Oyer Fjell: Day 3, Djupslia to Veslehaugen

I’d been a concerned that a winter sleeping bag rated to -18C would be overkill for a night in a hut. That concern was misplaced. By the early hours the bunk room was cold. Certainly sub zero. By morning, the prospect of getting out of bed was just as unattractive as it would have been was I lying in a tent. As I lay building up the motivation to get up and set the fire, I heard somebody else, I guess Willem-Maarten, doing just that. The immediate future is suddenly a whole lot brighter. Just lie in a little longer then make a beeline for the stove.

By the time I make an appearance the stove is warming the room nicely, there’s a kettle of hot water waiting for me and the others are up and about. By the measure of the weekend breakfast is a civilised affair. Still an adventure breakfast eaten out of a foil pack but now consumed sitting on a chair wearing few enough layers of clothing that I can bend my arms. My morning hot chocolate, a substitute for coffee, my having avowed that everything passing my lips this weekend will be bursting with calories, is drunk out of a proper, ceramic mug.

The start is a relatively slow one. There’s not much to pack but we take our time about packing it. Then there’s cleaning and tidying to be done. We do all eventually manage to get out of the door and when we do we step into a crisp, brightly sunlit morning. The door locked behind me and the key safely stowed I step into my skis. Not without a pang of reluctance. When covering the last kilometres the previous day, when sweating up the long climb on the heels of Willem-Maarten, the thought that I was, at some point, going to have to ski back down the same slope kept doing rounds of my head. That moment was now upon me. Almost. First I have to navigate up the steep bank back to the track. As my first steps take me past Thim I sense, perhaps wrongly, the same reluctance in him. The next thing I sense is a light thud as I bury my head for the first time today. Not ten meters from the hut! The now familiar recovery routine, involving swearing and straining, sees me on my feet and, thankful that there was no audience of locals to cheer us off, I make my way up the hill. Then comes another thud. Muffled and distant, this thud is the sound of Thim taking a fall in exactly the same place.

Getting to the track is not what I’d call straight forewords. Herringbone climbs and side-stepping are that much more difficult amongst the trees. I do, however, make the track without incident. In anticipation of my next fall, I wait at the trackside and let Willem-Maarten and Theo ski through. Better, I think, to allow them free passage. Then Thim and I once again find ourselves lining up for synchronised face-planting. Now, one lesson I have learnt in my chequered skiing career is you only need to think half a negative thought and the ski gods rub their hands in glee and pounce on you like rabid dogs. Visions of mistakes appear to be, invariably, self fulfilling. Armed with this valuable knowledge I try to put thoughts of impending disaster out of my mind. Hoping at the very least to bluff my way out of the situation. Feigning confidence I kick and glide to get some speed and, expecting a fast schuss, am surprised to find that my skis are running slower than the day before and that I have to actively kick and pole to keep forward momentum on all but the steepest sections. Perhaps because it’s colder today? Whatever the case, I make it to the first intersection, at the head of the lake without incident. So does Thim.

The plan today is, rather than to go back the way we came, to first head further west, away from our destination and to make a big loop past the Grunnesvatnet and back through Svartsetra. We follow the now familiar narrow tracks, drawn by snow scooters, for the rest of the morning under blue skies and bright sunshine. We make just one soup and snack stop but the pace is nevertheless relaxed, the landscape captivating and the conditions as near to perfect as I can imagine. The sun is surprisingly powerful. As we travel we’re dealt close ups of sculpted snow, sugar frosted birch and picture postcard huts. Behind each of them, long vistas with big mountains as backdrop and a middle ground of smaller but prominent fells. Previous incarnations of this plan would have taken me to either high mountains just like those or these nearby fells but as I work my way across the relatively low lying and level terrain I’m convinced my skiing wouldn’t have been up to the task. As the track swings South-west away from the Grunnesvatnet we cross a junction with the Troll-Loype. A right turn here would take me north, onto increasingly higher ground and eventually into Rondane. In spite of my skiing ability I feel an urge to turn right. I can see myself having to keep my ambition in check in the not too distant future.

In the early afternoon the sun is obscured by cloud and, as if stepping from an overheated shop into the cold street, the temperature appears to plummet. We find ourselves at the foot of a steep climb to Svartsetra, the steepest yet. It’s hard work, made harder by the reluctance of my skis to bight home on the kick. Short steps with a deliberate firm placement of the kicking ski seam to help but the very steepest sections demand to be herringboned. As we reach Nysetra, I’m in a full-on sweat which all available venting and exposing my forearms has failed to suppress. I’m beginning to dip. Time for a break. Time to eat, drink and put on some insulation and burn some of the sweat out of my layers.

