Alta Backcountry

2019 Expedition Amundsen Recap: Across the Stormy Hardangervidda

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Getting To the Start: From Eldora, Colorado to Haukeliseter, Norway

Expedition Amundsen touts itself as the “World’s Hardest Expedition Ski Race.” The first year my wife Elaine and I competed in the event, in 2017, we felt a little bit cheated. Before the race we were told stories of blinding white-outs, being marooned in camp for days, of the ugly side of the Hardangervidda, the stormy side, where snow and ice blows in from the Arctic Ocean and the North Sea. We saw the epic videos, we heard the story how Roald Amundsen had managed to conquer the South Pole, yet almost died skiing across the Hardangervidda. And yet, for our race two years ago, the weather was perfect. It was clear and calm, and the track was fast.

In a lot of ways, the relatively friendly weather conditions gave us a bit of false confidence masking some glaring weaknesses. We came in fit and skied decently fast, finishing in 2nd in the co-ed category. Yet deep down, I think both Elaine and I were aware that we got lucky. In retrospect, had the weather turned bad, I’m not sure we were entirely ready for a brutal near-polar environment.

After a year hiatus, we decided to return in 2019. It wasn’t a decision we jumped into immediately, as traveling from Colorado to Norway to compete in a pulk (sled) pulling race with full winter camping gear is daunting logistically and expense-wise. But, a Greenland-crossing attempt last spring which didn’t go as we had hoped, combined with a good summer of training, motivated us to sign up for this year’s edition.

For most of the record-setting winter in Colorado, our ski days morphed into something more akin to pack animals. While friends were cutting turns thru knee deep powder, we’d drag 100 pound sleds up a long trail that heads west from our home at 8,800 feet above sea level to 11,000 feet on the Continental Divide. It was put-the-headphones-in grunt work, but after doing this for many months we felt physically and mentally ready for the race.

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On the only warm training sessions of the entire winter. Sun’s out, guns out!

After 18 hours of travel, the plane from Denver touched down in a snowy and cold Oslo. All our luggage arrived on time and intact, and we managed to use every nook and cranny of our compact rental car to pack it all in. I’d slept two hours on the flights to Norway, but we had a race to get to that started in 48 hours. We immediately set the car GPS device for “Geilo,” a small ski resort town on the eastern side of the Hardangervidda that would be our jumping off point for our final jaunt to the race headquarters in Eidfjord, along the western coast, a solid day’s drive from Oslo.

One of the required gear items that we could not fly with was camp fuel, and it took us many stops at grocery and hardware stores along the way to procure the four liters needed to compete in the race. It seems every shop had a single liter of fuel, and no more. It wasn’t until we pulled into a sporting goods store in the town of Gol, three-hours into the drive, that we finally had enough camp fuel to participate in the race.

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A snowy night in Geilo, Norway.

As night fell, we exited the snow packed, icy roads and pulled into our a little hytte on the outskirts of Geilo. A jet-lagged mile long walk into snowy Geilo to the grocery store was a perfect way to shake out the legs after 24 straight hours of traveling.

The next morning we were up and driving over the Hardangervidda to Eidfjord. The Hardangervidda is a massive, treeless plateau that is home to the best nordic ski touring in the world. It’s also popular with kite skiers who utilize the wind and wide open spaces to sail across the landscape. At the high point of the Vidda, we stopped to watch the kite skiers before driving the winding drop to the race headquarters in Eidfjord.

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Kite skiers on the Hardangervidda.

Eidfjord is a tiny village in a dramatic place. Sheer cliff walls rise up and out of town on three sides, the windy and snowy Hardangervidda sitting 1,000 meters up those vertical faces. The Atlantic Ocean extends right to the edge of Eidfjord on the 4th side by way of a long and deep fjord. It’s big, beautiful country that catches the attention and wakens the senses.

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Eidfjord from our lodging at the Vik Pensionat.

After checking into our hotel, the Vik Pensionat, we made our way up to race headquarters to try to solve a big concern that had been looming over us since the previous April. When we left Greenland after our attempt to cross the icecap last spring, we were out of money thanks to endless and unexpected baggage fees on airplanes and helicopters. Out of necessity, we opted to have our sleds shipped via cargo boat to the United States and then hauled by freight truck to Colorado. It would take months, but we didn’t need the sleds in the summer. Packing up the sleds and leaving them on a dock in Tasiilaq, Greenland as a cold, icy rain fell, I had concerns we’d never see the sleds again.

After getting ourselves back to the States, we didn’t hear anything about the sleds for months. And then, in early July, I got a call from Poland. Our sleds had made their way to the Copenhagen harbor in Denmark with a Polish expedition that had been on the icecap when we were. The sleds were sitting on a pallet at the harbor, with no information other than our names and a phone number attached.

