LETTER FROM SWITZERLAND 1991
I should have studied Norse Mythology more carefully before I went. It would have explained a lot. The story goes like this. The goddess of skiing is the jotun's daughter "Skade". The gods allowed her a free choice of husband but only permitted her to see their legs. She took "Njord" because he had the prettiest feet. Njord is the god who controls the wind. If there is a Norse god of sunshine he doesn't come into the story. I did not discover this, however, until I settled back into my seat on the SAS flight to Zurich and started to read the book I had bought that morning in Oslo. Suddenly it all became obvious. The three go together: Jotunheim, Skade and Njord. Go skiing in Norway's highest mountains and you can expect gales as well as snow.
Even so, it seemed remarkable to me, as we toured clockwise through the mountains that the wind, while seemingly blowing never less than 50 mph, should be always in our faces. We traveled from the east and Njord blew from tile west. We came from the west and he blew from the east. We climbed, we skied, we stopped, we carried on but whatever we did he blew in our faces.
This is how it happened.
Saturday 30 March. I arrived in Oslo from Zurich to join the Waymark party, or rather the two parties at the Hotel Foenix; the other group, the "top tour" were here to do some Nansen bagging or whatever the Norwegian equivalent of Munro bagging is. We made our acquaintances over dinner at a restaurant in central Oslo. It seemed to be almost impossible to obtain Norwegian food and as I ate my Mexican pizza accompanied by a black and tan I had to pinch myself to convince myself that I wasn't dreaming.
Sunday 31 March. The food next morning, however, was very Norwegian (pickled herring, cheese, cold meat etc) and the charming young lady serving it would have satisfied anyone's prejudice as to what a Norwegian waitress should look like. We joined the DNT tour bus at 7:00am at the town hall (don't ask me what DNT stands for but it is like a sort of Norwegian SNSC, MC of S and SYHA rolled into one) and headed off north for the snow.
As we drove, the countryside became gradually more hilly. Minnesund we came to Lake Mjoesa. The 100 km long lake was completely frozen. By the bridge at Moelve we crossed it to stop for coffee at Biri. (Would we stop for beer at Koffi, I wondered.) At Lillehammer we left the lake behind. There still was precious little sign of snow. The coach driver took great delight in pointing out where a band of Norwegian peasants had massacred a Scottish army lead by a certain Sinclair. I have not been able to turn up the incident in my Scottish history books but then, as Robert Graves put it:
We arrived at Gjendesheim at 13:30. We were now most firmly in the snow but it was also clear that there was a change in the weather. The sunshine had been uninterrupted on the way up and it was still shining at Gejendesheim but something foul was brewing up.
We gathered downstairs to meet each other and our leader, a Dane, Kim Hansen. Other tour members were Keith, Geoff and Nick from England, Elizabeth and Edmund from Scotland, Arild and Henrik, two lads from Norway, Guru and Tove, two Norwegian lasses and Erik a Swede. (The following morning we were to be joined by Mike and Malcolm, father and son from Scarborough who had decided to leave the top tour for ours.) We discussed the route we were to follow over the next few days and agreed to meet for an afternoon ski.
The first rendezvous failed. Guru, Keith and I missed the others or the others missed us and we set off in the "back country" for a wee practice. The change in the weather was now confirmed and as the afternoon wore on the weather wore worse.
Nevertheless, gloom or no gloom, it was good to have the chance to find our ski legs and we returned happy to the hut.
Monday 1 April. As we slogged our way up the frozen wastes of Lake Gjende in the face of a gale, we couldn't help envying the luck of those Coming in the other direction. The most successful trick seemed to be holding a bivy sac between two and letting the wind speed you down the lake like a pea in a shooter. We who were trying to climb the shooter were finding Njord's breath most unpleasant and, with the snow now beginning to soften as the sleet started, the going was getting tougher and tougher. Next time I see a salmon try to climb up the Tay at Pitlochry, I thought, I shall feel more sympathy.
We arrived wet and tired but if the hut at Gjendebu was more primitive than that at Gjendesheim it nevertheless had showers, a drying room and a fire so that, our first test behind us, we were soon comfortably installed in the living room waiting for dinner.
