Getting to the top of the mountain is optional, getting back down is not.
That’s what I told myself on a freezing cold Norwegian afternoon in December as I reached the halfway point on my climb up to Trolltunga. This was the exact moment I realised I wasn’t going to make it.
I had flown into Bergen on Friday night, arriving in the city centre around 1 in the morning. I had a train to catch at 6am, and wanted to see some of the city before I left. So, instead of finding a place to stay, I spent the night roaming the streets of Bergen.
What struck me first about Bergen was how expensive everything was. The national wage in Norway is over 55% higher than that of the UK so while the increased cost of living isn’t a problem if you have a Norwegian pay check, for a UK tourist it makes for a very expensive holiday.
I found a couple of nice bars to while away the hours in, sampling as many of the local beers as I could – always the first thing I do when arriving in a new country. After being kicked out at 3am I then roamed the snow-lined streets and narrow back alleys, wandered round the harbour and the medieval cathedral before returning to the station.
I caught the train to Voss, a trip that was supposed to be one of the most beautiful journeys in the country. Unfortunately at this time of the year the sun doesn’t rise until 9am, so I got nothing out of it apart from a couple of hours catching up on sleep.
As I disembarked the train at Voss, snow was falling and the entire town was a sea of white. The instant my feet touched the ground I struck by the extreme cold. Although I was bundled up in all of my clothes, it still cut right through to the bone. It wasn’t just any cold; this was intense, science-fiction levels of freezing. This was Game of Thrones, beyond-the-Wall cold, and I knew it would be even colder up in the mountains. I had camped in snow many times before but never much below minus two or three degrees Celsius. The temperature near Trolltunga, where I would be camping that night, had been as low as minus 11 a couple of days before.
I jumped on another bus to the sleepy Hordaland municipality of Odda. I was the only passenger. A two hour journey, just the driver and me. No one else. I could have used this time to get some much-needed sleep, but as the sun rose over Norway I was captivated by the changing landscape as I travelled deeper and deeper into the heart of the country. The rickety bus navigated icy-white fjords and frozen fields, crossing bridges spanning enormous expanses of water and burrowing through tunnels carved deep into the mountainsides. Halfway through the journey I began to drift off, and was abruptly awakened by the bus coming to a sudden halt and the driver shouting at me to get out and board the boat we had just pulled up alongside.
I didn’t mind getting on a boat – in fact it was quite exciting – but I was mildly surprised to have not been informed that a significant portion of my bus trip would involve a sea voyage. I staggered onto the ferry, drowsy with sleep. A short, fast trip across Hardangerfjorden, at the opposite shore of which I caught an identical bus to take me the rest of the way.
The entire country was blanketed in snow, and from the warm confines of the heated bus I was starting to feel a little trepidation about the adventure I had planned – a winter ascent of Trolltunga.
Trolltunga – meaning Troll’s Tongue – is a scenic rock formation 1100 metres above sea level, overlooking the north shore of the lake Ringedalsvatnet. A popular walking destination in summer – you’ve probably seen the pictures – there have been issues with too many tourists using the trail in peak season. I was keen to go there at a time when I would have it all to myself – i.e. the middle of December. In summer, with good weather, the 22 km hike from the trailhead at Ringedalsvatnet could easily be done in the course of a day, but with several feet of snow to trudge through and only six guaranteed hours of daylight, this was going to be a challenge.
I’ve never been one to balk at a challenge so wasn’t going to let that stop me – if it took two days to get up and down, fine, but I was going to try and make it in one.
My cross-country Odyssey to Odda came to an end just before midday and I found a place to buy a couple days of supplies and fuel. I then caught a final bus a few of miles up the road to Tyssedal, from which I began my 7 km hike up the road to Ringedalsvatnet.
A short way up the road I met a local who asked me with a hint of concern in his voice whether I was heading to Trolltunga. I told him yes, and assured him I knew what I was doing. I’d winter hiked before and I was armed with warm clothing, ice axe and crampons. He said he’d attempted the same thing the previous winter and had had to turn around as the snow was too deep and progress too slow to make it up and down in one day.
Another local woman stopped me and told me what I was doing was a bad idea and I should turn back. I assured her too that I would be fine. The smattering of houses on the hillside soon faded away as I climbed higher and higher up the long winding road into the mountains. The road was icy and I had to don my YaxTrax to prevent myself falling flat on my face with every other step. Every now and then the mist would clear and I would be confronted with a spectacular view over the valley, waterfalls crashing and snow covered mountains looming over the Tysso River as it wound its long course down to Hardangerfjorden. The snow started to fall again and the wind picked up, stinging my cheeks. I had to cover my face until the only thing showing was my eyes.
I trudged up this seemingly endless road, donning my head torch when the road passed through dark, narrow tunnels carved into the rock and feeling the air get thinner and colder as I climbed ever higher.
After nearly two hours I made it to the frozen lake where the trail began. In summer this would be a thriving hub of tourism, equipped with car parking, a guest house and the Trolltunga activity centre. But for now it was completely empty. Just as I had hoped. I passed a sign warning hikers not to head into the mountains at this time of year due to a serious danger of death. I ignored it – where would be the fun without a bit of risk?
