A Snowy Journey

OK, so I took down Chapter One (London) and I haven’t yet finished Chapter Two (France).  But here is Chapter Three in all its glory for you to enjoy or not… if you want to provide some feedback that would be great…  and if anybody knows Joachim from Munich, please say Thank You for the postcard but I didn’t have an address for him by then – and that I think this demonstrates that some of my best memories from Norway were of skiing with him.   I haven’t even mentioned the stave churches, or Lillehammer… One day I shall go back to Norway.

snow-sculpture-norway

It was early February.  It was raining yet again in London.  It had been raining in London, it seemed constantly, for weeks.  I gazed out of the office window at the cars, buses and pedestrians splashing up and down Fleet Street and wondered for the umpteenth time what I wanted to do with my life.  Cycling into work at the moment was a pain: one arrived covered in filth and soaked to the skin having narrowly missed death by motor vehicle on several occasions and I was still in a temporary job, having seen no others I fancied applying for recently.

Lack of sunlight always depresses me.  It had got to the point where the rain was making me angry – I was beginning to take it as a personal affront.   Even on the days when life dawned bright and sunny, as soon as got on my bike to cycle home the heavens would open.

So the surprise phone call from the holiday company I had previously worked for was rather timely.  They needed a cross country ski rep in Norway as the rep who was already out there wanted to come home.  In some ways I knew straight away that there was no decision to make: this was my chance to escape.  I had never done any cross-country skiing, having seen people plodding around in circles around frozen lakes in France and having regarded it as rather boring and tame, but as I wasn’t too bad a downhill skier I thought I could master cross-country.  Being the insecure person I was my worries and doubts began as soon as I started thinking I’d probably go, of course.   Would I really manage to cross-country ski to a standard high enough that I could not only keep up with, even guide, the holiday clients but also teach the beginners some of the basics?  I spoke to a colleague who had skied in the police or the army or something before returning to a more sedentary civilian life.  His response was typical of him and put me at ease: “Well, you can skate can’t you?  And you’re one of those sickening sporty types – all muscle and bone.  No problem!”  I hasten to add that he always exaggerates and says I’m built for speed rather than comfort, but in fact I’m not as fit as I was and if nothing else this would, I hoped, be an opportunity to become fitter.

The following day I bought the Bike mag February edition.  Not only was there an article about Norway and how difficult it was to buy replacement inner tubes, but also a brief clipping on how cross-country skiing was excellent cross-training for cyclists.  Apparently Olympic cyclists use it for their winter training.  I had also read somewhere that it was more physically demanding even than swimming, and my worries and fears began to be surpassed by excitement.

For a while at least I would have no more office or tube claustrophobia (there were days when the rain was so off-putting that there was no way I was going to head off by pushbike into the vehicle-splashed-up dirt of the London streets with early morning rain pouring down on me); and, best of all, I would get away from this blasted rain.  I went mountain biking in the Peak District the weekend before I left and both days we had glorious sunny weather.  Oh well.

From the start Norway was different from any other country I had previously visited.  When I’ve been skiing in the Alps I have travelled from greenery up into the mountains, getting higher and higher and increasingly worried about the fact that there seems to be NO SNOW.  From the moment I landed in Oslo I was surrounded by snow and ice.  I had never seen so much snow, and found it difficult to believe that it could continue to fall, sometimes for days at a time, much the way the rain does in England.  A Norwegian woman I was talking to in the hotel one evening said “oh yes: it snows from November to May here.  We get as fed up with it as you do with your English rain!”

The plane came in to land immediately over a fjord on which people were skating, and the sense of anticipation and excitement I always feel to a greater or lesser extent when travelling, but which often diminishes when I reach a half-way point in the journey and am exhausted with the emotion of it all and the sheer movement from A to B, continued unabated.  I had none of that sense of ‘well, I’m in the country, what now?  Where do I go next?  Have I done the right thing?’  Everything was a delight, from the miniscule size of Oslo airport compared to Gatwick, Geneva or Paris, to the easy ride on the ‘Flybuss’ to Olso Central Station, through the wait at the clean and enclosed (i.e. not windswept and freezing) station – where time flew by as I people-watched and which was quite unlike the wait I had had when crossing Paris once, in a grubby station served coffee by a grumpy French waiter – to the train journey along the edges of icy and sometimes frozen lakes and rivers, with a train window sill to rest against which seemed to be heated.  Luxury.

