I'd been cold in the night. In fact it was one of the coldest nights outdoors I could remember. Colder even than that bone chiller under the shelter stone in 1991. I'd been out for a piss in the small hours. Though pre-armed with a piss bottle I'd not been able to find it and after fumbling around in the dark for several minutes I'd resorted to taking a trip. Cold before I left I was much colder afterwards. The trip had sucked all the heat out of me, my feet in particular, and my down. After that I'd spent hours, eyes screwed shut but fully conscious, balanced on my side trying to keep as much flesh out of contact with my mat as possible. Sleep had been, needless to say, fitful.
As others start to move I'm still reluctant to get out of my bag. It doesn't make sense. It would be better by far to get up and get moving. To get blood pumping back around my body and into my feet but discomfort and cold don't make for clinical application of logic. Instead I lie watching the others rise, order their kit and one by one leave the tent. Only when Willem-Maarten shouts an offer to put hot water on my freeze dried breakfast do I find the motivation to move. Some say that swearing is unnecessary. Personally I find that there are times when it really helps. Like when putting cold feet into frozen , ill-fitting boots.
As I order my kit and pack the things I think I'm going to need for the day the explanation for my cold feet swings into sharp focus. Dark, wet clumps of down are visible through the outer. The foot of my bag is wet. Not damp but wet through. The rest of my bag has faired better but the foot end now has the insulatory capacity of two sheets of wet yellow pertex. I feel the need to swear for the second time today. As I prepare to leave the tent I find the missing piss bottle under my sleeping mats. I've apparently done a Jorgen, but thankfully before I'd filled the thing up. We're up to three bouts of swearing and I'm yet to eat breakfast. I exit the tent to find Willem-Maarten running laps round the unfinished igloo. Clearly I'm not the only one feeling the cold. I begin to realise that setting up this sleepy hollow, though keeping the wind at bay, has perhaps invited deep cold into our temporary home.
A quick conference reveals that only Theo has had a comfortable night. Both Thim and Willem-Maarten have had a similar experience to mine. Over breakfast we discuss the plan for the day. We have two choices; make a circuit and return to the camp for night three or head for a hut. Though the former promises to deliver some fine off track experiences we choose to head for a hut. It's the only sure fire way of drying out boots and breathing life back into down bags. Storkvelbu, can be reached over a dog-legged ten kilometres or so of staked route. Storkvelbu becomes todays objective. It feels a bit like failure but I tell myself it's a success of planning that Storkvelbu is an easy pitch away.
We fill flasks and go about packing up. With a hut as our goal we can pare down our loads and leave some gear and food at camp. Thim, the least comfortable on skis, chooses to leave them behind in favour of snow shoes. I'm undecided. I want at some stage to try snow shoeing but I'm reluctant to rule out skiing for the next two days. Thim graciously offers to carry the second pair of snow shoes to keep options open. As I rub blister cream into the yesterdays hot spots on my insteps I think things through. Thoughts of ice and steep sections in the first few kilometres of the day has me reaching for skins. I'd sooner fix them on now than after I've warmed up and found my rhythm. Packed up, and happy that the tent is locked down we head out.
The first kilometres up to the Svarttjonholet take us over the rise and fall of a used but unprepared track. It makes for easy navigation if not for ultrafast progress. The snow is irregular wind-sculpted hard pack. The tracks left by those who've skied through before us are now in negative, the soft unworked snow around them having been stripped away by the wind to leave them protruding. At the crests we encounter sastrugi, in the dips deeper snow. The deeper snow, though it tempts me away from the track, is full of false promise and each time I succumb to temptation find myself calf deep with skis submarining under a hard crust.
As the hut at the Svarttjonholet comes into the view my attention turns to my feet. Numbing cold has now been replaced by burning pain. Yesterdays hot spots are back with a vengeance and every heel lift, left and right, has me wincing. I toy with the idea of stopping to put on blister plasters but my stupidity gets the better of me once again. Rather than break the groups freshly found rhythm I bight down and do my best to enjoy the view.
I arrive last at the hut to find that Willem-Maarten has already checked it out. Another hut we'd earmarked as possible shelter in a storm is locked. Still it's nicely situated and the view of the little group of 1400m tops just to the North is free for all to enjoy. I add Storhopiggen to my ever growing list of peaks to be climbed another day and head off in the other direction. I descend the steep hill granny-style with skins still fixed and so, uncharacteristically unpreocupied with falling, can look around. The little tops I'm intent on putting behind me were photogenic but it's the view west and North West that steel this particular show. In the foreground a birch studded flat extends into the distance. In the summer most likely a marshy hell now the perfect charcoal drawn winter scene. Criss crossed by swathes of woodland the view is so long that the furthest trees are just suggestions. Barely discernible black lines on white paper. Behind the furthest trees rises the forecourt of the Joutenheimen. In one turn of the head my list of unclaimed peaks increases ten fold. Long evenings studying the map had promised this view. Now all of Norway is at my feet, the promise has been kept.