The maker of our Acapulka sleds is a skilled engineer and designer named Alex. Acapulka is one of the main sponsors of Expedition Amundsen. While Acapulka is a Norwegian company, the main manufacturing facility is in Germany. Short of options, and fearful that the box that contained our sleds had been destroyed from months sitting in the North Atlantic, we called Alex asking for a favor. Basically, would somebody from Alpacka be be able to pick up the sleds? He kindly agreed and we eventually arranged to meet him in Eidfjord before the race to pick them up. After ten months we were reunited with our sleds, mere hours before the start of the race across the Hardangervidda. Alex even replaced the runners and a few pieces of hardware to make sure we were ready for the event. He’s a gem of a human and he makes some of the best sleds anywhere.

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Our sleds enjoyed a nice ten-month journey from the Greenland icecap, pictured here, to the start of the 2019 Expedition Amundsen.

It was time to go to the pre-race gear check. This is a stressful but unique part of Expedition Amundsen. Race organizers go through all gear, weigh sleds and then load sleds, gear and skis onto trucks to be driven to the race start three-hours away in Haukeliseter.

Our 2017 gear check was a shit show. Kathinka, a polar-travel EXA-toughened veteran and former race winner gave our gear a thorough examination, explained to us that a butane lighter was definitely NOT sufficient for travel across the Hardangervidda (you have to have waterproof matches), and left us thoroughly intimidated and humbled. Turns out, she was doing us a big favor. We learned a lot from her in those thirty minutes.

This year, for check-in, we had the pleasure of having our gear examined by Kathinka’s daughter Emma. Emma was competing this year, and would become the youngest participant to ever compete in and finish the race. We were less of a shit show this year, our sleds weighed in at exactly 40 kg, and we left Emma and gear check feeling travel weary but good about things.

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Pre-race meeting.

One difference this year from 2017 was all the racer meetings this year were held completely in Norwegian. In 2017, most of the meetings were in English. We heard some grumbling from other international competitors that this was inconsiderate, but I didn’t think so. It’s pretentious to expect a distinctly Norwegian event held in a remote part of the country to translate everything to English for a few competitors’ benefit (good motivation to learn Norwegian). And anyway, after the main meeting the race organizers gathered all the non-Norwegian participants together and gave us the full set of instructions in English. In my opinion, the hosts were more than accommodating.

After the meeting we did our best to get some sleep before the 8 am bus to Haukeliseter the next morning. We woke to a cold, wet snow falling and wind ripping off the fjord. If the early returns on the day were any measure, this event was not going to be smooth cruise this year. Weather predictions called for clear weather from the start at noon thru the night till early the next morning, at which point 30-50 mph north winds were predicted to scour the Hardangervidda for next 18 hours along with heavy snow. Motivation was high to move fast and try and beat the storm, but was it possible to move that fast?

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Snowy bus ride from Eidfjord to the start.

We sat in the front of the bus, next to Kathinka and Emma, and watched as the driver maneuvered the impossibly twisty and snowy roads along cliff walls and ocean. Waterfalls cascaded down from the Vidda, and the road continued to turn more white as the storm raged.

After three hours on the bus we arrived at Haukeliseter and began navigating the pre-race chaos of finding our sleds, putting them together, putting skins on skis, figuring out our layers, eating a last snack and heading to the start line. It was snowing briskly and it was cold on the hands attaching metal cables and bars to get the sleds ready to race. As the snow beat down, we shared nervous conversations and laughter with fellow competitors. We were in the thick of it now, months of preparation behind us, the hardest expedition ski race in the world directly ahead.

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Looking chipper before the start of the race. Photo credit Mikkel Beisner.

Day One: Deep Snow

Soon we were dragging our sleds across the highway to the start. The race begins with a climb up a very steep, switchbacked hill that, with a 40 kg sled in tow, is a stiff challenge. Everybody uses full skins for this climb, but even so slipping is common on the steepest switchbacks.

Our start last year was a disaster. Not knowing the dynamics of how a sled pulling race worked, we lined up at the back of the field, figuring we’d sort it out later. The problem is the trail siphons into a one-track route about 15 meters into the race. It takes a long time for 200 teams pulling sleds to get in line and up the hill. By the time we even crossed the starting banner, we were probably 30 minutes behind the leaders.

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Shotgun blast to start the race. Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

We learned from that experience and got better this year. We lined up a couple rows back from the start, and when the gun went off, after the initial sprint for position, the procession line slowed to a crawl, and we were about halfway between the start and end of the pack. The start is a rowdy affair, with an actual shotgun used to get things going. It’s perfectly appropriate for a wilderness race like Expedition Amundsen.

The singletrack this year was even more pronounced than 2017, as a couple feet of heavy, wet snow made passing nearly impossible. A few folks tried, cutting trails up the slope, short-lived efforts as exhaustion forced them back into the procession line. Because negotiating the switchbacks is hard, with the 40 kg sled wanting to pull the racer back down the hill, the pace moves at a crawl. The first year it stressed me out – this time around I sort enjoyed the process with a bemused attitude. There would be plenty of time to go hard later.

