For some time I lie awake listening to the wind. Hard and unrelenting, moaning through the stove pipe, beating on the windows. The evening before, as I'd turned in, slipping into my warm bag dried over one of those turbo charged Norwegian wood stoves, all had been still and I was hoping for a crisp, blue-sky-day to follow. Here and now, that seems to have been false hope but it always sounds worse when you're inside. It does always sound worse when you're inside right?
When I wake again the wind is still raging. I think briefly of the tent, is this a local wind or has the camp been getting a beating while we've been away? The morning ritual demands an exchange of down cocoon for down jackets and woolen hat in preparation for the walk to the chapel. As I step outside and wrestle the hut door shut I realise the “always worse outside” rule doesn't always hold. At least not in Norway. Done with worship, I head back to the hut to prepare for the day. I wonder what this day will bring. One certainty, we'll be going out in this. This is our last full day and we have to get back to camp.
Breakfast, pack up and suit up. Just another day at the office. The routine, as always, is fluid and effortless after a couple of days. In the course of the first three days everything has shaken down until the order of the roll call has been settled and there's a parking space reserved for all items. I deliberate on what to wear and decide to don everything but my down insulation and my big pile mitts. Well, almost everything. Deciding to keep my long johns on I grant my merino shorts, faithful companions of the last three days, a rest day. There's nothing else in my spare clothes dry bag when I shove it deep into my rucksack. Even the few semi-permanant residents will get a run out today. Today is a buff and goggles kind of day. I look across at my compatriots, three suited and booted extra terrestrials, and see we' re ready to go. I pull those bastard boots onto my feet again and step outside.
We exit the hut and strap on snow tools. Today two pairs of skis and two pairs of snow shoes. I've decided to give snow shoes a go. It means walking with skis strapped on my pack but they seem to make more sense over the rough, snow-poor ground that we encountered the day before and will have to cross again today. As we head off, the thermometer nailed over the door of the hut is reading minus seventeen.Willem-Maarten shouts through his buff and over the bluster of the wind, that every man should take care of his nose.
We climb back up through the little valley that will take us up to the wind beaten top of the day before. Yesterday this had been a sunlit haven sheltered from the wind. What a difference a day makes! Today it's a wind tunnel and a taste of things to come. As I climb over the crest and the cairn comes into view I´m at once exposed to the full force of the wind. A mear gale rather than a storm but the strongest gusts are enough to knock me a little off balance. Skis strapped onto my pack in a high A don´t help. As I keep nosing forwards I become entranced by this place again. The few hundred square meters of exposed rock and ice under my feet may not add up to a dramatic peak but the view is quite special. Perhaps just this day? There's movement of snow and cloud. There's bright blue in the distant sky and softer blue in the ice patches. There's stark black and white of rock and snow. There's drama, in my eyes at least, in the movement of men through this alien landscape. I snatch as many photos as wind chilled fingers will allow.
As I pause to take another image, mitts hanging from idiots cords, I become aware that my legs are cold. I suppose the result of dawdling to take photos. I set off again at a good pace intent on getting blood pumping. It works, but not completely. Today is an experiment in winter clothing and whilst my jacket appears up to the task my trousers aren't. As I move, face into the wind I feel the wind ripping through the cloth and heat being stripped from my thighs. As I move further I become aware of a stinging pain in a place where, those of the avaerage sexual persuasion, would least want such a pain. As I drop over the edge and start the descent into the long North West valley back to the brennhoa I do so with my sticks in one hand and the other hand clutching my crotch. The associated facial expression is at least hidden under my buff. Half a kilometre further, though lower on the hill, things havn't improved and I need to rememdy the problem. That's not as straight forward as is shoud be given that I left my shell trousers in the tent. The boys form a wall to windward while I strip off boots and trousers, pull my spare underpants on over my long johns and stuff my big pile mitts down the front. As I move off with a crotch full of improvised insulation I promise myself I'll think twice and then twice more before stripping down my kit so ruthlessly in future.
Before setting out we'd discussed our options. We figured that somewhere along this valley we could leave the track and, rather than doggedly repeat yesterdays route in reverse, head North somwhere East of the high ground to cut our own tracks for a change. The subject is raised again. I cast a no vote. The thought of battling through this and navigating through untracked snow doesn't appeal. The thought that there's a chance that this could get worse is rattling around in my head. Perhaps I'm letting my dick do the thinking again?
