Monday, April 25, 2016

Race report: Sentrumsløpet 2016

In the days leading up to Sentrumsløpet, the largest 10K race in Norway, I knew I was perfectly capable of PRing. I have been running all winter, even putting in time on the fearsome indoor track at Bislett. I felt myself getting faster and stronger, and conquering speed workouts, which I have always been my weakness. During our last track session, Audun and I ran kilometer repeats, and I nailed each one at faster than goal pace. Still, I was scared. Terrified I wouldn’t live up to my own expectations. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to make myself race with the intensity necessary to take another big chunk out of my 10K PR.

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Thumbs up for a good final workout at Bislett.

I’m starting to get superstitious about race day routines. I have to braid my hair a certain way (a double french braid that joins into a single braid at the base of my skull). I have to eat very specific things (pre-race pancakes). My legs must be freshly shaved (something I usually don’t bother with!). I think very carefully about what data fields I want my Garmin watch to display, and how I will use this information during the race. While none of these things make my self-doubt go away, they give a semblance of control.

Sentrumsløpet didn’t start until 4 pm, which I though was terrible. Somehow I managed to while away the hours, and soon it was time to go downtown and pick up our bibs. Audun and I thought there would be long lines and got there way too early. I was too nervous to do anything but sit around on a park bench and waste time. It was cold out despite the sunshine , and I started to second guess my clothing choice of 3/4 length tights and a t-shirt. Audun and I joked that if we were cold it might make our legs go numb, which could be performance-enhancing.

We were meant to meet our friends Vibeke and David for warm-up, but they were running late. We wondered if they had backed out of the informal couples competition (lowest combined time!) we had jokingly agreed upon after Jotunheimen Haute Route. I didn’t see them before the race, but they did show.

Finally it was time to warm-up, and I had a purpose again. We ran a conversational lap around the royal palace, and I felt the blood rushing to my extremities. The weather flickered between bright sun and showers of snow and hail. Typical Norwegian spring weather. My whole body seemed to ache slightly, but I knew it was just just pre-race jitters. On our second lap around the royal palace, we ran strides and a few simple drills, and I was comforted by the familiarity of doing the same warm-up routine I did before all of my track sessions this winter.

We meandered back to the enormous start area at Karl Johan street, and jog up and down the street with undulating masses of nervous people. Soon it was time to line up in our respective waves to line up, and Audun had to go up front. I asked him to take my picture before he went, but I was nervous and bouncy and I could’t decide how to pose.

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I call this: Portrait of a Nervous Runner

I found the front of my wave, and then decided to move back a little ways to not get dragged off by the speedsters at the start of the heat. I stood, jumping up and down on the balls of my feets, just barely able to see above the heads of the masses of people in front of me. 

Somewhere in the distance, the gun went off, and the crowd slowly ground into motion like an old-fashioned steam engine. After walking 100 meters to get to the start arch, the crowd loosened up and I was able to accelerate into a run. The first half a kilometer are uphill to the palace, and I promised myself I wouldn’t looked at the pace on my watch until I got to the top of the hill. Still, why was everyone going so slow? This was a 10K, after all, and these were supposed to be people who would race about the same time as me. I passed a bunch of people, not wanting to loose too much time on this initial hill.

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Milling around with thousands of other runners, the start arch and royal palace in the distance.

After passing the royal palace, the course was flat for the next couple of kilometers. I picked up the pace, repeating to myself: Fast, smooth. Fast, smooth. Fast, smooth. The mantra synced with the rhythm of my feet, but in truth I felt neither fast nor smooth. Everyone around me was huffing and puffing and I knew we looked nothing like the gazelles at the sharp end of the race. Still, I was moving at a good clip for me, nothing to worry about yet.

Then the course took us onto Frogner park, home of Vigeland’s famous sculptures. National monument aside, the path through the park is made this weird gravel that seemed to roll around like so many tiny tennis balls underfoot. The course climbed once again, and I saw my pace going down. Oh no, I thought, it’s all over. I have failed, and I’m not going to PR. It will all have been for nothing.