It would soon start to get dark and so I climbed up a short way and found a beautiful wintery spot to camp overlooking the lake, perched right next to a little stream. The water was pure snow melt and I drunk straight from the source, no filter required. Delicious. I cleared a patch in the snow just large enough for my tent. It felt strange to be setting up camp this early – it was only 4pm – but since I had missed an entire night of sleep I was OK with a few extra hours in bed.
I nestled into my snug little snow cave and cooked dinner as the sunlight gradually faded. Dressed in thermals (top and bottom), trousers, t-shirt, fleece, down jacket , rain jacket, two pairs of socks and gloves, huddled inside a four-season sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner, I was still far from warm. The cold from the frozen ground was spreading upwards and into my bones. I had thought two sleeping pads – a cheap foam mat and an inflatable Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite – would do the job, but I was mistaken. I eventually managed a few hours of fitful sleep and was up well before sunrise to start my early climb up to the Troll’s Tongue.
Had I left all my camping gear at my campsite and set out carrying the bare minimum, I could have made significantly better mileage. However, I knew there was a chance I might have to stop and set up camp in an emergency if the weather took a sudden turn. There were a few emergency cabins high up in the mountains that I could use if worst came to worst, but I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
The climb to Trolltunga
It was still dark when I strapped on my spikes and began the steep climb up through the forest. Steps had been carved out in the rock here, but they were so covered in ice and snow that they might as well have not been there at all. Some ropes were helpfully strung up between trees that I used to haul myself up the steepest parts, although I lost faith in these once one collapsed the second I put my weight on it and almost sent me sprawling right back to where I started. The first kilometre alone took me almost an hour. At times I was postholing up to my knees but I knew once the initial climb was over, the terrain would become easier for a while.
Eventually it flattened out and I broke through the trees to be greeted with a panorama of the Ringedalsvatnet Lake and all the way down to the Tysso valley. To my East was the disused Mågelibanen funicular, resembing a giant pair of wooden steps fixed to the side of the mountain. The funicular used to make the Hardangervidda plateau and Trolltunga more easily accessible to the public, yet was closed when the transportation licence expired in 2010.
I passed the first emergency cabin – padlocked shut – and continued moving north and then east, following the Hardangervidda plateau along the contours of the lake. The snowy landscape was beautiful, yet unchanging. Visibility was poor as mist and snow swirled around my head and at times I could barely see more than 20 metres in front of me. I was the only sign of life for miles, drifting along on an ocean of white. A solitary speck of colour in a monochrome world.
Progress was slow. By midday I had walked a mere six kilometres, and there was still another five to go to Trolltunga and eleven back. I had known I wouldn’t be matching the 30 miles days I was achieving on the PCT, but this was unacceptable. This was the point I knew for certain I wasn’t going to make it, and camping anywhere round here was not an option I wanted to consider.
The snow was several feet deep and I was hiking through exposed, windy terrain. There were almost no visible landmarks and if I woke up in the morning to similar conditions, my tracks would be gone and I’d have trouble finding my way back. As if to confirm my thoughts, at this very moment the snow and the wind became furious and the sky turned an ominous dark grey. The picture below shows the exact moment I decided to abandon my efforts and headed back. You can almost see the disappointment and sadness in my eyes.
Biting my lip and swallowing my pride I made my way down the mountain. The descent was a lot quicker, although I did slip several times. The final kilometre was especially treacherous. It was late afternoon when I made it back to the previous night’s campsite and I had roughly an hour’s daylight left. I was still feeling energetic so decided to hike the seven kilometres down the road back to Odda. Again it was a lot quicker going back down and I made it back just as the last of the daylight evaporated.
Refusing to be dissuaded by my failed ascent, I immediately found the nearest coffee shop and started frantically Googling nearby mountains I could attempt the next day. I found a few options around Voss and saw that there was a bus leaving in ten minutes, so quickly packed up my gear and headed for the bus station.
Another voyage across land and sea and I was back in Voss, heading for a campsite just out of town. It was abandoned and unmanned for the winter, but I set up my tent on the only snow-free patch of grass under a big tree then went to find a pub.
The climb I’d planned for the next day was more of a big hill than a mountain, but I didn’t want to go back home having failed to get to the top of anything. I began the short walk out of town along the Vangsvatnet Lake and headed up a steep winding road past farms and houses painted the traditional Norwegian white and red. In my brief time in Norway, the Norwegians came across as incredibly friendly people, and I found young children and adults alike would come up to me and ask me what I was doing and where I was going, questioning me about my gear and where I come from.
I left the road and climbed up a steep path through forest and farms, with a fantastic view overlooking Voss. A path up through the trees led me to the summit of the hill, only a mere five hundred metres or so but still a success in my book. It wasn’t Trolltunga but it was definitely a summit. I made it back down to Voss, had another celebratory beer (£7 for half a pint!) and spent another cold night in my campsite, ready to catch my flight back to England the following day.
I may have failed at my attempt to climb Trolltunga in December – and if I’m being really honest with myself, part of me knew I wasn’t going to make it. It’s frustrating, it’s disappointing, but I would rather fail at a risky, challenging endeavour than set myself up for an easy win. Trolltunga will be there next winter and the winter after that, and I am not going to let it beat me.