Further along we stop for snacks. Uncommonly we do so standing on skis and snow shoes, backs to the wind. It's clear to all that this will be a short break. The best state to be in is in motion. I raid the snacks stuffed into my chest pocket and take a slug of hot water out of my flask. No sooner have we stopped, or so it seems, than we're on the move again. The option to go cross country seems to have passed us by.
We cut a corner and start the climb to brennhoa. As I stomp past the little slope we played on the day before it occurs to me that the wind has eased a little. I loosen my hood a little and drop my buff from my nose and mouth. Looking back momentarility I realise we now have the wind on our backs. It doesn't seem to make sense since we've turned just nintey degrees. Winds in these places, funnelled as they are through the gaps, are local and unpredicatble.
I top out by the big route sign, clearly built for deep snow but now an oversized tripod with waymakers pinned high up where the text is hard to read, and decide it's time to switch back to skis. The snow shoes have served me well. Moving through the patchy unveven snow was easier than on skis n' skins. Something I find surprising is that I've been able to keep up with the skiers. Every tool seemingly has its place. Now though I want to profit from the long downhill that in know from yesterdays outward trip is just around the corner. There's a little up and down before the descent. The ups are still difficult on these skis on this snow. Energy is wasted backsliding every second step and I have to check my stride in an attempt to firmly plant my fishscales before delivering a reined in kick. In contrast even the slightest down hill has me gliding with ease. Wind from behind is always nicer but never more so that on skis. Soon enough I'm making a long, wind assisted glide down the hill.
All of a sudden, in what seems like no time, we're leaving the main track and crossing the flat before the steep climb to svarttjonnholet. We decide to pause for lunch. Theo heads off into a sheltered dell to scout out a spot. He calls us down but I refuse, point blank, to join him. I'm buggered if I'm going to expend the energy to climb back out of the thing on this crusty shit. Theo, of course, has to do just that. Feeling mean as hell, and guessing that a bite to eat will make me a nicer person, I move a little further along the track until I find a more accessible, if less sheltered, spot. We sit on packs, backs to the wind, and eat lunch. The sun shines and, with a cup of hot soup in me, I start to take in the scene. Between gusts it's actualy warm under the sun. Our lunch spot is sandwiched somewhere between winter and spring.
I switch back to snow shoes for the steep climb up to the huts at svarttjonnholet. First there's just the small issue of that long stretch of wind ridged snow. The going is immeasurably better on snow shoes. Somewhere between my ears hangs an image of me gliding effortlessly over scandinavian snow. It's hard, when plodding along on snow shoes, not to feel a twinge of disspointment. Reality and fantasy, however, seldom coincide. Skis on this rubbish are, I think, just long, heavy and inefficient snow shoes. On the steepest section I even engage the heel lift wires. At once I understand why they're there.
As I reach the crest and make a line for the huts I see people. Not my people but other people. Two men on skis heading in the direction of Espedalen. At first we don't approach them but it seems expedient to assertain where they intend to overnight. If they're heading for the Tonabu then we have one less option. Willem-Maarten starts up the conversation. Two words into the first sentence it's clear that they are Dutchmen. Willem-Maarten keeps speaking English regardless. They indeed intend to sleep at the Tonabu. While chatting four more people appear, two men two women, heading from Espedalen. We assertain that this German party are intent of overnighting in the Storkvelvbua. Willem-Maarten passes on some information about the route. It's now two in the afternoon, they're on skinny skis and are carrying light packs. I don't envy them. Under my breath I wish them luck with daylight and wind. They head off down the slope and, a minute later, there are Germans lying all over the slope and skis making a break for freedom. Having been treated to a glimpse of ourselves we let the Dutchmen make some ground and then leave this rush hour corner behind us.
The tent is still standing. Like a rock! The snow-sofa is bathed in sun and I sit a while, wondering just what all the fuss was about. Here and now the natural violence of this morning seems a million miles away. I feel a sudden pang of deep dissapointment. Why hadn't we made a day of it and gone off-track? Why had I advocated such conservatism? Would I have made another call had I have carried and extra couple of hundred grams of windproof clothing? Instead of sunning myself here I could have been experiencing the real Gausdal Westfjel. I could have been getting some more of those late-evening-in-Oyer sensatations. As it is I've now got several hours to brood on another uncomfortable night in the tent.
