Halti – 4,478ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: July 10, 2010
Of all the European high points, Halti (4,344ft) is one of the most difficult ones to drive to from its capital city, Helsinki. Just getting to the trailhead would require an eighteen hour drive. But luckily if by chance you find yourself cycling on the E4 in northern Norway, it’s not too much of a side trip. At least, that’s what it looked like on the map.
Halti is situated right on the Norwegian/Finnish border. It’s actually not a peak itself, it’s just the shoulder of a peak whose summit is in Norway. In terms of American state high points it’s about the same situation as Connecticut’s Mount Frissel. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. It’s one of the highest mountains in one of the most inhospitable regions of Europe: Lapland. It’s two hundred miles inside the Arctic circle. Eight out of ten summit images on a Google image search show it socked in by clouds. Snow lingers year round. The weather is too extreme even for moss. The closest permanent human settlement is ten miles away, although nomadic Sami people frequent the area in the winter.
“Sounds like a fun mountain to me,” I remember Eric saying back in May when were downloading the coordinates of the European high points. Now we were preparing to climb it. We had cycled to Birtavarre, Norway and were taking a last little rest before the climb up to the trailhead. We were scarfing down thousands of calories worth of cookies, ‘Sjokoladekake,’ ice cream, bananas, Polar Bread, meat, and cheese. We lived on 7-8,000 calories a day and looked forward to every grocery store stop when we could eat until we were completely full.
We were going to need it. We read on SummitPost that the gravel road winds 40km high up into the hills and then the hiking trail begins. It looked like we’d have a lot of climbing to do. We headed east up the fjord and began the climb. The road slowly degraded from pavement to gravel to gravel + potholes. Luckily it didn’t get any worse than that. We turned a corner and BANG like a slap in the face the road climbed a disgustingly steep angle. It was like Mount Halti was saying “I’m gonna make you boys work to get up here.” Ugh, we moaned.
The road climbed at an agonizing 15%-18% grade. Unfortunately we had opted for a faster set of gears back in Cambridge so we lacked a granny gear small enough to realistically let us pedal up. From our time on the Dalton highway in northern Alaska we thought we had seen the toughest of tough roads. A few hills such as Beaver Slide had been this steep but only a mile long. “If we climb all 40km on this steep of a road we’ll be halfway to the moon,” I predicted. It had to level out. But it kept going. I bet that if we had had a hill like this at the very beginning of the summer we couldn’t have pedaled up it, we wouldn’t have had the muscles for it yet. But after 1200 rough miles the leg muscles were finally there. We kept pushing.
One strategy on really steep roads is to try to swerve from one side of the road to the other and make your own little switchbacks. This helped a little bit. Fortunately we had just come off a three-thousand calorie rest so we were fresh. It’s frustrating when the road is that steep because at that angle it’s more efficient to climb the elevation on foot rather than through the bike. But at least since we had hauled our bikes up this far we would get to cruise down. That would be our little reward.
We pushed higher and higher until the trees disappeared and it was just rock, snow, and grass. Free-range sheep roamed around. We were in the frontier country. Pretty soon we reached the gate mentioned by SummitPost and realized that they had overestimated the distance. It was actually 25km instead of 40km. We continued 9km farther up a super rocky road and made it to a little hut that signified the trailhead.
“We made it, um…to the trailhead!” I yelled. Congratulations. Now it was time to actually start climbing the mountain. At that point it was about 8pm, but since the GPS indicated that the sun didn’t actually set and we were feeling good we figured we might as well run up to the summit, it was only 3 miles away.
There wasn’t a whole lot happening at the Halti trailhead at that time, just two cars: one from Russia and one from Finland. We looked with curiosity at the small cabin at the trailhead. We weren’t sure if it was available for sleeping or if it was private. But the door was unlocked so we went in. Inside were two bunks, a table, and a nice reindeer pelt that we warmed up in. We decided to keep it in mind for when we came back.
We locked up the bikes next to an unoccupied reindeer husbandry person’s shed and hid them behind the only bush. Theft didn’t seem too probable around here but you never know. Those reindeer can be tricky. We photographed the nice little map at the trailhead and started up.
