Trip Report: (Mis)Adventures in Northern Norway: Solo Trip, 7/1-7/6/2013

Posted by Daniel on

“The word ‘adventure’ has just gotten overused. For me, adventure is when everything goes wrong—that’s when the adventure starts.” —Yvon Chouinard, Founder Patagonia

Day 1: Getting There

I just missed the bus to Senja Island...

After trading farewells with the Kungsleden crew, I was off for Norway. From Narvik-- where I'd arrived by bus from Abisko-- it was two more buses north to Finnsnes, right across the water from my destination: Senja (pronounced Sen-yah) Island. A brief walk over an arched bridge (I missed my fourth and final bus) got me onto the island-- to Silsand, specifically, where I'd been told a tourist office awaited. No such thing, but there were some brochures and cartoon-type maps at a travel agency. The manager directed me upstairs to the restaurant for information on buses...

Over dinner, I plotted my hike: the Senja på langs (length of Senja) trail (70 km), plus select side trips. My ambitions swelled: I'd be putting in miles tonight! Once I'd picked up a couple proper (i.e., topographical) hiking maps, it would be an easy hitch-hike to the trail's southern terminus-- right? Wrong. No drivers were taking the bait. And with buses done for the day, it was a long walk to the trail. My grand plans were crumbling in the face of logistical reality. Luckily, who should swing around to pick me up but...the travel agency manager! This kindly lady dropped me at a nearby campground, where I gratefully spent the night-- but still short of the trail. My predicament left me wondering: would this hike ever get off the ground? And just how drastically would I have to scale back my eager goals?

Day 2: Lost in a Cloud

The wind knocked out of my sails, it was nonetheless time to hike. Local generosity intervened again when the campground manager gave me a lift to the Svanfjellet (Swan Mountains) southern/eastern trailhead, whence I'd make my way north and west to the Senja på langs. Rain threatened as I hit the trail, but views held out: vertical rock faces plunging into valleys below. Hundreds of meters of sheer drop. I wasn't in Sweden anymore. This was a whole different ballgame.

As if the landscape weren't intimidating enough, something else awaited atop Førstefjellet (First Mountain, 807 m): the ruins of a U.S. military airplane that crashed there in 1966. The pilot was flying just a little too low. A spooky sight, indeed, for this lone American backpacker, and a reminder that human error could prove fatal. Or as a sign I once saw said, "mountains don't care."

With that moral in mind, I pressed on along the ridgeline (on an unmarked trail) to Andrefjellet (Second Mountain, 879 m), and the high point of the Swans, Tredjefjellet (Third Mountain, 898 m). The latter's peak was an early highlight: a northwest wind rushed in my face as the fog that had enveloped the mountains began to break. Eager for views, I willed the sun to break through. Alas, it never quite did, but the moment was thrilling nonetheless. This was what I hiked up mountains for, I thought!

On a high, I strode right into a cardinal blunder. From Tredjefjellet's summit ran a blazed trail down the ridge to the valley below-- the bookend, so to speak, to the blazed trail I'd hiked up Førstefjellet. I walked right on past it; on purpose, for my alternative was simply to continue along the ridgecrest until it gradually dropped to the Senja på langs. More direct, plus, should the clouds break I'd be treated to sweeping vistas along the way. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Dumb move. Shortly after leaving the blazed trail, the fog thickened. Visibility neared zero. Thought I was moving forward, the right way...then was unsure. Tried to make a course correction and wound up back where I'd been before. My map and compass (which I mistakenly assumed I'd know how to use) proved no help. I was lost!

By now it was raining; the wind was whipping. No sense in walking around blindly. So I decided to cut my losses and camp. Thankfully there was a flat spot just big enough, a little ways down from the top. After a hasty dinner, I threw my chilled, wet self into my tent and hunkered down for the night. Worst case, I thought, I'll pack up and start moving-- anywhere, to stay warm. As it turned out, my tent held, despite being battered by the wind on one side. Water came in, but not too much. I made it through the night, my worst ever backpacking.

Day 3: Ups and Downs

Morning came, but not the sun: I was still fogged in. (The forecast had called for sunny skies, but weather in northern Scandinavia seems rather unpredictable.) Newly chilled, I longed for visibility as I packed up. At last, the fog cleared and revealed the Kaperdalen (valley), its road, and my location: the south side of the ridgeline, not far past Tredjefjellet. What a welcome sight. I descended, picking up the blazed trail I'd left the night before along the way. Roadside, I considered my options: abort mission and make for civilization, or keep hiking. Despite a second body blow to morale, I decided to hike on. After all, that's what I'd come here for.

