I had never underestimated an area as much as the Norwegian Jotunheimen Mountains. In more ways than one. In fact, I didn’t want to go there at all, I wanted to go to a lesser-known corner between fjords and glaciers. It was only two days before I left that the disappointing weather forecast for the west coast made me change my mind.
Jotunheimen was not a priority for me, even though according to Visit Norway it’s “an almost untouched mountain region in eastern Norway“, which, with the Galdhøpiggen (2469 m) and the Glittertind (2464 m), is home not only to the highest mountains in Scandinavia, but also to “waterfalls, rivers, lakes, glaciers and valleys”.
I had a few preconceptions: I thought it would be “too full”, given it was in the “most popular national park in Norway”. On the map, it also looked a bit small. The differences in altitude between the valley and the summit are barely even a thousand metres. Although you can Google many beautiful photos, mountaineers search in vain for superlatives and spectacles.
Height doesn’t (always) matter
Well, once I looked more closely, the reality turned out to be quite different. Once there, you don’t even have to take off your tight mountaineering goggles to immediately understand why this landscape is called “Home of the Giants”. It is a perfect combination of height and width. It is a composition of sky and earth, rock and ice, water and snow, grass, lichen, moss and flowers, which seems to have been deliberately arranged by the Norse gods. Water plays a crucial role in the often breathtaking beauty: it forms not only (melting) glaciers and snowfields, but countless lakes that shimmer and shine like precious stones in the changing light. They are the ornaments with which this mountain range is more richly decorated than almost any other.
The dreaded “overcrowding”
The “small area” that I previously thought was Jotunheimen is only the core zone, about 20 kilometres across, with tourist attractions such as t and the vehicle accessible bases of Leirvassbu and Spiterstulen. In total, however, the mountain range covers an area of at least 50 x 50 kilometres. Although there are a few thousand people here on some summer days, they are spread over an area three times the size of Berlin. And the majority of these people are congregated on highlights like the Besseggen Ridge.
The tour: crossing from west to east
The starting point is Øvre Årdal, a small town at the far end of the Sognefjord. I’m starting here because I expect (and get) spectacular views of the Utladalen valley as it flows into the sea, with the Hurrungane mountains towering above.
From Øvre Årdal it is about two kilometres to Svalheim campsite, where I spend a day recovering from the epically long journey from southern Germany.
Surprisingly, the bus that goes up the Utladalen valley does not stop here. So on the first day of the tour, I get to do a warm-up on a good five kilometres of asphalt before the hiking trail begins. It then winds along the narrow floor of the gorge-like valley to the tourist shelter of Vetti Gard before climbing steeply through forest and undergrowth to the idyllic Vettismorki plateau. Here you pass the impressive Vettisfossen, which at 275 metres is Norway’s highest natural waterfall. It is only now that the views of the surrounding mountains and landscapes gradually open up.
The next steep climb up to the next plateau follows. The views of the rugged Hurrungane massif opposite and the Utladalen canyon are truly breathtaking. However, the almost 1000 metres of altitude covered also make themselves felt. This is not least because of the backpack, which as well as a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat also contains provisions for several days and a completely unnecessary notebook. There is another 300 metres of altitude gain before the final kilometres descend another 400 metres to the Skogadalsbøen hut. I leave it to the left and hike up the Skogadalen that opens to the east. I hope to find a suitable place for the tent as soon as possible. I’m totally exhausted and sweaty, and amazed that I’ve already been on the road for 9 hours. My underestimation of the length of the route is also due to my rudimentary planning and improvised map material (more on this in the info section below).
Fortunately, the sparse forest opens out onto a few square metres of cosy meadow right next to the river. The evening bath is pure relaxation, as is the sleep in the light and airy inner tent.
Today’s destination is right in the middle of Jotunheimen, which I place somewhere near the self-catering hut Olavsbu. Up Skogadalen, the trail climbs gently and is accompanied by persistent horse whinnies as it climbs above the tree line. At some point, the line on my mobile phone photo map says that the turn-off to Olavsbu should be on the left. It appears, only about one and a half hours and one river fording later than expected. The very long valley is beautiful, but does not offer too much visual variety. The mountain ridge now to be overcome compensates for this with tremendous views. A first promising glimpse into the interior of Jotunheimen.