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The start line procession up the switchbacks. Photo credit Mikkel Beisner.

After an hour we made our way up to the top of the first climb, not even one kilometer into the race, but a big hurdle navigated nonetheless. There was a fair amount of competitors helping one another out, bracing sleds on the steepest switchbacks, and that is well within the spirit and rules of the event.

One of the most wonderful parts of the event is how sportsmanship and looking after your fellow competitor is of great importance. The ability to move fast on a pair of skis is an impressive thing, but what does it really prove, other than somebody is fit and able to suffer well? In Expedition Amundsen, the most distinguished award in the entire race is something called the Leon Award.

The Leon Award is named after Roald Amundsen’s older brother Leon. On an early training trip for the South Pole, Roald and Leon set out to cross the Hardangervidda on a route very close to where the race goes across. In typical Vidda-fashion, a storm blew in with intense snow and winds. Roald and Leon each built small snow caves to survive the night and get out of the elements. During the night, the opening to Roald’s cave froze over and he was trapped in the frozen tomb. His brother Leon dug Roald out, saving his life and providing the inspiration for the Leon Award.

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The very top of the first steep climb. Photo credit Mikkel Beisner.

The Leon Award goes to the competitor who goes out of their way to help another competitor. In 2017 a team suffered a broken boot and binding. They eventually repaired it with bailing wire and ingenuity and managed to finish the race safely, thanks to help from another competitor who sacrificed his finishing time to help the other competitors.

Contrast this to an episode that happened in Colorado during a ski mountaineering race a few years ago. A racer crashed and was knocked out cold, laying in the middle of the trail, seriously injured and unresponsive. For 20 minutes racer-after-racer skied right past the injured skier, not stopping to help, more concerned with their personal ski race than the health and life of a fellow competitor and human being. Simply put, that would not happen in Norway. Doing the right thing is more important than gaining a few extra places in a race.

After reaching the top of the first climb, the procession continued into the distance. This was going to be a different beast from two-years ago. The new snow didn’t end at the top of the hill, instead continuing as far north as we could see. I wondered why nobody tried to pass, until I tried it myself. Elaine and I pulled off to the side with intentions of moving forward, got into the deep snow and almost stopped dead in our tracks. It took everything we had to move our sleds a few meters in these conditions. A half-dozen competitors passed us during the attempt, and we quickly realized that this was not going to work.

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Elaine scopes out the long line ahead. The deep, heavy snow made passing almost impossible in the beginning.

We hopped back into the procession line, managing a bit of frustration but realizing that getting down about the situation wasn’t going to do anything positive. We’ve learned that in adventure what is true now almost always changes. This can be good and bad. When things are going well, the skis moving well, the weather nice and the pace strong, it’s a guarantee things will turn. 48 hours before our evacuation in Greenland, we were moving very well, the weather was fantastic, and I was privately thinking that a successful crossing would happen. But, that’s when things start to turn, when you get ahead of yourself.

I’ve also found that when things are tough, when the weather is brutal or the conditions hard or the body feeling poorly, things always get better, so long as one is tough enough to survive the moment and keep moving. Moving forward, no matter how slowly, is critical, for that change in fortune does not happen when stopped. Of course, there are situations where stopping necessary, but I find the natural progression of bad to good is delayed or never happens when stopped too long.

Accepting the snow conditions and procession line made things easier, and we had fun talking with fellow competitors. We met a Canadian who was in the military special forces, a British gentleman on his first foray across the Vidda and had many engaging and funny conversations. As much as the race is a competition, there is also a lot of camaraderie between like-minded adventurers.

The conversations dissolved whenever the track came to one of the numerous steep downhills. Descending down a steep trail in leather boots on skinny skis with a 40 kilogram sled in tow is a bit like driving down an icy highway at 80 mph in a compact car with bald tires as a semi-truck tailgates four-feet behind the rear bumper. Stopping in these situations is impossible until the trail runs out, and falling down and having the sled squash and permanently maim is less than ideal. To add to the fun, the light was completely flat and sections of the new snow had adopted a thin, icy crust that made balance tricky.

What to do? Relax the body, turn off the brain, assume the athletic position, adopt a subtle telemark skiing stance, point ’em downhill, trust the process and hope for the best. There were a couple close calls for me, where I started to get pushed forward and had to work hard to stay upright, but we managed to get down all the downhills without mishap. We were fortunate this year to have good snow in Colorado, which allowed us ample opportunity to practice downhills with our training sleds that handled much worse than our Acapulka race sleds. While it’s possible to get the raw strength required by pulling tires on dirt and asphalt, on-snow time and practicing skiing and steep downhills with a sled is important.

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Travelling across the Hardangervidda in good conditions. Photo credit Blast-off Creative.

The rolling procession continued up to the top of the plateau. Here, a busy crowd had gathered, ripping full skins and replacing them with kicker skins. Many competitors brought two or three pairs of skis, one pair with full skins, one with kicker skins and one with wax only. These are strapped to the sled and quickly changed when needed.

