Møsvatn Winter Crossing

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Rjukan is a small town in the Tinn municipality in Telemark, sprawled along the river Måna, which originates from Møsvatn, the lake we were set to cross at the beginning of our expedition. We arrived in the town on the afternoon of Sunday, January 27th, after taking two buses from Oslo. Luckily, the bus stopped right outside our accommodation at Rjukan Gjestegaard, so we quickly found our room and got on to the last minute preparations. First of all, we had to buy petrol for our stoves. We had brought a 5l petrol canister, which we filled at the garage across the street from the guesthouse. We simply filled the canister up with unleaded petrol at the pump, since buying 6l of Colemans purified gas would have cost us an insane amount.

We took a short stroll through the snowed-in town. Rjukan was quiet on that Sunday, apart from a few people out ploughing the streets.  We walked past the statue of Gunnar Sønsteby, a Norwegian resistance fighter during World War II, whose portrait was also on the tailfin of our Norwegian flight to Oslo a day prior.

Back in our room, we spent the rest of the day re-packing our gear. For the flights, we had brought bags with wheels and backpacks. Now all our gear had to go into our lighter pulk bags. We planned to put all equipment we would not need during our expedition, mostly street clothes and excess bags,  in Lauren’s bag, and ship that ahead to Finse on Monday morning. During packing, we found that one of the avalanche probes we had rented was stuck and wouldn’t expand. We decided to play it safe and buy a new one the next morning at a local sports shop. A nasty surprise, since it meant we had to wait until 9 am for the store to open before we could head out. Always check if your rented gear works, while you’re still able to replace it!

Day 1 – A bumpy Start

The next morning we replaced the probe and shipped our excess bag off to Finse at the local post office. We had ordered a taxi for 10 am, but once it arrived, we could not fit all our gear in, and the driver had to send for a bigger car. Shortly after 10:30, we finally were on our way. On the drive from Rjukan to Møsvatn, we passed the old Vemork Hydroelectric plant, where Nazi Germany produced heavy water during World War II. Seventy-five years earlier, a team of Norwegian resistance fighters, the famous heroes of Telemark, had parachuted onto the Hardanger plateau and proceeded to ski down to the plant to sabotage the heavy water production. Seeing the terrain firsthand made us understand how impossible that task must have seemed to the German guards. The thought that anyone could ski down the steep mountainsides and climb back up to the plant was pure madness. 

Shortly after 11 am, we reached Skinnarbu on the shore of Møsvatn. To our relief, a layer of snow covered the lake and people were out on the ice. Although it is usually frozen in late January, we had feared till the last moment that this year might be different due to the unseasonably warm weather, and the fact that the lakes around Rjukan were still unfrozen. We unloaded our pulks from the taxi, prepared our gear, and strapped on our skis.

Finally, this was what we’d been training and planning for over the last year. With butterflies in my stomach, I pushed my skis forward for the first strides of this expedition. We headed to the edge of the marina and down a ramp onto the frozen lake. After checking our bearings, we identified a small island as the landmark we needed to aim for, and we were off. The snow was slushy and wet, and after only a few metres, I found myself standing ankle-deep in water. “Damn this! The lake isn’t fully frozen” was the first thought going through my head. I turned around and warned Lauren not to continue and moved back closer to the marina to get out of the puddle. We put our heads together and talked about what to do now. We couldn’t risk going 40 km and camping on the lake if it wasn’t fully frozen. Luckily Lauren spotted a local out on the ice and went ahead to ask them about the situation.

In the meantime, I tried to free my skis and pulk from huge clumps of ice that were now stuck on them after going into the freezing water and back into the soft snow. To my relief, Lauren returned with the news that I had found the only not fully frozen spot on Møsvatn, and that snow tractors and ski-doos had been driving around the ice for weeks already.

We went around the puddle of water and pushed ahead towards the island we had identified earlier. There were no tracks on the ice, and the snow conditions were less than ideal. Lauren took the lead and paved the way for me, as my pulk was still weighed down by large clumps of ice from the water incident earlier. Luckily, the weather was marvellous, and the scenery made up for the lousy start. We managed to plod ahead for four more hours until the sun was disappearing behind the mountain ranges to the south-west when it was time to find a campsite for the first time. Pitching the tent took longer than expected in the soft, shallow snow, and we were out of practice. Finally in our sleeping bags, we checked our progress. We had managed 8.5km that day. Mathematically, our daily average had to be 10km, or we wouldn’t reach Finse before our supplies ran out. However, we were still in good spirits. Buying the probe, waiting for a bigger taxi, and finding out if the lake is safe to cross had cost us about 4h of skiing time before we had even started our trip, so 8.5km was a good result for that day.

