Letter from Switzerland (and Norway) 1992

Rovings in the Rondane

G K Chesterton once said that every traveller should carry a map but that he should always cherish the thrilling possibility that it might be wrong. It wasn't the map that turned out to be wrong, however, but the plan. This is how it happened - and didn't.

Saturday 28 March. Not that I am superstitious but at first the omens were good. In the centre of Oslo, right in the middle of Karl Johans Gate, was a huge pile of fresh snow. A sign stuck in the top read. "Nysno fra Geilo". I felt encouraged. The advertising wasn't subtle but I liked the message. You have to have confidence in your public to sell your skiing holidays so simply. What, I wondered, would be the effect on the good punters of Edinburgh of dumping a huge pile of snow in the middle of Princes Street accompanied by the legend. "New snaw frae Aviemore"- and how often would you be able to do this anyway?

I met the group at the station in time to catch the 16:00 to Trondheim. We were constituted as follows. The ladies: two Danish (Anne-Marie, and Jette), one English (Bridget) and one Norwegian (Grethe). The gentlemen: three German (Christian, Kai and Kalle), one Norwegian (Tom), one Dutch (Wim) and one Swiss (yours truly). The Guide: one Norwegian gentleman, name of John. Later we were to be joined by two further Norwegians: a lady by the name of Marte and gentleman called Arne.

Gentle reader, if you count the names you will see that the total is thirteen. I leave you to ponder the significance of this fact without further comment.

We settle back to enjoy the scenery: very pleasant but not exactly snowbound. The first, in what will be a series of dazzlingly beautiful Norwegian waitresses that we shall encounter on this trip comes round with the refreshments' trolley. Hjerkenes. 20:30. Am I lost already? It is pitch black. We have all got off the train but I have stopped to get the head-torch out of my pack. I look round. The others have gone. I suddenly realise that I don't know where I am and I don't know where I am supposed to be going. There is nothing for it but to set off hopefully down a promising looking road. After an anxious time of brisk walking and peering ahead I see the glimmer of torches and so make successful rendezvous with a fine Norwegian supper.

Sunday 29 March. Yipee! Calloo Callay! Hoots toots and Muckle Flugga! The hills are white, the sky is blue, the air is cold, the sun is warm and the day stretches ahead of us. If there is a better sport than cross-country touring I don't know what it is.

We are heading south across a rolling plateau of white satisfaction. I am reminded of a day of perfect bliss which the club enjoyed at Drumochter on the 2nd March 1986. Behind us is Snohetta, the most northerly peak over 2000m (a Nansen?) in Norway. Ahead lies the hut at Grimsdalshytta where we are to spend the night.

Some 3km before the hut the slope steepens as the route descends into the valley of the Tverrai. A sign stuck in the snow warns you to remove your skis. Only the pig-headed would disobey.

Snorting porcinely I arrive at the hut.

Now that was what I call ski-touring!

Monday 30 March. Another sparkling day: cool, clear, still and full of promise. We set off from the hut in fine spirits. John tells us to gather at the bottom of the short slope below the hut for our march south to Doralsetter.

Eleven are ready but two are missing. What can be keeping Christian and Anne-Marie? John goes back up to investigate and returns with bad news. In descending the slope, Christian has dislocated his shoulder. Anne-Marie has been blowing her whistle for the past 15 minutes and we have heard nothing.

John comes to a quick decision. We are all to go back to the hut. Here Kalle is detailed to look after Christian. John and I are to ski the 20km east to the nearest telephone, at Fallet, and the others are to follow slowly.

The route does not look promising. The snow-cover to the east is far from perfect but we are saved by the river, which is frozen over and holds snow, with only the occasional hole in the ice. It makes a fine ski-route. This is the longest valley in Norway, John informs me. I can well believe it. But we are making progress and the peaks of the Rondane are coming into view. We pass a herd of reindeer. We ski on and on. The river goes through a gorge and begins to run more swiftly. On the left hand a wall of sheer rock stretches above us; to the right the river slides black, cold and menacing under the ice.

Along the river

At last we are at Fallet. John telephones the DNT headquarters and asks for a ski-do to go to fetch Christian. Taking medical advice, HQ, send for a helicopter instead. When the others arrive, John rings for a minibus. We are now so far off our route that we have no prospect of rejoining it. Nightfall should have found us in Doralsetter. A short day's skiing on the Tuesday would then have brought us to Rondvasbu. Instead the taxi will take us to where we can ski the 10km to Bjornhollia and the following day we shall approach Rondvasbu from the east rather than the north.

John confides that he is the most expensive guide in the DNT. In his 1990 trip they all went to sleep at the hut at Doralsetter in landscape inches deep in beautiful white powder. During the night the temperature rose to +7 and the rain set in. The morning found them encumbered with useless skis in a sea of mud and they had to be fetched by mini-bus. In the 1991 trip he just managed to get the group out of their dormitory at Hjerkenes before a short circuit sent it up in flames. The ski-tourers escaped without injury but the rucksacks did not!

Approaching the High Rondane

Tuesday 31 March. Another sparkling day. We set off up the Illmandal for Rondvasbu. We are now penetrating into the heart of the national park. The land is rising, the sense of adventure is increasing and ahead of us the peaks of Rondane glitter invitingly. Unmitigated euphoria is the order of the day.

At Rondvasbu, much to our amazement, we are met by Kalle and Christian, whose shoulder has been reset at Lillehammer. Christian has made a truly remarkable recovery, since Rondvasbu cannot be reached by road and he has had to ski in (with one arm strapped) from Mysusaetr, a distance of 10km.

A curious, but very filling supper, of cauliflower soup followed by sweet and sour cod and rice (a sort of Norway meets China affair) is served us by a dazzlingly beautiful Norwegian waitress.

