Getting There

I am sitting here, enjoying a steaming bowl of creamy fish soup as I watch the raindrops patter down on to the window glass. Outside, the temperature has yet to reach double digits, and the steep black granite ridges rise over a 1000m above us, shrouded in mist with water cascading down in silvery streams and thunderous falls. Welcome to Flåm in the heart of the Norwegian fiords, in the middle of the Norwegian summer.

Rural countryside on the Oslo-Bergen Railway ....

... and on to the wilder places

We arrived yesterday by train from Oslo, crossing a landscape that changed from farmland to forested hills and deep inlets, to the bare-topped mountains, dotted with snowdrifts and lakes - an amazing change in scenery as we climbed over these mountains. Changing trains at Myrdal, we caught the famous Flåmsbana - the local train that descends 900m in 20km into the steep-walled Flåm Valley to the edge of the fiord. The rain had started as we reached the high plateau and it hasn't let up since.

The famous Kjossfossen falls

A familiar face on the Flåm Railway


Wet day in the mountains

This is all a bit troubling as, tomorrow, we take the train back up the valley and back to the small mountain station of Finse to start our 3-day walk over the Hardanger Plateau and down the Aurland Valley. We were both really looking forward to getting out in the fresh air - let's hope that it is not going to be too fresh.

Day 1: Finse to Geiterygghytte (14.5 km - 440m ascent - 420m descent)

When we woke up, the rain had finally stopped and a patch of blue sky even opened up above, as we chugged up the 895m from Flåm to Myrdal on the Flåmsbana train. From here it was only 20 minutes by express train to the small station of Finse, where we alighted ready to start our first walk in Norway. Across the lake the Hardangerjøkulen (glacier) glistened in the sun - while an icy north-westerly breeze kept temperatures down to the low single digits. It was full beanie, gloves and wind-proof tops and bottoms, as we crossed the railway line to find the large red T that marks Norwegian mountain trails.

Looking back down on Finse, its lake and the distant glacier of Hardangerjøkulen

The track led us quickly up through the scattered cottages and cabins that dotted the lower slope of Jomfrunuten, a small ski run above Finse. We climbed steadily up the broad saddle between the summits of Finsenuten and Sanddalsnuten, with the views back over the lake becoming more and more expansive. It felt good to be out walking in the Norwegian mountains and the heat generated by the climb was nicely counteracting the cold of the air.

What the well-dressed Norwegian trekker wears

Bridge across the Finseåni

Some shallow mountain streams can be waded ....

..... but not the Finseåni

Soon we were crossing a flattish area, where the Finseåni torrent rushed down from hidden lakes above. A small suspension bridge saw us safely across the foaming waters, and we started to climb again, following a line of stone cairns around the rocky western slope of Gjaetarguthausen. Vistas were now opening up to the north, of snow-dappled ridges and long deep snowdrifts - beautiful in monochrome.

Panorama of the low snow-capped ridges of the Hardangervidda

Continuing the steady climb, we crossed our first snow drifts to reach the small refuge of Klemsbu, perched on a rock below the barren peak of Sankt Pål. The hut was cosy - a great spot to get out of the wind an have a bite of lunch. Inside were a group of Norwegians heading in the opposite direction and we passed a pleasant lunch break chatting to them.

Crossing a big drift

The barren tops of the Hardanger Plateau

Klemsbu Hut below the peak of Sankt Pål

View from Klemsbu towards the south

Then it was time to bite the bullet and head back out into the cold. The climb continued steadily across the head of the small Flakavassfonn Glacier and over the rocky pass below Sankt Pål. The track now led us past a number of small half frozen lakes, fed by large snow drifts on the slopes above, and a series of small tarns in amongst the dark schist rocks.

Big snow drift on the pass

One of several lakes on the Pass below Sankt Pål

Still cold enough for streams to freeze

Then the descent started in earnest, down rocky path and steep snowdrift towards the lovely Omnsvatnet, ringed by dark snow-topped ridges. We passed small waterfalls lined by icicles and rock-hopped our way over the fast flowing streams pouring off the mountain into the lake.

