Norway – Galdhopiggen

Galdhopiggen – 8,100ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: July 29, 2010

nor5Leg 5: Trondheim, Norway to Roa, Norway
Including Galdhøpiggen – highest point in Norway

400 miles

The next mountain on our list was Galdhøpiggen, the highest point in Norway. We always had a special place in our hearts for Norway because our great-great grandfather and other relatives emigrated from Norway to Minnesota back in the late 1800’s. We were finally getting to see the land of our ancestors, to complete a journey that began so long ago. So Galdhøpiggen has a special significance to us.

We were currently in Trondheim, Norway and getting ready to head south. It had been difficult getting into Trondheim because many of the roads prohibit bikes. As an alternative there are lots of bike trails but sometimes they’re hard to find. Just a few miles before we had biked through Hell, a pleasant little town. A town with a name like that probably wouldn’t grow too fast in the US. Thankfully we could follow a really nice bike trail south from Trondheim.

After about twenty miles the bike trail started to get confusing. Sometimes it would cross the main road, sometimes it would sharply turn down a gravel road, and sometimes we weren’t sure we were still following it. Eventually we found ourselves on a suspicious-looking road and we doubted we were on the bike trail. I asked someone if this went to Støren and she suggested it did. But I wasn’t totally sure she understood my question. I zoomed in on the GPS and the road looked like it dead-ended. But a faint dotted line on the screen suggested there might be a trail that connected to the road to Støren.

It felt risky to keep going. If we went to the end and it didn’t connect we’d have to backtrack four miles, for a total of eight wasted miles. But we figured it was worth the risk and kept going. The road slowly deteriorated in quality from pavement to gravel to potholes. A cliff appeared to loom around the corner. It wasn’t looking good. Pretty soon we got to the corner that would make or break us, that would show if the road was connected or not. At that moment I turned to Eric to ask an important question. “Do you feel lucky, punk?” I asked. Eric paused a second. “Yes,” he answered confidently. We turned around the corner and there was a tunnel. It did indeed connect. Whew.

The farther south we went the tougher it was getting to find a good campsite. Now there were a lot more people and a lot fewer trees. But we found a good spot near Støren, up in a hayfield and pitched the tent. The next day we got a good sampling of Norwegian alpine scenery. We climbed high into the mountains and reached Hjerkinn, a tiny village on a big desolate plain. We saw some tall mountains and glaciers in the distance. These mountains looked pretty gnarly, and Galdhøpiggen would be even taller than any of the mountains we could see.

The next day it was time to make our little detour for Galdhøpiggen. It’s unfortunate that so many of the high points we had climbed so far had required us to make a side trip, and were not on the way. But our goal wasn’t just to cover distance on a map this summer, so we figured the detours were worth it. We turned off towards the town of Lom (pronounced “loom”) and started heading up into the mountains. We passed by the spectacular lake Vågåvatnet with turquoise-colored water. With the sun shining it looked like we were somewhere in the Mediterranean. All the rivers flowing into the lake had the same stunning turquoise blue from some mineral in the rocks.

From Lom (~1,500ft) we needed to climb up to the Galdhøpiggen trailhead at Spiterstulen, elevation 4,100ft. We hoped that the road would be merciful to us on the 2,500ft climb, unlike the road on the way to Halti. We didn’t count on it. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the road said “take that!” It shot skywards at what looked like an 18% grade, just at the verge of what we could even pedal. Ugh! I yelled. But at least we were psyched up for the climb, we partially expected it. If a hill like that had shown up out of the blue on some random road we might have had some more complaints. At least we knew that each foot of elevation we gained on this road meant that much less to hike tomorrow.

After ten miles of climbing the buildings of Spiterstulen came into view. It was like a little city up there with all kinds of guesthouses and lodges and who knows what else. I guess it was no secret that this was the start of the easiest route up the highest point in the country. We passed maybe a hundred other tents all strung out along the road next to their cars. As we pulled into the parking lot one dude was impressed and started applauding. We smiled and nodded. I guess not too many people ride such heavily-laden bikes up that road.

nor6A sign said that you’re not allowed to camp for free within 1km of the lodges. That was probably because any shorter than 1km and campers would be likely to use the lodge bathrooms. We muscled the bikes through the mud, rocks, and grass what seemed like a reasonable distance away from the lodge and spread out camp. The GPS said we were only about 0.3km from the lodge but we didn’t think anybody would care. We were exhausted. We had just zipped ourselves up in the tent when we heard someone yell “hallo, why are you camping here?” We told him we wanted to climb Galdhøpiggen. “You can’t camp here, it’s too close, you need to move 600m farther down the trail.”

