It was 02:30. Rory came bounding into the room with far too much energy whereas Mairi and Jen could barely move after so little sleep… but adventure awaited! The cold, barren, high plateau of Hardangervidda in Norway was our destination.
Hardangervidda is a place of epics. Names such as Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton ring from its iced-over lakes and snow encrusted mountains. They all cut their teeth here before heading onto Antarctic; as have many that followed in their footsteps. It was also the location of the legendary 2nd World War “Operation Grouse” to hamper the Nazis’ efforts to build nuclear weapons, and (more interestingly for some) featured in Star Wars as the ice world Hoth!
We piled into the cars and it was off to the airport where we met up with Alex and our guide for the weekend, Mark. We boarded the plane to Oslo and were all asleep by the time we left the ground - we would need the rest over the next few days!
In Oslo we made our way to the train station and met Rob, the final member of our team. We had a wait until the next bit of our journey: a train to the otherwise inaccessible town of Finse, so we got some food and Mark explained some of the bits of kit that we would be using over the next couple of days.
We disembarked at about 20:30 pm, unloaded and organised the masses of gear onto the pulk sleds, strapped on our skis, and headed out into the gathering night by the light of our head torches.
We ventured up to and past one of the legendary Norwegian huts out into what felt like the beginning of the wilderness. Skiing out onto a large plain, we found somewhere to make camp and Mark instructed us on the basic principles of polar base camps. This included burying the edge of the tent to stop wind from getting in and digging out the vestibule to stand or sit while sorting things out and supply snow for melting. We hit ice at about a metre, and as it turned out we were camping on a frozen lake! Pretty cool (pun intended)! At about 11pm, Rory, Mairi, Jen and I crawled into our sleeping bags in our cosy four berth tent for our first night as polar explorers.
In the morning, we emerged from our lovely warm beds into the cold and boiled up snow on the multi-fuel for the first time. Then we broke camp and loaded the gear back into the pulks. Strapping on the skis, Rory, Alex and Rob took the pulks for the first shift and we set off into the highland plateau of Hardangervidda. By the time we’d started to get the hang of moving on the flat, the first hill appeared and we donned “skins” (strips of fabric that allow you to ski uphill). Alex didn’t have skins for his own skis so I took the sled and we began to move uphill. I had issues with a creaky pivot and the binding on my boot kept getting loose, so I quickly fell a little behind.
After a while we stopped and had a chat about avalanche risk. I had done this before but it’s always good to have a recap and potentially learn a new trick or two to keep us safe in the hills. We dug test pits and examined the snow pack.
We climbed more hills before descending; this turned out to be far more difficult than we had anticipated. The better skiers took the pulks: Rory went first and cartwheeled down the hill before finally making it down; Alex snapped not one, but two poles before releasing the pulk to run by itself down the slope (he was having trouble balancing without poles); and Rob had a huge crash (we were worried that he was injured until we heard his laughter). We decided it was easiest to straight line down the hill. I retrieved the loose sled and tried to cut across the slope but it was top heavy and kept tipping over. With no small amount of apprehension, I straight lined down the remainder of the hill, working to make my slower, wider skies go to the same speed as the pulk, which was nearly alongside me. In brief, I think we all learned a valuable lesson: avoid steep hills!
We skied on for a while chatting away and came across two skiers who informed us about a veritable palace of an ice hole, we couldn’t resist but go explore! The place was huge! It must have been able to sleep 30 people in nine rooms. We marvelled at the acoustics and the light within the place, it was breath-taking.
We made our way back to the lake and set up camp quicker and more efficiently than the night before. After our rehydrated dinner, we were back on small, local hills to get more comfortable on cross country skis going downhill. The sun setting in the background was beautiful. To be honest, this was possibly one of my favourite places that I have been. After a few hours of sunset and night skiing, we all curled up in our sleeping bags for a slightly chilly night’s sleep.