Ahead lay an undulating rock-strewn plateau that stretched as far as the eye could see. Behind declined the goat path-like hiking trail I had just come up, plunging 1,800 feet in half a mile. The wind moaned as it moved across the expanse and my lungs echoed the sound, protesting the hard climb. But the view was worth it.
Below lay Lake Gjende , a black, pristine glacial body of water 10 miles long, speckled with shafts of sunlight and ringed by snowcapped mountains and glaciers that ducked in and out of the clouds. I was 4,300 feet high in Norway, exploring the spectacular Arctic-like terrain of Norway's mountains, a hiker's paradise largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic.
The area was Jotunheimen, the land of Peer Gynt, playwright Henrik Ibsen's mendacious youth who spins tales of plunging off the mountains atop a huge buck reindeer. It was also the hiking domain of adventurous Englishmen, whose boastful journals of their explorations in the 1800s provide amusing diversion when you are socked in inside the comfortable mountain huts and hotels that are scattered throughout the region. The English popularized hiking here, just as they introduced fly fishing for salmon, and today they still come in summer -- along with Norwegians, Germans and a smattering of other foreigners.
Summer travelers have long been attracted by Norway's majestic fjords, its reputation for midnight sun in the far northern land of reindeer and colorful Laplanders. But few visitors know that this country has the highest mountain range in northern Europe and offers some of the most dramatic and accessible alpine-style hiking on the continent, not only in Jotunheimen, but in the mountains of Rondane and the vast rolling expanse of Hardangervidda.
Norwegians don't seem to go out of their way to advertise this, perhaps because they want to keep the mountains for themselves, or because overcrowding in huts is endemic in late July and early August, which is high season. Were it not for some fortuitous comments by Norwegian friends of mine, I would never have had the good fortune to spend five days hiking amid the "dizzying mountain spires" Ibsen wrote about in "Peer Gynt," where "golden eagles seemed to float and fall away like motes in sunlight."
In a country rich with so much physical beauty, many Norwegians consider the Jotunheimen region to be one of the crown jewels. Jotunheimen, which means "home of the giants," forms the heart of Norway's main mountain range, and though it is only about 175 miles northwest of Oslo (a day's jaunt by train and bus), measured by its sense of rugged solitude it could be thousands of miles from civilization.
Here sit Norway's two tallest mountains, which bear the resonant names of Galdhopiggen and Glittertind, both scraping the 8,000-foot mark. Many 6,000-foot peaks abound, their rugged and spirey shapes making them alp-like despite their smaller size, like Krykja, which resembles the Matterhorn. Large glacial lakes, mountain tarns and roaring streams add to the diverse beauty of this sparse, yet teeming terrain that is filled with birds, fish and resilient plant life.
It is a quirk of Mother Nature that opens the unusual topography to hikers, for based on latitude alone, most of Norway should be buried permanently under a blanket of snow and virtually uninhabitable. It is located at roughly the same latitude as Greenland, northern Alaska and Siberia, and the treeline drops as low as 2,000 feet in some places. But thanks to a felicitous northward loop of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, Norway has a hospitable climate not unlike that of northern New England, permitting hikers to traverse the vast, treeless plateaus and climb the mountains.
While nature has orchestrated the splendid setting, it is an organization called Den Norske Turistforening, or DNT, that enables mountaineers and strollers alike to enjoy it. DNT is the Norwegian Touring Association, a nationwide group founded in 1868 and dedicated to outdoor hiking and skiing.
The DNT and other private groups combine to maintain more than 250 mountain huts and hotels, from rustic self-service huts to plush lodges housing more than 100 people and serving three meals a day. The DNT also marks trails and issues maps, so that even novice mountain hikers can comfortably set out on day treks in this wilderness.
I began my five-day hike at Gjendesheim, a large lodge that serves as a major jumping-off point in Jotunheimen, and had planned to make a loop via a ferry that runs along the lake. Now, far below, looking like a toy boat from my vantage high on the plateau, I could see the ferry on its return run on the lake from one of the other lodges. The ferry not only shuttles passengers but takes luggage to and from different lodges so hikers can travel light. My pack was wisely crammed to cope with every meteorological eventuality, since early June, when I was hiking, still produces some mercurial mountain weather.
This day, as I walked between huts at Gjendebu and Memurubu, it snowed, showered and then showed a little sun -- weather that was typical of my stay. Snow patches remained in some places and the temperature rarely reached 60 degrees, though the sun, when it appeared, was warm.
