Hiking the classic Aurlandsdalen trail in Western Norway was more beautiful, but also more painful than expected, First, i was lucky with the weather: after a week of heavy rain in Oslo and other parts of the country (including the Hardangervidda Plateau, where the trailhead in Finse is located) the weather brightened up just in time for the weekend. On Friday afternoon I walked around sunny Youngstorget in Oslo, and bought some last supplies in the pedestrian zone of Torgsgata: a new headlamp, some trekking food, oil for waterproofing my leather boots, and a good hiking map of the region at the DNT office..
In the evening, after I had packed my backpack, I found out there was no metro early on Saturday morning that would bring me to Oslo Central Station in time to catch my 6.25 train to Finse. So my hike started earlier than expected: i had to leave my apartment at 5.20 a.m., walk 40 minutes to Majorstuen, and take the first train (6:07 according to the Ruter brochure) to Oslo Sentral. However, when i got to Majorstuen at 6 it turned out the first train wouldn't come until 6.27, so i had to hop into a taxi around the corner and tell the driver to quickly take me to the train station.I figured that for a trip that is usually just 3 metro stops and about 5 minutes away I couldn't pay a fortune. I was wrong though. It is Norway after all, and while the Somalian taxi driver would go on lamenting about the high prices in Norway during our short drive, he still charged me 200 Kroner for it himself. However ironic this was, I was just happy to catch my train - which in the end left with 20 minutes delay.
The Oslo-Bergen railway line is known as one of the most scenic train rides out there, and indeed it was lovely seeing countless lakes and rivers pass by while the train was climbing up towards the Hardangervidda plateau. I noticed that the rivers were carrying a lot of water and thought about friends who had recently had a great time kayaking around Voss. It turned out that the girl beside me, a young Norwegian student, was a paddler herself, but this time she went to Voss not to tame the whitewater rapids, but to learn how to fly - like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 1, at VossVind Indoor Skydiving. Norwegians sure are an adventurous bunch! The price was Norwegian, too: around 900 Kroner for 5 minutes of flying, if I remember correctly. Considering that i had paid 200 Kroner for a 5-minute taxi ride, maybe the price acutally wasn't all that bad, though.
Day 1: Finse to Geiterygghytta (15 km)
I got off in Finse, at exactly 1.222 meters above sea level and 11.30 am. The only hotel there is rather fittingly called Finse 1222, and that's where I went to seek shelter and "gear up", since it was cool, windy & raining outside. This didn't surprise me, the weather forecast had predicted rain between 12 and 6 pm on Day 1. This was exactly the timeframe I spent hiking and indeed drizzle, sleet or even snow were constant companions that first day. However, I was in good spirits and enjoying the start to this multiday-trek, my first since hiking the Hoh River Trail with yoga buddy Aaron in Olympic National Park in 2011. The hike started uphill with an ascent to Klemsbu (around 1.500 m elevation, a popular dayhike from Finse), passing a glacier and several snowfields in the process.
It then mellowed out through a cool landscape that reminded me of the description of George R.R. Martin's "Riverlands" in the Game of Thrones books.
Because of the weather I hardly took any breaks and all in all it took me around 5 1/2 hours, exactly the time that had been suggested on the map. I intended to do the whole trip camping in the wilderness, and since I had to comply with the regulations of allemannsretten, which requires you to camp at least 150 metres away (and preferably out of sight) of any buildings, I decided to pitch my tent about 300 m from a DNT cabin called Geiterygghytta, on the other side of an adjacent lake. While doing that it started raining heavier, so as soon as the tent stood erect I quickly retreated inside, changed into dry clothes, had a hot miso soup, a can of sardines and tea for dessert before retreating into my sleeping bag at 8pm already. My tent (Salewa Micra Base II, 3.5 kilograms) may be a bit heavy for solo trekking but on days like this it really is worth carrying the extra weight. It is incredibly useful to have a sheltered space where you can leave your dirty shoes, wet gear, and where you can sit and cook, not having to take everything inside your "bedroom"!
