7.16.2009

Rondane Day 2: The Smiubelgin Massif

I wake to an angry buzzing noise. It’s light and wind-still and not what you’d call toasty warm. It takes a few moments to register where I am. I finally place the view and the penny drops. More than one penny in fact. Not only do I now know where I am but I’ve realised the angry buzz is emanating from a swirling cloud of mosquitoes above my face. I reach into my bivvy bag, extract my head net from my blue roll-top (red stuffed with spare clothes for a pillow, blue for things I need to hand) and pull it over my head tightening the neck cord. I’m lying with my head outside of the bivvy bag, and am wearing a down pullover but my sleeping bag is pushed down around my waist as if it where a half bag. I pull the sleeping bag up around my shoulders and close up the bivvy bag leaving just my face exposed. As I was fumbling around in the roll-top I’d caught sight of my watch. It’s 3:00AM.. Benjamin always wakes at 3:00AM. I’m so far from home can it be that Benjamin still wakes me up? Or was it the mosquitoes? Whatever, it occurs to me that we are not going to be short of daylight on this trip. There’ll be no spectacular sun sets but, on the upside, we’re not likely to get benighted.

When I awake again the sky is a bright blue and the profile of the distant hills is softened by haze. It’s 8:00AM. I think that for once I may be the first up but as I roll to my right I see Willem-Maarten and Thim brewing up and eating breakfast. Jeffrey is busy packing his ‘sack. As always, Theo is yet to surface. I go for my usual morning stroll, equipped, as ever, with my trusty orange trowel and find a place from which to admire the view while I excercise. Who was it that said men can’t multitask? Trowels, I find out, don’t function too well at this elevation in Rondane. A Pneumatic drill would be a better bet (if a little heavy).

I join the others, enjoy a breakfast of Muesli premixed with full-fat milk powder and chocolate flakes, and follow it up with a cup of strong tea. Theo appears and I then get on with the business of packing. I have to think about it. As the days pass a ritual will evolve and the process will become automatic. I’m usually doing it blindfold on the third morning. On these long weekends that’s just in time for the walk out. It’s clearly going to be another hot summers day. I decide, once again, to forgo the merino base layer and change into my coolmax shirt. Now, crumpled and decidedly less fresh under the arms than it was when I first pulled it on the morning before. Still, I don’t expect an invitation to any formal occasions any time soon. The primary business of the morning is, after all, to climb the four hundred odd meters of scree which looms over our bivouac. Even if my shirt wasn’t already sweaty it certainly soon would be.

The groups attention turns to the North. To the southern slopes of the Smiubelgin Massif. After scanning the slope left and right and chewing over numerous suggested lines we decide to walk straight up the thing. Or at least straight up to the foot of Vesleranden to get a better look. Willem-Maarten, Jef and Thim set off arrow straight. Theo and I drift west to fill up our water bottles at the stream we crossed the evening before. As we approach the stream we see a man in the distance. It looks like he’s washing in the stream. He’s the first person we’ve seen since leaving Mysusteter the eveing before. Had he slept in the shelter next to the DNT path marked on the Turkart? We fill our water bottles and head after the group. I’ve chosen a one litre platypus even though the map suggests water may be scarce higher up the slope. I just don’t feel like lugging and extra two kilos up the hill and, besides, I can get the one liter platty in and out of the side pockets of my rucksack without stopping to take it off my back. We cross the path, quite a modest affair, certainly not the mile wide erosion scar so typical of the lakes and some of the more popular Munro ascents, and make our way across Vesleranden.

As we approach the top an obvious line up Ljosabelgen opens up. We will indeed go straight up the thing, following a blunt ridge running south-south-west from the pyramidal summit of this wonderfully named top. The Big Blacksmith, Storsmeden, keeps his Bellows, Ljosabelgen and Brakdalsbelgen, on his left hand and his Hammers (presuamably the translation for hamran?), Sore and Austre Smedhamran, within easy reach just to the North. His mate, The Little Blacksmith, Veslesmeden, sits to his right. I suppose, next to their day jobs, the whole group play parts in some mythical tale or other. I love this about Norway. There’s such a thin layer of Christian civilization dusted over a deep and cavernous pagan history.

