Norge på Langs, Norway, Trails

Narvikfjell

NarvikfjellOlymp221

The second of March announced itself brilliantly, with a morning sun rising into a pale blue sky and not a breeze of wind moving the air. It was a stark contrast to the storms that battered us the week before, blowing off roofs like they were mere sheets of paper and even relocating entire cabins. I had been worrying that we wouldn’t be able to go ahead once more. But that day was a different sort of day. It was a promising restart to the adventure.

I was sad to leave behind all the good people we’d met in Abisko, but at the same time it felt so good to strap on those skis and start moving. I had been looking forward to this stretch for so long now, even though it had given us many logistical headaches. It was one of my most anticipated ones for this trip, postponed for years on end to include it in this winter crossing of Norway.

We had a visitor to join us: Alec, an old friend from Stockholm, traveled north to join us for a week. We now also had Bull, a husky we took over from a friend in Kiruna. None of us had ever been out with a dog before so it was exciting and new to have him around. Alec and I were really keen on going through Narvikfjell rather than simply following Kungsleden to Ritsem. The weather looked really good on the forecast, it was a chance out of a million. If we ever wanted to go that route then now was the time to do it.

I was relieved to leave the cabins at Abiskojaure behind for a final time, and the crowds heading up on Kungsleden as well. Towards Norway the trail fell silent. As soon as we had the tent up the sun disappeared behind the mountains and it became freakishly cold. I wondered if two months of working at the comfortable lodge had made us soft. Our fuel pump refused service and with that we could get neither warmth nor food. Luckily Alec brought his own stove and a canister of winter gas so we could prepare a hot meal. It was the first thing to stop working on a week with an impressive amount of broken gear. I had to ski back to the cabins in the morning to buy more gas and get rid of the heavy petrol. There the wardens explained the thermometer had showed -32 in the morning. That explained a few things. Even Bull looked chilly.

Before coming Alec proclaimed that he had been looking forward to a week of real winter and he would be served no less. The second night came colder than the first one. Once the sun dipped behind the mountains PJ’s nose turned white, an early sign of frostbite. He shivered non-stop and wasn’t entirely coherent. I suspected that he was becoming mildly hypothermic and conferred to Alec that we should strike camp. We got him into his sleeping bag and melted snow, preparing hot drinks non-stop to get him warm again. Alec’s stove broke and in the process it broke his gas cannister, too. We were lucky that the halfwit four season gas I found at Abiskojaure kept a faithful service. It got colder and colder. After dinner we soon crawled into our sleeping bags too, but it took only 10 minutes before I was shivering. How is that even possible, I wondered? It is rated -35. We later heard that temperatures dropped below -40 that night.

The next morning was milder and overcast, but sleeping in a cabin still seemed like a sensible thing to do. We slowly continued upwards towards the Norwegian border, and as soon as we reached it the landscape changed dramatically. The broad valleys and rounded tips of Sweden have way to an Alpine vista with sharp peaks to the south and west. It’s a long way up to Narvikfjell from Abisko but it had been worth it. We checked in at the first cabin just across the border.

Upon our arrival the six-bed cabin was full, yet about an hour after we settled in a group of 8 approached as well. All the other cabins were still locked for low season. The guide of the group entered, proclaiming that they had reserved the entire hut and everyone had to give up their beds. These cabins cannot be reserved and the others present, mainly Norwegians, balked. Then he wanted us to move all six into a two person room. Finally, when it became clear that we did not intend to do that, he tried to chase an elder German lady out of her bed to occupy that room.

It’s a first come, first serve system in these cabins. They came last, and I did not find it very clever to travel here with such a big group while bringing only two spare mattresses. Maybe if the guide wouldn’t have been so aggressive it would have been easier to find a solution from the beginning but now no one wanted to give ground. PJ and I shared a bed and retreated with Alec into one room. Two other Norwegians shared a bed too. Places were found for everyone on the loft and sofas and with mattresses. Yet even after places were found for everyone the guide called his agency in Belgium and claimed that DNT said they could kick everyone out. At that point I could not hide my anger. It was blowing hard and -25 outside. The other three didn’t even have a tent. We ended up in a heated discussion. Under no circumstances should there be threats of kicking people out of a cabin in winter. The mood was bad. 14 people sat crammed in a six-bed cabin.

When the group came in I heard they were Belgian but did not wish for them to know that I could understand, else I would become the main negotiator. In a way I was ashamed, too. They really did not know very well how to behave in a cabin. Our stuff that hung drying was thrown on the floor to make space for their items. They kept using gas to melt snow rather than the fire and put the snow bucket on the floor in the kitchen so there was water everywhere. The kitchen seemed occupied for ages too. Rather than eight I felt they were double that amount. No, that night I was no Belgian. I spoke Norwegian and English only and tried to ignore what they were saying. I did not wish to be heavily involved with them.

