Jotunheimen Ski Touring Days 3-4 — Spiterstulen to Leirvassbu


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 18, 2015      

(Note, I tried to ramp up the photography a bit for this post,so be sure to click on the images and check out the full-size versions. Camera was my sort of trusty Canon A1400 for ski touring.. Though the A1400 is still a viable choice for something ultra small, I’ve about had it with the compromised quality I get from the tiny sensor and older firmware. A Sony is on the list.)

Jotunheimen Mountains, Norway. Stian Hagen and Greg Grenzke deep in discussion about the new Arcteryx 'double tracker' shell with a revolutionary 'snap sleeve' for attaching to your partner while simultaneously skiing.

Jotunheimen Mountains, Norway. Stian Hagen and Greg Grenzke deep in discussion about the new Arcteryx ‘double tracker’ shell with revolutionary ‘snap sleeve’ for attaching to your partner while simultaneously skiing. Click to enlarge.

Perhaps we could be a soap opera, but the conversation has not yet turned to relationships so don’t get your hopes up. (Besides, as they say nearly everywhere I’ve been in the world, “what happens at the hut stays at the hut”).

We’ve been stuck waiting out the weather at Spiterstulen Lodge in Norway. The buildings are roomy and the beer flows like water. But it always feels strange to me when a ski alpinist crew converges from all points of the planet then plops down in a weather enclosed bubble and does virtually nothing. “Real” life has come to a standstill, but so has “the dream.”

Redeeming value in sitting around is I did get to know some interesting fellows: Adam the oceanographer; Scott the camera artist; Toby the Swedish magazine editor, Greg the Arcteryx clothing instigator; Stian who needs no introduction. We’ve not yet skipped a day of skiing, but yesterday was truncated to an afternoon mission on breakable crust in flat light. That was not my finest hour of the trip so let’s just say it was good exercise.

Scott Rinckenberger is always happy, but he's happier when  the whiteout clears away, like today.

Photographer Scott Rinckenberger is always happy, but I got the impression he’s happier when the white fuzz clears out, like today.

Today, however, was wonderful. The weather broke, the snow was skiable, the photographer was happy. What more can one ask? Perhaps a Norwegian waffle wrapped in lunch kit? Not a problem if you thought ahead.

Expecting weather reports to be truth, we stabbed upwards. The proposed “standard” Jotunheimen Haute Route from Spiterstulen heads over the highest peak in Norway, Galdhøpiggen (2469 meters), making for a mega-day with nearly 2,000 meters of vertical gain. Sounds like fun when you’re feeling strong and have good weather. Less daunting routes are available that allow more time for gawking and are not quite such a grunt.

In our case, morning dawned with plentiful clouds swirling the summits. With the possibility of marginal visibility as well as needing time for photography, we took an easier variation that still gained about 1,200 meters by the end of the day, with two nice descents (and plenty of distance). Jotunheimen Haute Route line. Our goal, the somewhat complex route that links Spiterstulen to Leirvassbu Mountain Lodge.

Stian (the guy on the right) is one of Norway's best known ski mountaineers, and is a major player in establishing the Jotunheimen Haute Route. He is thus on call for map consultation with other folks at the lodge. It is fun watching everyone focus on the route. What appears to be the 'standard' Haute Route is a fairly major undertaking, but you can do a bunch of variations that still yield good skiing but are not quite so daunting in length and climbing.

Stian (the guy on the right) is one of Norway’s best known ski mountaineers, and is a major player in establishing the Jotunheimen Haute Route. He is thus on call for map consultation with other folks at the lodge. It is fun watching everyone focus on the route. What appears to be the ‘standard’ Haute Route is a fairly major undertaking, but you can do a bunch of variations that still yield good skiing but are not quite so daunting in length and climbing.

Leaving the lodge, peak to left is typical Jotunheimen terrain.

Leaving the lodge, peak to left is typical Jotunheimen terrain. The area is a high plateau that’s been riven by glaciers into a an array of somewhat widely spaced peaks. I found the feeling of the place to be somewhat unique in comparison to the many other mountains I’ve been in. You’re at higher elevations than most other Norwegian ski touring, but still low enough (highest you can go is about 8,000 feet 2,400 meters, with most touring much lower)to not to have any altitude issues — a perquisite for viable ski touring tourism.

We left Spiterstulen at a civilized 9:00 or so, beginning with a flat shuffle over patches of snow and bramble, but soon humping up onto a pocket glacier. Terrain here is complex, with small glaciers dropping in various directions. Stian got his map out a few times and I’ll admit to some obsession on my GPS.