Venabu, where I was to live in the FjellHotel, turned out to be nothing much more than a couple of hotels surrounded by holiday huts in the middle of nowhere, not too far to the north of Lillehammer.  However it was friendly and comfortable and many of the meals were buffets: I could eat as much as I liked and have gravad lax every night if I really wanted.  I do love smoked salmon and this was some of the best…  Alcohol was hideously expensive but what the hell – I was going to be healthy and this was meant to be therapy of a kind.

The basic cross-country ski technique proved to be fairly easy to pick up and I am sure that being able to skate and having strong quads from cycling helped.  What I did find difficult initially was keeping my arms straight and this was where, eventually, being a swimmer as well as a cyclist helped: remember the ‘tricep kickback’ in front crawl?  The other difficulty was hills.  Not the ascents, which just took extra effort (especially with the wrong wax on the skis) but the descents.  Where, oh where, were my alpine skis and boots?  These flimsy, long, thin skis with no heel attachment felt at first as if they had minds of their own!  Braking and turning sharp downhill corners seemed impossible: except I saw other people managing so was determined I would too.  Needless to say one improves with practice until alpine skis are the things which feel odd – heavy, cumbersome and unwieldy.  And I loved the daily ritual of waxing your skis each morning: taking off the old wax, the smell of the wax warming up, and then getting a fresh layer on your skis, the pots colour-coded according to the outside temperature.

Around Venabu there is a wide choice of tracks, cut and uncut.  The ‘railway lines’ not only go all over the plateau but also up into the mountains.  One of my favourite routes went up around Svartfjell (Black Mountain,) from where there was a magnificent view across to the Rondane National Park, and then across the saddle between Swarthammern and Tverrhogda.  From there it was downhill nearly all the way back to Venabu, the first bit down to Fremre Uksan being a ‘go for it whoosh’ – get in the tuck position at the top and don’t stand up until you come to a natural halt at the Fremre Uksan signpost, quads-a-quiver.

It’s amazing how your speed can vary with the quality of the snow (or ice), especially on ‘off piste’ sections.  Towards the end of my stay I sampled different types of conditions just in a single day trip from Venabu to Masaplassen, about 25km along the Troll-loype.

I find I notice small details when I’m away from home, especially when I’m alone.  The time is clearer and more defined; it takes on a new dimension.  There often seems to be much more of it and little details which in the humdrum routine of a week at home and in the office would slip by unnoticed, become vividly alive and important.  Day-to-day experiences somehow have more emotional impact: seeing a vole burrowing in the snow is a moving and memorable experience and I could watch the vole for minutes on end.  At home it would be all too easy in the daily rush to miss the vole completely.  On another day when a group of us had been out skiing in rather misty conditions, we had all jumped out of our skins when a snow ptarmigan had suddenly taken off between me and the skier behind me: it had been so well-camouflaged we had had no idea it was there.  Or there was the time when I was out on the tracks on my own one afternoon, and it was so quiet I could hear a bird’s wings beating as it flew overhead.  The latter was a moment which I think will stay with me for the rest of my life: that sense of absolute aloneness (even though I was hardly any distance from the hotel) and peace, apart from the gentle pulse of the wings.  That was a moment when my worries about what I was going to do with my life just melted away and were completely unimportant: solely what mattered was the here and now.

 

My trip along the Troll-loype was an opportunity to enjoy these small details and again to forget about my ‘real’ life in England.  It was sunny but bitterly cold when I set off with a German, Joachim, to whom I had got talking at dinner one evening.  He was skiing the entire Troll-loype, staying in ‘DNT’ (Norwegian Mountain Association) huts and some hotels en route.  The hotel at Venabu had promised to arrange for someone to collect me from Masaplassen while Joachim continued along the Troll-loype to Lillehammer.  Needless to say he was far more heavily weighed down than I, with a large backpack of his necessities for staying in the basically-provided huts as well as in the luxury of an hotel.   We’d been out skiing a couple of times, one day in temperatures of minus 15 which with a strong wind must have taken it down to about minus twenty or more with the wind chill factor.  In fact that day not only was it bitterly cold but we could hardly move either because of the wind, and it wasn’t long before we gave up trying to get anywhere and went back into the warmth of the hotel.

