Thursday, 10 December 2015

Hut to Hut in Norway – Back to the Origins of Skiing!


I’d heard that cross-country skiing in Norway in March was fabulous – great snow, long days, mountainous landscapes and a culture that is firmly anchored in cross-country skiing. As someone who is mildly obsessed with Norwegian ski pioneer Jackrabbit Johannsen (who, along with his friends, popularized skiing in North America), this was a return to my roots so to speak! In March 2014, I finally decided to take the plunge and go for it, with my husband Frédéric.

We regularly organize hut-to-hut ski trips around the province of Quebec, from 2 to 7 days long, with friends, so we were no stranger to the concept. But organizing this kind of trip from across the Atlantic Ocean and in a different language was definitely a challenge. A fun challenge, that was entirely worth it! The purpose of this somewhat rambling article is to share what I learned. Be sure to double check everything because things might have changed since our trip.

An experienced friend recommended checking out the Huldreheimen mountain area. It’s located about 1 hour northwest of Lillehammer (itself a 2.5-hour train ride north of Oslo, the capital). Norwegians think of the Huldreheimen as the “friendly wilderness” because there are even more remote and extreme ski areas out there. With all of the unknowns involved, starting with something accessible suited us just fine.

My friend correctly advised me to avoid Easter, which is a hugely popular time for Norwegians to get out to their backcountry cabins. Onsite, I learned that it’s also good to inquire about school breaks (in early March), which can get busy too. And also good to know: these huts aren’t even open until mid to late February, typically. Before that, the days are just too short and the conditions too harsh. Norway is pretty far north!

The Huldreheimen earned its friendly reputation because the huts aren’t too far apart and you can get to them within a comfortable few hours of skiing. Huts are between 10 and 20 km apart. There is less risk of getting stranded between huts. Also, the topography isn’t too challenging. We started at an altitude of around 800 metres in the village of Espedalen, and never got much higher than 1300 metres during our 5 days of skiing.

What was new for us was being above the treeline most of the time. In Norway, the treeline is around 800 m, because it’s so far north. Actually, the big advantage of skiing in Norway is easily and quickly gaining access to the spectacular, above-treeline landscapes, without the challenge of actually getting yourself up to a very high altitude.

However, treeless  means lots of wind. Just before our trip, people kept checking the weather and wind speed and direction for us. At first we weren’t sure why, until we felt the full force of even the slightest breeze up on the high, treeless plateaus.

We were lucky and had clear, sunny days the whole time, so we were able to navigate based on a detailed topographical map which we could compare with the landscape forms we were seeing around us. But if the least snowstorm or windstorm would have kicked up, we would definitely have needed a good GPS. We’ll know for next time!

Because there are often no trees, trails are mostly marked by discrete sticks stuck in the snow at 30 metre intervals or so. But roaming troops of reindeer can come nibble on the sticks, and sections of trail might not be marked as indicated. Often, the trail was marked in a slightly different location than on our topographical map.  It’s important to not rely on these trail markers entirely. There were occasionally signposts indicating various directions, but we also found these confusing at times – sometimes they seemed to refer to summer-only routes. The trails are not machine tracked, though often a snowmobile or other skiers had come through before us.

The other challenge of skiing above the treeline was that if we needed shelter, to stop for lunch or in case of emergency, there were no trees or rocks to rely on. We couldn’t anchor a tarp nor count on finding wood to start a fire. Norwegians always carry a break-down shovel on these trips. School children learn how to dig out effective survival shelters in the snowbanks. Another option is to bring along a bivouac bag (or bivvy sack). Made out of windproof tent material, it’s literally a bag that you sit in to get out of the wind. It packs up quite small, is very claustrophobic yet effective, and also works as a sail! We bought one when we got to Norway from the trailhead/office (DNT) in Oslo .

It did get quite windy one day, reducing visibility considerably and making it slow going. Fortunately, there was not much new snow to kick up in our case. We had hit upon unusually icy and difficult conditions; usually there is a lot of fresh snow up there. During windy days, you can’t really stop for any reason – you just have to hope to not need to eat or pee in between cabins!  We were caught slogging along for 2 hours without any sort of a break which was quite intense. I’d never recommend setting out deliberately in a wind storm up there.

