As I sit here, sweltering in the heat and listening to Joplin crooning “Summer time and living is easy”, I try to do a projection technique on myself. You know that stuff where you concentrate enough to separate your mind from your body, making your conscious awareness travel 'out' of the body and be in anyplace you like. Well, I do that all the time. In common parlance it is called day dreaming. We, in the advertising business, who like to complicate simple things, use some fancy term like ‘couch travelling’. Whatever it is called, I have mastered it. Some mind-numbing never-ending meeting happening and I sit there with a smile on my face – my mind transported to some far far away land. A telling me about how Sachin uses a set square for his straight drives and I am at Lord’s, watching him in action. That happens to me a lot. Right now, my mind is hovering from the Himalayas to the Arctic Circle. Aha, now I see it settling down in the Nigard Glacier in the Jostedalen Valley in Norway. That was easy. The mercury has instantly scrambled down, the birds are chirping again and the world seems to be a pleasant place.
However, when I physically went there last summer, the journey was not that poetic.
First, I had to take the Flåm Railway from Oslo which starts quite early in the morning. Flåm Railway is supposedly one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. I haven’t been to too many scenic railway journeys but this one surely tops my list. The journey takes place through twisting tunnels spiraling in and out of snow capped mountains, which are adorned with gushing waterfalls. An hour of ride, with the train stopping at the most picturesque sections, leaves you yearning for more.
So God grants your wish. You get off at Myrdal Station which is 865 metres above the sea level and the scene from the station is breathtaking. Then you change train and head for Flåm. In between the train stops at Kjosfoss waterfall, where there is a dilapidated fortress – ruins really - by the side of the gushing waterfall. As you stop by to click pictures and get drenched in the cascading waters, you suddenly hear a chant and then you see a mysterious figure swaying to the music above the waterfall, by the side of the ruins.
You stop in your tracks and try to grasp what’s happening. Where did this mystifying maiden with music come from? You are immediately transported back to the 18th Century – watching a nymphet trying to entice a handsome prince riding a black horse, passing her way. She disappears as suddenly as she had materialized. You are back to the reality – realizing the performance was for your pleasure only, a part of the experience called Flåm Railways. What’s more endearing is, nowhere in your research you did before the journey, was this part – this distant blue figure swaying to some ancient Nordic music - mentioned. You were expecting virgin nature, cascading waterfalls, winding tunnels – but this – no way. It takes you by surprise, bamboozles you and leaves you with goose bumps.
You arrive in Flåm to board the ferry that takes you through the alluring Sognefjord with unspoilt nature and dramatic scenery to appreciate. The ferry goes right up to Bergen, but people do get off on the way, to little villages with charming names like Balestrand and Lærdal and Årdal.
Our terminus is Balestrand, a sleepy hamlet with a population of 1850, overlooking snow peaked mountains on one side and the fjord on the other side. A few wooden houses here and there, the famous Kviknes Hotel, which is usually occupied by celebrities escaping paparazzi and multi billionaires with their yachts harbored at the pier, spending a quiet weekend, and a Stave church. You also find solitude – away from the civilization and the “Norway-in-a nutshell” crowd. We are booked at the Midtnes Hotel – a quaint bed and breakfast with a panorama-view of the Sognefjord. It is run by Mr. Jon Britt, who inherited the lodge from his father and who obviously takes immense pride for keeping such a breathtaking property.
Balestrand also happens to be one of the bases from which the Nigardsbreen arm of Jostedal Glacier is accessible. Jostedalsbreen or Jostedal Glacier is the biggest glacier in Europe, with a total area of 487 square km. The Jostedal is noted for its glacial "arms," sometimes called "tongues," which shoot out into valleys, flowing from the plateau glacier. The most famous of these glacial tongues is Nigardsbreen - a remnant of the ice sheet that covered Norway 10,000 years ago. And that’s where we are headed for a hike the day after.
Like I said, it is a strenuous journey. First we take a ferry from Balestrand to Hella. Then a bus takes us from Hella to Sogndal. From there, we change a bus to Breheimsenteret. There is a Glacier Museum at Breheimsenteret, where you take a brief tour to refresh your old geography lessons – how the Glaciers were formed and such things. Finally from Breheimsenteret, we get into the final leg of the journey – the glacier bus to Nigardsbreen. The tickets were all bought at Balestrand – and each leg of the journey is perfectly timed such that we have minimum layovers in between. The journey is not over yet. We arrive at the pier in Jostedal River, where we are introduced to our team mates and our guide and given boots and crampons and ice axes. There are two more couple in our team – so that makes six of us. Our guide is a 24 year old girl called Eva, who has the most enviable life I have ever heard. She is a teacher in Oslo, who spends 4 months of summer in Jostedal, working as a guide and trekking and climbing the glacier.
We are debriefed about the dos and don’ts and then hauled into a boat that takes us to the mouth of the glacier. During the debriefing, I keep on thinking “What the heck – all you have to do is walk with crampons tied to your boots and pitch the ice axe while climbing. C’mon, we are not ascending the Everest – get on with it!” More on that later.
