Landscape In The Mist

February 2014

I know the mountains are out there. I know that they are close, even.

But I cannot see them.

While I wait for them to emerge, I say their names in the hope I can draw them near.

Muen. Tverrhøgda. Veslefjellet. Svartfjellet.

Strange, almost unpronounceable names which take on an extra air of mystery the longer they lie shrouded in mist.

Since our arrival, a fog, thick as mucous has prevented us from seeing anything. At times the tips of our skis have disappeared. Visibility is about fifty centimetres.

This is weather to be wary of. Weather to respect.

But after three days of cautious milling about and staying close to the hotel frustration gets the better of me. Overconfidence makes a fool of me.

I head out, at four thirty one afternoon, and pay scant regard to the thick fog. It no longer bothers me because after three days skiing the nearby trails I believe I have a sense of where I am.

I take precautions though; explain my plans and route.

“Half an hour at most” I say as I brandish my mobile phone and wave it in the air “Just in case.”

At the way-marker where I am due to turn back, where I have promised I will turn back, I feel too invigorated to stop. Just a little longer I think. At the head of the hill I can swing right and back track downhill and home.

Easy.

And something about the rhythm lulls me. Something about all that white disorients me. Something about the stillness, the quiet, fogs my brain, stops me from realising that I have gone too far, that time has passed and I simply cannot be where I thought I was meant to be.

At the top of an incline I stop and see, barely, what may be a path to the right, but I cannot be sure.

When I stretch my hand out in front of me, the tips of my fingers are visible, but only just.

There’s nothing for it. I have to turn back the way I came. Stick my skis in the løype and hope they carry me safely home.

It’s light still, another hour of daylight remains. So I don’t think to call. I know where I’m headed, even if I’m not quite sure where I am.

Is this mistake number one? Or one mistake of many?

Later I will designate the whole trip a mistake.

But on the trail, everything still feels good, safe even.

The fog worsens and I’m relieved to see the crossroads where I started out from. Straight on and I’ll be back.

I see the løype track and ease my skis into them and confidently head onwards, blind to everything.

The fog is milky white and candyfloss thick now. There is nothing to see. The tips of my skis have disappeared. There is no sound save for the scratch and scrape of my skis in the track and the crackle of my cagoule as I push forwards.

But again there’s a soothing rhythm to it. It is the sound of movement. With each slide forwards I get closer to home. A comforting thought.

After ten minutes though I start to sense that something is wrong.

I should be seeing cabins by now. The road I crossed should be approaching.

So where is it?

Baffled I at least have the presence of mind to make a call.

“I must have taken a wrong turn. I don’t know exactly where I am. I’ll call again when I get my bearings.”

A few minutes later, with a mixture of relief and horror, I spot electricity cables overhead and I know where I am at last.

Way off track is where I am.

It’s at least twenty minutes back to my cabin from this point. By then it will be dark. Too dark to ski. I’ll have to stay put and wait.

I call again and explain where I am. Say I’ll ski on as far as possible and wait on the track if the light fades.

In the white emptiness I curse out loud. Every profanity I have. I scream them out into the emptiness and curse my stupidity.

I remember the story Robert, the tour guide told us of a group from the previous year who got caught in a snowstorm and had to huddle together and wait for a helicopter rescue. No shelter, no shovels, their map and someone’s gloves, blown away in the wind. They had phones at least, but no clue as to their location. Only a vague idea of where they had headed when they set out.

I remember thinking how stupid that group had been. All those simple precautions they failed to take.

And now, here I am, alone on the trail, having strayed from the route I announced I would take, in the dusk, in the mist.

Idiot, I think.

Then, in the mist, just as the darkness is taking hold, a way-marker appears. Stormyra. Venabu.

If I swing a right in five minutes I’ll be at the bottom of the hill which leads to the fjellhotel.

I call again.

Robert is making the ski mobile ready and is about to kick it into action when I tell him where I am.

“If you walk towards me and whistle I’ll whistle back as soon as I hear you.” I tell him

The whistle, when it comes is sweet relief. Even though I cannot see a thing, that sound is enough to pitch me forwards at a sprint.

When I arrive no-one says much, beyond “are you okay?”