The trail was about like the above-treeline portion of Mount Washington. By this I mean that there were rocks and a mountain and that was pretty much it. It’s nice how when you get high enough on a mountain, no matter what country you’re in, they all look about the same. The rocks and snow don’t know any language, they act the same in New Hampshire as they do in Norway. And the skill of knowing where to walk and what rocks are slippery is applicable all over the world. The Norwegian rocks couldn’t tell we were American.
Pretty soon the clouds rolled in and we said ‘zaijian’ (Chinese) to the view. Luckily a considerate reindeer herder had installed his fence mostly along the route, so we could follow it easily. Red paint confirmed that we were on the right track. Pretty soon a red sign pointed to Halti so we squeezed between the wires in the fence and headed higher into the clouds. We followed red cairns to the summit of a mountain but the signature-yellow summit cairn for Halti was nowhere in sight. Then we remembered that we had to hike downhill to get to Halti because the Norway/Finland border had been constructed arbitrarily and didn’t really follow the ridge top.
From looking at Wikipedia in June I had in my mind this image of a big bright yellow cairn surrounded by dense fog which marked the summit. Pretty soon POOF there was the same image in real life. I was starting to think that maybe it’s cloudy so often that the mountain has never actually been viewed from farther away than 100ft. (Intriguingly, even the Google Maps satellite photo shows the mountain engulfed in a cloud. Few places in the world are that cloudy.) Perhaps, I wondered, there’s actually another mountain hidden in a nearby cloud that is actually taller but has never been spotted…
Since time wasn’t tight we took the customary summit pictures with and without shirts, me and Eric jumping, and Eric juggling. If anyone else was around they would probably be confused with our strange American rituals. I tried to make a cell phone call to Amanda but there wasn’t even the slightest bar of service, we were pretty far from anything up here. If we went down the wrong side of the mountain we would truly be on our own.
It was 10pm and time to head down. The fog grew even thicker and it started to rain. Great. The temperature was in the lower 40’s. I totally lost my sense of direction. The trail looked completely different in this direction than the way we had come. “You sure this is the same trail?” I asked Eric. But there was only one trail to the summit so we knew were on the right way down. The key was to follow only the red-painted cairns which marked the official trail. More than once we couldn’t see the next cairn. We froze in place. One person would walk ahead to locate the next cairn while the other stayed at the known cairn. It wasn’t easy. More than once I got a little nervous. You actually kind of needed to know what you were doing.
But pretty soon we dropped below the cloud and we could see again. Whew. Now we could put out legs back in cruise control and think about other things while we descended. We made it to the hut and only one car was left in the parking lot. It was currently 11pm and it didn’t seem too probable that anyone else would come to stay in the cabin. “Ok, let’s stay in the cabin then,” I said to Eric. It was super cozy but we still didn’t really get a good sleep. I think I was psychologically used to sleeping on the ground and it felt weird to be suspended in a bunk bed. We got to sleep around 12:30am and didn’t wake up until we heard some commotion outside around 11am.
Turns out a couple other people had cycled up to the trailhead, both of them were in their late fifties. Dang, that’s pretty impressive, I thought. But it turned out they had a motorhome parked just at the top of the steep section so they had had an easy ride. As we pedaled down we saw another older dude with no gear riding up on an old city bike. “I wonder where he came from,” I asked Eric. “Oh, he probably came from Oslo,” Eric replied.
The road was too dang steep to even be any fun to ride down. We rode the brakes hard and stopped twice to let the rims cool down. It was fun to grab the rims and warm up our hands. We estimated we were putting 100W into each wheel. The muscles in my hand were starting to hurt from having to grab the brakes too hard. Too bad there wasn’t any type of engine braking on the bike. It would be cool to have some sort of regenerative braking system, but it wouldn’t be too practical because we only used our brakes for a total of probably ten seconds on an average day. Most of the time we wanted to go faster instead of slower.
Finally we made it back down to Birtavarre and we were done with the little detour. It had been a 22-hour side trip and it was totally worth it. The next destination on the list was Kebnekaise, the highest point in Sweden. But we still had a few more days of cycling in Norway before we would turn into Sweden.
We pushed on through fjord after fjord and finished the day with a nice beach-side stealth campsite near Norkjosbotn (that’s fun to pronounce). When we arrived on the beach at first it seemed perfect, there was a good twenty feet of sand between us and the water. But then we noticed that the sand was a little wet, which meant that perhaps it was just low tide and all that sand was about to be swallowed up. We scooted the tent a little farther up to the beach and went to sleep, exhausted. I went to sleep without being completely convinced that we were actually above the high tide line.