Luckily there was more than one voice in my head that day, and the other voice was feeling argumentative. You can make up these seconds! it insisted. What goes up, must come down! Smooth! Fast! I thought of Haruki Marukami’s famous quote: Pain in inevitable, suffering is optional. I started repeating it to myself, and the words formed a complex rhythm, juxtaposed on the quick slap of my feet and the breathy Fast, Smooth!

Was I suffering? I wasn’t really in pain, I just didn’t want to go any faster. I was out of Frogner park by now, and the ball of Wild Bazilchuk was rolling down the hill. Everything got sloppy in my head, and I started mixing up pain and suffering in the Marukami quote. Wait, pain isn’t supposed to be the optional one?! Oh shut up.

I passed the 5K mark, and pressed my lap buttom. 21:40. I had hit my split for the first 5K perfectly. There was nothing left to save now, I had to muster everything I could to go balls out to the finish. The next kilometer was all downhill, and I was flying. Bank the time, I told myself, you may need it later. My heart rate had been about 5 beats lower than it felt like for the entire race, so I started to ignore that particular metric.

When the course flattened out again, the lazy voice in head came sneaking back out. You’ve made plenty of time, it said, even if you just cruise to the finish, you’ll still PR. Why even bother to work this hard at all? 

I had to find a way to make this positive, even though I was going so painfully hard. Then I remember the science tidbit I had heard somewhere, that smiling forces your brain to release endorphins, and that makes you feel happy. So I smiled as hard as I could, grinning like a maniac as we ran the short loop below Akershus fortress. Well, at least I look like I’m having fun! I thought.

Finally I passed the sign for the final kilometer, and I tried to find a higher gear for my legs. Almost immediately, a wave of queasiness met me, which I’m never had happen in a race before. The final kilometer was mostly uphill, with a slight downhill to the finish line. As I crested the top of the hill, I looked at my watch to see I had 15 seconds left if I wanted to beat 43 minutes. I mustered everything I had and took off sprinting, which didn’t turn out to be much faster than I was already going. I crossed the finish line in 42:58, totally spent. I had done it, I had beat my PR by 1 minute and 22 seconds!

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The PR selfie!

As for everyone else, Audun nailed his second 10K ever with a two and half minute PR, finishing in 37:26. David and Vibeke also PRed, in 37:58 and 43:02 respectively. What a day!

The funny thing is, all I can think about now is: how fast can I go? Time will tell.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Perfect spring skiing weather

Spring is the best part of the ski season, and when the stars align to combine great weather and stable snow conditions, it’s go big or go home. Two weekends ago, the weather forecast icon was big suns and some fresh snow had even fallen the previous nights. Audun, Dad and I set our sights on Kongskrona, Norway’s only glaciated summit, which is at the mouth of Innerdalen.

We set up camp in the valley Friday night, and weren’t particularly surprised that several other groups had chosen to do the same. By 8 o’clock the next morning, dozens of other cars had shown up, and I could barely contain my surprise when a bus full of skiers appeared.  Six years ago, Dad and I skied Dronningkrona, the neighbouring peak to Kongskrona, where many of these people would be headed today, on a similarly beautiful day. We had camped out in the same area we were now. We had been alone at the campsite and alone as we set out up the mountain. It was only later in the day that we met a few other groups. Ski mountaineering is really blowing up in Norway, and I feel like a grouch when I admit I’m not sure I like it.

Despite the crowds, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and drove to the end of the road. Part of our group, Mom and Ben (an American post-doc visiting Norway from England) set up to tour towards Innerdalshytta, while Audun, Dad and I strapped our skis to our packs and began our tour crossing a yellowed field on foot.

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Audun going for a walk in the park, below Skarfjellet.

By the time we strapped on our skis and start skinning through the sparse snow coverage in the forest, we had a group of eight guys hot on our heels. They kept almost catching up with us, and this stressed me. I felt like we were being chased, and I wished they would either pass us or stop and leave us alone. In the end, I stopped to let them skin passed, so I could find my quiet solitude. One of the guys had a large, lumpy backpack. Later, when I saw a paraglider floating down from the mountain top, I realized that’s what must have been in the pack.

