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The Hike to Kalvedalshytta: Part 1

7 June 2011

I recently found an old journal in which I had recorded the events of our first year in Norway. It has been fun reminisce, but also to see my early experiences in this country through new eyes.

In May of 2005, we set out, like Gilligan and the Skipper, on what would be the misadventure of a lifetime. “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip … ” (minus the tropical port and the tiny ship), my husband, our son and I left that day “for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.”

All through the long, dark, Norwegian winter we had entertained ourselves with tourist guides and photo books of stunning Norwegian scenery: “Fra fjord til fjell” – From mountain to fjord!, they boasted in cursive letters over stunning blue skies and dramatic peaks. The world’s greatest beauty awaited us, if spring ever came. We were set on the idea of a long hike with sleeping bags and an overnight stay in a mountain cabin somewhere not too far from Bergen, and we built this trip up excitedly to our son, then three.

Our adventure began at the Bergen office of Den Norske Turistforening (DNT), the Norwegian Trekking Association, which operates and maintains one of Europe’s largest hiking trail networks – a whopping 20,000 km of trails and 460 cabins to sleep in along the way. They recommended the two-and-a-half hour hike to Kalvedalshytta as manageable for families. As we knew our son would need to stop and rest, we planned for a three-hour tour . . . a three-hour tour.

The fright-filled mishaps of this hike occurred for (at least) two reasons: one, because, as we later learned, the woman at the DNT office thought our very-tall-for-his-age son was six or seven years old and not three; and two, because in those early months of living here we simply had no real conception of Norwegian nature. We had moved to Norway from Toronto, a flat and expansive city where parks are cut into pies by wide sidewalks and the boundary between “wild” and “tame,” “safe” and “dangerous” is carefully marked by a thick concrete curb. The closest I ever came to a natural disaster was when my toddler son toppled head-first into the one-foot deep water fountain in Queen’s Park. And this was only a disaster because I was daydreaming and a shocked and finger-wagging older woman had to rescue him.

In the parts of the U.S. where I have lived (mainly Indiana) a hike is understood as a one-hour walk through a forest, with an occasional climb up some “steep” wooden steps. Nature is nicely contained inside the “State Park” where a park ranger is just a phone call away from your twisted ankle, where you can never be more than an hour or so from a service center selling the entire product line from Little Debbie, and where a rainbow of sports drinks awaits any thirsty traveler.

State Parks give you a sense of the tremendous prettiness of nature: poisonous plants are carefully kept off the trail and out of sight, rangers have trapped and killed any snakes, and fairies fly in to set loose colonies of newly born butterflies, songbirds and squirrels.

So you can imagine how eager we were dive in and see what the “real” outdoors looked like. Our plan was to reach the trailhead by car by one o’clock, reach the cabin around four, and then eat dinner and relax before the sun went down.

It was raining lightly, but that is the beginning of any story set in the Westlands of Norway. We simply tightened up the hoods of our raincoats. The first hour of the hike took us through a woods that lined the edge of a large lake. The ground was rocky and slippery and the trail entailed a lot more up-and-down climbing than we had anticipated, but the air was lovely amongst the pine trees and mist, and we spoke over and over about how nice it was to be in the real outdoors.

The coziness of the trail vanished, though, as we ascended above the tree line to an unwelcoming barrenness. Here large slabs of rock slumped between patches of mossy bogs and at times we sank to our ankles in the collecting rain water. We pulled hard at our boots to loosen them and they came free with a loud schloup. My desire for the hike was fading as we puddle-jumped from rock to rock, but my son was unfazed by the weather or the terrain. “The mud is giving my boots a kiss, mommy!” he called out. Good for him for enjoying this! I thought, and criticized myself for my souring mood.

The clock showed two hours already gone, but the bog continued on in front of us for as far as we could see. The trail was not carved out, and we found our way by following the occasional footsteps in the mud made by previous hikers.

I began to feel the heaviness of my pack and my fingers and nose were chilled by the incessant rain. A thick fog was crawling towards us, hiding what lay ahead.

Suddenly, as if in a film, the ghostly figure of a man walking by himself appeared just a few feet in front of us. “Hei hei!” I called out eagerly, thrilled that we were no longer alone. “Vi har mistet stien” – We have lost the trail!

The figure turned to me but remained silent. He was an older man, maybe 65, wearing high, dark green rubber boots that looked more suitable for fishing than hiking. He wore a rubber raincoat instead of the more common Gore-Tex gear, and his backpack was an army-green satchel tied with straps to a bamboo frame.

“En timer til?” – One hour left? I asked him, hopefully. He merely smiled and shrugged before continuing on his way, soon swallowed up again by the thick fog.

The ghostly appearance had reassured rather than frightened us, but exhaustion and damp were setting in and we clung to the hope that a warm and dry cabin was really only one hour in our future. So far our son had not complained, but it was clear he was getting tired.

For hours now we had seen only rocks; turning a full circle, no other signs of human life were visible. I gained energy to climb every hill with the expectation that the cabin would suddenly reveal itself on the other side. “Oh, there it is!” I imagined crying out in glee. But disappointment stung deeply and my shoulders sank as the view from each summit offered only the bald, rocky tops of mountains tumbling endlessly, one after the other.

My last reserve of hope poured way as we came to the edge of a plateau. In front of us the earth dropped steeply for several hundred feet, with an ascent of equal height immediately following it. Along the top of the next ridge I saw, spaced out for what seemed like miles, little pillars of rock, the stone pyramids that marked the trail.