Getting organized at Spiterstulen, route start indicated by dots.

Getting organized at Spiterstulen, route start indicated by dots.

Turned out out the orienteering work wasn’t necessary, as the clouds lifted when we reached a saddle that defines the first critical point on the route. Spread before us, most of the remaining line tempted like the massive breakfast spreads they serve up in the hotels around here. To the right, or to the left? I’ll have some of that cornice for lunch? Or how about swinging around to the cornice-free pastry display?

First turns of the day were down just a few hundred meters to a flat glacier.

First turns of the day were down just a few hundred meters to a flat glacier. Main thing here was the sunshine.

At the top of our first descent, we indeed had three options for crossing the next mountain. The actual summit appeared to involve a semi-technical section on a spine feature. To the right of that, a good looking saddle was marred by a bad looking cornice. Farther to the right, according to Stian: “Where we went last time, but you end up with a flat ski up the valley to get to Leirvassbu Lodge.”

Such a cool idea to ski directly down to the lodge. Indeed, goal one upon reaching any ski hut is to glide onto the front porch and grab a beer while still wearing your rucksack. So we did make a line across another small glacier directly towards the cornice option. The closer we got, the worse it looked. Not appropriate for six guys who would probably spend hours fooling around with photography with the cornice wall as a backdrop (though I was looking forward to seeing Adam’s backflip style). So we swung right to the “standard.”

On our last highpoint of the day, Jotunheimen peaks marched before us like an army of giant trolls, which apparently they might actually be.

On our last highpoint of the day, Jotunheimen peaks marched before us like an army of giant trolls, which apparently they might actually be. It was explained to me by a card carrying Norwegian that the Jotunheimen mountains were indeed once an army of giant trolls sent to battle a Viking army bent on capturing their dominion. Trolls being stupid, they let their pride overcome reality, marched into the sunlight, and were hence turned to stone (trolls can only go out at night, otherwise, kaboom).

I was ready for something mundane, but when I crested this last highpoint a stupendous array of Jotunheimen peaks blasted me in the face like a solar detonation. Once the amazed utterances were taken care of, I noticed Stian just sitting there smiling, like he knew exactly what he’d hear from a North American really seeing the Jotunheimen “land of the giant trolls” for the first time. Not only are these mountains prolific, but they’re super skiable. More, because the peaks before us were all accessible from Lerivassbu Lodge, they were scratched one-and-all with a beautiful overlay of ski tracks (though we could easily spot a few untouched spots).

Scott and the boys were setting up professional ski shots from this area on our last highpoint.  I didn't quite have the right lens for this Stian sighting, but you get the picture.

Scott and the boys were setting up professional ski shots from this area on our last highpoint. I didn’t quite have the right lens for this Stian sighting, but you get the picture. The idea of Jotunheimen Haute Route is to glean quite a bit of ‘turn worthy’ terrain while covering distance between lodges and huts. Problem is, the distance does exist and unless you’re careful and willing to do ‘bonus’ climbs you can do an awful lot of flat shuffling with little reward. Obviously, the photography projects these guys were working on were intended to depict the more spectacular and downhill parts of the journey. Such is totally okay, but before you commit to the Jotunheimen study a map and be realistic about how much horizontal terrain your goals require you to cover. With that in mind, unless you’re super strong perhaps opt for lighter weight ski touring gear rather than a freeride rig. I’d also suggest that the Norwegian snowpack is VARIABLE in terms of the snow surfaces you’ll encounter. I was on an unfamiliar pair of demo skis (Volkl VTA88 Lite 170 cm, with Kingpin binders) which I found to be fine and was happy to test, but would have been better off on something I was familiar with when literally transitioning from breakable crust to powder in 1/2 turn.

When everyone else arrived it was decided another photography session would occur. Not being at the freeride skiing cover model stage of life, I hung out on the saddle for a while and captured a few scenes on my junker digicam. The pull of about 1,000 meters of skiing was too strong. Sitting with Stian, he pointed out that the lodge transport snowcat was crawling up the valley and if I skied I might be able to intersect the ‘cat and avoid a hot valley slog up to the lodge. Fine by me and my aching feet. Nice descent, some steeper connecting open bowls. Wouldn’t want to be there with avalanche potential.

I am honored to capture this rare image of Stian Hagen not moving.

I am honored to capture this rare image of Stian Hagen not moving. He requested I delete it from my camera card, but I snuck it past Norwegian customs officers and the rest is history.

