From Christiania to Voss
The sleigh bells rang out merrily in the night air. The shining ice of Kröderen stretched before me into the darkness. Teeming stars looked down from above. And my thoughts tripped in time to the sleigh bells as I drove...
The capital with its feverish gaiety lay far behind. I was bound once more for the freedom of the mountains. The dance music of the previous evening still echoed spasmodically through my brain.
What a contrast! Along the shores of Kröderen Lake, at the foot of the shadowy hills, the lights of farms and cottages twinkled hospitably athwart the darkness. Ineffable peace. The course of life flows onward so safely, so serenely amid these silent slopes; but down there in the town...
Crunch; the horse broke through some cat ice. I was startled out of my reverie to urge him forward, and drove on briskly towards Oldberg, sometimes over smooth ice, sometimes through more cat ice which splintered so that the pieces flew in showers…
There were long stretches where I could drive on the river itself which was covered with smooth skating ice... Suddenly the horse’s foot went through the ice. A jerk of the reigns, and we were saved. It was as well to keep one’s eyes open, though, for there were treacherous holes, after the long thaw...
Down on the river I could hear the swish and hum of skates on the ice, mingled with the shouts and laughter of skaters; they seemed to be enjoying themselves, for the darkness had not yet driven them indoors.
I passed by a house, and heard the peremptory voice of the housewife call into the darkness:
‘Well, aren’t they coming?’
And a girls voice replied in the Hallingdal dialect: ‘Na-ay, I’ve screeched till I’m hoarse, but I cawn’t mak’ them hear.’
In a flash I saw my own childhood before my eyes: when the ice lay smooth on the river and the lake it was no easy matter, I promise you, to make us come home to our lessons!
Friday morning dawned clear and frosty…
A horse was provided, and I drove fairly fast over the smooth ice of numerous lakes. From Neraal I continued with a fresh horse towards Gudbrands-gard; but it was now late in the afternoon and dusk was closing in. The road, moreover, was convex and rough, traversing narrow defiles, with a wall of rock on one side and a precipice down to the river on the other so that one had to drive warily.
This was the way King Sverre followed, after his march across the mountains from Voss at the head of his army of ‘Birch-feet.’ A name given to the hardy followers of King Sverre in the twelfth century, at first because they wore foot gear made of birch bark, and afterwards, when they had been organized into a powerful army, as a title of honour.
It grew worse and worse. Darkness came on, and a storm seemed to be brewing in the mountains... I drove the remaining distance to Gudbrands-gard at a rapid trot…
I stepped into a large, comfortable room. On the hearth pine logs blazed brightly. The family were already in bed, but quickly turned out again. Inquisitive faces looked down from the ‘Hemsedal’ sleeping loft.
There is something very homely about these old Halling farms, and Gudbrands-gard is certainly ‘the real thing’. Its walls and rafters are blackened by age and smoke; but would they not lose their charm by being scrubbed clean? Memories and experience are stored up in these brown timber walls and in the smoke stained beams of the roof.
I drew a stool in front of the fire and stretched my limbs before its genial glow. My dog crept almost into the embers, and sat staring at the flames...
Later Nansen sets out on ski…
I went out into the moonlit night. The snow was firm and fast and shone with silvery brightness. From the scattered coppices bristled long lines of shadow; blackness hid the hill side to the south...
It was already past two o’ clock, and I had not yet reached the Hallingskeid sæters [sæters are huts built high in the mountains and used in the summer while hay-making]. They lay right in the middle of the valley, so that I could not possibly pass without seeing them. Just after them should come Gröndal Lake and sæter, and there I should have to turn off to make the ascent of the glacier.
Time passed, but no sæters appeared in sight. I crossed lake after lake, but as I could find no sign of a house it did not for an instant occur to me that Gröndal Lake might be one of [the lakes]... all was white against white and I could not remember any of it; I must discover these sæters before I could find out where I was; and discover them I would.