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Snøfjellet and a persistent tree, growing on a boulder

Although it was sunny, the air temperature was pretty cold, and I put on my big down jacket when we stopped for a lunch break just above tree line. After the break, we caught up to another big group of eleven who were moving slightly more slowly than us. As long as they were moving, it was hard to pass them, so we resigned ourselves to climbing at their pace for a while.  There were some clouds swirling around the summit, but I had confidence that the big sun on the weather forecast would pull through.

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The big group headed towards the glacier on Kongskrona.

We were drawing close to the glaciated part of the route, and I was curious to see that only one member of the group ahead of us was carrying an ice ax. Unfortunately, he had put the ice ax on upside down and the sharp part was pointing directly into his shoulder joint. When reading up on Kongskrona, I had been given to understand that equipment for glacier travel (ice ax, crampons, rope, harness) could be necessary, and so Audun, Dad and I all had packs loaded with gear. Apparently no one else had even considered the possibilities of needing this type of equipment, except the guy who was threatening to cut off his own arm with his ice ax.

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Dad on the climb.

There was a solid track up the glacier, but there were also visible crevasses in other areas. Better safe than sorry, we decided, and put on our harnesses. The final climb to the top was steep and wind-packed, and crampons would have been useful if it had been any icier.

From the top, we could see hoards of people on the neighbouring Dronningkrona. The weather still hadn’t cleared off completely, although the cloud cover was high and afforded good views.

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Me, Audun and Dad on top of Kongskrona, with Dronningkrona in the background. The weather wasn’t quite as sunny as forecasted, but it was still a beautiful day!

On the way up, we had identified an as-of-yet unskied couloir, and decided to go check it out. The couloir looked steeper from above than it had below, and we decided to dig an avalanche pit to make sure if the snow below us was stable. Although the snow didn’t collapse, we found a layer of hail that behaved like ball bearings, Audun announced he had a ‘bad feeling’ about this. And so, for the first time, we choose a different descent because we were uncertain about the avalanche danger. Discussing later, we agreed that probably it would have been fine. However, I think just because you don’t cause an avalanche doesn’t mean you made the right decision. Sometimes you are just plain lucky, and I would rather make good decisions than be lucky any day.

The ski down was excellent anyway!

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Audun in action, after skiing a narrow couloir that required one to drop off a rock ledge to enter. Dad and I found a more mellow route around.

Even though there was cold, fresh powder on top of Kongskrona, the snow was almost gone down low on the mountain, and we had take our skis off for a couple of stretches through the forest.

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Dad downclimbing through the muddy forest. 

 Eight hours after setting out, we arrived back at the car and the restfulness of a long day’s skiing settled in. We stayed another night at our campsite, with time to relax and swap stories with Mom and Ben from their day.

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Our little campsite in the sunset.

We had a campfire and toasted marshmallows, but headed to bed before it got truly dark. It had been a long day.

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Mom with a perfectly toasted marshmallow.

The next morning we packed up our camp and headed to Storlidalen to meet up with some friends: Sakari (Finnish), Sigurd and Silje (Norwegians). The weather was everything the forecast had promised; there was not a cloud in sight.

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Sakari at the base of Nonshøa.

We headed up Nonshøa, a relatively gentle peak with some steeper options on the way down. It’s not a super long ski, and we were happy to have time to stop for a leisurely lunch in the sun.

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Sigurd and Silje brought freshly baked brownies to share. I may invite them to go skiing with me again!

We were a group of eight, and different climbing speeds stretched us out like an accordion on the final stretch to the summit. It was pretty cold on top, and a little summit yoga kept me warm as the group gathered and prepared for the descent. 

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Summit yoga on top of Nonshøa, with Innerdalen in the background.

The first part of the descent was a steep, wind swept ridge that was roughly chopped by the tracks of other skiers. I felt confident as I stood on top though, and confidence is important in difficult conditions. You have to trust that you can see your turn through and stay strong in the turn position. I swooped down the mountain first, feeling in charge of my skis, in charge of the snow, utterly in control even in high speed. 