Half way down I pause to watch Theo and Willem-Maarten negotiate the slope. We're apparently back on form. In no time there are casualties all over the hill. Neither can execute more than half a turn on the irregular crusted surface. I watch intently as they rise, pick up speed, initiate a turn, promptly bury the outer ski under the crust and collapse once more in a tangle of rucksack and man. They nevertheless pass me and in two or three goes are schussing down the run out. I'm slower, but am glad not to have had to recover from so many falls. Rising from the dead costs more energy than I'd care to burn so early in the day.
There's a kilometre and a half of that winter scene to cross before we pick up the DNT route and swing Southwards for the long gradual climb to the pass through the Brennhoa. It turns out to be close to a kilometre and a half of sastrugi. I keep moving, trying to maintain a rhythm but the lumpy shit under my skis requires that I keep checking my stride and correcting my balance. What should be a wonderful traverse of a picture postcard landscape becomes unpleasant toil. Apart from the few occasions when I force myself to stop, to look up and take in the view and to take a photograph, I just look at my feet and keep moving. As I finally catch up to the group they're already preparing a snow bench for a break I'm dipping and in danger of letting my foot discomfort become the focus of all of my attention. I sit down, pull off my cruel shoes and set about taping up my feet and bending my head back into shape with hot soup, cold sausage and muesli bars.
The DNT route makes for easier skiing. Still no pulled tracks but it's been run over with a snow scooter and has seen more traffic. Before starting out I'd moved to strip my skins but Theo and Willem-Maarten had encouraged me to wait. Their scales haven't been biting and we now face a couple of hundred metres of climb. As a result I find myself still shuffling forwards on skins. My feet are still bothering me but my mood is better. We climb with the long westward view on our right hand and the higher we get the clearer my head gets and the more I start to enjoy myself. The top of the Brenahoa is a nice place to be. For the first time this trip I feel like I'm back in the mountains I strip my skins with a smile and prepare myself for a a long easy descent.
It's with an ear-to-ear smile that I finally catch Willem-Maarten. He spys a smooth wind hardened slope to the right of the track, climb it and descends with a telemark turn. It's a short slope but seeing the opportunity to have some fun we dump the packs and practice some turns while we wait for the others to catch up. Then they catch us up and we just keep playing. This is a chance to enjoy the place, warm up cold skills and to try each others skis out.
Although we've not long since had a break we choose to lunch here and, despite it being on the exposed side, climb the small knoll to take lunch looking west. I'm not likely to get tired of this view in a hurry. The light is long and a bronze tint is draped over the icy foreground. Distant peaks look hard and jagged. There's not a lot of snow here, rocks stud the snow field before us and the tops are a patchwork of white and brown. I guess the skiing up there won't be so great either. As we enjoy the view and our lunch the wind suddenly picks up. There follows a sort of communal knee jerk as, without saying a word, the group rises packs up and gets moving.
Before long we're turning the corner and heading round the back of the Brennhoa and starting the long South Easterly climb that willll take us past the northern shoulder of Nordre Langsua and up to the Storkvelbu. The climb begins with a sharp shock and I find myself herringboning up a steep icy bank. Thankfully it's short. Above the bank the climb is gradual. As we climb we pass over ground increasingly beaten up by the wind which here is funnelled between the surrounding high ground. We cross ice hard snow and patches of grey blue ice in turn. Theo stops to fix skins. I join him. Loosing glide has to be better than wasting energy propelling skis backwards with every other kick.
The higher we get the stronger the wind, the more snow there is in the air and the less snow there is on the ground. Drifting snow dances over the tops of my skis but at times there's precious little under them. On the final steepening climb I find myself skinning over a mix of ice, rock and twigs. I look up and see Willem-Maarten walk and then scramble, skis slung over his shoulder, through rocks ahead. I zigzag taking a longer route around the same rocks and then at once I'm topping out on a wide flat, high and exposed. The wind here is strong and violent but in our backs. Today this is no place to dally but I do nevertheless. I can't help it. These places, so often described as barren are far from it. They're full. Full of texture, full of light, full of energy. Full of something that keep pulling me back.
We pass a large well built cairn and it's obvious we're back into the land of the DNT. A few meters further and we drop into a v-shaped valley and just like that the wind stops and I feel sun on my face. As I drop through the little valley a collection of neat huts appears in the route of the V. A few meters further and I'm amongst them. Thim, who's covered the whole distance on snow shoes has arrived before me.
We're spoilt for choice. We have one key but it opens two huts. After some debate we choose the smaller of the two. Then, all at once, the great outdoors is safely shut away outdoors.