We break amongst the huts of Svartsetra with most of the climb behind us but some still up ahead. To my eyes, the downhill looks fast and fierce and, regardless of the effort, I’m glad we’re going up rather than down. We make seats and settle down to eat. Today has been busier. We’ve seen five people since leaving Djupslia, and as we sit we see two more gliding down the hill towards us. A couple of meters uphill from where we’re sitting a nasty, steep-sided dip runs at right angles across the track. I watch with interest as the first of the two skiers, a man, hits the ditch at speed, corrects with a couple of quick dance steps and carries on down the slope. There then follows a surreal moment, visually pythonesque, complete with sound effects. The second skier, a woman, presumably the wife of the first skier, scoots down the hill at high speed gradually coming into sharper focus. She’s fully made up, wearing a bronze all-in-one insulated ski suit ( as I write this I wonder if this latter observation may be an unintentional mental embellishment but I really do remember it this way) and a long haired rat, no a small dog, yes a Yorkshire terrier or some such, is running hell for leather, all tongue and snot, ahead on a long lead tied to her waist. As the dog draws level with me the woman approaches the dip and my view of her is obstructed momentarily. Then comes an audible thud and a high pitched squeaking sound, a squeaking sound not unlike that made by a rubber duck if you jump on it with both feet (don’t ask me how I know this), and the dogs head jerks backwards violently as it comes to a sudden stop on a tight lead. I catch sight of Willem-Maarten and he’s wearing a broad grin. The woman has just nose dived into the ditch. Fantastic. Now I know this makes me guilty of schadenfreude in the first degree but this moment, to me, is a sweet one. Even without the surrealistic accents. Why? Because I’ve just witnessed a scandinavian crash and burn in the loipe. Not only that but this local performed the act in front of an audience of foreigners. I´ve waited years for this.

Rested and refuelled we pack up and step into bindings. It occurs to me as we move off that we four are dressed in full armour, carrying big packs and sliding on wide skis equipped with Telemark bindings to travel through an area used by Norwegian women, in full make up, to exercise their Yorkshire terriers. Feeling a little overdressed I work to put the rest of the climb behind me. Just beyond Svartsetra we arrive at a junction. Literally and metaphorically. From here we can either bear left, run south-east for a couple of kilometres and rejoin the Steinsetra track or, alternatively, leave the track and make directly for Veslehaugen and the tents. In other words we can continue as we have done on prepared tracks or we can get into the landscape and break trail. The discussion is a short one. The skies are clear, we have plenty of daylight, the ground doesn't look difficult, there are just a couple of kilometers to cross on an easy bearing due south and the Steinsetra track running east to west across our path makes for an unmissable catchment feature. Willem-Maarten heads off first and does the lions share of the work.

In my experience every trip has a defining moment. For me, this is the defining moment of this trip. Skiing in the tracks across Oyer Fjellet is great fun and beats the very best of outdoor days in Holland hands down, but I still get a sense that I'm looking at the landscape from the road. From a safe distance rather than immersing myself in it. Not ten meters from the track I look back over my shoulder and the scar of the track has disappeared. All that remains is the landscape and I'm already immersed in it up to my neck. This is great. The whole trip suddenly falls into place. This is why I'm here. This is why, as a non skier I've worked to overcome my reluctance and strapped skis to my feet. Right now, my skis, instead of being an unnatural extension of my feet, all at once too long and to too slippery and out of control, are all of a sudden my best friends. Skis are enabling me to cross wild country through impossibly deep snow and providing me with a stiff hit of wilderness experience. The choice to go with wide skis now makes perfect sense.

The traverse, a gradual climb all the way, is just a couple of kilometres but I revel in every meter of it. I'm treated to views of the surrounding hills and distant mountains each across fields of virgin snow, twinkling under the fall of sunlight. The views are framed by the sparse coniferous wood through which our freshly cut trail weaves. The trees, half buried, now just pillars of snow, play peekaboo, hiding and revealing views in quick succession. As we climb, the view to our rear, to the North, the land of giants, steadily opens out and my progress is slowed by an ever more powerful compulsion to stop, turn around, and take it all in. I don't want this to end. My camera shutter runs hot. Too soon, the Steinseter track jumps across our path and were back in the world.

