Day 4: Lost, soaked and hypothermic on the Hardangervidda

August 30, 2016 – 29 miles, 5,279 feet of climbing

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At 6:15 am we rose, flicked on the light to our musty hostel room, and blinded ourselves as our eyes adjusted from an otherwise dark world. A quick gathering of our shelter, sleeping bags and clothes that were drying on every possible hanging place over night, organizing them into our pack, putting on our still sopping wet socks (a most unpleasant morning experience) and we were leaving the secure warmth of civilization and stepping out into an ominously damp morning. Clouds hung low over the plateau, and if it didn’t rain on this day we’d be seriously blessed. We actually started the day without rain jackets or pants on, a situation that would change in less than an hour and not change back until 13 hours later.

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After a few non-flow-inducing kilometers through flat bog, the trail turned right and started a steady climb away from Liseth and up onto the Hardangervidda. Sheep greeted us, perhaps wondering what in the world we were doing up there on this obviously poor weather day. I must admit, the same thought crossed my mind. It wasn’t too long before a thick mist started falling, so we stopped, geared up with Gore-Tex, and carried on up the mountain.

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This was the first morning where I didn’t really warm up despite the climb…it was very cold out, perhaps 40°, wet…perfect hypothermia weather. We’d have to be diligent to avoid that dangerous foe. We came to an intersection where we had one last chance to head back to familiar terrain and the main route to Finse. But, for better or for worse, we decided to forego that familiarity and take the western route around the large ice cap. Based on the map, it looked straight forward. We would soon learn maps don’t always give the whole story.

We headed due north into the wind and rain, hoods up and heads down. The land was mostly undulating grey rock, and with a thick fog hovering over the surface it took diligent attention to find the next marker. Earth and sky blended into one as we walked through the fog. I had initially resisted putting on my gloves, as I didn’t want them to get wet, but soon my fingers became numb so I relented. Wool gloves when wet are not comfortable, but they are warmer than nothing at all.

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We hiked on for a few hours and the rain never stopped. The terrain was spectacular – raging blue rivers coming off the ice cap and every now and then, a slight view through the fog of the ominous ice cap. It looked like something from the movies – Greenland, the North Pole, Svalbard – not of the civilized world. We were a long way from downtown Oslo and comfortable coffee shops with warm hot cocoa and whipped cream. I was aware that the margin for error in these type of conditions was pretty slim. A broken leg or other debilitating injury in conditions this cold would require fast action to keep the victim warm.

We were growing hungry, no doubt our bodies working overtime to stay warm, but there was nowhere sheltered to stop to grab a quick snack out of the rain and wind. We found a flat mossy section and elected to set up our tarp, a strategy we utilized a few times on our Colorado CDT hike last year in the San Juans in similar conditions. We’re able to get it up in about 90 seconds, and soon we were snacking on peanuts, cheese and chocolate in relative comfort. We could still see our breath, and the rain was beating down on the millimeter thick tarp, but we were, for the moment, out of the wind and wet.

We ingested as many calories as possible and felt them course through the body almost instantly, like 94 octane gasoline in a car. It was tempting to stay in that tarp longer – we were warm – but the reality of our day didn’t allow it. We packed up everything except for the tarp, which I stuff in an outside pocket on my pack for easy access, delaying the process of stepping outside for as long as possible. Upon stepping outside, a gust of wind ripped into us and I was shocked how cold it was. And then, once again, we were out in it.

Stomach’s full, zipped tight in Gore Tex, hood up, every inch of the body covered with fabric except for the immediate face, it was possible to let the mind drift. Wild places, the rawness of it, and thoughts that, despite the discomfort, this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. The draw of thru-hiking is far beyond simply wanting to tick off trails and routes. There is purpose and flow to the day that makes just makes sense to me, to my mind, my soul, my body. I feel like, in some bizarre twist, I’m built for it. I like discomfort, find motivation in it. I have long, gangly legs…a serious hindrance in alpine ski racing, but a benefit when trying to cover ground on foot. I don’t know – hiking in wild places just feels right for me like few other things in life have.

