Hardangervidda Summer Trek

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Hardangervidda is the largest peneplain in Europe. In winter, extreme temperatures below -20°C are typical, and since the plain is mostly devoid of trees, punishing winds add to the hostility of the terrain. With these conditions, the plateau provides an environment close to Greenland or Antarctica, which is why Hardangervidda has been one of the most popular training grounds for Polar expeditions. The polar pioneers Amundsen and Shackleton have both trained here, as have famous modern explorers like Børge Ousland and Hannah McKeand. 

In February of 1884, Fridtjof Nansen returned from Kristiania, as Oslo was called back then, to his post at the museum in Bergen. He travelled by ski, and having made his journey to Kristiania two weeks earlier along post roads, he decided to go straight over the mountains on his way back. He did not have a map or compass for navigation but relied on his memory of a summer hike the previous year. Early in 2019, Team Fram will head to Hardangervidda for our first real test in Arctic conditions. Following Nansen’s example, we too are going for a summer hike before our ski crossing. That’s where the comparison to Nansen’s daring mountain crossing ends, however. You really don’t want to emulate that particular trip too closely. 

With this trip, we are trying to accomplish a couple of goals. First, we are looking at the logistics of travelling to Hardangervidda, and getting our gear there. We also need to understand how we’ll access the plateau after we arrive there. Second, we want to get an idea of the landscape we’re going to ski in, see and learn the marked paths, and visit DNT huts and emergency shelters in the area. Third, we’re testing some of our equipment we’ll be using on the winter crossing. We will bring the same tent, and use the same stove. Fourth, we will use this opportunity to work on our routines so we can have the tent set up and dinner ready within 15 minutes of picking a campsite. And finally, this will be the first adventure together for Team Fram, so we are looking to test our general teamwork and find out how we cope with each other over multiple days of isolation.

“I may say that this is the greatest factor: the way in which the expedition is equipped, the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order, luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck.” 

The spirit Roald Amundsen displays with this famous quote seems to us a far more sensible example to follow than the dazzling daringness of a young Fridtjof Nansen. We hope this summer trip will significantly help us in getting everything in order for the 2019 winter crossing, and help our own luck.

A Good start

We started our trip in Bergen airport with a brief moment of shock, when Lauren’s rucksack did not turn up on the belt. The thought of having to cancel our trip because of an airline mistake only lasted for a few minutes but left a lasting impression of how things beyond our control could easily ruin our planning. After a bus ride and a short stop in Bergen to pick up a gas canister, we were on our train to Finse. The weather was cloudy but dry and sunny, and we enjoyed what is said to be the most beautiful train journey in the world. The changing landscapes as you leave the coast are very entertaining, and we were getting more excited to be out in them with every passing mile. 

Our destination, Finse, is little more than a collection of houses, probably not enough to be called a village. But it is the starting point for a number of well-known trails, so we disembarked together with several fellow adventurers. We quickly sorted our gear and were on our way at 6:30 pm with enough time to get a couple of hours hiking in before having to pitch camp. Our plan was to reach the outskirts of Hardangerjøkulen, a glacier near Finse, before nightfall. The landscape around Finse is beautiful, and in the last light of the day it looked stunning. The path to the glacier is an easy hike and we found a nice campsite on the slopes of a hill, close to a tiny stream of water.

We got our tent up and went through our new evening routing before settling in for the night. The first issues with our gear started showing when we went to replenish our water supply. Pumping 4.5l of water with the tiny water filter we brought took forever. 1l per minute sounds a lot until you’re crouched in a cold puddle! Back in the tent we had our warm dinner and did our daily review. During the review, we talk about what went well during the day, and what we need to work on. We cover the decisions we made that day and talk about our emotional state with the goal of identifying problems early and taking measures to prevent them. We agreed things were going well and we were in high spirits. Our teamwork was still strong and we were satisfied that we were off to a great start.

