Glacier Hiking

The Common European Adder (Vipera berus), known as a huggorm (“striking serpent”) in Norwegian. Supposedly the bite is painful but rarely deadly. So reassuring.

June 5, 2015.  Is there a better way for Matthew and me to celebrate our wedding anniversary than hiking the mountain of snow that is the Nigård Glacier?  Certainly not.  With this thought in mind, we raced from the Borgund Stave Church to the town of Solvorn, our launching point for our glacial adventure.  The sniggly road took us through several tunnels, around the shorelines of lakes and fjords, past a dozen or so waterfalls, through sleepy villages, and even up close to a venomous European adder snoozing by the roadside cafe where we stopped to buy lunch.  (No casualties to report.)

Eplet Bed & Apple
The Eplet Bed & Apple. Our room was on the second floor, far left. Photo courtesy of Eplet.

Late in the day we finally pulled into Solvorn and headed up the country road to the adorable Eplet Bed and Apple.  Not bed and breakfast.  Bed and apple.  The place is really more of an orchard and berry farm that also acts as a hostel, with rooms that can sleep two to seven, depending upon the size of your party.  And each room comes with a bottle of their fabulous apple juice, made right at the farm.  Yum!

The view of the village and fjord from our balcony.

Trond, our friendly and funny host, gave us a tour of the place, noting that bottle feeding of his lambs is a guest affair conducted nightly at 9:00 p.m., everyone invited.  Checkmark, put that on our schedule.  Our room itself was a bright and cheerful triple on the second floor, with a balcony possessing the most awesome view imaginable of the orchard, town, and fjord spread out below.

That night, we enjoyed a fabulous meal at the nearby historic Walaker Hotel, built in 1690 and still run by the same family for nine generations.  (There seems to be a lot of truly ancient family businesses in Norway.)  After a short stroll through the hotel’s garden and art gallery to try and work off dinner, we rolled our full bellies back to our balcony, where we watched the sun dip lower on the horizon while listening to the baahing of lambs and twittering of swallows diving for their dinner.  The days are getting much longer now, and the sun doesn’t really set until close to midnight.  (Since it rises by 3:30 a.m., blackout shades are critical for a good night’s sleep.)

The Breheimsenteret, where you can book tours, learn about glaciers, and grab a tasty snack. I’m not sure if the design is supposed to be a Viking helmet or an interpretation of a crevasse.

The next morning we fixed ourselves a big plate of bacon and eggs to fuel our exertions and headed about 45 minutes away to the Breheimsenteret, where we picked up our Blue Ice Trek tickets and learned a little about glaciers before beginning the hike.  For those of you who need a refresher on glaciers, they form when snowfall gets packed down over centuries, compressing into a layer of ice that gradually flows downhill under the force of its own weight.  Perhaps the biggest earth movers around (next to volcanoes), glaciers grind over the landscape, carving out the classic U-shaped valleys and other cool features that we associate with grand and wintry vistas like those found in Norway.

A view of the Nigård Glacier.

The Nigård Glacier that we were about to tackle is one arm of the immense Jostedalsbreen (“Jostedal Glacier”), the largest glacier in continental Europe.  Jostedal covers 188 square miles and measures more than 2,000 feet deep at its thickest point.  Consistent heavy snows rather than cold temperatures keep the glacier intact, although global warming is having its affect as usual.  Due to its high altitude, the Nigård branch is one of the few Jostedal arms to be advancing rather than retreating.  It takes its name from when, about 250 years ago, climatic conditions deteriorated so rapidly that it surged down the valley and swallowed eight farms in one winter, stopping at the ninth.  (Hence the name Ni gård = “ninth farm.”)

Okay, so now that we’ve had our science and history lesson, back to our regular programming….  Matthew, Ruthie, and I headed to the meeting point for the hike, where we caught up with our guide and 12 other novice climbers.  The first order of business involved getting fitted for crampons.  Not the dainty kind I’d been sporting all winter, but some serious suckers with claws like grizzlies.  A trial period ensued where we practiced trying not to impale our own feet with the crampons while walking.  Then came the ice axe and ice gloves.  Learning how to avoid lacerating a leg artery or taking out a neighbor’s eye while swinging the ice axe became our next challenge.

Skills mastered (sort of), we then began about a 45-minute hike just to get to the foot of the glacier.  The guide explained that normally, we’d have hopped in a boat that would have taken us across Nigardsbrevatnet, the small lake at the foot of the glacier.  However, this year, due to the excessive snow and cool temperatures, the lake was too shallow for boat travel.  Can’t say I was sad, because although I’d have liked to have had more time on the glacier, the amazing little gardens, pools, and rock formations at its foot were pretty spectacular, as you can see in the photos below.

Our guide gives us instructions on how to avoid killing ourselves or others while hiking the glacier.

Eventually, we made it to the glacier’s toe, where we each grabbed a harness from a barrel, strapped it on tight as instructed (not a comfy experience), and then waited as the guide threaded a rope from harness to harness.  “Hold the rope in your left hand, and don’t let it drag on the ground in front of you.”  Why?  We found out as soon as we began to move; people stepped on the dragging ropes, pulling others down in what quickly became a can-can line of climbers collapsing backwards.

Getting our footing on the ice.

Lesson learned.  Time for our next instruction: “Do make sure you leave some slack in the line, because if the guy in front of you falls into a crevasse, you want to have a little time to plant your feet, so you’re not jerked head first into the hole with him.”  Yeah, this was sounding safer and safer by the minute.  “Make sure you look behind you as well as in front of you while you’re walking.  You don’t want to move so quickly or take such a big step that you jerk the guy behind you into a face plant.”  This happens a lot, as I soon learned.