Bringing multiple pairs of skis across the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t really feasible, so I simply changed skins at the top, while Elaine switched to our mandatory “extra pair of skis,” adorned with fast mohair kickers skins. Extra skis are faster than skin transitions, and help mitigate the chance of skin glue failure during the the race. Our skin glue worked well, but we heard horror stores from fellow competitors, including a couple who had to drop out of the race altogether as a result of skin failure.

For the race Elaine and I use Åsnes Gamme skis, mounted with Voile 3-pin bindings. We ski in Alfa 3-pin leather backcountry ski boots. Our extra pair of skis were Elaine’s Åsnes Nansens, which are softer and wider than the Gamme, allowing them to climb a little better up steep hills. Elaine weighs about 120 pounds and struggled in 2017 with traction, even with full skins, on the steepest climbs. This year, with the softer skis, she didn’t slip at all and made her way up the hills with comparative ease.

Three-pin boots and bindings are in the minority in Expedition Amundsen. I’d venture 90% of competitors use NNN BC, and there is good reason for this: they ski better on cross-country terrain. Yet we find, for general adventure, 3-pin boots are better for hiking, setting up camp, and, when used with a cable, have just as much durability as NNN BC boots (the boot that broke in the 2017 edition of the race that led to the Leon Award was an NNN BC boot).

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That’s a problem.

Problem is, Elaine and I dislike using the 3-pin bindings with cables, as the cables restrict heel movement too much for our liking. By not using the cable, more stress is placed on the duckbill where the toe attached to the binding, and the chance of boot failure rises. Elaine’s boots, which fit fabulously and are the only nordic touring boots she’s ever had that don’t cause blisters, started breaking at the duck-bill months before the race. This was a problem, as it’s very difficult to find leather 3-pin boots in the United States. Elaine ordered a pair of the boots from the Alfa website, straight from Norway. The model name had changed, but according to the website it was the exact same boot as her previous model.

When the boots arrived we were disappointed that the shape had completely changed from her old model. The toe box was a lot narrower, the sole stiffer, and the sizing had changed too. We mailed the boots back to Norway, got another pair that at least fit right, and did our best with our local shoe repairman to glue the old boots together. In the end, Elaine brought two pairs of boots to Norway for the race – the old pair that she hoped to nurse through the event – and the new pair, far less comfortable, but intact and in good condition.

After transferring to kicker skins, we were off. This was the first time in the entire race where we had a little breathing room. We made our way down a harrowing hill and right to the back of the next line of people. And so it went for the next couple hours…moving fast in the open sections, catching up to the next group and eventually waiting for them to peel off. As day turned to dusk and finally to night, we finally were alone, following the tracks of the faster racers and feeling better about the evening ahead.

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Six-hours after the start the sun sets and the first night begins. Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

The First Night: Beauty and Solitude

After stopping to put on headlamps and finally drink some water, we moved efficiently across the darkening Vidda. We climbed to the top of a rise and began the long descent down to the first checkpoint at Hellevassbu. We crossed the lake to the first stopping checkpoint, glancing at the tents already set up. There were definitely tents set up, but not too many – we’d survived the first leg of the trip in a decent position. Race rules require eight hours of rest at checkpoints, including four hours at the final checkpoint in Viersla. How racers allocate the remaining four rest hours is up to them and is a strategic decision that can greatly affect the race.

Two years ago we were feeling good when we got to Hellevassbu and decided to ski straight thru the checkpoint without taking a break. Part of this was our background in U.S. races where rest stops are not part of the equation, but mostly it was an utter lack of experience in the event. It turns out, nobody skips the first checkpoint, and for good reason. As a result of our brazen move, we accidentally led the entire 2017 race field for a bit – apparently there was some “what the hell are the Americans doing” discussion at race headquarters as they followed our tracking devices  – but it was brutally slow going. We had to GPS navigate over foreign-to-us terrain the entire way until the very first racers passed us, probably shaking their heads in amazement at the stupid Americans who not only skipped the first rest stop, but also graciously broke trail for everybody behind! And while everybody else had taken time to eat, drink and refill, we were running on empty.

Given the deep snow in this year’s version, and the reality that our 2017 flyer left us absolutely shelled from lack of rest at the Litlos 2nd checkpoint, it was easy to decide to change strategy this time. Utilizing arctic bedding and a bag which allows us to put up the tent almost totally set-up – systems we used in Greenland where getting camp set-up quickly was essential – we had an efficient stop. We melted snow, boiled water, ate and got out of camp after exactly two hours of rest. In 2017 our breaks were our downfall, as we wasted many hours as a result of inefficiencies in our systems. It felt good to pass our first test and get out of camp quickly.

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Photo credit Blast-off Creative.