To keep my mind off things I get on with melting snow and sorting out my gear. The others get on with finishing the igloo. The structure, although it's clearly wilted a little under the sun, is still standing. Two or three courses and a cap-block should deliver a warm dining room and sleeping space for two. I watch quary master Thim cut blocks and the structure grow. Then, as I'm milling around and looking the other way, I hear three men shout in surprise. I look back just in time to see, for a split second, a compeleted igloo. Reality then dawns. While passing over the cap-block Theo has fallen through the wall. As a result we now have an open plan igloo. A space closed in by a precarious overhanging wall with a gaping hole in the front. Open plan living is better suiteded to warm climates. At best it'll be a sheltered place to eat. Our fate is sealed. We'll be four men in a tent again.
We pass the evening in camp. I don't find the energy or enthusiam to make a trip, to explore the area, to climb one of the minor tops adjacent to the camp. Instead I sit around moping and allowing my excrutiating footwear to take charge again. We sit in the demigloo and eat. I set a fire with air dried wood. Cunningly placed infront of the opeing to the half standing snow shelter so that heat is reflected by the back wall, all I achieve is to smoke the inhabitents out of their burrow. With tears in our eyes we head off to the tent. In the full knowledge that I'm heading full steam into a wall of misery I trudge through the cut in the snow to the tent and wait my turn to climb in. It feels like a bad day. A day in my beloved Norway the highlight of which was a chicken jalfrezi. I tell myself that, often, the best days turn out to be the ones we didn't enjoy at the time. As I crawl into my bag I force myself to make a mental image of that wind swept top with the 360° view and tell myself that right there I got a big fat dose of the very cure I need to keep me going and that the spoonful of curry was just to help the medicine go down.
To my great surprise I awake to the realisation that my night has been warm and comparatively dry. There's still some moisture on the outer and especialy the foot end of my bag but this time it's not collapsed. Perhaps I've learnt a lesson? Unfortunately, right now, I'm unsure what that lesson may have been. I havn't done much else than switch around the order of my sleeping mats.
So this is it. The last day has dawned. Eat, fill flasks pack up and set off just like yesterday. This time though there's the small matter of breaking camp. Thim does most of the work and digging out snow anchors realy does involve some work. His efforts deliver a tent bundled into it's stuff sack and all pegs and parachutes are accounted for. The latter is a small wonder.
We set off, cover the couple of hundred metres to the marked trail and get straight into a nasty section that needs to be herringboned. Out of the shelter of the camp it seems that there may be less wind today. Some ups and downs bring us back to the Angsjobua but not without incident. A short, steep, off-camber traverse has three of us, all those on skis, practicing recovery after a fall. I enjoyed it so much I did it twice. At the hut, Thim decides to switch back to skis for the easy section, mostly on pulled tracks, that will follow. We set off again into what now decidedly feels like the last leg of the trip.
The first stretch is gentle down hill on use track. For me it goes well and instills confidence for the steep fast descent into the valley that I know awaits. This run brings us back to the tracks pulled by the fjellhotel. The first machine made tracks we've seen since shortly after leaving the Tonabu on the morning of the first day. As we wait to regroup, as if from nowhere, the wind picks up again. Thim arives, snow shoe shod and carrying skis. He announces that his skiing carrier is over.
As we set off down the track, for the skiers at least, the difference is remarkable. I kick, and as long as my kick zones bight, the tracks take care of the rest. Even on the shallowest of down hills I barely have to work. If I stand in the tracks the wind keeps me moving forwards. First the tracks then the forrestry road. Things as always go faster in reverse. The road is nothing less than a narrow, twisting, bullied piste. Billiard table flat by comparison with the surfaces of the last few days. We again wait to regroup and then it's every man for himself and the long awaited fast run home. Gliding down I pass a string of day folk heading up out of the valley. None with packs. All presumably intent on doing a circuit of the tracks. If it wasn't for my cautious, perhaps overcautious, partly ploughed decent I would feel superior. As it is I guess I again just look like an Englishman away from home.
All too soon, I arrive at the bottom. Red faced and exhilerated. I'm greated by Theo and Willem-Maarten both wearing wide smiles. Despite the urge to climb back up and do it all again I stay put. It's a long sweaty climb and I've had enough of those for the time being. Only Thim is missing but he duly arives, also smiling, a couple of minutes later. Skis, of course, are faster downhill but the difference, even over a couple of kilometres of fast descent, is smaller than I would have imagined.
There follows the usual process of trying to shoehorn the gear back into the bags and holdalls it came in. Flight ready we leave the carpark and head back down Gausdal to Lillehammer and after recharging with grille polser, hit the main road to Oslo. I'm not sure what the cause is, perhaps the extra day, the cold night or the wind, or my cruel shoes but this time I'm ready to go home.