Thu, 14 Apr 2005

Skiing at the feet of Gausta, in Rjukan

A few weeks ago I went on a ski trip to the Telemark area in Norway with Núria and Brande, and three other friends of Brande. Brande is my sister's boyfriend, and has been to this place a few times before, as the facility where we were staying is owned by a hundred Danish families, including his.

The night before leaving, I decided it would be great if I got the flu and travelled with a bit of fever, and so I did. We three from València went to Madrid, carrying two big backpacks each with tons of weight, on Friday 25th to spend the night before flying to Oslo, as our flight was at 6:20. We stayed at Diego's place, in La Latina neighbourhood. In the morning, the four of us took our plane to Amsterdam and then another one to Oslo.

In Oslo, we tried to use the three hours we had between our arrival and the departure of our bus to wander around as optimally as possible, and visited the main streets, the Royal Palace and the harbour, while we carried, by turns, Brande's skis, as he had gone to look for Norwegian yoghourt and milk for our breakfasts.

Just a bit before taking the bus to Rjukan we met the last two members of our expedition: Alfredo, another friend of Brande, and her girlfriend Patricia. The four hours of bus to Rjukan were horrible for me because there was no way of sleeping due to the fever and I was terribly tired because we had woken up at 3:30 that day. Once on our destination, a pair of taxis took us to the Kvitåvatn Fjellstoge, where we would live that week.

This place is something like a small ski centre, surrounded by lakes and many kilometres of tracks to practice telemark ski. They have a main building with common areas for guests and many rooms for up to seven people. Outside, they have a set of typical huts, and we were lucky to stay on one.

These are old huts that were once in the middle of nowhere and were bought by the Kvitåvtn people, took them piece by piece and recontructed them at this spot. Our hut had two floors, with a table, a sink and little more at ground level, and four matresses and a few wooden racks for clothes in the first floor. The kitchen, bathroom and sauna were in other huts and were common for everyone.

If you want to cut some expenses, you can choose to carry your own bed sheets, food and clean up the hut yourself, and that's what we did. Brande organised three teams of two to manage cooking. Alfredo and Patricia took care of the small lunches and picnics to have during our ski routes, and the last dinner; Diego and Brande took care of breakfasts and two dinners; and Núria and I took care of the remaining four dinners. Núria and I planned to cook two different kinds of spaguetti, rice and lentils, with salad for all days. We also contributed our share of wine and a bottle of mistela.

We carried everything in our bags, making them very heavy, and we were glad to drop them on the floor as soon as we arrived. Brande took care of contacting the Fjellstoge people and getting our keys. We thought we'd have to sleep in the normal rooms, but it seems there was some cancellation and they were able to give us one hut for the first night, and two for the rest of the week, so Alfredo and Patricia moved after the first day.

The first morning was a bit rough. After visiting Trevor in the ski hut, who equipped us with all the necessary material, our first skiing lesson started. Brande has been skiing all his life, and was our teacher. Alfredo was lucky to have done it just two years before in these same tracks, but for the rest of us, we were about to start a long day.

While Brande went to buy some wax, the novice skiers jumped on their skis and started experimenting. Of course, with no wax, this was a bit dangerous, and mostly all of us bit the snow after just a few minutes. With the wax in place, and the very basic lesson learned, we tried to go down the first slope. I fell like 4 times in 15 metres, which was a bit discouraging; and this continued on and on during the first slopes. I told Brande I felt my feet were a bit loose inside my boot, and we tried to make a very tight knot on the boot, which helped somewhat, but I still felt a bit uncontrolled. For example, when I tried to stop, it was my boot what touched the snow, not the edge of the ski, and eventually that would make me fall down.

When there terrain wasn't steep, though, I adapted easily and could lead the group, as it was a not too tiring exercise, but plains weren't very common in the first day's newbie track. After crossing the ice lake, we reached a hill which we had to climb (no problems so far) and then descend skiing. A few more bad crashes and quite some harm in my butt made me stop being so brave and get rid of the skis for the most difficult slopes. In the end, after the first day, all my courage was replaced with bruises and a nasty pain in one of my ankles, which fortunately went away the next day. My confidence in being able to do it more or less ok was gone, though, as I had been the one in the group who had fallen most, and that was quite unexpected to me.