Argh. Even though we were out of sight of his lodge that dude must have been hiking the trail and spotted us. He probably knew the exact point that was 1km from his lodge. At least he didn’t fine us. We painfully deconstructed our campsite and dragged the gear farther down the trail. “That guy probably doesn’t appreciate how difficult it is to drag such heavy bikes down this trail,” I said. According to the GPS we were now at 910m and we hoped it would be good enough because this was one of the few flat spots in the area. That dude would need to have a lot of nerve, we thought, to tell us to move 90m. It seemed so arbitrary. How would he know that we have a GPS? But we slept peacefully that night and didn’t have any more close calls with the law.

nor1The trail sign indicated that it was a “four hour” hike to the top. We were skeptical but had not had an opportunity yet to figure out our Norwegian trail time correction factor, so maybe it would be more accurate than in Sweden. We blasted by probably 75 people all dressed in what looked like winter gear. “Geez, there must be a Scandinavian rule that you’ve gotta wear long pants and a jacket year-round. It’s not actually that cold,” I said.

We climbed higher and higher into the fog and pretty soon encountered some snow. I figured out a trick where I could fold the tops of my socks down over my shoes to prevent snow from getting in. It would have been nice nor4to have boots but we didn’t get too wet in tennis shoes. Pretty soon the snow ended and we found ourselves next to a big hut at what seemed to be the summit. “Uh, you sure this is the top?” I questioned Eric. “It’s only been 2 hrs 5 minutes. It’s supposed to take 4 hrs.”

But it was the summit because a bunch of people were walking around taking pictures, and this was the summit hut that was on all the postcards. It was a little disappointing to see a building at the top, but at least there wasn’t a road. For the moment we had the summit to ourselves so we took all the celebratory and mandatory summit photos. Below us, slowly trudging out of the fog, we spotted a fifteen-person caterpillar. The people were clipped just feet apart. I wouldn’t have wanted to be on that rope, I thought to myself. We had to give them credit, they had taken a glacier route to the summit, but it still seemed ridiculous to see that many people on what appeared to be one rope.

nor2We sat there and ate a little snack and didn’t talk. We were trying to act like we were Norwegians. Just by our looks we could blend in all over Scandinavia. But as soon as we talked it was obvious we were American. It was fun to see the surprised expressions on people’s faces when we suddenly spoke English after they had mistaken us for Norwegians.

There wasn’t a whole lot else we could do besides admire the fog around us, so we decided it was time to head down. Two hours later we were back at the Spiterstulen base camp and unzipped the rainfly of our little Sierra Designs tent. I had acted like a greenhouse and dried out some of our gear while we were gone. We packed everything up and dragged the bikes over the nor3rugged trail. It was time to ride down: payback time.

Near the end the road was so steep you couldn’t really enjoy it. We were a little concerned about Eric’s brake pads because they were so thin. Inconveniently Eric had neglected to remember his spare pairs of brake pads so we had to keep a close eye on how much rubber was left between the Aluminum wheel rim and the steel core of the brake pad. We made it down all right and stopped at the bottom to see how warm the rims were. They were too hot to touch. “Wow, that’s pretty cool,” Eric said. “It’s lucky the hill wasn’t any longer.”

We found a nice (stealth) campsite next to the turquoise-blue Bøvra river. I wanted to bring my “filth factor” back down to zero, to “reset” the clock of cleanliness, so I went for a little stealth swim. The water felt so cold it seemed surprising that it wasn’t frozen. I’ve found that a good way to take a plunge into icy cold water is to jump in all at once and to yell when you put your head under. That gets the adrenaline flowing. “How was it?” asked Eric. “Pretty warm,” I answered, “and only a certified sissy would be too scared to jump in.”

