Walking in the Ice Age: October in Jotunheimen
Norway's great Jotenheimen National Park is home to the country's highest peak, Galdhøppigen. Experienced trekker and Cicerone author Alex Kendall decided on a trip in October - did he time it right for the beautiful colours of autumn, or would the snows of winter have already set in?
I was standing on the bridge over the river at Spiterstulen, 1100m up in the great Visdalen, the valley that splits Jotunheimen in two. Around me the mountains had assembled in congress like Gods around an Olympian round table, all but invisible in the black night when we arrived, now lit by a hidden sun, wearing scarves of cloud.
The summer work season behind me, I had come up with an idea of visiting Scandinavia’s highest mountain range in October, out of their walking season. But I had been to Scotland in October and it’s usually brilliant, so surely it had to be fine here too. That’s what I told my friend Scarlet, who had immediately agreed to come, and only the week before had joined me in looking up what the typical weather was due to be.
It was cold. On the drive from Oslo we watched the car thermometer gradually dip, and it hovered at -2ºC as we put the tent up, gloves on, and each night it got colder. Once we woke to a light snow on the ground round the tent, and on the final morning Scarlet woke me to point out that the zip was iced. Not the outside zip, but the tent’s inner zip. The water bottles in contact with the ground were frozen solid.
Each day as we walked up out of the valley onto the mountains we crossed the snow line, which hovered at around 1700m. Despite all this, the colours were autumn’s. Birch in the valleys had leaves of bright yellow and whole hillsides of them glowed gold. Smaller individual shrubs higher up still had their leaves, flaming red or terracotta, appearing brighter than usual against the grey rock and the white snow.
During the frozen mornings, the paths were coated in ice from hundreds of tiny rivulets and streams. Around these icy channels there were berries; bilberries, cowberries and crowberries that were at the height of production. The crowberries in particular were too numerous to count, and it was strange seeing these at such relatively low levels considering they are the UK’s highest berry.
The vast numbers of berries, green shrubby leaves and golden trees sat oddly with the ice. Autumn, the gentle season, had been taken by surprise, by an aggressive winter arriving too early, like an unwelcome and overbearing guest at a party. Every day more leaves fell, mosses hardened into frozen tufts, and the streams became further muted as they got nearer to freezing over. But every afternoon, when the still warming sun had done its work, the valleys were ice-free, and autumn had reclaimed another few hours for itself.
The outdoor season in Norway appears to be strictly defined. Spiterstulen is one of the major huts in the most popular area. It is also the last high-level hut to be open. The others were shut by mid-September and Spiterstulen, more an outdoor centre than a hostel, stays open until the last course is finished. We could camp outside (after the second day we were the only ones left), and use the hot showers, drying room and lounge, for only £8 per night, which is the same price as you’d get for a muddy field and token-requiring showers in the Lake District. This short walking season starts in June, and before this it’s the season for ski touring. That starts in early March. Between November and February, there is darkness and deep snow.
Climbing to the top of Norway: Galdhøppigen
Routes on either side of Visdalen lead up to the two highest mountains in Norway. Galdhøppigen (2469m) is a pointed spire, totally hidden from us by its craggy eastern slopes, like an embarrassed giant. The summit can be reached from a few directions, and the two most popular are either the way we went from Spiterstulen (which is roughly the same ascent and descent as Ben Nevis) or from the much higher hut at Juvasshytta, which stands at 1800m and which requires a roped glacier crossing (good work for the guides!).
Our final hour up to Galdhøppigen was a traverse of two minor summits before the main peak. On either side we stared down at glaciers filling the corries below, their crevasses filled by the recent snowfall but the horrifying depths of the bergshrunds all too visible as their tail ends slowly tear away from the mountain.
On the other side of Visdalen lies Glittertinden (2464m), nominally the second highest mountain in Norway, but this is not entirely fair. Though the highest bit of rock does make it second, the glacier on the summit raises it above Galdhøppigen by a few metres.
I wasn’t too worried about this as I made my way to the top on the second day, battling the wind into a white-out. The friendly painted red T’s that mark the routes here were invisible under snow and rime, and having very few visual clues, I was bashing the ice off the uphill side of rocks I found, hoping it would aid me on the descent. My fear was the summit area itself; on the ascent side a smooth slope, but after the crest, a drop into thin air, and I had no idea if there was enough snow for it to have corniced.
I kept peering ahead into the white, telling myself if I ever couldn’t see at least a rock or different shade of snow showing solid ground, then I would turn back. I stopped at one point, hairs raised, with the sudden feeling of an awful drop not far away, a terrifying void. Ahead was a vague line, showing the difference between sky and snow. I edged closer and saw the cliffs where the summit ridge turned to my right. Here was the edge, and here was a cornice. I stayed far away and made my way to what I hope was the top, before taking a bearing off into the white and heading home.
On the way down I met someone coming up, a floating man totally lacking definition against the white. We said hello, both wondering what the other one was doing in this eclectic environment. I made myself get a lot further down, where there was a view and a boulder to hide behind, before I had lunch.