That night was cold. The temperature had dropped dramatically as the sun set and we wrapped up in our tent clothes while we cooked and ate. Thorsten was feeling bad about our slow progress, and how miserable dragging our skis through the slushy snow had felt, and we talked for a bit about readjusting our expectations of the trip. The night was magical though, and the view from outside the tent as the stars and snow glittered in the most amazing way. As the night drew on, the winds picked up, coming the opposite direction to those from the day time, and very strongly. We realised this was our first taste of katabatic winds and marvelled at the phenomenon.

Day 2 – Finding our Rhythm

We woke up before dawn to the sound of multiple alarms. To be safe, we had set alarms on both our phones and my watch for 6 am, which would give us about two hours to get ready before the sun came up. The night had been cold, and we both were slow to get out of our warm sleeping bags. From preparing breakfast to packing, everything seemed to take a lot longer than expected. Finally, shortly before 9 am, we were ready to start the first full day of skiing. The rising sun drenched the mountains to the west in magical orange light. The day before, we had mostly stayed close to the shore, now we were to cut straight across a broad bay, which would take us further out onto the lake. After the incident right at the start on Monday, we still had not fully regained the trust in the ice covering Møsvatn, but following the coastline would have meant a detour of several kilometres, so there was no choice but to try and push the uneasy feelings aside and carry on.

While the sun was slowly rising, we were crawling towards our next landmark, a small red barn on the other side of the bay. The first two hours went by, and we felt like we hadn’t made any progress at all. We finally began to grasp how massive Møsvatn is. Seeing it on a map does not do it justice. It did not help that the small red barn we identified as our next landmark was, in fact, a huge multi-story building, and thus a lot farther away than we initially thought.

The next day was noticeably colder that the first, around -20° according to our weather apps. I encountered the strange feeling of having sticky eyelashes, and thinking there was something sharp in my nose that I couldn’t couldn’t rid of, only to realise my nostril hairs had frozen! After a couple of hours of skiing I started noticing a disturbing pattern. My hands were getting so cold when we stopped to eat that the weren’t warming up once we got moving. My mum has Raynauds syndrome, a circulation problem, and I became scared that maybe I had a mild problem myself. Nothing I tried seemed to help, and I took 10 mins after each break to warm my hands on my body, which was holding us up, and just not sustainable. If I couldn’t get this sorted, I’d be risking frost bite on this trip, let alone in the much harsher conditions in Greenland. As the day wore on, I adjusted my routine to keep my biggest mitts on as much as possible, and adopted a much better skiing technique, with my hands down low and swinging, and for the rest of the day I was thankfully pretty comfortable. 

As noon approached, we came upon a stretch of packed snow, where small Sastrugi had formed. The hard surface made skiing more pleasant than in the deep snow, and we finally picked up speed. The barn grew larger in the distance, and within an hour, we had reached the other side of the bay, where we would turn North into the Fjord. The West side of the lake was more crowded than the area we had passed through before. We saw locals on ski-doos driving along a marked road heading North and decided to ski in their tracks as long as possible. Getting from the deep snow onto the snowmobile road felt like two different worlds.  Suddenly, we were flying across the lake with our pulks in tow. Easier going also meant better discipline during our breaks. We were both eager to get going again and make use of the excellent conditions we had unexpectedly found. During that afternoon, we managed around 10 km, pushing our total for the day to 17 km.

As it was getting dark, we found ourselves a campsite. For dinner, we tried using my stove. We had used Lauren’s the night before and wanted to verify the spare was working just as well. Unfortunately, we were in for a nasty surprise. We had trouble igniting the stove and keeping a flame alive. Endless fiddling throughout the evening proved useless. This was bad. Really bad. On an expedition, the stove is our lifeline, our only means to melt snow and thus obtain water. We had brought a spare, in case we lost or damaged one on the plateau, but now we were down to our spare before we even got up to Hardanger. We decided to use Lauren’s stove for dinner, and give mine another try in the morning. While we were still on Møsvatn, we felt safe enough to continue with only one stove, since there were settlements around and we could easily ski to someone’s cabin and ask for hot water in an emergency, but we both did not want to risk going onto the plateau without a working spare.
 

While I had felt down on Monday night, and Lauren had to pick me up again, this evening was the other way around. Lauren was having trouble with her boots as blisters were forming on both her heels. Being unable to warm up her hands in the morning had left her shaken and doubting her capabilities to go through with the expedition. We had made good progress that day and talking about that helped put things into perspective. We both knew by now that this would not be as easy as we had secretly hoped. However, besides hoping for the best, we also had prepared for the worst, so we were still perfectly fine – apart from the threat of losing our spare stove.