Early to bed, early to rise, i woke up at 6am and had breakfast just as the sun was rising outside my tent. I had instant coffee and a delicious strawberry rice pudding while listening to Wilco's Jeff Tweedy sing "maybe the sun will shine today..." - definitely one of the best moments of my trip, and it looked as if Jeff was right on the money in his lyrics!
Day 2: Geiterygghytta to Østerbø (20 km)
Beautiful as this photo may be, day 2 was a bitch. I had been somewhat prepared for it - mainly because I intended to go all the way to Østerbø instead of stopping at Steinbergdalen (some prefer to split this up in 2 days) but also because i had been warned by a "whistleblower" from the US ;) Kelcey & Jim, a couple from Seattle, had done the exact same hike about a week earlier and posted some fine pictures on Instagram, which is how I got in touch with them. Kelcey was so nice to send me a detailed report of their trip, and the underlying message was: it's not as easy as it's described in the guidebooks! Well, I had found out about Aurlandsdalen in my Lonely Planet travel guidebook, and that had very little description of the route itself - but I knew that anything Lonely Planet bills as a "classic trek" would be a little more than just a sunday walk. I had chosen my previous multiday backpacking trips (Grand Canyon, Saguaro & Olympic National Parks) on Lonely Planet recommendation so I kind of knew what I was in for. Still, Kelcey was right in that the second day was tough, especially if you decided to do both segements in one day. The map description of 3 + 3 hours didn't really do it justice (I needed more like 4 and 5 hours, hiking from 10 am to 8 pm) but it was also 2 quite different walks in character, so doing it in 2 days rather than 1 made a lot of sense to me in hindsight. The first part, Geiterygghytta to Steinbergdalen, lead through a beautiful desolate plateau-like landscape with countless stream crossings, whereas the second part (Steinbergdalen to Østerbø) was basically just one long traverse under a cliff. But that cliff had received a lot of water lately, and all that runoff had trickled down - in fact was still trickling down - into the trail... add a few hikers treading through with heavy backpacks and what you get is a good ol' mudpit!
At times this felt like I was preparing for Vancouver Island's notorious Shipwreck Trail - on top of that, my right shoe's Vibram sole was coming off, and the shoe was not waterproof anymore, as I quickly found out in the mud. Also, my right knee, which had started to bother me a little aroun noon on downhill sections, was now getting worse and even hurting when walking uphill (and yes, there was plenty of uphill walking here as well, despite it being a traverse). I tried to remain positive, singing spoof versions of "My boots are made for walking" to myself (where I would somewhat rephrase the lyrics), but it was truly challenging. All the other hikers i had encountered thus far (1 Norwegian couple, 2 Norwegian girls, 4 Norwegian ladies - clearly there are more females on the trails here!) were already ahead of me, so I didn't even have company to bitch about the trail with. Early on I met a lady with a walky-talky, and thought she was working for DNT, but she was just herding sheep up here and looking for a few lost specimen. Poor lady - at least I had chosen to be up here! After several gruelling and increasingly painful hours I finally limped into Østerbø, my socks soaked in mud (both shoes were coming apart now!) and headed right onto the deserted campground of Østerbø Fjellstove, a small but cozy mini mountain resort. I didn't even register until the next morning, because i was so full of mud and worn out that i didn't want to enter the main building. Plus, it would only have made me feel bad about having to camp in a tent - walking past the cabin and seeing the other hikers go about their candlelight dinners behind the windows was already enough salt in my wounds. But hey, Camping is in-tents!
