As we leave the terminal building I feel strangely conspicuous. It's a rainy day in Tromso and I'm dressed for the mountains, in winter, with snowshoes, flotation tails attached, strapped to the back of my pack. We've been travelling since yesterday evening. The late flight to Oslo, a few hours sleep in an airport hotel and an early flight North are all behind us and, already eleven hours underway, I'm impatient for it to really get started. There is though, one more obstacle between us and the trail head, we need to get our hands on gas cannisters. Hoping to avoid a round trip into Tromso centre we throw money at the problem and claiming the first taxi in the rank, which is also the only taxi in the rank, we hope that the driver really does know where to buy gas. Ten minutes later, still within sight of the airport and with shiny new gas cannisters stuffed into rucksacks, we set off, now confident that the driver knows her way around. Ten minutes later still, we're stood on the road side, looking out over the Grotsundet and zipping on snow gaiters.
There's something special about starting a mountain trip from the beach. Setting off with salt water and sand on your boot soles, from 0m elevation appeals to my sense of fairness. Every meter climbed today will be a meter earned. The antithesis, it seems to me, to bagging a Munro from the top of the cable car.
Movik is a small village, even smaller than I'd imagined, and in just a few minutes we've walked through most of it and are climbing away from the coast. It's warm. Warmer than it should be in Arctic Norway in February, but the sheets of ice that cover the track show that it's recently been even warmer. We're no more than a half a kilometre from the road when the track ends and, after shuffling over the super-slippery frozen Movikelva, we're climbing more steeply through woodland. The effort of the climb forces a short stop to strip layers. Having clearly burnt off the hotel breakfast already we also take the chance to fuel up with a muesli bar and a handful of nuts. As we climb further the trees thin and we find ourselves on a more open hillside with a view back down. As we stand to take in the view a sea eagle passes directly over our heads and with a few strokes of his wings turns for the coast and floats back down our route. I pinch myself. The reality of being here hasn't yet sunk in and the eagle just serves to add another layer of improbability.
A little higher up the slope we find ourselves route finding through bushy scrub and, more and more frequently, post-holing through patches of deeper snow. We pause again, this time to strap on snow shoes and thereafter fall into line. The going, at least at the back of the line, gets easier and we head back into the trees.
Then comes our first choice. The plan for this trip is loose, even by our standards, and other than deciding which trail head we'd use and where we'd stay the first night there's precious little else written down. Right now we're making for the Blakollkoia hut and we have a choice; the low route through Tonsvikdalen, or head over the top. There's quite some wind but it's not deeply cold and, for the moment, it's clear and dry. The better option, conditions allowing, is always over the top and we accordingly turn South, first loosing height and crossing the marshes at the head of Movikvatnet, and then climbing again aiming for the notch between Ruglfjellet and Blakollen.
The climb continues, slow and steady, snowshoes often necessary but sometimes, as we find ourselves standing on vegetation and rock, out of place. Soon we're above the tree-line and as we continue to gain height we expose ourselves more and more to the wind. Luckily it's in our backs. Luckily it's not -20°C.
We pick our way steadily through the pass stopping now and then to look back over the frozen Movikvatnet and the sea beyond. Stopping now and then to scan the distant peaks that swing into view as our perspective evolves. As we turn around the back of Blakollen the the view back down disappears around the corner and the view ahead starts to emerge. We're now so close to the top of this little hill that we decide it would be rude not to and, dropping packs, we scrabble up the last few contours to take in the view from the top. Those last few contours now under us we find ourselves in the teeth of the wind, here stronger than ever, and it's difficult to both walk and stand.
On another day this wind might be seriously unpleasant but on this day, a first day out, when still warm, dry and full of energy and enthusiasm, it´s a bringer of joy. As the wind forces clean air up my nostrils I imagine it's also stripping away the last layers of city grime from my skin and clothes. It's howl, not menacing but somehow welcoming. Thim and Willem-Maarten are clearly enjoying themselvess too. Smiles abound. For me, on every trip, sooner or later, there´s a turning point. A point where normal life stops and the trip starts in earnest. A point where the city recedes into the past and the trip becomes the foreseeable future. A point where, reminiscent of acclimatising on a cold swim, the initial niggling discomforts of carrying a pack and exposure to the elements become swamped by the love of doing this. On the best of trips this point comes sometime on the first day. In this case it comes here at the top of the first climb.
We drop back down to the packs and carry on towards the hut, first hugging the southern side of Blakollen, then over an undulating flat and finally onto the long, off-camber descent that will carry us down to the hut. The route we're following is marked on the map as both a summer and winter route. We hadn't expected any admission on the ground of the cartographers blue dotted line. Finding that the summer waymarkings, small stone piles marked with the familiar red T, are still visible was a big surprise. The snow is never more than a few centimetres deep out of the drifts. I think of the Huldraheimen and, for the first time, give thanks that I´m not on skis.
As I descend, wind at my back, hood pulled up and cinched in around my face, I can only hear the thrum of wind across fabric. Such is the strength of the wind in the gusts that I regularly have to check my stride to keep my balance. On two occasions, I prove that it's possible to fall on snowshoes. Twice more, I give thanks that I´m on snowshoes and not skis.
Somewhere round the back of Blakollen it starts to rain. The Norwegian met office had promised rain for the afternoon but I´d written it off as a bad guess. Rain, Arctic and February don´t belong in the same sentence. The stuff falling on me isn´t what passes for rain in Merseyside though. It´s somewhere North of rain, South of snow but not sleet. Superfine, I watch it land on my sleeves as crystals and, at the same moment, melt and wet out. The process takes a little longer but the end result is one I´m familiar with: I get wet. This is the reason we´ve chosen to stay in a hut tonight. Temperatures just above freezing coupled with wet snow and cold rain is just about the worst combination I can think of for overnighting in a tent. I think to myself that we´ve made a good choice. Apparently I´m a fair weather camper: I´ll take deep cold over this any day of the week.
Today is one of ups and downs, both literally and emotionally. Half way down to the hut I´ve burnt up the last of the euphoria I´d stock-piled on the way up. Tiredness, low blood sugar, tangled undergrowth, wet clothes, the discomfort of a downward traverse with ultra-wide footwear, or some such, has killed my mood. When the hut comes it´s not too soon and, once through the door, other than a quick trip to collect snow, I stay inside until morning. Time enough to plan the rest of the trip.