A number of competitors had left camp before us, so it was relatively easy navigating to the next checkpoint at Litlos. After a steep first climb that left us both wishing we had exchanged our kicker skins for full length skins, the terrain turned more rolling. We enjoyed solitude in what was turning into a beautiful night on the Hardangervidda. The stars were not out, but it was calm, and the half moon lit everything to a glow. The Vidda is called the plateau of contrasts: one minute it can be calm and beautiful, the next stormy and brutal.

We skied well in this section, taking turns leading, and moving as quickly as we could with a 40 kg sled in tow. I noticed, however, that my energy levels seemed a bit tenuous. I seemed much more prone to bonking than normal. I was still quite dehydrated, a result of not drinking for the first four hours of the race. Every time we stopped to drink, I would get an instant boost of energy, but my reserves were less than normal. By keeping all our water in the sled, we had to stop every time we wanted to drink, which inevitably led to dehydration. It was a dumb oversight in our planning.

So it goes. We continued into the night, surprised to see the trail heading up a steep, almost vertical wall of snow. I asked Elaine if she remembered this part of the course. She did not. Nevertheless, this is where the track evidently went, so we continued on. It was so steep we had to take skis off and kick steps with our boots into the firm snow to get to the top. An ice axe or at least a solid plastic boot would have been nice here. Certainly we would have remembered this from just two years ago! There were the distant lights of competitors ahead of us and behind us, so we continued on. It turns out, more than half the field followed this unofficial “route,” adding a few kilometers and a bunch of climbing to the race. As such, nobody was disqualified, as it was harder and slower than the original race course.

We made our way to the top of one of the steepest downhills in the entire race that drops down to a lake before the second checkpoint at Litlos. Two years ago the course was much faster and this descent was breakneck and terrifying. With all the deep snow this year, the downhill was much easier, and we made it down relatively smoothly, not really gaining any spots but not losing any either.

We headed onto Kvennsjøen, a very long, frozen lake that takes about an hour to cross before the Litlos checkpoint. We were moving well here and cruising along until a second dehydration bonk hit me, slowing me to a crawl. Again, we repeated the process of hydrating, and I was good to go, but it was a disappointing end to an otherwise successful segment. Nevertheless, we had made up more places and were surprised by the lack of tents set up in front of us at the Litlos checkpoint.

We set up camp and ate food. We decided not to boil water here as we did our boiling work at the previous checkpoint and had enough water to get to the third checkpoint. This was good, as we were a bit shelled at Litlos – it was nice to be able to relax a little and chill-out. The tent began flapping with more vigor though, as the predicted storm began to move in. We were about halfway through the race, but based on the weather predictions the real fun and games was only about to begin.

Our two hour break went much too quickly, and we didn’t really feel all that great physically, but we managed to pull camp efficiently and get back on the trail in almost exactly two hours. This was a big improvement, as the Litlos stop two years ago was a disaster for us, extending much too long. Improving our breaks was a major reason we decided to come back this year. We don’t just want to ski fast. We want to move smoothly, safely and efficiently in cold, northern places.

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Photo credit Blast-off Creative.

The wind blowing hard, it was near blizzard conditions, and there were no other groups leaving. The course turned east, but the tracks of the skiers in front of us had already been buried by the fierce north wind. The going was very slow…ski for three minutes, check the GPS to make sure we were on the right path, make adjustments and continue on. The wind was powerful, pelting the left cheek and making standing up challenging.

We decided to slow down and see if we could rendezvous with another group 100 meters behind us or so. We joined forces and traded the job of navigating for the next 30 minutes or so, allowing for a brief mental break in the tempest. Occasionally we’d see a remnant track, but this would disappear and we’d be left searching again. We passed a couple of tents set up, evidence of competitors who chose to save energy and take shelter, waiting for better weather. As the storm raged, a little corner of my brain wondered if they had the right idea?

I’m not sure exactly what happened, but with visibility down to a few feet in front of us, soon Elaine and I were alone again. We soon came upon a stumbling solo racer, and the three of us made our way across the frozen landscape, driving forward as the north wind continued to intensify. To the south, a slight lightening in the sky promised daylight soon, but instead of tapering with the new day, the storm intensified to a point where visibility was limited to just a few feet. In the white-out, he too soon disappeared. I’m honestly not sure where he went, as the whole episode was beginning to feel rather dreamlike, but suddenly he was nowhere to be found.

 

The Second Day: Into the Fury

The course turned due north, right into the hurricane. We saw a racer heading in a completely different direction from us, and a check on the global positioning system told why. We were heading the wrong way, west now, away from the course. We altered directions, but it was obvious things were getting chaotic. It felt like nobody was out on the course, save a few folks stumbling around in the storm searching for something.

As dark turned to light, we turned off our headlamps, but then quickly turned them back on. Without the glow of the lamp, the texture of the snow was completely indiscernible. Again we were alone, and then happened upon another skier who was struggling to maintain forward progress. Again, we joined forces, trying to move forward, but in the end detouring slightly too far to the east. We were going nowhere fast.

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Slowly making the way from Litlos to Viersla as the storm rages. Photo credit Blast-off Creative.