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Sakari whips up some powder on the descent from Nonshøa

We managed to find some unskied lines on the steeper aspect of the mountain, carving our skis through a 20 cm layer of soft powder.

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Me on the descent, with Neådalsnota in the background. Photo from Sakari

It was pure skiing joy, and I felt a pang of regret that we didn’t have time to do another lap. But Audun and I had a long drive back to Oslo to get on with, and weekends are finite, in time if not in possibilities.

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Making tracks on our own personal face of Nonshøa.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Recovery in the rain

The day after we finished Jotunheimen Haute Route, I felt fresh and raring to go. I wanted to continue skiing, taking down peak after peak, forever. I resented having to take a rest day to drive all day, around Jotunheimen to pick up the car at the beginning of the route and then to Audun’s family in Sunnmøre. I thought a lot about cool things that we could do with the remainder of Easter vacation, but the weather forecast was calling for rain, rain, rain.

The next morning, the fatigue hit me like a train. All I wanted to do was sit still. After sitting still for the better part of a day, sucked into the vortex that is the internet, I dragged myself outdoors for a short run. I felt awful for the entire time. At least Sunnmøre is a beautiful place to be running!

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Running past Dyrdalsfossen in Norddal

In the evening, Audun and I skied up to his family's cabin in the mountains about Norddal village by headlamp. A local farmer had let his horses out to wander up the valley. The horses were suspicious of us, but didn’t seem to realize that we were following the same steep road that they were. The last time we saw them it was so dark out I only saw their eyes glittering by the light of a headlamp. My rampant imagination turned the glittering eyes into wolves, even though I knew it had to be the horses.

The ski in took us much longer than I anticipated, but as soon as I relaxed and forgot about the time passing I felt better. It was a starry night and we were the only people in Herdalen valley, which is seldom traveled during the winter.

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The world rendered in greyscale by starlight. Here, Kallskaregga above Herdalsvatnet from Audun’s cabin.

The next morning we lounged for a long time, enjoying the quiet that comes without the vortex that is the internet. We finally decided that we had to go for a ski to deserve a sauna though, so we toured the flat 4 K into Herddalsetra, a seter at the end of the valley.

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Following animal tracks on the snowed in road to Herdalseter. Herdalsegga is the magnificent peak in the background.

After an excellent sauna, we skied back down to the village to eat Easter dinner with Audun’s family. The ski down was absolutely treacherous. The trail was pitted by the horses, and the snow was rotten and collapsed spontaneously outside the tracks. Normally I’m not adverse to falling, but there was also horse poop everywhere. It was a steep, horse poop obstacle course! We both made it down alive, but discovered large amounts of horse hair in our wax afterwards.

The next day was Easter Sunday and it was still raining, so we decided to make the long drive back to Oslo. It basically took all day, because everyone and their mothers had decided to drive back to Oslo that day.

Naturally, I was feeling antsy and decided that the last day of vacation was best spent running. Surely the dirt road around Maridalsvann will have thawed! I thought. But, as is usual when I think things like that, it was not.

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Audun joined me for the first half of my run, and he put the icy conditions to good use, sliding down the hills with effortless control. Due to the variable conditions, it took just under 3 hours to complete my 27K route. But I was feeling good again. I had recovered from Jotunheimen Haute Route, and was ready to continue my training.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Jotunheimen Haute Route

“It’s never as bad as the weather forecast says, right?"

It was a couple days before Audun, Vibeke, David and I planned to complete Jotunheimen Haute Route, and the weather forecast was pretty terrible. High winds, low visibility and snow… all things you don’t want coming your way when you attempt a ski traverse of some of Norway’s highest mountains. We had discussed all the possibilities from cancelling the trip and going skiing somewhere else, to bringing lighter touring skis and skiing the low route instead of the high route. But optimism won out, and we spent Friday evening stage cars at either end of the route, not getting to bed until midnight. The only way forward was across.