We now have a second chance to choose between track and virgin snow. I urge Willem-Maarten to ignore the track and continue breaking trail. Although he's worked twice as hard as the rest he doesn't object and carries on. The top of Veslehaugen, familiar from the morning of the day before, is now clearly visible and we make a direct line for it. Just a few more minutes sees two of us at its foot and two of us at its summit. Theo and Willem-Maarten take the chance to play. Thim and I are happy to watch while they both telemark down the slope. Theo even manages to make a turn. Then we all glide down the easy slope to the tents and find them both still standing.

By the time we step out of our skis it's mid afternoon. Still quite early with a couple of hours before the light fades. There follows an half hour of melting snow, boiling water, taking refreshments and improving the camp. Theo Improves the camp by, graciously, levelling the snow under my half of the inner tent. Willem-Maarten and Thim improve the camp by building walls and in the process create man-traps in the walk ways. Everybody is just keeping busy. Doing anything to keep occupied and stay a little warmer. It's all too easy, when the last long day of a trip is drawing to a close, to switch to a different mindset. To let the trip become something of the past and to focus on packing up and going home. On any trip, especially one as short as this, it pays to fight that feeling. To treat every minute as part of the journey and only to start looking back when the bags are unpacked and the kids are opening their presents.

Willem-Maarten fights harder than the rest. He starts digging a snow-hole, just for fun, but finds it impossible. The snow's not consolidated and, half a meter down, he hits the tops of small tress hidden by the snow. By the time he stops the golden hour has just started. Without warning he announces a plan to climb Storhaugen and jumps into his skis. There follows a short discussion, Theo decides to join him but Thim prefers to head for the track and practice some downhills. I'm torn between options. Right now I´m busy with my camera, taking advantage of the ever changing and improving light but, as ever, uncomfortable about splitting the group, agree to go with Thim. A breath later, recalling the spirit lifting experience of leaving the track in the early afternoon, decide nevertheless to head for Storhaugen. Thim can´t be persuaded and heads down to the track. Willem-Maarten, like a dog in the gates, can´t be persuaded to wait and heads up the hill closely followed by Theo. I take my time, make sure I´ve got all I need, polariser, spare battery and the like, step into my skis, and happy to be alone for a while, head out at my own pace.

There follows an hour that can only be described as magical. The going is easy, I just have to follow the tracks cut by the hares, and once the summit of Veslehaugen is passed, the prominent top of Storhaugen, is in plane view. I decide not to make the top my goal and instead to just see where the journey takes me. To take my time, take some photos, get as far as daylight allows and turn back when it´s time to turn back. It´s a good choice. Tortoise tactics are best suited to this race. As I move through the trees the sky begins to burn. A few scattered embers quickly spreading until the horizon is a single, continuous sheet of flame. The warmth of the sky is projected onto the cold snow under my skis. Bands of gold run out from between the trees and cross my path. The warm colours, strangely conspicuous and out of place in the winter landscape, warm the soul but leave noses and finger tips frozen. The scene, far from frozen, changes constantly. The colour deepens and the shadows lengthen turning subtle patterns in the snow into deep relief. The sun sinks quickly. It´s movement perceptible. The whole becoming two thirds and then a half until finally just a sliver is visible. I want to throw a noose around it and tie it off, delay the process, win some time. For a moment, there are two suns. Two bright orange partial spheres, noses against the earth, peering over the horizon and then they´re gone leaving light reflected from the cloud base to do all the work.

It´s not just about light there´s sound too. At first an unbelievable stillness but then, as my ears tune in to it, a subtle soundtrack, The sound of my skis sliding over the powder. Huge sugary crystals, some a centimetre across, issue a barely audible tinkling sound as they jostle for a new resting place. A tinkling like the sound of broken shards from a, too thin, cheap glass as it´s swept up and deposited in the bin. Then, every so often, a soft thwump as a slab, sometimes two or three meters in diameter, suddenly shifts, dropping down a couple of centimetres under my weight. These things are all new. There´s much I don´t understand about this environment. Much still to learn.

In the meantime I´ve been hopscotching from goal to goal. You know the process, just a few meters more, just to the top of that rise and then I´ll turn back, but instead, when you get to that rise, the next point of interest comes into view and dares you to carry on. My hopscotching has brought me right to the foot of the last steep pitch and within throwing distance of the summit cairn. I figure it would be rude not to. Willem-Maarten and Theo are starting down but, seeing me on the approach, halt their progress. A few minutes later I´m crossing a field of wind hardened snow, steel edges proving their worth for the first time this weekend, and then I´m at the summit in company. Light is failing fast and though there´s no time to to enjoy the view we do so anyway. Finally, motivated by a cold, cutting wind, we make our way back down. The others, faster as always, let their skis run and put ground between us. I, cautious as ever, take my time on the steeper ground but am happy to be once again alone in the landscape. If the afternoons decision to break trail had been the turning point. This evenings up and down to Storhaugen has been the high point.