Looking down onto Lake Omnsvatnet

Icicles of a frozen waterfall

The snowy surrounds of Omnsvatnet Lake

It was about here that the first flurries of sago snow started, stopped and started again - sunshine and snow at the same time, curious. Still, the sun came out in full again, as we veered away from Omnsvatnet and continued our descent across a jumble of schist boulders. Stopping for a short break, the weather caught up with us - flurries of sago snow were replaced by large wet snow flakes that melted as they hit the ground. It was time for me to put on my pack cover and hurry on.

Flurries of snow obscuring Bakkaheller and Tjornane Lakes

The marshy flatlands at the head of Geitryggvatnet opened up through the falling snow, and soon we were picking our way across the boggy track, once again in sunshine. It was a curious passage, as there are large outcrops of crumbling white schist along the lake shoreline and at times we were plodding in mud and at other times picking our way across small boulder fields. At times the track was both simultaneously rocky and boggy.

Fog over the Geitrygg marshlands

Crossing the Geitrygg boulder fields

Waterfall tumbling down from Kittilsbunosi

Crossing a rocky stream

Panorama of Geitryggvatnet Lake

Climbing over the ridge we saw a tiny Norwegian flag fluttering on a pole next to a distant wooden building - we were closing in on Geiterygghytte, our home for the night. It seemed to take a long time to reach, crossing bog, boulders, fast-flowing streams and snow-drifts, but we arrived just as the next fall of wet snow flakes began.

The last snow drift

At last Geiterygghytte

It was great to be in the warmth again - Norwegian Mountain Huts are in a league of their own, offering not only beds and hot showers, but beers and three-course dinners. Tonight's fare was home-made vegetable soup, reindeer meatballs with sauerkraut and potatoes and a compote of cloudberries and cream - sumptuous. All this washed down with a fine Norwegian beer - nothing like a glass of "Aass" to finish the day - "bottoms up!".

Day 2: The Long Road to Østerbø (25 km - 380m ascent - 780m descent))

Sitting in the warmth of Østerbø Fjellstove (mountain lodge) after another filling meal and cold beer, life seems good. Today we earned it - this section would certain be a contender for the "hard day at the office" list. It was not really the length, although 25 km is a long day under any circumstances; it was not the climbing, though there was more of that than we anticipated from the map; it was the track, which for the most part of the trip comprised either slick dark brown mud, sharp-edged and uneven slabs of rock, or both. It made for a slow and, at times, tedious trip, where concentration needed to be focussed on the feet and not on the glorious mountain scenery about us. End of whinging.

View past Geiterygghytte to the lake

Looking down on Vetredalsvatnet

We left Geiterygghytte in good spirits, our stomachs filled with a hearty breakfast and our packs containing the "make-your-own sandwich" that the huts here provide - local sweet goat's cheese and reindeer pate, good Viking fare. The sun was shining as well, but the temperature was still hovering around 0°C with a biting wind. We set off down the gravel road, only to leave it shortly after for the foot track that led us gradually up on a traversing climb along the western slope of Sundhellerskarvet. The views over the lake and the summits, dusted with snow from last night's falls, were lovely in the morning light. All was tranquil, including the occasional soft tinkle of sheep bells, as a small flock wandered by.

The path up the slopes of Sundhellerskarvet

Mountain sheep

The track levelled out for a while as we crossed Rossdalen, a side valley dotted with tarns and parted by a rushing stream, which fortunately had a nice aluminium bridge for crossing. From here we climbed again, beneath the snow-dusted summit of Bolhovd - on cue, a final brief flurry of snowflakes fell before the sun reclaimed the sky for good.

