Hiking in Norway: Third time’s a charm

For those who love physical activities during holidays like my husband and I, Norway is a gem. Coastal-side cycling paths and hiking trails leading to secluded waterfalls, calm fjords for beginner kayakers or streams of white waters for rafters, they are practically lurking in every corner. As what we’ve always done in our past trips, we were also determined to put in plenty of exercises for our leg muscles during our Scandinavian trip.

It all started in Svolvaer, a small town located in the island of Austvagoy which is part of the Lofoten archipelago in the Norway’s Norland county. Lofoten is located within the Arctic Circle and as such, it is the perfect place to view the midnight sun in the summer and the northern lights in the winter. Spending 3 days in Lofoten, we chose to base ourselves in Svolvaer simply because it is one of the bigger towns with ferry connection daily to the mainland (via Bodo). It also has an airport with domestic flights served by SAS. Alternatively, travelers can choose to base themselves in Leknes or Moskenes which are equally accessible from the mainland.

The lady who managed our hostel, the Svolvaer Sjohuscamp, recommended that we hike the Tjeldbergtinden which should take us 1.5 hours to and fro. The trail was located at the bottom of one of the mountains that surrounded Svolvaer. The view of the sea and the surrounding islands from the top was supposed to be breathtaking and on a clear day, you could even see as far as Bodo on the mainland. When we asked how difficult the trail was, she said local children and elderlies climbed the Tjeldbergtinden all the time without any problems and that we only needed to take standard precautions as the snow just started melting and the path could be rather slippery. Sounded easy enough, didn’t it? Boy, we couldn’t be more wrong about it.

After asking for a couple of directions, we reached the foot of the trail which started off with a wide yet steep gravel road. We climbed for approximately 20 minutes at an angle somewhere between 30 to 45 degrees, quite similar to the path at the start of Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, except the road wasn’t paved. As it was Sunday, we saw several people ahead of us and behind us. They were mostly families, some with young children and their elderly parents. It was rather windy that day, with the temperature somewhere below 10 degrees but felt much lower, no thanks to the strong wind. On some occasions, I had to close my eyes for a few seconds as the strong wind dried them so much till they started tearing.

All the while we thought our final destination was a huge electrical tower clearly visible somewhere halfway to the peak of the mountain, probably around 250 meters above sea level. From below, it looked like there’s a resting hut and a viewing platform underneath that tower, making it a perfect final destination after a hike. Moreover, the guy that we asked directions from said we could only climb until that electrical tower and any trails further away would require proper hiking gears. So you can imagine how surprised we were when we suddenly came upon this sign leading to a narrow hidden path that branched out of the main trail we’d been climbing, merely 300 meters away from the electrical tower, our supposed final destination.

So…. apparently the path we had been climbing wasn’t exactly the trail that the lady at Svolvaer Sjohuscamp recommended us to hike. In fact, to reach the Tjeldbergtinden that she told us about we should make a turn and follow the arrow. We were torn between what she said about children and elderlies climbing this all the time (we were pretty sure she didn’t mention any hiking gears at all) and what the other guy said about needing proper gears to hike this. In the end, curiosity won the argument and we diverted from the main trail to hike the Tjeldbergtinden, a further 367 meters up.

The trail started relatively easy, rocky steps alternating with slightly muddy dirt track and short tree branches to our right and left. It got much steeper after 10 minutes and worse, the trail became so rocky we needed to be on all fours to climb over the rocks. We soon realized that the trail actually led us to the top of the mountain, which seemed like 500 meters above sea level, at the very least. Fear slowly seeped in as we started worrying about going down later and the fact that we didn’t see any other people on this trail. Suddenly, we heard echos of children laughing somewhere above us and that quickly motivated us to carry on.

After a further 10 minutes of climbing, we finally saw a couple with their 2 children who looked like they were younger than 10 years old, just 50 meters ahead of us. They carried a walking stick and a rope. And realization suddenly hit us. Had we brashly climbed a mountain without proper gears? We looked up and saw that we were probably only 100 meters away from the top. Yet, the path leading there seemed equally, if not more, steep and there was a patch of ice that we needed to hike through before we could reach the top. Then, we made what I think is the biggest mistake in hiking. We looked down. Yes, we did see a magnificent view of Svolvaer, the surrounding mountains and the sea, but we also saw how high we were and the path we needed to go through in order to go down later. I thought I had a momentary heart palpitation there. To top it off, it started drizzling and clearly there wasn’t any caves nor trees that we could take shelter under.

In a matter of seconds, we made an immediate decision to climb down. And so we did, amidst worrying thoughts of falling or being struck by a lightning. I grabbed whatever I could; rocks, tree branches, I even used my backside to slow my going down and prevent myself from slipping and rolling down the mountainside. The rain stopped after 10 minutes. And as we stopped to catch our breaths on top of a big rock, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at how close we were from the top and how quickly we chickened out. To add salt to the wound, a couple who seemed to be in their 50s passed us by on their way up, looking so relaxed without any stick nor rope, followed shortly by a few more people. Our leg muscles wouldn’t stand such a steep up and down climb anymore, so we couldn’t afford to go up one more time. If only we had managed to gather just a little more courage then……

The remaining hike was uneventful. As a consolation prize, we did reach the electrical tower that we    originally wanted to go to. There was a small box containing a notebook attached to the wall of the hut. It contained a list of names of the people who have managed to hike up to the electrical tower and we could write our names in it. The old lady who happened to be resting outside the hut told us if we managed to reach the peak of the mountain, the very one that we almost reached earlier on, there would be another notebook waiting for us to write our names in. As if we needed to be reminded of our regret once again!