Oyer Fjell: Day 2, Veslehaugen to Djupslia

In the period of half sleep. Somewhere between fully aware and comatose I’d heard a moped buzz angrily down the street. Gaining consciousness two and two became four again. The moped must have been snow scooter, the street the loipe. It’s Saturday morning and the tracks are being prepared for the day folk.

I awake early but all things are relative. It’s six o’clock by my watch but the fact is I’ve been in my bag for eleven hours straight. Apart from a couple of wakeful periods, during one of which I was compelled to re-inflate my mat, I’ve slept virtually continuously. Deeply too. My oldest is now two years and ten months, give or take. For two years and ten months, give or take, I’ve been struggling along on, at best, six hours of broken sleep. When I tell people about wild camping most of them react with genuine concern. For the uninitiated, sleeping outside, in the cold and wet, on the hard uneven ground, amongst the bighting beasties, seems to conjure up images of hardship and long sleepless, black nights. The truth is it’s a real luxury. More comfortable and sleep enticing than even the finest five star hotel with it’s too soft beds and it’s dry, overheated, air-conditioned rooms. Even in this cold, perhaps especially in this cold, I’ve spent a comfortable night. Only during one period did I feel any cold at all and then, as a side sleeper, only at the knobbly contact of hip bone and compacted snow under my failing mat. A problem easily solved when you’ve overcome the natural, if illogical, reluctance to extract yourself from your warm bag and take action. Anyway, however I look at it, from my perspective, ten hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep is a wondrous thing.

It would seem that Theo has slept well too. At least he seems bright enough. Then again, when isn’t Theo in a good mood? He thinks it’s too early. I tell him how long we’ve slept. He still thinks it’s too early but he’s happy to let me make breakfast. Breakfast in bed! Who needs a five star hotel room? I sit up in my bag, unzip the inner and reach into the porch setting up the stove. The last of yesterdays water is decanted into a pan and the process of melting more snow starts. In no time we each have an expedition breakfast under our chins and a mug of hot chocolate balanced by our sides. Perhaps the Teasmaid wasn’t such a bad concept after all?

The process of melting snow continues for a little while longer but when the flasks are full all excuses are used up. It’s time to move. We’ve faired pretty well on the whole. Just a little dampness here and there. Mostly caused by condensing breath and the in-tent snow falls as our movement knocks the hoar off the inside of the inner tent.

Then comes the worst part of the day, out of a warm bag and into cold clothes and boots. The clothes warm quickly. The heavy leather boots don’t. With as many layers as I can muster I step outside and launch straight into the morning ritual. Two trenches, part tramped, part dug, lead off from our tent, one to the kitchen and one to the bathroom. In the interest of avoiding mistakes the rooms have been colour coded. The kitchen we’ve kept white (a subtle shade of snow white in fact). Modern, clean lined, a feeling of space and simplicity. The bathroom a warm, cheerful yellow.

As I do my share of the decorating I look around for the first time. The air beyond my breath is crystal clear. The sky draped with cloud but high and wispy. The sort of cloud that serves to add interest for the morning but is on it’s way long before the sun gets its act together. As I take in the scene it’s beauty becomes apparent. Not all at once but gradually as the light and colour of the sky and the length of the view slowly penetrate the last of the early morning fugg between my ears.

I head back to the tent, collect my camera and take the first of a long series of photos. Tent as foreground interest, Norway as backdrop but the sky as the real subject. As the sun climbs somewhere behind my back, somewhere behind the hill, the changing fall of light is translated as changing colour projected onto the clouds to the north. In that first photo the blue-white, green and blue-grey of snow, tent and sky are complimented by patches of blue sky. Not sky-blue sky but a pastel, powder blue. Somehow unnatural and unexpected. As the sun climbs those accents steer a course through the spectrum, powder blue becomes salmon, salmon becomes orange. I stand and watch and, hemmed in by deep powder, shoot from a single perspective, no fiddling with settings, trying not to look at the result, keeping my fingers crossed, preserving my chilled battery.