A mountain tarn in Rossdalen

Bridge across the Breibakkao Torrent

The Breibakkao Stream

Tverrelvi Stream

From this high point, the track descended slowly to the Breibakkao River rushing down a small ravine towards the upper Aurlandsdalen valley - it was our entry route into the valley and, crossing it on a small wooden bridge, we followed the northern edge of the ravine down. Leaving it, the track led us more slowly down the ridge slope to emerge at Steinbergdalen Turisthytte, an abandoned lodge that had been adopted by the local sheep.

Snow flurries near Bolhovd

Descent of the Breibakkao Ravine

Steinbergdalen may have been rich with sheepish scent, but it was still a fine place to stop for lunch, finally discard gloves and beanies and strip off a thermal layer - the day was warming and we had almost reached 10°C.

Heading down to Lake Vetlebotnvatnet and ....

... the abandoned Steinbergdalen Hut

Setting out again, we started our second long climb of the day, sidling our way up the western slope of Nosafjellet through a dense scrub of silvery-leafed bushes, a nice contrast to the open grasslands and herbfields of the tops. It was, however, a very difficult climb because of the mix of mud and uneven rocky surface that formed the track. We were rewarded at a spot called Skoradn with superb views both up and down this steep-walled valley.

Rock walls below Storhovd

The climb up to Skoradn

The upper Aurlandsdalen

Sheep on the high pastures


Path high above the lake of Øyestølsvatnet

The powerful Øyestø Falls

The climb continued beneath dark rock walls before finally dropping down sharply to cross the Øyestø River, as it thundered down in series of cascades from high above. The track now tried to follow a contour, which means there were lots of short climbs and descents while keeping the same level high above the lakes on the valley floor. It was a long traverse and we were starting to get used to the mud / rock make-up off the track - good ankle-strengthening stuff.

Route contouring the valley wall

Wildflowers on the slopes

The grassy flats of Sauavaddalen

Eventually the traverse finished as the landscape opened out into the broad grassy valley of Sauavaddalen - grassy but boggy. Crossing the rushing torrent of the Grøna River on an old wooden bridge, we descended to follow a smaller stream down its small ravine. It was here that my luck on the track finally failed and I slipped and face-planted in a muddy pool (still, normally mud packs cost a lot of money). We reached the crossing point of the stream and the fair Nello managed to clean me up to be reasonably presentable again.

Double-stranded waterfall on Storagrovi Torrent

Then it was a short climb up to the old abandoned Grønestøl summer farm, on its grassy rise, before descending once again to enter the forest for the first time - the decrease in altitude was certainly obvious in the vegetation changes.

Glimpses of Østerbø on the edge of the lake, Aurdalsvatnet, encouraged us onwards. A final section of rock and mud track brought us out, first on to a gravel road and then on to sealed road that would lead us to Østerbø Fjellstove, our home for the night. What a strange sensation it was, walking on the flat again after many kilometres of uneven surface - for a while we felt like sailors that have just set foot on land after a long time at sea.

Into the forest - a change of vegetation

View towards the lake of Aurdalsvatnet

The lodge at Østerbø

After 8 hours walking with few breaks, our bodies were flagging and the lodge was a very welcome sight - hot shower, cold beer, filling meal and warm bed - Norwegians know how to do mountain hut hospitality.

Day 3: Østerbø to Vassbygdi (21 km - 110m ascent - 880m descent))

The problem with the Norwegian Meteo is that it seems to be accurate - thus, we woke up to the pitter patter of the forecast light rain that would accompany us for the day's walk down the steep-walled valley of Aurlandsdalen to the track-end at Vassbygdi. Still, it was warmer, with temperatures finally reaching double digits (centigrade) - wet weather gear we might have to wear, but the beanies and gloves could go back in the pack.

Walking around the edge of Aurdalsvatnet

Reflections on Nesbøvatnet

Leaving the lodge at Østerbø, we followed a gravel road northwards before soon picking up the foot track. It was, and would remain, a much better track than the one of yesterday, still muddy in places and rocky in others, but generally a lot easier on the feet. It led us quickly around the shore of Aurdalsvatnet, up a small gap and then down into the next tier of the valley. Here, dark rock cliffs lined the edge of lovely Nesbøvatnet. Fortunately for us, where once were a series of rickety ladders, a nice wide ledge had been blasted into the rock wall, enabling us to stroll on by.