Day 1: Bessheim - Memurubu

We woke to clear skies and wind that nearly blew us off our feet as we walked from the bunk room to breakfast hall at the road side hut of Gjendesheim. The A plan for the day called for climbing Besshøe, a peak 1300 meters above our starting elevation. Given that the winds were so high even at this elevation, we assumed they must be gail force up high. Not to be forced into skiing the flat route across frozen Gjende lake however, we decided to ski towards Besshøe, and traverse below the summit we still felt that skiing higher was unsafe.

We initially climbed a hill that was sheltered from the wind, and marveled at what a beautiful day it was. As we rounded a corner, the wind picked again, and we slowly shrunk into the protection of our hoods. The wind created a low pitch roar around my hood, a constant reminder of the force we were fighting with every step.

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David and Viebke skiing above Sjodalsvatnet lake.

By the time we crest the slope to Bessvatnet lake, the wind was so strong we had to yell to talk to each other. We could see the summit of Besshøe in the distance, with clouds racing by it.

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All packed into our hoods, but having a good time! Besshøe is the mountain in the left side of the picture.

As we slogged across the lake, I became confident that today was not a good day to summit, and I said as much to the others. They tended to agree; the summit ridge looked very exposed. We settled on our plan B of traversing below the summit and rejoining the descent to Memurubu hut.

Then, a few hundred meters away, three figures emerged from behind a large rock where they had taken a break and started skinning towards the summit. I started to second guess our decision. If they were going for the summit, why shouldn’t we? But ‘someone else is doing it’ has never been a good argument for decision-making, and so we stuck to our plan.

Bessvatnet lake was more than 5 kilometers across, and the monotony of the skiing lead me to cloud watching. The clouds were racing through the sky, constantly evolving. My favorite started as a large blob, and slowly performed mitosis into two smaller clouds.

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The mitosis cloud above Bessvatnet lake.

Finally (finally!) we reached the end of the lake and started first to climb, then skirt around, Besshøe. There was very little snow, and we were forced to take off our skis on several occasions. The summit of the mountain above us was now encircled clouds, and I congratulated myself on the good decision not to go to the top.

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Gazing at the weather front at the end of Gjende lake. Photo by Audun.

As we prepared to take of our skins and slide down to Memurubu hut, we saw three figures descending the summit couloir. Somehow, knowing that someone had reached the top and we had not irked me, and I became thoroughly grumpy. I didn’t want to talk to the other group unless they were going to tell me how awful the summit had been. Our paths crossed on the descent though, and Audun and David began chitchatting with them.

“Oh, there was no wind on the summit!” they said, “The worst wind was on the lake! The descent hasn’t been much fun though.” Most wind on the lake?! And we had suffered through the whole crossing thinking it must be worse up high! Although this bothered me then and there, I recognize the importance of making your own decisions.

The descent was crusty and choppy and I was glad to final slide down to the hut, where dinner and rest awaited.

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No snow at lake level at Memurubu hut.

Day 2: Memurubu - Glitterheim

Memurubu is relatively sheltered from the weather, so we couldn’t tell if the wind had died down or if we just weren’t in it. The sun was still shining, and I felt determined to reach the summit of the day, Surtningssue. To reach the base of the mountain, we could choose either to traverse rolling hills or ski flat through a valley and strike more directly for the top. Eying the bare patches, we thought the rolling hills would require more ski carrying, which we were not interested in. So we followed snow mobile tracks through the valley. The group of three who had summited Besshøe the day before opted for the high route. I eyed them as they set off, wondering if they had made the right decision once again. I had begun to refer to them jokingly as our ‘enemies’ since they were trying to complete the route at the same time as us.

I couldn’t believe how little snow there was. Easter is early this year, and normally one would expect there to be snow cover at this altitude until late May. It must have all blown away.  Although had felt some lingering fatigue from a long training week the day before, by day 2 I felt like I was endurance mode. Just put calories in and keep moving at a slow, steady pace, and I can go forever.

