Finding 'friluftsliv' in Norway
The practicalities of friluftsliv might be hardwired into the Norwegian psyche but, as I discover, it was the British who encouraged the concept into their hearts. A ferry over the Hjørundfjord takes me to the foot of the becoming (though presently invisible) peak of Slogen. In 1872 a young Yorkshireman named WC Slingsby spotted it while travelling through the area and in a popular account of his experience, rhapsodised the view from its summit as “one of the proudest in Europe”. Almost at once the area was thronged with wealthy British tourists, who saw in these peaceful, grand valleys the bucolic idyll they had lost in smoky, crowded Britain. The Victorians loved highland scenery, and this was the hard stuff: Scotland turned up to 11. Back then, the locals could not begin to understand why would ever scale a mountain unless you had lost a goat up one.
In Isfjorden, a tidy, silent little town a couple of hours to the north, the scenery has been cranked a few notches up the Tolkienometer – the mountains are taller and bleaker, crowned with jagged crags that rip at the sky.
I pull over when a slim and sprightly man beckons from a wooden porch. “I guess you can see why I live here,” says Stein P Aasheim, nodding at the near-vertical topography. He’s 60, with a gentle and unassuming manner that belies his status as one of Europe’s very hardest men. In 1985, Stein stood beside Sir Chris Bonington atop Everest. Later this year, he is to lead a Norwegian expedition to the South Pole, marking the centenary of Amundsen’s flag-planting triumph. In 2003, Stein, his wife and their two daughters – then aged six and 13 – spent a year in a trapper’s cabin in a remote, inhospitable corner of Spitzbergen, hunting seals and reindeer, and fending off polar bears. This is friluftsliv extreme, outdoor living at its ragged edge.
We drive to a snow-speckled plateau halfway up one of his favourite peaks, the witch-hatted Romsdalshorn. This is where Stein generally delivers his welcome address for the week-long mountain festival he holds every July. “We get about 10,000 here – a lot of families, people doing guided climbs and hikes,” he says. ‘”There are some easy mountains and some demanding ones.” A modest uphill scrabble offers us a view of the hugest and most demanding – the great black flank that is the Trollveggen (Troll Wall) – at 1,100 metres, the tallest vertical rock face in Europe. We are a good couple of miles away, but it still makes my innards lurch. No one made it up there until 1965, and since then dozens more – nearly all of them foreigners – have died on its precipitous slopes. Stein was once winched down 300 metres from the top to rescue an American climber marooned on a tiny shelf with a broken leg.
“A hundred years ago, the British taught us to love our mountains, but I think now we enjoy climbing more than anyone else,” says Stein. “A lot of guys from other countries won’t go up a mountain unless they can come down with some big drama to tell, like they almost died. We don’t get that. Friluftsliv is about having fun and avoiding those situations. And doing it for yourself, not to show off to the world about what you’ve done.” These people are as laid-back as their scenery is not.
Jostein and Åshild
“You can have an adventure right outside your door – if there’s a tree in your street, climb it.”