To the Finse Station

David Guaspari

April 1997

A Viking is not a problem but a solution—the original “can-do” guy, formed by struggles with steep Norwegian hillsides, thin soil, gnarled coasts battered by stormy seas, winters long and dark, root vegetables, endless racks of drying cod, and limited retirement opportunities. Look no further for the roots of that ancient cry to let Vikings be Vikings: “Let’s loot.”

His descendants are charming. High school graduates speak and write grammatical English (a clear competitive edge vis a vis their US contemporaries). The King of Norway makes do with a no-frills palace and someone—mayhap, on slow days, the King himself?—stocks their mountain huts with children’s books. And officials are polite; railway announcements, for example, cautiously overstate delays.

The politics of Norway is heavy on one-world niceness, the Star Trek foreign policy that unthreatened countries with no clout can afford. When Thor Heyerdahl, world’s best-known Norwegian, rafted across the Pacific to show that pre-Columbian South Americans could have populated Polynesia he flew the UN flag. He chose a multinational crew to show that men of different lands could work together. And a decade later, by trying to cross the Atlantic in a boat built from papyrus reeds, he succeeded in demonstrating beyond doubt that anyone who had once sailed the open ocean in a science-fair project would be goofy enough to try it again.

The American intelligentsia, of course, loves to wield Scandinavia as a cudgel against their fellow citizens, that bunch of overweight monolinguals who refuse to pay six bucks a gallon for gas. But to those of us who are sons of working-class immigrants, Scandinavia means one thing: Goddess Central. Walking the streets of Oslo, we are entranced by trousers tight from hip to knee, gripping trim young women’s taut approaching quads—or their receding, Doppler shifted, jostling twin globes.

What better place for middle-aged adventure? The Adirondack Mountain Club, downplaying the Goddess angle, organized a trip that seemed to promise Viking-making bleakness: a ski across the Hardangervidda Plateau. Ten of us, median age 45, signed on. Though it’s not clear from my photos (it would not be clear from a snapshot of mine that Secretariat was a horse) the plateau proved austerely gorgeous: a color palette of black, white, and sky; a landscape of wind‑shaped snow. It was the planet Hoth. Literally the planet Hoth. Literally the figurative planet Hoth, because this is where they shot the opening scene of The Empire Strikes Back. Its winds create visual interest on all scales, carving surface snow into thin stacked plates like the contours of an architect’s model, scooping man-sized hollows around large boulders, and, along the ridges, bending huge cornices balletically to the lee.

A hundred kilometers across Hoth was some of the cushiest mileage I’ve ever made on skis. We slept in huts instead of tents, nearly all of them summer-time hostels reopened for the skiable window between endless nights and endless days. Running water. Abundant food. Sleeping bags and spare clothes hauled on a following dog sled. All this support did not, of course, deter me from loading to the hilt the pack I carried in order to ensure that, if need be, I could hold out against the Empire on my own.

I liked the sled dogs, in theory. Wolf, Varg, Varsa, Buck, and Angi were Greenland Labs, bigger and stronger than huskies, and allegedly better-natured. Pulling machines that didn’t even stop to pee but left lengthy scribbles in the snow. Drama queens that made a scene, coming and going, at every hut: baying wildly the moment Jan hitched them, dragging and straining even after he stopped the sled and anchored it by jamming its brake into the snow.

Jan is laid back and droll, despite a look—tall thin frame, long face, forehead high and lined—that radiates Lutheran gloom. His day job: Oslo’s top motorcycle cop. (“Nice days I get out my bike and go see how the boys are doing.”) To the dogs he plays bad cop: bluffing them back when they try to chase reindeer (blows from a shovel are the correctives of choice); wrestling away blocks of lard they’ve stolen from the dog-food bag (a major photo op, shouts of “Jan’s fighting the dogs!” as he twists collars until tongues turn blue).

***

Our starting point, Briestolen, lies at the tip of Norway’s largest fjord. We bussed there from Oslo, deploying humans as buffers between rival dog factions. At trip’s end—the Finse railway station, transportation hub of Hoth—Jan will load the dogs and sled as baggage. He could have bought tickets for them, but would then have been obliged to sit with the dogs in the smoking car.

Briestolen to Finse will take nine meandering days on trails marked by sticks (technically, “wands”) in the snow—across frozen lakes where possible, avoiding steep ridges and avalanche slopes. The unimposing elevation profile tops out just above 5,000 feet, and our steepest descents would impress no one at a downhill resort—if the snow had been groomed, if one carried no pack, and if one’s feet had been securely strapped to skis built to turn.