One last piece of advice from our guide:  “Don’t ever, ever, ever, stand at the foot of the glacier.  Last year, some tourists ignored the warning signs and sat their 8- and 9-year-old kids at the glacier’s toe for pictures.  Eventually parents and kids swapped places, and while the children took photos, a piece of the glacier “calved” — broke off from the tip — and crashed down on the parents, crushing them to death right in front of their children’s eyes.”  Boy, this guy’s full of good news, ain’t he?

Giving ourselves proper spacing so that we don't pull each other into crevasses if we fall.
Giving ourselves proper spacing so that we don’t pull each other into crevasses if we fall.

Now thoroughly scared sh#*less, our group obediently fell in line and worked hard to remember all the instructions.  Everyone quickly learned that if you didn’t plant your foot flat, you’d likely skid on the ice.  And if you weren’t wearing your gloves and reached out to stabilize yourself, you’d come away with lacerated hands.  The heavily-trod-upon surface ice had been pulverized into little pellets that looked like safety glass from a broken car window, except razor sharp.  Lots of bloodied fingers in those first few minutes testified to the number of folks who thought the sunny day meant no need for the gloves.

Poor Matthew. He’s clearly eager to check out the blue ice cave in the background, but no such luck.

As we climbed, we passed a chilly, blue ice cave.  Our guide explained that: “the color comes from the fact that the ice is so hard-packed that air bubbles are pushed out.  (Air bubbles reflect sunlight and make ice appear white.)  Such densely packed ice absorbs all colors of light except blue, which has the shortest wave length and passes right on through to our eyes.”  Of course, now that we were all properly educated on the subject, we wanted a peek inside the powder-blue hole, but the guide warned us it was too unstable to enter because it was so close to the glacier’s foot.  No one complained, as the mental image of being smothered inside a cavern of ice didn’t appear too appealing.

Just one of the many crevasses we crossed. It’s deeper than it looks. Note the lake in the background for scale.

Next, we began crossing over a series of crevasses, each wider than the next.  Since I and the girl behind me were the shortest on the hike, traversing some of these gaps required a running jump — and occasionally a tug from a partner on the other side to help us scrabble up when we didn’t quite make it.  Some of these crevasses seemed pretty deep, with the blue color enhancing the illusion of an endless abyss.  Again, the whole experience was a form of therapy for an acrophobe like me.

Our guide then shared another parable.  “Never go hiking on the glacier alone.  Once a guy climbing by himself fell 25 feet into one of these crevasses.  He yelled for help for hours.  By some miracle, a group of rescue volunteers practicing drills found him, but it took still more hours to get him out, and they had to leave his backpack behind because it was wedged in the crevasse.  Thirty years later, a group of climbers showed up at the guy’s door.  They’d just found his backpack at the foot of the glacier, where, after many years of minute but persistent motion, the underlying conveyor belt of ice had eventually delivered it.  The climbers had used the wallet inside the pack to locate the guy and return his stuff.”  Well at least this story had a happy ending.

After passing all these obstacles, we then hit a solid stretch of clean, unbroken ice where the guide had us practically running up the mountain for about 30 minutes.  At this altitude and unrelenting pace, my lungs burned, my thighs burned, basically my whole body was en fuego.  I wanted desperately to stop for a few minutes and at least capture the spectacular view.  Others requested a photo break, too, but the guide pushed us onward, claiming that we’d lost time due to the lack of a boat ride.

Eventually, my patience broke.  The guide’s next encouragement to hurry was met with my snarky comment:  “By all means, let’s run.  That’s why I came here:  to hike the f*@*k out of this mountain with nary a moment for taking photos or enjoying the view.”  Yeah, mama gets cranky when she can’t take her pictures.  Or breathe.  Fortunately, we soon reached a plateau where we were allowed to recover, eat our lunch, and suck in the scenery — all while the bass rumblings of tiny avalanches careening down the mountain’s rocky slopes serenaded us and provided more visual drama.

The hike back down to the lake proved to be almost as strenuous but was accomplished in half the time.  We short-legged folks got face-planted more than once by the gazelles ahead of us, who bounded down the mountainside like Bambi in springtime.  At one point, we all thought we might have to make a run for it when a huge avalanche broke and cascaded almost all the way to the snowpack where we stood.  Definitely unnerving.

Eventually, we reached the bottom, returned our gear, and hiked to our car, which was inexplicably covered with about 1,000 apparently cold-tolerant mosquitoes.  And me without my bug spray.  Anyone watching us drive home would’ve thought the staggering progress of our car meant the driver was drunk, not battling a swarm of tiny vampires inside.  The end result left the interior of our car littered with mosquito carcasses and liberally smeared with mosquito guts and splotches of human blood, for which I’m sure I’ll get a bill from the rental car company later.

A hot shower, warm food, and a brief nap refreshed us and soothed our wounds, so we took a leisurely walk around the quaint town to admire the architecture and work out the kinks in our muscles.  A brief but hilarious bottle feeding of the lambs before bedtime ended our evening on a warm-n-fuzzy note (check out the photos of these hungry little suckers below).  Ruthie’s comment at the end of the day sums it all up.  She said, “When I get home, I’m gonna ask people, ‘So what’d you do this summer?  Me?  I hiked a f*#%king glacier!'”

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