trip report

Muotkatunturi – A Wilderness Adventure

Muotkatunturi – A Wilderness Adventure

When my friend Antoine said he'd like to come backpacking with me one day as he'd never been hiking anywhere before, I smiled – it's always nice to introduce a trail virgin to the joys of the outdoors. I started looking at maps, wanting to find a place that was a little bit special, and less likely to be busy. A wilderness adventure beckoned.

Tverrbotnfjellet

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway

After four or five days of low cloud and rain that put a damper on most activities, I was happy that the weather forecast was accurate in predicting sun for Wednesday night – mainly because, banking on this prediction, I'd made an arrangement with Geir Jenssen to climb another mountain.

We'd discussed a few possibilities, and finally settled onTverrbotnfjellet, an "easy" 1299m peak to the south of Tromsø. At 16:00, Geir picked me up, and we set off for another upwardly mobile adventure.

I first met Geir a few years ago when I asked him to perform at an electronic music festival I was organising. I'm still quite pleased with myself for getting Biosphere (website/wikipedia) to play his first ever (and, I think, still only) gig in Finland, and have it be in Rovaniemi (much to the chagrin of ambient music lovers in Helsinki!). What I didn't know at the time, and what I only found out while living in Minnesota, was the Geir is also seriously into climbing mountains.

He started climbing when he was 14, and has even climbed some first ascents of mountains in the Tromsø area. He records his routes and climbs at his website, The Northern Playground, which I encourage you to check out as it is full of mountains and excellent photography  He is, by all accounts, a very experienced climber and mountaineer, so I was really happy he was in Tromsø – his home town – while I was visiting.

Geir likes to climb mountains he hasn't summited before as much as possible (I would too if I lived where he does: there are so many to choose from). I initially suggested Store Blåmann as one I'd like to climb: its probably the second most popular peak after Tromsdalstinden. Although he hadn't climbed it since 1993, he told me his friend was planning to climbTverrbotnfjellet, so I could chose which I wanted to do.

Geir's friend – Kent Hugo Nordheim – is attempting to climb all of the mountains over 1000m in Tromsø county. That's 666 mountains. He's already done over 400 and only been at it for about four years. Needless to say, I was a little worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with the Norwegian supermen, but I decided to join them anyway. I probably wouldn't have gone to

Tverrbotnfjellet

 alone, so I was glad to seize the opportunity.

We got a message from Kent-Hugo that he'd be a little late as he was picking someone else up, so we decided to set of without them – I reckoned they'd catch us up with me slowing Geir down!

The trail head is at a farm in Andersdalen. After negotiating the terrors of a few cows and an electric fence, we hunted out a sheep trail leading up through a very pleasant stand of birch, before skirting around a hillside towards

Tverrbotnfjellet

's southern flank.

This was very easy walking; almost flat, with only a few trees to clamber over or around. As we neared the turn into the main valley, the river below us roared, it's sound amplified by the steep valley walls.

We descended down to the valley bottom, and followed a blueberry-covered glacial esker that snaked along.

I've always liked eskers. They're great to walk along, and give you just enough height over the landscape for scenic views along the valley.

Tromsø had a lot of snow this winter, and as a result the spring melt has lasted quite a time. We had to cross the river coursing down the valley, but I didn't see any convenient or safe places. While I distracted myself form the problem by photographing sheep, Geir had jumped across the raging torrent and was eagerly trying to get me to do the same.

I jumped onto a rock in the middle of the stream at the top of some short falls, but the rock I needed to jump to was wet and moss covered, and I lost my confidence and chickened out.

I've become more cautious as I've got older, which is one excuse. Another is I didn't want to prematurely end this trip with a cold soaking in meltwater. So I headed back and up stream to find a place where I cold wade across.

It was quite a rapid river, and it took me a while to find a place I was comfortable with, but the

wet foot technique

got me across in no time, safe and sound, and ready for the next couple of tiny, easily crossed streams.