But Joachim had to move on, so on a relatively fine day we headed out of the hotel and joined the Troll-loype.  Bamboo posts mark the route as the Troll-loype is not usually cut, although there may well be tracks from other skiers who have passed the same way.  The wind was quite strong and cold as we departed, heading north, and the snow had become icy.  But the sky was blue, the sun was out, and we knew that as soon as we turned east the wind would be more or less behind us and would help us along.  So optimistically we battled around the edge of the frozen lake which Venabu overlooks, then cut away from the tracks and down into the little valley of the Myadalen, one of the many rivers and streams which cross the mountain-ringed Venabygdfjellet plateau.  Joachim suggested skiing up the river valley as it was more sheltered than the route the marked track took along the top of the adjacent slope.  Feeling a little apprehensive in case we suddenly plunged through the snow into icy water, I followed: which was when we saw the first spectacular view of the day.  Some discussion of which words would be used in German or English to describe such views ensued, Joachim summing it up neatly by concluding “I normally just say ‘wow’!”

The river beneath our feet was barely perceptible but the snow-clad valley walls reached above us, startlingly white against the blue sky, the snow folding over on itself like a blanket.  I think the biggest revelation for me in Norway was the sheer variety of the snow: not only the difference between new powdery snow and older stickier snow, but also the way it lies.  Sometimes it can be like skiing on icing sugar, fluffy and compacted all at once; sometimes it is like meringue as your skis cut through a crust into soft powder underneath; and sometimes it is icy, alternating often with powder so that you shoot along faster than you intended and then suddenly and unexpectedly slow up as the powder takes you by surprise and puts the brakes on for you (in my inexperienced case all too often leading to a fall).

The snow also forms all sorts of different patterns.  Some are like waves of drifted sand, and especially when the wind is wispily brushing away the surface you can believe you are in a cold and white desert.  Some patterns look like white semi-buried bones; some like rock strata; and some have a small, mossy pattern.  The same route rarely looks the same twice, as I had discovered even in the short time I had spent in Norway.

We joined the Troll-loypa proper at Brennflya, marked, like all junctions in this area, by a wooden signpost.  In other areas they have signposts accompanied by a map of the entire region and a red circle with ‘you are here’ distinctly marked on it.  To me the latter spoils everything: it makes it too easy, and is far too similar to being a tourist in a strange city.  I enjoyed trying to match up my map to the signpost, which sometimes doesn’t point in quite the direction along the trails one might expect.  “Troll-loypa” the Brennflya signpost said in red on whitened wood, “Osksendalen 22km”.  Oh good – we’d completed 3km of the trip and just had the remaining 22km to do.

 

Joachim’s ‘real’ map of the area had informed him that we could see a waterfall from the Troll-loypa near the next signpost at Dorfallet (which means, unsurprisingly, ‘Waterfall’).  We could see nothing, and as there is the danger of avalanches due to the snow overhangs on the edge of the canyon which runs south from Dorfallet, we decided to play safe and not to go too near the edge (a brief aside: the canyons were created when a lake went ‘down a plughole’ in the sandstone at the end of the glacial period).

We realised soon after this point that we were not the only ‘explorers’ on this route: a lone skier caught up with us and overtook us, soon vanishing into the distance and leaving us alone again (much to the chagrin of my competitive spirit).  But then he wasn’t carrying a heavy backpack nor stopping to take photos at every ‘wow’ view, but possibly training for the race which was due to take place along the route in a fortnight’s time.

We could see back to Venabu and also across to Kvitfjell (the downhill slope near Ringebu, used in the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics).  We weren’t just out in the middle of nowhere, but explorers in the Norwegian mountains, dwarfed by the white wilderness around us which stretched for miles but which at least had some definition (unlike skiing in a white-out) and reference points in terms of peaks and valleys which could be named and located with the aid of the map.