Thim and Willem-Maarten are out and about too. They’ve chosen to take breakfast on the veranda and stand looking at my view. Looking south, over their shoulders, I catch a glimpse of their view, equally stunning, warmer light bounced of high cloud. It’s going to be a fine day!
Willem-Maarten is quick with breakfast and quicker to put his boots into bindings. Before the rest have got their act together he’s breaking trail behind camp. Heading off uphill to take a look around. A little later Theo slides off to join him soon flowed by Thim. I stay in camp taking more photos and then readying myself for the day ahead, stripping excess layers and packing. Willem-Maarten reappears and encourages me to join the others up the hill. As it turns out we’re not a hundred meters from the summit of Veslehaugen.

With remarkably little effort we’ve bagged a 1000m top. Not much to look at. It's prominence can be no more than 30m or so. Just a knoll poking out of the high plateau of Oyer Fjellet. But it’s nevertheless adorned with an impressive, solid built, stone cairn to kiss for good look and it’s fine to look from. Standing on its top, a man of 1m 85cm or thereabouts is a half a body length above the tops of the highest trees. Norway in winter stretches out all around me. The big guns, Rondane perhaps, look down from the North. To the South smaller hills and cloud filled valleys. A cloud inversion! My breakfast is still warm in my belly and I’m leaning on a cairn looking down at the clouds. I could go back home a happy man already.

They say that what goes up must come down. With the exception of deep space probes that rule seems to hold. Willem-Maarten leads off, telemarking straight down the tracks he’d cut earlier. Skis refusing to turn but staying upright. Theo follows in much the same style. leaving just myself and Thim. This is going to be interesting. I let Thim go first. He gets down. Part of the way on his face but there’s no arguing the fact that he’s at the bottom. I push off on a shallower traverse and try to plough, intending to try and turn, speed is hard to find in the deep fluff but I'm mostly in control. Before I initiate a turn I realise my line is taking me to a step. A less than elegant but effective enough kick turn gets me onto the opposite traverse and another slow descent sees off the last of the hill. I’m down. I’m vertical. Marks for style? Zero! Confidence? Still basically intact.

Back at camp we prepare for the off. This new shiny plan allowed not only for a light first day but for lighter packs on the second. The intention is to leave the tents pitched, leave some food, the bulk of the fuel and a stove behind, and to make for the DNT hut on the shore of Djupslia lake where we'll overnight and then to return to the tents on the third and last night. Again the distance is moderate and the relative close proximity of the hut allows a large margin for error. The tricky bit will be navigating back to the tents in the event of significant snow fall or poor visibility. As we pack a snow-scooter, almost certainly the dawn moped, trundles along the track in the direction of Steinsetra. The driver looks at us and we look back. Contrary to expectation the tents are clearly in full view of the track. Nevermind, the compensation is that proximity to the track and the cairned top of Veslehaugen will make finding the tents that much easier. Packs on backs we kick gently down to the track.

A right turn sees us facing east and we’re off along the track again. Our broad skis fit perfectly and glide easily in the freshly pulled grooves. First comes the remainder of the climb started on day one. Then we’re on the shoulder of Hogasen where the terrain levels out and a little later we’re descending a gentle incline. Not steep enough to schuss but enough to lighten the kicks and extend the glides. The snow-scooter drivers early start shows. The track kinks, twists bucks and dives left to right and right to left. Nothing difficult but on occasion just enough to knock a ski of course and break the rhythm. Rhythm is everything.

Not expecting wet I’ve dispensed with a camera bag for this trip. My camera hangs around my neck and is tucked under my smock its swing killed by the chest strap of my rucksack. As we progress the sky clears, the sun shines and we’re treated to a blue and white spectacle. Long, shadows thrown by the shallow Northern light bring interest to the white canvas. The snow is studded with glittering diamonds. I stop often to take photographs. The accessibility of my camera encourages more. The temperature differential on passing from my smock to the crisp open air makes condensation on the lens a real problem. Before long my polariser is smeared and unusable and gets retired to my pocket.

Then comes the first real descent of the weekend. Nothing too difficult. Not too steep. No tricky curves. An easy glide straight down. I pause to take a photo and then at the same time as Thim in the opposite track, pole to get things moving, confident and deliberate. Several seconds later it's carnage. Two bodies and bits of kit are spread over the track. I’m not sure what happened to Thim but apparently my feet were intent on descending faster than the rest of me. Now swearing, I start to pick myself up and discover that recovery whilst wearing a heavy pack is a sport in its own right. Finally upright I push off again, let the skis run and whoosh. Not the exhilarating whoosh of rushing air. Oh no. Again the whoosh of static snow as my ear carves a turn along its surface. This isn’t good. Not at all. I’m sure the last time I was on Nordic skis I was getting down this type of slope without too much bother. A rough calculation suggests that two more falls should get me to the bottom of this one. As it happens I was out by one.

