TEXT; TRYGVE MARKSET | PHOTOS; KAI OTTO MELAU
There is a big herd of wild reindeer just 100 meters from us. Motionless, watching us, waiting. Majestic against the dawning skyline. We keep moving, but they are not afraid. We move on, slowly nervousness spreads through the herd, and suddenly they take off, 800 hoofs trampling the snow. They vanish as fast as they appeared, leaving us to our gruelling toil across the endless mountain plateau.
Expedition Amundsen is the modern day replica of the route across Hardangervidda Roald Amundsen never conquered. 100 kilometers of exhausting toil, complete with 45 kg sleighs, draws 200 hand picked competitors every year – all kinds, from ultra athletes and green clad military types to the smiling 70-year-old from Holland. According to Roald Amundsen himself, the trek across Hardangervidda was as tough and dangerous as anything he later encountered in polar regions. In 2013 a raging storm held all competitors weather-fast for 37 hours. The storm was so ferocious that even the Red Cross would not undertake rescue missions. Consequently participants are compelled to carry necessary gear and food for a week’s self-survival.
The first day of this year’s race is blessed with a blue sky. The participants soon spread out. I struggle up the first hill. The weight of my sleigh is merciless, and I quickly fall behind, angry with myself for my scant preparations. After a while I find my rhythm, and gradually start overtaking large numbers of competitors. About half way to the first checkpoint I catch up with the leaders. At Hellvassbu, exhausted, I nurse a Coke and receive envious glances from last year’s number five. I happily offer him a few sips in exchange for the insider tip-off that the race leader, Øyvind Lillehagen, is taking a three hour break.
9 pm. It’s a clear, starry night down the slopes from Hellvassbu. The long row of bobbing headlamps behind us resembles a desert caravan. We are here strictly on nature’s own terms. The contrast to the materialism of everyday city life is striking.
Primary needs take precedence – the joy of a warm sleeping bag, the pick-me-up of a strong coffee. The fact of hauling my own 45 kg trailer gives me a strangely satisfying feeling – I could remain in this magical place for a year.
Arrived Litlos. One hour’s break. Can’t be bothered to set up my tent. Just snuggle into my sleeping bag with my windbag on top. Lying there, I try to find justification for my toil in Fridtjof Nansen’s famous words: The first great thing is to find yourself and for that you need solitude and contemplation – at least sometimes. I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places. These surroundings spawn strong characters. A prime example being Thomas Andersen – gaunt, silent, fourfold winner of the race. Rumoured to have clocked up 750 km with sleigh this winter alone. He took a four hour break at Hellvassbu, and now leaves Litlos 20 minutes ahead of the rest of us.
2 am. Øyvind Lillehagen, Halvor Wang and I start out from Litlos in the comforting knowledge that Andersen is up ahead clearing tracks for us. After an hour we spot his headlamp up ahead, we are slowly catching him up. Suddenly his light disappears, his tracks vanish. We have to plod on, clearing our own tracks now in the virgin snow. Twenty minutes later we glimpse him 200 meters behind us, no headlamp, easily following our tracks. Such are the tactics of clearing tracks for others.
At Viersla I lie with my hands inside my underwear, in an attempt to warm them. My thumb got frostbitten on the last lap, and I didn’t bother to stop to change gloves. I assume a foetal position and pretend we don’t.
have to start off again in only 40 minutes. With an effort I prepare a luke warm coffee/Coke drink for the next lap, and gobble a bar of 70% coconut fat, cocoa and honey prepared for me by my brother. Back in 1896, Roald Amundsen’s provisions consisted of “a few biscuits, chocolate bars and some butter, sufficient for perhaps eight days”. It makes my six or seven kg of food appear enough for a couple of months for those guys…
At the end of Sildbudalen, an hour after our encounter with the reindeer herd, Øyvind Lillehagen is suddenly tired. Since Hellvassbu, Øyvind has been my mentor, dispensing advice, taking the lead for long stretches. I have come to regard him as the likeliest winner of the race. But he has reached his limit. He gives me an exhausted look and says “you’ll win this thing, Trygve!” His words give me a jolt. They bring a flashback to my father, on our many gruelling treks across Hardangervidda in my boyhood. I vow not to disappoint him.
I pick up speed down the slopes towards the finish. I realize I have to give my all to beat Andersen, who has mounted his sleigh on skis. I manage to whiz past him down the final steep slope, reaching 75 km an hour, my sleigh dancing wild boogie behind me and spraying cascades of snow over the passing party of startled ladies. With a final burst of energy, in classical cross-country style, I’m first to cross the finishing line.
At Maurseth my sleigh is weighed in at 40.3 kg. Our toil is over. The atmosphere is festive. Disco music. Hot soup. Fire ablaze in the lavvu. Andersen shakes my hand, turns and heads back out into the wild. I realize, for those who have once answered the call of the wild, nothing else will do.