“Hei,” is something you’ll rarely hear from a random Norwegian, we’re not big on small talk with strangers. But when we’re up in the mountains, the mentality switches completely. Suddenly everyone is very polite and talkative, even chatty. Something about the wide open spaces manages to open up the cold Norwegians as well.
Norway has a deeply ingrained hiking and skiing tradition, one which has given birth to an extensive network of trails and footpaths across the country for summer backpackers and winter skiers. One popular tradition, especially around Easter, is the act of moving from “Hytte til hytte” (“Mountain hostel to mountain hostel” in English). Mountain hostels run by the Norwegian Trekking Association can be found throughout the Norwegian wilderness, connected by the previously mentioned network of pathways. Norway actually holds the largest public mountain hostel system in the world.
The mountain hostels are intended to be ‘egalitarian’ in nature, open to the masses and cut down to the basics. The design is often quite modest, usually without any running water, electricity, or internet; definitely “off the grid”. Many Norwegians also own similarly primitive private cabins in other secluded areas.
At the hostels, hospitality is high priority among the owners, many of whom are middle-aged nature lovers who have chosen to purchase and operate the cabins for the love of the culture. The food they serve is 3-course dinners with reindeer, deer, local fish – whatever the kitchen has access to and what the owners have hunted the past fall.
There can be a big difference in the standard of the hostels, however. The hostels along the best-known trails are of higher standards; you may be served your meals, have access to a shower and maybe even a sauna. Admittedly, the majority of the cabins are self-service where dry food is ready in the closet and the cabins can be empty or full, as there are no digital systems keeping track of visitors.
The trails are open to locals and visitors from around the world. Every year, hundreds of volunteers from the National Trekking Association refresh the instantly-recognizable red “T” marks painted on wooden signs and sticks along the trails to mark the correct (and safest) path. All trekking routes, deep in the woods or up on the highlands, are marked this way to be visible in even the harshest winter blizzard. In good weather conditions, though, the markings make way into a endless freedom in all its isolation.
Hiking in the Norwegian mountains can be a dangerous enterprise, especially in late fall, winter and early spring because of the temperamental weather conditions. Within a moment’s notice, you can be trapped by a raging blizzard or forced to climb onto jagged rocks that are dangerously slippery. In 1952, the Norwegian Red Cross and Norwegian Trekking Association launched Fjellvettreglene (EN: “The Norwegian Mountain Code”), to educate adventurers on the safest approach to enjoying the country’s natural wonders. The rules are as follows:
- Don’t embark on a langtur (“long trip”) without training.
- Report where you’re heading to some friends or family.
- Show respect for the weather and the current forecast.
- Be prepared for uvær (storm, bad weather, literally ’unweather’) and cold even on shorter trips. Always bring a backpack and the equipment that the mountain requires (eg. warm clothes, water etc.)
- Listen to experienced fjellfolk (mountain people, hikers) that you may encounter.
- Use a map and a compass.
- Don’t walk alone.
- Turn back if the weather decides to turn on you; there is no shame in being outgunned by mother nature.
- Save your energy and dig yourself into the snow if need be. Don’t try to fight the snowstorm if you find yourself in a dangerous situation.
Easter is a popular time of year for many Norwegians to ski hytte-til-hytte. Last year some friends and I skied across Hardangervidda, Europe’s greatest mountain plateau and the largest national park in the Nordic countries, located in the central part of south Norway. We did the traditional 5-day hytte-to-hytte hike from Finse to Haukeli. The trip stretches from north to south across Hardangervidda and is one of the most famous skiing trails in Norway; one gets a very real sense of how harsh nature can be.
Diary from Hardangervidda
Train travel is the only way to get to Finse in the winter. We arrived early in the morning; the small gathering of houses which makes up Finse is situated at the top of Hardangervidda plateau, 1222 meters [4000 feet] above sea level at the boundary between eastern and western Norway. The weather forecast had claimed sun-filled skies, but as the train doors opened, a freezing wind filled the compartment with frigid air and billows of snow. Not as sunny as we’d hoped.
Finse is known among polar expeditioners around the world for its intense weather conditions; the wind rushed against us at speeds of 50 km/h [30 mph] as we squinted against the bright light bouncing off the endless snow. Due to the unpleasantly windy conditions, we decided to stay another night at Finse and continue the trip the following day, with high hopes for better weather in the morning.
We awoke early the next day to the smell of fresh coffee seeping into our rooms. The wind had calmed down, but the snow had started up again. Nevertheless, we felt safe enough to set out for our cross-country skiing for the day; 25 kilometers [16 miles] to the next stop at Krækkja.
We followed the marked ski trail to our next destination as our sight was nearly completely obscured by massive snowflakes, bigger than any I’d ever seen. The ski tracks disappeared rapidly, covered by relentless winter winds and requiring extra effort to push through the fast-falling powder. We were skiing with backpacks weighing in at around 20 kg [40 lb] loaded down with reserve shovels, warm clothing, rescue blankets and warm water. Bad weather conditions are common and potentially fatal hazards at places like Finse, which are completely cut off from immediate rescue services.
The geography at Hardangervidda alters quite a bit from east to west. The eastern part is wide open, with plains stretching for miles across. In the western parts, things are more dramatic; the plateau descends some 1,000 meters [3,500 feet] to the seashore of the fjords. Therefore skiing at Hardangervidda, and especially on the western part, is a sport for the experienced.
As we approached Krækkja, our feet were screaming and energy levels were running low. We were welcomed by the hostel owners who had already begun preparing dinner, sending the warm, homey smells of reindeer and mushrooms out into corridor. Our stomachs took over and we quickly forgot the frozen conditions outside.
The following day we were woken by the 30 other tourists sharing our sleeping alcove. We lay in bed for some time, letting the room clear out a bit, as the smell of freshly baked rye bread sauntered into our space. No breakfast was ever so satisfying. And we would need the energy, as our four-hour trip was slowed so dramatically by heavy winds that we arrived at the next stop seven hours later.
The next day, the weather had shifted to reveal a gorgeous, windless day with clear blue skies. The spectacular views showed miles and miles of white, snowy dunes without a single phone-mast or car. Finally, I felt cut off from the world at home, out here in the wild with the responsibilities of life somewhere behind me, fallen in the snow.
In the following days, fortunately, the weather treated us nicely. The sun was up, making sure to give us that significant “brilleskille” that all Norwegians strive for during Easter (a sun tan around sunglasses or goggles that shows you’ve been hiking or skiing).
The last day, we arrived at the mountain road with the one and only possible exit from Hardangervidda early in the morning, and back to reality with visions of snowstorms to swim in our heads ’til the next trip.