As consolation, the evenings usually cleared, the sky glowed with light well past 10 o'clock, and there were no bugs, which can be pesky in July and August when short-sleeve weather with temperatures in the eighties prevails. The DNT recommends late August and early September as the best time to hike, advice I would follow the next time around, because the weather is more predictable and the crowds diminished since school has already begun.
After catching my breath up on the plateau, I headed off on the undulating trail that would take me the 10 miles to the hut at Memurubu. The way was dotted with lakes and streams, lichen-covered rocks and alpine sedge and wildflowers in some of the sunny sheltered hollows. It is terrain that is somewhat reminiscent of the open, rolling ridgeline of New England's highest mountains, like Mount Washington or Maine's Katahdin, except immeasurably more vast.
For the adventurous, there are glaciers for ice climbing and mountain faces to scale, but I was happy just to take in the scenery and the constant dramatics in the sky, where the sun and clouds played chase. That ended for good at midday, when a voracious wall of clouds devoured the sun and the wind turned from a caress into a scourge, whipping stinging sleet at my back. However, descending into a valley, the wind died down and the trail followed a freshet that grew into a roaring river descending to Lake Gjende.
Unfortunately, my boots felt as if the river had run through them by the time I got to the hut at Memurubu. A stove was fired up inside, tea was on and I sat down for a welcome chance to dry my feet. Norwegians prefer to hike the sometimes wet and boggy tundra in waterproof rubber boots, which seems advisable.
One of the social pleasures of hiking in Norway is the camaraderie of the huts, where Americans are uncommon and warmly received. That night, stuffing myself on a hearty veal stew, I ate dinner with a British couple who regaled me with tales of past hiking adventures and a hilarious dissection of the peculiarities of the Norwegian language, which they had learned partly by listening to Norwegian radio broadcasts on shortwave. After dinner I sauntered outside and caught the sun's golden descent below the horizon, and then turned to watch a nearby snowcapped promontory burn in amber alpenglow.
Norwegians' approach to hiking is sensibly leisurely and committed to avoiding unnecessary discomfort, with few of the bootcamp overtones one sometimes encounters in the Alps. The long daylight makes for a relaxed pace, and hot pay showers for around 50 cents and a "torkerroom" or drying wet gear overnight are welcome institutions -- though the latter can be an olfactory chamber of horrors. Lodges sell beer and wine, and the only fly in the proverbial ointment is if your bunkroom, usually four to six nicely hand-carved wooden beds, gets a snorer. (Some lodges have private rooms.)
Meals are served family-style in the lodges, and the next morning I ate breakfast with a couple of Norwegian women who described themselves as "housewives taking a break from their husbands." They were eager to practice English, and we discussed politics and tax systems and got into a heated debate after I disparaged -- and they fervently defended -- the importance Norwegians attach to rules of social etiquette. The conversation broke up in laughter as they watched me discover that the large round "salt" shaker I was using contained sugar instead.
No recounting of a hiking trip in Norway is complete without raves about Norwegian breakfasts, which are a glutton's delight. Marvelous cheese, wildberry jams and jellies, eggs, sausage and potatoes, yogurt, pickled herring, salami and fresh breads, and delicious black coffee are staples. You pack your day's lunch from the serving board too and get your thermos filled with juice, coffee or tea. Getting up from the table is often the hardest effort of the day. (A night's stay costs $25-$30 with meals.)
From each hut there is a multitude of trails hikers can choose, ranging from 10- to 15-mile hauls to shorter loops suitable for those who simply want to walk and explore the flora and fauna. I never needed a compass, thanks to the DNT's careful trail marking and rock cairns, but several acquaintances said it's necessary to carry one in case fog or bad weather envelopes the featureless terrain.
My English companions said a compass also helps when you are hiking in a location that happens to be at the corner of four different topographic maps, a frequent occurrence that they attributed to a cartographers' plot to boost map sales.
These same jovial Brits bailed me out of my one serious mishap on the trip, which occurred when the ferry dropped my luggage off at the wrong hotel, and I realized that I had left my wallet in my luggage. They kindly paid my bills, assuaging a nervous inn owner, who spoke no English but knew in some universal language that he was in danger of being shortchanged.
The next day, thwarted by clouds and snow at higher elevations, I had to forgo my planned hiking finale up a famed knife-edge trail that cuts between Lake Gjende and another lake 1,000 feet higher. So I chose to climb up a smaller peak directly behind the lodge, the last third of the way mounting on toeholds kicked in snow.
The clouds parted as I reached the top, revealing again the magnificent vista of sun-speckled peaks, and also the distant wake of the ferry, bringing fresh, dry clothes and my money. It was one of my favorite views of the whole trip.