The thermometer next to the box showed 5 degrees, by the way. Yes, it was that cold. Couldn’t imagine how cold and windy it would be at the top of the mountain. Brrrr…

Immediately the following day, we made another attempt at climbing a mountain. This time it was in Skrova, a tiny island 30 minutes ferry ride away from Svolvaer. We thought of going back to Tjeldbergtinden and conquering it, but we stayed up till 3am the night before hunting for the midnight sun all over Lofoten. With lack of sleep and still recovering leg muscles, we thought we should attempt something easier. But the moment we looked at the map showing all the possible paths at the bottom of the trail, we ambitiously chose the most difficult one; the one that would lead us to the top of the mountain….again. I could almost hear the drum roll 😛

As you could have guessed, we failed miserably for the second time. I thought this trail was actually more difficult than Tjeldbergtinden because it was muddier, making it more slippery, plus there was hardly any vegetation around. You couldn’t grab on anything to balance yourself as you climb. The worse part was if you ever fall, there won’t be any tree branches to stop your fall and you’re gonna roll down the mountainside all the way to the bottom. R.I.P. And that day being a Monday, we didn’t see a single soul around.

The final part of the climb was the most challenging. It was practically one boulder stack after another in an almost vertical hike. It was already beyond climbing on all fours. There was a long string of rope tied to sticks spaced at one meter in between that went all the way to the top. We attempted climbing over a few boulders while dangerously grabbing and hanging onto that rope, but gave up in the end. Looking back, the rope must have been meant for climbers to hook their own rope into for protection instead of for us to grab as we climb up.

Once again, as a consolation prize we decided to walk to the other trail that ended up at a smaller peak. The trail was unbelievably easy and the view from the top, although beautiful, I bet wasn’t even close to the view from the other top had we managed to climb it. How sad!

And so we were due to leave Lofoten the next day on the 1pm flight to Oslo. It was raining cats and dogs the whole morning, prompting us to stay in our room enjoying a late breakfast while nursing our sore muscles and watching some animes. Our room at the Svolvaer Sjohuscamp was so comfortable we wouldn’t mind staying in the whole day. The rain refused to relent even as we rode our taxi to the airport. We were very sad to leave such a beautiful island and it was as if the sky was crying on our behalf. Our taxi driver’s feeble attempt at making cold jokes was only met half-heartedly by us.

It wasn’t until the day after that we were finally able to redeem ourselves and complete a full trail. This time it was in Flam, a beautiful yet touristy village at the end of Aurlandsfjord, an arm of the much bigger Sognefjord. After checking in to our youth hostel, we asked the lady at the reception for some hiking trail recommendations and she recommended Brekkefossen (fossen means waterfall in Norwegian). It’s a hike to a waterfall that can be completed in one hour. When we asked how difficult the trail was, she said she took her children there all the time. Anyone feeling déjà vu at this point ?

Thus we set off for Brekkefossen wondering if we’re doomed to fail for the third time. Of all the three trails, the Brekkefossen trail was the muddiest. My faithful running shoes were nearly beyond saving if not for my kind-hearted husband who lovingly washed them in the fjord water 🙂 The trail was also steep, rocky, and slippery, but similar to Tjeldbergtinden, there were plenty of branches I could grab for extra support. I guess we were lucky on our third attempt with Flam being a rather touristy place, as there were a number of hikers behind us and ahead of us which provided much assurance that the trail was actually doable.

As told by the reception lady at the youth hostel, after 30 minutes of hike we finally (and for the first time) reached our destination. The paths surrounding the waterfall was very wet with water splattering everywhere. Standing there for 5 minutes was more than enough to get you drenched. We managed to get dangerously close to the edge of the cliff standing on a patch of wet, muddy, and slippery soil just to take an awesome top shot of Flam and the fjord, while protecting our camera lens from the splattering waterfall at the same time. I’m always amazed at how far people are willing to go just to catch that one postcard-perfect picture that they hope would sum up everything. I still believe that your five senses are the best lens you’ll ever need when traveling and that no pictures can ever represent your entire experience. But then again, I’m always known to be contradictory at times so you won’t ever see me traveling without my camera 😉

Of course the moment we safely reached the bottom of the trail, we didn’t forget to high-five and pat ourselves on the back for having successfully hiked to our destination after 3 attempts. Honestly, it was more of a failure than an achievement and we vowed to perform better in our next trips *fingers crossed*.

Lesson learned from this experience: someone’s measure of fitness is subjective. I’m beginning to think that the Europeans are a bunch of very fit people and I may have been over-estimating myself despite my regular exercises. Activities that can be done by children and elderlies doesn’t automatically mean that it can be done by you.

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