We continue up the slope. At around 1450m all forms of vegetation have lost their grip on this land. Only poison-green and iron-brown algae can earn a crust here and they coat the rocks on these south facing slopes in abundance. Progress is slow. The terrain is very rough. Loose scree, fields of jumbled boulders and old snow in alternate bands. The snow is the worst, steep enough to require that we kick steps and hiding what’s beneath creating ankle twisting man traps. It’s one saving grace is that the run-off provides a cool drink. My golden rule for the day is to drink from every available water source.

Both the terrain and frequent stops to take in the view take their toll on the pace. Nevertheless we climb steadily and before long the incline steepens and the ridge begins to take form. The goal isn’t Ljosabelgen itself. The idea is to make the main ridge of the Smuibelgin group and from there to begin the traverse North-West to Storsemeden and beyond. This in itself sparks another route discussion. Theo and Jef, preferring to save their energy, not to mention their knees, for the 2000m tops later in the day look for an alternative. We agree after consulting the map, that a traverse of the slope around the Korkatbekkbotnen Corrie should be straight forward and would spare them some significant climb. The group separates agreeing to meet up at the col. Thim, Willem-Maarten and Myself, still feeling invincible, proceed towards the minor summit.

A little more sweat, several more snow fields, and some use of hands gets us to the top. And what a top. Ljosabelgen, at 1948m, isn’t aware of it’s diminutive stature. The top stands proud and the North face drops away precipitously for five hundred odd meters into the bottom of the remote Berkilsbotn. It’s rare, these days, that I get to stand on a top. It’s even rarer that I get to do so under clear skies. The valley below seems close enough to touch. The three of us spend quite some minutes on the top just taking it all in. Few words are exchanged.

Inevitably, attention turns eastwards to the main ridge and the traverse, first to Steet and then on to Storsmeden. The traverse looked straight forward on the map. In the flesh, from this perspective, it looks gnarly. The ground drops off sharply from the peak where we stand. So sharply that it’s hidden from view. Unable to eyeball a line, we’ll have to move down with caution and take the option to retrace our steps if things get too technical. Looking further afield, what we can see of the ridge, mainly around the col, looks fine. Airy, but broad enough and blunt. Of most concern it appears to be still holding some snow. Best to stay shy of the northern edge with its precipitous drop. The ridge sweeps up in a wide arc, first over the little round cap of Hoggbeitet then disappearing momentarily before continuing more steeply to the foot of Steet. It’s impossible to gauge properly from here but the face of Steet looks like one big mess of loose scree and boulder. The first two thirds of the two hundred or so meters from the col look rough but doable and then comes a jumble of slabs that look more like a climb than a scramble. It’s not clear how this bad step could be bypassed since it seems to be flanked on one side by a very steep , scree-filled gully and on the other by adrenaline producing exposure. I exclaim to the others that I don’t think the climb to Steet is within our capabilities. They don’t disagree. We start off down. Uncertain about what’s in store for us. If we can’t get to the top of Steet then our whole route plan will be thrown on its head before lunch on the first full day. However, thoughts of the next peak soon get put to the back of my mind, my full attention goes to my feet and where to put them next.

Once I get over the edge the drop to the col looks a little friendlier. More of the slope comes into view. The route will take us down a steep and quite sharp ridge, still intimidating, but the Rondane stone is a layer-cake of old sediments eroded and exposed into a natural staircase. With care, facing in when necessary, and maintaining three points of contact when possible, I pick my way down. Thim and Willem-Maarten, Willem-Maarten especially, are quicker in descent than me. I see them reach the snow field running down the last of the slope to the col and stride out confidently over it’s surface. I know already that the snow will slow me down even further. Once on the snow, still quite steep, I find the rounded heels of my boots don’t bight as well as I’d like. Note to self: make sure your next pair have aggressive heals since, given your ineptitude in descent you need every advantage available. On the steepest part of the slope I resort to side stepping and using the sharper edges of my soles. Am I being overcautious? In retrospect I’m not sure. This isn’t ice but wet, coarse, old snow. If I fall I’m unlikely to slip a significant distance, even on slopes as steep as this. But, and this is a big but, any kind of injury here could, at best, put the kibosh on the whole trip and, at worst, we’re a half days walk to the nearest help. I think on balance it pays to be cautious. Willem-Maarten and Thim are now at the col and for the first time since separating I see Jef and Theo too. As I rejoin the group another route discussion ensues.

