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.....


Alan Sloman said...

Fantastic! You have created a junkie here: I want the next instalment!

Incredibly well described - a real adventure. And I am out of cakes now too...

Marcus said...

Alan, thank you, that means a lot and makes the effort worthwhile. I'm on part 2 already and hope to hit you all with it tomorrow. Apologies for the length of the saga but these partly a substitute for my memory so I like to be detailed - sometimes too much so according to Charl!

Anonymous said...

Just called by after reading your comment on James' blog and have been here for 40 mins enthralled by the burgeoning adventure of Hardangerjokulen!
Great writing and the last river crossing was hugely entertaining and a wee bit scary too...
Looking forward to the next instalment, it's great to read about somewhere so very different from the usual too.

Marcus said...

Thanks, that's very kind. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I'm finding myself a little engrossed on your blog now! How have I missed it for so long?

Martin Rye said...

More please.

Marcus said...

really sorry about the delay folks. The recent shoulder dislocation caused a bit of nerve damage which makes controlling my arm and hand rather difficult! I'm working on the next instalment with my left hand but its just a bit slow going.

zoompal said...

wow that looks like a tough and cold hike!

Fantastic photos and very well described!

James Boulter said...

I have really enjoyed the three installments so far. That last river crossing definately sounded scary! Look forward to the next installment.

Alan Sloman said...

I reckon it's worth waiting for.
Good luck with the arm - these things take time. I still struggle adapting to typing with one "manked" finger from my barbed wire incident.

I have to go back at the end of every sentence to put right the errant finger.

Hope things are going well with your recovery.