Afterwards, we checked the weather report for the next day. The forecast was torrential rain before midday, so we decided to wait out the worst and set out fairly late. We turned in for the night looking forward to a long sleep, lulled by the sound of the glacier melt water rushing past outside. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all for the day, since in the early hours we were woken by the tent shaking in gale force winds. Although it felt from inside like the tent would be blown away any second, when we went outside to check the guy lines we discovered that this wind was not bothering our tent at all! Surprised but satisfied we went back to sleep, but not before taking a picture with the small patch of stars visible in the night sky.

A test of will

The Thursday started with heavy rain pounding on the outside of our tent, as the weather report had predicted. We woke up late as planned, and slowly set about making coffee and preparing breakfast while waiting for the rain to ease. And waited, and waited… Around 11:30am we decided to pack up and get going regardless, worrying that we’d be hiking till dark if we started any later. We had waterproofs after all, and a bit of rain would not be that bad. 

We had planned to hike along the foot of the glacier on an unmarked path to avoid going back the way we came. This plan was quickly foiled because we found the streams now swollen impassable after the heavy rainfall. Disappointed, we made our way back towards Finse, before taking the path east towards Haugastøl. It was still raining, but our mood was great. We were finally out on an adventure together, and we were prepared for rain. We had chosen an unconventional approach in using super light trail running shoes instead of actual hiking boots. These shoes are not water-resistant at all, which means they get wet instantly, but also that they won’t trap any water. Where normal hiking boots get heavy and cold when soaked, our shoes pressed the water out again with each step we took on dry land. Merino socks ensured warm feet even when wet. This decision turned out to be a very good one! Because of the rocky ground in the plateau, the paths turned into small streams and the small streams into small rivers, and we were up to our ankles in water most of the time. No way normal boots would have kept us dry for longer than a day.

We felt we made good progress throughout the early afternoon, but with every break and location check, we realised that we were not covering as much ground as we’d like. The flooded terrain made everything just that much more difficult. Streams that are easy to cross in normal conditions had risen and were now suddenly thigh deep and fast moving, leading to multiple detours. A wooden bridge without railings turned into a slippery hazard. At about 2 pm we encountered a couple of hikers coming towards us. They had decided to turn back after heading out from Finse in the morning. “This is worse than Patagonia,” they said. We started to wonder what would lie ahead, but were determined to carry on. 

After walking through mostly grassy vegetation the first stretch of the route, we now had to cross across several mountains and boulder fields. The rain made them slippery and we were slowed down even more. On top of that, we had taken a turn and were now moving directly into the wind, which was driving the rain into our faces. Our world narrowed to what we could see through our tightly cinched hoods, and the next rock to step on. Hours passed like this in silence, punctuated only by cold river crossings. Our waterproofs began to fail and as the sun started to get low in the sky we got cold. While making our way across the 700th rock field, Lauren slipped and stubbed her toe badly. Again we were reminded of how quickly our adventure could be over with one misstep.

After the next break, we decided to start looking for a campsite. It would soon get dark, and we were both now shivering. Unfortunately, every level patch of soil we found was flooded already. We had no choice but to push on. A particularly difficult river crossing later, we were on the verge of getting desperate. Dusk was inching closer and closer when we found ourselves facing another swollen stream that seemed to be at least 60 cm higher than usual and too ferocious to cross. Faced with the alternative of going back, we decided to go up the closest mountainside, where we finally found a level and reasonably dry patch of ground to pitch the tent. 

We got the tent up and hurried to get out of our wet clothes into our sleeping bags and camp clothes. Getting warm food and drinks in our sleeping bags was heaven for us that evening. Contrary to our waterproof shells, the dry bags and rain covers on our backpacks had prevailed, and we did indeed have dry socks and merinos to change into. We took a look at the map and realised that instead of 20 km we had covered only about 12 km. That evening’s review was less positive. A slow and frustrating day, with none of the benefits of a great view or conversation to make it fun, and the knowledge that we might have another 3 days like this ahead of us.