It seems that the confidence of the group has taken a knock. Theo and Jef point out their line of traverse to the col, from where we stand an impressively straight line, seemingly without a meter of descent, is traced through intermittent snow fields. From here, the slope looks uncomfortably steep. Theo, assures me it didn’t look any better standing halfway up it. We are clearly not interpreting the map very well. Steet looks more intimidating than ever. There is no evidence of use tracks which might otherwise give us a clue as to the best line of ascent. We are either in a place rarely visited or Steet is not done from this side? It seems we have few options, dropping down through the Krokatbekkbotn corrie and follow the DNT route to Rondvassbu and onto the Rondhalsen, perhaps picking off Veslemeden, seems to be the best. If we could make the Bergdalstjonnen this evening it would at least put us within shooting distance for the start of the planned route on day two. However, we decide nevertheless to stay high and cross the shoulder of Hoggbeitet thus getting another view of the climb up to Steet before committing to an early decent. This latter turns out to be a good policy. Although we are more or less resigned to giving up on the initial plan, as we cross Hoggbeitet, Steet starts to look more possible. Persepective is everything. I’m sure, on a more typical grey day, with more restricted views, we wouldn’t have had second thoughts. We resolve to climb Steet and, since the col which follows is back in guidebook territory, if we do so are confident that the rest of the planned route should be within our grasp. The only problem that remains is that we are making desperately bad time having covered about 3.5km (less than a third of our route) by midday. That said, we still choose to stop for lunch. The view of the Klarabotn corrie is worth savoring. Jefrey breaks the spell by setting off early, in his words, so he has a fighting chance of not being the last man to the top.


The climb to Steet turns out to be quite straightforward. Technically at least. We chose to avoid the bad step by passing slightly to the North. Exposed, but not as bad as the view across the col had suggested. Hairy moments weren’t, however, completely avoided. On the steepest part of the scramble we find we have chosen a line though barely stable rock.When large rocks wobble under your weight it’s one thing but when they slide laterally as you reach for a hold that’s something else entirely. So this, apparently, is the ground the guides are referring to when they mention "instability" on other routes? We choose to move through as quickly as possible and are relieved as the gradient lessens and we top out on Steet. We’re making better time now. Compensating in some small way for the mornings dawdle. However, as I approach the top I feel the first twinges of cramp in my thighs. This is another gem of a hill. Again, at 1996m, it’s not one of the popular 2000m peaks and seems rarely visited. We have it to ourselves on a fine day. A day that’s turning out to be one of my finest mountain days yet. We pause for a few minutes. Schedules shouldn’t get in the way of the reward. What’s the point in making the investment if you’re not going to enjoy the profit?

The others start down towards the Langholet col. This is the last descent before we’ll finally get the chance to tackle the first of the 2000m tops in our sights. I drink a gulp of water which, like the rest of the group, I’ve been supplementing with snow and whatever melt water I can find, and head down the hill. I descend cautiously as ever but this time my progress is hampered by cramps. Now more severe than I’d experienced a few minutes earlier. I arrive last at the col and instead fof eeling positive about being back on plan, worries about route choice are replaced with worries about my physical condition. What to do about cramps? Under such situations my sports teacher used to press a salt tablet into your hand. Although I’m sure that’s no longer considered good practice I can feel a layer of salt crystals on my face and my cap is traced with salty tidemarks. I reach into my foodbag and extract a stock cube and an isostar tablet. I chew on the stock cube and whilst pulling the inevitable face drop the isostar tablet into my platypus followed by more snow to replenish my now dwindling water supply. While we rest some figures appear high on Storsmeden. A group of four or five people? The first people we've seen since teh washing man a 9:00AM this morning.We move on towards Storsmeden.

