Despite having already lived in Norway for a couple of years, I hadn’t really got into skiing - every decent winter day I had free I usually went climbing. But I was starting to feel a draw towards getting out into the mountains and having a different experience, and I had a week off for Easter in late March that I fancied using to do a bit of exploring. I bought some metal-edged fjellski in January and managed to get out into the marka near Oslo a grand total of three times, which in addition to my previous 7 days’ downhill skiing and 10 days’ langrenn cross-country skiing, meant I had a grasp on the basics but my ‘technique’ tended towards the ‘walking with skis on’ end of the spectrum. Still, better to try and fail than sit at home and stare at the walls. I was lucky enough to have a great partner in crime for the trip, my Canadian friend Hahn, and having investigated a few route options we plumped for a circular tour in Jotunheimen with a route suggested by some Norwegian friends.
Our 7-day trip would lead us in a circle starting and ending at Fondsbu, and spending each night at a hut. The slight downside of the route was that a number of the huts we’d stop at weren’t DNT huts but private, and therefore a bit pricey. We decided to offset the cost a little by taking most of our own food with us, but planned to eat out 3 nights for treats.
Day 1 Fondsbu-Olavsbu 18km
We set off from Oslo at 5am on Saturday 19 March, allowing plenty of time to get to Tyin for about 11am, in order to catch the beltebil to Fondsbu at 12am. I hadn’t realised in advance that the carpark at Tyin cost about 100 kroner a day, but in a moment of paranoia I’d taken a small stack of emergency money with us. We arrived with heaps of time to take photos of the glorious beltebil - a small but fantastically noisy tank-like vehicle straight out of the 1950s.
Forty-five minutes later we were dropped off at Fondsbu. I’d had the good fortune to talk to some more experienced folk during the journey and discovered two very useful facts: first, the wind was blowing from the NW so we could either have the wind in our face on day 1 or day 5 depending which way round we went; second, the track between Fondsbu and Olafsbu was in a different place this year to where it was marked on the map. We’d planned to go clockwise, and decided we could manage wind-in-the-face better at the start of the trip than later.
Setting off out of Fondsbu on skis at last, we discovered something that would colour most of our days: most of what looked like snow was in fact ice. Two weeks previously it had been +7, and now it was -7 again, so everything had melted and then set hard. We had skins on but getting up the gently rolling icy hills was an exercise in persistence, and getting down them again even more challenging. Mid afternoon we swung left into the valley leading to Olavsbu and were met by the wind in full force. Heads down we plodded silently along, it being too noisy to hear each other by now. About half an hour from the hut, and with twilight starting to fall, we met a group of four ladies who hadn’t got the memo about the track having moved and were worried they were in the wrong place. Even though I was pretty sure we were close to the hut, it was a relief when we finally saw it just as it was getting properly cold and dark. We piled through the door into the warmth and set about cooking dinner, this being a self-service hut.
Still having fun despite the gnarly weather
Day 2 Olavsbu-Leirvassbu 12km
We set off from Olavsbu after breakfast, to be greeted with the same howling gale we’d left the day before, but this improved as we swung gradually to north-west. Leirvassbu wasn’t far away though, and we arrived there in time for a late lunch. Unlike the humble DNT hytte we’d stayed at the night before, this was almost a hotel, and absolutely heaving with top-turers. Hahn had lost one of her skins the day before when it blew away in the wind - I have no idea how she managed to ski without it - but happily she was able to buy a new set at reception.
As we were staying at a private hut we weren’t allowed to cook, but we took this more as a guideline and figured if we cooked out of sight of everyone then it was probably ok. Boiling water in 15m/s wind turned out to be more difficult than it sounds, and after about twenty minutes of trying we gave up and ate our luke-warm curry with crunchy noodles.
Day 3 Leirvassbu-Spiterstulen 15km
The next day the wind had dropped and we had an easy day over to Spiterstulen hytte. The topptourers were out in force heading up the mountains on both sides of the valley we were travelling through. I’m not a good enough downhill skiier to even consider topptouring at this point, but it does look fun, although given the avalanche risk after two days of high winds it was nice to stick to the valley floor and not have to worry.
