“Daddy, please stop. I want to put a rock in your pack!” Two lakes shimmered below as we approached Besseggen, the knife ridge from which Ibsen had the braggart Per Gynt leap, astride a reindeer. For her, a rock to show her grade-school class was proof that she’d been here and done one of the classics of mountain hiking. We stopped. As he put the rock into his pack, her lawyer father grinned: “I guess we’ll call this concrete evidence.” We went on, following red-letter “T”s painted on cairns and rock walls. I’ve hiked that route a dozen times or more, yet that one incident sticks in my mind as a reflection of what hiking in Norway is about.
The “T”s stand for Den Norske Turistforening (DNT), or “Norwegian Trekking Association” in English, the outdoor-life service organization that marks routes in the wilderness that comprises more than three-quarters of the country’s area. We were hiking along one such route, in the Jotunheimen, literally “The Home of the Giants,” the high cordillera of the Scandinavian Peninsula.
In these mountains, most of the T-marked hiking trails meander above timberline, at elevations of 3,000 feet to 5,200 feet, and the loftiest summits are around 8,200 feet. Hence, the lack of attention in mountaineering anthologies, where summit elevation alone is the criterion for comparison. In his classic, “The Age of Mountaineering,” James Ramsey Ullman gives the Jotunheimen only token mention and says nothing of William Cecil Slingsby, the contemporary of Edward Whymper, whose ascents in Norway paralleled those of Whymper in the Alps. Though beneficial to the mountains themselves, the anonymity is unjust. Here, to the west, is the Jostedal Glacier, the largest on the European mainland. And, here, one peak, Galdhøpiggen, topographically ranks as ultra-prominent, with a summit more than 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) above its col, while some famed peaks of the Alps, such as the Matterhorn and the Eiger, are not ultra-prominent. The climb may be less, because the usual starting point is high, but the topographic descriptor implies a vastness of scale.
The terrain resembles that of major North American or Central European cordillera; only the altitude differs. The impression can be imagined by picturing the Rockies or the Alps pushed downwards, topography intact, until cities like Denver were at sea level. Therein lies part of the secret of hiking in Norway: you can enjoy the high-altitude experience without needing high-altitude lungs.
T-marking of trails started in 1880, to make the gray stone cairns marking trails more easily recognizable against a backdrop of moraine-strewn terrain. Red was chosen for visibility and the design was a capital letter T, easily painted with two brush strokes and standing for Turistforeningen, the short version of the full name of DNT. The first T-marked hiking trail was completed in 1883 from Lake Tyin northwest to Smoget Pass in the Jotunheimen Mountains, a distance of about seven miles. Building the cairns and painting the “T”s on them was done by volunteers, with the Association supplying the paint, at a total cost of four Norwegian Crowns, about one dollar and two cents at the exchange rate of the day. Today, the total length of T-marked trails is about 12,500 miles, and the average distance between “T”s on cairns and rock walls is about 66 feet, so there are about a million “T”s in the country.
Along the trails, there are “hytta,” which sounds like the English word “hut” and comes from the same old German word hütte. But there the resemblance stops. Some “hytta” are basic, but most offer more than simple shelter. “Cabin” is a more apt word for 360 of the 400 in the country, while the remaining 40 are in fact lodges, as they are staffed, and some of them are large, such as Finsehytta, with 150 bunks, and Gjendesheim, with 184 bunks.
At dinner a few years ago at Finsehytta, I noticed a Swiss Alpine Club emblem on the sweater of a fellow hiker at our table and struck up a conversation with him. We chatted about Swiss Alpine climbs that we both had done, from Zermatt and Zinal. Then I asked him why he was here in the less-famed topography of Norway. “Easy,” he said: “Here I don’t just go up to a cabin, then up to a summit and back down the same way to the same valley town. Here I’m in the mountains all the time, hiking from cabin to cabin, changing my route at will. Sometimes I stay with all comforts, as here, sometimes not. And I see not just the occasional goat, but flocks of wild reindeer. It’s a real mountain experience.” He had a point there.
For overall information and the details of trails, cabins and prices, including an interactive cabin locator map, visit the DNT website, or contact DNT, Youngstorget 1, 0181 Oslo, Norway, Tel: (47 country code) 40001868, email@example.com. In all, there are 400 cabins, of which 40 in the southern part of the country are full-service staffed lodges that serve meals, with some licensed to serve beer and wine. There are also 60 simpler huts with no bunks, for rest stops or emergency shelter. Membership is encouraged but not required for staying in cabins. But if you plan to spend more than three nights in cabins, at NOK 530 (about $98 at the exchange rate at press time), it’s a bargain as you will save that much in member discounts.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a writer and translator. He takes his vacations in France. By education, he is a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.