A day of redemption

The night had been surprisingly calm and we both had a good sleep. We woke up at about 8 am and started preparing breakfast. The weather was still drizzly, but nowhere close to the torrential rain the day before. Somehow, though, we still took until 10:30 am to get going, perhaps still feeling low. 

The terrain did not change, but thankfully the streams were already lower than the previous day. We found our way across the one blocking us the evening before and continued towards our goal. We wanted to push at least to the nearest hut that day, which was another 12 km.

Finally, we made the progress we hoped to make on the first day. At around 4 pm we reached the hut and weighed our options over a cup of freshly brewed coffee. With only one day left we were not even at the halfway point of our route. Worse, the weather forecast for the Saturday was worse than Thursday’s – more rain, more wind, lower temperatures. With no idea of the terrain ahead of us we had to assume that we’d make slow progress again and so not make it back to Oslo in time for our flights on Sunday. With limited opportunities to reach a road later on, we decided to cut our trip short by ending our hike at the next main road and taking a bus to Geilo. We reached the road later that evening after a few hours of pretty easy walking. Even the sun had come out now and after the dull and grey day before, we got a glimpse of the beauty of Hardangervidda.

The compound where we spent the night offered a cold beer and a drying room, two things we desperately needed at that point. Having achieved these luxuries, we were starting to doubt our decision of abandoning our plans. Suddenly, all did not seem as horrible as the day before, and we both were sad that our adventure was over already. 

Homebound

The Saturday started with rain again. We had breakfast at the lodge by the road and encountered a Norwegian group who were just heading out onto the plateau. Suddenly, we both felt like frauds for bailing out because of a bit of rain. However, we did not have a plan B. There was still 32 km left on our original route and we could not hope to make that in a day after the experiences of Thursday. And we needed to be in Geilo the next day. Grudgingly, we boarded the bus and caught our train to Oslo, where a hotel with hot showers and pizza was waiting for us.

Polar explorer day off

We had gone back to Oslo a day early, and thus had unexpected time in the city. Still feeling guilty for having broken off our walk, we decided to redeem ourselves by hiking near Holmenkollen to the North of Oslo. The weather was amazing and we had great fun exploring the wilds so close to the capital. In Hardangervidda, we had seen more animals than people in the three days we had been hiking. Close to Oslo, we were reminded again why Norwegians are said to be crazy about their friluftsliv. It seemed like all of Oslo was out there to hike or trail run.

In the early afternoon, we went to the harbour to see the Maud, Roald Amundsen’s ship he used to conquer the North-West Passage. It was just being returned to Norway. Afterwards, a visit to the Fram Museum completed our Polar explorer day off.

Conclusion

The rain made the trip tough, and we had to abandon our hike half-way through, but those were better tests for our teamwork than if everything had gone as planned. Our routines were simple, and we worked well even while drenched and freezing with dusk setting in. We had the same thoughts about adaptations to our route and we kept each other good company throughout. Although we felt like having failed, we actually accomplished all our goals. We established we could work well as a team and our gear was up to the challenge (though we’d bring heavier waterproofs next time). And finally, we had a good time. We saw lemmings, ptarmigans, a Greenshank, many many sheep, and tracks of a lot of other animals. We did not see a lot of other hikers. Hardangervidda is beautiful when it is not pouring down so much you can only see a few steps in front of you.

Some things we want to change

  • Get a gravity-based water filter, since the one we had takes ages to fill a 3l bladder.
  • Thorsten needs to get larger waterproof trousers!
  • Lightweight waterproofs are great, but they are no match for Hardangervidda rain and wind.
  • Thorsten, unfortunately, destroyed his camera on the second day.

Some things we liked

  • Our approach to shoes was absolutely the right choice.
  • Trekking poles saved our lives, quite possibly. Without them, we could not have crossed many streams and probably would have slipped a lot more on the wet rocks.
  • Our Helsport tent is the best tent we have ever seen.
  • Our rain covers worked amazingly well, keeping our backpacks dry.
  • Lauren tried a new lightweight Eja backpack from Osprey and it worked really well.
  • Merino socks are amazing.