dsc07055We entered a land of pure ice wonder. Raging rivers, massive snow banks, glaciers, ice caps, cold, rain, wind. Hostile land to be sure, too brutal for extended use without solid shelter and food, but such a privilege to experience our world at it’s most real, it’s rawest, to feel it and be inundated in it. As cold and windy as it was, I’d take that reality over sunny skies and 72° anyway of the week. We came over a rise and there it was, the Hardangerjokul, the ice cap, sheer, white, inhospitable and absolutely awe inspiring. These are the reasons we save our money and come here…the raw, wild and never seen by us before. Basically, creating those moments we’ll remember on our last breaths on this planet.

dsc07059In the distance we saw what resembled a sign post. It was…we had reached an intersection. According to the map, we should continue on straight, but below the direction arrows was a soaked, tattered sheet of paper that once had been completely wrapped in plastic. The words were faded and bled, but we were able to make out the basic gist. The trail that we wanted to take had been wiped out in a flood from the ice cap, and we had to take a diversion. The note warned us not to leave the flagged route, as we would likely fall off a steep ravine into a dam. In our cold, wet state of mind we were not sure what it all meant, but since the trail going straight looked non-existent and the trail heading left looked partially existent, we decided to take the latter.

The trail continued on for a bit in a normal fashion, albeit due west, a direction we were not supposed to go according to the map. We hit what looked like another intersection with yet another of the tattered signs. Heading due north, with no apparent trail in sight, were little orange flags. What else were we to do but head down the route and hope for the best. Our map had become hopelessly soaked despite being tucked deep inside my Gore-Tex anorak…indeed, everything was getting soaked. Stopping for more than 60 seconds led to a shiver, so we just kept moving. The trail descended steeply and then went straight back up probably the steepest hill of the entire trip. And then, after a slight bit of easier walking, we saw directly below us a huge lake with a damn on the far western edge.

The trail dropped like a free fall. Straight down, and when not straight down it hung precariously above 30 foot tall, soaking wet cliffs. A slip here and who knows when you’d stop tumbling. Below, the dark lake and the dam sat, unmoved, still, lurking. We hiked and slid our way down the mountain, doing our absolute best to avoid injury. It was exceptionally slow going and it required 100% mental focus. The trail was not really a trail at all, but a series of slick, muddy footsteps of other travelers who had to detour the ice cap flood.

About an hour later, soaked, bruised, battered and more than a little wired, we reached the bottom, crossed the concrete dam with big drop offs on either end, and started climbing rapidly up a jeep road. We still held out hope that we could make it to the creature comforts of Finse for the night, but to do so would require hustling. But we were also getting hungry, bordering on another bonk, and to let that happen would be slower than any other option. Since we were actually slightly warm because of the climb, we decided to stop for three minutes and shove all the food and calories into our mouths that we could. The feast was fruitful, but by the end of the three minutes the shiver picked back up…it was time to move again.

The spaced flags took us around the reservoir across high, table-like rock mounds. No problem I thought – we’re heading directly back to the trail we left, past the dam and flood. Once we hit the trail, it would be smooth sailing right to Finse. And then, with more than a hint of excitement and “we told you so,” we hit the trail. We were feeling so confident we actually skipped the luxury of turning right, hiking a kilometer and stopping in a hytte for 15 minutes. We had found the trail, and we were going to Finse.

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Immediately the trail started climbing, which according to the now destroyed and soaked map, was what we were supposed to do, or at least that’s what I remembered the map said. When we ran into a haggard and soaked looking group heading towards the hut, we confidently strode by and with more than a little hop and pride in our step, told them we had hiked 20 miles and were going to Finse that night. In retrospect, they looked a little confused, and there was a reason for that.

We moved quickly through the heavy rain and fog over undulating terrain dotted with lakes and snowfields. I made a mental note that I couldn’t really see the ice cap which we were supposed to be circumnavigating, but on the other hand it was so rainy and foggy that you couldn’t really see anything. We took turns leading, blazing our trail towards Finse. On our left we passed a huge reservoir, so big that you could not even make out the other end of it. The wind howled from the west and the rain continued to beat down.

We passed the lake and were getting hungry. It was getting later in the day and it would be good to see if we could unfold the sponge map and figure out how far we had to go to Finse. We erected the tarp yet again, and were soon sheltered from the increasing rain and wind.