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Between the idea of a trip conceived using a map and actually covering ground in the mountains there exists an strange divide. Counting kilometers and vertical meters, one might estimate that a ski will take a certain amount of time, but I never seem to be able to grasp the feeling of the passage of that time until I am in the moment. Skinning the flat valley felt slower than any map could have told me.

We stopped for lunch at the base of the climb towards Surtningssue, nervously eying clouds that had begun to swath the high points around us. I was mentally committed to the summit though, and didn’t even want to talk about the possibility of not reaching it.

The true climbing started, and as the slope steepened the snow was hard enough that we carried our skis, climbing with crampons and ski poles. Transitioning to and from crampons twice made for slow progress, and I was starting to feel edgy, not only about the weather, but about the lateness of the hour.

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Climbing the hard snow towards Surtningssue

The peaks around us appeared, intermittently in the shifting in and out of the clouds, but we miraculously remained in the clear. As we passed the emergency shelter hut that marked only 100 vertical meters left to the summit, I felt a surge of energy. We were going to make it! I picked up the pace and was the first of our group on top.

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Vibeke and David on the summit slopes of Surtningssue

From the top, we could choose to traverse along a ridge, taking a couple more summits, or descending to the glacier directly below. In the interest of time, we opted for the more direct route, although we learned from our ‘enemies' that the ridge crossing wasn’t as time consuming as we imagined.

To reach the glacier below, we had to navigate a steep drop. There was a smaller cornice which we dug through before dropping onto the steep, wind-packed sloped. The drop was intimidating, and I almost wanted to take my skis off and boot down. But that would be a waste of both vertical and time, so I womaned up and dropped in. After the initial drop-in, the ski down the glacier was fairly flat, alternating between icy snow pack and wind ridges. We found some better conditions when descending from the glacier to the valley bottom, and I found myself smiling as I dropped into my first graceful telemark turns of the trip. 

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The sunshine bouncing of the glare ice gives you an idea of the horrible snow conditions. The summit of Surtningssue is above Audun, Vibeke and David, slightly to their right.

From the valley bottom, we had to climbed one final hill before descending to Glitterheim hut. We had been out for north of seven hours at this point, and everyone was feeling fatigued. I gnawed on a frozen Snickers, hoping the sugar would carry me over the hill the way my enthusiasm had carried me to the summit of Surtningssue.

A half an hour later, we came over the top of the hill and were hit by a wall of wind. The wind was so strong that we started downhill with our skins on, afraid to loose them if we tried to take them off. When we finally took off our skins, we stuffed them in our jackets, racer-style, to avoid too long of a stop.

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The others meet the wall of wind.

It wasn’t all downhill to Glitterheim - after the descent was a long stretch of flat. The wind was hitting cross-wise in gusts, and I struggled to make forward progress. We tumbled into the hut 15 minutes before dinner time, feeling disheveled and exhausted. But we had summited, and there would be dinner, and that made it all worth while.

Day 3: Glitterheim - Spiterstulen

Although the roaring wind died down significantly during the night, the visibility became worse. Day 3 was an ‘all-or-nothing’ day - we could either take the boring, flat but safe valley route, or we could try the high route over the summit of Norway’s second highest mountain, Glittertind. If we bailed on the summit route, we would have to descend all the way back to the hut to take the valley route. Despite the ominous clouds shrouding the mountains, the valley route was so unappealing we decided to strike for the summit.

The weather could always improve! I thought. Fat chance.

There was still very little snow, exposing a rock-strewn maze of snow patches through which we weaved. A little higher up on the mountain the snow cover improved, although it was still so thin that we could see the cairns marking the summer trail with their characteristic red ’T’s.

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Audun makes his way up Glittertind.

The wind picked up, and we shrunk into our hoods, thick mittens, and eventually goggles. There was a lot of stopping and messing around for a while until everyone was sufficiently packed in, and I grew a little cold. The visibility hadn’t improved, and was growing worse as we ascended. Luckily those cairns with the little red ’T’s let us know we were still on track.

Eventually, the cairns disappeared, and more stopping ensued as we got out GPS, maps and compasses. I was definitely getting a kind of ominous feeling that we probably shouldn’t have gone for the summit today. Although we’d been out for many hours, I wasn’t even thinking about eating. Forward progress, and getting off this cold mountain, seemed much more important. 