The first part of the ascent is over snow once more. Higher up the snow field becomes very steep but the others choose to kick steps as far as they can. I choose to bypass the snow in its entirety, rock hopping along the edge of the snow field. I keep taking little sips of the isostar flavoured melt water collecting in my platypus. Either this or the stock cube appears to have done the trick and the cramps have stopped. I make slower progress than the others but ascent is what I’m best at and I know I’ll catch up when they’re back on rock. As we climb, I recall the description on Scandinavian mountains. There is a lot of scrambling ahead but its bark is worse than it’s bite. In a couple of places it was advised to drop south of the ridge to avoid difficulties. The rest of the climb reads like the route guide. Sustained scrambling but once again on the now familiar Rondane staircase. In a couple of places I find myself realy climbing. Just two or three linked moves, nothing serious, and without real exposure but nevertheless, hands and feet on vertical rock. The rock here is of the stable variety at least.

Its seems that each of the tops we bag this day is the best so far. Storsmeden has every bit the feel of a “real mountain”. Rondane is named for its rounded peaks. The stubby roots of mountains which would once have given the Himalaya a run for their money. However, nobody seams to have told The Big Blacksmith. This peak is not without drama. There’s a substantial summit cairn around the bottom of which just enough summit is left free for the group to sit comfortably. I remember a real feeling of exposure. I also remember the views being spectacular. I have to resort to memory on this occasion however because it seems I only took two photographs in the whole fifteen minute period I was at the summit. There is a reason for this. I was too preoccupied with either getting into the shade of the cairn or getting wrapped up against the cold. It seams strange looking back. I’d spent all day, apart from the lunch break, in a short sleaved shirt and at that point I was suddenly unbearably cold whilst the sun was still beating down. I recognized at the time that I was starting to feel the effects of too much sun exacerbated by taking in too little liquid. I can remember reading the map to get a feeling for the onward route and taking several minutes to orientate it with the ground. Alarm bells were ringing in my head. I was reaching my limit and needed to get down, get rested and, most importantly get a lot of fluid inside me in a hurry.


The hundredth route discussion of the day ensued. The next stage of the planned route would take us from Storsmeden to Veslesmeden across a sharp arête involving just shy of 20m of descent and reascent. We knew that this was to be the crux of the days route. The guides had clearly labeled this as one of the most difficult ridges in Rondane. From the top of Storsmeden it looked hard, however we were now getting used to things looking hard. Worse, it looked like the ridge was holding a lot of snow. To compound the issue, by reversing the overall route, we had elected to do this ridge the wrong way. The three bad steps between Storsmeden and the col would have to be down-climbed. With heavy packs. It’s hard to gauge the feeling of the group in retrospect. I’m certain Willem-Maarten would have gone for it. He’s by far the fastest and most confident over rough terrain. Although I’m not sure, Thim probably would have gone along with that decision. I guess Theo and Jef didn’t relish the idea of all that descent and ascent regardless of the technicality. Willem-Maarten, forever the alpinist, tabled the option of sleeping on it, settling in for a summit bivvy and tackling the route with fresh legs in the morning. I came very quickly to my own conclusion: that the only realistic option was to return the way we came. Doing so would mean the three day route plan was just as scuppered as if we’d turned back before Steet. But, on returning to the Langholet col, we would open the possibility of a circular route which avoided Rondvassbu until the last day. This route, a long, lower level route linking the langholet, doralen, bergedalen and langluppdalen valleys, had been on the table very early on. It had been dropped in favour of a route taking in more high peaks. It would mean we’d miss out on the traverse of the long ridge from Diggerronden to Hogronden, a traverse I’d long looked forward to, but, in return, it offered a day of change, something other than rock hopping on high ridges, would take us through the remotest area in Rondane and would suitably position us to do the traverse of Rondslottet and Vinjeronden as planned on the last day. It was a good compromise and the group went along with the idea. All that stood between us and a suitable starting point, a bivvy in the head of the Langholet valley, was four hundred meters of steep descent.

