Mike Takes on a Glacier - Day 1
What is a Welsh rite of passage? Is it your first pie at a Cardiff City home match? The first time you dip your toe into the Bristol Channel in early February? The first time you summit Snowdon? Your first pint of Brains? All of these things and more. Growing up in Wales you learn and experience all the little things that make up what it means to be Welsh, and make home, Home.
This is the same in many countries across the globe and if you move to a country as an adult, like I very recently have to Norway, a common challenge is how to connect with people who have experienced a whole different set of experiences as they grew up. One answer to this challenge is to take on every rite of passage you hear about. If someone says, “remember when we skied across the length of Norway’s longest glacier and someone fell down a crevasse?” you say, “sign me up!” … And sign me up they did.
This May, I took on the challenge of The Jostedals Glacier. My first goal was to not fall down a crevasse. That was a rite of passage I was happy to miss out on. My second goal was to earn the respect of my wife’s family and every Norwegian I would meet in the future.
The Jostedals Glacier, or Jostedalsbreen as it is known in Norwegian, is continental Europe’s longest glacier. Bigger than anything you can find in the Alps, the glacier stretches for nearly 70km and it lies far in the West of Norway. It connects Norway’s highest peaks with its idyllic fjords. It is a maze of crevasses, 2000m peaks and wind-carved holes that appear out of nowhere and drop 100 ft. Skiing the length of Jostedalsbreen entails a three-day trip on cross-country skies. It involves carrying 25KG on your back and it means sleeping for two nights on the ice. The challenge of Josten På Langs, or “The Length of Josten” tested my will power to the very limit. Nonetheless, the world I saw on top of the glacier was undoubtedly worth the trauma of getting up there. It was also almost worth the pain of ten numb toes I am currently trying to wiggle to life in my shoes.
SATURDAY morning 8am
I wake up to -10 degrees and a stiff back from a night in a tent sandwiched between two snoring Norwegian men. First we need to melt some snow for water, eat some breakfast for energy, and then we emerge to a snowstorm. We gather before our guide, Kjell, and he dishes out some words of wisdom. “Eat and drink all the time”, he says. “Melt snow every time we stop for longer than 30 minutes” and “be careful of avalanches on the way up”. “How does one “be careful of avalanches?”I asked my friend Lasse, He shrugged. It must be so obvious that an answer is not necessary.
My friend’s watch told us we were 400m above sea level. We packed our tents and donned our skis. We adjusted our rucksacks carrying our food, tents, sleeping bags and clothes and began our ascent. 5 minutes in and an avalanche roared down the opposite side of the valley stopping short of us by about 300m. It took everyone by surprise. I realized that “be careful of avalanches” might be a Norwegian’s attempt at irony. If it happens, we are sitting ducks. We ploughed on.
The time was 8.30am when I realized that my back and legs were aching to the point of distraction. We had skied for about 3km and ascended a total of 50 vertical meters. We had 1500m vertical meters to go before we reached our camp height of 1950m. As we, 40 Norwegians and one Welsh man, slowly plodded up the mountain aiming for an arm of the mighty Josteldalsbreen called Erdalsbreen, the weather worsened with every minute. Visibility varied from 5m to 60m throughout the day but the temperature never waved from -10 degrees. The day became about skiing, eating, drinking, warming up fingers, ignoring cold toes, and hoping to god I didn’t get a blister.
5pm arrived and we were at 1900 meters above sea level. “So we stop here?” I asked Kjell, in hope. “Nei” was the reply, “we ski down there” pointing down a slope that would be the envy of many ski resorts in the Alps, “and then we have to go up there” nodding towards what to me, through my fogging up goggles, looked like a cliff.
The Norwegians skied down and I slipped down using a technical mix of butt, back, head, arms, legs and some skis. We then gathered at the base of steep incline. The steep incline was Lodalsbreen and it was, apparently, full of crevasses under the top layer of snow. There was a big risk that people could fall through and a bigger risk that people could slip and then slide with no chance of stopping. The answer to this problem was a rope. All 41 of us roped up and we started our ascent. “Just a couple of hours” Lasse said looking at his watch that said 17.30 and with a pale complexion that accurately described my own sense of fear.
It was 22.00 when I finally freed myself from the frozen knot on the rope and turned my attention to preparing the ground and building a wall for our tent. We had made it up without incident. I had lost feeling in my toes and fingers. The wind was now ripping along the top of the glacier and my two Norwegian friends – My father-in-law Jan Paulen and Lasse Hoel – were cold to the point of babbling incoherent sentences. I took their babbles to be a request for Liquorice All-Sorts (something us Welsh know a little bit about) and I duly provided.
At 23.00 we were sleeping the sleep of three men who were exhausted to the point that being caught spooning was the least of our worries.Back to posts