excited to sleep. It was a perfect day, just like we had been hoping for all along! We were fairly early at breakfast and avoided the worst of the crowds and headed out of the hut at 8:30, our earliest departure yet. We set out for Storebjørnen (which literally means ‘The big bear’) with a flock of people. The only advantage to all the horrible weather is that we’ve basically had the mountains to ourself until today! I thought.

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Storebjørnen on the left, Geita on the right, lots of people ahead of us.

It took us about 3 hours to reach the summit of Storebjørnen from the hut. There was not a cloud in sight, and although the snow conditions weren’t perfect by any means, they were still way better than anything else we’d seen on the trip. My only concern was the next summit we had planned for the day, Sokse (translates literally to ‘Scissors’), a formidable peak that I glanced at nervously behind me as I climbed. Apparently there was a couloir that could be climbed, but from the angle I was looking at it it seemed to drop off steeply on all sides.

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Group photo on Storebjørn, with the Smørstabb glacier below us. Photo by Vibeke.

Despite Sokse looming in the background, the descent from Storebjørn was enjoyable, and we stopped on the glacier to have lunch in the sun. It was actually pretty cold, and everyone ate in their down jackets even though it was sunny.

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Audun teleing down Storebjørn. Sokse is the dramatic peak on the right side of the picture. Would you climb that?

After lunch, we climbed up to Bjørneskaret and traversed around to the couloir that went up to the summit of Sokse. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the couloir; not only did it not look too steep, but it was also flanked by walls of rock which made it feel protected rather than exposed. I would go to the top or bust. As I prepared my ice ax and crampons, leaving my skis behind, I noticed Audun was strapping his skis to his backpack. 

“Are you going to ski that?!” I said incredulously. Then I eyed the couloir again. It didn’t look that bad, but I still felt just climbing it was challenging enough. The snow in the couloir was pretty soft for the most part. I still did the ice ax waltz as I climbed: ax foot foot, ax foot foot. It is incredibly reassuring to move in steep terrain with a solidly placed ice ax. Sometimes I think I use my ax and crampons as my safety blanket, but so be it.

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Climbing to couloir to Sokse

The summit afforded more spectacular views of the sunny, snow-covered expanse of peaks around us. Audun descended the couloir on skis like it ain’t no thang. I was less impressed by the group who summited just ahead of us who choose to carry their skis up the couloir, and then carry them back down without skiing. If I had carried my skis up, I would definitely not carry them down. Downclimbing on ice ax and crampons is bad enough without the added torture of skis to set you off balance.

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Audun descending the couloir.

Our final summit planned for the day was Kalven (‘The calf’), but as we scouted the route to the summit we saw a seemingly impassable band of rock that had to be climbed to reach the summit. I had had enough excitement and voted to call it a day. Then we saw two guys head for the summit, making short work of the band rocks. So I guess it can be done - maybe next time!

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Kalven admires its shadow projected on the Leir glacier.

We cruised down the loose snow on the Smørrbotn glacier (Yeah! Finally some pow!), basking in the sun and our achievements. We may not have made it to all the summits in the route plan for Jotunheimen Haute Route, but the last day was perfect enough to make up for all the other ordeals. Our trip ended not with a whimper, but with a bang.

- The Wild Bazilchuk 

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