A two-week expedition around the Hardangervidda and Hallingskarvet national parks
Norway, 16th - 27th July 2018
Our walk was based on routes described by Andrew Dyer in Walks and Scrambles in Norway
(Findon, Aberdeenshire : Ripping Yarns.com. ISBN: 9781904466253).
Monday 16th July
Geilo to Store Grønenuten
Distance: 30 km
Ascent: 720 m
Dubious bridges: 0
Weather: Too hot.
Route: Too long. Our trail starts from Tuftelia, 4 km to the west of the small town of Geilo. Having stayed the previous night at Øen Turistsenter, a further 2 km east, we have added 6 km to our route before we have even started. Carrying provisions for twelve days - roughly 6 kg of food - on top of camping and walking equipment, we begin a laborious and steep ascent from Ustedalen onto the Hardanger plateau. Once clear of trees, the view over Ustedalsfjorden gives a sense of how much height we have already gained.
The ascent does not stop even once we are on the plateau; we continued to climb until we reach the summit of Ustetind, 1,376 m above sea level. Though Ustetind is higher than Ben Nevis, it rises only about 200 m above the surrounding plateau, and in this respect feels more like a rolling Howgill fell than a Norwegian summit.
From Ustetind, we descend a short distance to the Tuva Turisthytte. Then, to compensate for the morning's extra distance, we decide to shave a few kilometres from our planned route, and follow a DNT trail towards Heinseter, rather than Åan. With Tuva behind us, we are not to encounter another road, another source of extra provisions, or even another tree, for many days.
Edibles: Raisin boller (buns) and Coke at Tuva Turisthytte. Sitting in the shade of a wooden hut, Laurence comments on the agricultural aroma, but it is not until hikers begin to troop into the building that we realise that we are seated outside the toilet, rather than a cow-shed, as we had assumed. This being a compost toilet, it is fortunate that we have chosen to sit on the uphill side of the building.
Campsite: The Heinseter trail leads us through a pass between Store Grønenuten and Grasnuten; once over the highest point of the pass, we pitch our tent beside a small lake - a choice of campsite which reminds us to be more careful to select exposed, breezy locations for future nights in order to keep mosquitos and other biting insects at bay. "I spy with my little eye ... something beginning with ... M" provides some variation from the usual 'T' for tent.
Tuesday 17th July
Store Grønenuten to Festningstjønne
Distance: 22 km
Ascent: 300 m
Dubious bridges: 4
Weather: A fine, dry start. In the early afternoon, the weather changes abruptly: the wind stiffens, and the first of several thunderstorms rolls overhead. Thundery showers persists into the evening.
Route: Waking at 6.30 am, we take a little over an hour to eat breakfast, re-pack our rucksacks, and strike camp. An hour later sees us at Heinseter. Crossing a series of low ridges, our heavy rucksacks mean that we make slower progress than most other walkers that we encounter, although we still manage to cover distances slightly faster than the times indicated on our map. For most of the day we walk through a landscape that is greener and more verdant than we had expected, but, with the exception of the squeaky-bicycle cries of golden plovers, sparse of bird or animal life.
Edibles: Noodles for dinner.
Campsite: We manage to put up the tent then wash in the Festningstjønne lake during a dry interlude. Clean and refreshed, we have returned to the tent only a few seconds before we head the sound of raindrops on flysheet, announcing the arrival of the next squall. In the evening, we lie listening to the storms, contemplating the likelihood of our tent being struck by lightning. Later, rummaging in my rucsack, I feel something rigid within the lining: two Ordnance Survey maps of Yorkshire, which somewhat vitiate my efforts to travel light.
Wednesday 18th July
Festningstjønne to Elsjadalen
Distance: 24 km
Ascent: 465 m
Dubious bridges: 1
Weather: It is raining when we wake, but Laurence insists that we lie in our sleeping bags for an extra half-hour, to give the rain a chance to abate. Despite my scepticism, this ploy works, and the clouds are beginning to disperse by the time we strike camp. The weather holds good until nearly 2 pm - much later than the forecast had predicted. Heavy rain returns by mid-afternoon, and we quickly don waterproof jackets and trousers. But it is too hot to keep our waterproofs on for long, and we soon discover that it is much more pleasant to walk in shorts and t-shirts, and let the rain cool us, rather than to make any effort to stay dry.