Eric didn’t want to succumb to peer pressure, but he couldn’t resist a taunt like that either. To save face he took the frigid plunge as well. A while later, just as I caught a little trout a mysterious car with Czech license plates pulled up. Turns out it was even slimmer pickings for stealth camping with a car that evening, so we agreed to share our spot with them. We had a good conversation around dinner with Veronika and Milan, who invited us to stay with them if we ever found ourselves in Prague someday. They gave us a glass jar of preserved cooked chicken that Milan’s grandmother had prepared months earlier. We gratefully accepted it and told them we would gobble it up for lunch the next day.

Our next destination was Roa, the place of our ancestors. We identified a shortcut on the map and decided to take it. Although it may have been a distance-shortcut, it was not a shortcut in terms of effort. We ended up climbing over 2500 unexpected feet. It was frustrating. If we had known it was coming we could have psyched ourselves up and maintained a positive attitude throughout the climb. But instead it appeared out of nowhere and since we didn’t know when it was going to end, every foot of climbing sapped a little bit of our patience.

We found ourselves at Randsverk, at a crossroads, and decided to weigh our options over a liter of ice cream. We got some info from a local veteran cyclist who was passing through. He insisted that we should keep going through Jotunheimen National Park, through spectacular scenery, instead of through the valley towards Lillehammer. Both routes were the same distance. It would be pretty cool to see some more mountains, we thought at first. The alternate route would follow a valley the whole way and the roads would probably be busy. But Eric snapped us back to reality. “How far did he say we’d have to climb?” Eric asked. “He said we’d get up to 2,000m,” I remembered. We thought about it for a second. “Wait, that’s 6,000ft” Eric realized. “Dang, we don’t want any part of that,” I said.

We had already seen 2000 miles of scenery and plenty of hills so we didn’t think it’d enhance the trip to throw in a few more. Plus, contrary to what the cyclist dude had said, I had zoomed in on the GPS and identified side roads that enabled us to stay off the bikes-prohibited E6 all the way to Lillehammer. So, for once, we went for the easier road. It took us through little farms and avoided all the traffic.

But it was getting tougher and tougher to stealth-camp. Almost all the flat land in this area of Norway had been cleared for farming, pastures, or houses. The only wooded land was the hills, which were tough to camp on. By about 9:30 that evening we finally found a little pull-off near Ringebu. Expecting rain, we set strung up the tarp and put the tent directly underneath it. With the Appalachian Trail, Alaska/Canada bike ride, and other backpacking trips we had probably logged a year’s worth of nights in that little green tent; so by now the rainfly didn’t work too well and needed some help.

That evening was one of the first of the whole trip that we had to worry about darkness. We welcomed a little darkness because that meant it would be easier to sleep. That night it ended up raining for about three hours but the trusty green tarp kept us dry.

The next day it was time to try to get in touch with our relatives. We were still one day out from Roa but wanted to give them a heads up. We continued on some rinky-dink roads along the Gudbrandsdalslågen river and found ourselves near Lillehammer, site of some of the 1994 Winter Olympic events.

We wanted to meet with Maria, Ragnhild, and Carl Jacob, all distant relatives on our dad’s side. It wasn’t very clear to me exactly what relation we were to them, but we were told it didn’t matter. Several relatives on our dad’s side had emigrated from Norway to Minnesota in the mid 1800’s seeking a better life. Our grandfather’s second cousin Arnie still maintained ties with some distant relatives who were descendents of those who had stayed behind in Norway. Arnie had visited Norway numerous times and was good friends with Maria, Radnhild, and Carl Jacob. Our grandparents had stayed with them sixteen years ago and said they were very nice.

We had three phone numbers in front of us. I was a little intimidated because it wasn’t clear if they even knew we would be coming. I thought to myself, now that would certainly seem pretty bizarre if two smelly American cyclist dudes just showed up at your front doorstep and said they had cycled 3000km and were your long-lost relatives. And plus, would they even speak English? But what the heck, I thought, how many times do you find yourself in rural Norway and have the opportunity to meet someone you didn’t even know you were related to?