The good thing about being out on an expedition is that, as much as you wish to, you can’t just pack up and go home. And if Lauren is anything, she is determined. I gave her a bit of space to lie in her sleeping bag and think things through while fiddling around with the stove, and sure enough, she turned her doubts into determination and decided to push on the next day.

That night was a lot warmer than the one before. However, we did not manage to find a sufficiently flat campsite this time, and sleep eluded me. Lauren was not a lot better off. She was worried about noises coming from the ice we were camping on. At 3 am, she had finally found an explanation that did not involve us having to fall into the icy waters of Møsvatn, and she was happy to explain to me what she thought was going on with the ice sheets. It’s little moments like these that show why we work so well together as a team. We’re understanding what goes on in each other’s minds and we can talk about it openly.

Day 3 – To Mogen

The next morning, we switched stoves again and got mine working. It still wouldn’t produce a steady flame, but at least it didn’t go out on its own. Lauren got blister pads from our first-aid kit and tried treating her sore heels. A quick look at the map told us we had about 12 km left to Mogen, where a mountain pass would lead us up to the Hardanger plateau. The day before we had managed 17km. A similar distance would put us right in the middle of the climb. Because of avalanche-risk, we were not keen on camping on a slope, so we decided to make it to Mogen that day and rest for the expected climb the following day. We set out, still following the snowmobile track used by the locals. It was cloudy that day, but skiing was excellent. The Julvikfjord had some spectacular sights for us, such as the steep cliffs of Vinjekyrkja.

Mogen Turisthytte is a large DNT hut located at the end of the fjord. As we drew closer and closer to the mountain pass, I started to think about how nice it would be to spend a night inside instead of pitching the tent again. I knew the hut was closed in winter, but in Austria, many cabins have open shelters even when nobody else is around. When we arrived at Mogen, Lauren wanted to pitch the tent on the lakeshore again, but I wanted to check if we could get into the hut. I left my pulk behind and made my way up. Unfortunately, everything was locked down, and there was not even a shed we could have gotten into. Disappointed, I skied back to Lauren, and we pitched the tent.

Getting to Mogen had taken us only a few hours, and we had plenty of daylight left. We were also now firmly ahead of our 10 km per day average, as we had covered 40 km in three days. As a reward for making it, we had coffee and desserts in our sleeping bags. We spent the afternoon and evening napping and resting and trying to figure out what was wrong with our stove. On the mountain next to Mogen was a signal mast, so we had 4G coverage and were able to get on facebook to ask other Polar explorers for advice.

What we found was discouraging. Many people reported having trouble with our stove model operated with unleaded petrol. We tried disassembling it, cleaning it, changing the jet, all to no avail. It still would not produce a constant flame. The message was clear: we should have used a different stove or at least not have used unleaded petrol from the pump. We were no longer able to change any of that. After replacing the jet for the third time and switching back to the old one, we managed to get the stove into a condition where it would produce a constant flame. Satisfied that this would be the best outcome we could hope for, we went to bed early. The next day promised to be hard.

Day 4 – The climb

During breakfast preparation, our magical stove repair still held up, so at least we would not have to worry about that for the moment. Ahead of us lay the climb up to the Hardanger plateau. The lower part of the mountain pass featured a forest, so we planned to follow the summer hiking trail until we were above the tree line. I had observed a lot of snow when he was checking out Mogen Turisthytte the day before, so we decided to go with snow-shoes instead of skies from the start. The path was easy to pick up, and we made good progress the first kilometre or so. However, the higher up we got on the mountain, the deeper the snow. We lost the path on a small clearing and soon found ourselves with snow up to our thighs. It became clear that the snow-shoes had been the right choice, as we were struggling through the trees and our shoes were getting caught in roots and bushes hidden under the deep snow. Navigating that forest on skis would have been next to impossible. Lauren lost her snow-shoe several times because the heel-strap slipped off easily.

Unsurprisingly, our progress slowed to a crawl. It was becoming impossible to break the trail hauling a pulk, so I left my sledge behind and went ahead to scout a route. We were now dragging our pulks through channels of snow that were deeper than the sledges themselves. The snow was falling heavier now. We were still on moderately shallow slopes, maybe 10°, but we were already noticing the snow layers creaking beneath our feet and snow-drifts moving when we pushed through them. A scary idea, but in the forest, we were safe from triggering avalanches, as they would not go very far. But the thought of the same conditions on steeper slopes above the treeline made us both feel uneasy.

