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Backpacker Magazine – January 2013

Norway: Home of the Giants

Norway's Jotunheimen National Park bristles with glacier-clad peaks amid northern Europe's highest mountains, but a five-star hut system makes it a place you can bring your kids. And mom.

by: Michael Lanza

Rauddalen (
Rauddalen ("Red Valley") (Photo by Vegard Roine Stenerud)
Trail Junctions are well marked (Photo by Blick Winkel/AGE Fotostock)
Trail Junctions are well marked (Photo by Blick Winkel/AGE Fotostock)
Author with his Mom (Photo by Michael Lanza)
Author with his Mom (Photo by Michael Lanza)
Jeff Wilhelm Leaving Olavsbu Hut (Photo by Michael Lanza)
Jeff Wilhelm Leaving Olavsbu Hut (Photo by Michael Lanza)
Scrambling up Besseggen Ridgen (Photo by Michael Lanza)
Scrambling up Besseggen Ridgen (Photo by Michael Lanza)

The World’s Toughest Grandma isn’t about to let her grandchildren show her up. So after Nate and Alex cross the suspension bridge, she steels herself and goes for it. She moves slowly, stepping gingerly to minimize any bouncing. Watching her, I marvel at her ability to go far outside her comfort zone at an age when most people just want comfort.

After crossing the bridge, we descend a hillside of boulders and ground-hugging greenery, hiking past jet-engine-loud waterfalls. In a steady shower, we walk beside another long, narrow lake framed by naked hills.

While my mom walks with Penny, I quicken my pace to catch up with Nate and Alex. Closing the gap, I recall a family trip we took to the Columbia River Gorge last summer, also with my mom. At 74, she hiked 12 miles to Tunnel Falls and, the next day, seven miles and 2,800 feet up Dog Mountain. On that trip, my 8-year-old daughter couldn’t keep up with her grandmother. In Jotunheimen, though, Alex’s pace eclipses her elder’s. My mom hasn’t slowed much in a year; Alex has leapt forward. As much as I feel joy and pride at seeing my kids grow more capable, I feel a pang of sympathy for my mother. She can’t help but confront this generational changing of the guard, as inevitable as rivers flowing downhill. The sight of my kids pulling away from her has a disorienting effect on me as well: It feels like I’m looking simultaneously in opposite directions, into my own past and future.

I was in my early 20s when I first took my mom on a hike. I was single and steering hard into a lifelong passion for the mountains; she was a middle-aged mother with only two of five children out of college. At a time in life when many young adults and their parents grow more distant, my mom and I found something to bring us closer.

Over the decades, even after I married and had kids of my own, we still made time for two or three annual trips. We’d hike and talk about family, books, and recipes, as well as harder subjects, like her wishes for the end of her life. Those times entered a lockbox of memories—which will someday be my most prized legacy from her. And they inspired me to take my children on regular father-son and father-daughter trips of our own.

My kids and I pull ahead of the others through a cold, steady rain, and we’re the first to arrive at Fondsbu hut, on the shore of Bygdin lake. Inside, we all peel off wet clothes and feel warmth creep back into our bodies.

At dinner, boisterous trekkers fill every chair in the hut’s 67-seat dining room for two sittings. They’re mostly Norwegians drinking heartily and bellowing “skol!” at frequent intervals. We dig into salad and bread followed by turkey with home-fried potatoes and vegetables—and for dessert, chocolate mousse with sorbet. Then Sjølborg Kvålshaugen, the hut warden, stands before the packed room, hands clasped. Six feet tall and strong-looking—with a beautiful voice that stills the crowd—she sings, a cappella, the jazz classic “Whenever We Say Goodbye.”

The warmth and food and good cheer lift everyone’s spirits. But after dinner, Kvålshaugen informs me that most of the way to our next hut is snow-covered, and tomorrow’s forecast calls for rain and temps barely above freezing. At our bunks, I share this news with the others. My mom says nothing, her smile gone; Nate and Alex burrow inside their sleeping bags.

That’s just how a mutiny begins: when they don’t talk to you.




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