The rest of the way to the selected campsite near Olavsbu is a cheerful stroll through sublime mountain scenery. Well, apart from the sweating and the scary stabbing pain between my neck and left shoulder when I move my backpack. Plus the three or four blisters that develop under each foot, which I try to stem with more and more tape. And have I already passed the 8 hour mark again? I am certainly glad when I finally get into my sleeping bag at sunset.
Day 3: summit day
I definitely need a recovery day without what feels like a hundred kilos of backpack. It will be a 5-hour recovery trip, up and down a mountain that had struck me the day before as a shapely and feasible looking pyramid. It actually turns out to be manageable, quite easy even. It is probably the first major mountain I have climbed impulsively, without a previously considered route and without knowing its name. It’s a wonderful feeling, maybe this is what it felt like in the old pioneer days. Particularly because I have the mountain all to myself. It’s unbelievable really, seeing as it’s a glorious mid-summer day on a weekend, right next to one of Jotunheimen’s “main routes”. Is it because there is no marked path? Does the mountain not appear in any walking guide books? I don’t know and I don’t care. I enjoy the incredible view on the summit for two hours.
Back at the tent, I make a detour to the neighbouring hut. Olavsbu is uninhabited but comfortably fitted. On the large wall map in the entrance hall I see the name and height of “my” mountain: Skarddalstinden, 2100 masl. Then I saw something else on the laminated price list” whoever stays in the guest room, even for a short time, needs to pay 90 krone. All right, I’m off!
In the evening, I have to make a decision: my lazy side proposes to go to Leirvassbu tomorrow so that I can have the comforts of civilisation within reach again in a day. This side of me is complaining of exhaustion and aches and pains. The curious adventurer, on the other hand, wants to head east, where great natural sights in the most beautiful weather are promised. However, this comes at the price of two more really tough days of walking. Well, not quite, they could be shortened enormously with a sickeningly expensive boat trip and/or by skipping the Besseggen ridge. But that would be an unacceptable loss of face for this adventurer.
The route heads east along a string of lakes towards the Gjendebu hut. The trail is varied, with views that open up unexpectedly. Past magnificent high plateau scenery, the trail heads into the green Vesladalen valley towards the 20-kilometre-long Lake Gjende. In Gjendebu I take a break in a splendid eating area before continuing briefly along Lake Gjende and up a super-steep, partly secured climb to the Bukkelægret plateau. I hope to find the perfect campsite on this plateau. I find it, a few metres from a crystal-clear lake eye, not too far from the path and with a beautiful clear view in all directions. My wish for a little wind is also fulfilled. Again I am amazed to have such an incredibly beautiful place to myself. I gladly accept the gift and pass the hours until sunset with a swim in the lake, eating, watching and admiring.
Day 5: Besseggen-Grat
The last day of touring takes me on one of the National Geographic “Top 20 Hikes Worldwide”: the Besseggen Ridge. But first I have to descend to Memurubu, the “official” starting point of the tour. As a warm-up, the trail leads steadily slightly uphill, then follows a spectacularly positioned ridge for the steep final descent to Memurubu. Memurubu is another complex of hut buildings with a boat jetty. Most Besseggen Ridge hikers get off the boat here and walk the tour back to the starting point at Gjendesheim. I am jealous of those with light backpacks, but there are also many heavily packed “fellow sufferers” in the caravan. I wonder where they all come from. The contrast in terms of crowds compared to the previous days is about the same as between a hermitage and Alexanderplatz in Berlin.
But I’m not complaining. Quite the opposite, I am thrilled by friendly greetings, watching children, dogs and selfie filmmakers. Even the occasional tripping over others doesn’t bother me, as the surroundings and views are far too fantastic to be annoyed by anything.
Although I don’t believe in rating and ranking outdoor experiences, the Besseggen Hike has been quite rightly highlighted by National Geographic. The highlights include not only the enjoyable scrambling and the famous “two-lakes-in-different-colours” view, but also the variety of views and the panorama of Veslfjellet, which encompasses almost half of Norway.
I arrive at Maurvangen campsite in the evening, completely satisfied and exhausted, and am back in “civilisation”.
Side effects: physical exertion, mental recuperation
After five days of trekking, to write of “returning to civilisation” is a bit much, but it’s enough time for interesting observations. For example, that time outdoors brings enormous mental respite, despite the physical exertion. How does this work? I have two theories.
