After nearly six weeks of hiking we have reached the outskirts of the last main mountain range I will cross in Southern Norway: Dovrefjell. Dovrefjell comprises a dense cluster of mountains over 2000m, with Snøhetta (2286m), the highest mountain in Scandinavia outside of Jotunheimen, as a main summit. However, because of its somewhat sheltered position in the rain shadow of Trollheimen, Romsdalen, Tafjordfjella, Jostedalsbreen, Breheimen and Jotunheimen, the mountains in Dovrefjell are not very alpine with only some small cirque glaciers below the summits of the highest peaks.
The Dovrefjell National Park is probably most renown because of its wild muskox population. After the entire original Fennoscandian muskox population was wiped out in the 19th century, reintegration projects with musk oxen from Greenland in various regions in Southern Norway started in the 1930’s. Dovrefjell eventually turned out to be the only place where they managed to attain a viable population, which has augmented ever since and reached a level of over 500 animals in recent years. Clearly we hope to see some during our 5-day crossing of the area.
But first there is another 16km of gravel roads to walk, gravel roads which lead us further away from Lesja. Quite some cars have passed our bivouac spot at around 8-9am, probably people living near the Flisarvatnet and Sjongsvatnet lakes going to work in the valley. It has become calm again now we walk further up. Eventually a car passes by and Elien hitchhikes the next 7km towards the junction with the gravel road into Skamsdalen to give her knee some more rest. It’s a nice walk, the valley flanks get steeper by the kilometer. The Jore river meandering through the forest looks cool for some packrafting. I increase my pace and we meet again one hour later.
After a break near the bridge across the river we follow the next gravel road for five more kilometers until we finally reach the hamlet of Skamsdalsaetrin. After crossing the river on a year-round bridge we hike upstream on a good path. Because our new route through Dovrefjell is a lot shorter than the one I initially planned (with a long off-trail section between Lesjakog and the Aursjøen lake) we can take it easy the next few days and give Elien’s knee the chance to recover. When we reach the Veslfjellet (1133m), an isolated bump to the right of the path, we choose to camp right on the summit and with a nice view down the valley. Soon it starts to rain heavily though, and we spend most of the evening inside the tent.
We leave a bit after 10am the next morning. It is still overcast but the rain has stopped during the night. The first section offers very nice views on the river below. After a while we reach the Tverrai river, which thunders down into the valley with impressive force. The summer bridge consists of 2 logs covered with some narrow boardings and we carefully cross to the other side (rock slabs often flooded by waves of the whirling torrent). We continue walking until we reach a group of cabins at the southern end of the Lesjøen lake and take a break while a shower passes just north of us.
A very wet path guides us along the lake and through its alluvial plain, where we have to jump across some deep gullies. Next up is the wading of the Jore river. The markings guide us across on a relatively shallow, but wide part of the river. It takes us nearly ten minutes before we reach the other side and we even make a short stop on a small island to apply DEET to our buttocks. It is calm and damp weather and the mosquitos are just horrible today.
Along a torrent we climb up into the Langsvassdalen. The terrain becomes rougher while the view back into the Skamsdalen continues to improve. Once up in the narrow valley, squeezed in between the steep flanks of Drugshøi (1957m) and Svanatindan (2209m), most of the walk is on rocky tundra or easy boulderfields. The outflow of the Langvatnet is the next (and somewhat unexpected) icy wading. We continue along the southern shore of the lake until we find a place to camp. Slight rain regularly falls during the evening and I have to forget about my plan to climb point 1945m, which is enveloped by clouds. After 5 grey days we start longing for some sun again.
After more rain during the night, the next day does not bring sun, but it does bring a magic, calm morning with a mirror-like lake and fog drifting along the mountains. Because we waited out the rain it is already well past eleven when we leave. Enjoying the absolute silence, we skirt along another small lake and then steeply descend into the Amotsdalen on very rocky terrain. Once down in the valley the path improves and it is an easy stroll towards the Amotsdalshytta cabin, one of the unstaffed DNT-huts in the eastern part of Dovrefjell. Nobody is in the cabin, but the stove is still dying after the departure of last night’s visitors.
The weather is clearing somewhat with a few bright spells. I’m still hoping to climb Snøhetta (2286m), the highest mountain in Dovrefjell. But the cloudbase remains at about 1800m and we finally choose to just take the lowest route towards the cabin of Reinheimen. The terrain gradually gets rougher as we approach the pass (1550m), and the last meters we climb up on a steep snowfield. To make matters worse, it starts to rain again while we have a short break before starting the descent.
The temperature plummets to just above freezing, fresh snow falls higher on the slopes of Snøhetta. In ever-intensifying rain we carefully descend the steep scree and boulders at the southeastern side of the pass, and then hurry through the upper Stroplsjødalen to get to the Reinheim cabin as quickly as possible. It is some of the worst weather I will walk in during the entire trip. Completely soaked we stumble into the cabin and take a room.