It was past three now. My hopes of winning my way across the mountains that day began to wane; I should have if necessary to force my way into one of the sæters and spend the night there; probably there would still be a little firewood left over from the autumn. But what had become of them? Surely I could not have miscalculated the time and the distance so entirely.
The valley wound on serenely downward, and I pressed on faster and faster in my perplexity. I had reached the end of a long lake; when without warning the ground fell away in front of me. The snow drift upon which I stood jutted out over a chasm, and I could not see the bottom. Skiing was out of the question here. A river rushed foaming and roaring through a narrow ravine, hemmed in by walls of rock.
Had I ever been this way before? Not as far as I could remember; yet the glen and the river seemed to fall in the right direction. I must follow them.
I found a way down, though it was precipitously steep; I had to plant my ski stick firmly and hold on to it with one hand, while I carried my ski in the other. I attained the bottom where the river ran, but at this point the side of the ravine fell away so sharply to the rapids that it was all I could do to hang on lest I should miss my foothold and plunge into the black waters. I drove my stick up to the hilt into the snow, and it held me when ever my foot slipped.
Beyond the river the mountain side rose steeply. I should have to climb it or abandon further hope of progress; it seemed incredible that I had ever been this way before…
For a time the way was more level; then came a second ravine, even worse than the first. After a hard spell of climbing I left this, too, behind me, and found myself by yet a third lake.
I began then seriously to wonder what had happened; I still could not imagine I had lost my way, and even the sight of a birch tree did not undeceive me. But when I had crossed the lake, I came to some more birches, and upon a rise a little farther on, I stood looking over a precipice several hundred feet deep into the dark hollow of a narrow forest bordered glen and another lake. Then, at last, I knew for certain that I had been coming in the direction of Sogn… I did not want to go there. I was going to cross the Voss Glacier. So - about turn! I should have to spend the night at Gröndal sæter.
The worst of it was that I should have to recross the ravines by which I had just come; however, I had managed to get down, so presumably I could manage to climb up again...
Soon I was back once more on a long lake, with all my difficulties but one behind me; it remained only to discover Gröndal sæter. I remembered that it stood near the shore of a lake, just under a steep mountain; it seemed that I could not possibly miss it, even though the night were dark - for there was only a faint sheen of starlight on the snowy expanse.
Across lake after lake I passed, hugging the right hand shore, straining and straining my eyes; but all I could see was snow and still more snow and here and there a few black stones. Lake succeeded lake, but nowhere could I find a sæter. It might have been spirited away; soon I should be back in Hallingdal!
I looked at my watch - I could only just see the hands - and made it out to be half past nine. I had been afoot since three in the morning. Better give up the sæter and make the most of a fine soft bed where I was; but the wind was biting cold... After some searching I chose a place where the wind had raised a high, hard drift against a big rock. I crept under this shelter, hollowed out a lair, donned a sweater - the only extra clothing I had brought - and with my rucksack under my head and the dog rolled up at my side, was fast asleep in a moment.
I awoke. My feet were icy cold. I took a peep out; the moon was already shining over the level snows above me. I might as well move on. The dog, after an enquiring look, rolled himself up again; he felt no inclination to start so early.
It was three o’ clock. I ran to and fro, stamped my feet vigorously, and put on my ski. The mountains shone white on every side. Where they lay in shadow they looked a deep sombre grey.
But which direction should I take?
I made my way back to the last lake I had crossed. Sure enough, there were my ski tracks. I looked about me: it really did bear a strong likeness to the Gröndal Lake as I remembered it. The mountains seemed a trifle lower, perhaps: but there, on the south side, rose just such a crag as I could recollect above Gröndal sæter. Where, then, were the houses? Surely they could not be completely buried under the snow? I explored below the crag and hit a sort of mound; when I pushed my ski stick down into the snow it struck on something solid. It may well have been the roof of a house…
It was somewhere on these mountains that, according to the saga, King Sverre and his men lost their way in November, seven hundred years ago (A.D. 1177), when they had been forced to retire before their enemies and escape up Raundal.