We communicated with the other racer by yelling at the top of our lungs over the gale, pointing towards some distant rock as a guide, and let him know that we were cold and needed to layer up. That was the last we saw of him. While technically we were in the middle of the race, right then Elaine and I felt like the only humans on the planet. The faint sled tracks that we had been following had been obliterated by the wind. In all directions, we saw nothing but white. It’s was as close to Greenland as we’d been since….well, Greenland.

I took off my thin gloves and replaced them with something called “arctic mitts,” thick moose-hide mitts designed for travel in brutally cold polar regions.  The arctic mitts warmed my hands, but made it very difficult to hit the small buttons on the GPS. I resorted to using my teeth to agitate the buttons. After a frustratingly slow and inefficient process, we learned we were only slightly off course. We turned the proper direction, directly into the headwind, head down, and continued on the long, barren voyage to Viersla.

The storm continued to intensify, and we wondered aloud if the organizers had actually put a stop on the race, as these were dangerous conditions even in a non-racing environment. We continued on for 30 minutes, an hour, and saw nobody. Elaine was getting very cold and I was on the verge of a bonk as a result of not really being able to eat because the weather was so heinous.

We decided to pull out the bothy bag, a tiny windproof shelter that pulls over two people to block the wind. It was warmer in the bag, but hardly comfortable as our legs kept cramping after 18 hours of skiing and sitting in a contorted position in the confined space. But we ate a little food, warming as the calories coursed rapidly thru our bodies, and tried to assess the situation. Setting up camp in these conditions would be very challenging and potentially damaging to the tent, as the wind was howling. It was certainly cold, but if we could keep our energy up, we could keep moving. So we did.

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Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

We were a little confused where Viersla was, as the GPS didn’t seem to be showing it. We knew it was at the end of a long lake, and in a general northerly direction, but in these conditions, with no visibility it was hard to tell which lake we were even on. We continued forward, and then I had an idea – do a search for Viersla by name on the GPS. It worked, but the news was disappointing. Viersla was ten kilometers from our current spot, at least two hours away at the pace we were moving.

The storm continued to blow and we struggled forward at a floundering pace. We made the decision to set up camp. We pulled out the tent, tried to put the stakes in the ground and…thump. Solid ice. We tried another spot and it was hard as a rock. In the whiteout we didn’t realize we were on a lake with thick ice underneath. Our stakes could not penetrate the ice, it was too shallow to build effective Deadman Anchors and we had no ice screws. The wind was howling at 50-60 mph, straight into our faces from the north, full-on blizzard conditions, but we had no choice – we had to continue.

As we packed up our sleds, I saw, about 50 meters away, a faint outline of a dozen or so skiers making their way across the storm in a large caravan. I yelled to Elaine “skiers!”, and she looked around, unable to see them as a massive blizzard blast smashed into us. And then, like the mirage of nomads riding camels in the desert, they appeared again. We hurried forward and latched onto the tail end of the caravan. Over rise and valley we skied, taking turns leading, no longer in a race, but in a battle for survival with our fellow competitors.

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Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

After what seems like forever, we began crossing another frozen lake. Far off on the other shore, we saw what we thought was the the faint outline of tents, of what we hoped was Viersla. After seven-hours wallowing around in the storm since we left Litlos, we were more than ready to set-up shelter and take our mandatory four-hour break. We needed a respite.

Elaine suddenly stopped, gasping for breath. Her breathing had become more raspy over the past hour, but over the drone of the gale, I didn’t think much of it, and she didn’t say anything. But then it just hit. A severe asthma attack. She suffers from cold and exercise induced asthma, and the combined effect of the hard effort, a wind so strong that it made breathing difficult and her asthma medicine freezing in the extreme cold led to a pretty dangerous situation. After a few minutes of getting her breathing somewhat settled we slowed our pace and continued methodically across the lake.

As we got closer, it became apparent that those dark spots on the horizon were not another mirage…it was Viersla. Volunteers working the check-point greeted us with cheers, and they broke into a boisterous song in Norwegian. After such hard work, it felt good, and it was much appreciated as the wind continued to rip across the Hardangervidda. We were surprised to see so few tents pitched at Viersla, especially after what seemed the longest and painfully inefficient leg of the entire trip. As it turned out, not to many people attempted the crossing during the peak of the storm. While slow and painful, we did manage to keep moving for the most part.

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Coming into Viersla checkpoint as the storm brews. Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

We set up camp on the fringes of the other tents in the area. Conditions were still stormy, so we set up the tent Greenland-style, utilizing all the guy-lines and putting the nose into the wind. We suffer from a bit of a “set-up-camp-so-strong-a-bomb-could-be-dropped-on-it-and-we’ll-be-OK,” mentality, especially after the traumatizing piteraq we experienced ten-months earlier in Greenland. It takes time to set up camp right, and is probably not the norm in a race situation, but to us it’s worth it, and in a life-or-death situation, away from a race course, it’s essential.

