Saturday 8 October 2011

Norway, Hardangerjokulen: Day 3 Part 1

This is another long post folks as this day really was an epic. Its in two parts so get a tea and a scone and get comfy….
I woke at various points throughout the night, hot and sweaty each time. Not only was it toasty in the hut the my Cumulus Quantum sleeping bag was just too much even when opened out and draped over me. I had to think it was made worse by the fact that we had been slowly getting used to the colder conditions in the hills over the past two days but whatever it was I ended up sleeping in base layers until 7am the next morning.
I hopped out of the bunk and off to make tea while Paul dozed, listening to his iPod. Looking out of the window it initially seemed to be damp but not raining and I watched the thinning remnants of an inversion rising up from Eidfjord, over the dam wall and eventually dissipating into nothing. I pondered the map while the large steel kettle came to the boil on the gas hob. We had some options today and could take some time to explore the glacier before heading off on our way south-east, though where to we hadn't yet decided.
We pottered about gathering our things from the various hanging places and once again breakfast was eaten out of a real bowl - though the Spork made an appearance to keep it all real! My camera had a new friend in the form of a modified zip-lock bag that allowed the camera to be clipped to my chest pouch harness (used by my OMM chest-pouch) but be relatively free from light rain whilst taking the odd photo. If it rained all day again then it would have be stowed in the dry-bag and back in the pack but this at least afforded the opportunity to have it out in between showers.
By 9am we were packed, the hut tidy and the map stowed having decided we would just saunter on along the trail and see where we got. In reality we wanted to reach the junction at just south-east of Leirhalsen before the track turned east to give us some more choices on day 4. With this in mind we tightened our shoes clipped on our gaiters and left the hut behind. I stepped out with high hopes for the weather as the stable door was thrust back at me in the wind and after fighting to get it open again was met with a nice fine drizzle. Excellent I thought.
It became apparent just how much water had fallen overnight when we stepped off the wooden deck and onto completely waterlogged ground surrounding the hut but we didn't really care and headed off chatting taking photos and drinking from the many newborn streams cascading down from the high rocky cliffs above. The trail was all over the place today, seemingly taking us up to go down and vice versa when a perfectly good natural level route seemed to exist each time. I got over it but Paul was particularly annoyed and confused by this which entertained me no end after a while!
Irrelevant of general moods, it was a shame to have to walk with hoods up and restricted views - not that there was much to see. The cloud was low and heavy with moisture and it was fairly cold in the mix so we moved quickly until the glacier opened up into full view on our left. It was immensely impressive but it was virtually impossible to gauge the scales from our position and no reference points. Despite the rain we were both excited to explore so turned east off the track and headed up the steep, rocky ascent to meet Mr Rembesdalskaka and see what delights he had in store for us.
During the progressive ascent there were two immediate observations: 1) the icy cold breeze falling down off the glacier and into our pale, wet faces and 2) the deafening roar of the falls above and blasting on by to our left. Initially we had some reservations about getting too close as we could see large boulders of pale blue ice had recently separated from the front of the ice shelf. Unusually though I insisted we press on and get up close as this was an opportunity not to be missed. The route up was predominately rocky and very slippery with lots of moss and algae making for a nerve wrecking climb at points. There really is nothing but rock, small shrubs, pools of water, moss and more rock.
It was clear that this place was rarely dry and with the huge volume of water gushing out beneath the glacier it was no surprise that each flat, sloping slab of granite was like a skating rink (only without the crash barrier or the show-off spraying you with ice). It wasn't a matter of if you'd face-plant or coccyx crush but when! I was consciously trying to take as many photos as possible but the spray from the falls along with the rain just soaked the lens despite my attempts at drying and shielding. I wish someone could have filmed the scene as I lost my patience after a few cycles of this and just waved my hands in the air, shouting obscenities at the Gods. I was starting to get the hint that they weren't happy with my photographic intentions and at one point I contemplated asking Satan for help – it was that frustrating.
We continued climbing and slipping and negotiating short scrambling sections until it was literally towering above us. At this distance the scale of the glacier is acutely clear and its gives off a graduated blue-white colour that is nothing short of amazing.
The effort had been worth it though and we explored the cavernous ice caves as they glistened in a deep blue mirror effect and the sound of water echoed all around.
