Conversation with a mountain hiker
It was while we were climbing to the top of Narvtinden that we met Håkon and his girlfriend Kristin. At the pass, before the final steep section we saw two hikers with a small black dog that was briskly climbing the 40°slope. Despite the short distance that separated us we were only able to catch up with them at the top when we immediately began chatting.
Håkon, a 33 year old Norwegian, agreed to answer our questions and to meet us, outside on a small mountain overlooking the plateau of Leknes a stone’s throw from the Gravdal hospital where he works as a radiologist. This is where he comes after work to run or just get a breath of fresh air.
Rando-Lofoten: Do you practice any sports other than hiking?
Håkon: I use to be a very keen cross-country skier (langrennsløper), but that’s quite a while ago. When I was younger I was eager to take up the sport seriously but I had to stop when I was 17 due to various injuries. First of all I injured my knee and they didn’t know what was wrong at the time. Then, when I started again, I injured my elbow.
Rando-Lofoten: Did you practice cross-country skiing at a high level?
Håkon: Well, when I was 16 I won the north Norway championship in my category (nord norges mesterskap). But I haven’t done much since. I keep training though. I like to train and keep in good shape. I jog in summer and in winter I do endurance training and cross-country skiing, both traditional and skating. In winter I also like to go on long ski hikes pulling a pulk (sledge) from chalet to chalet. I am also slightly unusual in that I enjoy sleeping in a tent in winter. Most people find it too cold but I like it and I am lucky in that I don’t really feel the cold.
I am very lucky with my working hours at the hospital where we work shifts. I often have five or six days off at a time and then I go to the mainland where I have a lot of friends whom I call to see whether they are free to come with me.
Rando-Lofoten: When we met the first time you mentioned a sort of challenge, which is to climb all the peaks on the islands? Could you tell us a little more?
Håkon: It all began in my hometown in the Lyngen Alps where I was already used to walking the peaks. It was part of my growing up. I was two years old when I first went to the mountains and I didn’t want to stay in the baby carrier. I was determined to walk (laughter). So it goes back quite a way. In general I have always been attracted by the mountains, and in different ways. First there is the physical aspect, I like to stay in shape, but it’s also, and above all, nature itself. When I first arrived in the Lofoten Islands five years ago I began walking over the various peaks and I heard of someone who had climbed all the peaks over 100 m altitude in Vestvågøya, the central island of the Lofotens. I thought climbing 100 m peaks was a bit too low. It wasn’t that the challenge had to become an athletic exploit at all costs, but by setting the limit at 100 m altitude you have to climb all the small hills and therefore spend a long time with your head in the map. I thought it was a bit stupid. I had already climbed quite a few peaks in the Lofoten Islands and I thought why not climb the others, so that I could say I’ve done them all. This desire to climb all the peaks comes from the fact that, in general, I like to go to new places. It’s exciting because you never know beforehand what the climb is actually going to be like. What’s it going to be like actually walking there? What you see on the map is one thing, but will I manage to get to the top? Some of them are such steep slopes that when I start out I don’t know whether I will manage to get to the top. And, of course, what’s the view like from up there? Even though you have climbed the neighbouring peak, you don’t know what it will be like on this one.
What motivates me is to find out what it’s like when you are actually there, out of curiosity and of course for the experiences and sensations you have in nature, with animals for example. But it’s true that you can have contact with nature even if you always climb the same peak. You get an extra buzz if you always go to new places, it makes the whole experience a bit more mysterious (laughter)… and it gives you a goal.
Rando-Lofoten: How many peaks have you climbed since you began 5 years ago?
Håkon: On the island of Vestvågøya I have climbed around 140 peaks over 300 m altitude, but it a bit depends on the criteria you use to count them… I haven’t followed strict rules as such. On the whole I have climbed all the peaks that have a name. Then I started on the island of Flakstad where I climbed around 80. I have therefore climbed up to all the peaks on the island. Then I started in Moskenesøya. In the north of the island the only one I haven’t climbed is Ulvstinden (Wolf’s Peak) and the summits of Lillejordtinden. I haven’t been much to the south of the island, but I’m working on it.
Rando-Lofoten: Now that you have climbed all the peaks in Flakstadøya and Vestvågøya as well as those in Moskenesøya, you have almost achieved your goal. What are you going to do afterwards, have you already got an idea for a new challenge?
