Winter in Scandinavia always seems so long at the sharp end. When the clocks fall back in October, it’s usually the signal to swap out the summer shoes for boots, dust off the studded tyres and fish around in the cupboard for the bike lights. It should have been the time to start updating and upgrading some of my winter camping gear too. But, as I said, winter is a long time in the North. There’d be plenty of time to buy that tent, down jacket, multi-fuel stove…
And then I was out of time. The clock had ticked away at an alarming rate. Before I knew it, I was travelling on a train, to the Norwegian mountains, without a tent at all. “Don’t worry Joe, I have one you can borrow”. Mikkel’s plan was for us to travel the Southern Hallingdalsløypa ski trail by fatbike. 160km in four and a bit days. It would also prove to be a litmus test as to the applicability, and to some degree the acceptance, of fatbikes on some of Norway’s immense cross-country ski infrastructure.
When Mikkel stepped off the train at Ustaoset he was sporting an impressive beard, and a minuscule amount of gear. “That’s my sleeping bag”, he announced, pointing to a disturbingly small dry-bag strapped to his forks. He had, however, packed a beard comb, and 6 kilograms of camera equipment. I’m sure there was plenty of ‘tough’ tucked away in the corners of his Carradice bags too.
We whooped across the frozen lake in the dark. The tailwind, dead flat profile and firm surface made progress a breeze. After a bit of climbing up the other side, it was time to find somewhere to camp. Nothing like pitching a tent for the first time. On snow. In the dark. I futzed around with my tent by head-torch light, while Mikkel swung smoothly into operation. It’s been a while since I’ve sat in the cold winter air too, waiting for a pot of snow to melt. Before we knew it, it was well past our bed time.
The ski trails proved pretty easy to navigate. Keeping the trails open is important because spending your free-time outdoors is big business in Norway. Especially skiing, which is close to a religion here. On that first morning, we kept lowering our tyre pressure, until the sidewalls wrinkled. This provided more grip and float, increasing our time riding, instead of pushing, and reducing our impact on the groomed surface. The first day, especially, we were conscious of our impact and perception. As skiers ourselves, we were careful to respect the machine-cut ‘classic’ twin-track that runs on either side of the trail. We regularly checked that our tyres weren’t bogging down in the centre ‘skate’ portion, and rode on the verge wherever it was firm enough.
It was a pity then that our first interaction with someone connected with the ski trail was negative. The surly groomer driver pointed at our bikes and shook his head disapprovingly, as he slowly drove by us, churning the trail into corduroy-textured icing. I was confused as to why he was pissed at us for riding a trail that was blatantly unused since the last time he had driven this way. “That guy’s problem, was that he had a problem”.
Subsequent interaction with the trail’s patrons and guardians were thankfully overwhelmingly positive “Så kult!” (”So cool!”) was a popular refrain, as was people taking photos of us. We got smiles and thumbs-up from skiers, snow machine drivers and tourist cabin staff. We stopped and chatted to many, preaching the word in exchange for beta on the trail ahead. Between maps, GPS and the modern wonder of ski trail apps (’This trail was prepared 3 hours ago’), navigation was pretty straightforward. Except where local signage contradicted the national map set. Mikkel’s meticulous planning and some local knowledge ensured we stayed on track.
The weather did everything it could to help. Seriously, I saw more sunshine in four days on that trail, than I had in the preceding three months in Bergen. Mikkel had called it right, during one of our last text conversations before heading to the mountains. We were going to get lucky. The wind was non-existent, or gently at our backs. The only time the lack of wind was a problem was in the form of condensation at night. Coupled with the tight confines of my borrowed tent, I was greeted each morning with an indoor snow shower. Temperatures dipped to the low negative teens Celcius at night, and hovered around zero during the day. This helped keep the trail in fine nick and ensured we wore the full gamut of our clothing. Midday, sheltered, bike-pushing in sunglasses, vented pants and unzipped base-layers. Extended downhills, exposed passes and camp life in beanies, Buffs and insulated jackets. Despite slapping on sun-screen a couple of times a day my ears and nose got a bit frazzled.
The trail varied continuously. Exposed, dead straight lines to the horizon. Meandering, contour-hugging routes through rolling terrain. Twisty, bermed rollers through birch forests. There was plenty of bike-pushing up the steeper, softer grades and a lot of straight blasting downhill. The cold wind tearing at your eyes while you trust that the slight snow drift across the trail isn’t a massive soft patch that is going to grab you front wheel and send you into an uncontrollable ‘tank-slapper’. We both crashed. Once each, I think. Mikkel, on some off-camber ice. Me, over the bars, trying to ride over a snow drift, right in front of the only skiers we had seen for hours…
“I’m in death march mode”, I stated, melodramatically, trudging on in silence. What a dick.
We’d been moving for almost nine hours. For our last night Mikkel wanted us to push on up to a proposed summit camp at around 1400m, on top of Høgevarde. I was worried about where we would camp, the fading light, and my numb toes. It would be cool, Mikkel said. Stunning views over eastern Norway, he said. Distant mountain ranges on the horizon, he said. He didn’t say how fucking hard it would be to push my heavily-laden fatbike up those last 10km, where the gradient percentage hovered in the teens and twenties. Our endless tail-wind was now a cold head-wind. We broke the slog down into chunks, taking plenty of short breaks. We were losing our battle with the sun. We stopped as the orb hit the horizon behind us. Fighting to keep the bikes from sliding back down the hill, even with the brakes locked, we took a final snack and fired off some more photos. Despite the increasing effort, we pulled on more clothes. Inch by inch the summit was getting closer. I started smiling again. It would be worth it, I thought. In Mikkel, we trust.
At the top we found a perfectly flat saddle, protected from the wind and covered in firm snow. Mikkel graciously let me spend the last night in his Hilleberg Soulo, a tent which I had tried to purchase in the weeks leading up to our trip. The Akto I borrowed from Mikkel had proven it’s worth in the preceding days, but there is no getting away from the fact that it’s Hobbit-esque dimensions do not suit my taller frame. Mikkel took the Akto, pitching it drum tight. With the tents staked down, we took a torch-lit wander to the top. The easterly wind, barreling unhindered across Scandinavia, was ‘fresh’. The Northern Lights were faint and sporadic, but a welcome sight. The sky was alive with a million tiny lights.
The morning light show was even more spectacular. Pink and purple washed the landscape in response to the orange horizon. Oslofjorden (that’s the fjord that leads to, um, Oslo) shimmered to the south-east. Distant mountain ranges studded the panorama. The sun crept slowly over the summit as we packed up for the last time. Our final leg was a 10km time-trial to the ski resort below Norefjell, and it’s transport links. The trail along the south-facing ridge was iced hard. The ski trail petered out into the maze of alpine ski runs. We were running out of time for my bus connection. It was time for some two-wheel pannier drift. We bombed the blue run.
Once again I am eternally grateful to Mikkel for inviting me on this trip. I know a lot of work went into researching our route. I’d like to thank him too, for loaning me a tent, and encouraging me to keep going on that climb to Høgevarde. Looking forward to travelling again with you soon, buddy.
I am also grateful to whoever was in charge of the weather on this trip. You did some fine work. Lastly, thank you to (almost) everyone who shared the trail with us. It was encouraging to see that the ski trails can be shared, as long as we all respect each other’s right to be there.
You can peruse Mikkel’s words and images here.