At this distance we could feel the sheer force of the water undercutting the glacier and exiting with a relentless violence as the sound thundered through our rib cages. The water was carrying heavy loads of silt which left it a cloudy brown with just a hint of that glacial blue-grey that almost begs to be touched as though it has some sort of healing power.
I hadn't seen anything like that in my tiny life and I took it all in as best I could, even closing my eyes at one point to try and somehow concentrate harder! The landscape is harsh, unforgiving – its freakin prehistoric - and it shows its teeth as it gnarls at you and tries to force you into turning and running away. It's the senses that keep you there and gobble it all up like a forbidden fruit – an addictive natural narcotic.** Moving on............
Needless to say, Pauls ridiculous idea that there would surely be a place to cross further up the falls turned out to be, well ridiculous, and the feeling of slowly soaking through was starting to take hold and deliver the odd shiver - since we were hardly moving . It was slightly annoying to have to back-track all the way down so we could cross the bridge which, from here, seemed like it was made for Borrowers. As usual we weren't entirely resigned to our fate and wasted far too much time looking for any 'leap of faith' that might be vaguely achievable but our arch-enemy Scale caught us out every time as we approached each 'possibility' to find even a gargantuan leap of Neil Finglegton would struggle to make it let alone our hobbit like dimensions. Wet and just a little dejected we made the treacherous descent to the bridge, nearly losing Paul to the falls along the way as he slid, seemingly in slow-motion, down a huge stretch of granite rock and only just stopping short with his feet literally being licked by the foaming rapids. In hindsight its funny but there and then we both just exchanged the acknowledging look that we needed to be mindful of our situation and caution was a good friend to hang out with - sometimes.
Reaching the bridge we then began a just as treacherous climb back up the opposite side of the valley in the cold, fine mist that cooled and drenched our universe. There was a lot of banter prior to this point but I was certainly not feeling in a jovial mood. Out of the mist a sign-post appeared pointing west to Eidfjorden, North to the hut we had just left and south to Kjeldebu – another hut but gave no distances (this is normal). We pondered whether or not our detour to take in a view above Eidfjorden was worthwhile considering the conditions but despite agreeing it was pointless we pursued it anyway. A couple of miles further in the increasing rain we stopped and made eye contact, shook our heads disapprovingly and turned 180 degrees to rejoin our original route back on the main trail.
It was lunch time and we were both hungry but we weren’t stopping now that we were wet, cold and feeling just a little sorry for ourselves. The executive decision was taken there and then with no debate. We'd head to Kjeldebu hut and despite the distance and cost, stay another night and take the opportunity to dry out. As we walked heads down and increased pace we tried to recall the route and the junctions from the map and from our collective memories felt we had a good chance of making the hut by late afternoon. We might have been a little down but now we had an aim, a target and that target ended with a wood-burning stove and a real seat for a poo – we hoped at least!
The terrain was now more grassy with lots of small unnamed 'vatnets' (tarns) scattered along the way and even in the poor conditions we both commented with some frequency just how good some of the spots would be to pitch a tent. In good weather they would all have been sublime.
We trudged away the hours putting one inov-8 in front the other and ascended a bit, then dropped some, then ascended a lot, crossed some bridges over furiously fast water and then suddenly it got more interesting. We were in a bowl, surrounding by high rising rock faces, small tarns and our familiar friends the red 'T's. This itself wasn't any more or less interesting than normal but what raised the game slightly was one red T stopping dead at the edge of a swollen river which was almost exclusively white water and then just making out the familiar red blurriness of another T a good twenty meters away on the opposite bank. Neither of us had logged this in memory from our time gazing down at the map! Paul made it all better by shouting 'boll@cks' at the top of his voice (mimicking the greeting we had received from a German lorry driver we'd met at Stansted airport 3days earlier) and proceeded to make his way upstream hopping with purpose across the boulders with a view to finding an alternative crossing point. I was slightly perturbed by this obstacle because through the mist all I could see upstream was steeper, faster white-water and it was clear that this was the preferred place to cross. Under normal conditions this might be a fairly normal ankle high wade to the other side but with the sheer amount of rain and run-off, this was now a very different river and I was honestly frightened to cross. This fear marked a turning point in my mindset and confidence on the trip, where I'd let Paul lead on such obstacles and I'd just hang back and be typically risk averse when it came to water.
