For the last couple of months I’ve been making a second home on Hardangervidda, that notorious yet stunning high-mountain plateau that lies between us and the west. In times before, when I roamed the mountains overlooking the fjords during summers, I was never really drawn to the place. It just didn’t have the same dramatic appeal as the sheer cliffs and blue waters I had so easily accessible. In winter, however, it is a different story entirely.
Hardangervidda is vast. It stretches between the deep valleys around Rjukan, Eidsfjord and Numedal to the south, west and east to the ragged peaks rising from Skarvheimen in the north. It feels like a neverending sea of white, white over the rolling hills and countless lakes, white on those sharp peaks bordering its perimeter on nearly all sides. The ice cap of Hardangerjøkulen towers over it nearly all directions as does Hallingskarvet, two places high on my personal to do list.
I consciously blocked all of my free time to be out in the mountains for a reason. For a while now, life has felt like it was in an incredible flux, an unhinged state. I needed space to think. To me, there is no better place to come to important conclusions than when out in the open. The mountains never lie.
Or perhaps, stated in another way, we can never lie to ourselves when out in the mountains.
When a person is out there for long enough, he or she is bound to be confronted with him or herself. Out in the backcountry we cannot distract ourselves to escape our own thoughts. The mind gets to wander free, uninhibited by screens and noise and other diversions thrown at us by society. We are forced to focus on what the mind brings forward: an experience, an emotion, a sensation perhaps. This is part of the meditation methods of mindfulness.
However, unlike what mindfulness teaches, I believe that we can actively work with these thoughts while we’re outside. We can process and interpret them, come to peace with our pasts, learn more about who we are. I’ve learned to cope with this process in New Zealand, when things I had suppressed for many years suddenly started dominating my thoughts while walking. As much as I tried to push these thoughts away, in the end I had to realise that I could not defeat my own mind nor could I ignore it. So I had to let those thoughts surface and try to work with them. And thus, step by step, my own feet brought me closer to the truth about myself.
The conclusions that come out of this process can be confronting, hard and perhaps not what we thought they would be. But by the end of the trail I had made so much sense of who I was that it undeniably was a process for the good.
A few years have passed and it seems that I have lost those answers somewhere along the way. Two years ago, when PJ and I came out of the Norwegian mountains, I thought I was done with hard trips and expedition life. I was still traumatized from what happened in Nepal and the storms through Norway hadn’t exactly helped the cause. The memory of the accident on the passes, of walking for hours on end through that desert of ice and stone on an altitude hostile to human life in the knowledge that I might not make it down and never see anyone or anything I care about ever again haunted me for a long time. It destroyed my ability to trust myself, my instincts, my decisions. The fear of not being in control if the situation would get out of control controlled me. I no longer felt comfortable in the great outdoors. I figured it was time to settle down, to leave the restlessness and the big adventures behind.
But itchy feet don’t stop itching just like that. It took many rounds with myself but I did find my way back to both the mountains and to trusting myself, to the comforting knowledge that I can be in control when things get out of control. So after a few years of scrambling up from the black, bottomless pit of a depression where I at times wished I’d died on that lifeless glacier (yes, I know, it’s a harsh thought) I can now recognize myself again. The great outdoors have the same lure they’ve had for many years and I must admit that the restlessness within me remains. So I need to find a path that allows for that part of me to exist.
Of course, life is different now, with a house and the mortgage that comes with it. I sought a steady job but frankly became utterly disappointed by how matters turned out there. I have not agreed with how things were done and how I was imposed to do the job I was hired for. I felt like a bird in a cage. Frustration built up over a long time and the situation ate away my energy. For months I was on the edge of the abyss, but being out in the mountains with the dogs and learning so much from them gave me so much in return that I staved off the crash.
Until, at last, I did not get enough energy back to compensate for what was being drained in frustration and anger. On a sunny Wednesday morning in the end of April, I woke up and realized I had stopped functioning. My head was so foggy I could barely focus on my routines for feeding the dogs. I was burned out. I needed a break, a timeout to get back on my feet. In that timeout, I had to admit that this job was never going to get me anywhere I wanted to be. So now it’s time for a different challenge, what exactly that will be I do not know yet, but I do sincerely hope it will fit better in the bigger picture.
PJ and I, too, have been at odds with each other. We’ve done so many things together and he is probably the only man I could have put up with during all those dreary and wet hours on trails and in tents. We’ve been a team and had each others backs for so long. I always thought that the dogs were a joined goal for both of us. But as the years passed things changed and in the end he has not been so keen on having them as I have. He felt ignored, his opinions overruled by my decision to get them in Sweden soon after we bought the place. There is truth in that. Yet at the same time I thought we had both worked towards this for years. No one is right. No one is wrong.
Suddenly the team we once were disintegrated into one ambitious solo venture and one who was not sure he wanted to continue this outdoor lifestyle at all. By the end of winter we barely knew each other, or at least so it felt, and the relationship strained.
It’s not easy to be a team mate, expedition partner and life partner all in one. We’ve been through much strain that most relationships probably wouldn’t have survived. Ours broke once before as well. So in the middle of trying to find a more fitting path in life, of becoming that restless mind again, we both wondered if we were not longer compatible. Perhaps our time in the mountains had changed us both and we were now going in directions no longer parallel to each other.
When we undeniably arrive at the crossroads choices have to be made. We can go straight and continue the way we were, which is perhaps the most comfortable way, but not the way that we actually want to go. We can choose to go left or right, changing things and following what we believe matters to us most. Perhaps we might have to leave a thing or two behind, not always voluntarily, but there is always a price to pay for the choices we make.
In the weeks to come I hope I will have the energy to spend more time in the forest and in the mountains to find answers to those questions I have asked myself. To find the way forward. There is truth in simple fresh air, trees, green grass and desolate sunsets.