Over the years that I took groups up to Anton Svartisdal’s small patch of heaven, recalls Bob Cranwell, we had some glorious hikes up to the glacier, and also up the side valley that led toward the pass into Blakkådalen, as well as nightly barbeques and campfire chit chat.
One young guy had become the proud owner of a small set of reindeer antlers, (still attached to the top of the skull), and a reindeer skin from a roadside Same stall in Finland, and fancied a prank one day. He sneaked away from the group around the campfire, (who were knocking back their duty free after a satisfying day’s hiking), in the gloaming and crept into the cover of some birch trees nearby, and donned his outfit.
It was remarkable how well his bobbing, waving antlers mimicked the action of a reindeer browsing, when I noticed it out of the corner of my eye, but said nothing. A few moments passed, then woman in the group suddenly started, and let out a stage whisper to tell everyone to be real quiet, pointing in the direction of our ‘wildlife’. Quickly, and bending low to avoid startling our lone reindeer, several members of the group dashed to their tents to retrieve cameras, and in true Attenborough fashion, each crept low on the ground toward the creature.
It was the first time a reindeer had come so close to the group, unless it was in a compound which were set up here and there by the Same as a tourist photo-op, drawing in customers for their other wares. Well, you can imagine the cries of dismay and ‘fraud !’ as our cheeky chappie raised himself from the undergrowth, creasing over with laughter, as a number of people had already taken what they thought were really good ‘trophy’ shots of the wildlife !
The jaunt up to the glacier, highlighted on this trip, involved a couple of kilometres walk along the dirt road leading to the jetty. Anton’s son, Arnold, (and later his own son Gjaer), ran the launch which took people according to a timetable along the lake to a landing from where they could approach the glacier and if they wished, climb the shoulder of the hill to get a view across the glacier and over onto the icecap itself.
Copious warnings on signs told of the danger of going too close to the glacier itself, or even too close to the smaller lake into which it debouched. I had done a lot of work on glaciology in college, and in Iceland, so I was well placed to verify the value of these warnings, but it was surprising how many people just thought they knew better.
The glacier at this point ran steeply downhill and the mass of ice coming down the channel had broken up quite a lot, with many blocks, (‘seracs’) the size of houses teetering unsteadily on the jumble of ice. These blocks could move incredibly quickly without any warning and the chances of getting out of their path were vanishingly small. The other major danger was the lake; when a sudden splash some hundreds of yards away indicated a lump had broken off into the lake, it pre warned of a wave rushing across the lake and up onto the shore.
More than one person, over the years had been washed into the lake, and never seen again. Death would be in seconds, as the water temperature was less than 2˚C causing a sudden sharp intake of breath which stopped the heart instantly. The lake along which we had come by motor launch was almost as lethal at around 4˚C even at the end of a long summer. The launch was equipped with life-jackets of course, and subject to the stringent Norwegian safety requirements, but all would be futile in the event of a capsize, as very few would survive the cold.
The group was provided with ample packed lunches and advice, and were left to pursue their own interests. Some of course were perfectly happy to see the glacier from a safe distance and enjoy a picnic in a wild and remote spot. Others, more adventurous, climbed the frost-riven slope beside the glacier and enjoyed even more spectacular views, but came back down the same way to depart on the launch – last pick up 6pm, so if you missed it you faced a very boggy walk along the lakeside, hampered by fallen tress, to get back to the jetty and thence the road walk to camp.
I had felt there was an option that needed exploring, from my first visit there. Once having climbed high enough above the slippery rocky slopes of the main valley, the ridge offered an excellent high level walk back to the shoulder above the camp, where I knew there was a safe descent, and I set about checking this route out, with a few intrepid walkers.
All went well, although there was a lot of re-routing to skirt still fairly extensive and deep snowfields, we kept to our direction and discovered yet another valley parallel to the main one, leading down into the flats of the hanging valley and back to camp. The shorter way down the shoulder took a bit of finding, and having once found it, we re-climbed to place highly visible cairns to mark the top end of the descent trail. Although each winter would knock down the cairns with snowfall and high winds up there, we were really pleased to have opened up another option for more experienced hikers, and celebrated back in camp.