The one good thing about the group was that we could let them go ahead to break trail through the loose snow. That was the one positive thing about being on the same route as them. The ascent continued and a steep climb would bring us high in the mountains the following day. The day started calm and beautiful, but gradually clouds gathered and the wind picked up. I got a bit scared: I had never been in such an exposed place in a gathering storm before. I was relieved when the cabins came into view. But just about 200m away the wind picked up violently. We had to brace ourselves for the gusts. Bull panicked and kept running back and forth, trying to dig himself in. It was actually the right reflex but dragging him along like that was hard work. 200m later we came to the huts in a full-blown blizzard and got inside a small cabin. Poor Bull shook for half an hour after we got him out of the storm.

We were stuck for the next day too. Everything was white and the risk of unawaringly skiing off a cliff was not worth it. I felt bad for Alec who would most likely miss his train home now, though he himself was very calm under the situation. It is what it is. You can’t force a way through the storm, so all there was to do about it was to sit and wait, eat and drink tea.

That storm passed, too, and a crisp clear sky was what we awoke to the following morning. It was really then that it became clear how stunning Narvikfjell really is, high up there at Cainavagghe. The route from there is a hard one to take with a heavy sled, but since we made it all the way there we had to get across now too. Just a kilometre from the cabin Alec’s ski binding snapped irreparably. He made do with some rope and straps, determined to keep moving forward. PJ laughed. That stubborn Englishman, he said. They don’t make many like him anymore.

The storm had dumped about 40cm of fresh powder, making it hard to move even with the trail from the Belgians. The route undulated relentlessly, including one intimidating wall that had to be climbed to gain the plateau. The wall got really steep – too steep, and at some point I couldn’t move anymore. I was just stuck. I was angry and frustrated and sat helplessly waiting for the other two to come up, trying not to slide off the mountain meanwhile. When Alec started pushing the sled I noticed that my pulling system had detached itself on one side of my sled. No wonder that it kept sliding down rather than following me up. We hauled it up together, me pulling in the front and Alec pushing in the back, while PJ pushed Alec’s sled up with his poles. Had anyone else been there, it would have been quite a sight.

By the end of that day, conquering many more steep bumps, we were exhausted. I understood now why travel with a pulka mostly follows ‘the route of least resistance’, rather than the one with most, like the route we had chosen. We arrived at the next cabins at Gautelis just in time for the gathering dusk, after a sunset of countless pastel colours had glorified the mountains on our descent. There’s an upside to arriving late, too.

From Gautelis we had to cross back into Sweden to regain the route to Ritsem. The Belgians were on a different path and breaking trail came down to us now, which was heavy work. Every kilometre felt like a titan’s battle, just as it had for days. I was exhausted, but we had to keep going. Another storm was blowing in and there was still a slight chance we might make Alec’s train. There was no space for a break.

The storm continued throughout the next day too, with powerful winds blasting over the mountains all day long. We had it in our backs so we strapped on our skis and braved it for another day, skiing for over 20km without any chance for a considerable break. We figured out by now that we could attach Bull to the back of our pulkas so he could walk alongside us, and that seemed to give him comfort. He trotted along bravely, joining in our mission of reaching Ritsem in time for the train.

There was not much to see that day. Everything was white and the only way to look was straight ahead, to keep the biting wind off our faces. But when we got to Sitasjaure we knew that Alec could still make it. We left at 6 AM the following morning, allowing some margin for the 2PM bus out of Ritsem that Alec needed to catch. We arrived with an hour to spare.

Narvikfjell was truly a baptism by fire. There were times when I thought that none of this was for me, but I came out realising that I utterly enjoyed it. Half of the long way to Sulitjelma was done. It was Padjelanta, long anticipated and long on my to-do list, that remained.

Distance covered: 886 km

5 thoughts on “Narvikfjell”

  1. Hey, this is a very recognizable story, though we, the Belgians, feel that some rectification is needed here. When we came in and saw that there were already 6 people in the cabin, it was clear that everyone would need to be flexible, but the people present were in no way prepared to move. So yes, I suggested that one room (out of three) would be made available for us, so we could store everyting there, but that was a no go. So I called DNT, mainly to ask whether there was a possibility to open the other hut (I blaim DNT for this whole situation, since they knew we would be there with 8 people that night) and to my surprise they indeed told me that we had a right to the cabin (what they, for completeness, denied afterwards). The only thing we actually asked was the two Norwegians to share a bed (what they didn’t do, contrary to your story) so the German lady could join them and we would have one room. I called DNT long before we kwew where to sleep, we never threw anything on the ground (your sleeping bags were still hanging drying the next morning) and we definitely never tried to kick anyone out. The mood was that bad that we offered you the food we had left (and we had the idea that you didn’t mind eating vegetables that seemed quite fresh).
    What we found very strange was that when we just arrived someone told us that he was there with his Belgian girlfriend, that there was a woman with a Flemish name and that she then told us that she had never been in Belgium and that only far ancestors had come from that region. We never understood how this explains the Flemish sounding first name…
    So, it is quite a pleasure reading your story, and I will continue doing so, but now I at least know that I have to take it with a (large) pinch of salt.
    And for making the trail: this was done with pleasure, nothing like skiing in fresh snow (at least for a few hundred meters…)!