Håkon: I’ve still got the island of Vågan in the Lofotens to do, but I haven’t yet made up my mind. It’s also because I prefer landscapes with low vegetation, open landscapes. It’s what I find most appealing. Whether for hiking or setting up my tent, I prefer this type of vegetation (he points to the thick cushion-like layer we are sitting on, made up of moss, lichen and small shrubs). In Vågan there are a lot of trees and forest, you almost need to have a saw with you to cut your way through to certain peaks. But I’m not saying I won’t do it.
Rando-Lofoten: And after the Lofoten Islands are you going to continue climbing peaks elsewhere?
Håkon: No, well I don’t really know. I’ll take it as it comes. Even though it’s not become an actual obsession, I am very interested nevertheless. (laughter)
Rando-Lofoten: Did you fit in easily in the Lofoten Islands?
Håkon: I found it very easy. North Norway (Nord Norge) has the reputation of being very welcoming. There is a big difference between the north and south of the country. For example in north Norway, it is possible to pick up a hitchhiker and bring him home, ask him to stay for dinner and suggest he stay a night or two. Such things are not unheard of. Many Norwegians from the south are surprised at the welcome and how easy it is to be asked to stay. In that respect I don’t see any difference between the Lofoten Islands and the place where I was born (Lyngen) which are both in the same region. There are small local differences in Nordland of course. In Bodø, for example, people are more reserved whereas in Tromsø, which is a student town, you can easily speak to anyone in the street.
Rando-Lofoten: To return to nature, is there something special here in the Lofoten Islands compared to where you come from? Many people, both abroad and in Norway, talk and dream of this place.
Håkon: I remember the first time I came to the Lofoten Islands. I took the car and crossed the fjord by ferry because I was living in Bodø at the time. I remember when the boat opened its doors and I saw the Lofoten Islands. You get to the wharf in Moskenes and it seems like the mountains are literally falling on it. What’s strange is that even though the mountains are lower than elsewhere, they are extremely close. There is little vegetation and everything seems very close.
The Lofoten Islands have often been compared to a miniature version of the Lyngen Alps. And for me who grew up in Lyngen, I understand because whether here or in Lyngen, you always have the fjord and the ever-present sea. The main difference is the mountains which are much higher in Lyngen. The highest peak where I come from is 1833 m, and on average they are around 1200 or 1300 m. In the Lofoten Islands the average must be around 600-700 m.
What I love in the Lofoten Islands are all these small places, all these little groups of houses, like in Nusfjord towards Sund, all these little hamlets spread over the archipelago. It’s a little self-contained world, a land of tales in which you don’t feel enclosed because the landscapes are very open.
Rando-Lofoten: Do the Norwegians, particularly the people from the Lofoten Islands, have a special relationship with nature, and if so, why?
Håkon: To answer that we need to go back in time a little, when there were no shops or anything. The people here had to live very close to nature because it’s how they survived, through fishing. It was the main source of food in the Lofoten Islands and you can still see the traces today with the houses on stilts (rorbu). The houses were built on the premise that nothing was more important than fishing. Being close to nature was a vital necessity. There are a lot of stories on the subject according to which the fishermen knew every nook and cranny of the shore like the back of their hand and they only had to spot a small piece of land through the mist to know where they were. They had to be familiar with nature in order to survive and learn a lot of tricks. There is no doubt that there are differences between the people from the Lofoten Islands, who are closer to nature, and people in the big cities, particularly in the past when the town dwellers got their food in other ways.
But nowadays in the Lofoten Islands I am just as likely to meet a tourist as a local when I walk in the mountains. Not many of the locals hike here. In the south of Norway, where there are far more people, there are very popular treks and hikes (Hardangervida, Jotunheimen, etc.) where you meet a lot of people whereas in the north of Norway, whether in the Lyngen Alps or the Lofoten Islands, you are more likely to come across tourists than locals.
Rando-Lofoten: Isn’t the fact that not many locals here go hiking mainly because their lives were entirely focused on fishing and therefore the sea rather than inland?
Håkon: It’s true that there’s not much to hunt here, no large mammals for example. Remains of birds have been found that the people used to hunt, but that’s about all.