We used the break to eat a meal of pasta, melt snow for water and figure out a plan for the rest of the race. Elaine’s asthma attack has weakened her, and I’d been teetering on the edge of a bonk for about 18 hours. For her, it was essential to rest, drink warm tea and, using body heat, warm up the asthma medication so it could provide relief. I needed to eat food, protein in particular, because the constantly being on the edge of a bonk was miserable. Elaine’s right boot, the one that she was trying to nurse thru the race, was done. The entire sole was ripping off, so she reluctantly pulled out the new boot, the tighter boot. There were still 27 kilometers to go, and it would be slow travel in this storm. It would not be a comfortable cruise into the finish.

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Viersla check-point. Photo credit Blast-off Creative.

It felt good to relax, but we were not really resting that much. There is always work to do, meals to make, snow to melt, equipment to fix. Our four hours ended soon, at 4:10 pm, and we didn’t want to waste time. It takes about 20 minutes to pack up camp when we are fresh, but we were far from fresh. As such, we allocated ourselves a half-hour to get packed up, meaning we needed to start getting ready to go at 3:40 pm. I look at my watch…3:27 pm. Thirteen minutes to rest and not fall asleep.

The next thing I know, Elaine is shaking me frantically. “We have to go,” she says urgently. Crap. We accidentally fell asleep, overslept, and it was now 3:58 pm, which meant twelve-minutes till our time to leave. We went into a frantic whirlwind of packing, putting on boots, taking Advil and every else necessary to get out of Viersla. I exited the warm comfort of the tent and got blasted immediately by the north wind, seeming fiercer as the orange setting sun glowed off the snow crystals flying through the air. I started pulling pegs as Elaine tossed bags out of the tent and loaded the sled.

There was no way to do all this in 12 minutes, especially in our still very fatigued state. We were frustrated to not be ready to go until 4:25 pm, a good fifteen minutes wasted. At this point we had no idea where we were in the race. The segment from Litlos to Viersla seemed like a debacle, and now we were dealing with the mistake of over-sleeping.

This was a mentally dangerous time of the race, as it would be easy to go into a negative mind-frame, letting one mistake compound into many more. The physical part of these events is important, as pulling a heavy sled 100-kilometers across a frozen plateau requires a certain physical strength. But I find the mental part to be much more important. There are a million reasons not to keep going, and those voices can creep into the head when things are going poorly. A quiet mind is the best way to be. Physical pain will eventually end, as long as the patience to work through it exists.

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Dan leaving Viersla for the last segment of Expedition Amundsen. Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

Done feeling sorry for ourselves, there was nothing to do but ski. We latched onto the back of a long train of skiers, moving forward slowly through the thick storm. We had now learned that it’s better to go as group and share the load in bad weather conditions like these. We moved forward, like members of a military troop, steadily and efficiently.

It took me about 15 minutes to quiet the mind after Viersla. And then, things got better. I didn’t feel particularly good after 28 hours on the Hardangervidda, but the simple act of sliding skis forward absorbed all my attention and pain. Because of the storm I couldn’t see anything, except for the long group moving forward. Sometimes we’d stop to eat food and drink a little. There was an unspoken agreement that nobody would ski ahead during this mini-breaks. We needed each other out here, lone satellites joining together for a trip thru the cold outer space.

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Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

 

The Second Night: Pain and Jubilation

Daylight turned to dusk and dusk absorbed into night. We hadn’t expected to be out here a second night, but we were prepared for it. Such is the way of travel in the north country. Headlamps went back on, powered by fresh batteries, lighting up the wind-whipped, snow-frenzy in front of our goggles. This is the real Hardangervidda, the cold, the wind, the brutality. This is the Hardangervidda Roald Amundsen must have felt that night he and his brother got stuck and almost buried alive. As painful and hard as it is, this is what we came to Norway for. We wanted something genuine and real.

That’s something that makes this event so special. It’s genuine and real. Racing is often a contrived adventure, there is no avoiding it, but Expedition Amundsen forces competitors to dig a little deeper and be self-sufficient. There are no course markers, no aid stations and no shortcuts. And while there are other competitors out there, to accept help from another person outside the race disqualifies that individual or team. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: we’re encouraged to help each other, yet help from the world outside the race competitors is off-limits. It creates a world within a world, honoring that age-old tradition of seeing who can go from Point A to Point B the fastest, yet maintaining dignity, respect and caring for your fellow competitor.

Fatigue began to set in as the slow march across the dark, stormy plateau continued. The cumulative effects of the long race, the trans-Atlantic trip to get here, and the lack of sleep for the past week hit us hard. What to do though? Everybody is tired at this point in the race. The finish line is close enough to think about it, but that is a dangerous carot to think about, because there are still four to five hours of racing left. A lot can go wrong in that amount of time, an eternity really.  My leg muscles felt fried, my breathing was labored and the sled seemed heavier than ever. Every time there was even the slightest uphill, I hurt.