Regrouping we continue along the track. Unfortunately the same pattern repeats itself. Easy kick and glide followed by easy downhills for Theo and Willem-Maarten and crash and burn for myself and Thim. Practice isn’t making perfect. At least not at a rate of improvement that will see me confidently covering the last kilometres to Djupslia. On a wider track I may have skied down out of the tracks on the skating surface but here that’s not an option. All that separates the grooves is an untidy pile of loose snow churned up by by the scooter.

We stop for a break, dig seats, get comfortable and I take consolation in the view, still breathtaking through the funk of hot frustration. When the blood stops rushing and the pulse is back to normal the reality of the situation hits home. I’m in Norway, in the snow, the sky is blue and the sun is actually burning. Things could be a lot worse. If the secret of good planning lies in timing then we’ve struck gold this weekend. As we sit and eat the first of the day folk skis past. It’s been around 21 hours since we left the car park.

The rest of the route continues in the same vein. Steadily covering ground in the tracks, photographing whatever catches my eye, enjoying the company of the others and enjoying the periods of separation from them in turn. The route takes us over more open high ground loosely studded with low conifers, past tiny communities of private huts which at this time of year, tracks and roads concealed under meters of snow, appear infeasibly inaccessible to the families that own them, and finally across the Djupslia Mire. I imagine that this flat, dwarf birch strewn stretch of ground at the western head of the lake is very different in summer. A wet, soggy mess, humming to beat of tiny wings. I imagine all the little mosquitoes sleeping soundly two meters beneath my feet dreaming happy dreams of sweet tasting foreign backpackers with single skin tents. We see two more people taking the tally to three for the whole of Saturday. Its popular here!

For the last couple of kilometres around the head of the lake and along its northern shore the hut is clearly signposted. From the mire the climb is sustained. Three kilometres or so of up. Willem-Maarten has shown the group his heels, I suspect a little out of frustration, he could do so much more if he was free to set his own pace. My reflex action, honed by years of being barked at by teachers and instructors alike, is to keep groups together and I try to close the gap. Trying, without success, to keep Thim and Theo in view over my shoulder and Willem-Maarten in sight up ahead. In fact I succeed in losing site of everybody. It’s such a fine day and the route is so clear that nothing can go wrong. Can it? Probably not. My efforts were in any case wasted in all respects other than that they get me to the final destination quicker. I’m quite glad to see tracks leading into the trees from the final hut sign. At the same time I’m surprised that there appear to be a single set of fresh tracks. Could we be the only people to visit the hut since the last snow fall?

Well and truly arrived, I can relax, and shamble off down Willem-Maartens trail. However, my feet are, once again, set on getting there first and I find myself lying on my side in the snow. By now, a familiar feeling in all respects but one. This snow is not consolidated. If getting upright on skis on a prepared trail is a sport, then doing it on powder is the elite version. It takes me several minutes of wallowing around before I 'm on my feet and only then after a herculean effort that I’m sure involved bursting blood vessels in my head.

I make my way down the remainder of the trail more cautiously, even side stepping the steeper bits, avoiding another fall at all costs. As the hut swings into view it’s apparent we’ve made a good choice. Idyllic would be an understatement. As I close on the hut I can’t see any skis next to the door. No tell tale signs of company. Two paces further and I see the peculiar, heart shaped, DNT padlock hanging in the hasp. It would seem that we have the twenty one bunk hut to ourselves!

After performing, what to a Norwegian might have been interpreted as some sort of strange English homecoming dance, I’ve removed my skis and my pack and am standing, on just my feet, on solid ground, in front of the door. Willem-Maarten clears the piled up snow and I pull the chord to which the hut key is attached out of the side pocket of my rucksack. The key in view, and safely secured on the end of the chord I joke with Willem-Maarten that he better be nice to the key holder if he wants to sleep dry and warm tonight. As the joke is falling flat I catch sight of the key also falling. The two of us spend the next five minutes crawling around on all fours trying to find the tell-tale key shaped hole in the snow and retrieve the key. I’m having visions of cold nights and collapsed down bags when the key finally reappears. I open the door without further attempts to entertain the guests.