On a later trip, I had the company of a chap, in his sixties, call him Bill, who had been a scout and caravanner for years, and he therefore decided we needed advice on the ‘best’ way to put up the large cook tent which we had been putting up for some time. Hmmm. He had taken a relatively nervous traveller under his wing, a Canadian woman in her thirties, call her Cheryl, and became the fount of all knowledge.
When we arrived in Svartisdal, I advised people about the next day’s excursion to the glacier, outlining the hazards, delights, launch timetable and the possibility of returning along the ridge for experienced walkers. Anyone thinking of taking this route should see me before undertaking it, not least so we knew which people and how many were on the hill, should difficulties arise. Basic hill craft, tell someone what you are doing, when you expect to return, and stick to that plan.
As you might have guessed, Bill deemed himself quite competent enough to take these responsibilities on himself and having convinced Cheryl what a great experience it would be, decided on the ridge return. He had not discussed this with anyone, but the pair were observed climbing higher when all the others were returning to the launch. I found out about this only when the rest of the group tramped wearily into the camp. I did of course have a good idea of the time it took to traverse this ridge so I immediately became concerned to ensure their safety and started off up the waterfall trail to the foot of the descent path off the ridge. I slogged up the shoulder, calling and whistling here and there, but there was no sight or sound of the terrible twosome.
As time passed, I walked up to the best points to survey the routes possible but found no trace of their passing – prints in snowbanks, for example. As I could not see the camp from the ridge, I had to descend to the top of the waterfall several times, to be sure they had not by-passed me somehow, but then had to retrace my steps to the heights again. To the west and south of the safe route, the hillside was clad in steeply sloping slabs, with a sheen of meltwater running over them, creating pockets of slithery moss and lichen. This would be a tall order for a not very fit man in his sixties and a nervous traveller.
Eventually, the pair did appear in camp half an hour after I descended for the last time, convinced that I had to call out the mountain rescue. I was of course, as forgiving as I could manage, but had some very stern words with Bill, not least for leading Cheryl into unknown territory, with inadequate experience and equipment, but also gave him rather a large shock when I said that the charge for the helicopter rescue would have had to be paid by him, at £900 an hour. I think he had learned another lesson, albeit late in life, because when they had reached the sloping slabs, having never seen the cairns, they had stopped for a brief rest.
Here was where Bill had decided that though they couldn’t see the bottom, they could both slide down the slabs on their backsides, Bill inexplicably left his daypack at their rest stop, only realising when it was too hard to climb back up. The pack contained his camera, a top of the range Olympus SLR, also his wallet, with a few hundred pounds in kroner in it, but worst of all, his passport and flight tickets. We spent some time sorting out the passport etc in Trondheim later in the trip instead of spending our time resupplying for the next group. His camera, bag and money remain there, probably to this day, despite the numerous attempts to cash in on the spoils by myself over the following years !
Quite a few people over the years took advantage of this ridge route and had an excellent experience of mountain scenery, with varying levels of tiredness at the end of the day. Bill and Cheryl were not the only ‘casualties’ this ridge claimed, as on another trip a pair of fit experienced walkers fairly leapt at the chance of some unfettered mountain walking. They did take advice, they did take a hand drawn map – I had a degree in Geography and could make good maps – and they did have good equipment.
What they didn’t have was the sense to double check what their assumptions were; ‘is this the ridge / valley / cairn that is marked on the map ?’. As a consequence, although they arrived safe and sound back at camp, they had lost their bearings and descended for some unfathomable reason, into the dead-end valley that ran parallel to the main Svartisen valley. This was really hard to understand, as they had compass, directions and experience in spades.
This pair were quite a different kettle of fish, as one was a former tour leader for Ramblers, who specialise in walking trips, the other still working as a Geography Advisor, i.e. he assessed how Geography was taught in schools in an English county. But they couldn’t find their way along an unambiguous ridge when well prepared. Tsk.
Catch yer later !
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant