Alta Backcountry

2021 Expedition Amundsen: The North American Plan

Synopsis: We’re looking to take two, three-person teams of North Americans to Norway to compete in the 2021 Expedition Amundsen 100 km adventure ski race in late-February. This is considered one of the hardest ski races in the world, testing skiing and winter camping skills on the Hardangervidda, a high plateau used by polar explorers to prepare for expeditions. We’re in the process of recruiting team members. If this interests you, read on…

Background: Expedition Amundsen is a ski race in Norway like no other. Billed as the “World’s Hardest Ski Race,” it’s an ode to Roald Amundsen, the legendary Norwegian explorer who in 1911 became the first person to successfully travel to the South Pole and back. The 100 kilometer Expedition Amundsen race course follows a route used by Amundsen himself during a training trip to prepare for his Antarctic Expedition. The training trip, across a high plateau called the Hardangervidda, almost killed Amundsen when a major winter storm blew in and made moving impossible. And while Amundsen did make it to the South Pole and eventually became the first person to sail through the Northwest Passage, he never did complete the route across the Hardangervidda.

In the summertime, the Hardangervidda is a wilderness wonderland of open tundra, lakes, crystal clear rivers, herds of reindeer and roaming arctic fox. It’s a special place that holds a dear place in the hearts of Norwegians in search of a summer hiking, fishing and nature getaway.

In the winter-time though, the Hardangervidda shows a different face. The meadows of wildflowers get covered with snow, and lots of it. Because there are no trees, the wind blows unchecked, turning it into a land of harshness, but also a land of contrast. When the wind blows, it can be one of the most deadly places on earth, deserving of its reputation as the finest training ground for polar explorers in the world. It’s a place so harsh, it was used as the Hollywood set for the icy location Hoth in the Star Wars movie, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Yet when the wind relents, as it does from time-to-time, there exists a peaceful, expansive white beauty that fills the soul with elation and freedom. It becomes a land with endless horizons, encouraging the traveler to ski off as far as they can go in any direction. Skiing across the Hardangervidda on a winter night, as the Milky Way rages overhead, the Northern Lights dance and the swoosh of the skis propel a person forward is one of the finest experiences in life. And then emerging from the cold, dark night, the sun rising to the east, basking the plateau in orange and purple and red, as its glow hits the skin, warming and bringing back life – these are the things we remember as the years progress.

I think that’s what makes Expedition Amundsen special, and a reason Elaine and I have hauled sleds and hundreds of pounds of gear across the Atlantic Ocean and airports to compete in the event two times. It’s a journey into amazing beauty, and that beauty makes us better humans. It’s an incredibly challenging event that pushes the body and mind to the limit. My leg muscles have never been more tired than coming down the last descent off the Hardangervidda into Maurset, shaking and barely working, but somehow being willed on to the finish. And when it’s 3 am, and the body is bonking as we crawl into a checkpoint, and the finish seems worlds away, the age old life lesson of, “focus on the moment, get thru the next step, never stop moving,” gets thoroughly hammered home. That lesson helps during Expedition Amundsen, but it helps even more in life.

We’ve competed in Expedition Amundsen twice. The first time, in 2017, we showed up as rank rookies, relatively strong from a winter of pulling sleds at high altitude, but with a winter outdoor knowledge that left something to be desired. I think the Norwegians tolerated us, and we represented well enough, but it was clear there was still much to learn. We learned that propane lighters were a no-go on the Hardangervidda – in wet, snowy, cold conditions, matches are the only reliable source to create fire, to cook food, to stay alive and well. We weren’t efficient in our tent set-up, the timing of our breaks, the things in the race unrelated to skiing that are so incredibly important. Unlike a typical SkiMo race in the USA, or even a bigger event like the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, the skill set of actually living in a harsh winter environment actually was tested and we came up a little short.

After two more winters of honing our skills in Colorado and Greenland, spending endless days and nights pulling sleds and camping in harsh winter environments, we returned to Expedition Amundsen in 2019. There would be no skirting by this year. When we woke up the morning of the race in the fjord village of Eidfjord it was snowing vigorously. If it was snowing that hard at sea level, what would it be doing on the Hardangervidda 1,000 meters higher?