On tour in Illmandal

Wednesday 1 April. A "rest" day. John organises a snow-cave party and I join two Norwegian students of business administration at Heriott-Watt, Stein and Anders, for an ascent of Veslesmeden (2015m, 6611ft). The weather starts fine and we make good progress. To our left is the huge black cliff of Svarathammaren to our right, across the valley, the enormous corries of Rondholet and Styggebotn underneath the peaks of Vinjeronden (2044m, 6706ft) and Rondslottet (2l78m, 7146ft).

But slowly the wind is picking up and the weather is worsening. Anders and Stein have brought no rucksacks, since what they have in mind is a quick raid. Unlike us they are not staying at Rondvasbu but moving on to Mususaeter. At l700m they decide to stop. They agree to wait for me for half an hour. I realise I shall not be able to make the summit but should like at least to get to the summit ridge. The weather is still worsening and at l820m, having reached the ridge, I turn around.

We ski back to the hut for soup and beer.

In the afternoon I go to visit the snow-cave party. John is evidently an expert and has built a veritable hotel, capable of sleeping at least a dozen. I learn that in addition to all their labours they have managed an ascent of Simlepiggen (172lm, 5646ft). I should have stuck with them! As we ski back to the hut we come across a lemming, scurrying across the snow. It chatters at us as if protesting indignantly at our

Later, after nightfall, the whole group makes the trip up to the cave for coffee by candlelight. Finding the snow-cave proves no easy task. It is half an hour from the hut and snow is falling but once inside we are very cosy.

Thursday 2 April. It has been snowing heavily all night and a veritable tempest is blowing. John orders an 11:00 start hoping that the storm will have abated somewhat by then.

As soon as I step outside, I recognise Njord's unpleasant breath, having suffered it for a whole week in the Jotunheim the year before. But if he has spared us so far, he is making up with a vengeance for any previous lack of attention. We wrap up as warmly as we can for the return to Bjornhollia. Even the short section on the flat beyond the hut proves a struggle. The wind is constantly whipping across our faces,
visibility is three yards and every 50 yards or so we encounter a huge drift of snow. A time-consuming and energy-sapping struggle then follows as we try to break through. After half an hour of an unequal contest, John orders a return.

We are stuck in the hut. Today should have been easy, 13 km to Bjornhollia, but the morrow would require a further 21km ski to Breidsjosaetr. We shall have to do the two days in one and Christian can only use one arm.

Later in the afternoon a few of us attempt a short trip to find the snow-cave: without success.

Friday 3 April. It is still snowing and Njord is still with us but his force is abating and we can at least see. We leave from the hut in good order. Christian has my skins on his skis to help him climb and to slow his descents. The drifts are very deep and where they cannot be avoided, progress is slow, but at least we can see where they lie. Below the snow-cave we come across the body of a lemming. I hope that it is not an omen. Lemming-like we push on, taking turns to break trail. The weather slowly improves, Approaching Bjornhollia we disturb ptarmigan and hare. We reach the hut at 12:30 and have lunch.

A little way above the lake we leave the rucksacks with Christian who is to be picked up by the warden of the hut on his snow-cat. Now for the last leg. We make steady progress to our pass. Near the top we are overtaken by the snow-cat. At the top of the pass, John calls a halt. It is 7km to the hut. John informs us that it is now everyone for himself and that he won't call a halt until we reach the hut.

We have left the high mountains behind and our way now lies in more rolling country. First we have a heart-stopping but exhilarating helter-skelter descent, through pine and birch, to the frozen lake of Arnsjoen. At the pass between Rondvasbu and Bjornhollia we were at 1279m (4196ft). We have now descended to 701m (2300ft). We have to climb again to 1180m (3871 ft) before we can descend to Breidsjosaetr at 980m (3215 ft).

He may not realise this but he has started a race. There is a long flat section ahead before the descent. I set off at full speed but soon find that my skis are not working properly and stop to re-wax. I am overtaken by Tom, Grethe and Arne and just manage to set off before Kai and Kalle arrive but once I have set off I manage to gain slowly on the three ahead. Slowly the gradient increases and I move from diagonal stride, to double pole stride, to double polling to straight forward schussing, overtaking first Tom, then Grethe and, at the bottom of the schuss, Arne. Unsure of my direction I stop to re-fold the map and as I do so, Arne and Kai, who has very fast loipe skis, overtake me. I set off again but cannot close the gap.

I start skating and seem to be gaining but then, indignity of indignities, catch a tip. As I struggle to my feet, I am overtaken by Kalle and Grethe. Back on my skis, I overtake them again in turn but have lost the race with Arne and Kai and they arrive at the hut. Arne slightly ahead, a good minute before me. The 7 km have taken 45 minutes.

No disgrace you might say. After all, Arne is a Norwegian and has himself said that he was born with his skis on. True. But Arne is also 64 and last year had heart surgery!


Saturday 4 April. A lovely day again but one which faces us with a stern task. We have to ski 18 km to Solnsaetr and arrive before 12:00 so that the minibus can take us to Alvdal to catch the train. We manage it - just.

The DNT has thought of everything and has arranged for us to be served lunch in our places. It is brought to us by the last in what has been a series of dazzlingly beautiful Norwegian Waitresses. I study the maps and think back over the tour. Only the first and the last day were as planned. The rest were all improvised responses by John to the force of contingency - first Christian's shoulder and then the storm. It didn't
matter. I enjoyed every minute of it - well, nearly every minute of it. Where shall I go next year I wonder? I shall come back to Norway, of course. The Rondane is very beautiful and John is a great guide. One the other hand, he seems to be dogged by bad luck.


But then, cross my fingers and touch wood. I'm not superstitious.

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