Friday, 15 June 2012

Jotunheimen - Into the Heart of the Land of Giants

"Have you everchanced to see the Gendin-Edge?
Nigh on four miles long it stretches
sharp before you like a scythe.
Down o'er glaciers, landslips, scaurs,
down the toppling grey moraines,
you can see, both right and left,
straight into the tarns that slumber,
black and sluggish, more than seven
hundred fathoms deep below you.
Right along the Edge we two
clove our passage through the air.
Never rode I such a colt!
Straight before us as we rushed
'twas as though there glittered suns.
Brown-backed eagles that were sailing
in the wide and dizzy void
half-way 'twixt us and the tarns,
dropped behind, like motes in air.
Ice-floes on the shores broke crashing,
but no murmur reached my ears.
Only sprites of dizziness sprang,
dancing, round;-they sang, they swung,
circle-wise, past sight and hearing!"

             Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Act 1 Scene 1

Oslo Gardermoen airport is like a ghost town - I have the otherworldly sense of being behind the wizard's curtain, like I am not supposed to be here and at some point, someone with a badge and a gun will remove me and my fellow travellers from the halls in which we now stand. It is approaching midnight and all is silent around me. No one has the energy to speak - we just want our bags and to be on our way. I am fortunate that my cavernous kit bag rolls onto the carousel third in line - perhaps they subconsciously know we have a long drive - and I head off to meet with my trip partner. The roads are quiet but it is still twilight outside - picture a full moon, bright and sharp and you have the image. We cruise for over three hours on empty Norwegian roads, the majestic scenery plainly visible in the half-light. For much of the trip we are accompanied by huge lakes of sublime beauty, framed by forested, sylvan hills. We decide to push on rather than wild camp by the roadside. Eventually, as morning breaks, we arrive at Gjendesheim and the edge of Lake Gjende. We have not packed crampons or ice-axes - taking a risk that the Besseggen Ridge will be passable without them. Yet, as we traverse the high road into Jotunheimen, the Home of Giants, the snow stands 20ft high either side of us and seems to extend forever. The weather, swirling wind encircling us and plainly felt even in the relative safety of our car, does not fill us with confidence. We are suddenly acutely aware of the risk we have taken and wonder if we have miscalculated.

Upon reaching Gjendesheim, and the edge of the Gjende, the huge lake alongside with Besseggen runs, we park and slip into our sleeping bags for a few hours blessed rest. The DNT flagship hut here is closed and does not open until next weekend. They have advised us that the ridge may not be walkable but we'll need to see that for ourselves as the weather has been far better than expected up to now and we expect most of the snow to have melted away. In fact, there is snow on the ridge, but far less than the glaciated mountains we have driven through to get here. We resolve to get as high as we can and take bearings from there. We don't have to commit and to leave without trying would be such a waste.

It is a fitful night's sleep. We wake around eight o'clock and pull ourselves out of our bags. The shop next to the Gjende, a largish affair by the small ferry dock, has a handwritten sign in the window indicating half an hour until it opens. That seems unlikely to me but we dress and get our kit ready - we'll soon be on the move anyway. A car pulls up, and another, followed by another. Over the course of the next half an hour, around thirty people arrive - all hikers getting ready for the day's exertions. They have more confidence than we do in the conditions it would appear. The shop does indeed open at half past the hour and we get ourselves some chocolate for the trip and warm buns for breakfast. Everyone else leaves on the ferry at half past nine. It's a day-walk for them - we intend the opposite route and a camp en route before coming back along the lakeshore trail. We'll end up meeting them half way but at least that interruption to our solace will be short-lived. Clouds gather above us - the weather forecast has been uncertain throughout the weeks leading up to today - the promised sunshine seems a long way from the looming darkness above us. We start to walk.

The trail is marked by the small DNT symbols, all in the figure of a 'T', painted in red on rocks. There are cairns, too, to guide us. Initially, the trail up to the ridge is straightforward but steep. The path is good and clearly manufactured. We can see patches of snow, and we know we'll have to see what greets us when we get up there, but we're possessed of a strong desire to see Besseggen for ourselves. The initial climb is a slavish grind but as the vista opens up in front of us, and the sleek, shark's fin monsters rising up out of Lake Gjende show themselves to us, we begin to realise the allure of this hallowed place. The wind, for once, is minimal although it is still cold. From time to time we encounter snow, usually only a hundred metres or so at a time, and usually relatively flat and easy to traverse or avoid. But as we ascend, it becomes more frequent, steeper and harder to circumvent. Each step is studied concentration and we are keen to stay on rock where we can. From time to time, we must ascend through a chimney, using hands, feet and knees to make progress on the greasy, wet rock.

