Saturday, June 23, 2007

Chasing Summer in Norway

The Norwegian Mountain Touring Association has an extensive network of mountain huts throughout the country's national parks and wilderness areas.

Photo by: Norwegian Mountain Touring Association
Source: New York Times June 19th, 2005

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SUMMER is an elusive season in Norway. In this Scandinavian country, perched at the same latitudes as Alaska, Greenland and Siberia, snow and ice stubbornly cling to the wilderness well into May and then reappear with a jolt in the early fall. But summer - when it finally does arrive - opens a window into this country's love affair with its natural surroundings, as Norwegians of all social strata bound into the outdoors the moment the snow begins its retreat.

Exploring nature may be Norway's unofficial national pastime. Even in the darkness of winter, Norwegians brave subzero temperatures to ski in the mountains and on the country's many cross-country trails. The nation's open air, or allemansretten, act, passed in 1957, guarantees public access to wilderness areas even on private land, and an impassioned tradition of nature walking has blossomed against one of Europe's most stunning natural backdrops.

In fact, this country of 4.5 million is a champion of wilderness walking in a way unknown to most Americans. More than 200,000 Norwegians are members of the country's national outdoor club, the Den Norske Turistforening (the Norwegian Mountain Touring Association), which maintains hiking trails and an expansive network of mountain cabins open to members and tourists alike. In contrast, the 129-year-old Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest conservation and recreation organization in the United States, counts about 90,000 members.

Norwegians, as I discovered during a four-day hiking expedition to the wind-swept Hardangervidda National Park a few summers ago, embrace the outdoors with an almost reverential fervor. During a trek with a hiking companion, Tim Goldsmid, I met Norwegian hikers of all shapes - from a family with a pair of blond-haired children in tow, bobbing as they tried to keep up with their parents, to an older couple sharing sips of tea out of a stainless steel thermos on a rocky outcrop along the trail. While we were on vacation thousands of miles from home, many Norwegians often escape for a one- or two-day wilderness trips. Outdoor recreation is a way of life there.

"Hiking is a very special tradition here, because so many people live close to nature in Norway," said Anne Marie Hjelle, the director of the Mountain Touring Association, known as DNT. "Starting in kindergarten, children spend time in parks and the forest. Nature is all around us here, and it's something Norwegians feel very special about."

But while Norwegians fan out into the national parks in the summer, the country escapes much of the tourist crush that deluges Europe's more populous mountain regions. The well-traveled destinations in the Alps - among them, Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland - bubble over with vacationers ogling the snow-crowned peaks. Norway offers the perfect antidote: a remote and ragged landscape carved by majestic fjords into vertiginous peaks and verdant valleys that remain largely out of the path of the tourist stampede.

Hiking is the best avenue to explore Norway's national parks, many of which get scant numbers of visitors. The DNT's vast network of designated hiking trails form a dense web of routes crisscrossing the wilderness. Official trails are marked by the DNT's signature symbol: a T formed by a splotch of firetruck-red paint dotting rocks and trees every 100 feet or so along the serpentine routes. Founded in 1868, the DNT, whose Oslo headquarters are staffed by friendly English speakers, organizes hiking excursions with certified guides.

Perhaps the most distinctive hiking in all of Norway is found in the south-central part of the country, in the Hardangervidda National Park, the nation's largest, about 100 miles west of Oslo. It is a desolate lunarlike landscape of moors and highlands, with boulder-strewn fields, glacier-fed rivers, snow-flanked peaks and shimmering pools giving the region a barren allure.

Our days in Hardangervidda often began sunny, yet by midmorning, flotillas of metallic-gray cloud bands would roll in from the west, casting a monochrome glow over the landscape. The national park makes up one-third of the Hardanger plateau, a 3,860- square-mile wilderness (four-fifths the size of Connecticut) atop one of Europe's largest high mountain plateaus that is home to thousands of wild reindeer.

A good reason to invest in a $68 annual membership in DNT is to qualify for discounts on its 400 mountain cabins, which are sprinkled throughout national parks and wilderness areas. The cabins, known as turisthytter, vary from rustic mountain refuges with grass-covered roofs to grand timber-sided lodges sleeping up to 200. The huts provide a hot dinner and breakfast and a room to hikers at modest rates (starting at $45 a night), a boon in a country where prices for both food and lodging remain some of the highest in all of Europe.

For tent-leery hikers, forget roughing it. Europeans eschew the ascetic version of camping practiced in the United States - where purists consider freeze-dried meals and nylon tents an extravagance - instead favoring to import the comforts of home into the backcountry. Hut-to-hut hiking in Norway is no exception.

The Norwegian hut system allows trekkers to forgo the weighty accouterments of tents and cooking equipment that relegate pleasant walks to demoralizing slogs. With a hut as your base camp, you can glide over large swaths of terrain carrying little more than a light rucksack on your back.

Huts are most often spaced a four-to-seven-hour walk apart. With a map and compass, you can devise routes connecting huts that suit your level of fitness. Having trained for several marathons together, Tim and I opted for an ambitious four-day trek covering about 10 to 15 miles a day.

Adding to the turn-key efficiency, the DNT has established a novel billing system. Guests pay by credit card simply by signing a bill before embarking to the next hut. Guests also pay for food from the hut's communal pantry by the honor code. The bills are stored in secure lock boxes to be collected by DNT staff members.

Depending on the size and comfort of the cabin, meals vary from self-prepared preserved foods - a rib-sticking stew of canned reindeer meatballs was a personal favorite - to multicourse dinners of asparagus soup, mountain trout and cake. Breakfasts ranged from muesli to cured meats and the local goat cheese gjetost (pronounced YET-ohst), a Norwegian specialty with a distinctive brown shade and silky caramel taste.

The ambience in the huts was jovial, though staid, unlike the raucous, wine-fueled evenings one can find in the Alps. The Norwegians we met had a quiet demeanor; some swapped stories from the day on the trail, while others tucked in with books.

Showers and electricity are rare, but small luxuries abound. On the third day of our trek, after eight hours on the trail, we reached our destination at the Hadlaskard hut - a slate-gray house on the banks of a mountain stream - and dropped our packs to the scent of freshly baked bread prepared by the hut's caretaker. We jumped at the break from the dry biscuits stocked in the prior huts.

Our four-day trek on the Hardangervidda aimed to take in the 62-mile Hardangerfjord and the 5,500-foot Harteigen, a mountain famed for its distinctive fedoralike profile. We began in the roadless village of Finse, a collection of timber-clad lodges ringing a shimmering lake some 4,000 feet above sea level north of the park.

Finse is four hours west of Oslo on the main rail line connecting Oslo and Bergen, on Norway's west coast. The historic line was completed in 1909 and is considered one of the classic rail journeys in Europe, snaking through dense coniferous forests before mounting the steppe onto the treeless Hardangervidda.

Finse is a popular jumping-off point for hikers, bikers and cross-country skiers, who come to ski well into June on the nearby Hardangerjokulen glacier. Even in summer, temperatures can dip to near freezing at night, though comfortably warm up to the 70's during the day.

Long ago, Finse served as a stopover for horse traders traveling between Oslo and Bergen. In 1980, George Lucas brought Finse Hollywood fame of sorts: "Star Wars" buffs will recognize the glacial setting as the backdrop for the opening battle sequence of "The Empire Strikes Back."

A quarter-century later, the outpost buzzes with backpack-toting hikers and spandex-clad cyclists, who descend on Finse from June through August. Well-heeled guests stay at the Finse 1222 hotel, a 44-room establishment with a sauna, disco and a Turkish steam bath. Hikers pile into the DNT-operated Finsehytta, the largest cabin in the club's network.

The two-story wood lodge with white-trimmed windows has 200 beds. On our visit, we slept in a communal upstairs room filled with row upon row of guests on mattresses lining the wood floor.

Norway's raw splendor opened from the Finsehytta's doorstep. On our first day, we walked the better part of eight hours to our destination, the Rembedalseter hut. This 18-bed single-story cabin sat in a notch at the base of a glacier where Volkswagen-size ice blocks spilled down the mountainside in a cascade of massive ice steps. The next morning, hiking away from Rembedalseter, we gingerly crossed a narrow suspension bridge swaying above a torrent of ice-blue run-off pouring from the glacier's terminus.

This was hiking in Norway. And over four days of trekking across the western reaches of the 1,300-square-mile Hardangervidda National Park, vistas like this, all seemingly more jaw dropping than the next, unfolded with each bend in the trail. On a dense continent, Norway contains some of Europe's last unsettled wilderness.

On our second day, we reached a grassy outcrop overlooking the Hardangerfjord, a broad chasm with U-shaped walls jutting some 3,000 feet above placid blue waters. Below us, the ground plunged into a deep basin slicing inland from the ocean. Thin bands of falling water cascaded into the sea, while a cloak of late-morning mist still shrouded the fjord's full expanse.

The majesty of Norway's fjords is best consumed on foot, yet most summer tourists experience Norway's fjords from the confines of cruise ships and ferries trolling the country's craggy coastline. Nearly all of this natural bounty is left largely untracked. In a four-day trip, we passed Norwegian families and several clusters of hikers, including two university students from Amsterdam and a German couple on holiday. We were the lone Americans.

On the second day, during the course of a six-hour walk through fields sprinkled with lichen-covered rocks and alpine grasses, our only social interaction came when a Norwegian hiker with oak-size thighs surged by us on an uphill stretch of trail. We exchanged pleasantries that would be emblematic of our time on the Hardangervidda.

As the grade tipped skyward, our breaths shortened, yet our trail companion effortlessly accelerated up the track. The thought of trying to keep up with him never entered our minds. He left us with an amicable - yet fleeting - hello and a view of his weathered canvas rucksack strapped to his shirtless back.

Visitor Information

Getting There

Oslo International Airport,, is 29 miles north of the capital. Fares start about $950 from New York (Continental has a nonstop from Newark Liberty), and $1,250 from Los Angeles (no nonstops).

Express trains connect the airport with Oslo Central Station; the journey takes 22 minutes and costs $25 (at 6.5 kroner to the dollar).

Travel to Finse on Norwegian Rail,, takes 4 hours 15 minutes and costs $75.

Where to Stay

The Norwegian Mountaineering Association (DNT) huts supply room and board at a modest cost (from $45 a night with two meals; from $21 for just a mattress). Members save $10 a night. Membership is $68 a year and can be bought at or at the main office at Storgata 7, Oslo; (47) 2282-2800.

The Hiking

Trails in the Hardangervidda are well marked and accessible to hikers who are fit. The terrain is mainly rolling with modest grades. Maps can be bought from the DNT, and DNT guides lead outfitted trips; five days with a guide start about $420.

"Walking in Norway" by Constance Roos (Cicerone, $11.53 at is a popular guide with detailed information on the Hardangervidda and other popular hiking destinations.

GABRIEL SHERMAN is a reporter at The New York Observer.

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