Slartibartfast, a planet designer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, won an award for his work on Norway and it is not hard to see why. Skewered with a thousand still, blue fjords and stacked with the sort of pointy, snow-topped mountains you do not often see, outside children’s drawings, it is a huge and empty land inlaid with a host of scenic riches.
went there as a freshly certified ex-student, on a camping trip in an ancient
Saab, and every morning I unzipped the tent to blink at a new wonderland. I did
not know it then, but that trip was my initiation into friluftsliv – the peculiarly Norwegian fixation with “open-air
living”. Friluftsliv lies somewhere between a hearty pastime and a state
religion, the word celebrating Norway’s boundless natural splendour and its
inhabitants’ active appreciation of it, across snow, through forest and over
fjord. A backpack is generally involved.
has changed since that trip. The countryside in the central-western province of
Møre and Romsdal does not roll but rears, in magnificent staccato blurts.
Mountains shoot up out of a fjord, then slam straight down into the one behind.
Waterfalls vault from towering precipices and glaciers cling to steeply pitched
highland valleys. The towns in this part of Norway, such as Ålesund where my
journey begins, play a cameo role as a comely scatter of roofs at the foot of a
sweeping mountain-top panorama. The town of Volda is trim but bland and, at the
moment of visiting, almost eerily quiet.
“The magic is in new experiences, so do something you’ve never done – go out in
a kayak, camp in the wild.”
In her two
years at Volda’s university, Randi Ødegården has not seen a great deal of the
town. Her bachelor course has largely involved hiking, skiing and paddling
through its surrounding mountains, forests and deep blue waters. At 23, she is
just one exam away from qualifying with a degree in friluftsliv.
different things to different people,” says Randi, a cheerful farmer’s daughter
who hails from the southern municipality of Vang. She pours black coffee into
our Moomin mugs. “For me, friluftsliv is about simplicity in nature, about
getting away from it all,” she says. “Going out for a week with everything I
need on my back. It’s emotional and spiritual as much as physical.”
begins on Randi’s doorstep. Her wooden cabin stands at the steep edge of town,
backed by birch and fir woods brightly speckled with flora, and fronted by an
expansive view of the fjord and its facing mountains. As we talk, I watch them
being slowly claimed by the leaky low cloud that will hang above for days,
decapitating many of the loftier vistas and obliging me to borrow clothing and
footwear from more sensibly prepared people. “But bad weather makes the best friluftsliv,”
says Randi, brightly. “You learn more and get better satisfaction when you take
a bigger challenge.”
explains, spending time in the outdoors was not a choice for generations gone
by. At the turn of the 20th century, Norway ranked as the poorest country in
Europe – a far-flung rural nation that did not stride out into the wilderness
for fun, but from agricultural necessity. 2Everyone lived outside then, so by
instinct we knew how to make a difficult hike or a skiing journey. Then Norway
became industrialised and those skills were lost.”
It was not
until the 1960s that time-rich, cash-rich Norwegians began to pine for the
fjords and the old outdoor ways, but when they set off into the valleys with a
tent on their backs, they found they didn’t know what they were doing. “A lot
of people were getting lost and having accidents,” says Randi. “The government
saw the need to re-educate, and now, even from kindergarten, children here
learn how to cook outdoors, how to dress right, how to navigate.” Randi and
many of her fellow students are aiming for a career in this sphere of
“Don’t take a camera, and don’t post about it on Facebook – just climb a hill
or do a walk, and keep the experience for yourself.”
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.
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.
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.”
Trollveggen is the challenging face of friluftsliv, the Herdalssetra Summer
Farm is its old, weather-beaten one. “We still follow the Viking law,” says
Åshild Dale, who every June, with husband Jostein Sande, leads 130 goats up
from their village farm to this lonely pasture high up behind the Storfjord. “If
you allow your animals to graze on the lowlands in the summer, they will have
nothing to eat in the winter. It would be grass robbery!” The summer-farm
tradition has lapsed in most parts of Norway, but the Dales have been taking
their goats up to Herdalssetra since 1790. “Nothing has changed here for 1,000
years,” says Åshild, walking among the turf-roofed sheds and cottages. Some are
built on Viking foundations, and there is still no electricity and no running
water save for a stream that babbles through. “I want visitors to learn that
this isn’t just how Norwegian life used to be, it’s how everybody’s life used
is shared by half a dozen farmers, who from June to September transform the
bleak highland valley into an idyll of cheery communal activity. By day there is
goat-milking and cheese-making: the sweet, intensely calorific brown stuff that
is the default fuel of friluftsliv. “And of course, it doesn’t really get dark,”
says Åshild, “so at night we never stop singing and telling stories.” The only
downside, as Jostein explains, is rounding up all the goats come autumn. “Some
years I’m still up here on skis on Christmas Day, chasing a lost goat across a
mountain. My job is a mix of agriculture and extreme sports.”