Our exploits were to be put in perspective. We had come l8 km in the face of a gale but at the next table was a party of adults and children speaking a variety of languages together: German, French, Italian and Norwegian and occasionally English. The fathers had graduated in medicine at Basle (!) university 25 years before. One was Norwegian but all lived in different parts of Switzerland. They had come 35 km to reach the hut that day and the youngest in the party, a boy of 8, had managed it without complaint.
Tuesday 2 April. There was little discernible improvement in the weather. The wind might have dropped a little but the cloud had not lifted. We set off up the Vesleadalen through scenery which reminded me very much of Glen Doll and (as we climbed) the head of Jock's Road. Later a brief lifting of the clouds allowed us to glimpse something more dramatic: the ice of Sjogholstind (7024 ft).
We spent the night at the unwardened but very fine hut of Olavsbu. Water had to be fetched from a hole in the lake which had first to be drilled with an ice screw. We had an afternoon and evening of lumps: lumps of snow we pulled out of a slope we used for telemark practice, lumps in the asparagus soup and some cans of lumps which were unappetisingly (and in this sense honestly) described as "reindeer balls" and which we opened for our supper. Anyone desirous of more lumps was able to find them again in the porridge in the morning.
Wednesday 3 April. We set off in blustery conditions from the hut. There had been fresh snow during the night. As we climbed to the pass of Raudalsbandet the clouds lifted partially and briefly and we obtained a dim impression of the terrific cliffs of Olavsbunten (6463 ft) which stand behind the hut of Olavsbu.
On the other side of the hut we had our first real descent: a lovely slope of some 500 ft. The conditions were not ideal, especially as regards visibility, but the slope was fine for turning and we were all soon enjoying some fine skiing.
We then had our first setback. In executing a Telemark, Tove, broke the toe of her boot. The repair which Kim, devised involved tying her foot to the ski. Since the rope had to pass under the ski this umade movement extremely difficult for her. We divided some of her equipment between us and she carried or for the rest of the day without complaint.
Our objective now was to head for the lake of Leirvanet and pass around the steep slopes of Kyrkja ("church", 6667ft) to find the descent to Visdalen and the hut at Spiterstulen. It was here that I felt Kim made the only questionable decision of his leadership during the tour but it was perhaps merely a difference between Nordic and Alpine perceptions of dangers. There had been fresh snow and much wind. In the Alps the slopes of Kyrkja would have been considered a clear avalanche danger and a guide would have ordered at least a 2Om interval between skiers. As it was we all traversed together and the avalanche that would have hit one of us would have hit us all and (despite the superabundance of snow shovels) there would have been no one to disinter those who were buried. Still, all fears proved irrelevant and we were soon standing at the head of the long descent to Spiterstulen. Kim adjusted the repair to Tove's binding so that she could glide like the rest of us and we set off.
Kim with Kirkja looming out of the mist
There now followed some glorious moments. The clouds parted briefly and, as we descended the slope, when we turned to look back, the spire of Kirkja stood over us in pale sunshine. A wide slope at a perfect angle and in good condition provided perfect Telemark terrain. Elizabeth broke a ski-stick but Kim, true to the maxim that it is a guide's duty to suffer for his clients where he can, lent her his and we continued our descent. For once the conditions were with us and as the slope declined, fresh snow gave way to ice so that we completed the last few kilometres to our hut in good time and with a minimum of effort.
Spiterstulen is a very comfortable hostel-cum-hotel with a sauna and a swimming pool in addition to the usual comforts of civilisation which the DNT huts offer such as showers and beer. There were no lumps for supper but instead some excellent turbot.
Thursday 4 April. The day's skiing was due to start with a steep ascent out of the valley of Visdalen by way of beginning our traverse to Glitterheim where we were to spend the night. When such is the order of the day there are two theories which are commonly held regarding breakfast. A) it should be light so as not to encumber the skier in his efforts and so that there should be no competition to exertion offered the digestion. B) it should be full so as to provide the necessary fuel for the ascent. Where such doubt exists amongst the experts the individual may make his choice with an easy conscience based on what he is offered.