Inside we find a well provisioned (strangely enough for a boy out of Liverpool with amongst other things a years supply of tinned lobscouse), tidy, living space, with solar powered electric lighting, three bunk rooms and a huge cast iron wood burning stove. Indeed, Idyllic just doesn’t suffice. The temperature inside is about the same as that outside, at a guess still around -10C, so the first job is to light the stove. In the woodshed next to the hut we find a huge store of dry logs and, after warming myself up preparing kindling, I warm the room with a fire. In the meantime, Theo and Thim have joined us and, spirits running high we sit back and relax. Although it's still quite early, I've reached the end of my day. I'm happy to just to settle down, keep the fire burning, and enjoy the hut and its surroundings. Willem-Maarten and Theo, reluctant to waste daylight head out for a little off-track skiing.

Beforehand, a night in a hut always seems to me to be selling short. Cheating somehow. Cheating myself out of a night in the open. Mostly though, when I get inside I'm quite happy to be inside. This time is no exception. A chance to warm toes, treat blisters, drink hot tea and dry damp gear is welcome.

Apart from a short trip out to take some photos in the evening light and again after dinner to look at the stars on what turns out to be a clear cold night I stay put. So does Thim. The spectacular night sky rounds off what has been a good day. The constellations I see in the skies under which I live and work are still there but now the spaces between are filled with countless millions of strange stars and the milky way burns a path through the blackness. Before bedding down I open the curtains. Who knows. Maybe the northern lights will make and appearance?


Oyer Fjell: Day 1, Steinsetra to Veslehaugen

I'm here at long last. Steinsetra. Before this moment just a place name and a winter parking symbol just north of lillehammer on the map but now reality. Cold, white, cloud covered reality. I say at long last not because the journey has been a long one, it’s now a little after two in the afternoon and the taxi ride the flight to Oslo followed by the drive up the E6 has taken a just nine hours or so. Nor do I say long last because of the mishaps along the way, ten minutes from home I’d had to turn back to get my forgotten passport waking up my ten month old son, and consequently the whole family, in the process and this is the second winter car park we’ve visited today. Rather it's because it seems an age since this trip was conceived. In reality only a few weeks have past since the decision was made to come, but what weeks! A family Christmas, work commitments and illness have transpired to stretch those six weeks out into what feels more like six months.

All things considered I feel lucky to be here but the joy of the arrival and the anticipation of setting off are laced with trepidation. Although Oyer Fjellet, in the great scheme of things,and certainly as far as Norway is concerned, isn’t far from the populated world, it’s now deep winter and the plan is to sleep out on two of the three nights. I’ve cold camped in the UK many times but this will potentially break all my records. What's more I’m not a skier. I’ve skied lots of times, both downhill and cross country, but apart from a three or four year period many winters ago during which I was committed to improving my skills, my skiing trips are now punctuated by long periods of abstinence. Periods just long enough to forget the face plants and frustrations. Right now I’m wondering how I’m going to fair on Nordic skis with sixteen kilos of anti-balance strapped on my back.

Any negative thoughts centred on hypothermic nights and broken limbs would be easy to suppress were it not for the fact that a week ago I’d been diagnosed as having pneumonia. It had taken two weeks of bed rest, several arguments with my GP and finally chest x-rays to confirm my initial self diagnosis. The right antibiotics work wonders and I’m now feeling good but I still can’t help but wonder how I’m going to manage. Long days of kick and glide and deep sub zero temperatures are going to demand a lot of my body and I’m aware that ski touring and winter camping are, at the least, unconventional measures to combat pneumonia. One more time I wonder if I should have stayed at home but a glance at my surroundings kills the thought. The pull is just too strong. As we make our final preparations I check that I’ve packed my pills three or four times.
Fifteen minutes of faff and a two minute instruction on Rottefella cable bindings later and we’re strapping on skis and hoisting packs. The instruction, courtesy of Willem-Maarten, is necessary. Experience within the group of four is varied, for three of us this is the first time on a heavy Nordic touring set up. For one of the four this is the first time on Nordic skis full stop. The planned route also reflects the groups experience. After much debate and many changes of tack we had finally arrived at a plan entailing a very modest first leg. This afternoon we will ski just a few kilometres along groomed trails, all uphill but on a gentle incline, to what looks like a good location to set up camp. We’re parked at around 800m elevation and will camp at 900m elevation just three or four kilometres from the start point. A gentle start to get accustomed to the skis under our feet and the weight on our backs whilst, crucially, leaving daylight and energy enough to set up camp.
A short waddle sees me across the car park, over a steep drift and then into the tracks. Within a few strides the kick and glide of five years before comes back and I settle into a comfortable rhythm. It all feels more familiar than I’d expected despite the wider skis and heavier bindings. A good start. The extra effort of correcting for the to and fro momentum of a heavy pack is however new. I make an effort to put on some speed and open a gap between myself and the group then step out of the track and turn around to take in the scene and record it for posterity. All is well. The group are moving confidently and fluidly and all faces are dressed with a fat toothy grin that I’m sure will look good on the photos.

