14 â€“ 19 March 2010
The taxi dropped us at the road-head and, under initially bright skies, we set off along a track through the forest. The temperature, a pleasant -6C, meant our grip-wax worked well and progress was good for 8km to the end of the ‘summer road’.
Beyond that, though, it became a case of bushwacking through deep, soft powder among the birch scrub. We took turns to trail-break, ascending steadily up Puttbudalen.
As we left the trees behind the weather turned, snowfall reduced the visibility and a bitter wind got up. Fortunately the last few km were ‘kvisted’ (marked with birch sticks stuck in the snow), allowing us to reach the hut at Pyttbua by 4pm.
We settled in, got the woodburner roaring and melted snow for tea. The comfort of the well-equipped hut was broken only by the need to trek outside through waist-high drifts to the other hut containing the earth-closet toilets! Efforts to clear a path were futile – it would drift in again in less time than it took to use the facilities!
The continuing strong winds and poor visibility made the peak of Hogtunga (1912m) an unlikely attainment for the day, but we set out anyway to see how far we could get.
Occasionally the sun glimmered faintly through the cloud, but once again any features proved difficult to make out, the most noticeable being the signs of numerous avalanches on the slopes above us, hardly surprising given the depth of unconsolidated snow loading the slopes.
The satellite top of Lagtunga (1653m) to the west proved to be our limit – by the time we reached it visibility was down to perhaps 20m, the slope was barely distinguishable, and a raging wind (estimated 50mph by the ship’s captain in the group) was threatening to knock the smaller members of the party clean off their feet. Honour satisfied, we enjoyed a somewhat testing ski back down to the pleasant sanctuary of the hut.
This should have been a straightforward, short journey allowing time for the ascent of Karitinden (1982m) along the way. In fact it turned out to be the pivotal day of the trip….
With climbing-skins on the skis, I broke trail (and sweat!) through deep, wind-blown, breakable crust up the valley side and into a wide open bowl.
Beyond that a steep side-step up soft powder below crags was an energy-sapping case of ‘two steps upwards, one slip back down’, but so far, so good, we were making fair progress and I was imagining a mid-afternoon arrival at the next hut.
Day 3 (cont.)
But all that changed after our lunch stop – falling snow and true whiteout conditions slowed progress to a crawl. Trail-breakers sank knee- or even waist-deep in the soft snow and 50m at the front was as much as anybody could manage at a stint.
Navigation became an intricate mixture of map, compass and gps work, and micro-route finding was a whole extra problem – often impossible to tell even a metre or so ahead whether the slope was rising, falling or even dropping over an edge! Slowly we inched our way around another bowl and along a chain of frozen lakes, conscious all the while not to veer off course and be channelled onto dangerous, steep slopes to the south.
Eventually the final, long descent towards Veltdalsvatnet began, skis invisible deep beneath the snow, but even then it wasn’t plain sailing – suddenly Tom (the group leader) just disappeared! And Iain came close to following, depending on his pole tips to slowly scrabble back from the invisible edge! Fortunately we soon heard Tom further down - he had fallen down the invisible precipice, but survived a landing on soft snow on his skis without injuries. The rest of us carefully side-stepped down at the side of the cliff, and within a few more minutes the welcome sight of Veltdalshytta loomed into view.
We woke hoping for a day of sunshine to warm the slopes and consolidate the snow, but instead found yet more snow falling and visibility as restricted as the previous day. Ascent of Nausthornet (1895m) or Karitinden, or even Tordseddje (1614m) was out of the question.
But a long day marooned inside a hut, whilst sometimes inevitable, is never that appealing, so to break up the day we ventured out to ski a km or so up the valley to the fascinating little shelter/museum of Fieldfarehytta. This tiny hide-out was shelter for a year for 3 members of the Norwegian resistance (including the man who had led the Rjukan ‘Heroes of Telemark’ raid earlier in the war). Tucked in under an overhanging cliff with the water lapping at its door, it would have been almost impossible to spot, especially from the air, offering crucial security, if incredibly cramped and spartan accommodation, from which to venture out to report on German transport movements or set up sabotage missions ready for orders from London.
Day 4 (cont.)
We next skied part way up the slope across the valley to test conditions for the start of the potential 22km day, but they were far from promising. A foray back up the slope we had descended yesterday was equally discouraging – the snow hadn’t consolidated at all and any tracks from the previous day had been completely obliterated.
A rare clear view of Tordsnose (1975m).....
We clearly now needed a plan B, and only one option seemed plausible. A 12km route south along Veltdalsvatnet and east over a 1400m pass would take us to the small hut at Torsbu. From there it looked as if a 16km day down the valleys of Tverradalen and Torddalen would take us to the road where we could flag down our bus back to Oslo. However, one possible obstacle could ruin this – about 3km from the road the Torda valley appeared to narrow into a 60m deep gorge for several hundred metres. Norwegian maps are pretty good but the normal 1:50k variety have a 20m contour interval and don’t mark any kind of cliff or crag, and a lot of detail can be hidden in that contour interval – would it be passable or might it be boulder-choked or maybe a waterfall? Would the hillsides above be safely negotiable? If not we’d be out of time and short of options. But with no access to the outside world for any further information we really had no other option – either sit tight (for days?) for conditions to improve enough for plan A, or else go and give this a try….