As we approached the foot of the mountain proper, I knew this easy terrain was about to end. A good, old, 60 degree section of moss-covered uphill reared up in front of us. A few weeks ago this would have given me the willies, but now it just seemed

de rigeur

.

Geir sped off ahead of me as I laboured up the west ridge. I'd been trying out a

LowePro Photo Sport 200 AW

for carrying my camera gear and knickknacks while climbing, and I was glad of the

CamelBak reservoir

I'd chucked in the pocket. I sucked down water, wondering how Geir could go so fast carrying none at all.

i eventually caught up with him, and sat down for a short breather.

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway

The landscape was getting more rugged, and spectacular.

The view down the valley was beautiful, the sun sending shafts of light down to glisten off the river.

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

But enough of this sitting around. We had more mountain to climb. I put my legs to work as I watched Geir disappear again over a crest.

The steep moss gave way to scree and boulders, and became somewhat easier to traverse, if harder on the knees. We crossed a few tiny snow fields to cut a few corners, but in general it was a case of easy climbing with some minor scrambling as we hauled upwards.

Clouds drifted around the mountaintops, hiding them momentarily before dispersing. I was glad: I'd wanted to get above cloud line at some point, but I'd take being in the clouds as a good second.

The top of

Tverrbotnfjellet

 is fairly rounded and gentle, so the climb became easier the higher we got. We hadn't seen or heard Kent-Hugo or his friend, so we assumed they had gone somewhere else. But suddenly, just as we were reaching the top of the mountain, two heads popped out from behind a rock. They'd climbed straight up the side of the mountain a little further west, and would descend the way we came. We didn't chat for long, but it was funny to meet people on the summit on an otherwise solitary (and bikini-free) climb.

Kent-Hugo and Geir thought that it would be possible to descend via the large snow-fields lining the couloir that formed the side of the mountain. It was around this point that I started to get a little uncertain at the prospect of getting back down again. I'd never tried a

glissade

 before, and the potentially deep snow (and clear avalanche trails) made me nervous. But I tried to keep my worries in check: I knew I was in good hands.

Anyway, first of all we had to get to the top!

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

A quick traverse of a snow field and we were there.

Tverrbotnfjellet

 is comprised of two summits, the 50m or so lower 

Pernilsfjellet,

and

Tverrbotnfjellet 

proper

.

I'd wanted to do four mountains while in Tromsø, but the weather made that difficult. I wasn't kidding myself that the two peaks here counted as two mountains, but I was happy with 3.5 (

Tromsdalstinden

,

Skamtinden

, and

Tverrbotnfjellet

– I don't count the lower hills like

Sørtinden

as "proper" mountains, based on a completely arbitrary and personal classification system of suffering involved while climbing them).

The "true" summit of

Tverrbotnfjellet

lay 500m or so to the west.

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

I snapped a few photos while Geir zipped off to

Pernilsfjellet

.

The view from this slightly lower peak was quite special though. Sometimes size really isn't everything.

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

Looking back towards the summit proper, we saw the last remaining cornices, ready to drop hundreds of meters should anyone be stupid enough to stand on them (and people do, I'm told, surprisingly often).

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

Clouds drifted over and around us as we walked along the gently sloping mountain top.

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

I followed Kent-Hugo's footprints across a modest snow field

en route

 to the top. (Mine are the flat-footed footprints!)

Once again, I saw a minuscule Geir, set against giant rock.

And then the summit, crowned by one of the area's typical circular über-cairns.

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

It was around 21:00. We sat out of the cold wind as I snacked on Troika bars (

get them in the UK

, you lucky people!), liver pate, and lefse (separately, I might add, although...).  A massive cornice, belying the edge of the mountain, began right at the foot of the summit cairn (you can see it above), and somewhat limited the vast, sweeping views down the valley, so you'll have to make do with one from a little further away.

Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tverrbotnfjellet, Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

Replenished, it was time to get back down again. It was time to leave the summit, and my comfort zone.