The point where we disembark used to be the original glacier foot hills. However, thanks to global warming, from around 1934 the glacier started to retreat. We walk through some rough stony patches and cautiously approach the Nigardsbreen – a gigantic cascading white slope. It looks like a frozen river, stopped in its track. To think this massive chunk of ice has inhabited earth for tens and thousands of years makes you realise how insignificant we, human beings, are in the grand scheme of things.
We put on our gears, harness ourselves to each other and start the hike. Did I not tell you I was smirking when Eva was instructing us? Ah well, let me tell you – the smirk is gone, the knees begin to wobble and the boots, with the crampons, hang heavy on my feet. The first 5 minutes are a nightmare. I am out of my wits and out of my breath. I want to turn around and stop right then. To think I have to do this for the next 4 hours make me want to cry. I distinctly remember while planning for this adventure, I had double checked the level of intensity and it said moderate. To think that a moderate level of outdoor activity is making me sweat so much make me realise how woefully unfit I am. It is not that I am a couchaholic. I do try to maintain an active lifestyle with at least an hour of exercise 3-4 days a week. But when you are climbing ice, with boots and crampons adding 8-10 kilos to your body weight, with each step painstakingly taken such that the crampons dig into the ice, and also have to keep in mind to use the ice axe to haul yourself up over tricky terrains, you do find yourself at your wit’s end. But I chose to be here, doing just that and there is no turning back.
After the initial panic, however, once I get into the rhythm, I start enjoying the walk. Corn flower blue sky above and unending vistas of white ice sheet reflecting off the sunlight, giving it a silvery feel, bizarre and breathtaking formation of ice all around – the ambience and the experience is so divine that you transcend to a different spiritual level. The physical pain and discomfort doesnot matter anymore, you become one with the nature. My mind starts wandering again. This is how it must be feeling if you climb the Everest. Or go on an expedition to the Arctic. Maybe ten thousand times difficult – but somewhat similar. My mind does come back to my body every time I have to jump from one tip to the other, or crawl on my knees to get across a difficult ridge. But we do it – with a smile on our face and lots of courage in our hearts.
Eva proves to be great guide. She keeps on pushing and encouraging us, telling us stories about the glacier and the people of this part of the world and the puppy she had adopted. She stops when any one of us are short on breath or want to click pictures. She eggs us on and tells us about her adventures – the mountains she has climbed and the glaciers she has conquered.
We make it to our destination finally – which is only one third of the total length of Nigardsbreen. Those with braver hearts and stronger knees go further beyond – but for us mortals – the Blue Ice Walk ends here. We have our lunch, manage to smile while clicking pictures (A even manages to give me some James-Bondish poses with his ice axe), take in the beauty and the solitude around, breathe in the fresh air, touch the ice, replenish our sapping energy and reboot our system.
A 30 minutes stop later, the descent starts. And I now know why more mountaineers lose their lives while descending the Everest. Compared to the descent, the climb up was a cat walk. But we manage it none the less. We jump, we crawl, and we pull each other down. Finally after 4 grueling hours, our Blue Ice Walk concludes, without any major mishap. I am exhilarated but too exhausted to even do a victory dance.
The journey back seems never ending as our aching bodies are craving for the bed. When we reach Hella to take our ferry back to Balestrand, we are told that the ferry is cancelled since it had only 2 passengers – me & A. We look at each other in dismay and I start trying to figure out Plan B. But I have no Plan B. A looks at me with that ‘Ha-ha-the-perfect-travel-planner-has-finally-got-it-wrong’ look. The old man at the pier is on my side, though - he smiles at me kindly and assures me that I have nothing to worry – a taxi is waiting for us to take us back to Balestrand, all paid for, of course. The journey will be a bit longer than the ferry ride and he profusely apologizes for the inconvenience caused. I am wondering whether I should tell him that we come from a country where the public transport never takes off on time; if it is cancelled, you are on your own - forget apologies and explanations and refunds. I am too tired or too embarrassed to say all that and luckily that kind old man will never know anything about the juggernaut called The Great Indian Public Transportation System.
The next day is spent recovering from our heroic hike and exploring Balestrand. We laze around the pier and watch fishing boats go by. We take leisurely walks around the village, chasing the clouds that drift in and out and have beers at the local pub. We treat us to the gala buffet spread at the famous Kviknes Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of some celebrity. We are lucky that there are none. The buffet spread cost us quite a bit but we figure we deserved it. After all, you don’t climb a glacier everyday.
Balestrand - this little hamlet, tucked away in the heart of Sognefjord, will always feature way up on my list of favourite places. And the Glacier experience has somehow changed me. A has been trying to figure out since a year now what’s wrong with me - as if there wasn’t enough wrong with me to start with. When I talk about my aspiration to climb Mt. Kinabalu and then go on to other mountains like the Kilimanjaro perhaps, he gives me a bewildered look. But I really want to train myself to climb a mountain, and not in my couch traveler mode. I am a fitter person today than I was a year back. I know if I go back climbing today, I’d do so without any doubts about myself. I know if I am thrown any challenge, I will push myself to the limits and come out unscathed. Did I tell you I am training to run the marathon?