Route: The day begins with another unstable bridge, followed by a slow trudge upstream from Reinvassdalen to Geitvassdalen. With my limited Norwegian, I translate these names as 'reindeer valley' and 'goat valley', but we see neither reindeer nor goats - nor do we see any other walkers until much later in the day.
During the day, we encounter three separate work parties of volunteers who are building cairns and painting the red 'T' signs onto rocks to mark the trails. At least, the first party are doing this. The second party, a man and a woman, are sitting beside the trail, while the man toys with a mobile phone. The woman says something in Norwegian as we pass.
"Sorry, we don't speak Norwegian," I apologise, thinking that I really should learn how to say this in Norwegian.
The man takes over the communication. "If you see a white bag with, er ..." - he fumbles for the correct word - "... paint. In a ketchup bottle. And one of these ..." - the woman holds up a crowbar - "Please put it somewhere that we will find it."
We smile and nod, wondering how this pair have managed to walk into the midst of a wilderness, with the sole purpose of painting trail markers, and yet contrived to lose their paint. We are at least two days' walk from the nearest road, and presumably much, much further from the nearest paint shop.
An hour or so later, having seen no sign of the missing paint, we meet the third work party. A grey-haired woman wearing a jacket emblazoned with the Norwegian flag exudes and air of being in charge, and asks us when, and where, we met the other two parties. We indicate on her map the points at which we met the other group, and mention the fact that the second group have mislaid their paint. This statement is met with expressions of confusion. Thinking that we haven't been understood, I try to think of a synonym for 'paint'.
"You know, the red colouring for painting the 'T's on rocks."
"It's OK, I understand you," the woman-in-charge replies, "it's just that I am a little ... surprised."
We continue, with the sounds of incredulous Norwegian conversation drifting along the trail towards us. Only a little later, though, Laurence notices a white plastic bag tucked behind a boulder: the missing paint! I jog back to the third work party and hand it over to them.
Edibles: Noodles again.
Campsite: We pitch the tent during a brief dry lull in a near-perfect spot: a grassy ledge beside a crystal-clear stream. Low bluffs above the stream provide some shelter, but the site is windy enough to keep mosquitoes away.
Thursday 19th July
Elsjadalen to Øvra Bessevatnet
Distance: 31 km
Ascent: 250 m
Dubious bridges: 5
Weather: An overcast start, becoming increasingly humid, with blue skies from midday onwards.
Route: This is supposedly the first of two harder days, but, by getting ahead of our itinerary over previous days, it in fact proves to be far less arduous than we had expected. Regularly-spaced bridges and path junctions divide the route into manageable sections of no more than two hours' walking.
Our route takes us from the bleak, open landscape of bog, rivers and lakes, into territory that feels more distinctively Norwegian. After passing Sandhaug and Besso, we commence a slow, steady climb onto the western plateau. The trail ascends through a stepped series of small lakes - almost hanging valleys. From each lake, the immediate skyline appears to be the rim of the plateau, and it is only when the next lake is reached, that the step beyond comes into view.
Edibles: Laurence disappears into the reception of Besso Turisthytte, and emerges a few minutes later having procured Coke and crisps, at a cost of 100 NOK (about £10).
Campsite: Even more perfect than yesterday: we have our own private tarn in which to wash. The weather is warm enough for us to dry our damp equipment, and to sit outside the tent, enjoying our surroundings, until late in the evening.
Friday 20th July
Øvra Bessevatnet to Hårteigen
Distance: 24 km
Ascent: 750 m
Dubious bridges: 0
Weather: Glorious. We wake to see an impressive cloud inversion across valleys to the south west.
Route: After crossing a col between Storahorgi (1,467 m) and Flautenuten (1,485 m), we traverse beneath Holken to pick up the trail than leads north from the Litlos Turisthytte. Having lost much of the height gained yesterday, we begin another stepped ascent, with the curious plug shape of Hårteigen soon intermittently visible ahead of us.
By 2.30 pm, we have pitched the tent beside a glacial lake beneath Hårteigen, and are ready to climb the mountain itself. The route is a scramble up a gully, which looks far more impressive and challenging than it really is. There are fixed ropes in place at the most difficult section, although in dry weather these are not really needed. 45 minutes later, we are standing on the summit, with uninterrupted views of mountains in all directions.
Campsite: Chilly: the lake has icebergs floating in it. Washing is a one-limb-at-a-time operation.