Sure enough, four minutes after I hit the cat track along came the lodge cat. The driver spouted something in Norwegian that sounded like “get in and let’s go.” So I did.

My intersection point was perhaps half way from car parking to the lodge. The over-snow road is maintained by the lodge owners. They open it up for travel during the spring snow season, close for a while in May, then open again for summer hill walking and climbing on the surrounding Jotunheimen peaks.

Stian had told me to be prepared for a crowd and a “scene.” But I wasn’t ready for Leirvassbu. The 80 room lodge was full, and at least as many tents dotted surrounding land (in Norway, tent camping is popular, with use of lodge showers etc. for a fee). The owner said about 600 people were overall present. I was amazed. Norwegians on skis, everywhere, on the hills, on the flats. People towing their kids. People with sleds. People nordic skating. People obviously heading out or returning from ski tours on AT gear. People sunning and drinking. Nearest ski lift many kilometers distant.

According to Stian and quite surprising to me, alpine ski touring (on “AT” bindings that free the heel for touring and let it lift for the uphill) as a popular sport is new to Norway. Up until a few years ago most folks used medium weight nordic gear or tele gear for “mountain touring.” All viable for good skiers, but modern AT gear based on the tech system is so efficient and attractive, it didn’t take long for a sea change to occur. According to both Stian and the Leirvassbu owners, “a few years ago it was 90% nordic touring gear this time of year, now it’s 90% ski touring [AT] gear.”

Thus, fun to be here in the midst of like minded hundreds. What is more, if you’ve not skied the mountain lodges of Norway, you have never seen a more geared-up state-of-art clothed, binding mounted and ski equipped group of hundreds anywhere else on the planet. Perhaps you’ve been told that Norway is prosperous? Indeed. Stay tuned for Leirvassbu Mountain Lodge details.

The 'wall of skis' is a matter of Norwegian pride.

The ‘wall of skis’ is a matter of Norwegian pride. Five years ago this would have been mostly nordic and light telemark gear, for what they call ‘mountain skiing.’ Now the wider ski with tech or frame bindings has taken over and ‘ski touring’ is the game. Of course all Norwegians are born ready for World Cup downhill racing, so snapping into a set of touring bindings and doing a few peaks is trivial, though apparently regarded as quite fun.



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Comments

8 Responses to “Jotunheimen Ski Touring Days 3-4 — Spiterstulen to Leirvassbu”

  1. Patrick May 18th, 2015 11:04 am

    The weak Canadian peso gets to be a bind anywhere in northern Europe.

  2. Joe Risi May 18th, 2015 12:41 pm

    L, I just checked out the Sony Rx100iii this weekend. Such a sweet little rig! With a Gold rating from DP Review plus the with the use of filter kits from http://www.lensmateonline.com/store/sonyRX100.php you’d be all set when the white fuzz rolls in.

  3. Steven Zwisler May 18th, 2015 1:23 pm

    I am enjoying your series on the Jotenheimen having skied there in March of 2002. I was placed in the “eccentric but harmless” category based on my desire to ski to and off of summits. Literally no one else in the eight days I was at Leirvasbu was skiing off summits. Everyone was skiing on nordic equipment and wax. I can attest to the variability of the snow and would advise skiers to be ready for all that wind, sun, and humidity can do to snow. The cost at Leirvasbu was reasonable based on my Spartan choice of room {bed and sink, bathroom down the hall} and included all meals. The people were engaging and nearly everyone spoke English. It is a beautiful place rich in history and tradition.

  4. Scott Nelson May 18th, 2015 5:09 pm

    Views look incredible! No wonder why that’s where it all began. Look forward to getting over there someday.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 May 19th, 2015 12:01 am

    Hi Joe, yeah, I still like the Canon G cameras but they’re bulky and heavy, the Sony has been recommended to me by multiple photographers. Main thing is how well the viewfinder works and if the burst mode is fast enough for ski photography. Lou

  6. Chris Beh May 19th, 2015 9:23 pm

    Lou, Forgive the off topic comment but The Pass is scheduled to open Thursday and the snow is fat, fat, PHAT! Y’all going to home for the annual Memorial Day Barbie? I will be up skiing for the first time in ages.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 May 19th, 2015 11:14 pm

    Hi Chris, sadly we won’t be there (we’re in Austria) but there will be a gathering of the tribes even so. Not sure what day. Check with the guys at Cripple Creek Backcountry. Lou

  8. Wookie May 20th, 2015 9:01 am

    You order snow today Lou! It’s snowing so hard in Austria today the Brenner’s closed!





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