The 2019 race was a tough one, with some of the biggest storms in race history and endless deep snow to pull sleds thru. At one point during the race, between Litlos and Viersla, the wind was raging and the storm brewing to such an extent that visibility was zero and forward motion nearly impossible. There was nothing to do but hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. The race organizers literally paused the race until conditions became safer. That year finishing times were ten to twelve hours longer than they were in 2017 across the board.

In part because of this challenge, we had a fulfilling experience in 2019. We ironed out the logistical issues from the 2017 race, camped and managed the parts of the race outside of skiing with much better efficiency. We managed to secure 1st place in the Coed division after more than 34 hours on course. It’s not like we conquered the Hardangervidda though – it was more figuring out how to humbly pass thru safely and somewhat swiftly.

After a year off, and then a summer of CoVid, we’re hopeful to make it back to the Hardangervidda and Expedition Amundsen in 2021. But this year, we want to do it differently. This race is a rich experience, and it’s given us a lot in life. It’s time to give back. For 2021, Elaine and I are looking to take two teams of North Americans over to the race – four other entrants total – and share the experience with others.

Who would this be for? A variety of folks we suspect. Somebody who has competed in the Grand Traverse and wants something more, a bigger and more thorough test would be a great candidate. Or a budding polar explorer, who has read the books by Shakleton and Nansen and Peary, who wants to learn the ways of traveling in the north country in an efficient and relatively affordable way would also enjoy the experience. Or perhaps a nordic skier, an aficionado of the sport with a tendency to gravitate towards big adventures in the wild, who would love to go to the skiing homeland, to Norway, and enjoy a skiing experience as authentic as it gets.

Of course, we don’t want to go there and embarrass ourselves. We want to complete the event in a respectable manner and do ourselves proud. Every year a lot of teams have to get evacuated, and unfortunately a disproportionate amount of those teams are foreign teams not from Norway. So to make sure that doesn’t happen, we’re going to work as a team to train hard and prepare as well as we can for a race and adventure across the Hardangervidda.

If we’ve kept you interested this far, keep reading for the details of how exactly we’re going to do this.

What: Compete and complete the 2021 Expedition Amundsen nordic ski race with two, three-person teams of North Americans. We will train all winter for the race, host a training camp in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and learn the skills necessary for the event. We’ll meet at the airport in Oslo, Norway about a week before the race and travel together to Eidfjord and the Hardangervidda to compete in Expedition Amundsen. Along the way we’ll visit the historic Holmenkollen Ski Museum and the Fram Polar Explorer Museum, as well as ski on the Hardangervidda to warm up before the race. After the race we’ll head back to the airport before parting ways and heading to our respective homes.

Who: Elaine and Daniel Vardamis (that’s us) live in the mountain village of Eldora, Colorado. When not working various jobs in the outdoor and skiing industry, we spend our time adventuring in the outdoors. Skiing is our life, and we try to get out there as much as possible. In addition to competing in Expedition Amundsen, we’ve hiked the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada, hiked the 900-mile Great Divide Trail from the U.S./Canada border to deep in the Canadian Wilderness and hiked the Colorado Trail twice. In 2018 we attempted to cross the Greenland icecap but had to stop the trip as the result of a bad Piteraq that made safe travel unreasonable. We’ve competed in the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse numerous time and have had good success in that event. We are both certified Wilderness First Responders. Daniel worked as a NOLS Instructor for a number of years and Elaine is a nordic skiing coach for the local high school team. We have a strong background in nordic ski touring and outdoor gear, and can help you get set up with the appropriate gear for the event.

Where and When: Our backyard is close to the Continental Divide and home to great skiing and sled pulling opportunities. For folks who live near the area, we’ll organize weekly training trips exploring the Wilderness near our home. For those who live farther away, we’ll organize weekly plans to get everybody fit and ready for the race. We’ll work hard and have fun. In addition to the weekly trips, we’ll host a 4-day training camp at 10,000 feet above sea level in the Leadville area in late-January 2021. Leadville was the training ground for the 10th Mountain Division military ski troops, and we can’t think of a better place to prepare for the race. The focus of the camp will be on the camping and specific skiing skills necessary to complete the race with aplomb.