What was different for us was the sheer whiteness of the landscape. White mountains all around, while we were on a white plateau. When it was a grey-ish day, I almost felt vertigo from all the white in every direction. The treeless landscape afforded very long views so we’d be skiing for hours towards a destination without changing view significantly, until coming around into another valley.

What made our trip easier to organize was the existence of the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT), the country’s biggest outdoor club. The DNT maintains hundreds of backcountry (and frontcountry) huts as well as thousands of kilometers of tracked and/or marked ski trails. They offer great, detailed advice about routes and are very responsive to phone and e-mail inquiries. They have offices and booths in Oslo and other major cities. Their website is http://english.turistforeningen.no/. Another extremely useful website for hiking or skiing route and hut descriptions is: http://ut.no/. Google Translate will be of help here! This site can generate incredibly detailed trail maps complete with elevation changes.

There are basically 3 kinds of huts in Norway. The DNT maintains “full-serve” and “self-serve” huts. Full serve huts serve full meals, have saunas, and are quite well-equipped, though they usually don’t have running water or electricity. The DNT is famous for their “self-serve” huts which are not staffed but which include a well-stocked pantry of dried and canned food onsite. You just show up, keep a list of what you’ve eaten, and leave a credit card number in a safe when you leave. Huts also have propane stoves, dishes, and sleeping bags. You’ll need to bring along a sleeping bag liner. Also, be sure to check opening dates on the DNT website for each hut before going there; opening schedules can vary from year to year.

 

There are also more rustic huts, maintained by a smattering of different local organizations. They are smaller and have fewer amenities; some may have sleeping bags, others not, for instance, and they rarely stock food. We stopped into two of these huts for lunch and found them very cleverly built and charming, as well as considerably less expensive than the DNT huts. However, the challenge would be to find the information about each hut from afar – the organization to contact to find out whether they are open and what’s in the hut. Also, all of these huts are first-come, first-served; it would be a problem to arrive to find a small hut full in the middle of the howling wind and need to continue on for several hours to the next hut.

We became members of the DNT, which is worth it if you’re planning on staying in their huts for 4 nights or more. For the 2016 season, membership cost 640 NOK per person (or 1150 NOK per family) which comes out to $96 per person or $173 per family (as of writing, the exchange rate is 1 NOK = 0.15 CAD). Membership offers significant discounts on huts, food in huts, and even hotels in ski areas. At the reduced membership rate, the self-serve huts cost 240 NOK each per night as of 2016 (around $36). This is actually a great deal as there is virtually never a fee to enter mountain areas, parks or use any ski trails, and considering how expensive everything else in Norway is for Canadians. The quality of the huts is truly excellent. They are well-stocked, comfortable, charming and better insulated than my apartment in Montreal! Just to compare, a stay in a seriously rustic hut in Québec’s SÉPAQ system, including park access, probably now costs at least $35-$40 per person per night.

You could get by just eating hut food, but it’s good to have a look at the list of what’s typically in the huts, and perhaps bring some food to supplement. The DNT can send you such a list if you ask. There were no granola bars or nuts to speak of in the huts we stayed at, and we were happy we had brought along sandwich ingredients for lunches. They provide dry “Wasa” crackers, tinned fish and Vache-qui-rit-style cheese. We were happy to have bought a massive hunk of Jarlsburg cheese, sausage and wraps in a grocery store in Oslo before setting off. Note that you’ll pay per item in the huts: per tea bag, per packet of sugar or salt, or jam container; it would be considerably less expensive to bring these items with you, though heavier. We got a kick out of sampling the canned reindeer meatball stew, though the idea was more exciting than the actual food!

It’s not possible to reserve the huts. You make a deposit of around $20 for a universal key (at the DNT office in Oslo and probably at other DNT offices too), and just show up. Seniors and members have priority in terms of actual bunks. There are often extra mattresses around that can be pulled out. The policy is that no one gets turned away.

For water, people just melt snow. Onsite in the huts there is always a wood stove, lots of wood, buckets for gathering snow and a big pot for melting it onsite, as well as clever racks for stacking buckets of melting snow. There are propane stoves and propane, as well as pots, pans, dishes, and cutlery, so you don’t need to carry too much at all.