As part of our week we had two rest days to see more of the valleys and the town of Lom – a place that we had so far only driven through in the dark. For the first of these days we aimed to drive south-west to where the road crosses the high plateau at Sognefjellet: appearing from the map to be an alluring and vast arena of lake, rolling land and sky. Unfortunately as the road began to rise, we drove into a blizzard, and the roads became increasingly snow-covered. Not wanting to risk the hire car, we stopped for a walk up the valley of Dumdalen.
The name, ‘dum’ is nearly the same in English, meaning silent. It comes from the valley stream, which periodically runs through caves (seven are marked on the map) during its short journey down the valley, which silences the sound of the waters. We followed it up to its parent lake, Svartjønne, stopping to enter one of the caves, scrabbling down a hole in the earth, finding wet foot-holds and creeping through eroded tunnels, to where we encountered the stream underground.
Back outside the world was white, a total winter. We continued our walk, and the sun came out, gently, as though nervous to see what the snow storm had done. Beside the lake, we (mostly Scarlet) made a small snowman. ‘This is George,’ she said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. I couldn’t disagree. He’s probably still there now, as until late spring the temperature won’t go above zero.
On our second rest day we left Spiterstulen for the last time, stopping at the bakery in Lom to watch the waterfall and eat buns before driving to where we had found a heated cabin for the last two nights in Randsverk. There’s also a museum in Lom dedicated to the National Park, but it was closed. I got the impression that everything is very seasonal. Arriving in Randverk to find it empty apart from one lady in a caravan, we went for a walk in the woods. Mosses and lichen poured over the boulders forming giant cushions, and falling like fountains from tree branches. Every colour of green had come here to test its own shade against the others. Not able to find a marked circular walk, we created our own, and to my discredit I led us into a marsh. Thankfully we found our way back before sunset.
Besseggen Ridge and Besshøe
With one day left and a whole new set of roads to give us access to different areas of the mountains, we made plans for a big day. I was keen to go further than Scarlet wanted to, so we planned to separate early on. Waking to dense cloud and biting cold, we feared the worse, but driving the short distance to Bessheim, the clouds parted and vanished. Above us was blue sky and sunshine, the clouds sunk into the deep valley behind. The clarity of the air and the stillness was electric; we both had the Besseggen Ridge as our goal, reputedly one of the most popular day walks in Norway. I wanted to extend the walk and include the peak of Besshøe, a 2258m lonely monolith that stands beyond the ridge.
Mist hung in the valleys but the sky was mostly clear, only a high grey band on one half and bright blue on the other. But the sun was warming the air, and the valley clouds were rising. I raced them, up over rocky Veslfjellet, where from the summit cairn the peaks of southern Jotunheimen marched off into the horizon. The descent of the Besseggen ridge took me back into the cloud, the rock smooth and grippy, a great little scramble. The base of this climb is a famous view. On both sides are lakes, but whereas the one on the right is within touching distance, the left hand lake is nearly 400 metres below, a spectacular quirk of geology. On the map they are nearly touching.
Still in the cloud, I began the steep ascent of Besshøe, off-path and relying on a mixture of luck, hope and a compass bearing or two. The lower boulder-field steepened, and as the snowline appeared again, the mist thinned and broke. I had come through, as though crawling (sometimes literally) out of the dark plunging depths and up into a snowy heaven. The summit dome was ice-ridden, crisp and white and silent. To the north I saw Glittertinden, and directly in front a dozen other peaks and ridges, valleys and streams running together. Here was a thousand miles of wilderness, a land where creatures were still allowed their place in the sun.
It is impossible to be lonely here. There are moments where the scale grips you and you feel your heart beating faster.
Great upland valleys, where thousands of boulders have landed where the glacier left them, dwarf you. The immense views, the glaciers with their terrible depths; the endless silver light. But on all the rocks are multiple colours from lichens. Mice run from footsteps into burrows, and spiders creep slowly across the snow like they are treading on hot coals. Ptarmigan burst from rocks and cackle together, eyeing your passing. And on that last day, I came across a herd of reindeer.
Released by Besshøe, I followed the lakeshore to the final path down to the car. A front was coming in. I saw a reindeer and stopped. Snow began to fall, but not aggressively. It was a hundred gentle taps on the shoulder, each individual snowflake softly settling down on the earth, silent. The reindeer moved off but the snow continued. The hills ahead were a grey fuzz; it was now falling everywhere I could see. It was telling me my time was up, that our final day had been a window of brilliant clarity before the long winter.
Alex Kendall is a mountain leader, working in summer and winter throughout the UK and abroad, leading groups on day walks, challenges and long distance journeys. He enjoys getting people into the outdoors, especially through supervising Duke of Edinburgh's Award expeditions and running weekend walking trips for adults. He has been walking in Snowdonia for over 10 years having been introduced to these mountains as a student.View Articles and Books by Alex Kendall