- During days outdoors, the brain has far fewer sensations to process and your experience is much more related to the moment and your physical activities. There is not much room left for everyday wanderings in the future and past of your own life and the history of the world. And it is striking how much energy this wandering around actually consumes. Being outdoors and physically active definitely creates less mind clutter and more awareness of the present. And that’s a pretty restful state, with beneficial effects that can still be felt weeks later.
- The absence of power lines, mobile phone masts, Wi-Fi, mobile internet, roads and aircraft noise, which is unheard of in Central Europe, is a pure mental and emotional holiday. I can really recommend just trying it for yourself.
From Oslo, various companies, such as Nor-Way and the Valdresekspressen line, run several times a day in summer to Gjendesheim in the east, Lom and Leirvassbu in the north and, with a change of train, Øvre Årdal in the west.
Buses, trains, food and accommodation cost on average about twice as much as in Germany. Buying supplies in a cheap supermarket chain like “Rema 1000” costs about as much as buying Alnatura in Germany.
Jotunheimen is mostly a national park, but no entrance fee is charged. To my knowledge, it is legal to camp freely everywhere in the national park.
Accommodation: huts, camping, wild camping
There are enough huts to theoretically cross the whole mountain range with a light daypack. However, given that they cost around a hundred euros a night, the full outdoor camping experience may be more enjoyable. I avoided the Norwegian prices with the help of a bulging supply bag and perfect weather. The latter made it easy to make the most of wild camping. Normally, the weather is not so kind. Then it might make sense to partly camp and partly use the huts.
Paths and terrain
The “unruliness” of the terrain is one of the factors I had underestimated. A large part of the tour suggested here is on paths peppered with stones of all sizes. There are also lots of small watercourses and muddy passages. Often, what looks like a nice meadow for camping turns out to be a swamp. Longer sections on comfortable hiking trails are more common in eastern Jotunheimen than in the west, in my experience. Infrastructure and frequency also show an “east-west gradient” (increasing towards the east).
Drinking quality water is available everywhere. I carried a half-litre bottle in my rucksack, which I kept refilling at water points. If attempting a summit route, you should take more water with you.
Hot meals are served in catered huts. Food on the road seems to be limited to snacks and sweets.
Weather/climate, “best” time of year
Peak season is of course the short summer in July and August. On the high plateaus and in the upland valleys, it can get unpleasant at any time, as there is hardly any protection from the elements. Not even from the sun, which turned out to be a real challenge during my tour.
In the forest zone, the small trees do not offer too much protection either. They are often close together, too, on marshy and uneven ground.
This is not a complete list of trekking standards, but just a few items that you might not have thought of:
- Sun cream: normally a sunscreen avoider, I used up about 100 ml within 5 days in Norway. And Factor 20 didn’t quite feel enough.
- Waterproof walking sandals/Crocs: you often have to cross watercourses. On complex terrain with no discernible path, it can save more time to wade than to look for the driest place to cross.
- Sturdy, breathable and waterproof mountaineering boots, which sit securely are not a luxury, but an essential.
- Special top secret tip: At a latitude of 61° north, it doesn’t really get dark all night at the end of July. This is enough to drive a light-sensitive sleeper crazy. A sleeping mask that cost 2.45 Euros was possibly one of my most important pieces of equipment.
A ‘quick check online’ is not possible because, as I said, there is no mobile phone reception. Which is pretty nice.
The whole path is well marked throughout. However, the path is only clearly visible when the ground is soft. Most of the time you will be on rugged and stony terrain, which sometimes opens up into small labyrinths of hills. Here the route is no longer obvious and it can take a while until you discover the next marker.
As my Jotunheimen tour was a last-minute decision, I only had time for a few photographed map excerpts from the website norgeskart.no. These ten or so map photos of course had too poor resolution for details in the terrain and would have been completely inadequate for navigation in bad weather. Ideally, you should use good old paper maps, of which there are plenty good quality versions available for Jotunheimen.
You can read about how to avoid unnecessary risks in the mountains here at Visit Norway. If you want to go it alone and know a bit more, you can find an article on emergency preparedness on solo tours here at Base Camp.
Of the many blogs about touring in Jotunheimen, I found the Wegweiser guide particularly informative as it has many practical tips.
Well, that should be the end of the packed and hopefully interesting Jotunheimen info package. If you feel like exploring there yourself, maybe we’ll see you there one of the next summers. I have to go there at least once more!