I was hysterical with disbelief and fear and exhaustion. “It can’t be, Aidan!” I cried, falling to the ground. “It can’t be!” Aidan tried to hide his worry by comforting our son whom I had terrified with my crying. “I’m sorry, puppy,” I told him, “Mommy’s very tired and I don’t know where the end of the trail is.”

“Do you want to head back?” Aidan asked, not for the first time that day. Yet how could go four hours back? And what if forwards might only be one more hour?

Desperate, we reasoned that the trail on the map looked rather more straight from that point on. Our son, seemingly tireless at home, was now falling more and more and it was clear that his legs were coming to a stop. Aidan strapped his small pack to the bottom of his own and we marched on. It was after 6 p.m.

Thick snow awaited us at the top of the next slope. Aidan, off-balance and weighted by two backpacks, suddenly sunk in to his waist, unable to free himself. His torso rested on the snow in front of him and after removing both packs he was able to crawl out. What we saw through the hole made by his legs astounded us. Under two feet of snow was a space of air about one foot deep, and below that a rushing waterfall.

My body stiffened into panic. What if he had fallen through? What if he had fallen into the water and been pulled down the mountainside under the snow? For the second time that day I sat down and cried. I was shaking uncontrollably from fear and cold and exhaustion. This was not the trail. We were certain of that.

It seemed impossible to be rational when fearing for one’s life, and I could think of no other option than to phone for a rescue helicopter. We had lost the trail, we were trapped in the snow, we had a three-year-old too tired to walk another step.

I pulled out my mobile and dialed 113 as quickly as I could. The screen informed me that I had no signal. No signal? The greatness of my disbelief welled up inside me like a scream. I continued punching in the numbers over and over. How can there be no signal? How do people call for a mountain rescue if there is NO SIGNAL?

I wanted to lie down right there in the snow and cry for hours. For days. Until summer came and the snow melted. Until some angel swooped down and rescued me. Aidan had taken up the slack and become very rational, telling me how important it was that we keep going until we found some place safer to rest. He put both his packs back on and picked up our son as well.

It was beginning to get dark but the incident in the snow had moved me beyond the point of fear. Like a runner in a marathon who “hits the wall” and soars ahead, nothing affected me now. Hunger, worry, fear, tiredness meant nothing and were unfelt. We were all simply bodies barely able to stand up but propelled towards survival by some invisible force.

And then, too unreal at first to be perceived, too providential to comprehend, I caught sight of two people walking towards us. As they came closer I recognized one of the men as the strange figure we had met hours before in the fog. As we would later find out, in an incredible act of kindness he had gone to the cabin to check if we had arrived safely and had then enlisted another hiker staying there in a search and rescue mission.

Not many words were exchanged. I can’t imagine how we must have looked to them. How naïve they must have thought we were. How American. Tears were pouring down my cheeks, mixing with the rain.

They two men took our packs from us and strapped them to their own backs. The younger man also carried Christopher.

“How much further?” I dared to ask.

“Ten minutes,” the older man replied. I couldn’t believe him. It seemed impossible, as though he had willed the cabin into being ten minutes in front of us. How, amidst so much nothing, after eight hours of hiking, could a cabin suddenly appear?

When I stood in the protection of the cabin’s entryway I felt life come back to me. I was no longer a body but a human, comforted by the warmth of a blazing wood fire, hot coffee, dry clothes, a roof and a bed.

We sat down at a wooden table in the cabin’s kitchen and were finally able to enjoy the pasta we had been carrying in our packs all day. The two men and the younger hiker’s girlfriend sat with us and listened in amazement and pity as we shared some small details of our adventure with them. We had certainly taken a wrong path. None of them had gone through snow on the way.

By now it was pitch black outside. The older man rose to leave. Where could he possibly be going? We thanked him with “mil tusen takk” (a million, thousand thanks). He shook his head and said, “It’s nothing. This is what Norwegians do. We take care of each other.”

We said goodbye and he disappeared.

The other hiker and his girlfriend were as puzzled as we were about this mysterious man. Maybe he had a cabin in the area? Maybe he lived in the mountains? They admitted that his dialect was difficult to understand.

My thoughts already turning to to tomorrow I asked if there was another way out. Sadly, there was not. They were going further into the mountains the next day and would be up by seven, so we said goodbyes and thanks.

We climbed up the stairs to the beds that we had been dreaming of all day, too tired to even begin imagine how we could possibly repeat such a journey.

To read the conclusion of this story, click here.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 June 2011 11:58

    How terrifying that must have been. I can’t imagine doing that with a 3 year old!!!

  2. Aven permalink
    7 June 2011 13:00

    Wow. Just… wow.
    You *are* going to write a book with all these stories, aren’t you?!

  3. 8 June 2011 23:57

    What a nightmare! In my day, of three year olds, it was one accomplishment per day. Today the grocery store, tomorrow the library. A three hour (plus) tour was out of the question! However, a rerun of Gilligan´s Island during nap-time was always welcomed.

  4. jenaconti permalink
    9 June 2011 19:46

    Emily and Kimberly: I certainly do NOT recommend hiking all day with a 3-year-old! Yet I cannot believe how many “flink” Norwegian families there were on the 4-mountain hike in Bergen 2 weeks ago. Children of all ages climbing on and on and on. Amazing.

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