A writer and her family embark on a cross-country ski quest to see wild reindeer in a powdery, wind-swept Norwegian national park that nearly conquered one legendary explorer.
He fell asleep in the soothing calm of a snow cave but awoke in the suffocating silence of a tomb. Outside Roald Amundsen’s improvised shelter lay Norway’s Hardangervidda Plateau, a desolate, wind-blasted piece of tundra so vast and inhospitable it had not yet been traversed in winter.
Roald and his brother Leon were attempting to be the first to do so, in 1896. Bad luck and worse weather had already forced them to turn back, their only map destroyed and the last of their food bags lost in a whiteout. Amundsen slept beneath a snowy blanket that night as the temperature dropped ever lower, sealing him in a sarcophagus of ice. He might have gasped his last breaths from within the icy crypt if it weren’t for a few telltale hairs from his reindeer-fur sleeping bag that showed his brother where to dig him out. “The training proved severer than the experience for which it was a preparation,” Amundsen later observed dryly, “and it well-nigh ended the career before it began.”
Amundsen’s bane is now my fascination. What kind of place could defeat a man who was later able to cross-country ski nearly 2,000 miles round-trip across uncharted Antarctica to be the first to the South Pole? Trying our skills on a long-distance ski trip, my husband, Rick Strimbeck, and I, and our two daughters, Molly, 17, and Zoe, 13, have come to Hardangervidda in late winter to find out. Along the way we hope to realize another, possibly more elusive ambition: to catch a glimpse of the park’s shyest inhabitants, western Europe’s largest herd of wild reindeer. But instead of Amundsen’s sleeping bags and snow caves, we’ll have the benefit of the cozy mountain cabins, or huts, that dot the region, now protected as Norway’s largest national park.
A dead ringer for the Arctic, Hardangervidda (pronounced Har-DUNG-ah-vidah) offers visitors a stark beauty and magnificent emptiness rumpled into low hills interrupted by the larger crease of an occasional peak. Twenty-eight-square-mile Hardangerjokulen, Norway’s sixth-largest glacier, frosts the area’s northern edge, topping 6,000 feet at its highest point. Just 180 miles north of Oslo, the region juts out above the surrounding wooded valleys and emerald fjords so that it is pummeled by every bit of wind and weather that blasts off the North Atlantic. Due west of Hardangervidda, the jet-engine energy generated by the meeting of the Gulf Stream and the chilly North Atlantic current fuels powerful storms that cover the region in snows that can exceed 10 feet a year.
Hidden under this winter blanket lie Lilliputian trees and miniature Arctic flowers. Whole lichen colonies, winter fodder for reindeer, smother exposed ridges. Snowy owls, they of Harry Potter fame, have their southernmost nesting grounds here, where they feast on lemmings, mouse-sized animals whose population, combined with that of the area’s other rodents, can top 180 million animals—or 20 times the total biomass of the 7,000 resident reindeer.
Photographers Per Breiehagen and Doug Haynes have joined us on our journey, an 80-mile traverse along the park’s eastern side, from Rjukan in the south to Finse in the north. At about 12 miles a day, we’ll need just seven days to reach Finse, though we’ve allowed extra time in case bad weather pins us down. The route should maximize our chances of encountering reindeer, because the herd winters in the east. And while we’re all experienced cross-country skiers—both girls started skiing as toddlers—we’ve brought Sebastian, our four-year-old German shepherd/border collie mix, to beef up the odds of completing our trek. He’s equipped with a sled-dog harness, and will willingly tow a tired teenager (or worn-out mom) for miles if need be.
The huts we’ll use along the way are part of a network of roughly 400 scattered throughout the country’s 29 national parks and other recreational areas and operated under the umbrella of the Norwegian Trekking Association, an outdoors group. More than 20,000 skiers come to the association’s huts within the 1,321-square-mile park during the popular spring ski season, which typically starts several weeks before Easter and lasts for about a month.
The huts range from a staffed, 150-bed lodge with hot meals, showers, and draft beer at Finse, our end point, to tiny cabins where you cook your own food, like those at Helberghytta, our first night’s destination. Starting in mid-March, when the days have lengthened and the snowpack has stabilized, the trekking association marks 4,000 miles of routes across the country between selected huts with birch or bamboo branches so that skiers can travel safely even if visibility is poor.