The ridge up had been okay, but Geir said the snow would be the quickest and easiest way down. Now, I don't have a lot of mountain experience, and I tend to play it safe. I'd have been quite happy going down the ridge, stone-by-stone, but as I said before, Geir knows his stuff, and I trusted him. Plus I figured Kent-Hugo's track would also be visible, so we'd easily see if they mysteriously disappeared next to a big hole.

On the way up I'd eyed the couloir and thought it didn't look too bad. But when you get up close to these things, "not very steep" can seem "extremely very steep indeed".

Nevertheless, I felt okay about it.

Geir knows what he's doing

, was my mantra.

I asked if we should

glissade

 down (i.e., slide on our asses) but he wasn't so keen, worrying about crushing the gentiles against rocks. He favoured a kind of running down the snow field, and who am I to argue?

I was a little worried that stomping down great walls of snow would trigger an avalanche, but I was assured this was not an issue as the snow was quite well. I asked for other tips, and he told me to be careful at the start, as the snow can be soft and deep, and avoid rocks for the same reasons. The start bit I'd already figured out, but the rock tip was good.

Okay then. Off we go.

Geir ran ahead, and then his run turned into some strange kind of magical foot skiing as the slope and gravity took hold.

I plodded after, cautiously at first, but with more confidence as my steps didn't result in any immediate plunges to my untimely death. I picked up the pace a little and found myself foot-skiing. Sadly my foot-skiing skills are about as developed as my ski skiing skills, and I soon found myself in an involuntary glissade down an increasingly steep slope.

After stopping that (I would use the term "arresting" but it was more luck than enforcement), I got to my feet again, and took it slowly, step-by-step, and you know what? It was kind of fun. Nerve-wracking, wide-eyed, lump-in-the-throat fun, but fun nonetheless.

I don't have many pictures as I was busy trying to stay upright and, you know, alive, but

Geir has some great photos here

.

I only had a 21mm lens with me, so you can't really see Geir in this photo, taken as I'm crossing the tell-tale brown-stained avalanche snow.

I don't know how much time we saved, but I'd estimate about 45 minutes. It was clear from the tracks that Kent-Hugo had slid down, but I was happy with my slow-paced stumbling.

At the bottom of the mountain, I experienced a catastrophic gear breakdown of my beloved

Gossamer Gear LT4s

. It was entirely my fault. I'd had them lengthened for the descent, unfortunately a bit too much. I felt them bend a couple of times and should have shortened them, but no. When I took a stumble near the bottom, my "ample" weight snapped the carbon clean in half on one pole. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

We still had that river to cross again. Geir found some more snow across the river, but again, I took the wet path. My shoes were already damp from the snow, and frankly I was looking forward to the cooling waters on my feet, so with just one pole I wobbled across.

Down, down into the valley. The sun wasn't going to set, of course, but it's angle was lower and the light was turning golden.

Geir told me this was his 200th mountain. That's 200th unique mountain – he's climbed some of them several times. Pretty good going.' I'd managed 3.5 in 3.5 weeks, and I though that was pretty good going too.

At the farm, we scared the cows again, sending them running away from their cozy sleeping place in the forest.

As we neared the car, we looked back up at

Tverrbotnfjellet

, and watched as the sun transformed a muddy field into a golden carpet of sprouting grass, each individual blade picked out in the light of the midnight sun.

I can't help but think how luck Geir, Jan Hugo, Kent-Hugo and all the other inhabitants of Tromsø are. To have this combination of sea, mountains, the arctic, the light... I think if I lived here I'd become addicted to the outdoors, and weighing it up against all the other addictions in the world, I really don't think that would be bad at all.

At the car we shake hands after a good climb. I can't think of a better way to spend an evening.

In the car on the way back to the city,

Tromsdalstinden

 appears, looking steeper than ever, and bookending my time in Tromsø. When I climbed it a few weeks ago, my legs turned to jellied eels, and a few days after I could hardly walk. Now, aside from a couple of achy knees, I felt fine. Better than ever.

Mountain euphoria, I'm going to miss you.

Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North
Tromso, Norway by Backpacking North

Read Geir's write-up of the route here >>

If you're interested in some of Geir's music (as Biosphere), you can find lots on

iTunes

or

Amazon.com

or

.uk

, or  even better,

direct from his website

. My favourites are Cirque, Substrata, Dropsonde, and N-Plants. Most of his stuff is released on the excellent

TOUCH label

.

Solstice on Skamtinden

When we stopped at the top of the gravel trail that zig-zagged its way down to Rekvik, my eyes widened when Jan Hugo pointed out Skamtinden – the mountain he thought we could climb that evening.

Seriously? That one?

 At 884m it wasn't particularly high; it just looked quite steep, and the cliff edges appeared to be startlingly abrupt.

I was beginning to have second thoughts about this whole mountain business.

When I arrived, I contacted Jan Hugo Salamonsen after reading his hiking website, ryggsekk.net. We met for a beer to look over some maps as I wanted to get some tips for places to visit, and maybe arrange a climb together. It was a very enjoyable evening as we chatted about walking and mountains, and he showed me his guide book to some mountain hike, kayak tours, and family-friendly locations (you can buy it in local bookshops – it's very good).

Looking up at it, I really wasn't so sure about Skamtinden. I was pretty tired, but Jan Hugo said we could decide when we got to the trail head, and we could always turn back. Standing by the car in the parking area I was still uncertain, but I persuaded myself that the foreshortening effect of staring a mountain in the face might mean that the climb wasn't as bad as it seemed.

Photographs, of course, do an injustice to the drama, and reduce the impact of scale to the laughably miniature. In the photo above, the green band on the bottom right is comprised of trees, which gives some idea of size, but the trail leading up the ridge looks far less of an incline that in did in person, believe me.

Well, the decision was made. It was 17:00, and time to start climbing.

The initial section rose through 140 steep meters of dwarf birch forest. Verdant young fern covered the hillside, lending a quite magical feeling to the trail.

After we rose above tree-line, we reached a short, flat area that led up the the start of the ridge trail, with Skamtindalen dropping away to the east, and the sea to the west. The trail was clear and easy to follow, and I saw that my initial assessment was accurate: it was less frightening up close and personal. Steep, certainly, but not life threatening by any means.

It was, however, quite relentless. Unlike

Tromsdalstinden,

there were very few gentler areas. It was more a case of keeping your head down, putting one foot in front of the other, and keep on keeping on.

At least the trail was surprisingly soft. Perhaps its location right next to the sea and the gulf stream creates a more welcoming climate for vegetation. That location –

directly

 by the sea – also afforded some pretty nice views.

I was glad I'd come well prepared with plenty of water (there are no streams on this trail) and snacks, but Jan Hugo had gone one better and brought a flask of coffee, which I was very happy he offered to share.

We sat and enjoyed the coffee on a vertiginous slope, looking down at the sea, and across at the group of four hills,

Brosmetind, Sørtinden, Mellomtinden & Tromtinden

.

Although they are much higher, their sheer, sculpted edges reminded me somewhat of Dover, and Shakespeare's Cliff. It brought on an odd nostalgia for a place I really don't have much love for.

We were about half of the way up, and things were about to get much rockier.

The vegetated trail slowly gave way to moss, then moss to lichen, and lichen to bare rock in a familiar mountain-top boulder field. We searched for the trail cairns loading us among huge rocks that oddly toppled underfoot, and along patches of gravel and scree.

The final section lurched suddenly upwards towards the summit, requiring some minor scrambling.

Many of the peaks in this area are oddly scalloped; thin, broken teeth pointing vertically at the sky. As I climbed the final stretch I emerged into a crack plunging down the mountainside to Ersfjorden below – a line of turquoise water joining the two walls of granite.

After hauling ourselves up a couple more meters we were at the top, where a surprisingly spacious platform awaited us. It would make a good spot for a tent (although perhaps a little uncomfortable).