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High spirits and low visibility.

The spine of Glittertind shrinks to 50 meters across near the summit, and it’s common knowledge that a big cornice forms on the north side of the ridge every winter. As we approached the top, we could no longer distinguish snow and sky and there was no way we were going to see either the summit or the cornice lurking just past it. We opted to follow our GPS past the summit rather than over it, to make sure we stayed on the correct side of the long drop.

I was skiing just behind Audun, followed by Vibeke and David. As I skinned past the summit, I felt elated. The downhill would start soon, and we could get below the worst of the weather again. Everything was going to be alright! Then I realized Vibeke was no longer immediately behind me. I turned around and looked back, seeing that they had stopped and David was rummaging in his backpack.

“What’s wrong?” I exclaimed.

“David just needs a snack,” came the reply. I snorted incredulously. How could someone possibly need a snack when we were in the middle of such a perilous endeavour? It was only a few hours later when I started eating myself that I realized how depleted I had become.

We continued down the mountain, and the visibility seemed to be growing worse. It was so bad I barely make out Audun 2 meters in front of me. Or was it? I stopped and rubbed my goggles with my hand. They were coated in a thin layer of ice. The fog swirling around us was depositing tiny water droplets on us which would immediately freeze to a layer of ice. 

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Audun coated in ice fog.

Soon everyone was stopping frequently to scrap their goggles. Audun asked to no longer ski first when he started to get seasick due to the lack of visual reference points. Eventually rocks started to appear, and a valley materialized in front of us. The final descent to Spiterstulen was icy and involved a lot of poling across flat run-out, not exactly a reward for our ordeals. But we made it to the hut in good time (since we took almost no breaks all day!), and I vowed not to put myself in the situation of going to the summit in a white-out again.

The forecast for the next day was rather ambiguous, and the next day was supposed to be the most ambitious and spectacular of the whole trip. We spent hours discussing what to do the next day. How could we avoid just skiing the flat, boring valley, but still pick a route that wasn’t too ambitious if the weather turned on us?

Day 4: Spiterstulen - Leirvassbu

The weather was just as iffy as I feared. There were clouds shrouding some of the mountains, while some were in the sun, and the forecast called for everything to get worse in the afternoon. Over breakfast, we finally decided that we would ski up the Tverrå glacier and descend the Bukkehol glacier. If the weather was better than forecasted, we would still be in position to take some tops. If not, the route wouldn’t have to be very demanding.

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Styggehøe was out of the clouds as we set out from Spiterstulen

To get to the glacier, we had a long slog up Tverrå valley. The peaks around us shifted in and out of the clouds all the time, and we even got some sun. At first I felt nervous about the prospect of skiing through bad weather again, but decided that going up the glacier was worth the risk of more GPS navigation and white-out. If we had summited Glittertind in the horrible weather of the day before, we could do anything!

We stopped at the base of the glacier to snack and put on climbing harnesses in case we reached an area where we wanted to travel in a rope. Snow-covered glaciers in Norway are fairly benign during the winter and we didn’t need the rope.

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Skinning up Tverrå glacier, below Nørde Bukkeholstindan.

As we approached the saddle point that marked the transition from Tverrå glacier to Bukkehol glacier, the weather really started to sock in. I had studied the map, and noticed that there was a small peak (the Eastern most of the three West Bukkeholstindane, to be exact) just above the saddle, and became determined to summit it. Given that I had expressed my misgivings about even going this high earlier, everyone was surprised I was so gung-ho about reaching a summit. But once I smell a summit, I will not be deterred, and we stopped and got out our ice ax and crampons and booted the 60 vertical to the top. It was so worth it.

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Yet another summit in low visibility!

After descending Bukkehol glacier, we had a bit of a flat slog to Leirvassbu hut. Pockets of sunlight appeared as we skinned up the valley, and I was flooded with the feeling of self-content that comes from traveling through the mountains under my own volition. Kyrkja, the cone of a mountain that is immediately visible from Leirvassbu was spectacularly on display as we skied by.