Spiterstulen is a theory B sort of place. A huge table had been covered with a multitude of different cheeses, cold meats, pickled fish, cereals, fruit, bread and jams, including cloudberry. (Members of the TNSC who are desirous of making an acquaintance with the cloudberry may be interested to know that it can be encountered at Loch nan Eun, which was visited by the, club in April 1986, a little early for the cloudberry, en route for Beinn Iutharn Mhor.) I tried a little of everything and a lot of some things and as I climbed steeply and somewhat stiffly out of the valley I began to wonder if theory A hadn't some points in its favour after all.
In the end I quite enjoyed the climb. We had been passing through steep country all the time on the tour but the routes themselves had been gentle and undulating. It was nice to be doing something Alpine for a change.
The experience was short lived. The steep slope degenerated into a gentle incline and then into nothing more than a diagonal strider's plateau. When the top of this was reached some hours later the softness of the snow and the mildness of the descent meant that very little in the way of running could be done. I was glad when we reached the hut.
The group on tour
Friday 5April. The very same booklet which informs you that Galdhopiggen above Spiterstulen is the highest mountain in Norway and that Glittertind (below which lies Glitterheim) is the second highest also gives their heights as: Galdhopiggen 2469m (8100ft) and Glittertind 2472m (8110ft). The reason that the mountain which by three metres provides the highest platform in the country is nevertheless lower than the one which fails by three metres to provide the highest coign of vantage in the country (if you see what I mean) is to do with rock and ice. Galdhopiggen has a rocky summit whereas Glittertind is covered in ice and on the summit this ice is more than three metres thick. Now if we carry out what the physicists commonly call a thought experiment and imagine that we gather together all the surveyors, geologists and guide-book writers in Norway plus a goodly number of blow torches as well as a great supply of drums of acetylene and (not forgetting the human requirement for fuel) a large consignment of cloudberry jam, divide this animal, vegetable and mineral material in two and dump one half on the summit of Galdhopiggen and the other half on the summit of Glittertind we shall find, "ceteris paribus," that after a period of time the water level of the river at Glitterheim will rise considerably whereas that at Spiterstulen will not do so at all and in due course Glittertind will be reduced "de facto" to what it apparently is "de jure" the second highest mountain in Norway.
On the same basis, Scotland is more arid than Egypt for it is clear that if it never rained north of the border again then with the passage of time first the rivers and then the lochs would disappear and Rannoch Moor would be nothing but a dust bowl, whereas if it never rained again in Egypt, the Nile would still (not forgetting the "ceteris paribus") bring the waters of Ethiopia through that country to the Mediteranean.
Well b***** the guidebooks. I turned back at a height of 213Om on what was then, is now and in the near future shall remain (unless the ecologically minded Norwegians in a fit of madness exchange all their roll-on deodorants for sprays) the highest mountain in Norway.
It was bitterly cold on the sides of Glittertind. Njord was up to his old tricks and this, combining with the altitude, was enough to make me nearly weep from cold. Kim had us superbly organised and we retreated from our high point defeated, but in perfect order and, for such a large group, surprisingly quickly.
We had lunch in a good telemarking gully and had an hour's practising. Henryk, who had a fine line in dry humour, invited us all to a lesson in how to fall:...to be given by Stephen. Later, down at Glitterheim, as we had our first decent spell of genuine sunshine, we joined other skiers in climbing up and speeding down the excellent slope behind the hut.
Saturday 6 April. Our last full day's skiing, and the last chance for Njord to relent: he did not. We had sunshine briefly at midday but the wind and the mist soon returned and with it a little rain. It was a long day and a hard day and at the end of it we were back at Gjendenbu and our circuit was over.
Sunday 7 April. Skiing before lunch followed by lunch at the hut. This was rummergrod (don't trust my spelling), a sort of hot cream and cereal mixture (very good) and cold meat. Then the long coach trip back to Oslo with good-byes at the end to the Norwegians and a meal together ("Italian" pizza this time) for the Waymark group.
Monday 8 April. Relaxing on my flight back to Zurich I start boning up my Norse mythology. I shall have to come back to Norway sometime, I think, to see the country. Frantically I leaf through the book. Who was the Norse god of sunshine, who did he marry and was she also a jotun's daughter?
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