That descent passed uneventfully enough. At least for four of the group of five. On one of the longer scrambles off Storsmeden Jef kicked a rock loose and Theo, some way further down the slope , stopped it with his head. The incident, which I heard rather than witnessed, passed with a laugh and a Joke at the time but I later understood that Theo was a little shaken by it. It always seemed to me that the moving in a relatively large group as we do increases the risk of such things. For me the most notable thing about the descent was the effort it sucked out of me. I was glad to reach the col. The relief was, however, short lived because I still had a little less than two hundred meters of descent northwards from the col to make the valley floor. What’s more most of the decent was over snow with no viable alternative. My favourite. Note to self: don’t hang around before buying those boots with aggressive heels. The group strung out, Jef Thim and Theo made the valley floor in good time. I took quite a bit longer, mostly side stepping down, until low enough to glissade without risk of hitting any rocks. I say glissade because it sounds more dignified than “slid down on my arse” but the latter is in fact what I did. Willem-Maarten hung around high on the slope for some minutes. As we watched him from below we were certain he was going to launch himself into a long, fast slide, but to our surprise, and my relief, he walked down to join us. I guess he was waiting to see that everybody else got down okay. Perhaps he was contemplating nipping back op to bag Veslesmeden after all?


One thing the Langholet wasn’t short of was water. I had a long, cool and very enjoyable drink of it. We then, in the style adopted for this trip, decided to prepare a meal where we sat and move on to find a suitable bivvy on full stomachs. It was a good call. We used the ingredients I’d packed in, partly fresh food, enjoying a stew with meatballs and beans, supplemented with instant mash. It was good. The kind of good that you only seem to get after a hard day in the hills. As ever the world seemed like a much better place after a feed. I’d also packed in a dessert but we decided to save it for later in the evening and after washing the pots moved down the valley looking for a bed.


As it turns out that’s a challenge in the Langholet. The valley is not dissimilar to the Lairig Ghru. It’s a jumbled mess of boulders, mostly small ones, none large enough or flat enough for a man to lie on. For a while it looked like we would have to drop down a long way to find a suitable patch of ground. Perhaps as far as the standing water of the Langholvatnet or beyond. But as we passed down the valley I spied what looked like a flat area of fine shingle off to the left. Although it looked dry this was presumably the bed of one of the dislocated lengths of stream marked on the map. We decided to keep it in mind and proceed a little further to get a better view down the valley. We got our view but it suggested nothing but more of the same interspersed with patches of wet green awaited us. A shingle bed started to look more attractive and we made our way back.

What we found was incredible. It was indeed a fine shingle bank, clearly some times under water, but it was now bone dry and mostly covered with a few centimeters of soft moss. The risk that this area would flood this night seemed remote. The risk, however great, seemed to be worth taking in payment for a good nights sleep. We set up our bivvy bags. Again forgoing the tarps. Deciding to save the dessert for the next night after all, we brewed up using the meths stove. The thing was every bit as bad as we’d anticipated. Without the Trangia windshield, the Trangia burner is transformed from a thing of wonder to a remarkably inefficient lump of brass. Even with the windshield from the Stella Plus tightly wrapped around the pan it threw out a dancing cloud of ineffective orange flames. It boiled water okay, after a long wait, but it also incinerated everything within reach. This included the edges of Willem-Maartens plastic plate which doubled as a pot lid. Nevertheless, a hot brew before bed was welcome and a little more gas had been spared.

The cold evening wind of the night before also blew along the Langholet. Here it was colder and stronger, presumably due to the extra 300m of altitude and the funneling effect of the col behind us. It still wasn’t cold enough to pose a problem though. I was comfortably warm in my down pullover and again used my sleeping bag as a half bag for the first half of the night. This night the wind didn’t abate and the Mosquitoes stayed at home. As I lay on my Neo-air, with my rucksack under my legs, both supplemented by a few centimeters of luscious moss, I started to run through the events of the day, especialy the appalingly low tally of kilometers, but decided that the time for analysis was later. I had the best nights sleep I’ve had in months.

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