‘Took Sverre the king five guides of those who knew the way best. And, in truth, he needed them, for the weather became so ill as seldom one might see. There did fall so great a quantity of snow as was quite unheard of... One hundred and twenty horses with golden saddles and bridles did they lose, many kinds of costly wares, cloaks, weapons, and many other good things.’
Well, so far the story sounds credible enough; it would not be easy for horses here...
‘And not only so but they knew not whither they were going, and they had not so much as a drop of water to drink. Eight days they went without tasting anything save the snow. On the day before All Hallowmass the gale became so villainous that [“albeit the tale may seem to pass belief” remarks Nansen] one man met his death thereby, for it hurled him down and brake asunder his back in three different places. When the gusts came the King and his followers could do nought but throw themselves down on the snow, and hold their shields over them with might and main.’
A vivid picture...
[But Nansen could not believe that men who knew the country well could have wandered eight days in the mountains without finding their way down to farmsteads, no matter how bad the gale was. Still more unlikely was their inability to find running water in November and wind strong enough to hurl a man down and break his back.]
However, we must remember that when the saga was first committed to writing [by the abbot Karl Jonsson] ‘Sverre the King himself sat by and said what should be written...’ [!]
I traversed the glacier, and presently stood on the other side where its smooth unbroken surface descended into Kalde tarn some 1,500 feet below... Away I went, faster and faster down the hill. One moment I shot over the crests of waves, the next I sped on downward upon even snow. ...I made a turn or two to check the speed; but that was little use. The ski merely skidded sideways down the hard snow... I was down on the ice rushing along with an impetus that carried me far across it.
When at length I stopped my limbs were all quivering from the speed with which I had travelled. I looked up; far away, near the top, a dark spot moved downward. It was the dog, following me as fast as he was able...
Here I was at last in Raundal; through birch glades, where the startled grouse beat a hasty retreat at my approach, I went gliding down to Kleivene, the farm highest in the valley.
What a thirst I had! I doubt if Sverre’s men were ever thirstier. Nothing in the world would, at that moment, have come up to a couple of quarts of fresh milk!
I approached the first house; not a soul was at home. The next farm lay several hundred yards away; but that was too far. I took off my ski, entered, seized a large wooden bowl of fresh milk and drank... I had a bite or two of food and the dog had some as well.
As I sat astride a kitchen stool enjoying my meal, several little girls came running in, but at the sight of me and my dog they stood as though petrified, staring at me open mouthed. I said good morning, but they did not utter a sound. Then they turned tail and fled as fast as their legs could carry them. I must indeed have looked a terrifying sight.
A moment later appeared a woman. She half opened the door and came in, but paused doubtfully, while a few awe struck little faces peered at me from behind her. I nodded in my most friendly fashion, and said:
‘Good day. I hope you will excuse my taking some of your milk, but I was so thirsty that I couldn’t wait.’
‘Heaven be thanked, it be Christian folk! I thought ‘ee were a troll, an that there dog a wolf, or something else fearsome. I’ve never set een on such a great big dog.’
I had an Irish setter with me... ‘Oh, you needn’t be afraid. Neither of us bites.’
‘But how be tha’ comed here?’
‘I came over Voss Glacier from Hallingdal.’
‘Nay, did a body ever hear the like!’
The fact was that they had seen me as I came skiing down through the birch wood, with a cloud of loose snow rising around me, and the dog far behind in another cloud of snow; I myself was coated with frozen snow from head to foot. They had taken me for a hill troll accompanied by a wolf, and had decamped to the neighbouring farm since none of their men folk were at home!
Nobody had ever come journeying through the valley in winter time, and very few came in summer; and they had never before seen a dog as large as an ordinary sporting dog...
A generation later. March, 1916
Several years later, after a railway had been built through the area, Nansen revisited the Voss region, retracing his steps, with Andreas Klem, an hotel manager. They had good weather but high winds...
The sun had not yet risen as our train came puffing across the mountains and into Hallingskeid station, the very place where I had wandered about on a winter’s evening 32 years before, searching for a snowed up sæter cabin in which I might find shelter for the night. I had brought a dog with me on the present as on the earlier occasion.
