It’s embarrassing, but I had to set an alarm to wake up at 8AM. We rushed to the Visitor Centre to try and secure a booking on one of today’s tours. They didn’t open until 9AM – which I would have known if I’d checked – so we could have slept in a little longer. The weather wasn’t great, with colourless grim skies, but it wasn’t forecast to rain. It wasn’t going to be pretty photos, but it would still be a fun experience. We caught our first glimpses of the glacier, and were honestly surprised at just how long it was, stretching around several bends, and disappearing into the clouds
We got a little lucky, booking the final two spots on the first of the Long Ice Tours – we just had to pay 660NOK (€70) each for tickets. Oh, then we had to pay another 50NOK to drive to the car park where the tour started. Even though the tour was due to start in just over an hour, it was a rush to get ready in time. It was a fifteen minute drive to the car park, and then we still needed to have breakfast and make lunches for the day.
We found our tour group, signed our liability waivers, and got a set of crampons and a pickaxe. Shit was going to get serious.
It’s possible to walk to the glacier from the car park, but our tour included a ride on the small boat, saving a little energy, and a little time. I thought I had read on a tour brochure about seeing icebergs drifting along the water, but the glacier was at least 200m inland – so either it was a different tour, or very, very out of date.
We walked as a group to the start of our trek, crossing a small but rather aggressive river on some very shaky bridges.
At the foot of the glacier, there were teams busy shaping the steps with their axes. We donned our harnesses and laced up our crampons, and had a safety rope joining all 12 of us. I was mistaken as the alpha male of the tour, and had the extreme responsibility of being the rear anchor.
We learned how to walk (and how not to walk) in crampons, and then set off up the steps on the glacier. I’ve done plenty of hiking in snow, wearing snowshoes, but this was something quite different – as was the ice. Walking wasn’t as clumsy as snowshoes, but still a little awkward, making my giant footprint even larger. The grip was phenomenal, and at times I forgot that we were walking on extremely slippery ice.
And this was the thing that surprised me the most, the ice was like an amalgamation of millions of ice cubes. It wasn’t slushy like spring snow, nor singular like a frozen waterfall, as I’d expected. I’m not sure if it is just the outer surface that has been sun affected, or if the entire body has the same composition – a question that in hindsight would have been good to ask.
We walked in our little gang chain, yelling ‘stop’ anytime we wished to stop for photos – which was fairly often, so pace was slow.
There came a point fairly early on where we had to cross over a very deep crack in the ice, and it suddenly stopped feeling like a casual hike, and started to feel serious, the possibility for serious injury became apparent – and I understood why it was not possible to hike outside of a guided tour.
But, it was in these cracks and crevasses that the beautiful colour of the glacier came out. It was a rich blue, getting deeper in colour as the cracks too got deeper.
We reached a point where our guide, a perfect example of a gnarled mountain man, allowed us to step into an ice cave. He stepped in and disappeared around a corner, but the other tourists took one or two steps in and stopped. Eventually it was our turn, and I thought it was incredible inside the blue tunnel, and was curious how far we could squeeze down – probably only another 5m at most. The colour was fantastic, and the smooth organically shaped walls were iridescent, seemingly shifting in hue. Unfortunately, this was the only safe tunnel available this year, unlike last year which had some much larger ones.
We all re-joined the safety rope, and continued on our trek up the glacier. From here on, the pace increased, mostly due to the scenery being a little less dramatic – other than the occasional giant blue hole, or small rivers carving through the ice and disappearing far below.
We stopped for lunch on the glacier, with our first, and only, taste of sunshine for the day. It was much appreciated, as I hadn’t really considered my clothing all that well. Ambient temperatures weren’t that low, even though we were hiking on ice, but the lack of activity/exertion meant I wasn’t producing quite as much heat as usual.
The return trip was much faster, with the group barely stopping. We caught sight of the other groups that were now making their way up, laughing how they appeared like a slave gang, all tied together – the shorter tours didn’t use a harness, and instead they were literally tied to one another with a rope around their waists.
We stopped to play with the drone by the foot of the glacier, as we weren’t allowed to fly while on the tour – disappointing, but understandable, as it does take up quite a bit of time. It was amazing to see it from above, seeing the line of ant-like people traversing their way across. I just wished that it was a little sunnier, to have enjoyed some colour, rather than the dull grey tones.
By the time we finally got back to our car, it was 4:30. We’d been gone for over 6 hours. It felt like we had a busy day, but struggled to believe that it was nearly dinner time.
We had a quick stop at the visitor centre, hoping to view the glacier museum – however, we were put off by the €9 entry fee. Like most of the other tourist buildings we’ve seen in Norway, this too looked fantastic. I jumped up on a rock to take a clearer photo, and in the process, unbeknownst to me, my phone fell out of a hole I didn’t know existed in my pocket. I was curious where my phone was, but it wasn’t until an hour later that I stopped to actually look for it. It would ring, but we couldn’t hear it in the van. I had a feeling that it must have been when I climbed that rock, but it was just an instinct. I logged into my Google account on Risa’s phone, and sure enough, I managed to locate it right where I thought it would be.
We finished filling up with fresh water, and dumping the dirty, then made our way back to the visitor centre. Thoughts were going through my mind if it was worth the effort to return for it – but I quickly remembered that I’m not rich, and I can’t afford to just throw a perfectly functional phone. As we got closer, we started getting a fine misting of rain, which increased in an almost exponential curve with our distance remaining. The phone had gone flat by the time we’d arrived, so thankfully I was pretty confident where it was – and it was there. Wet, and sitting in the wet moss like a sad piece of black glass. I disassembled as much as possible, and left to dry overnight, resurrecting like a phoenix the next morning. It’s the second time it’s had a potentially fatal encounter with water on this trip and came out of it unscathed! (the other time I dropped it into a pool of sea water at Cinque Terre after flying the drone).
