‘It’s never too late to turn (det er aldrig for sent å snu)’ is one of the best known mountain safety commandments of the Norwegian tourist association (DNT). Knowing when to turn and when to continue takes training and experience. It’s a decision-taking process that matures over time. Reactions to our decision to stop crossing Norway have been overwhelmingly positive, from friends, family and sponsors alike. This has helped greatly in putting everything in perspective and realizing that the decision was sound. The fun was gone. The risk was too high. Turning back can make the difference between a good trip and a horrible one, or in extreme cases between life and death. Yet at the time it felt like failure.
It was hard to accept the fact that we wouldn’t finish it. Crossing Norway was a plan that came alive while we were walking Te Araroa in 2015. Norway was the last of the big trails we aspired to complete, one final multiple 1000-km hiking ambition. We had long anticipated and long planned it. That only made it harder to accept that it was not going to happen. That and the fact that we initially believed our own backyard defeated us. When the decision fell there was a long silence. There would be silence for a while after. We didn’t talk much about it for the first few weeks. Perhaps we were not strong enough, not determined enough, not prepared enough… I can name many things we thought we were ‘not enough’. In today’s world where achievement is prime, not achieving means failure. But is that so in the outdoors? To what price must we achieve?
Six weeks ago PJ and I strapped on our skis outside of Bolnastua, doubtful if we ought to continue or call it quits. Five months of bad weather and bad conditions in the mountains had worn us out utterly. We only made it half a kilometer before coming to a dead end. Caught between a half open river, unstable slopes, approaching storms and a narrow highway we sat on the side of the E6 just south of the Arctic Circle, forlorn and disheartened. Though our fate was sealed for us then and there, we didn’t manage to make the decision to stop on our own. Our discussion kept going in an endless circle. Were we giving up too fast? Were we quitters? How could we be so undetermined?
I was the one most vocal about not having many other options than to give up. Though there was not much else we could do, it was still hard to say it out loud. I felt that I was the one giving up. The words had a bitter taste to them and PJ was not planning on simply accepting that we could go no further. After what seemed like an eternal conversation on repeat we called one of PJ’s aunts, who in her days spent a lot of time out in the backcountry. We needed someone else to give us perspective and put some sense into the decision, someone who understood our situation. I didn’t say much during the talk. I already knew its outcome.
In fact, giving up was a very sensible thing to do, but it took a while before reason overtook emotion. The weather could not be relied upon. Fierce storms continued to sweep the northern part of Norway. The storms dumped enormous amounts of snow at once and the fluctuating temperatures never allowed it to settle. On the windward side the snow was packed so hard that it became very difficult to ski on. Slabs, sastruga and cornices threatened to avalanche on the leeward slopes. It was not a cozy time to be out there.
When we venture in the mountains we have no control over our surroundings. We do not control the elements. Letting go of that control is one of the lures of the outdoors. But when the circumstances are not right we cannot force a way through and we need to take a step back from the urge to achieve we so often feel in daily life. Sometimes the end goal, whether it may be a peak or a defined place, will have to wait. When the risks are in fact too great, or even when they are perceived to be such, it is time for a team to go into a dialogue on discontinuing the trip. Those dialogues are tough and it’s difficult to keep the emotions out of them.
I have learned more from the decision to stop than from the successful trips we’ve completed in the past. Being able to have that dialogue is key to safe conduct in the mountains. I know I can do that now, without regarding turning around as failure. And that’s nice. After Nepal I felt insecure for a while about my own decision making capacities. Now I know that we have both matured enough to make sound decisions out in the backcountry.
I don’t think we have failed. I think we have given it absolutely everything we had, an honest and ambitious attempt to make it from Nordkapp to Lindesnes. But the circumstances were not right. It was not the right winter to continue. It was dangerous, unpredictable and most of all not fun. It’s not that every day is supposed to be a good day. It’s not that it can’t be hard on the body and the mind. But when the joy completely goes out of it the point of being on the trip fades away.
In Nepal we continued on westwards no matter what. Though I am still proud that we actually made it to Simikot we paid a high price for it. In the aftermath of the Himalaya I struggled with depression for nearly a year. PJ and I broke up, unable to communicate our struggles to each other. Neither of us wanted to put ourselves through that same hardship again, not during and not after the trip. Nepal taught me that no trip is worth dying for. Norway will be there next winter still, and many winters after that. Life is long and there will be other opportunities to continue from where we left it. Deciding not to succeed can be a success in itself. Do it with a raised head.