Almost inevitably conditions hadn’t improved – despite a slight clearing the previous evening that had given a faint glimpse of the northern lights, in fact the snow and wind were now heavier and stronger than ever. And the temperature was hovering just below zero – more difficult than colder conditions for waxing the skis for grip, and also more unpleasant to be out in on account of the potential for dampness.Once again our crocodile set out, taking turns to trail-break south down the first of the frozen Veltdalsvatnet reservoirs – a falling water-level through the winter had created an icy bergschrund several metres high to climb carefully out over at the end of the lake. The second reservoir proved even harder going – the lake was completely drained leaving us to flog over or around every little boulder or ridge on its floor (imagine if someone pulled the plug on Haweswater or Thirlmere!). We rapidly gave up on this route and climbed out onto the steep valley side, making better progress but mindful of the half-buried evidence of several recent avalanches across our path.
At the lake’s end our course swung east but here the wind had deposited heavy slab over deep powder and many steps forward required several upward kicks to free ski tips from beneath the solid snow. As we swung up onto the steeper slopes of the col we encountered our first kvisted waymarks since day 1, raising our hopes that the way out might be marked and passable. We also encountered a fearsome wind which tested our ability to remain upright up the icy slope,
but as the pass opened out and Torsbu became visible in the distance, conditions eased. The hut was cosy but certainly compact – just 9 bunks, perfect – but enhanced by the presence of both indoor earth closets and chocolate biscuits in the provisions cupboard!
'Indoor earth closets and chocolate biscuits'; nice juxtaposition of prose
Keen to have some element of contingency for our 4pm bus, we rose at 5 and were on our way shortly after 7. The temperature was +1C, the snow was soggy, our skis either wouldn’t grip or would ball up completely, and visibility was as indistinct as ever. A couple of km shuffling along the flat brought us to the descent down Tverradalen - 2 gravity-assisted km but very changeable snow conditions made ‘survival skiing’ the order of the day.
At the foot of the valley we met 3 Norwegians camping out (the only other people we’d seen all week) – they were Sports Science students from Oslo and this week-long trip was coursework!
Faced now with a long ski down Torddalen and wetter and wetter snow, we resorted to our skins for guaranteed if slow progress. Almost predictably, as we left the mountains behind the cloud lifted and some of what we’d been amongst for the week came tantalisingly in to view – ah, well, there’s always another time….
Day 6 (cont.)
We skirted a thawing patch in the river, skied under yet more avalanched slopes, and found that the route past the gorge was in fact provided by a relatively straightforward, steep climb over a spur.
A spot of lunch and then skins off for the final descent to the road at Billingen…
Excellent story Matt. Reading it as posted made the suspense build as it suggests you may not make it home for weeks (even if I did realise you had to have made it back!!).
Fascinating that you found the shelter. I read 'Skis against the atom' last year. An excellent tale and real Boys Own survival stuff. Kirk Douglas and team never did it justice.
Wow, MoS said you'd used the word 'adventure', and it certainly looks that way! Hope your nav practice in the Cairngorms put you in good stead for this one. Some great photos there - and those huts look really comfy (outside earth closets notwithstanding).
Thanks for the comments - it was fun!!!
Definitely a 'wilderness experience' despite the hut comforts.
I wondered as I was posting all this sequentially whether it counted as Trev'ing my own thread?!!
Warning!! History Spotter Comment Alert! Clunking history reference/link coming up:
MK/Matt: And of course the Norwegians trained for Operation Grouse and the other raids in the Cairngorms too.
lol, AT!! Yep, I read it in 'real-time' uploads too - couldn't wait for the next exciting episode...
Ben, that's interesting. So the Cairngorms are Norway, Derwent Water the Rhur reservoirs, Slapton the Normandy beaches... any others?
Nice one Matt As a contrasting report of the same trip, I received the following from Li'l Lollipot....
"Back from Norway OK. Had a good time, but there was rather too much snow" (and then she moved on to other topics)
Not one to make a fuss is she, unless it's raining, she has to sleep in a tent, or she has to get up before 7am....
Matt C wrote (see)
Day 6: Torsbu to BillingenKeen to have some element of contingency for our 4pm bus, we rose at 5 and were on our way shortly after 7.
Keen to have some element of contingency for our 4pm bus, we rose at 5 and were on our way shortly after 7.
Whoot I bet that derailled the porridge preparation
You do have a track record of 'adventure' when you go on these 'organised' trips!!!
AT (http://AyrshireTiger.wordpress.com/) wrote (see)
Brilliant Matt - like Ben I was reading it as you were posting it - it was a bit like watching a reality show - I'm an OMer...get me out of here!
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