The skiing was excellent. We negotiated the long slopes from the station to Gröndal Lake, then crossed the ice and ascended the valley towards the Voss Glacier. The sky was blue, and presently the sun came out. It was very much the same weather and the same conditions for skiing as when I last went that way, but the distance from Gröndal Lake to the glacier seemed much longer than I remembered.
At length we stood on the uppermost lake. Yes, I recognised it in a fashion: there were the same steep mountain sides around us, and the long toilsome ascent to the glacier. And the snow, too, was very plentiful. Nevertheless there was a difference: the ascent did not seem to be quite so perpendicularly steep as I recollected it; and there were no overhanging snow drifts, so that it was easier to climb and the dog could manage for himself.
From the summit of the Voss Glacier we enjoyed the well remembered view across those wide mountain spaces. It was even more magnificent than I had thought...
The pace at which we went down the glacier, from the edge of the plateau at the top right down to Kalde tarn at the bottom, was even greater than I had anticipated. It was indeed a mighty hill, and we attained a highly respectable speed...
In order somewhat to check our headlong speed we made several turns; and finally dashed down the last steep slope to the lake, where we went skimming onward across the ice at a tremendous pace.
Then we looked back. I saw the very same sight as I had seen last time. Far above was a dark speck descending towards us; it was the dog...
Presently we came to the ‘Punch bowl’ which had brought me up short on the previous occasion. In reality it was much worse than I remembered. We found ourselves on the same overhanging snow drift and had to retrace our steps... we succeeded in descending for some distance; but the snow covered mountain side was dangerously steep, and its hard icy surface made matters worse... It was blowing hard and disconcerting gusts came racing down upon us.
By and by it became so precipitously steep that we did not like the look of things. The snow had given place to ice... We let go our rucksack, at any rate. It went whizzing down, growing smaller and smaller, right on to the floor of the glen, where we could see it as a tiny speck. That would be our destination, too, if a foot slipped...
We looked about us. Under an overhanging snow drift was a kind of shelf; perhaps it would be easier to climb down there. We retraced our steps upward, and made the attempt. For a time all went well; but suddenly the dog came tumbling over the snow drift above, turned a somersault in the air, and alighted upon a little ledge on the brink of the precipice. He managed to hold on, and so was saved. No doubt he had been blown off his feet by a sudden gust as he stood at the edge of the snow drift.
Very soon the declivity grew steeper, the snow harder and with more ice, while the gusts showed no sign of abating. It looked distinctly unpleasant... Cutting a series of steps, we made our way across to the opposite side of the ravine, where the snow proved to be softer and the descent easier. At length we were able to put on our ski and skim down to where the rucksack lay in the glen.
I had no recollection of having negotiated anything so awkward as this ravine on the earlier occasion when I had gone by the same route alone. But I must have done so nevertheless, and I rose in my own estimation for having managed it without its leaving any strong impression in my mind!
The working of memory is certainly curious. If anything, I had imagined the ascents to be worse than they actually were, while the descents seemed much easier than they proved to be in reality. Is this due to advancing years? Difficulties uphill do not greatly increase, and may even appear more formidable to impatient, inexperienced youth; but the young face all difficulties downhill in the spirit of light-hearted play. Caution develops with age...
At length we reached the bottom of the valley and headed for Opset station. But now our ski began to stick, for all that we tried to scrape them and coax them into gliding; at last we had to give up in despair. We staggered up the hill with a cake of snow a foot thick under each ski until we came to the railway...
What a revolution life is! How strangely everything may alter when once the change comes!
Ever since Sverre’s time - and long before that - until a few years ago - the same unbroken solitude had reigned every winter in these vast mountain spaces...
But how different today! The whistling of engines pierces the stillness, trains puff breathlessly to and fro, the black coal smoke drifts upward from the gaping tunnel’s mouth into the blue sky above - and so called civilization creeps up and up into these highland wastes, with its big hotels and throngs of inevitable tourists.