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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)

Given the forecast, we unanimously agree on hunkering down for another night at Fondsbu—the park’s numerous trail options let us easily shave a trail day and one hut from our original itinerary. While the others read, play games, drink hot cocoa, eat chocolate, nap, and generally exult in the comfort of the hut’s two spacious living rooms, Jasmine, Jeff, and I again suit up for the worst that Norway can throw at us. We head out for a four-hour hike past icy lakes and white cascades, below dark mountains that occasionally peek through the gray fog—enjoying every moment. Knowing a hut awaits has a way of making miserable weather seem beautifully mystical.

But that rain delay will have to be our last mulligan. Any more days off will affect our reservations at later huts. So we hit the trail again on our fourth morning, in a cold wind and intermittent rain on a 10.5-mile, mostly uphill hump from Fondsbu to Olavsbu hut. Alex, Nate, and my mom happily deploy the three trekking umbrellas I brought, but the wind keeps inverting them and threatening to Mary Poppins my featherweight children to Sweden.

The next morning, the sun finally shatters the persistent overcast. Everyone walks with a quicker, lighter step as we pass beneath blades of gray rock that carve into the oceanic sky. My mom is doing great, clearly enjoying the scenery. Then we come to another stream crossing. The river-rich route presents numerous fords, and most hikers will cross them easily. But for a 75-year-old, the pushy water and slick rocks pose a real and potentially hazardous challenge. This one—100 feet across, swift, calf-deep, achingly cold with snowmelt, its bed paved with cobblestones—looks harder-than-average. A walkway of rocks, some slightly submerged, offers a route across that would save us from the numbing water—if everyone can avoid falling in.

I survey the expressions on my family’s faces: Nate, eagerness; Alex, uncertainty; my mom, mortal dread. I tell everyone that I’ll lead the kids and my mom across one at a time—quietly hoping we don’t end up with any broken bones or frigid immersions.

“Can I follow you first, Dad?” Nate pleads. Using our poles for balance in the tugging current, my son and I step carefully from stone to stone, some gaps requiring long, awkward strides. Nate stays focused and silent. At the opposite bank, the pent-up thrill explodes from him. “That was exciting!” he exclaims.

I return to guide Alex. I’m a little worried, but needn’t be—she knocks it off as confidently as her brother, reminding me yet again how much my kids have blossomed into seasoned backcountry travelers.

Then it’s my mom’s turn. She mutters her displeasure, but fixes the stream with a look I’ve seen before. It says, “Don’t push your luck with me.” Someday, when my mom puts away her boots for good, it won’t be her attitude that fails her. She attacks the crossing, shifting her weight from one slippery rock to the next, stretching and bending like a venerable yogi. Just before reaching the other side, she slips—and my pulse leaps. But she catches herself, only dunking one boot. Those balance exercises she does at her health club have really paid off.

Beyond the stream, we encounter no more serious challenges and the terrain gets gentler. We walk in warm sunshine up a rock- and tundra-carpeted valley, below muscular mountains speckled with snowfields, past lakes choked with plates of broken-up ice. Beyond a low pass, we descend gentle, stress-free slopes of soft snow, toward another lake and the most opulent hut of our trek, Leirvassbu.

In our private rooms, with a view of the lake and mountains, Nate—not normally a paragon of personal hygiene—dashes for the shower. He soaks for a solid 15 minutes and emerges burbling, “That was absolutely amazing.” I check in on the girls’ room: all smiles.

Later, in the spacious dining hall, we relax with a round of beer and wine and an appetizer of skinke, a prosciutto-like meat, served with potato and egg. After a salmon dinner followed by—incredibly—strawberries and ice cream, it appears everyone has made a full recovery. Proof positive: When the conversation shifts to that stream crossing, even mom is laughing.




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