We stopped at a brook for lunch, with interesting ice formations above the rushing water.  We took shelter behind some trees nearby which were so deeply buried in snow they were more like bushes, and turned our skis upside-down in time-honoured tradition to use as a bench.  I discovered that the thermos flask I had been carrying had failed in its duty of keeping hot liquids hot, and tried to mix my ‘choc’n’orange’ powder into a drink with tepid water.  It was not particularly drinkable – in fact it was vile – and I tipped it out in disgust, feeling guilty at making an ugly dark brown stain on the pristine white snow.   Fortunately my German friend had brought with him that most English of drinks: tea.  And it was hot.

I had provided myself with two bread rolls as a packed lunch, while Joachim had packed a lunch which seemed to consist mainly of dried fruit and chocolate.  Having proudly told me that ‘Milka’ chocolate was German (I always thought it was Swiss), he made the mistake of offering me some.   When has a girl ever said no to chocolate?

Fortified by lunch, we set off once more and we soon arrived at the next signpost which bore the surprising news ‘Masaplassen/Oksendalen 7.1km’.  We had a cold drink to celebrate which tasted to me like a rather nasty form of Lemon Meringue Pie, but which Joachim insisted was orange.  The conversation turned round to a time when Joachim had been staying in a B&B in the Lake District and the landlady had insisted on giving him cornflakes with the milk already on them, so they went disgustingly soggy.  After a brief conversation about various countries’ culinary oddities (going to Munich and being served just a huge slab of meat loaf; baked beans; frogs legs and snails), we set off again.  At the next signpost we joined what in summer is a road.  The snow – or rather lumps of ice – meant that it was bumpy and quite hard-going, but we were rewarded by views across the Gudsbrandsdal valley to the mountains of ‘Peer Gynt’ land: breath-taking.

We turned right and decided that it might be easier to ski off the road rather than on it, only to find that the open ground was nearly as icy.  At one point, my downhill skiing on ice being a little more hesitant than Joachim’s  – or perhaps ‘more uncontrolled’ would be more accurate – I found I was flying down a slope in the wrong direction, moving further and further away from my skiing companion and the next signpost.  It didn’t take long to cover the extra ground, to discover that the signpost only stood about 15cm above the surface and that the writing had faded so as to be almost invisible.  With the help of the map we worked out that one way indicated Masaplassen and the other Pulla.

Turning in the Masaplassen direction we found ourselves on the most wonderful fast but soft, compacted icing sugar track, with deep powder either side.  My pride was somewhat appeased when Joachim, definitely the better skier, suddenly fell over backwards in some deep snow which had taken him by surprise.  It always makes me feel better when the experts fall over too: there must be hope for me yet.  I was also pleased not to fall over in the way I had done a few days’ earlier, when, taking a corner too fast, I lost control of my steering completely and flew off the track head first into a snow drift, just to lie there laughing while several other skiers whistled past, probably wondering what on earth I found so funny.

The track wound its way prettily up and down amongst some trees, until it suddenly came out on a four-lane cross-country skiing motorway which took us up to a road.  After a fairly short and level track you then turn off the Troll-loypa onto a steepish downhill, at which we shot quickly but safely and enjoyably to the bottom and across the road into the café at Masaplassen for coffee and cake.  I felt a sense of achievement at being there, of pleasure at having completed a real tour, albeit to some people a short and non-challenging one.  It was such a pleasant place to end a journey: the wooden buildings snuggle amongst the trees in direct opposition to Venabu’s windswept position in the middle of a plateau.  I liked them both.

But whilst I loved being in Norway and skiing nearly every day, rather than being confined in an office in London, I missed my friends and my social life.  I can still clearly remember the day I was skiing along on the loype near the hotel with a client who happened to be an architect.  I suddenly realised that what I really wanted to do with my life was return home – to London – but that my main purpose for working was that I could then afford to travel to some of the many places in the world I wanted to, and to go on activities holidays.  After all many outdoor sports take place in some of the most spectacular scenery this world of ours can offer: and whilst sometimes progressing up the career ladder has some appeal, what is the point in arriving at the pearly gates and not having done many of the other things you wanted to do?  Someone once said to me that if you don’t experience the wider world then your own world shrinks, and the very truth of that rang clear to me straight away.

Meanwhile whilst Joachim was set to stay a night at Masaplassen and then ski onwards tomorrow, I had Venabu’s Norwegian buffet supper to look forward to.

And at least it would be spring when I got back to England

 

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