Day 3: Østerbø to Sinjarheim (13 km)
When i got out to go to the bathroom at 9 am the next morning, the few others hikers i mentioned earlier were already gone or just getting on their way. This was somewhat discouraging, and so was my knee, which already hurt a little when I was walking over the campground. I decided that maybe it was the smarter thing to give up and take a bus to Aurland, so I asked the lady in charge about buses - but there were none, and this being the end of the season she also didn't know anyone else who could take me down the valley. The only option was to call a taxi to Aurland for 750 Kroner but it would have hurt to pay all the money that I saved myself by camping just for yet another taxi ride, and missing out on the most beautiful part of the hike, because on day 3 the trail would finally lead into the actual Aurlandsdalen valley. The past 2 days had just been the build-up, so to speak, Day 3 was supposed to be the climax! My knee at least seemed a little better than the night before, so i decided to give i a try, though I had serious doubts if it was a wise thing to do. But the lady had pointed out that there was one option to exit the valley, about 2 hours into the hike. so I decided that if i wasn't feeling well after the first two hours, i would take that exit and try hitchhiking.
After breaking up camp it was exactly 12 o' clock noon when I finally got on the way. At first it was an even trail, which was good news for my knee, and it was less muddy here than the day before, which was good news for my mental state as well. At first the trail wound around Østerbø's lake and another, beautifully cobalt blue lake to Nesbø, one of a few old farmsteads of the Aurlandsdalen, which are now privately owned but restored with public funding, because of their historical importance. After all, this was one of the first routes connecting Eastern and Western Norway. It was also the most scenic part of the hike, and even came with T-shirt weather, because compared to the windswept plateaus i had hiked before, there was little exposure to the elements down here in the protected valley. It was a whole different ecosystem down here, with ferns, buttterflies & mushrooms that I enjoyed capturing with my camera's macro function.
The trail led into the valley and followed a river called Aurlandselvi which about 25 kilometres later would empty itself into Aurlandsfjorden. Despite some pain, I felt like I could carry on and passed the "early exit" the lady had pointed out to me.
However, going was slow, and as the pain in my knee started flaring up again, I had to restrict most of the workload to my left leg and use my trekking poles as crutches. What would I have done without trekking poles and gaiters! The poles helped me carry on and the gaiters kept the sole to my right shoe, otherwise I would've been flip-flopping around for a long time already! Due to my slow pace and late start I knew I couldn't do the entire 19 kilometres on that day, so my goal was to at least get to Sinjarheimen or Almen - two more abandoned farmsteads nestled into the valley's right ravine that, at least on the map, looked like they would offer enough plain-level space to pitch a tent. I could already spot Sinjarheimen from kilometres away and decided this would by my final destination for the night. When i got there at 7pm, i was surprised to see that there were people there - 1 bald head already looking at me from afar, and one stripped butt, just as I was coming up close! It turned out that those 2 guys, Michael and Finn-Christian, master carpenter and assistent (kind of) were up there to restore the historic cabins. And as they saw me limping up towards them, they quickly offered me a spare bed in one of the cabins.
And so my luck turned that day and i had the opportunity to not only sleep in a place brimming with history, but also enjoy the company of those 2 interesting and nice fellows. To thank them for their hospitality, I offered my remaining Austrian red wine, and they had some tasty salami and cheese from local produce of which I tried a few morsels. It was great to be in company and forget about my bad knee for a while and talk to some locals. They had interesting backgrounds and as we rambled on, we covered all kinds of meaningful topics, from Norwegian painters to country's demographics, from religion and buddhism to the human mind, from Norwegian women (joggebuksen was a new word I learned here...) to women or relationships in general. After a while we realized it was actually freezing cold, so we retreated to our different rooms. Given how small the place was, it seemed hard to believe that these historic cabins used to shelter 20 people in their heyday, but there was certainly enough space for 3 grown men - although even the shortest one of them (yours truly) had to lie slightly diagonally to fit inside the bed! People were short one or two centuries ago, even in Norway!