Around noon, we reached a small cluster of cabins, Løyning, close to the treeline. We decided to leave our pulks and see how the conditions were farther ahead. We were hoping that fewer trees would mean more exposure to wind and more packed snow, but we were mistaken. The snow above the treeline proved as unstable as below. On top of that, the wind had now picked up, and visibility was dropping. In the hours before, we were able to see our goal atop the mountain pass, but now everything was shrouded in white fog and heavy snowfall. We returned to the cabins and our pulks and discussed how to proceed. Neither of us felt comfortable going on in these conditions, and the snowfall was forecast to get worse until Sunday, so there was little hope of waiting it out. With heavy hearts, we decided to abandon our Hardangervidda attempt and return the way we came instead. 

Having to quit an expedition or trip is always a possibility, but never fun. In this case, it was especially hard, since we had prepared and worked towards crossing Hardangervidda for over a year. And now we were turning back before we even reached the plateau. I felt like crying, but Lauren reminded me that sitting down and feeling sorry for yourself is a luxury you can’t afford out in the field. We still had to get off the mountain. We decided to go back to the campsite we had left in the morning and lick our wounds there. Although the path led us downhill now, it felt like going was ten times harder than on the way up. Maybe it was because before each step had taken us closer to reaching our goal, closer to Finse. Now each step was just a reminder of our failure.

On the way down we ran into a local driving his snowmobile to the cluster of cabins that had marked our turning point. Surprised, he asked us if we had come down the pass just now. We told our tale, and he agreed that it would have been madness trying to reach the top in this weather. At least we were not second-guessing ourselves.

We arrived back at the shores of Møsvatn around 3 pm and pitched our tent where it had been the night before. At least we now knew exactly what the way back to civilisation would look like. And we were still carrying eight days worth of supplies, so we could eat however much we wanted from now on.

Day 5 – The race

We got up the next morning as usual. We had spent the evening before on our phones, working out how to get back to civilisation and Finse in the end now that we had to turn back. We planned to track back the way we came, down the Julvikfjord onto Møsvatn, but instead of heading east on the northern arm, we’d ski to a road on the southern shore. It would be around 30 km, so we figured it’d take us at least two days to get back.

The shock of having to return the day before was still fresh, so we were sluggish in getting going once more in the morning. At around 8:50 am, we were ready to start our way back. Just as we took the first strides, we saw a family of moose, two adults and a young one, appear from the trees at Mogen and head up to the hut. Lauren took the lead and set a fast pace from the start. We picked up the snowmobile road again, and in amazing conditions, we were covering over 5 km every hour. We raced past the familiar landmarks we had passed on the way to Mogen the days before. After about five hours, we reached the 20 km mark, which we had hoped to achieve that morning. We stopped to check our bearings and talk about our options.

A quick measure on our map placed us about 8 km away from Varland, the closest settlement where we could hope to catch a bus or taxi. Lauren was now having significant troubles with her boots, and our pace had slowed considerably in the afternoon. Pushing on would take us between three or four hours, and most likely require some night-time skiing. The alternative would be to ski to the shore and pitch the tent for the night, about 2 km off the snowmobile track, and back the next morning. Both of us had lost any motivation to camp another night out in the snow, and the prospects of having chips, beers, and a hot shower were too tempting to pass. We decided to push on to the road that same day, although we were not sure that it was free of snow and we could actually arrange transport from there to the closest town.

That afternoon was tough for me. My blisters had spread to cover my whole heel, and had burst early in the morning, leaving my heels raw and incredibly painful. Added to that the shame and disappointment of our failure meant I was feeling very sorry for myself, and skiing back the way we’d come just felt like a grind. I figured we could rest up, pitch the tent, heat our water and go to sleep, or we could push on and get to a hotel that evening. And so that’s what we did. Meter by painful meter we prodded through wind and driving snow in the darkness until eventually we sighted something wonderful in the darkness – streetlights. Better still, Thorsten spotted a car, which meant we could call a taxi!

We arrived at Varland after 9h of skiing. We had covered 27.2 km in one day. Exhausted, we dragged our pulks into the orange street-lights around the local bus stop, got out our down jackets and warm hats, and sat down for a short rest, sharing the last of the hot water from our flasks while we waited for our lift. We had reached the end of our Hardangervidda attempt. We did not achieve what we set out to do, but we did nonetheless cover almost 80 km in the snow, spent five days camping out on our own, and gained plenty of invaluable experience.