Moods of Norway
“Make sure you put some outdoor time into your daily routine. Also: wear good
shoes and 80% wool socks!”
profound contrast between the humble, timeless way of life showcased at Herdalssetra
and that led by the three young men I meet next is hard to imagine. Their
favourite words are “aloha” and “pretty cool features”, and they are wearing
enormous red sunglasses and snowsuits decorated with multi-coloured tractors.
Stefan Dahlkvist, Peder Børresen and Simen Staalnacke are the brains behind
Moods of Norway, founded in 2003 and now a $40 million business selling
extremely loud clothing through stores around the world. “But we’re still nice
Norwegian country boys at heart,” insists Peder, who, like Simen, was raised in
Stryn, a fjordside town that’s downbeat even by regional standards. Sure
enough, their first indulgence when the big cheques came in was an old trawler.
The second was an investment in Stryn’s summer-ski resort, 1,000 metres up on a
glacier behind the town, outside whose clubhouse we’re now standing.
Admittedly, both boat and clubhouse were swiftly painted pink.
international fashion, and we love rural Norway,” says Peder. “It was such a
cool challenge to mix them up. Tractors are everywhere in Norway, but what if
the tractor was pink or gold?” Every pair of Moods of Norway sunglasses comes
with a pretty neat feature: a cleaning cloth imprinted with Simen’s granny’s
recipe for waffles. Stefan, who manages the firm’s flagship store in LA, marks
every homecoming with “some heavy-duty friluftsliv”. He has just spent the night
in a cave outside Stryn: “This famous medieval outlaw lived there for three
years. It was cold and a bit scary, but what a buzz!” It is fair to say that
Norwegian fashionistas are cut from a different cloth.
“Burn your TV, fill your pockets with chocolate and ham, and go for a big walk.”
miles and a world away is mainland Europe’s largest glacier. Ruben Briksdal’s
family has lived in its cool shadow for 500 years – his surname is actually
borrowed from one of the Jostedal’s icy fingers, Briksdalsbreen. His
grandfather began guiding tourists and travellers across the crevasses in 1966,
and at 22, Ruben has already been doing the same for almost a decade. “I could
do something else,” he says, “but my grandmother would kill me.” Ruben captures
the sense of friluftsliv, combining a young spirit with old traditions. He has
got a boy-band haircut but chews tobacco. “One Monday in school,” he says, “our
teacher asked us what we’d done at the weekend. One kid said he’d played a
video game and got to level six. So I said I’d got to the top level, and
pointed out the window to the highest mountain.” These days, Ruben’s pastime
takes him to friluftsliv’s lunatic fringe: he spends his winters climbing
frozen waterfalls, “hanging from an ice axe with one hand while you screw in an
18cm bolt with the other”.
original intention was to paddle a boat up to his namesake glacier, but Ruben
has decided we can do better than that. He unlocks a shed and begins pulling
out ropes and crampons. I ask him where we are going. “To the top level,” he
says, and nods at a great toothpaste-blue tongue sticking down from the clouds
three hours later, we are 1,400 metres up the Bødal glacier, surrounded by
billowy ice hills and giant slitted ice caves like the frozen Eye of Sauron.
Ruben spots an ice shelf he simply has to climb, and before setting off, he
twists a screw into the glacier and leaves me tied to it, like a dog outside a
shop. Frigid gusts flap my trousers. I feel cold, slightly daft and a little
terrified. Then suddenly, the sun shoots through a blue porthole behind my
head, and at once the horizon is thronged with rows of stupendous side-lit
peaks, marching off to the end of the world. It barely looks real, more like
one of Slartibartfast’s preparatory dioramas. Twenty-three years ago I beheld
such scenes and wondered if I would ever find a more beautiful country. I am
Tim Moore is an acclaimed travel author and
regular contributor to Lonely Planet Magazine.
The article 'Finding 'friluftsliv' in Norway' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.