Even the outhouses are pretty neat and clean. One of them even had a basket of dried flowers in it! The huts were so nice, well-maintained and well-stocked that they gave me a sense of inferiority. If one of these huts existed here at home, would we just trash the place, eat all of the food and not pay? If Norwegians visit our huts in winter, I bet they’ll find our outhouses pretty atrocious!

Incidentally, in the huts there were matches, and candles onsite in the self-serve cabins, and toilet paper in the outhouses.

We flew to Oslo via Paris, because we were planning on visiting my husband’s French relatives after the trip. The train ride from the airport is frequent and efficient, but like everything in Norway, pretty pricey. At the time, things felt about twice as expensive in Norway compared to Canada.

The first thing we did in Oslo was to head to the DNT office to get our key. We also picked up some good advice, a recent topographical map (indispensable), and a bivouac bag. Timing was tight: we arrived at the Oslo train station at around 1:30 pm on a Saturday, and the DNT office closed at 3 pm, only to reopen Monday morning.  We had to work many aspects of logistics around the fact that most things are closed on Sundays. The DNT also has offices in other cities.

Traveling to the Huldreheimen area can be by train to Lillehammer, then by local bus to Espedalen or Strand. The local bus only cost 110 NOK or so in 2014 (payable in cash in the bus) but doesn’t run on Sundays. Alternately, a hotel can come pick you up at the Lillehammer train station, at considerably more cost though. Booking your train online ahead of time affords considerable savings, though then you won’t have the option of changing or cancelling your ticket.

Timing-wise, we had to stay in a hotel at the base of the mountain area before heading up for our first day of skiing. We stayed at Strand Fjellstue, a charming “ski lodge” that helped us with many aspects of logistics. Most hotels in the area cost a lot more on Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights. Strand Fjellstue was overall less pricey than nearby Espedalen Fjellstue. Our hosts were a couple from Norway and Thailand, and they served up fabulous homemade Thai food for supper! Which can be made as mild or spicy as you want! Most of these hotels rent out backcountry skis with metal edges (wax skis).  At Strand I noticed they were using NNN bindings. At the time I got the impression it could be hard to rent backcountry skis elsewhere, though recently I noticed a list of ski rental options on the DNT website. We brought our own skis from Canada and paid the surplus on the flights. It was annoying and heavy to lug them around everywhere, but it was probably less expensive overall, plus there was less risk of getting blisters.

Everyone was skiing on what I’d call “light” backcountry skis; not too rigid a boot, not heavy like telemark, but still sturdy and with metal edges. Though the skiing itself was dead easy (straight, pretty flat), we had difficult icy conditions that required metal edges. There was one incredibly steep pitch that we could have avoided via a lengthy detour. We were sufficiently remote and without cell phone access, so it was good to have sturdy gear in general. Norwegians tend to be snobs in their unquestioning preference for wax skis, though we were happy to have waxless skis because we had near-zero temperatures. It was critical to bring along sealskins, in our case because of the icy conditions. Generally for backcountry trips it’s a good idea – you never know what’s coming.

Many people traveled with packs, but some dragged sleds behind them, called “pulkas”.  Given everything that is provided in the huts, your pack shouldn’t be too heavy, though it’s important to have appropriate emergency gear including a warm down jacket and some extra food just in case.

You should have prior hut to hut experience to spend time skiing in this area. If not, you can take part in a guided trip with the DNT or find a guide with a private company. In 2016, guided DNT tours cost, for instance, 6100 NOK (about $915) per person for members, for a 6 day trip starting at the Oslo airport, including pretty much everything except for a couple of meals and the cost of membership itself.

We started our trip at Espedalen (720 m), and did a gentle climb up to our first hut, Storholiseter (980 m), which was formerly a farm. The huts had grass roofs and were particularly charming. We were happy to share our space with a group of 8 Dutch skiers on a guided tour, and one Norwegian man out for a ski. Our hotel had driven us to Espedalen. It would be totally doable but steep to climb up directly from Strand. We then stayed at Skriurusten (1040 m), Haldorbu (1025 m) and then Storkvelvbu  (1200 m) huts. They were all great. Storkvelvbu is quite spacious and a favourite with many people because it’s located above the treeline in an otherworldly landscape. Personally, I really liked Storholiseter.  Distances were between 10 and 13 km per day.


