This feature was first published in Adventure Magazine New Zealand in August 2017.
On the 8th February 1913 Australian geologist Douglas Mawson stumbled across a remote hut in the northern reaches of the Antarctic continent. Mawson had just survived a harrowing and lengthily solo journey where he had witnessed the death of both of his companions, endured a crevasse fall and had been forced to kill and eat the team’s dog’s as a desperate last resort to avoid starvation. It was Mawson’s’ remarkable tale, which upon reading in 2015 awoke long held teenage dreams of going on expeditions to the cold or high places of our planet (not of starvation and eating dogs!). The intervening 15 years of my life whilst filled with hillwalking, rock climbing and cycling adventures, had largely been dedicated to the sedentary pursuit of crafting a career in academia. As a child our horizons are broad, boundless, and fantastical, but with each passing year for many of us they only diminish – I was determined to reverse this trend.
Fast-forward a little under two years to April 2017, and I was bundling out of a van with my pulk (hauling sled) to face the blindingly white vista of the Hardangervidda plateau in Norway. Four hours (by train) west of the capital of Oslo lies the ‘Hardanger’, Europe’s largest high mountain plateau, and a place with a well-earned reputation for being quite formidable in winter. Indeed the plateau was used by polar heavyweight Roald Amundsen as a training ground before more southerly exploits (such as beating Scott to the South pole in 1911) – it was to thwart him once in 1893, and then again in 1896 nearly killing himself and his brother. Hardangervidda has also earned infamy via the 1965 film ‘Heroes of Telemark’ which dramatised the daring Allied Second World War operation to destroy the German commandeered heavy water production plant at the small town of Rjukan on the edge of the plateau.
My intention was to ski a circular route of around 120-150 km across the northern part of the plateau. I was hoping to end in sight of the hulking Hardangerjokulen glacier, one of Norway’s largest, and a filming location for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I’d been delivered by my local ‘fixer’ Carl Alvey (an internationally respected polar guide) to a small car park on the edge of a frozen lake frequented by kite skiers from all over the world. As I hauled my pulk up onto the snow and clipped into my ski’s, I was solely focused on not making a fool of myself in front of onlookers, which included two of the world’s foremost polar adventurers of the past 30 years. You see it was only my second time on cross-country ski’s, following a previous 100 km guided crossing of a similar Norwegian plateau in the arctic circle only 12 months earlier. I leaned forward and the rope traces attaching me to my pulk came tight propelling the 50-60 kg deadweight into motion. I was on my way and excited to write my own small but humble cold adventure.
The aim of this first half-day was to cover around 12 km to camp just beyond a well-known manned hut at a place called Tuva. The warm weather, brilliant sunshine and wanded trail (branches to mark the route) had ensured to my dismay that there were lots of groups out on the route. Hadn’t they got my memo? I was meant to be on a serious ‘polar’ style expedition here. I did feel a little better once the locals asked me for directions – yeah, that’s right I could at least pretend that I knew what I was doing. As the afternoon wore on I was a little concerned at my slow pace, I had expected to be at Tuva by early afternoon, and was clearly feeling the weight of packing heavy. Nevertheless, I arrived at the hut a little after 4 pm and after a drink (my rule was no overnights in hut’s but a quick refreshment stop was just about okay), skied onwards another kilometer to strike camp.
Camp life out ‘on the ice’ is dictated by a need to be efficient, and execute routines accurately. The tent I carried half assembled in a customised bag to sit on the top of the pulk, likewise my sleeping bag and roll mats I carried unrolled. This allowed me to have the tent up and sleeping area prepared in 10 minutes or less, ready to get the stove on for a hot meal. The ability to get the tent up in minutes is vital when the weather turns south. I slept well that first night, with the warm feeling of being out in the wilderness, and finally beginning to fulfill those teenage daydreams.
Nighttime’s passed without event, only waking for the toilet, and on occasion for the cold. At that time of year the coldest I was to experience was around -15 degrees centigrade at night, which is pretty warm when you’re wrapped up in a cocoon of down feathers. Progress was much slicker on day two and I managed around 18 km over flat terrain and hard snow, with little wind. Although it had been a grey and overcast day, the sort where ground blends with horizon, I was to be treated to a spectacular camp. The snow and ice blasted and contorted by the wind (for I was on exposed ground at over 1300 m) glinted like a carpet of diamonds in the low evening sun. On top of that, a thin and fragile layer of spindrift snow whipped across the surface – it was every bit how you would envisage an arctic hinterland if you were to close your eyes and simply imagine.
The next few days I made good progress, hitting between 15-20 km per day over undulating terrain. I would have been considerably faster, was I able to ski downhill (made harder using a pulk with rope traces). Instead, I hopped on the pulk and rode it like a toboggan – great fun but probably an easy way to break a leg. Throughout those days I came across a number of hardy souls out skiing from hut to hut. Some were alone, some in teams, and some using dogs. A real highlight, in particular, was in the early evening of a sunny day three seeing dog teams speed across the horizon, silhouetted by the sun. These working dogs are a sight and sound to behold. With huge endurance, a hardy personality and endearing nature there is no doubt they are an incredible specimen.
By day five I had turned back on myself and was headed across more mountainous terrain towards the Hardangerjokulen glacier. Progress slowed considerably, however. I hit deep powder snow and visibility of 100 m or less. For periods I resorted to removing my skis and plodding on by foot. I made the decision at that point that I would not reach the glacier and decided to cut off right and head for home, shortening the final route by 20 km or so. The following day, conditions were equally bad and included more climbing and some careful skiing through sections where there was a clear sign of avalanche debris. I was now on the way home and spent that evening camped on the upper shores of a frozen lake Orteren in distant view of the road.
The next morning I awoke excited to cross the lake by its full length. With some of the ice compressed upwards into small pressure ridges, I skied in my base layer in the baking sun around these ice formations, with a real feeling that over the past 7 days I had developed a confidence for traveling in cold conditions. As I reached the road and the first sign of civilisation I could look back from a vantage point at where I had traveled. I thought of Amundsen all those years ago and could fully empathise at how he once found Hardangervidda impregnable.
I crossed the road, surmounted a never-ending hill and descended into a small woodland to camp in view of a broad and dominating mountain known as the ‘mother of Norway’. I was determined to make it back to my hotel under my own steam and not be picked up from the road. Now off of the plateau proper, and on the final day of my journey, I attempted to traverse a number of frozen lakes to the hotel but was beaten back by open water and warning signs. I decided to head uphill toward the road over very steep ground and near the river feeding the final lake. Traversing high above the lake the angle increased and my pulk flipped over dragging me down towards the broken ice and freezing water. A tense 15 minutes followed where I clawed across the slope kicking steps and using my hands like ice axes. Shaken and relieved I made the other side, aware that I escaped a likely fatal accident, but more concerned with the possibility that someone would have seen me making a prat of myself.
I arrived back at my hotel with some 8 days and 120 km behind me. Hardly a recording breaking or exploratory journey, but I had experienced a little of how Mawson and Amundsen may have felt in that heroic age of polar exploration, and that as they say was good enough for me.