Eventually, the ridge begins to flatten out and the rocky barren plateau of the first part of Besseggen stretches out before us into the mist ahead. Navigation is becoming more difficult as the pall thickens. There are cornices of snow hanging over the edge of the ridge leading to sheer drop of hundreds of metres into Gjende below. We steer away from the snow here, remaining on rock where we can. We cannot be sure any of the snow to our left is stable. It is the cairns now which guide us - the ubiquitous DNT blood red marks are almost invisible in the mist unless they are scant metres away. Tiny droplets of moisture bead on our shells and faces as we ascend further along the vaguely inclined plateau. It gets steeper in places, and we cross yet more snow, but in truth the ascent is tiring but reasonable. 

The colours, probably as a consequence of the diffused light from the clouds and the more direct white light from the sun just peeking through the inky pall in the distance, are vibrant and powerful greens and yellows. The moss on the rock seems almost fluorescent to my eyes. Eventually, the final summit cairn of the ridge - a leviathan pyramid at Veslfjellnet (1743m) - can be seen. To reach it we must ascend ascending a steep incline of 200m of snow and we do so with some circumspection, kicking steps. A slip would be more than simply embarrassing. We stop at the cairn, taking time to capture the panorama.

Jotunheimen has a true wilderness feel that simply does not exist in the UK outside of the highlands of Scotland and I am drawn inexorably to the conclusion that I'll be back here frequently. There are buildings for time to time, near the road that passes through the park, but beyond that there is no evidence of human habitation, nor are there farming animals of any type that we saw whilst there. There are small collections of buildings in the park, usually clustered around a DNT hut, but very little else. Our destination is Memurubu, a small area on an inlet in the bottom of a valley between mountains on the shores of the Gjende - there is a privately owned hut which we know will be closed, but also a place to camp next to the beautiful lake. The Russvatnet and Bessvatnet, even huge expanses of water that they are, are both frozen and the ground next to them completely covered in snow. Traversing their shores will be a long, tedious process and we simply do not have the time tomorrow. We will, instead, keep the Gjende close to our hearts and traverse her shores. It is a shame that we will miss the difference in colour between Gjende and Bessvatnet which, in summer, can be seen from Besseggen. The light green of the Gjende, 400m lower than Bessvatnet, is as a consequence of suspended particles from glacial run off.

As we descend from the summit cairn towards Bandet, a diminutive ridge at the foot of Besshø, and the shores of Bessvatnet, we begin to see why Besseggen is graded as a 'difficult' walk. The descent on the knife-edge ridge is genuine scrambling. It is here that we begin to see the ferry-borne day-trippers making their way towards us. As we make our descent, they ascend, picking their way slowly, arduously over the rocks, some hugging the mountainside like frightened rabbits and others dancing across the craggy ridge like gazelles. The sun breaks through the cloud for some time, bathing the ridge and its surrounds in welcome, fresh warmth.

Eventually, we reach Bandet and stop for a moment to consider something we have seen from the top of the ridge. There is a trail carved into the snow, but the drop down to Bessvatnet is steep and long. A foot misplaced would be disastrous. Yet, as we get closer, the trail carved by dozens of walkers before us is a good one. Careful foot placement is all that's needed and we make short work of what looked to be a tricky proposition. We keep to rock as much as possible, even if it takes us out of our way - no sense is upsetting fate.

From Bandet, we ascend again, albeit this time our ascents are short ups and downs. We pass through the shadow of Besshø, which blesses us with its own weather system and, following the enjoyable sunshine of a few hours before, we don shells and push through the showers and wind. Eventually, we begin the final descent into Memurubu and within moments, we turn into the apex of the valley and the hut, and it's surrounding buildings, come into view. It's a long way we down, we observe, and a steep descent, but our legs are tired and we are keen to get on. The Besseggen walk is 6-8hrs according to the DNT and that's a solid estimate. We break regularly for photography and to eat, and we take 7 hours.

The path down to Memurubu is a good one - dusty in places which requires careful foot placement - but reasonable. We pass the junction for the trail to Glitterheim and secretly wish we had more time and could circumnavigate the northern shores of the Russvatnet as we had planned. Next time maybe.

As we pull into Memurubu, dreams of an open hut and real food play on our minds but, deep down, we know it will be empty. Although the hut itself is shut, there are small winter huts available - mountain bothy type structures built into the mountainside although a key is available for DNT huts in winter, we don't know if the same applies to Memurubu.

Memurubu has an odd feel to it. There is not a soul around and all the buildings, with the exception of the four bed bothy and a store room, are locked. There are various farming vehicles dotted around, along with sleds to carry equipment over snow. There is even an outdoor toilet - a tiny cubicle which whilst not particularly inviting is certainly not the worst I have seen. We pick a spot next to Gjende and pitch. Once our bags are lofting, mats inflating and legs resting, we munch happily on chocolate as water boils for our freeze dried food. I opt for gas rather than meths, purely to give the Primus Express Spider a run out and it performs admirably. The weather stays cool but there is little in way of wind and no rain. After we have eaten our fill, we head off to experiment with shutter speed and the rushing water of the River Muru next to us. I take the chance to explore the site and the Hut buildings around us. I have always been enthused by alpine huts as much as I have wild camping and the DNT/private huts in Norway, be they bothy or small hotel in style, fill me with the same feeling of excitement.