It was deep. I didn't need to test it with my pole to see this but did and the force of the water grabbed at the pole and I imagined what that would be like dragging on my legs and feet. How high would it come up and would it stay that high or get worse in the middle? The unknown was exciting and head-shrinking in equal measure and all that went through my mind was that we had never encountered a crossing like this and an error in judgement or otherwise would bring less than desirable consequences to an already tough day! I joined Paul further up the falls.
The noise was amazing and the atmosphere was thick with spray and mist. Each rock we tested was either unstable or offered no traction and the only chance at a jump was asking for trouble since there was no telling what lay in wait at the next hurdle. My mind was made up and I knew I didn't have the metal to risk it higher up and returned to the red T as my H&S head took control. I wasn't entirely confident that Paul would make the same decision so I constantly stopped and gestured for him to follow and he successfully avoided each attempt as he concentrated hard on calculating the risks. Paul is amazingly good on his feet but I wasn't so sure he had the legs for any of the opportunities I'd seen upstream. 5 minutes later I was stood at the same position as before and just staring across to the other side. Suddenly my right foot was in the shockingly cold water albeit not where I'd intended as the flow pushed hard against my shins. It was suddenly up my knees and with the shock of the cold water surrounding my lower body and the sheer force of the water pushing against my best efforts I was aware that panic was just a neural pathway away. Amazingly my body just sucked it up and I went at it with gusto - almost accepting whatever fate the Gods had in store. Displaying absolutely no poise, little balance and clenched glutes, I edged further in as rocks tipped under my weight and the white water disorientated my every sense in an attempt at delivering some proper misery. I was now half-way and worked out that the stepping stones that once offered safe passage had been shifted and offset in the deepest section but the latter third was still in-tact and walking diagonally up-stream I met them and clambered up so only ankles were submerged. A short few hops later and I was on the other side to the sound of a deep, dog-esque panting sound. Turns out it was me.
Looking back across it looked every bit of the undertaking it had been and from this vantage point it looked worse! It genuinely was bad and I knew this because of the caution Paul was displaying as he crossed. I was quietly worried that Paul would suffer for my success - as is the nature Karma. Nevertheless it was an identical crossing to mine complete with stumbles, wobbles and elation at reaching the other side. We gripped gloved hands in a victory shake, brothers in arms style, and continued on as though we'd taken it all in our stride. I guess in a way we had and it was exhilarating. More deep glacial white water for us please!
** something clearly happened to me out there, I now appear to be writing like Nigel flippin Slater***
***No offence Nige.
To be continued.....

Monday 3 October 2011

Norway, HardangerJokulen: Day 2

I woke a little confused of my whereabouts until the sound of Paul snoring and rain crashing into the fly-sheet put my mind in order. I sat up and looked around to find the moon still toying with me outside, arching across the sky and occasionally being swamped by thick clouds. The sound of rushing water was almost deafening and feeling just a little paranoid I unzipped, an annoying series of zips, to check we hadn't been washed downstream and onto the open water of Finsevatnet. I untangled my earphones and moved my iPhone to the pocket in my sleeping bag and the next thing I knew it was morning. Apparently the sun was up but that was debatable and the familiar sound of rain and running water was dominant. It was fairly cool in the tent and once out of my sleeping bag it was hard to resist the lure of my down jacket. The Western Mountaineering Flash is hard to resist at the best of times let alone first thing in the morning in a cold, slightly damp, tent.
Paul was doing his best to ignore my incessant faffing but failed miserably when he heard the sound of the Jetboil blasting into action. He set about trying to escape his sleeping bag whilst looking around frantically to locate his cup. In my view simply no amount of warning can prepare you for the speed at which this fiery little beast can boil water. It’s too bloody fast in fact because it boiled around 500ml of water before I could even think about getting my cup and teabag ready. There and then I decided that there is absolutely nothing relaxing or gentle about 'Jetboil mornings'. They are simply an abrupt, brash affair starting with a butt clenching “BUUUUFF” as it ignites, then the loud hissing thrash of the burner and culminating in the dull rumbling and chaotic gaggling sound as it lets you know how happy it is to be evaporating your precious water. Moaning aside, I don't often sing praises about the Jetboil but for a one trick pony it does that one trick very well indeed and this titanium version is almost light enough to justify its place on the team.