You dream of finishing a race hands held high in the air, feeling strong, crossing the finish line like a rock star. But this race was something else. This race had drained everything we had physically hours ago. Now, it was just mental stubbornness to keep going and put one foot in front of the other.

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Photo credit Kai-Otto Melau.

We hit a steep hill. I felt like I couldn’t move. Elaine implored me to eat some food, and I did, but the hill was so steep and my breathing so labored that it was almost impossible to eat, as chewing and breathing don’t go hand-in-hand. But, utilizing the technique of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, we got up the hill. The wind had now lessened slightly, and the group split. We were yo-yoing somewhere in the middle, out of contact, in no-man’s-land.

But we kept moving. I glanced at the GPS. The safety checkpoint, that marked the beginning of the last downhill towards the finish line was just a half mile ahead. With a hop in the stride that we hadn’t had for the past four hours, we crested the hill, surging ahead of folks around us, and began the long descent to the finish line. We rounded the checkpoint, a massive Åsnes banner flapping urgently in the wind, stamped our booklet that proved our presence in this place, and with a push on the poles finally started heading downhill, off the Hardangeridda, towards civilization, comfort and warmth.

But this year, everything was slow. The new snow turned what was normally a fast descent into a slow, double-poling slog. The Hardangervidda does not give up easily. I’d forgotten about this long flat after the first part of the descent, and it felt endless. I think this was the low-light of the whole event. We’d allowed our minds to think we were finished, but we weren’t. The wind picked up and we slogged slowly for another 45 minutes in the dark across false-hope flat. But the body had to go on, and for a second it felt like the body might beat the mind. But, as we had done for the previous 34 hours, the mind eventually urged the body on.

Finally, we began the descent off the Hardangervidda in earnest. This was a relieved moment, but, as is always the case with wild and beautiful places, a twinge of sadness hit with the realization that this adventure would soon be over. That twinge departed quickly however, as the trail dropped ever more precipitously towards the valley below. Before long I noticed the first vegetation since the race began, tiny, scraggled birch trees that grew bigger as we descended. Our leg muscles were exhausted and burning, and the descent was a chaotic act of faith, as stopping quickly with a 40 kilogram sled after 34 hours of skiing was next-to impossible.

Despite shaking, cramping legs, we skied to the valley floor without mishap. The route winded through hyttes, with locals standing outside cheering around bonfires as the hour crept closer and closer to midnight. Chants of “Heija, heija, heija,” followed us along thru the winter birch forest, and soon we were skiing on a groomed nordic track with a few inches of new snow on top. We did our best kick-and-glide, made our way to the bottom of a tiny alpine ski area in Maurset, and crept closer to the finish line.

At the finish, a raucous group of fans cheered ever louder, urging our exhausted bodies forward with “Heija, heija, heija,” echoing into the night like a dream from another world. As we approached the finish line, a race volunteer handed us a willow stick with our names and a Norwegian flag attached to it. We crossed the finish line and made our way to a large snowdrift where we planted the stick firmly into the ground, reminiscent of how Roald Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag on the South Pole on December 14, 1911. As for our own adventure, at 11:19 PM, after 34 hours and 19 minutes on course, we completed the 2019 Expedition Amundsen.

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Finishers of Expedition Amundsen earn on a slot on the Amundsen Wall of Fame. Here’s Elaine managing to smile thru pain a few minutes after finishing the race in 1st place in the co-ed division.
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Dan not looking quite as energized, but unbelievably stoked nonetheless.

While announcing our names over the loudspeaker, they also added that we were the 1st finishers in the co-ed division in the race, an accomplishment we are proud of because we had to work very hard for it. Of all the race events we’ve ever done, this was the hardest. The conditions made it much harder than 2017, and finishing times were, across the board, some of the longest in race history. To have success in poor conditions is more rewarding for us than the same result in perfect weather.

We were each handed a Coca-Cola, a beautifully understated race tradition, and worked our way to the finish scale to weigh our sleds. Elaine’s came in at 40.1 kg while mine weighed a whopping 48 kg, an eight kilogram gain from the start. Shockingly, that gain came almost entirely from condensation on the tent and other gear.

We changed into dry clothes and made our way to a lavvu, a traditional tent used by the indigenous Sami people in northern Norway. The sides of the tent were adorned with seats covered with reindeer skin, and in the middle of the lavvu was a large cast-iron pot, hanging from the top of the lavvu, with moose stew cooking above an open fire. A volunteer handed us a bowl of the warm deliciousness, a better prize than any certificate or award. As we sat, competitors began to trickle into the lavvu. In a satisfied and exhausted state, we traded stories with our fellow competitors about our own adventures on the wild Hardangervidda, enjoying the warmth of the fire, good food and companionship in the lavvu as the storm raged into the northern night.

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Photo credit Blast-off Creative.

The 2020 version of Expedition Amundsen takes place February 27-March 1, 2020. Registration opens on October 25th.

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