A lot of people were surprised to see Canadians doing a trip like that. Wasn’t there any snow in Canada, they wondered?

We didn’t see much wildlife – a few white ptarmigan and lots of tracks. In theory there are troops of reindeer (we did see their considerable traces, i.e. hoof prints, pee, poo and nibbled trail markers), wolf, fox, wolverine, lynx, and sleeping bears. There were many enticing tracks along the way.

In Oslo, hotels are exorbitant. Even the youth hostel, around 4 km from the centre of town, isn’t cheap. We found an “AirBnB” for a fraction of the price of a hotel, centrally located.

But it’s worth spending some time in Oslo to get a sense of the incredible urban skiing that is possible there. Cross-country skiing, at least according to what we observed in the ski museum and all around, really is the national sport. It seems to have helped in nation-building in the early 1900s. My kind of place! The ski museum (Holmenkollen) and ski jump were worth it – lots of fascinating tidbits about ski history and culture, plus a spectacular view of Oslo and the surrounding area from up top.

It was an unusually mild winter in 2014 in all of Europe. In Oslo in March, it really felt like springtime, with no snow in sight. We were surprised while taking the metro out to the ski museum at Holmenkollen to see plenty of folks board the metro decked out with their cross-country skis. They actually manufacture artificial snow for ski races outside of Oslo, so there was still snow at Holmenkollen for at least a few kilometers of skiing. Others continued on to the very end of that metro line to even more skiing. The last stop is only for skiing or hiking – there’s literally nothing else there. Depending on snow conditions, there can be up to 2000 km of tracked, free cross-country skiing accessible from that metro stop, of which 50 km or so are lit up at night. There are some DNT huts in that network too. This area is called the Nordmarka forest and there are many different access points. Here is a map of the trails with conditions: http://www.skiforeningen.no/marka/tpl/. Incredible!

All in all, it was a great adventure to finally ski in Norway. And there seem to be endless parks, trails and huts to discover if we get the chance to return!

Some more useful information:

Norwegian State Railways - https://www.nsb.no/en/frontpage
-          Oslo S (central station) is located at Jernbanetorget 1, which is very central and close to the DNT office.
-          Lillehammer station is located at Jernbanetorget 2, only seconds from the bus station.

Airport Express Coach – Flybussen - http://www.flybussen.no/en
-          this is the express bus that links the airport to the city. There are frequent departures.

Buses:  Opplandstrafikk.no - Téléphone: 07 177
-          Local bus system between Lillehammer and Strand, which cost 107 NOK at the time. You buy the ticket on the bus. The correct bus at the time was number 200, the Skabu line, which didn’t operate on Sundays. The weekend schedule was slightly different than the weekday schedule. We got the bus right outside the hotel to head back to Lillehammer.

DNT:
-          The Oslo office is located at Sturgata 3 in Oslo. It is open during the week, as well as from 10 am – 3 pm on Saturdays, and is closed on Sundays.  Tel: +47 22822822, info@turistforeningen.no

Sample rough cost estimates in 2016:

Bus from Oslo airport to Oslo, round trip, one person, bought online in advance – 265 NOK
Air BnB type accommodations in Oslo – 700 NOK per night x 2 nights
Food in Oslo (simple restaurants) – 400 NOK per day x 2 days
Train Oslo – Lillehammer, round trip per person, online in advance – 500 NOK
Bus Lillehammer – Espedalen, round trip per person – 240 NOK
DNT membership – 640 NOK per person
Hut accommodations – 240 NOK/night/member
Hut food – 100 NOK/person/day

Cost person for 8 days (2 nights in Oslo, 2 nights in Strand, 4 nights in huts): 5305 NOK, i.e. $800/person

Other costs might include taxis (astronomical), metro tickets, ski rental, museum, of course getting to Oslo, supplemental fees to bring a ski bag on a flight, etc.

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A big thank you to Bob Henderson for telling me all about this trip and giving me great advice, all the great people we met on the trip and who helped advise us as well, and to Frédéric Ménagé with whom I shared this adventure!

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