It’s the kind of cold that sucks the breath from your mouth like a vacuum cleaner. The Scots call this a lazy wind – because it can’t be bothered going around you so it just goes straight through you instead.
The gauge says it’s 1degree Celsius, but really, it’s about 5 below. I know this because it takes all of five seconds for my fingers to go from warm and toasty to numb and frozen. Along with my nose. And just about every other part of me. Welcome to Finse.
I’m standing outside Finsehytta Lodge, and it’s nine in the morning. The sun, strangely, is beaming down on both me and the landscape that stretches in every direction.
Strangely, because that landscape is streaked with snow and hard-packed ice, a gun-metal grey lake and above, spread over the mountains like a winter shawl, is a sugar-coated glacier so close I can almost touch it. It feels like the sun would never grace a place like this plateau set high above Hardangerfjord and Sognefjord, in the heart of Norway’s most popular region.
It takes a journey of at least four hours by train to get to Finse from Oslo, and about three hours from Bergen. The good thing is, the only other way you can get here is either by foot or bicycle. There is no road and there are no cars. In fact, Finse is not really a place in the traditional sense. It’s more a location. A stop on the way to other places more solid and with other functions than simply sitting here and looking gorgeous.
It’s safe to say that Finse is no more than a train station, a hotel, a lodge and a handful of huts. It sits at the highest point on the Oslo to Bergen rail line, commonly regarded as the most beautiful train journey in the world. I can attest that it’s definitely right up there. But nothing, either coming from Oslo or Bergen really prepares you for the sparse, untamed, raw nature of Finse and the way it reaches inside you and grabs hold of your emotions. You step off that train and Finse just owns you.
My goal today is to get to the glacier, Hardangerjøkulen, which I can see from where I’m standing, glistening in the morning sunshine. It looks close enough to take maybe an hour of easy hiking. Or two. I’m not really sure I care. This is my idea of heaven.
Of course, the original plan was to join a locally run glacier tour, which leaves every morning at 11am. However, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I didn’t actually book ahead, which meant the day’s tour was already full when I got here.
I swallowed my intense disappointment (and let’s face it, some degree of relief – it’s hard work hiking across a glacier) and focused on at least reaching the foot of the glacier instead. Ears full of directions from two different but agreeing sources, I set out to cross Finse Lake weir and follow the trail marked with a red T.
Waterproof hiking boots, windproof pants and jacket are a must out here. There’s nothing else to stop that freezing wind sweeping through you like you were a spaghetti strainer. The trail is rocky, boggy, sandy and grassy. I climb small hillocks and go down the other side. Truly, it’s a lovely walk.
And the views are simply superb. For the fiftieth time I thank Thor for the sunshine. I’m staying warm enough except my fingers, which would be happier if I didn’t keep stopping to take photos – but it’s hard not to. This place just begs and wheedles to be captured in all its glory.
It’s a 90 minute walk to the foot of the glacier, and although I’m not necessarily that quick, after 2 hours I’m wondering why I’m still not much closer. The first spots of sheltered snow make me squeal with delight, but I’m still skirting the bottom of the mountain, not going up to meet the glacier. Another half our later I realise the path I’m on is not going to take me up, but around the southern end and then onto another hiking hut.
I have to turn back.
With another two hour plus hike back to Finse, I know my legs don’t have it in them to try to find the right glacier path, and even if I did, I certainly won’t make it up and back. It’s one of the unbreakable rules of hiking: always make sure you have enough left in the tank to get home.
I’m gutted. Hiking a glacier had been one of the three things I most wanted to do in Norway, alongside sailing on a fjord and walking in a forest. I set out to hike back, wishing it was warm enough to stop for a few minutes rest. I try it once, and get so cold it takes me another half hour to warm up again.
The walk back feels like some kind of punishment for not paying enough attention – even though I faithfully followed all the signs.
But then something happens on the return journey. I come across a local walker and her beautiful dog. Shaggy, wet and blissfully happy, the dog sees me and bounds over, full of adoring love. He licks my hands, throws himself at my legs so I can give him a pat and a cuddle and in that time, his mum arrives and we chat.
She owns one of the huts around Finse – the cosy yet simple weekender buildings Norwegians adore. She’s been out for a bike ride that morning, and this afternoon thought she’d walk for a few hours. She’s my age, fit, tanned, her face alive with being outdoors and surrounded by unspeakable beauty.
I wonder if I look like that as well. I hope so. And my disappointment drains away. How lucky am I? I got to see a glacier from a few hundred meters away. I got to spend hours hiking across a stunning landscape – something I travel thousands of miles to do. I got to meet this lovely woman and her delightful doggy companion. Who can be disappointed with a day like that?
For more photos and video of this amazing place, see my post Why Next Time I Will Climb the Glacier.
Later, back at the Lodge, I have dinner with 150 Norwegians; a buffet of local specialities most of which I can’t identify, voices raised in laughter and full of the joy of having spent a day outdoors.
Towards the end of the meal, I witness the Norwegian version of Happy Birthday. The song is bright, fun and full of laughter. It’s the perfect way to finish what has, in reality, been a perfect day.
For visitors, accommodation comes in two, wildly different forms. There’s Finse 1222 hotel, conveniently located on the train platform full of old word charm and kitted out with fine dining and basic but clean rooms and an expensive price tag. At the other end of the scale – and your only other choice – is Finsehytta, a DNT lodge.
Of course, this is Norway, and nothing, especially not up here, is anything that can be tossed into the “cheap” basket. But it’s actually reasonable for what you get: a proper bed in a heated room, bedding, bathrooms, dinner, breakfast and a pack-your-own lunch. There’s a boot room, drying room and a fully staffed bar together with a jovial atmosphere that reminds me of backpacker hostels of old, when travelling the world in your early twenties was an act of defiance, and camaraderie an automatic response.
Glacier tours can be booked through either place as they’re run by a third party. Make sure you book ahead.
Getting There and Away
Finse can only be reached by foot, bicycle or train. The train journey from Oslo is approximately 4 hours, and 3 hours from Bergen. Bike and hiking trails can be found at the Norwegian Trekking Association, DNT.