At last we settle down in the comfortable compartment of the Bergensbanen. This legendary stretch of railway connects the Norwegian capital of Oslo with the second-largest city in the kingdom, which is in the mountains on the west coast. Only a few hours by train separate us from the peace and quiet we’re longing for. Slowly the train sets off, disappearing into a nearly fourteen-kilometre-long tunnel that will lead us out of the city centre. The landscape changes rapidly. The stations and cities along the track get smaller and smaller, the distance between the stopping-points correspondingly bigger.
Before long we’re swaying leisurely past the lakes and rivers that flow towards the sea from the north, and which will accompany us for a good long while. We enjoy the view from the window, the typically Norwegian red houses with their contrasting white windows now the main feature of the countryside. I keep gazing in admiration at the farmhouses, many of which are enthroned high above the valley. The Norwegians are clever folk; up there the winters were more easily borne, there was more daylight, and the cold during the long winters always gathered at the bottom of the valley. That meant it didn’t get as freezing in those houses, during a period when this large country with a small population still didn’t dare quite believe in the prosperity it had already attained.
Time seems to slow down, the hands on our watches appearing to tick less quickly.
It’s mid-October, and here in the north dusk arrives in the afternoon. The train puffs slowly but surely out of the valley – you can almost hear the engine wheezing. By now it’s dark outside; only small railway stations offer a clue as to where we are.
We’re a bit on edge. Most likely we’ll be the only nutters to get out at the highest train station in Northern Europe – 1,222 metres above sea level – in the tiny mountain village of Finse.
It seems improbable that any of our fellow travellers would willingly swap the comfortable warmth of our snug, swaying train carriage for the cold darkness outside. But that’s exactly where we’re headed, out into the cold loneliness of the late-autumnal fjelds, on the merciless Hardangervidda plateau, for which we have enormous respect.
We’re seeking silence in order to find ourselves.
October isn’t really the ideal month to stride out into the Norwegian mountains. The weather, changeable even in summer, can be downright unpleasant at this time of year. From full-blown snowstorms to severe cold, anything could be in store for us, quickly turning a hike into a march into disaster.
A minor risk relative to the prospect of adventure.
If we’re lucky, what’s awaiting us is ice-cold, crisp air, bright sunshine and long, cosy nights snuggled up in warm sleeping bags in a tent. We’re planning to hike around the 73-square-metre Hardangerjøkulen glacier – a minor risk relative to the prospect of an honest-to-goodness adventure.
If conditions are good, the trip will be a relaxed hike of around seventy to eighty kilometres, for which we’ve got a total of eight days. ‘We’ being Martin, Chris and I – three lads who absolutely love being out and about in the fresh air.
The train glides softly out of the final station before our stopping-point in Finse. Around the popular winter-sports destination of Geilo you can see plenty of dense pines and bare birches in the glow of the lamps and lights in the small town. But further up, on the largest plateau in Northern Europe, Hardangervidda, rocks, moose and lichen dominate the landscape. The ticket inspector gives us a rather sympathetic look as we pack up our large rucksacks – ready for the first step into adventure. Slowly the train pulls into Finse. Well wrapped-up, we stand at the door, which opens for us a moment later with a soft farewell squeak. Ice-cold air. We hesitate briefly, but then step out onto the completely empty platform.
Finse doesn’t have much more than a hotel, a few houses and the little train station.
Welcome to adventure, where nature is vast and man very small.
Adventure mode engaged! With headlamps strapped to our foreheads, we set off into the darkness. Today we’re going to walk to one of the small cabins in the foothills of the glacier. From there we’ll be ideally situated to scale and cross the glacier tomorrow, and the weather forecast promises perfect conditions for it. We could always set up camp somewhere near the railway station, but then we probably wouldn’t make it over the glacier tomorrow.
It’s only a kilometre or two to the little cabins. In daylight and in good conditions it would be no more than an hour’s hike, but now, in the darkness and driving snow, things are a little more dicey. We find the right hiking path and follow it around the large Lake Finse. Slowly the final lights of the houses in Finse vanish behind us, and from now on we’ve got to rely totally on the skills we’ve acquired over years of trips like this. Since it’s dark and the snow is covering the landscape like a light dusting of sugar, it’s difficult to make out the signposts that are supposed to point us the right way. These small markers are usually stones or piles of stones daubed with a red ‘T’. The ‘T’ stands for the Norwegian Walking Association’s ‘Turistforeningen’, and even in summer they’re not very easy to spot among the rocks. Every couple of yards we pause and do a thorough scan of our surroundings, making sure we find the markers in the gloom. Sometimes we simply have to guess and hope for the best.
Two hours later we see a small cabin clinging to the slope like a shoebox a little way above us. It must be the Appelsinhytta. Relieved, we climb the last few metres to our home. The long day’s journey and the concentration required to follow the path have taken their toll, and by now we’re pretty tired. Opening the creaky door, we finally arrive: into a world where we often feel much better than at home.
Finally on the trail again, finally back to glass-clear air. And finally back to the silence so familiar to us, the silence in which we feel so infinitely safe.
The night in the small unheated cabin was cosy despite the cold. Gradually, as if in slow motion, we begin the day. First we’ve got to get used to the fact that there’s no heating and no electricity here – and none of the other creature comforts we take for granted every day back home.
After breakfast and a chilly morning wash we set off towards the glacier, as the early-morning mists slowly clear and the first rays of sunshine break through to the icy, snow-covered ground. Luckily the weather seems to be cooperating. We’ve soon scaled the first few elevation metres, and find ourselves standing on the end moraine of the Middalen glacier’s snout. We strap our lightweight crampons to our shoes. The climb goes like clockwork, and the weather is showing us its good side. We take a long break at one of the small cabins. The tiny Jøkulhytta is perched at nearly 1,800 metres above sea level, defying the icy storms. It’s a truly gorgeous place, but we’ve got to move on: we’re still intending to cross the glacier today, heading northwest.
Not long afterwards we feel like we’re on the icy planet Hoth, the rebels’ temporary base in Star Wars.
I’m finally in the fascinatingly silent northern world I’ve been craving.
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