Saturday 21st July
Hårteigen to Fljotdal
Distance: 24 km
Ascent: 450 m
Dubious bridges: 3 (+ 1 ford)
Weather: Yet another glorious day, but at the height at which we have camped, the wind is bitingly cold.
Route: Descending steeply, we are glad to have approached Hårteigen from the direction of Litlos, rather than climbing the steep slopes that we are now descending.
The second section of the trail is labelled on our map as taking 2 hours, but we cover the distance in just over an hour, and reach Hadlaskard before we really expect it. After Hadlaskard, the path climbs steeply up onto a high bluff above the bog that flanks the river Olbogo. We make fast progress walking over broad rock shelves - although in wet weather, these would be treacherously slippery.
The trail becomes much busier as the day wears on, with many people ascending towards the plateau for the weekend.
Edibles: Cloudberries, growing high above the rock shelf. There are only a small handful of berries, so I savour them individually, letting the apricot-and-cream flavour of each berry melt in my mouth.
Later, we purchase two bars of chocolate and bottle of Coke - costing 120 NOK (£12) - from the Hedlo Turisthytte. Despite the expense, these provide much-needed energy.
Campsite: We press on past Hedlo, intending to camp as soon as we have found a suitable spot. Increasingly dense vegetation alongside the river, and a lack of water away from the river, contrive to mean that we walk for several more kilometres - making a good start on our itinerary for the next day before the tent goes up again.
Sunday 22nd July
Fljotdal to Liseth
Distance: 15 km (+ 3 km to the shop in Garen and back)
Ascent: 420 m
Dubious bridges: 1
Weather: We wake to find the grey bellies of the clouds hanging only a couple of metres above the tent. The day begins cool and damp, but a breeze soon springs up, bringing warm, blue skies.
Route: We complete our crossing of the pass that we have camped close to the top of, and descend to yet another unstable bridge. After crossing the bridge, we lose the trail, and blunder around for several minutes through dense scrub, until we can regain the trail on the next ascent.
When Liseth comes into view, we manage to lose the trail again, and somehoe end up following the route of the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, rather than the DNT trail. Thankfully this mistake can be rectified before we reach the swimming stage of the triathlon route.
Edibles: Getting very bored of noodles by now. Once we have arrived in Liseth, I make a foray out to the nearby village of Garen, where there is a small shop, to acquire fresh bread, fruit, and beer.
Campsite: We have a roof over our heads for two nights: a hut at Liseth Pensjonat. Here, we can enjoy our first showers in more than a week. Somewhat bizarrely, the men's shower costs 10 NOK for 5 minutes, but the women's shower costs the same amount for only 3 minutes. I purchase the only item in Garen stores that might plausibly be soap, but the box turns out to contain individually-wrapped hand-wipes.
Monday 23rd July
Rest day in Liseth
Distance: 0 km
Ascent: 0 m
Dubious bridges: 0
Weather: A mixed day of sunshine and showers, which causes some delay in our attempts to wash and dry clothes.
Route: From our hut in Liseth, we wander as far as the viewpoint for Vøringfossen, which, we learn, is the 83rd highest waterfall in Norway.
Edibles: The hotel adjacent to the Vøringfossen viewpoint offers six different flavours of fruit pie. We don't even calculate the cost, but hand over a large-denomination Norwegian banknote in exchange for slices of the forest fruits and cherry pies.
Campsite: Liseth Pensjonat.
Tuesday 24th July
Liseth to Luranuten
Distance: 25 km
Ascent: 1,340 m
Dubious bridges: 1
Weather: A punishingly hot morning, cooling in the afternoon, with occasional showers blowing in from the south-west.
Route: A steep ascent at first, levelling out as we approach the col between Store and Vetle Ishaug. The mystery of the sheep deepens. For many days we have been pondering the economics and logistics of sheep farming in the area: when and how are the sheep rounded up from such a vast expanse of wild land? On the slopes of Velte Ishaug, we pass a fenced enclosure, containing at least half a dozen sheep within an area of approximately 2 m2. What? Why?
The trail then descends towards clumps of cotton-wool clouds rising our of Simadalen, before climbing again onto a ridge separating Rembesdalen and Skytjedalen. Up to this point, we have been making excelling time, but then a re-routed trail takes us clockwise around Rembesdalsvatnet, rather than anti-clockwise, as per the route shown on our map. Though this diversion adds both time and distance to the day, we are rewarded with views of the outflow of the Rembesdalskåka glacier.