Coffee, tea, and muesli eaten (oh and a protein shake for Paul) and we were ready for action. We checked the map, began the great re-packing effort and headed out into what was now a fine drizzle. The Scarp II went down as easy as it always does and we were soon on our way to re-join the track heading south towards the Rembesdalsseter hut and beyond towards the head of Eidfjorden. We had seen from the map that the terrain and scenery had great potential for drama and we would be passing very close to the outlet glacier of Rembesdalskaka and hopefully some decent photos. Paul was unaware of how jealous I was each time he pulled his camera from his hip belt in the drizzle whilst I had to resort to my iPhone to avoid repeatedly stopping to retrieve or stow my SLR.
Nevertheless, the going was good, we we're on our adventure and I soon forgot my camera envy and lust for my Ixus and just soaked up the freedom as though it would be my last. The colours and formations of the landscape seemed to change at every glance and left no doubt as to who was in charge around here. Each time we got comfortable the rain would roll on in and just as we got used to that it would stop and throw a bit of wind into the mix. It was like some sort of melting pot of experiences, an assault on the senses and, ready or not, our bodies and minds were adapting quite readily - almost instinctively, to our new environment. We were slowly finding a certain Zen and things started to step up as we climbed higher and increasingly further away from the daily grind.
The trail was still very well marked but we had to laugh when we found the trail simply stopped beneath a great hunk of sheer vertical rock and then just continued at the top! This was also yet another example of how hard it was to get a perspective on the land and the sheer scale of our surroundings as what looked like miniature snow banks from a distance became impressive towers of stubborn ice, laughing in the face of 7 degrees Celsius! We looked back at the top of a short climb up through a wide but steep, babbling stream to see the last of Finse and its symbolism of civilisation for another 4 days – it was an absolute joy.
We decided that we should celebrate with a cup of tea and a chocolaty snack (rock and roll) and we sat sipping our drinks whilst watching the dark heavy clouds moving away in the distance, thankful for a break in the rain. We sat in relative silence just absorbing the view and (in my pathetic romanticising mind) I like to think we were both reflecting on the trip so far, relishing the experience and fortune and wondering what delights and challenges lay ahead of us – I certainly was.
Here it didn't matter about financial reporting, intellectual property rights management or whether you want muscavado or Demerara sugar in your double-shot, skinny latte. Here, it was about agility, self reliance, stamina and camaraderie. It was almost primal and the more we lived it the more the senses heightened and our bodies and minds tuned in. Despite its proximity to Finse (and perhaps with the help of the weather) it felt quite remote already and it was hard to ignore the excitement and fortune - as the adventure took hold and swept us along.
After the break we practically bounced along, exploring last seasons cornices and snow banks with gay abandon. My feet were damp but warm and even a dip in an icy stream for a photo didn't damage the spirits so I was loving the freedom of unlined shoes – for now at least.
The morning was full of adventure with river crossings and bridges of varying drama, distant views of the glacier as it met its glacial lake, and large expansive outcrops on the ridge above. Probably the highlight of the morning for me was the frequent waterfalls that thundered down off the glacier above and into the surrounding lakes – it was nothing short of a privilege to be there watching in absolute delight as my eyes tried to soak it all up and store it in my awful, floppy disc-like memory.
We were making good time as usual and Paul was hinting about having lunch right there and then. I mean, what else were we going to do, we had huge towering rock faces, waterfalls, lakes and boulders for chairs so it was a no-brainer to stop a little early. Once again the jet boil did its thing (almost blocking out the sound of the waterfall just 300m away) and, once again, I wasn't ready for it. I had a mountain dilemma here people – to eat the Fuizion main meal I saved from last night or opt for a mug shot and save the Fuizion for lunch later on in the trip. The stress out there was unbearable at times! Just as I decided on the mug-shot rain invaded our quiet little spot and the result was a miserable scene of two twerps sat on rocks eating semi-rehydrated food in a downpour. We ate then packed away and didn't say an awful lot until we'd warmed up a few hundred meters down the track. No matter how much experience I stack up outside I'm always surprised at how quickly you lose body heat when stopped and conversely how quickly you warm up on the move having eaten.