Day 4: Sinjarheim to Vasbygdi (6km)
The other advantage of not having to sleep in a tent that night was that I could start early the next day. Just packing your backpack takes way less time than breaking up camp. Finn-Christian (the "assistant") helped me down the first steep 2 kilometres of the trail, even carrying my backpack for me. I then assured him that i could do the remaining 4 k alone, so he could get back to work with Michael. However, my knee hurt from the beginning on Day 4, and wasn't of much use at all anymore! On every uphill part I only used my left leg only (like an older person who has to take one step at a time on a staircase) and on every downhill part I had to heavily rely on my trekking poles so it became much more arm and upper body work than anything else. It took me a good 2 1/2 hours for those measly six (mostly downhill) kilometres on Day 4. I only encountered 2 American girls from the Pacific Northwest, on their way up for a dayhike. I thought of Michael who had already jokingly remarked "lotta girls up here today!" the night before, referring to the mostly female hikers that had been on the trail before i arrived. Well, here were 2 more - and pretty ones, too! ;)
When I finally made it into Vasbygdi i found out there were no weekday buses anymore (season over), but after some unsuccessful knocks on doors i found a young couple whom i asked to call a taxi for me. Turned out the Aurland Taxi was just one cab for the entire region that day and it was booked 'til 5pm... but the tall guy, who had been silent up to that point, suddenly just offered to take me to Flåm by car. I thought this was quintessentially Norwegian because up to that point I wasn't sure what to make of him - whether he was annoyed that I kept him from work or that his girlfriend had to make that phone call, was hard to tell. But Stian turned out to be a real gentle giant, hailing from Tustna, one of the many remote islands on the Western coast of Norway, 3 hours from Kristiansund. He told me that his girlfriend had inherited an old farm in Vasbygdi and that they wanted to fix it up together, to grow some special kind of cattle breed. For now, it was a side business (he was still working in his main job in construction as well) but he was hoping they could turn it into more, and I wish him luck! He drove me to Flåm, a tourist hub just a few kilometres away from quiet Aurland, where he had also worked on a tourist boat the previous season.
Flam is a small village of approximately 500 inhabitants, but receives over 500.000 tourists annually. Unsurprisingly, this must cause a certain resentment or at least weariness among the local population. Stian said he was looking forward for the season to be over, and after he dropped me at the pier I immediately understood what he meant. A huge cruise ship was blocking most of the view, but still tourists left an right were taking pictures of the fjord...or what was left of it to see. The cruise ship market has been the most profitable business in tourism in recent years. despite facing some criticism, not least since the Costa Concordia disaster. Stian also had a shocking true-crime story of a quarreling Italian couple, where the husband possibly threw his wife off the cruise ship last year in Flåm. At first thought of as a suicide attempt, doubts were raised after the woman awoke from the coma - she couldn't remember whether she jumped or got tossed of their balcony, but claimed she never wanted to commit suicide. A murder case has been opened and now the Italian carabinieri will have to deal with it. Finally some fodder for the Italian tabloids, now that the Amanda Knox case has been settled! ;)
Anyway, it was weird to return from such a beautiful and quiet place like Aurlandsdalen, and be confronted with so many people in one spot, After seeing so much beauty and experiencing true solitude in the last 4 days, I couldn't really be bothered with lumbering along to take photos with all the others, so I just dulled my hurting knee with a microbrew porter at the local Aegir Brewery, and got to know Aida, a nice young lady from St. Petersburg who worked as a volunteer on the pier, assisting the cruise ship tourists with their land excursions. She was really friendly and trustingly gave me her iPad (guess she saw that I wasn't capable of running off with the thing anyway) so I could get in touch with my dear ones and let them know that I was ok... except for my knee... and my hiking boots, which were ready to be trashed! For a few days after the hike my knee felt like it might have to be trashed as well, I was already suspecting some more serious cartilage or meniscus damage, but after about a week of limping around in Oslo as well the symptoms gradually wore off... and meanwhile I also bought some new boots, so there will be more multiday hikes for me! I haven't decided where yet (the Dolomites next spring are high on my wishlist) but vi skal se...