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I pulled out the map and oriented us as best we could. Hmm, interesting, there doesn’t appear to be a big lake we pass I thought as I scanned our route. And we should be heading more east, but for the past two hours we’ve been heading due north. With disbelief and more not wanting to believe, it hit me – we were on the wrong trail, a trail heading due north, completely off the map to who knows where. For at least two hours we’d been heading the wrong direction. I told Elaine, “I think we’re on the wrong trail.” She didn’t want to believe it, and sensing that this could be a major disappointment that could seriously alter our trip, refused, in her ever optimistic way, to believe it. And, as we took down the tap and headed on, I wanted to believe it too.

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Except for one small problem. The trail kept heading north. Due north, like the wrong trail on the map. At some point in time we resigned ourselves that we’d hiked two hours in the wrong direction, had about an hour to go until darkness, had walked ourselves right off the map, it was puking rain and blowing like a banshee, and it felt like it could start snowing at any moment and we were borderline hypothermic. I can’t say we handled this development with grace. More like a few minutes of cursing, before putting the head down, making decisions and going forward. I’ve had a few experiences in my life where the mundane turns a little more critical in the outdoors. I get in this bizarre, almost manic, state of mind and body. It becomes a world of total focus, on being very alert because room for error is limited.

We continued walking. The rain kept pounding down. The wind rose. It began to get a little darker. The creek crossings got a little swifter, a little scarier. The land resembled something out of Lord of the Rings, endless undulating rock, not a smooth spot in site. We needed somewhere to camp, but in this harsh land, there was nowhere protected or even soft enough to drive in a stake. It was a world of wet, windy, slick, grey rock, in every direction, endless, harsh, wild.

We dropped down a ravine. What was this? In front of us, a tiny rock hut, no bigger than a backyard shed. Were my eyes deceiving me? Elaine confirmed that indeed, it was a hut. Unbelievable luck. We came closer. And we noticed smoke. Somebody was here. On a day where we saw almost nobody, somebody was in this hut. I opened the door, looked in, and saw six startled Norwegians. The place was packed, not even space to stand. I closed the door without uttering a word, put my head down, said something in disgust, and continued on.

We couldn’t catch a break on this day. First the washed out trail, then the missed turn and now the jam packed hut with no room for us. Bad luck. Some days reward you and some challenge. This was the latter. It was seriously getting dark now. The terrain was still rocky, and it seemed like we might be walking in this dream nightmare all night.

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On the horizon, we made out some faint power lines. Grey, massive, ominous. They crackled in the rain, a foreign sound in a wild place. To the right, a grey creek raged, cold, frothing, zero life. We went a little further and found a slight patch of moss on a more flat area. It was almost dark, so despite the unaesthetic feel of camping under massive power lines, this would be our rest for the night. We began to put up the shelter when Elaine made a grizzly discovery…a family of dead mice on the ground right where we wanted to camp. Urgh. We searched around for another five minutes, now seriously concerned about hypothermia as we had stopped moving in earnest. Finally, we found a spot.

We strapped the tarp to our pack so it wouldn’t blow away – a mistake like that could be fatal at this point in the game – and began staking it out. The wind was ripping and it was not an easy job. Since it’s a pyramid tarp, there are about four inches of opening between the ground and the shelter, and with the wind howling we wanted nothing to do with that. We took an extra five minutes and piled massive rocks around the shelter, blocking the wind and making it as weather-proof as we could.

And then, relative respite. With the wind blocked and the bottom of our tarp sealed off, it was actually comfortable, especially once we removed our wet base layers and put on a dry layer that never, ever comes out of a plastic bag in our pack until we are out of weather. Our shelter wasn’t as elaborate as the cabin a few miles back, but it was warm and it was our home. Soon our little stove was roaring (we did have to vent some to not get carbon monoxide poisoning), the water was boiling, tea was in hands, warm, steaming, amazing. We feasted on cheesy noodles and listened to the wind howl and rain beat down as a very difficult day on the Hardangervidda came to a close. Sleeping bags zipped up, lamps turned off, heads tucked in, stomachs full and bodies exhausted, we slept in peace as the tempest raged outside.

One thought on “Day 4: Lost, soaked and hypothermic on the Hardangervidda

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