It's the morning after a night in a comfortable hut. A small hut, quick to heat, too warm in the evening but cold in the morning. The call of nature pulls me out of my down bag, straight into my down jacket and onto the thunder-box. Camera in hand. You never know when the next opportunity will present itself. An unexpected luxury, the po is under the same roof. Even so the down jacket isn't overkill. As I hang over the hole staring at Norwegian wood I feel the familiar fresh breeze from the South but there's something else. Something unfamiliar. It's warmth. A warm seat and I'm first first in line! Wow. Whoever invented the expanded polystyrene toilet seat should make it onto the honours list.
Job done I make my way outside. It's light already. Grey and overcast but light. There's something in the air. Rain or wet snow? Time will tell. I negotiate the ice sheet and look around. The steep South Western side of the Tonsvikdalen rises up behind the hut. To all sides stretches a thin birch wood. Snow cover is patchy. I suddenly feel that I don't want to be down here. I want to be on the tops. Nothing inspires me to point my camera and I head back inside.
Hot porridge and strong coffee get me rolling. I pack. Day two is always the day the load begins to shake down and those last minute decisions and things purchased underway find their proper place. A little while later I'm packed and ready. I love this feeling. In a few minutes I'll be outside and underway. Just me with all the things I'll need, whatever the weather brings, whether things go to plan or get bent out of shape, whether we sleep in or out, on my back and between my ears.
During the long evening before we'd drunk tea and snacked while making plans. Several plans as it happens. The Alps, North America, Scotland andWales had all taken turn. We'd been reasonably efficient, we'd even got round to planning some of this trip: this morning we'll head up to the Skarvassbu hut. Short but at least decisive. A leg of 6km or so, there's an option that will take us onto higher ground, just shy of 600m. What we do after that will depend on the weather. The last forecast before departure had promised unstable weather on all but the last day. On making Skarvassbu there should at least be enough light to either move on and set up camp or dump kit and do an out and back. Skarvassbu is due South. In the days remaining we'll most likely turn North East and make for Oldervikdalen and the bus back into Tromso. The route leaves lots of options. We can hut to hut or camp as we please. We can stay low or bag tops as we go. The direct route is about 35 thumbs wide. Spread over three days, even on slow-shoes, that should be a doable thumb count and we can add thumbs as we please.
Stepping outside I'm at first too cold. Start with too many layers and you just have to stop and strip after the first kilometre. Better to start cold and get the blood running. The stuff that I felt was in the air earlier is now falling out of it. It's snow. Big fluffy flakes. A little wet but I'll take this over the ice rain of yesterday. We weave our way through the birch and undergrowth. Sometimes on the path, sometimes loosing it but always with the Tonsvikelva to our left. It's a bit up and down, a bit stumbly, but the going is okay. The snow continues to fall but for the moment at least visibility is good.
We choose to leave the valley and head over the top. There's another dotted line denoting a winter route but it's not clear where it is on the ground so we make our own. Working from the contours, slanting gradually uphill and counting off stream beds. As we climb the trees become bushes which in turn become boulders. As we hit the third stream bed we turn and head straight up the slope, keeping to the right hand bank until the contours widen and we can be sure it's safe to cross. Looking across I see Willem-Maarten pass what appears to be the last tree. I can't help but smile. We're back!
Here, higher up, it seems we're suddenly in a different world. The wind is harder, the snow chiselled into a million abstract shapes, colours are muted. Blue-white snow overlays blue-grey ice each is studded with darker grey rock. Where there's contrast there's depth. On the wider snow drifts, where ice is absent and rock is buried, the world becomes a flat, white blur. Willem-Maarten and Thim are the only points of focus until the next rock looms into view and normal service is resumed.
Higher up still the ground levels out. Somewhere in front of us lies a lake, one of the Storskarvatnan, and we make an exaggerated detour to the left to avoid crossing the ice. In doing so we gain a few metres elevation and are greeted with another small cairn carrying a red T. Back on the summer route the weather is now pure winter. As we cairn-hop the last kilometre to the hut a sharp wind drives snow bullets into my face and eyes.