Spiterstulen hut has the air of middle-ages settlement about it, but with the luxury of a sauna. I’d expected to spend the week being stinky, but I’d managed a shower at Leirvassbu and now a sauna. This was distinctly less roughing it that I’d anticipated.
Day 4 Spiterstulen - Glitterheim 18km
The weather was very mild now, although the downside of that was that there wasn’t a lot of snow around the hut, and we’d walked the last half hour the day before. This morning was similar - we started out with quite a steep climb in rocky terrain that we didn’t even consider doing on skis. At the top this flattened out and we got geared up again, and as we dropped into the the valley on the far side we finally found what had been missing up til now - snow. Deep, soft, snow. Oh, it was a joy, and over far too soon.
Day 5 Glitterheim - Memurubu 23km
This was looking to be the longest day of the tour, and by far the steepest. Setting out from Glitterheim we tracked uphill to swing round into the next valley over, until we arrived at the foot of Styggehøebrean - It was hard not to feel a little intimidated, gazing up at 600m of a rather steep and icy slope leading to the glacier at the top. The track was marked fairly straight up but as the angle increased we were forced to start making wide turns to get our skis to stick. Having talked to the warden the night before, I knew that the track was safe but there were big crevasses off to both sides of the saddlepoint of the glacier, and I was suddenly very worried that our zig-zagging was taking us into danger. We conferred briefly about the pros and cons of falling in a crevasse versus sliding all the way back down the icy slope we’d just come up, and settled on a very slow and slightly tense half hour of sidestepping up the final steep section.
Popping out on the top we were rewarded with an incredible view over the southern half of Jotunheimen, and a perfect lunch spot, although I for one was hoping it would be easier to get down this side of the mountain than it was to come up. There were no crevasses this side to worry about at least, but the undulating landscape and blustery wind had blown the little snow that remained into small drifts a few meters across scattered at regular intervals across the icy slopes. What this meant in practical terms was that I would start sliding downhill and gather speed at an impressive rate over the ice, and then hit a snow patch that brought my skis to a complete halt, what with having skins on and all, and I’d be catapulted over the fronts of them to faceplant in the snow. Hahn didn’t have much better success than me, and after a few rounds of faceplants we reverted to our tried and tested way of descending frictionless slopes: the bum slide. In essence, you leave your boots clipped in and sit down on the backs of the skis. To stop you roll over to the side, sometimes inducing a bit of a spin but always coming to a halt with a minimum amount of pain. I was pretty glad no Norwegians were about to see our efforts.
The closer we got to Memurubu hytta, the worse the conditions became. I lost my patience trying to hold a contour on the side of a hill that I kept sliding down, and we decided to rack the skis and walk for a bit. Quite soon even the ice was patchy, with more and more grass showing, until it was basically all grass. Not entirely how I’d imagined this leg of our journey to look.
We spent the evening looking at maps and rather discouraged by the utter lack of skiiable snow, we decided to bail. The plan was supposed to be to go west to Gjendubu and then Fondsbu in one or two days, and take the beltebil back to the car. However if we went East to Gjendesheim, we’d be back on the main road where we could potentially hitch a lift south back to where the car was parked. Having chatted to some friends we’d randomly met over dinner, I knew they’d come from Gjendesheim so I knew that road was open.
Me trying to come up with a plan B
We set out across the lake for two hours of miserable ‘skiing’ acros bare and scarred ice - a most unpleasant mode of transport. At the far side we spotted someone in a van dropping his friends off, and we sidled over to see if we could hitch a lift anywhere south. When he told me that the road south was closed, my brain bascially refused to believe him, but after a two minute drive to the start of the closed section, the penny dropped - the road going south from Gjendesheim was Valdres Flyet, a high mountain pass that is closed for the winter until late spring. The road was only open going north.
It was already midday, and I was fairly pessimistic that we’d be able to ski the 37km over a closed pass in one afternoon. Neither did we want cross the awful lake again and commit to another two days of clanking about on ice and bare ground. So, crestfallen, we set off north. Google had cheerfully advised us that it was a day’s walk to the nearest town, Otta, but we managed to hitch a lift after only a short while with a lovely couple who’d just finished the Norwegian Haute Route. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the bus station and then on the bus back to Oslo, and I spent the whole of the day after that taking the bus back to Tyin to collect my car. Only a 600km diversion!