But after having dreamt of pancakes, a warm stove and nice company, Reinheim is a disappointment. The 5 Norwegians who are already in keep conversations to a strict minimum and the ‘hyttevakt’, a DNT-volunteer staffing the cabin during the most busy part of summer to organize things a bit, is an asshole. To give one example: a group of four young Czechs among which one girl, arrives at the hut in grueling weather in the evening. They want to sleep inside, but as non-members of DNT they have to pay 300 Norwegian kroner each (about 40€), which is clearly out of their budget. They pitch their tents next to the hut and ask to cook inside on their camping stoves. The warden tells them they will then have to pay 50 kroner each for a ‘day visit’. So they cook outside in their tents. When the warden sees they have pitched their tent next to the hut, he tells them it will be 70 kroner per person for camping near the cabin. The Czechs obviously get angry, but eventually pack, walk 200m and re-pitch their tent just out of view while the warden views their miserability with a triumphant face. We were shocked by his incredibly rude and inhuman way to deal with the whole situation. I really liked most Norwegians I met in the far south and north of Trondheim, but in this area they most closely resemble bulldogs. Luckily a nice German couple and three young French arrive later in the evening, which gives the atmosphere inside a good boost.
We still have not seen a muskox and it is only 14 more kilometers before we will be out of Dovrefjell. However, the Stroplsjødalen valley we will now walk through towards Kongsvold is the most reknown sighting area of the National Park. Yesterday we have already found increasing amounts of shit. But will the weather cooperate? It rains steadily all night and the next morning does not bring any improvement. At 11am, the first hikers already arrive in the cabin. One asks for the warden to get some information about the weather forecast and the trail ahead… but he is still asleep. Incredible.
Around noon, it finally gets dry after 20h of continuous rain and we get moving. In dry weather, the path through the Stroplsjødalen must be a highway, but now long sections are flooded. The valley is characterized by some splendid postglacial geomorphology with huge moraine ridges. When we climb one of those moraines just southeast of lake 1289m, we finally see what we had been hoping for: four irregular speckles are visible on a snowfield at the other side of the river. And the speckles are moving. They are musk oxen.
We immediately leave the path and walk the crest of the moraine towards the river to get a bit closer. All four of the musk oxen are now lying on the snow to ruminate. I then spot another, solitary bull a few hundred meters downstream in the brush right at the river. We approach it to about 200m, but the view is mostly obscured by willow bushes. In the meantime, the four musk oxen on the snowfield are on the move again. They are joined by two more who descend from the moraine and start roaming upstream along the river. We run back to our previous spot to observe them. It is a fantastic experience to see these massive animals in the wild. Still separated by the river and staying on our lookout point on the moraine crest, the musk oxen approach us down to about 80m before continuing upstream. We’ve been on the watch for over an hour but it felt like minutes.
It has started raining again and we increase our pace. What a pity about this weather, as the walk down the valley remains absolutely stunning throughout with the river cutting through massive moraines up to 50m high. We spot another 5 solitary musk oxen high up the slopes and down by the river. Eventually the gradient of the river eases as it meanders through an enormous outwash plain at the downstream end of the valley. The rain intensifies again and we decide not to continue all the way to Kongsvold today but camp and wait for improvement. It feels a bit weird pitching the tent in between muskox shit, but (as far as we know) none pays us a visit during the night.
After a week with nearly no sunshine, we awake with golden light and glistering drops of water on the flysheet the next day. Finally! It is a splendid morning with no wind. Fresh snow drapes the summit of Snøhetta, which we now see for the first time (!). In the south, the view stretches all the way to Rondane. We enjoy the warmth and the light for some time before we start packing, and it is 9h30 by the time we leave. On the 2km down to Kongsvold, we meet nearly as many people as during the other 120 days of my trip together. Kongsvold is the starting point of the so-called “muskox safari’s”, guided trips into the Stroplsjødalen to see the musk oxen. Of course, all the guides stop to ask us whether we have seen any. And then all the participants start interrogating me and we become the heroes of all 60+ ladies after they have asked how many days we have been walking.
The tundra becomes birch forest and we soon reach the main road, which guides us to the huge, historic Kongsvold hotel. We take a shower, collect the food package I have send here, recharge our camera and phone batteries and study the maps for the coming hours.
The first leg of my Transscandinavian trip through the mountains of Southern Norway has come to an end. Next up are three weeks through the rolling hills, the gravel roads, the long off-trail bushwhacking sections, the endless swamps and the mosquito-infested pine forest of Central Norway.
12/07/2012: Baklihaugen – Veslefjellet (18km, +430/-240, 4u10)
13/07/2012: Veslefjellet – Langvatnet (14km, +350/-60, 4u50)
14/07/2012: Langvatnet – Reinheim (15km, +280/-360, 5u10)
15/07/2012: Reinheim – Lower Stroplsjødalen (12km, +80/-250, 3u50)