Recriminations and evaluations can wait for the morning, and I am more than glad to slip on home quietly.

The next day I head out in a group, with Robert taking the lead and guiding us over the landscape.

The mist still prevails, though it has thinned a little.

I ski alongside a man from North London. He’s just learning to cross country ski and is still a little cautious.

As we head out over a dip in the ground I ask him if we are going over a lake.

“No idea” he says and we stop a while to take in the incline and the slight hollow in the land.

Later, we ask Robert and he confirms we crossed the Flaksjøen marsh which fills like a lake come summer.

The guy from London nods to me “So, you know your stuff.”

And I laugh.

“Wish I did. I got lost last night.”

“Was that you?” he exclaims.

With a sheepish nod I reply “Yeah.”

“Wow. You were lucky” he carries on.

And though I say nothing more, I know he’s right.

But it will be a year before I realise just how lucky I was.

 

View over to Muen from Venabu
View over to Muen from Venabu

February 2015

The sun is shining and we can see for miles. Out across the fells, Muen glistens like a pile of toppled sugar.

It’s difficult not to laugh out loud.

Here, at last, are all the hills and valleys we failed to see last year. Finally we can take in the landscape and enjoy its quiet beauty.

And though it is late afternoon, the sun and the visibility are too much.

“Let’s go!” is all anyone can think.

A quick skirt around the tracks up to Buvatnet and Stormyra proves enlightening.

A year ago this stretch of track had seemed long. Far away from everything and very isolated.

The fog had ensured this impression held. So to ski there now, under clear blue skies, is a revelation.

Suddenly there are landmarks and hills from which you can take your bearings and judge the distances.

Suddenly it feels so very safe, so very close to everything.

It’s like another world.

And I don’t know whether to laugh or sigh.

How could I get lost here?

But the next morning, we head out along the path I had misguidedly followed the year before.

The trail is not so far from anything, but in the dips and folds of the landscape it is difficult to get your bearings.

When the path forks and then merges a little further at a three way crossing, I can see my mistake immediately.

Two parallel trails, one heading directly home, the other heading slightly uphill where it then arcs back, eventually to split at the headland.

In bright daylight the two paths are distinct, their directions obvious.

But I recall the thick cotton wool fog of the previous year and see how easy it was to make the mistake.

As we head on to the top of the hill towards the Spidsbergseter and the Gudbrandsdal Hotel I start to get goosebumps.

Here is the crossing where I turned back just the year before.

I had an inkling if I turned right I would veer in the direction home, and my inkling was correct. But in the mist, blind to everything, surrounded, smothered even, by white, I decided not to chance my luck.

It was the right decision.

Had I headed that way I would have been a long time getting back and night would most certainly have fallen.

But it is not this which sets my skin prickling with shock.

It’s the sight of the hotel.

It’s right there, a bare 10 meters from the ski trail.

Last year I stood there, right outside of it and didn’t know it. I was meters away from shelter, from a pick up point, from guaranteed safety.

You hear about it of course, skiers who are found in the mornings curled up, feet away from the doors of their own cabins.

Caught in a blinding white-out as darkness falls.

But some part of you fails to compute it, fails to understand just how easy it actually is.

It’s no myth. It does happen. It is possible.

“Shit” as as far as my eloquence takes me as I stand there and try to get my head around how close I was.

The hotel stands before me and seems to agree.

Nothing happened to me of course.

But how much of this was luck and how much of this was quick thinking I cannot say.

I was stupid but I got away with it.

On the television news later that same evening we hear of one poor soul who was not so lucky.

A man on the trail close to Lillehammer. They found him come morning. Frozen and alone. Caught in a blizzard of high winds and fierce snow.

Just how close he was to safety I cannot say, my grasp of Norwegian doesn’t stretch as far as a complete understanding of the evening news.

Or perhaps I would never have understood in any case. Because I shivered when I watched that bulletin, remembering the panic that rose in my chest as I had skied onwards a lone just a year earlier.

Knowing this is probably what he must have felt as the realisation dawned he was lost.

Outside the wind howls and the darkness is deep and black. But I hope he heard my little prayer for him above the wind.

I will admit I said it for myself as much as anyone.

 

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