A bit of corner-cutting means a steep but easy ascent up rock slabs to gain the trail towards Finse.
Edibles: Cloudberries on the ridge above Skytjedalen provide an excellent excuse for frequent rests.
Campsite: A secluded ledge beside a glacial lake beneath the northern flanks of Luranuten.
Wednesday 25th July
Luranuten to the Hallinskarvet Ridge
Distance: 25 km
Ascent: 810 m
Dubious bridges: 3
Weather: Persistent rain, low cloud and/or mist until we reach Finsevatnet. This is something of a disappointment, since we are walking round the Hardangerjøkulen, the sixth largest glacier in mainland Norway, and yet we cannot see even its lower reaches. The cloud begins to break up as we reach Finse, heralding the return of fair weather for the rest of our trip.
Route: We make slow progress through boulder-fields until we reach Finsevatnet, after which comes an exceptionally easy 4 km along a cycle-track to Finse, the highest railway station in Norway (1,222 m above sea level).
Edibles: Our map shows a supermarket symbol in Finse. This proves to be a counter within the reception of the Finse 1222 hotel, which offers bars of chocolate (approximately £7), enamel mugs (£35), t-shirts, postcards, and very little else. We purchase two boller (slightly sweet, and very delicious) and two mugs of coffee (120 NOK), which we take the liberty of re-filling when the reception staff are occupied elsewhere.
Campsite: From Finse, we press on towards the Hallingskarvet ridge, a 35 km-long ridge separating Finsedalen and Holsdalføret. We ascend from the Kyrkjedøri pass (1,540 m) towards the summit of Kyrkjedørsnuten, and camp on a rock shelf, weighing the tent down with rocks.
Thursday 26th July
Along the Hallinskarvet Ridge
Distance: 32 km
Ascent: 1,220 m
Dubious bridges: 0
Weather: Sun above us, and snow below us.
Route: The complete length of the Hallingskarvet ridge. For most of the distance, there is no path, so we simply hop from boulder to boulder. The descent from Folskardnuten (1,933 m, the highest point on the ridge) to the lake beside the Lordshytte shelter (1,650 m) has a well-marked trail, although this is not depicted on our map. At the end of the ridge, however, the 'path' marked on our map from Prestholtskarvet to Prestholtseter proves to be a seemingly-random scattering of cairns. We quickly go astray and find ourselves at the top of a cliff, directly above the correct route.
We wake at 6 am to be walking for 7 am. After 45 minutes, we have progressed less than one kilometre along the ridge, and I begin to be concerned that we will not reach Geilo in time to catch our train the following morning. The difficulties are threefold: Firstly, the 20-metre contour interval of our Norwegian maps does not provide enough detail for us to plan a sensible route through the maze of small knolls and depressions. Secondly, the ridge is comprised of uneven block-fields (felsenmeer). Thirdly, and most significantly, the permanent snow on the ridge has a solid ice crust, and is impossible to cross without crampons (which we do not have with us). Each time we encounter a snow-field, we must tack back and forth across the ridge until we find a enough bare rock to allow us to cross. Of four major snow-fields on the ridge, the first and third cause us the most difficulty. As the sun warms the surface of the snow, though, it gradually softens, until by the afternoon the snow offers easier walking than the surrounding boulders.
Edibles: By the end of the day I am sufficiently bored of eating malt loaf to prefer to eat nothing at all. Being extremely hungry by evening has the advantage of making the final packet of noodles seem appetising.
Campsite: We camp as soon as we have passed Prestholtseter. We are probably too close to the road, but it is sufficiently late in the evening by this point that we suspect (hope) no-one will pay any attention to us.
Friday 27th July
Hallinskarvet Ridge to Geilo
Ascent: 40 m
Dubious bridges: 0
Weather: Searingly hot, even when we strike camp at 6 am.
Route: An easy descent to Geilo. Or so we think. When we reach the ski centre, which sits almost vertically above Geilo railway station, the footpath signs begin to contradict each other. When we eventually find the path, it zig-zags interminably back and forth across the hillside, making very little downward progress: we give up on it, and head straight down the piste.
Edibles: Anything and everything that can be purchased in Geilo. Laurence has a slice of pizza, while I munch my way through two weinerbrod. Re-nourished, we try to freshen up in the public toilets. My sincere apologies to anyone who needed to use the public toilets before the sock aroma had chance to disperse.
Campsite: N/A! We're heading back to Bergen on the lunchtime train.