After dinner, our first sauna session and a good sleep, we were ready for our second day, which would take us through a much more interesting and tricky course. I went to Trevor's to see if he thought my boots were to big, and they were. When I told him about my boot touching the snow, he said... "you realise there's a ski for the right foot and another for the left foot, right?" Well, no, nobody had told me, and the mark on the ski was impossible to see if you didn't look very closely.

Wow, correctly sized boots and skis on the right side did make a difference. Despite the track being a lot harder, I fell a lot less and after a few slopes my fear to slide down started to go away. We skied all day long around the course, which offered great views of Rjukan's valley and the Gausta, and arrived back in Gaustablikk just in time for sauna, late dinner and some card game.

On Wednesday, Núria and I decided to go down to the town to see what was it like, and the rest went to do a long course. We discovered Rjukan is only two long streets, and there were sales everywhere. Shops were selling winter stuff like frenzy, with up to 90% discounts. We couldn't resist buying some clothes, but after visiting all the shops it was way too early to go back to the mountains, so we went to the public swimming pool.

This place was awesome. There was a big swimming pool, jacuzzis, sauna, vapour sauna and other stuff, and we spent three hours inside the water relaxing, with the white mountains behind us.

Day four started with some bad weather for the first time in the week. We went to do the 21km track, but going behind Gausta first. We had to wear all our equipment against the cold, including caps, because there was some wind and snow, and when you stopped to drink or wait for others, you would quickly get a bit cold. When we had done 1/3 of the course, we decided to go back because a few were a bit tired. The track went upwards for the most part, and the snow didn't make it easier. Nothing some more sauna couldn't repair.

This was my first time in a place with a real sauna, and I really enjoyed it. It was unthinkable for Spain that men and women would share a small space like that naked, but here it was, apparently, very normal. In Spain, I think even a non-mixed sauna only with naked men would be generally pretty empty. At first I thought I was going to melt and die in such a hot environment, but a few minutes after going out you could feel how relaxing it was. I would normally do three or four cycles of 10 minutes inside and 2 minutes outside under a cold shower (and with cold, I mean cold water is freezing in the Telemark).

We shared the big kitchen with a Danish group that were doing a survival training course, and Brande would sometimes try to overhear what they were talking about, and would later tell their mad plans to us. For example, in a few days they would leave the Fjellstoge and go sleep in the mountain during a week, excavating holes in the snow to get warm during nights. Oww!

As ski days passed, our bodies accumulated more and more bruises and painful spots. After more or less repeating the course of the second day, which was beautiful as it went through a dense forest, on Friday we had our last opportunity to ski in the Gausta area. In the previous days, I had been getting a pain in my leg due to, say, opening them too much when going down difficult slopes, and on the last day the pain was big enough that I didn't mind going back to something easy to test myself. Núria and I decided to repeat the newbie track of our first day, to complete it perfectly and go back to València knowing that we had at least learned a bit of skiing. And so we did: we started skiing, and until we crossed the lake we did very well and fast.

When we got to the same hill that caused us so many problems, I tried going down the slope, which included a bad bend on a fast area, and sensing I was a bit out of control, decided to do an emergency landing with my hip. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to put on my gloves and roll down my long sleeves, and the snow and ice bruised my hand and arm enough to draw blood on a few spots. Also, the impact on my wrist was quite tough and it ached quite a bit. That was good enough to remind us that we were still simple beginners.

Little more was left to do but pack, cleanup the hut as much as we could, and have our last dinner. Núria and brought the exact quantity of food we needed: we weren't short at all, and nothing remained either, which was pretty cool, because our bags were sensibly lighter on our way back.

I chatted a long while with Brande in the bus, while Diego made friends with a Norwegian girl who sat next to him. We had some spare hours at the city, and we used them visiting a second-hand market under a bridge near the Oslo canal, and we went up the canal for a while to see parts of the city. We even found what seemed to be a very nice squat in the centre! We finally left for the airport, and quite a few hours later we were back in Madrid. On Sunday morning, the Valencians went back in train, leaving behind the other three. Luckily for us, Monday was a local holiday in València so we had time to land and get back to real life, without sauna or a white paradise around us.

I think I have already decided where I will go next year in Fallas or Easter...