I called the first number. No luck. Then Maria’s number. A nice old lady answered, but it turned out to be the wrong nice old lady, the wrong number. Third number. “Hi is this Maria?” I asked hesitantly. “Yes…,” an older lady answered. “Um, my name is Matthew Gilbertson and I—.” She interrupted. “From America? On bicycle?” she asked. Bingo. It was Maria and she knew we were coming. Her English was excellent too. I let out a sigh of relief. “You come tonight?” she asked worriedly. “No, we are in Lillehammer and we would like to visit you tomorrow afternoon.” “Oh ya,” she said, “that would be great, Ragnhild and I will see you tomorrow. Phone me when you are in Roa.”

We were in business. I didn’t know it at the time, but the reason they knew we were coming was because the wife of my grandpa’s second cousin had mailed a letter to Maria and Ragnhild at the beginning of the summer saying (in Norwegian), “to American twin brothers will be coming sometime this summer and would like to visit. They will arrive by bicycle.” They didn’t know the day we would arrive because we didn’t even know the day a week in advance. It sounded like we had picked a good day to visit them, on a Sunday afternoon.

We camped that night south of Eina. We needed to find a way to be in our Sunday best when we met them, but that would be difficult. It had been about twelve days and 1000 miles since our last shower, a new personal record. It had been so cold that it hadn’t been comfortable to swim in any rivers or fjords along the way. And it had been so rainy that we couldn’t expect any clothes to dry if we washed them in the creek. Twelve days of sweat, mosquito guts, bug spray, sunscreen, mud, and sunburned skin fragments had accumulated on our bodies and time was running out to reset our cleanliness clocks before the rendezvous with our relatives. We needed to take a stealth bath the next day or we wouldn’t give Maria and Ragnhild a very good first impression.

Fortunately the next day we identified a good-looking candidate reservoir for a bath that was six miles outside of Roa that we could swim in. It was the Jarenvatnet (Jaren Lake). We found a nice stealth spot on the south end and took stealth dip behind the cover of the cattails. Now most people wouldn’t consider that clean but by our standards our skin was now pristine.

We tried hard to keep our exertion levels down for the next six miles so that we wouldn’t sweat and spoil our cleanliness. We passed through miles and miles of wheatfields covering rolling hills and finally found ourselves in Roa, home of our ancestors. It’s a small spread-out town of about 1000 people.

Rendezvous time. We jumped behind the bushes and stealth-changed our clothes. We smoothed out the wrinkles, combed our hair and I made the call. “Hello Maria, we are at the bibliotek.” “Oh wonderful,” she answered “I’ll see you in one moment.” Soon a small green Volkswagen zipped down the hill and into in the parking lot.

A nice older woman with silver hair hopped out and gave us each a big hug. We immediately relaxed. We knew we would be in good hands. Since we couldn’t fit our gigantic bikes into her car she instructed us to follow her up the hill to her house. She sped off and zipped around the turns. When we caught up to her she had a big wide grin. “I’ll try to go a little slower,”Maria said with a smile.

At last we made it to her house and met her identical twin sister Ragnhild who also greeted us with a big grandmotherly hug. She lived about 150ft away from Maria, and each sister had her own nice house.

Over the next day and a half Maria and Ragnhild treated us like grandsons. All of our initial trepidation as to what they would think of us quickly washed away. It didn’t matter that we weren’t exactly sure how we were related to them, they welcomed us into their homes as if we had known them all along. The fed us like royalty with an exquisite spread of traditional Norwegian food and special-occasion cutlery. They fought over whose house we would sleep at and who would cook each meal.

The first day they took us to the Jevnaker church, a two-balcony wooden Lutheran church which was built in 1832 with the help of some of our ancestors. I could imagine over a hundred years ago our ancestors sitting in the same pews as us. The next day they took us to a few stone churches that were built in the 1100’s. Good old Norwegian construction, we thought, built to last. In the evening we met up with another relative who runs the Nøkleby farm, which has been in the Nøkleby family since the 1300s. He took us on a tour of the countryside and drove us up to an old farm that some of our ancestors had abandoned to come to America.

Those few days with Maria and Ragnhild were the first two in a long time that we could finally let our guard down. We didn’t have to worry about food and we didn’t have to worry about getting kicked out of our campsite in the middle of the night. It was the first few days of peace since June. We were sorry to leave but we told them we would come back. Someday.

The summer wasn’t over yet, and we still had some mountains to climb. The next “peak” on our list was the infamous Møllehøj in Denmark…

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