On The Bessegen Trail
A chance encounter on a remote, frozen mountain summit spells hope
Any hint of warmth was long gone. A demonic wind pushed its way through the many insulated layers I wore. My shoes sank in the freshly fallen powdery snow, and flecks of cold found their way into the smallest gaps between my shoes and hiking pants. Though I was not at an extraordinarily high altitude at 1,600 metres, still 150 metres shy of the highest point of the Besseggen mountain ridge I was climbing, the extreme cold had immobilised my body and crumpled my spirit. The only steps I felt I could take were backward, retracing the hollows my feet had carved out.
The previous morning, a bus from the Norwegian capital Oslo, 260 km to the southeast, had delivered me to the town of Beitostølen where I had come to watch the annual 14-kilometre-long Besseggløpet Race which is a traditional endurance run that started in the 1960s [A1] . The race from Memurubu to Gjendesheim takes place in early summer, before the hiking season starts, so there was no public transportation to Gjendesheim, where the Besseggen trek and many others start. Perhaps it was the edgy exhaustion of an overnight journey sandpapering my nerves, or a firmness of purpose, but I decide to start walking the 40 kilometres to Gjendesheim with nothing more than a roughly drawn map, supplies from the local supermarket, and a tent in my backpack. The wooden houses of Beitostølen soon disappeared and, except for a light breeze winging alongside for company, I was by myself.
Being in the outdoors has always been a stress-buster for me. When I lived in Delhi, I drove up to the Himalayas frequently. Having spent the better part of the last decade in the rather flat region of southern Sweden, I missed the mountains. Which is why I had started making an annual pilgrimage to Norway, whose geography is marked by vast mountain ranges punctuated by valleys and fjords.
An hour into my walk, a car’s engine broke the silence and I waved the vehicle down. Tor stopped cautiously. He was driving north to Lake Tesse in his Volvo and seemed glad for company. “Every year, I go salmon fishing for a week. Be by myself, cook the fish that I catch, and just be at the lodge,” Tor said. “My wife bought me this lodge. I think she likes to be left alone for a week”. I had never met a salmon-catcher, and Tor had never met an Indian, so the 20 minutes until we reached Gjendesheim filled up fast.
A hub for hikers, Gjendesheim overlooks Lake Gjende. It has a Norwegian Mountain Touring Association log hut which can accommodate over 170 people, a rudimentary café, and a marginally better restaurant. Propped up on a barstool inside the café, stirring a spoon of unsalted butter into my coffee, I got into a conversation with the girl who manages the establishment with her father. “You can climb today but do not go all the way up,” she said. “Snowfall is forecasted at night. So you may not want to be frozen to death,” was her ominous but wise advice.
The famous Besseggen ridge runs between Lakes Gjende and Bessvatnet. The two ends of the hike are Gjendesheim and Memurubu. Most hikers take a ferry from Gjendesheim to Memurubu, where the trail starts and gently slants up to 1,743 metres before steeply dropping off onto a rocky ridge. I chose to climb up the other way around, for it would give a vantage point from where I could start the descent early the next day and walk towards the trail runners. As I set out, the sky was clear and the air nippy; there was no sign of bad weather. Three hours later, at 1,200 metres, I found a spot to camp next to a stream, overlooking milky-green Lake Gjende. I decided to wait until the next morning for a glimpse of Bessvatnet Lake which flanks the other side of the Besseggen ridge.
Spending a night alone on a far-off mountain slope can be both an immensely liberating and equally shudder-inducing experiment. My exhilaration at being one with the elements fast turned into helplessness once it began to rain. Soon, water began to collect against the upper edges of my tent. Shivering, I walked out in into the moonless night, to shovel a mound of mud along the tent’s perimeter. Hoping my improvised bund would keep the water out, I finally climbed into my sleeping bag.
I must have slept for few hours when I woke to the sound of footsteps cracking the ice and drifting into my tent. It was early morning and a couple of volunteers were laying ropes for the runners to grasp on their descent, setting up medical stations, and melting the slippery frost from the edges of the rock. Their presence brought relief. I waved from a distance and lazily walked over to help.
The rain continued to fall and the morning light was just beginning to fill the sky when I decided to push for the top. “Be careful,” cautioned the volunteers who had just come from there, “few feet of snow up there.”
As I climbed, the rain fell harder and the wind developed a sharp bite. No one else was climbing from this end of the trail, and the signposts were fast disappearing in a blinding snowy mist. An hour and half later, I was a couple of hundred metres from the top, but my fingers had gone numb and there was no shelter on the bald mountain top. I tried grabbing the wet rocks to haul myself up a hillock, only to slip several times. In the absence of company and with snow penetrating my eyes, I could only see one way ahead, and that was the way back.
Just as I decided to turn back, the shadow of a thin, wiry man in a vest and shorts passed me in a gust. The slabs of his thigh muscles pumped hard as he negotiated the blanket of snow. The trail of light footsteps he left in his wake vanished fast under falling snowflakes. That man, I later learned was Tomas Bereket, a contestant and eventual winner of the Besseggløpet Race. I stood in my tracks, wondering if the freezing cold might have induced hallucinations, when another shadow passed by. I realised that I had stumbled onto the racetrack and that these were the leading trail runners who were materialising from between white clouds. The sight gave me a surge of hope. I got back on the trail and took a step forward, and then some more.
That day, 45 runners, including 15 women, finished the race. Bereket won it, breaking a time record set in 1963 by Reidar Andreassen and completing the Besseggløpet in just over an hour and 15 minutes—a commanding 17 minutes ahead of the runner-up. Roughly two hours later I reached Memurubu and then took the ferry back to Gjendesheim, I had finished the tough trek, six hours from when I began the day before and excluding the overnight time I spent in setting up the camp.
Later that afternoon, at the café in Gjendesheim, everyone gathered to celebrate his victory. Amid the cheer, I watched Bereket shyly walk over to collect the first prize when his name was announced. I felt thankful to him for my own achievement, and walked over to tell him. “I wouldn’t have reached the top had you not raced by me,” I said,
“Aye man, I should be thankful to you,” Bereket replied. “You were the first person I saw after the race started, and once I saw you I knew I would finish the race.”
A version of this story appeared in National Geographic Traveller India