Skarvassbu turns out to be a collection of buildings. The main hut is large and appears to be undergoing repairs. The interior is open, jumbled and not at all cosy. Nevertheless, shelter from the wind is welcome and we sit, in all available layers, to lunch. To my disappointment my flask is cold. There's no obvious damage but I guess it's not survived the onslaughts of the baggage handlers. Willem-Maarten softens the blow with a cup of hot stock.
Lunch over it's decision time again. Camping seems a poor plan B. The wind is strong and the snow is shallow. Armed with parachutes and snow anchors a solid pitch is going to be hard to achieve. This hut though doesn't really appeal. We decide to check out the other buildings before committing. Opposite lies a smaller hut that looks more suitable. It's locked but ten minutes of clutching the iced up lock and fiddling with the DNT key gets Willem-Maarten cold hands but us access. Once inside we're sold. This is prime real estate in a great location.
It's still early. Inside we take some time to light the stove, collect snow and, stripping out all but a few calories and overnight essentials, repack bags. We head back out into the cold. The wind, now stronger still, dictates. It's a day for full armour. Hood up and cinched in tight around my face, buff across my mouth and nose, ski-goggles filling the hole in between, I lean into the wind and fight my way forwards. Out in the winter storm but somehow still inside looking out through a window.
It appears we're now on a marked winter route and we stomp to the South West, stick to stick. In pausing to take photo's along the way I fall behind. I peer through the murk and see two shadows wobble and almost disappear. I keep moving, following the fresh snowshoe tracks putting on a spurt and the shadows pull back into focus. We cover another three kilometres in this way. Me falling behind and then catching up. I stop and wipe down my goggles and visibility improves, some of the murk has been smeared across the front of them all along.
Then comes the end of the line. In front of us stands the bulk of Tromsdalstinden. We stand and look on. Another peak to be saved for another day. Then, after a short huddle over the map, we decide that we can, if there's light enough, make the top of Skarsfjellet and we start out up the slope at a good pace. As we climb we string out, me at the back as always. On the ground, there's more up and down than is apparent on the map. We weave left and right picking a line and then, a kilometre and a half in, the ground levels a little and we're on a minor top. With the light now fading fast and three kilometres between us and the hut we agree to call this our summit. With the wind at our backs, the return is easier. By the time we make the hut it's dark, it's snowing again and my stomach says it's time for dinner.
Hut nights are mostly uneventful nights. This hut night brings with it two events. The first comes as we sit as we sit drinking tea. The hut now warmed by the stove, there' s an unexpected sound. The sound of feet stomping in the porch. The door swings open and a bright head torch enters the room. Under the head torch hangs a pretty young girl carrying a small day pack and plastered in snow. Her first attempt at communication fails. We stare blankly as she spouts a stream of Norwegian. Her second attempt works better: “Hi.”. “Hi.” “Wasn't expecting anybody up here but saw the light.” “Still snowing?” “Still snowing!” “Where're you from?” “Holland.” “Wow, this's something different.” “Yeah, we don't have mountains.” “My friend said she'd been skating.” “Yeah it's colder there than here!” “You skiing?” “No snowshoes.” “Oh. Snow's not so good!” “We book in advance we don't get to choose.” “What've you got on your feet?” “Running shoes.” “Running shoes?” “Yeah, with Spikes, look.” “Oh.” “Where've you come from?” “Sweden.” “No today.” “Oh. Tromsdalen.” “Where you headed?” “Tromsdalen.” “Been out long?” “Since this morning. Snow's too patchy to ski on but sometimes knee deep in running shoes!” “How far is it back to Tromsdalen?” “Hmm... three hours.” “Three hours?” “Yeah.” “There's a spare bunk. Want to stay?” “Erm, better get back.” “You sure?” “Erm...yeah, my friends will be worried and I know the way from here.” “In the dark?” “Yeah. I'll get going while I'm still warm.” “Sure?” “Sure!” Then she goes back through the door, there's some more stomping and she's gone. We sit in silence for a few minutes and then, all three of us being fathers, comes the first, but not the last upwelling of parental concern.
The second event comes later in the night. It's one that will stay in my memory for just as long: I see the Northern Lights for the first time.