Returning to the tracks I get moving again and follow the others up the gentle slope. As I put metres behind and beneath me I can feel the worry and uncertainty peeling away like the skin of an onion until all that’s left is the rhythm of my breathing, the beat of my blood, the track under my feet , the bighting cold on my face and my surroundings. I'm into it already. From here on in it’s going to be simple. All about movement, route finding and the next meal. That and staying upright.

As we climb we gradually enter the cloud base. First a light, eerie mist hanging between the huts of Steinsetra, distilling the light, fractionating the colour until just the extremes of contrast are left. Then comes a thicker mist, one you can taste, and even the contrast is removed. Dimensions are lost. The world is a flat, grey-white without relief. Under different circumstances this would be difficult but right now were moving slowly uphill on a prepared track and we know exactly where we are. We pause several times to check the map nevertheless, getting a feeling for the scale and the detail and the licence of the cartographers hand but there’s never cause for concern. On one such stop it occurs to me that something strange has happened. Theo, usually happy to follow, is in the driving seat.

Time flies when you're having fun. A glance at my watch tells me it's approaching four o'clock. We should be setting up camp whilst there's still enough light. I've hardly formulated the thought when Willem-Maarten voices the same opinion. We ski on for ten more minutes and as we approach the crest of the rise decide to back track a little way and head South from the track to find a suitable pitch. Our first foray off-track brings us through sparse woodland to the North-Western foot of Veslehaugen where, after just a couple of hundred meters of breaking trail, we find a sheltered clearing we assume is well out of site of the track.

After a pause to don extra layers we get straight into the business of setting up tents. I'd assumed this would be done in no time. Although it's some time since my tent was used in anger I know it well and pitching is usually a couple of minutes work. Today is different. Today, if I remove my skis I'll sink up to my waist in the snow. Before we can do anything we have to prepare a consolidated platform. We start by stamping out a square with our skis. Theo, full of enthusiasm, then removes his skis but still sinks beyond his knees. He then takes the snow shovel and starts to dig. After half a minute he's standing in a hole half a meter deep and still throwing out pure powder. In the meantime I've discovered the shock-chord through the tent poles has slackened off to what seems to be twice it's normal length. As I, still strapped into my skis, make running repairs I suggest Theo might want to stop digging any time soon. I then start to thread the poles into the fly. An easy task when you're free to run around but today the mountain has to come to Mohamed. It takes me an age to set up the fly. I offer to give Theo, still digging an ever deeper hole, a break take off my skis and jump in. It occurs to me that rather than removing snow we need to be adding it. I start to work snow from the edge of the platform into the middle while Theo dances happily to and fro. It takes half an our of sustained activity before we've got a solid floor under a pitched tent and fifteen minutes more before I've got five good snow anchors set to hold the guys in place. Not good. Too long. We's clealry need more practice to cope with a forced pitch in bad weather.

Still, it seems we've found a decent spot. The wind is light but what wind there is is effectively blocked by the trees. The temperature is bearable, I guess around -10ÂșC under the last of the sun and I'm warm enough in my down under a Gore-tex shell. Willem-Maarten and Thim, a little quicker with their tent, have also started melting snow. Before long, the last of the daylight has faded, the first few litres of water are at a rolling boil and four freeze-dried meals, the first of many this weekend, are re-hydrating in cosies. Meals are consumed, under the light of head torches, without pause for breath and with little exchange of words. The remaining hot water decanted into thermos flasks we climb into tents and bed down for the night. I'm tired, it's pitch black and my body clock is telling me it's late, in any case definitely time for bed. As I busy myself setting up my bed I glance at my watch. It's seven o'clock. As I climb into my bag It occurs to me that Emily and Benjamin havn't even gone to bed yet.


Nordseter: Back in the world.

Once again I'm bathing in the afterglow of a wonderful trip. Sitting here in shirt sleeves with a hot drink and warm feet Norway seems a million miles away. It's great to be back with my family but right now I'm just trying to keep the trip alive a little longer, sorting out gear, downloading photos and collecting my thoughts. It'll be a little while yet before I get around to sharing the experience. In the meantime keep an eye on the Flicker slide show in the side bar and feel free to take a look at my photostream as new uploads appear (there'll be too many since, when it comes to photos, I can never make choices). By the way, I should realy stop refering to the trip as "Nordseter". As it happens we didn't get anywhere near Nordseter. More on that later.


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