I’m holding an ice pick, sharp crampons, and a jumble of loops that will somehow turn into a climbing harness; staring up at a wall of ice. I don’t need to formulate the thought as my travel partner turns to me, “What on earth did you sign us up for?”
Most people come up with a bucket list at some point. But my first entry might have come a bit earlier than usual. After reading James A. Michener’s Alaska: A Novel as a nine year old girl, I just knew I had to get up close and personal with a glacier. I wanted to be surrounded by the ice; feeling it beneath my feet, touching it with my hands, surrounded by chilly blue as far as the eye can see.
So when I knew that I was on my way to Norway, there was no question – I was booking a glacier hike. (Although it is possible to hike a glacier in Norway by yourself, it is extremely unrecommended by all official bodies.) After searching through the myriad guided hikes on offer, whilst being painfully aware that I haven’t walked into a gym in years, I chose the ‘Blue Ice Hike’ on the Nigardsbreen Glacier. It promised to traverse the most impressive areas of the Glacier, whilst not being too physically demanding.
As I was to find out in my stay in Norway, however, the term ‘not physically demanding’ is highly relative. Norwegians appear to be taught how to climb mountains at the same age as they are taught how to chew, and pull it off just as effortlessly. Which is why, as I struggled to understand my climbing harness, the woman beside me, all kitted out in mountaineering gear and already harnessed up, smirked. I was confirming the impression my red trench coat had already given her. Surrounded by eight Northerners in identically muted, professional mountaineering outfits, I stuck out like a bright red sore thumb and had no clue what I was doing. But as I stared up at the bluish-white ice towering above me, I knew there was no way I was backing down. After all, even Edmund Hillary had to start somewhere.
Karolina, our glacier guide, smiles at my harness, “No, no! This is all wrong! You’ll fall right through it.” In one deft motion, she tightens all the loops and buckles and trusses me up good and proper. I’m then hooked up to my partner behind me and Smirky in front. A quick explanation on how to use our crampons, ice picks and what do if one of us falls in a crevasse, and we’re off! The nine-year old inside me is bouncing with joy, whilst the almost-thirty-year-old rest of me is thinking, “Oh Crap.”
But the moment we start the proper trek, the nine-year-old part of me takes over completely. Blue ice in startling formations surrounds me and mini waterfalls swoosh past. We jump over crevasses, crawl through ice tunnels, and peer into meltwater holes, as Karolina explains the history and science behind the glacier, whilst taking us ever higher to steeper parts. Nigardsbreen is a remnant of the ice-sheet that covered the whole of Norway 10,000 years ago. Scars from glacial erosion cut through the smooth, bare mountainsides which surround the ice. Yet, pioneering shrubs cling to the rock sides, starting the gradual process of colonization and adding touches of green to the rock-face.
The glacier is constantly moving. Snow capping the glacier helps it to grow downwards, mimicking the movement of an extremely slow-moving river, whilst glacier melting is an opposing force. The result is that Nigardsbreen advances and retreats each year. It’s this constant movement and opposing forces that lead to the startling formations all around. They are everchanging and will likely be replaced by completely different formations in years to come.
It’s a grueling walk, but the icy breeze makes it easier, and the ice pick makes an effective leaning stick at times. My feet may be aching with the weight of the crampons, but the view from the highest point of the glacier is well worth it. The ice tumbles and sparkles all around us, and I’ve never had a lunch break with a better view. As we turn and start to retrace our steps, I realize that it’s over way too soon.
In the end, parting with my trusty crampons is the toughest part of the hike. Back by the fireplace at our cosy hotel (Nesgard), I can’t help wondering, is it possible to re-tick an item on a bucket list?