When we woke up the next morning we observed that the water had lapped within a foot of the tent. “Wow, that was lucky!” I said. That day turned out to be pretty miserable. We wound our way high up into the hills through an unpleasant headwind and were rewarded with another downpour. Closer to Setermoen, during the height of the downpour I heard that all too familiar excruciating whoosh of air from my back tire that meant I had a flat. There’s never a good time for a flat. I yelled at my stupid bike and politely gave it my opinion about the situation. Before I could teach it a good lesson I rolled it off the road.
“What are we gonna do now,” I asked rhetorically. But just then we spotted a little run-down building a hundred feet away. Maybe there could be a sheltered side, we thought. After this many days of cycling in the rain we had an eye for what places might be able to provide a little shelter. We got closer and closer and wondered, “what kind of building is that?” The door wasn’t locked (are any in Norway?) so we lifted the latch and opened it. Turns out it was a shooting range that was open on the other side. There was a nice big picnic table there just for us. We could not have asked for anything better, it was absolutely perfect. And we guessed that probably nobody would come to practice their biathlon skills at noon on a Monday.
But the flat tire was more significant than we had thought. The sidewall of the tire was ripped and the tube was bulging out. There wasn’t a good fix. A similar fate had befallen one of Eric’s tires a few days earlier so we were now without a spare tire. Geez, what’s up with these tires, we wondered. The best we could do was patch it up from the inside with some duct tape but that didn’t look too promising. This isn’t good, we thought, it could be hundreds of miles before the next bike store.
But a little luck was with us today. Two miles later we cruised through Setermoen and lo and behold there was a bike store right there. Bingo. I went inside and asked about new tires. For some reason each new tire was only $16 so I got three of them. In Boston a tire like that might cost $50. The Norwegians were way nicer.
That night we set up camp a little ways from the fjord and immediately put up the tarp because it looked like a storm was coming. We quickly scarfed down some dinner and battened down the hatches. I can’t even remember how many times that tarp saved us. The wind came roaring in but we stayed dry.
Next day it was time to make the big detour. We decided we wanted to climb Sweden’s high point, Kebnekaise so it was time to head over to Sweden. Norway had been pretty but cycling in and out of every fjord was getting annoying. Not to mention all the wind and rain. Maybe Sweden would be a little oasis of tranquility, we hoped.
We knew that the we’d have to do some climbing to get across the mountainous Norway/Sweden border but we had no idea how much. We didn’t have any topographic maps. So we psyched ourselves up for a big climb and headed up the E10 towards Kiruna. As we climbed the trees vanished and it was nothing but rock, water, and ice. I wondered with excitement what the border crossing would look like. Would we have to show them our gear? Would we be allowed to bring meat across? But the border crossing turned out to be more low-key than driving from Illinois to Iowa. One little sign read “Sverige” on the Swedish side. It turned out that since it was a weekend Customs was actually closed. Now how can Customs be “closed”?
Then it started raining again. Big whoop. It rained so dang frequently up there that it was actually more noteworthy when it stopped raining. We dragged ourselves through a couple of hours of rain and finally it was time to camp. We found a nice big river and an open flat spot and set up the tarp. It was shaping up to be one of our finest stealth sites of the trip. I went down to the river to cast in a couple of times. I went from fly to spinner to Rapala. Nothing worked. The rain was getting annoying. I casted into the same spot I had cast into twenty times before but for some reason this time it worked. I had myself a nice looking fish. I’m not sure what kind it was, but we measured him to be sixteen inches. I triumphantly brought him up to the campsite and cleaned him on the spot. Finally we would have some good protein for supper.
The next day we had a couple of options. We could cruise into the big town of Kiruna and take our first rest day in ten days, or if the weather was nice we could decide to head towards Kebnekaise. It was still raining by the time we got to the tourist office in Kiruna so we weren’t very optimistic. But when we asked the woman inside she said the weather was shaping up to be spectacular tomorrow, one of the precious few nice-weather days this summer. So, a little reluctantly, I said we could go for it and try to get to the trailhead tonight.
I spent about two hours figuring out a phone solution and then we grabbed some groceries. With all our errands finished we hit the road and headed west towards Nikkaluokta, the town at the trailhead of Kebnekaise. It was time for high point number 3…