If I can tell you a story, it reminds me of when I went hiking close to where I lived on the mainland and I met an old man. It was winter and he said I could park on his land. I then went up into the valley, I went on a long hike, on my own, and when I came back he asked me what the purpose of my walk was… and then told me that he used to go often to the mountains when he was a child but to hunt partridge. He therefore had a reason for going. He couldn’t understand why I went into the countryside on my own for no purpose, as far as he could see. And another time when I was out in the kayak on my own a man came over on a boat to see me and we began talking. He quickly explained that a little further on towards the end of the fjord there was a chalet with people, and that I should not hesitate to go in for a chat. I really had the impression he thought I was lonely. He couldn’t imagine that I could be there on my own and enjoy myself.
Rando-Lofoten: Do the young Norwegians go hiking?
Håkon: There are high hopes for open-air activities. The Norwegian tourist offices have really promoted these activities. There have also been adverts on the TV. The matter has also been discussed at length in the public health debates. Being active, going hiking has become sort of trendy, and it’s getting more so. It has to be said that things have changed a lot in Norway. If we look at my father’s generation, or rather that of my grandfather, they were so worn out by work that at the weekend all they wanted to do was rest. But we now have time to go for a walk and I am aware that in Norway we no longer work as hard or for as long as in other countries. It doesn’t mean that everyone will go for a walk but research has shown that more educated people are generally more attentive to their physical condition and more likely to take exercise.
Rando-Lofoten: We’re actually not that far from Lapland, do the Sami people have a different relationships with nature compared to the other Norwegians?
Håkon: I know a few stories about the Sami people. They know the Vida (tundra plateau) really well. It all looks the same to us, one mound is like another. But they are able to find their way without GPS or maps. They have the map here, in their mind. It’s incredible, there may be no visibility but they will eventually find their way. I have a relative who works in Svalbard (Spitzbergen) in charge of rescue and she told me a story on this subject. A group got lost in the countryside and split up, such that a Sami found himself alone. The other part of the group eventually reached Longerbyen, the capital of Spitzbergen, but the Sami was missing. Someone said, jokingly “Don’t worry he’s a Sami, he’ll find his way”. And he did indeed reappear, he had no GPS or any means of determining where he was, no visibility and a strong wind was blowing. When he arrived he was asked how he managed it. He replied jokingly “I sniffed out the route”. They have something we don’t.
My father, who was at school near Alta (a town in Norwegian Lapland), told me he had planned to go fishing with Sami friends. It had been raining heavily for several days. They were going to light a fire and as everything was soaking wet, my father thought it would never take. But, surprising though it may seem, the fire was lit in only a few seconds. And apparently everything had dried out. They knew how to go about it.
Rando-Lofoten: Do many Sami live in the Lofoten Islands?
Håkon: There are some. I have Sami blood. I tell people for a joke that I have the very old genes of the original people (Laughter). In Lyngen the following three branches interbred: Nordmen (Norwegians), Kvens (an ethnic minority in Norway, originally from northern Finland and Sweden who migrated to north Norway in the 18th and 19th centuries) and the Sami. The people mixed. For myself we have to go a bit further up the family tree, but I have, for example, Sami cousins who breed reindeer in Finnmark. The Sami have been oppressed for a long time in Norway. But that’s changed nowadays. In my hometown in Lyngen the signs are in three languages: Sami, Kven and Norwegian, they are all official languages.
Large crows fly overhead, they seem to be having fun with the wind that sweeps across the top of the peak on which we are standing. They are doing synchronised flying in pairs.
Rando-Lofoten: It’s perhaps not very poetic but those birds fly like fighter planes!
Håkon: Yes, they train while playing. They are one of the few birds that can fly upside down.
I have had incredible encounters with birds, particularly eagles. Once I must have been near a nesting zone. A dozen eagles began flying round overhead and just as I looked upwards to watch them, I saw one of them open its talons and a small lump of earth fell at my feet. It was a warning, even though I have never heard of any real eagle attacks. I had already had a similar experience when I found myself very close to an eagle’s nest. The parent pretended to dive-bomb me. It stopped nevertheless twenty metres or so above me, it was only pretending to attack, but it’s frightening nevertheless, particularly when it comes at you with its talons open. Another time high up in the mountains, I was looking for another way to get down and I arrived at the edge of a steep cliff. I leant slightly over the edge to see, and approximately half a metre below me there was an eagle sitting on its nest (white-tailed eagles can have a wingspan of up to 2 m 70 and their body is the size of a dog). It turned around and looked at me. I watched it for some time, it didn’t move. I will always remember it. It was only on the way down that I realised I could have taken a photo, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been very good and it wouldn’t have been as good as the image I have kept in my mind.
Interview translated from Norwegian by David and Magdalena, the 5th of septembre 2013