The Senja på langs, at last. Northbound, the red-blazed trail followed a pretty lake's (Langdalsvatnet) rocky shore, climbed a short pass, and dropped diagonally through tussocky heath and buggy birch woods to the Leirdalen (valley). In the clear, a herd of reindeer passed by, grazing; I first thought they were elk, as they seemed larger than the reindeer in Sweden. This place felt pretty wild, indeed.

Through the pleasant Trondalselva Valley, the trail split; one branch ran high, the other dropped low. I took the latter, which brought me through muck and mire to the Senjabu cabin-- a spur trail, and one not depicted on my map. A quick road walk brought me back to the main trail. The sun was out, my energy up, and hours remained in the day. From this point the trail followed another valley for miles, so no high views, which I wanted above all else. So I decided to make for a nearby peak, an unnamed mountain (919 m) which promised commanding views of the surrounding area. From there I'd hit two more nearby peaks (896 m and 957 m, respectively) before descending to a lake shore to camp.

My excitement mixed with trepidation: dark clouds were moving in. Must summit before the weather turns, I thought; I did not want a repeat of the night prior, or even a descent in the rain, if I could avoid it. So I charged up gently-graded heath and steep birch slopes, past alpine ponds and subsidiary summits. The final ascent was steep and exposed, but not too hard. My anticipation rose as I approached the top.

It did not disappoint: I was greeted by a breathtaking vista, a 360-degree panorama. Mountains all around, near and far. A world of clouds sailed above. To the west, land gave way to endless ocean, bathed in golden light. The sun, ever-setting but never set, lit up the heavens and earth in gorgeous shades of color. I stood in silent awe. It was the most magnificent thing I'd ever beheld. An all-time highlight of my outdoors experiences.

Exhilarated, I was also getting tired. It was nearing 11 PM. The two additional peaks I'd planned on climbing looked tough, and rain felt imminent. Another change of plans: I'd simply descend to ground level from the pass between mountains #1 & 2. Besides, I'd gotten my fill of top-of-the-world sights-- what could possibly beat what I'd just seen?

Daniel posted on

So down I went, a three-part descent. First, to the pass. Second, down the side of a 'bowl' to a ledge. And third, the rest of the way down to the lake. The first two parts were easy enough, if slow at times. Part three, however, proved hard to manage. In particular, its first half: a steep drop down an exposed, slick slope covered in a mix of moss, grass, and rocks. Far more precarious and hazardous than anticipated, this short distance took well over an hour to cover. Going very slowly, I made my way down from one 'safe spot' (i.e., spot where I was securely stopped) to the next. Keeping my weight back and balance steady, I used compressed trekking poles, larger (strong) bush branches, and rock hand-holds, in addition to dimples in the soil, to control my progress. A slip and slide off the nearest ledge could have been bad news. I made it, but the experience was terrifying. I was thankful to be OK. The mountains had humbled me once again.

Day 4: Til Tromsø!

Sunny skies returned as I packed up camp at my scenic lakeside campsite. I was ready to be done with 'adventure island.' More ambitious plans for peaks further north-- near the famous fjords-- were ditched in favor of a straighter shot to shore and the way out. I followed the stony south shores of two lakes-- Nedre Hestvatnet and Svartholvatnet-- to a little isthmus. Rather than follow trails, which ran low, I went high, climbing Pålfjellet (602 m), then skirting the base of the imposing Lasset (766 m) on the way up to the twin peaks of Vardfjellet (639 m) and Tuva (661 m). The views were marvelous, and coming down from Tuva on a relatively friendly line of descent was a pleasure after the previous night's James Bond-style antics.

On the road now, I booked it to Botnhamn in time to catch the last ferry to Brensholmen, whence I'd travel to the small city of Tromsø and then back to Narvik (for my train to Stockholm and my flight home). Just short of the ferry terminal, I asked a local how far it was from Brensholmen, on the island of Kvaløya, to Tromsø, on neighboring Tromsøya island. ", six Norwegian miles," she replied. Six kilometers, I thought? It sounded too good to be true, given maps I'd seen, but the thought of a short walk to the city sounded swell to me.

Debarked, I started off down the road to Tromsø. It wasn't long before a reality check: a sign that read "Tromsø: 55km." Not so surprised, but still, that would be a long walk. Regardless, I carried on, cheered by ocean scenery and big sunny sky. I tried hitching a ride-- "Til Tromsø?" ("To Tromsø?"), I asked-- but the only car that stopped wasn't going my way. Meanwhile, I felt a blister coming on-- too much road-walking, perhaps. It was looking like a long night.