It was now 7PM, and I was exhausted. Rather than drive for another 90 minutes to get where I wanted to spend the night, we stayed in a small lay-by not too far from the National Park.
We re-drove towards Sogndal, which was nice the first time, and much less fun the second time. It was nearly lunch time by the time we’d arrived where I’d planned to spend the night last night. There was yet another ferry to cross the fjord, and once again it was 112Kr (€12).
Borgund Stave Church
From Lærdal we took a slight detour to visit one of the most original stave churches remaining in Norway. As well as surviving hundreds of years of harsh weather, there was a period where they were being burnt by arsonists (including an infamous member of a black metal band – though his incarceration was for murder, rather than arson). It was said that there were hundreds of these style of churches in the country, especially in the poorer regions that couldn’t afford to build places to worship in stone.
I digress somewhat. The visit, 90NOK (€9) started with a small museum, showing the construction, renovation and cultural finds of this church. We weren’t trying to avoid visiting the church, but we put it off as long as we could, like leaving the largest Christmas present to last.
We could see the dark shape of the church in the cemetery across the road. It looked every bit as evil as the one we’d visited two days ago in Lom. Only when approaching did we notice how small this church was. The first tier was less than 2m off the ground, and the whole church would have been at most 15m high.
Putting aside our shock/disappointment at the size, we went to make use of our ticket and enjoy a closer look. It had the same detailed dragons heads, as well as the roofing tiles that resembled the scales of a reptile. The timber was treated with tar, giving it that sinister black look. The incredible scent of oak was missing from this church.
Stepping inside, we also realised that not only was the scent missing, but so too were all the interior fixtures. It wasn’t completely bare, there was a large painting where the altar would have been, as well as some decorative carving adorning the internal structure. It was calm and serene, but mostly, it was a dim, and bare wooden void.
The doors and doorways were covered in far more decorative carvings, which still felt really out of place in a church – I guess the transition from paganism didn’t happen overnight. I was going to mention how strange to see the dragons on the church, but I guess it’s no different to the gargoyles, or the spires with St. George impaling a dragon, like we’ve seen countless times in other countries.
Continuing on our journey, we had two options. One was taking one of the world’s longest vehicle tunnel (24km), or taking a long and winding scenic detour – of course we took the detour, though, in retrospect, the tunnel would have been more suitable today.
It started off steep, and narrow. If this didn’t make progress slow enough, there was a constant stream of vehicles coming towards us, which required us to frequently pull over to allow them to squeeze past. It wouldn’t have bothered us so much if we had amazing views, but we were still quite low, and views were of pine forest and occasional glimpses of rivers.
The day had started with fantastic weather, but slowly things had been deteriorating. By the time we’d made it to the summit of the road, we were being lashed by freezing gusts of wind driving icy rain horizontally at us. We put on our rain coats and went to see what there was to see from a car park, but it was only a small lake, which happened to be right beside the road that we’d be driving along anyway. The bare flesh on my exposed feet stung from the cold. I thought a 5-minute walk would have been fine in thongs, but I guess I underestimated Norwegian summers.
From here, the scenery continued to get nicer, and the road also improved somewhat – even if the weather didn’t. I’ve said this a lot about driving in Norway – on a clear day, it’d be stunning.
Stegastein Observation Deck
This observation area, perched high on the side of the valley above Aurland, was almost certainly the highlight of the drive. Again, another fantastically designed view platform that juts out over the valley below, giving incredible views – leaning on the edge tested both of our comfort zones.
Oh, and the view? It probably doesn’t need repeating, but I imagine it’s incredible on a clear day, as it was still rather amazing on a grey day like today.
We were lucky enough to visit this area with Runar last year, cycling a 55km portion of the Rallervegen from Finse to Flåm. This high alpine plateau was as stunning as any we’d driven through, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.
There were still more tunnels, firstly a 7km long uphill, followed by an 11km downhill. Thankfully they weren’t too dark, nor too narrow – though, everytime we passed a bus/truck coming the opposite direction, I winced with fear a collision that thankfully never came about.
Risa had been feeling a little unwell the last few days, otherwise we would have pushed on to climb Trolltunga. Instead we had an early evening, and watched Life Aquatic, which is still just as awesome as the first time I watched it.
Risa still felt a bit sore, so we slowly made our way towards the start of the Trolltunga hike. The sun was shining, but we just relaxed in the van, reading up on Sweden, Finland, and where we wanted to visit in the Baltic region.
The official Trolltunga car park charges 600NOK (€60) for 24-hour parking, so we avoided that by staying in a free park in the neighbouring town – though, the industrial complex might not have made for the most memorable views.
We packed and prepped for the hike, and went to bed nice and early, ready for a big day of walking tomorrow.
It was bitterly disappointing to wake to heavy rain, after going to bed with a forecast predicting fine, albeit cloudy weather. It was still early, but as I monitored the weather, the forecast just worsened and worsened, with up to 25mm of rain predicted for the morning. While we probably could have still gone, we weren’t going to enjoy a 10-11hr hike in miserable weather like this.
We struggled to make a plan, as we had really, really wanted to do this hike. We could have waited and tried again tomorrow, however, the rest of the week now looked much the same – wind, rain and clouds. It was difficult to drive away unfulfilled, but after hearing so many stories about disappointing views in bad weather, or worse still, tourists getting caught in poor weather, we thought it the right thing to do.
The morning dragged, with part of me hoping that the weather would suddenly change, and we’d be able to still hike, but it was now after 9AM, and the weather was so far matching the forecast. It’s recommended that you don’t start after 10AM, so we knew that it was done – maybe we’ll be back in the future.