Variables other than altitude also compelled attention. The wax-of-the-day: subtly dependent on current temperature and humidity, recent weather patterns, and evil spirits. Gastronomy: high point of the hut meals being baked salmon. Plumbing: to reach Geiterygghytta’s privy one had to scale a 10-foot snow drift; the frozen deposits in Bjordalsbu’s had aggregated into museum-quality stalagmites; in the showers of our Oslo hotel hung waterproof cards with the lyrics of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

Also matters gastrointestinal: Winter Vomiting Sickness swept through the group at our most remote location, where we spent the night crammed into a genuine, non-hotel hut. Stumbling outside to do what had to be done granted a stunning view of the Hale-Bopp comet, fiercely bright. Those in luck got to see the northern lights as well.

Also, one of human nature’s givens: Whether it’s a holiday hike or a Himalayan expedition, any trip that lasts long enough will eventually provoke dreams of dancing on your comrades’ graves.

So, on a day with 20-knot winds gusting to 40, a mix of snow and rain coating us in ice, some of us not fully out of the gastrointestinal trough, visibility limited to two sticks, having spent an entire morning that netted 3 kilometers horizontally and .2 vertically, we had to pause without shelter so that some people could rummage through their packs for their foul weather gear. I was not surprised to find myself thinking—but not, I believe, saying—“Hurry up and die.” Rain and wind shells could have been on long ago and what wasn’t on could have been stored at the top of the pack. One knows, of course, how hard it is for freezing hands to work buckles and straps, but Whose fault is that? One fact crowds all others from my mind: I am cold because I am standing still. Were we not long past the point at which, like Anthony Quayle in The Guns of Navarone, these people should do the decent thing and tell the rest of us to abandon them?

***

Scooting down a steep bank onto the surface of a lake, Marge fell and didn’t get up. Our guide raced ahead to the hut on the opposite shore, and our hostility toward snowmobiles relented when he came roaring back with one that towed a rescue sled. Marge was transferred to a snowcat, which took her to a highway, there to meet an ambulance to the surgical unit that served Lillehammer’s Olympics. By postcard we eventually learned the outcome: her knee reassembled, minus its posterior cruciate ligament.

While we waited for the snowmobile our amateur contribution to the rescue was antic, a Norwegian fire drill aimed primarily at deploying as much survival gear as possible. We dug the victim into the snow; carved a platform for her injured leg; splinted the leg; set up two emergency wind sacks as screens; wrapped her, with some extra clothes, in a third wind sack; fed her hot drinks; cracked open hand and foot warmers; and uncorked a lethal cornucopia of pain killers just in case. We foresaw pats on our collective back, an accident report noting the cool efficiency with which the crisis had been handled; but the admitting doctors mentioned only a crucial and ironic blunder—while waiting at the hut for the snowcat, we failed to ice the knee.

***

Caveman belonged to a peculiarly British type that defines its doings by a single datum, how much (i.e., how little) they cost. His trip, he told me, would set him back a mere four hundred quid for the fortnight, transportation included. Like all the British voices in the huts, his was northern and non-U. But he was rarely in the huts, because they charged fees. Instead, he dug himself snow caves nearby. To prove he was on holiday he was picking up “color”—an ideal of ruddy health that only the chronically sun-starved could entertain, a complexion makeover with a foundation of barbecue sauce and highlights of mahogany Min-Wax.

When we meet him a second time, at Finse, one of his boots will be falling apart and he will borrow our pliers to bind it up with wire. As we board the train back to Oslo, he toils onward to the next cave, his spirit as determined as his pack is huge. Dear Diary: Boot repair, £0.00. Dodged a “budget buster” !! Looking forward to tonight’s jerky: Lichen makes ever so tasty a garnish.

***

The train beside the Finse platform is tipped with a gigantic snow-blowing screw and four auxiliary propellers, an apparatus suitable for masticating Bond villains. Even this monster had been grounded the previous week when a big blizzard trapped 90 skiers, a fact we wished we hadn’t known.

There are no weather signs now. Our final 20K, to the Finse Station, had been glorious: panoramas of the Harrungane range behind us and of one of Norway’s Top-10 glaciers, the Hardangerjøkulen, in front; an exhilarating breeze; our long climb to the Church Doors, a notch between two sharp peaks, so steady it might have been graded for the purpose.

The ground floor windows of the huge Finse hut are buried fully beneath the snow; through them we see what looks like layers of cotton, as if we’re fragile goods packed in batting. It’s an annoying reminder that we have indeed been swaddled—by huts, dogs, guides. Not so fast, I want to say. Look on the bright side. It hadn’t been a complete walk in the park: we took casualties. In spite of which, mission accomplished, the forces of the Empire evaded, the winds of Hoth put behind us. What had Vikings accomplished on their vacations?


About the Author

David Guaspari was trained as a pure mathematician and considers himself to be, of all post-19th century mathematical logicians, the funniest. In addition to technical papers, he has published fiction, essays, humor, and reviews, and has had plays performed in states totaling 313 electoral votes as well as five foreign countries. A member of the Dramatists Guild, he lives in Ithaca, NY.