Jan Hugo had scored himself a Terra Nova Laser Competition, but chose not to carry it up so couldn't try pitching it there. I wouldn't pitch a DuoMid there, but an Unna might just about squeeze in, although you'd need to employ the mountain to resist the force of the strong – and very cold – wind that battered us about on top.

I wondered about the possibility of using climbing nuts as a pitching/staking tools in such situations, but soon forgot about all that nonsense when I looked across at the views. It was camera time!

A series of peaks led in a

Lord of the Rings

panorama from the sea over towards Hollendaren, beyond which an glacier lurked icily.

Apparently, some crazy people follow the insanely sharp ridges between mountains. This is something I will not be trying.

We found a small area of smooth rock surrounded by precipitous drops for sandwiches, more coffee, and my favourite Norwegian mountain treat: 

Troika

 chocolate bars.

While we ate Jan Hugo pointed at various locations at the bottom of the fjord and regaled me with cairn-side stories of those who had died from avalanches and climbing accidents. Death in the mountains seems to be a refrain I keep hearing in Norway, but I was reassured when he told me couldn't remember hearing about many people who had died on Skamtinden.

It was hard to sit for long without the urge to photograph the spectacular landscape surrounding us. Unlike

Tromsdalstinden,

which sits alone and fairly detached from the rest of the area's mountains,

Skamtinden

 is within a stone's throw of numerous peaks that form the immediately recognisable  U-shaped valley of a fjord.

The photo below is taken from

Ersfjordbotn

 at the bottom (

botn –

see: Norwegian is easy!) of the fjord.

Skamtinden

 is the last mountain you can see on the right side.

 The following view looks back from the summit of

Skamtinden

 towards

Ersfjordbotn (

the above photo was taken on the strip of land between the  fjord and the small lake you can see).

On the other side of the fjord, more glacially-sculpted landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see.

Behind is, to the west, lay the island of

Sessøya

 and the open sea.

The wind was blowing hard and cold, so started packing up as another couple arrived.

I carefully lowered myself down to begin the descent, while Jan Hugo took one last look along the valley.

I was quite surprised as how easy the climb seemed. Although I was, as usual, a little concerned about the forthcoming descent, having re-familiarised myself with the mountains a bit more I felt a lot less bothered by it than I expected. And in fact it was quite easy. Even the steep parts seemed entirely manageable, which made me very happy. My previous nervousness had completely vanished, and it appeared I had my mountain legs back (as I write this, I can tell you they are not completely back, but definitely on their way).

We passed another group people climbing up, two of whom were bikini-clad (okay, "sports bra") young women, which gave me a case of

déja vu.

I hope they had a wind jacket for the top. In total I think I counted about 12 other people off for their evening stroll up a mountain. 

Shortly after we decided to give out knees a break, and stare out over the sea.

The weather for this summer solstice was decidedly un-summery and not particularly solsticey either. Grey clouds shrouded the midnight sun, occasionally spitting rain down on us. Although I'd been taking photos, I wasn't very hopeful about getting many great shots as the light was somewhat flat and uninspiring. Still, one mustn't complain. The remarkable landscape provided some excellent views, and the serendipitous coincidence of landscape, light, and reflection gave me my favourite shot.

It seemed the clouds were thinning a little as we reached the tree-line again. In the far distance, over the sea, we watched odd beams of sunlight creating pools of light on the water.

It was a strange, almost sci-fi effect (think Start Trek teleport beams) and impossible to accurately photograph, so here's an overly-dramatic, completely inaccurate Photoshopped "version" of events (discount available to religious calendars/publications in return for special consideration in event of there actually being an afterlife).

After a long day, I was afraid I'd be too tired for the drive home. I needn't have worried – I was wide awake on a wave of mountain euphoria. It was a great climb, and I very much enjoyed meeting and walking with Jan Hugo. It's so nice to meet like-minded people in real life (as opposed to being diluted through 160 characters or less on twitter

et al

) and share an adventure together; it's something we should all try to do more, and something I hope to do again very soon.