The race takes place February 25-28, 2021. The plan is meet at Gardermoen Airport in Oslo on Monday, February 22nd, spend the first night near Oslo and then drive in a van to the race registration in Eidfjord. Along the way we’ll stop near Geilo, Norway for a loosen-the-legs ski, as well as a stop on the top of the Hardangervidda for an overnight shakedown camping trip.

Once in Eidfjord we’ll stay at a local bed and breakfast. The lodging is affordable, comfortable and the food is hearty and delicious. Of course, for at least 30 hours, we’ll be sleeping and, more significantly, traversing across the Hardangervidda as part of the Expedition Amundsen race. While in Eidfjord, we’ll follow the race program. Following the race, we’ll stay in Eidfjord for the Hero’s ceremony before traveling back to Oslo to head home. Before heading home we’ll spend a well-deserved rest day visiting the Holmenkollen Ski Museum and Fram Polar Exploration Museum. We feel this will be the perfect end to a very authentic and challenging Norwegian skiing experience. The official portion of the trip will end on Monday, March 1. However, if you’d like to continue your trip in Norway afterwards, we can help you plan the perfect ski vacation on weary legs!

Gear: This is a nordic ski touring race, not a randonee/alpine touring race. We’ll compete as Amundsen did, on cross country skis with cross country gear. Nordic skis with metal edges and robust mountain leather boots are required fare. In addition, a fair amount of winter gear is required to compete in the race. The race promoters have kindly offered us sleds when we arrive at the race, saving a major travel hassle. We’ll need to travel with our winter gear, including skis, and will pick up items like gasoline and food when we arrive in Norway. We’re working with Norwegian companies Åsnes skis, Brynje wool and Helsport tents to ensure all team members have outstanding gear for the event.

Cost: TBD. We’re going to keep this as affordable as possible. We’re certainly not looking to get rich doing this. It’s more to get people to the event, the help folks prepare. We’ll charge a bit for our time, but we suspect because of our prior knowledge from being over there, as well as support from race organizers and sponsors , we will be able to make the trip about the same cost as if you choose to do it alone. Our goal is to have two teams successfully prepare and compete in the race in an affordable and efficient manner.

CoVid and the U.S. Election: There are a lot of unknowns right now in the United States. It seems the nation is on hold until after the election on November 4, and it appears likely it will be well after that until things settle down. Officially, registration for Expedition Amundsen ends on November 1. However, because of the uncertainty with the election and CoVid right now, the race organizers have graciously offered to extend the registration for our two teams of North Americans till later in November.

Of course, there is also the chance that this will not be possible in 2021. As of this writing, U.S. Citizens are not allowed to travel to Norway, and it’s anybody’s guess if that will still be the case in February. If we are not allowed to travel, race entries can be transferred to 2022. Most flight reservations are very flexible and can easily be rescheduled free of charge.

It’s a situation where we’re preparing for the best, with a realistic view that things might not go according to plan and we may have to postpone until 2022 (after two years of preparation, we’ll be more than ready). Nevertheless, we think it’s good to have something to look forward to on the horizon, and we can’t think of anything better than a big ski trip and adventure to the Norwegian wilderness. We hope you’ll choose to join us and enjoy a God Tur across the Hardangervidda! To get you a little bit more stoked, check out this video of the 2020 Expedition Amundsen Race.

Thanks and think snow!

Elaine and Dan

Contact: If you have questions, want more information or want to be part of the team email us at altaskis@gmail.com. We hope to hear from you soon!

Photos by Joakim Dokka Nordstad and Kai-Otto Melau.

One Reply to “2021 Expedition Amundsen: The North American Plan”

  1. This is SO COOL!!! I hope you will have time to write about how you help your teams prepare as that is one of the most interesting aspects of endurance racing to me. Really so excited for you. I hope you get some fun teammates!

    Like

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