The trail was getting less less forgiving and after a long, flat, hour of walking it was clear that from here on in it was a knee crushing descent from here at the peak of Lureggane down to Rembesdalsvatnet. Not only was it a test of knees and thighs, every step on the steep slippery marbled slabs tested poise and balance and it made for some interesting waling techniques in attempt to stay vertical!
The amount of water coming down off the surrounding hills was astonishing and everything within few meters just seems to be moving or rushing or dripping with it – including us, and by now we were both thoroughly wet through a base layers. We'd both chosen not to bring over-trousers as we rarely, if ever, put them on so it seems a bit pointless to bring them and today was the same since we both appeared to get wet from wind driven rain entering our hoods and running down our backs and into our trousers.
The descent was hard enough on the body without the minds taking a beating from the miserable conditions that seemed to have set in for the day with no intention of respite. By the time the trail turned back south again after a short westward stint everything was wet – even Paul's lined shoes which made for interesting outbursts from Paul as they got heavier and more uncomfortable! The Gods must have sensed our wretchedly unhappy tone and suddenly out of nowhere we caught a glimpse of 3 dark solid shapes off in the distance below – the DNT huts! With renewed vigour our pace increased and we both speculated whether as to whether it would be open and if it was would someone have the fire on so we could warm up and dry out? Once again, we were ahead of our planned schedule and we decided we would at least check it out before moving on back up the other side of the valley and onto the start of Eidfjorden. Once we’d started the wildly exaggerated speculations on what awaited us at the hut (Paul’s recurring idea seemed to start and finish with a group of friendly Norwegian women) it seemed to take an age to get there. The closer we got the longer it took and it was soon obvious that no-one was home and if they were they didn’t much for the wood burner- bummer.
Would it be locked, would it be full (we very much doubted it) or would it offer itself as a comfortable pit-stop to dry our clothes and enjoy a hot drink before setting off again? Eventually it was time to to find out and we both set off in a surrounding pattern to assess the situation. All was quiet and both of the larger huts were open and well stocked with firewood, food and bedding. Choosing the larger hut of the two we entered the stable-style door dripping from head to toe as we read the instructions and checked for further signs of life.
It was pretty nice to see that we were the only ones around and we dropped our bags, kicked off our shoes and headed into the main room. It was quite frankly amazing in there and there was a large wood burner, a sink, a gas hob, a large cupboard of tinned and packet food and two large bedrooms with a total of 10 bunks.
We both just stood there laughing at the incredible good fortune this provided and took no time in getting the fire going and hanging up wet clothes. Reading the visitors’ book it appeared we had two options: we could either pay the 70Kr. camping fee and use the facilities provided we had vacated by the property by 6pm or we could kick back and stay the whole night in the hut for 290Kr. This was truly cool beans and with just under a couple of hours until 6 we had a chance at getting warm and dry before heading off.
With the stove roaring away in the centre of the room, the hut was incredibly cosy and with its view over the large, the large frothing waterfall coming down the opposite slopes oh and the whopping great glacier above to the left you’d have to pay hundreds of pounds for week in this setting. It comes as no surprise then that we decided to stay the night and got comfortable reading the books, taking photos and just listening to the wind and rain howling away outside. An incredibly pleasant finish to a challenging day – fact.
The time flew by and we seemed to just occupy ourselves for hours, just pottering away doing nothing in particular at all. The hut was now very warm and stepping outside for water and a wee reminded you instantly what a good idea it was to stay until morning. We hoped that by then the weather might be showing signs of improvement so we could able along nicely and explore the glacier before moving on up to Eidfjorden in the afternoon and hopefully an incredible view by which to pitch the tent. Fetching water from the fast flowing stream below the hut, I almost found myself in a bad place as a gust of wind knocked me off my delicate balance whilst wearing Paul’s ridiculous flip-flops. It felt as though the weather was seriously moving in and I returned to the hut and sat by the window in candle light to watch the sheets of rain move across the bloated lake below.
With bowls and cutlery there for the taking we smuggishly ate our Fuizion meals at the table, discussing how simply amazing the recipes are and were glad we hadn’t opted for the cheaper offerings available – there simply is no better freeze-dried food available – factoid.
It had been another eventful day but despite the weather, the tough terrain and the fact this was only the first full day - it was starting to feel like a real adventure. Admittedly though adventure is blinking-well tiring and after selecting our bunks we hit the iPods once again, but I know I was out cold before the 15 minute sleep timer kicked in....