Then, a second car stopped. "Til Tromsø?" The young lady behind the wheel said nothing-- which meant, "yes." I tossed in my pack and climbed in. Saved! The driver, a college student, was heading to the city for work the next morning. Seated in the warm car, I felt my fatigue. And watching the long, scenic miles roll by, I was so grateful to have been rescued. An overnight marathon would have been miserable, indeed.

Dropped off in the heart of the city center, I thanked my savior profusely. But she had that Scandinavian matter-of-factness that didn't ask for anything in return. And sure enough, like my two "drivers" before her, she refused my offer of kronor (currency). Norwegian helpfulness had saved the day yet again.

Being in Tromsø that night was both delightful and a bit surreal. I'd made it. After a quick walk about the buzzing bars and historic buildings, I grabbed a bite for dinner and a beer before settling in to my hotel for the night. The midnight sun shone on the mountain across the water. My 'ride' had recommended it for its vistas, and I couldn't wait to climb it the next morning. I slept like the dead.

Day 5: Narvik, Etc.

Up by 7 AM, I ran over the bridge and up the mountain (sans pack) via a well-trod trail-- till it got too steep for me to run, that is. As promised, sweeping views of the city and its mountainous surrounds rewarded me. Back down the mountain I ran, full tilt down the trail and back to my hotel for a hurried breakfast before catching the bus back to Narvik. I don't reckon my fellow hotel patrons had seen the likes of me or my indecently big breakfast before. They probably weren't sad to see me go.

By Narvik, the weather had turned-- cloudy and drizzly. I got situated at a hotel, waiting for things to clear up. When it looked as though the clouds had largely departed, I did the short hike up Fagernesfjellet. Just shy of the initial summit (670 m)-- the site of a gondola terminal-- the mountain became enveloped in fog. Told it was another half hour's hike to a higher peak, I forged ahead (despite unease about the fog) on a marked trail till I reached the top (1003 m), site of a ski lift terminal and broadcast tower. Wind gusted and rain pelted. I scampered back down to the initial summit, then started down the gravel switchbacks to town. The clouds broke suddenly to reveal Narvik and environs. Awesome-- and how cheering! I tore down the turns.

After a quick look around the War Museum-- about Narvik in World War II-- I indulged in a dinner to remember. The best fish I'd ever eaten-- a local specialty. Once my meal had settled, it was off for one last hike. Never mind that it was after midnight: this was my last night in Norway!

So up I went on the Rombakstøtta/Tøttadalen trails, off trail to three lower peaks. I savored the grand overlook: a 180-degree view of Narvik, its fjords, and of course, the fjellet. The sun put on a show, making the clouds blush in ever-shifting patterns. But in northern Norway, nature's dark side seldom slept. Across from sunlit skies, storm clouds brooded. And the gentle magic of endless sunset was little match for a jagged tooth of a mountain-- more weapon than mountain, it seemed. The beauty of the scene may have said "relax," but the forbidding fjellet said "beware."

I descended on trails, back to the roads and my hotel. My frenetic, foolish, ill-planned, intense, dejecting, exalting, and unforgettable Norwegian adventure was finally over.

On the train later that morning, Sweden's mountains looked tame compared to some of their stark counterparts over the border. Approachable vs. unapproachable, human-scaled vs. monstrous. Norway gave a new perspective on size and sheer drama.

My experience in Norway taught me several other things, too. The importance of precise planning-- something I should have learned from past adventures. The difficulties and perils of hiking mountains, especially off-trail. And the psychological challenge of trekking alone, in the wild, in a foreign country-- just to name a few. As on the Kungsleden, I was humbled and shown my limits. Hopefully I'm somewhat the wiser for it; I know I want to improve.

Now, what about that map and compass course...?

Joffrey Peters posted on

Delightful trip report! It really makes me miss Northern Norway. It turns out that I've been to many of the places you visited on Senja, Kvaløya, and Tromsø, but all a rather long time ago. Ah, I must make it back! I'll be happy to talk with you about your adventures at happy hour this evening!

(A side note on grammar: the "et" and "en" and "a" at the ends of nouns are actually the articles, so "the fjell" is less redundant than "the fjellet" as "fjellet" on its own means "the mountain". Similarly with Kungsleden - it's The King's Path - no need to add an article in English.)