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Vibeke below Kyrkja.

Leirvassbu was way more crowded than all the huts we had visited previously, and as a result we had to eat dinner at the second serving, which was at eight thirty. Eight thirty might as well be midnight for people who have been skiing all day, and despite snacking I was so hungry I almost felt dizzy by the time we were admitted to the dining hall. The delayed dinner gave me an excuse to go out and practice photographing the night sky. I was trying to take a picture of the full moon over Kyrkja, but it wouldn’t come out from behind the clouds right when I took a picture. I got this cool shot (not of Kyrkja!) though:

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The weather forecast of the next day was excellent, and I looked forward to a great final day.

Day 5: Leirvassbu - Krossbu

I woke up early, too excited to sleep. It was a perfect day, just like we had been hoping for all along! We were fairly early at breakfast and avoided the worst of the crowds and headed out of the hut at 8:30, our earliest departure yet. We set out for Storebjørnen (which literally means ‘The big bear’) with a flock of people. The only advantage to all the horrible weather is that we’ve basically had the mountains to ourself until today! I thought.

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Storebjørnen on the left, Geita on the right, lots of people ahead of us.

It took us about 3 hours to reach the summit of Storebjørnen from the hut. There was not a cloud in sight, and although the snow conditions weren’t perfect by any means, they were still way better than anything else we’d seen on the trip. My only concern was the next summit we had planned for the day, Sokse (translates literally to ‘Scissors’), a formidable peak that I glanced at nervously behind me as I climbed. Apparently there was a couloir that could be climbed, but from the angle I was looking at it it seemed to drop off steeply on all sides.

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Group photo on Storebjørn, with the Smørstabb glacier below us. Photo by Vibeke.

Despite Sokse looming in the background, the descent from Storebjørn was enjoyable, and we stopped on the glacier to have lunch in the sun. It was actually pretty cold, and everyone ate in their down jackets even though it was sunny.

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Audun teleing down Storebjørn. Sokse is the dramatic peak on the right side of the picture. Would you climb that?

After lunch, we climbed up to Bjørneskaret and traversed around to the couloir that went up to the summit of Sokse. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the couloir; not only did it not look too steep, but it was also flanked by walls of rock which made it feel protected rather than exposed. I would go to the top or bust. As I prepared my ice ax and crampons, leaving my skis behind, I noticed Audun was strapping his skis to his backpack. 

“Are you going to ski that?!” I said incredulously. Then I eyed the couloir again. It didn’t look that bad, but I still felt just climbing it was challenging enough. The snow in the couloir was pretty soft for the most part. I still did the ice ax waltz as I climbed: ax foot foot, ax foot foot. It is incredibly reassuring to move in steep terrain with a solidly placed ice ax. Sometimes I think I use my ax and crampons as my safety blanket, but so be it.

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Climbing to couloir to Sokse

The summit afforded more spectacular views of the sunny, snow-covered expanse of peaks around us. Audun descended the couloir on skis like it ain’t no thang. I was less impressed by the group who summited just ahead of us who choose to carry their skis up the couloir, and then carry them back down without skiing. If I had carried my skis up, I would definitely not carry them down. Downclimbing on ice ax and crampons is bad enough without the added torture of skis to set you off balance.

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Audun descending the couloir.

Our final summit planned for the day was Kalven (‘The calf’), but as we scouted the route to the summit we saw a seemingly impassable band of rock that had to be climbed to reach the summit. I had had enough excitement and voted to call it a day. Then we saw two guys head for the summit, making short work of the band rocks. So I guess it can be done - maybe next time!

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Kalven admires its shadow projected on the Leir glacier.

We cruised down the loose snow on the Smørrbotn glacier (Yeah! Finally some pow!), basking in the sun and our achievements. We may not have made it to all the summits in the route plan for Jotunheimen Haute Route, but the last day was perfect enough to make up for all the other ordeals. Our trip ended not with a whimper, but with a bang.

- The Wild Bazilchuk