Yet, we are tired and it is not long before we are tucked away in our down bags and slumbering. I wake several times during the night and, for one such occasion, I crawl out of my bag and spend a few moments enjoying the twilight catching the ripples on Gjende, and the deep shadows of the mountains towering above me. Life has been a rat-race, especially lately, and being here in the company of ancient leviathans, grass beneath my toes and fresh air in my lungs fills me at once with a sense of peace, something approaching joy and, simultaneously, a deep despair. This is not enough, I admonish myself. I need to be out here more than I am but perhaps that is soon to be the way of things. Life takes many turns and sometimes, you need to choose the turn it takes. I have choices to make.

The next morning, we eat porridge and locate, after some searching, the unmarked trail along the shores of Gjende. It is not an easy path, winding up and down the mountainside - poorly kept in places and exposed in others, it looks on the map for all the world to be an easy 3-4 hour stroll - be warned, it requires effort and concentration but the views from here across the Gjende are outstanding. We caress the surface of Gjende and from here, we are gifted a different perspective of Jotunheimen than from the ridge of Besseggen. Now, we are ants, darting in between these monsters rather than eagles soaring above them. We come across two pebble beaches, right against the Gjende, with more than enough room to camp and pitch a tarp or the fly of a stand-alone shelter like the Fly Creek. Had we known, these may have been alternatives for the night, but a tougher mat than the lightweight Peak Elite AC would be required.

The weather oscillates between cool, cloudy darkness and a warm, balmy glimmer. Layering becomes an art form as well segue from warm, humid forest to the cool, exposed slopes of Besseggen, but this time only 100m above Gjende rather than over 800m at the top  of the ridge. Eventually, Lady Luck capitulates and the rain comes but by now we are well within sight of Gjendesheim. Half an hour later, we are in our car by which time, of course, the sun has returned. Such is life. We head down to a small town called Fagernes and grab and a burger and a beer. Every time I'm midway through a walk, I have something in mind to look forward to and this time, beer and a burger occupied that small sport in my subconscious thoughts.

When I look back, the ridge fresh in my mind, I am thrilled to have been there. The Land of Giants, home to trolls and monsters ages old, has a milieu all of its own. The landscape is neither alpine, nor does it resemble Scotland or anything else in the UK. It is beautifully unique and an experience I'll treasure. The drive to Gjendesheim is around four hours, in the middle of the night when traffic is virtually non-existent. Flights to Oslo are not so very expensive, but hiring a car is - everything in Norway is eye-wateringly expensive, which is no exaggeration at all. Remember not to take camping gas with you but source it en route. Gas cannot be taken even into the hold of an aircraft. There is public transport up to Jotunheimen (and the Rondane, for that matter) in form of the train to Otta on the Dovre line, and several buses into the park. If you want to email the Gjendesheim Hut, the contact details including email address is here and they are an excellent source of information. The timetable for the Gjendesheim-Memurubu-Gjendebu ferry is a study in obfuscation but email them too.


  1. That was wonderful - evocative writing and stunning photos. You are right about it being a unique looking landscape and you have captured a great feeling of it. Some of those colours are out of this world and whilst the terrain looks challenging it seems to have provided a perfect wilderness experience for you. I have a feeling a Jotunheim map may be next on my purchase list!

  2. They're expensive maps. I'll send you mine!

  3. Haha, just like everything else in Norway? I also had a look for Peer Gynt at Amazon but the only Kindle edition is in German. I like the passage you opened with.

  4. I thought the passage really personified the magical feeling, and essence, of the Besseggen Ridge - the special part is the panorama over both Gjende and Bessvatnet. Thanks for your comments - this was my first time shooting landscapes in RAW and I feel that I have moved up a notch in terms of learning the trade of photography. Each little step is an important one!

  5. Brilliant just brilliant. It brought back lots of good memories. It was one of my favourite walks. I was a young lad when i did this and Norway is so geared up to assist the hiker.

  6. It was a superb little trip and I can see me spending far more time in Jotunheimen in the coming years.

  7. Noway always seems to be on a different scale in Scotland. Excellent photos Maz. The trails seem to be well organised.

  8. BTW Maz nice article in this month's TGO. I have walked around the area - Moel Hebog and Moel Lefin.  Beddgelert Forest is a bit of a pain walking through however !

  9. Thanks Mark, glad you enjoyed it. Frankly I think my photography is better now, but that trip was last year and the weather was poor.

  10. Fabulous landscapes there, a mouthwatering wilderness for wintry backpacking. It won't actually happen for us now, but your account and pictures will take us there!.

  11. Spectacular, in both words and images! I intended to leave a comment on another post and got sidetracked by this one :)

  12. Thanks Mark but frankly it's hard to get it wrong when you're subject matter is this good!

  13. It was so good to finally meet you on the Sunday - and for me to finally have finished reading all the way through your post! The photos look fabulous and your words are sublime. Perhaps we'll hike with you next year!

  14. Certainly hope so as it was a genuine pleasure to meet you and Thomas. Sorry I talked so much!