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    1. Hello Steven,

      Of course, you are more than welcome to share your and your groups point of view on the situation. However, I still strongly disagree with what you write above, for a number of reasons.
      For one, I think it is a very unreasonable request to ask people to give up their beds simply to store your gear in a room. Beds are made for sleeping and not for storing gear. The rest of us who was in there left our gear in our sleds, and since you were traveling with sleds too you could have easily done the same. The group would have taken up a lot less space. You don’t need more than essentials in the cabin. If we all would have taken all our stuff in there no one would have been able to move. So maybe that is something to keep in mind if you continue guiding groups to these cabins, that not everything needs to come inside.
      Second, I still don’t believe that DNT has told you that you had the right to the entire cabin, which they apparently now have said themselves. I think that there must have been a miscommunication there, because the fact that these cabins are not reservable or you cannot demand people to move out is as clear in Norway as not driving through a red light.
      Third, I know that the fact that the situation existed in the first place is because DNT did not manage to open the cabin. But the fact that it became so awkward and uncomfortable is because of the way it was dealt with. It is not the first time I ever slept in an overcrowded cabin but it was certainly the most unpleasant one. You did come in demanding that all the beds belonged to your group, after which it got down to one room to store gear which I already explained is still not alright. Threatening people out of their bed is not exactly the best way to ask for flexible solutions. I also never wrote that the Norwegians shared beds, but we did and gave you one matress. I cannot speak for what the other people did, but I know those other two were pretty upset with the aggressive way your group put claim on the cabin and maybe that is why they did not wished to move. That is also why I did not speak up to say I spoke Flemish. It would have put me in the center point to negotiate between eight people angrily demanding that they own the cabin and three others that I did not even know, not exactly a position I wished to hold at the time.
      It was very nice of you to share your food, and I do believe we said thank you a few times. However, you were simply going to throw it away, which is mainly why we thought we could save some. We had fresh, though dried, vegetables in our sled, too.
      Our sleeping bags were indeed still hanging when we woke up in the morning, but throughout the evening I did pick up two pairs of mittens, two beanies and a buff that we put up to dry which I found on the floor lying around in water. Again, it would have been nice to wait a bit until the gear that was already hanging was dry before throwing eight more people’s things on the lines and causing ours to be even wetter than when we arrived in the first place.
      So truly, I do think you have some things to work on when it comes to both dealing with crowded cabins and also how to use them without causing disruption to the other people there. Maybe taking more than two air mattresses would be a good start for such a big group, as it might not be the last time that most of the beds are taken.

      Anyhow, I wish you all the best in continuing to travel through the mountains!

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  2. Ha ha, Belgians, hey? 🙂 .. actually, every Belgian I have met so far has been a very fine person. But I suppose every country has a few idiots.
    Eef, still envious, you are continuing to have the most wonderful adventure, so full of life.. I hope you have realised there is a book in here, a really good book, perhaps ..

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    1. Hahaha! Well, most of the Belgians that I’ve met were fine people too… and I’m sure they are not bad people, just not very aware of how to act in a mountain cabin. It was mostly the guide who seemed aggressive and rude. The people were not too bad.
      Thank you very much for your kind comment! Maybe one day I will work on that… 🙂

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  3. Well well fabuleus winter – blizzard team!
    Wat een verhaal weerom. Heb al dikwijls gezegd dat het vermoedelijk niet erger kan maar neen hoor telkens komt er een superlatief op het voorgaande. Mensenliefde, hoe doen jullie dat, hoe overwinnen jullie dat keer op keer….
    Wat een toestanden in die hutten toch , het leek wel een ferme leeuwenkuil!
    Het beeldmateriaal is prachtig, idyllisch, doet dromen…..jullie verhaal doet slikken , rillen en diep ademen….
    Dus opnieuw , respect, diep respect!
    Hoop dat jullie hierdoor niet blijven snakken naar nóg extravaganter😉😉
    En de frostbites, helen ze??
    Zo, even bijkomen zeker en dan weer verder zuidwaarts….
    Wens jullie verder alle geluk op jullie route
    Het ga jullie goed!
    🍀
    Liefs en dikke knuffel,
    Nicky

    Liked by 1 person

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