Narrow track high above Nesbøvatnet

17th century stone cottage at Nesbø

Not long after, we passed the grass-roofed stone buildings of Nesbø summer farm, dating from the 1600s. Once there were many such farms in these deep-walled valleys but today most, like Nesbø, have been long abandoned.

Just after Nesbø, we reached a junction in the track and choice time - to the right lay the high road, climbing steeply up to a ledge high above the valley with apparently glorious views, to the left lay the low route that followed the Aurlandselvi (river). In the rain, with slippery rocks and mists on high, the choice was not hard - we turned left (there is nothing I find more unpleasant than a steep climb in full wet-weather gear, where perspiration cannot escape, despite the claims of Mr Goretex).

Mossy terrain in the mid-Aurlandsdalen

A still pondage on the Aurlandselvi river

It would have been the right decision under any circumstance, as the low route took us along the river with its lovely clear green pools spotted with raindrops and lined by moss-covered rocks. At times the dark rock walls closed in to narrow the valley, the water tumbling down rocky chutes to lower levels. The views from within this ravine gave a much better sense of where we were than would a panorama from high above.

Four views of the deep gorge ....

.... cut by the Aurland River

In the heart of the Aurlandsdalen

A series of short but sharp climbs and descents led us down this beautiful section of Aurlandsdalen, before eventually rejoining the high road. A few minutes on, we made a short detour to visit Vetlahelvete (the Little Hell Cave) - more of a deep water-filled sinkhole than a cave, it was a great place to stop for lunch, dry beneath the arching smooth rock walls listening to drops of water plinking on the still pool surface.

Vetlahelvete Sinkhole

Back on track, we continued on a contour as the river once again plunged deeply away from us, before a steep zig-zagging descent brought us back to it. Another constriction of rock walls obliged us to climb up and over the rocky intrusion. Ahead, the views of the large dog-leg in the ravine walls were beginning to be obscured by a dense mist settling over the valley.

The vegetation of the Aurlandsdalen

We continued to climb, crossing the thunderous Veiverdalselvi Falls on a wooden bridge - such an incredible volume of water plunging down from the mists above. Another short climb brought us to Sinjarheim, another abandoned hills farm perched on a ledge of boggy grassland.

Veiverdal Falls thunder down from the mists

Three more views of the wild Aurlandsdalen

Cloud rolling up the valley

The old farmhouses of Sinharheim

Sinjarheim was the last climb, and the descent was steep and rapid, passing beneath white stone cliffs and crossing several waterfalls, including the impressive twin falls of Grovselvi. By the time we reached the small abandoned farm at Almen, our wet weather gear was dripping and we were as wet from perspiration within as rain without. The track led us across several rock slides and back into forest, where we found a nice dry rock overhang to take a break, but were soon back on the move to avoid chilling down too much.

A misty descent from Sinjarheim ....

... to the lower valley

Abandoned farmhouse of Almen

Cascades on the lower river

We were on the last leg, a long run into the hamlet of Vassbygdi accompanied by the roar of the river - first, the rocky foot track gave way to an old stone-walled path, than to a flat but narrow farm road, then to a gravel road that led us to the bus stop at Vassbygdi, where a gaggle of walkers were already waiting under shelter for the bus to take us all back to Flåm.

Track through the beech forest

Following an ancient cobbled farm track

Approaching Vassbygdi

Despite the rain (or perhaps because of it), this section had been a magnificent walk through a wild and extreme landscape. It came at a cost - in terms of sore knees, blackened toe-nails and aching calf muscles - but to experience this incredible scenery, from barren snow-covered mountains to the richly-vegetated depths of a fiord valley made it a price worth paying (I think).