(Note, I tried to ramp up the photography a bit for this post,so be sure to click on the images and check out the full-size versions. Camera was my sort of trusty Canon A1400 for ski touring.. Though the A1400 is still a viable choice for something ultra small, I’ve about had it with the compromised quality I get from the tiny sensor and older firmware. A Sony is on the list.)
Perhaps we could be a soap opera, but the conversation has not yet turned to relationships so don’t get your hopes up. (Besides, as they say nearly everywhere I’ve been in the world, “what happens at the hut stays at the hut”).
We’ve been stuck waiting out the weather at Spiterstulen Lodge in Norway. The buildings are roomy and the beer flows like water. But it always feels strange to me when a ski alpinist crew converges from all points of the planet then plops down in a weather enclosed bubble and does virtually nothing. “Real” life has come to a standstill, but so has “the dream.”
Redeeming value in sitting around is I did get to know some interesting fellows: Adam the oceanographer; Scott the camera artist; Toby the Swedish magazine editor, Greg the Arcteryx clothing instigator; Stian who needs no introduction. We’ve not yet skipped a day of skiing, but yesterday was truncated to an afternoon mission on breakable crust in flat light. That was not my finest hour of the trip so let’s just say it was good exercise.
Today, however, was wonderful. The weather broke, the snow was skiable, the photographer was happy. What more can one ask? Perhaps a Norwegian waffle wrapped in lunch kit? Not a problem if you thought ahead.
Expecting weather reports to be truth, we stabbed upwards. The proposed “standard” Jotunheimen Haute Route from Spiterstulen heads over the highest peak in Norway, Galdhøpiggen (2469 meters), making for a mega-day with nearly 2,000 meters of vertical gain. Sounds like fun when you’re feeling strong and have good weather. Less daunting routes are available that allow more time for gawking and are not quite such a grunt.
In our case, morning dawned with plentiful clouds swirling the summits. With the possibility of marginal visibility as well as needing time for photography, we took an easier variation that still gained about 1,200 meters by the end of the day, with two nice descents (and plenty of distance). Jotunheimen Haute Route line. Our goal, the somewhat complex route that links Spiterstulen to Leirvassbu Mountain Lodge.
We left Spiterstulen at a civilized 9:00 or so, beginning with a flat shuffle over patches of snow and bramble, but soon humping up onto a pocket glacier. Terrain here is complex, with small glaciers dropping in various directions. Stian got his map out a few times and I’ll admit to some obsession on my GPS.
Turned out out the orienteering work wasn’t necessary, as the clouds lifted when we reached a saddle that defines the first critical point on the route. Spread before us, most of the remaining line tempted like the massive breakfast spreads they serve up in the hotels around here. To the right, or to the left? I’ll have some of that cornice for lunch? Or how about swinging around to the cornice-free pastry display?
At the top of our first descent, we indeed had three options for crossing the next mountain. The actual summit appeared to involve a semi-technical section on a spine feature. To the right of that, a good looking saddle was marred by a bad looking cornice. Farther to the right, according to Stian: “Where we went last time, but you end up with a flat ski up the valley to get to Leirvassbu Lodge.”
Such a cool idea to ski directly down to the lodge. Indeed, goal one upon reaching any ski hut is to glide onto the front porch and grab a beer while still wearing your rucksack. So we did make a line across another small glacier directly towards the cornice option. The closer we got, the worse it looked. Not appropriate for six guys who would probably spend hours fooling around with photography with the cornice wall as a backdrop (though I was looking forward to seeing Adam’s backflip style). So we swung right to the “standard.”
I was ready for something mundane, but when I crested this last highpoint a stupendous array of Jotunheimen peaks blasted me in the face like a solar detonation. Once the amazed utterances were taken care of, I noticed Stian just sitting there smiling, like he knew exactly what he’d hear from a North American really seeing the Jotunheimen “land of the giant trolls” for the first time. Not only are these mountains prolific, but they’re super skiable. More, because the peaks before us were all accessible from Lerivassbu Lodge, they were scratched one-and-all with a beautiful overlay of ski tracks (though we could easily spot a few untouched spots).
When everyone else arrived it was decided another photography session would occur. Not being at the freeride skiing cover model stage of life, I hung out on the saddle for a while and captured a few scenes on my junker digicam. The pull of about 1,000 meters of skiing was too strong. Sitting with Stian, he pointed out that the lodge transport snowcat was crawling up the valley and if I skied I might be able to intersect the ‘cat and avoid a hot valley slog up to the lodge. Fine by me and my aching feet. Nice descent, some steeper connecting open bowls. Wouldn’t want to be there with avalanche potential.
Sure enough, four minutes after I hit the cat track along came the lodge cat. The driver spouted something in Norwegian that sounded like “get in and let’s go.” So I did.
My intersection point was perhaps half way from car parking to the lodge. The over-snow road is maintained by the lodge owners. They open it up for travel during the spring snow season, close for a while in May, then open again for summer hill walking and climbing on the surrounding Jotunheimen peaks.
Stian had told me to be prepared for a crowd and a “scene.” But I wasn’t ready for Leirvassbu. The 80 room lodge was full, and at least as many tents dotted surrounding land (in Norway, tent camping is popular, with use of lodge showers etc. for a fee). The owner said about 600 people were overall present. I was amazed. Norwegians on skis, everywhere, on the hills, on the flats. People towing their kids. People with sleds. People nordic skating. People obviously heading out or returning from ski tours on AT gear. People sunning and drinking. Nearest ski lift many kilometers distant.
According to Stian and quite surprising to me, alpine ski touring (on “AT” bindings that free the heel for touring and let it lift for the uphill) as a popular sport is new to Norway. Up until a few years ago most folks used medium weight nordic gear or tele gear for “mountain touring.” All viable for good skiers, but modern AT gear based on the tech system is so efficient and attractive, it didn’t take long for a sea change to occur. According to both Stian and the Leirvassbu owners, “a few years ago it was 90% nordic touring gear this time of year, now it’s 90% ski touring [AT] gear.”
Thus, fun to be here in the midst of like minded hundreds. What is more, if you’ve not skied the mountain lodges of Norway, you have never seen a more geared-up state-of-art clothed, binding mounted and ski equipped group of hundreds anywhere else on the planet. Perhaps you’ve been told that Norway is prosperous? Indeed. Stay tuned for Leirvassbu Mountain Lodge details.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.