On the roof of Northern Europe [Galdhøpiggen]

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

Jotunheimen, the land of the giants. It does feel like seating amongst millennium-old towering giants looking at all these 2,000-meter-high peaks surrounding our small tent pitched in the soft tundra on our way up Galdhøpiggen, Northern Europe’s highest mountain in the heart of Jotunheimen National Park. No less than 250 of these mountains are located in Norway’s most popular national park where the country’s greatest concentration of high peaks is found. From a distance, the summits look like a world in monochrome with the rugged dark stones partially covered in snow, cut by majestic white waterfalls. In this surprisingly arid polar climate, it is the melting of the glacier that provides water to the surrounding communities. Farmers have even dug 250 kilometres of open channels to irrigate their lands. Only the bells of a few sheep roaming these slopes during the summer break the humming of the water cascading in the distance.

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Changing perspective and looking down, I feel suddenly like the giant myself. At my altitude, the green mountain slope is covered in short vegetation, characteristic of arctic landscapes. The highest bush may be about 30-centimetre-tall when most plants are simply a couple of centimetres above the ground level: lichens, dwarf willows, flowers, mosses… To adapt to this harsh climate, this vegetation has developed special abilities and a few superpowers that also help sustain the rare arctic fauna.

I look closer…

This is actually a whole forest that I am towering myself! Around me, small green leaves are dominating: dwarf willow. This is in fact the smallest tree in the world! The stem of the tree grows underground and connects with other dwarf willows below the surface. Under a microscope, the year rings can be seen and some have been dated as beings hundreds of years old! Sheep and hares love feeding on dwarf willow as it is very nutritious, and thanks to it, high-mountain hares are much bigger than the ones living lower down the mountain!

I stop my contemplation, load my heavy backpack and start hiking again towards the summit after a resting night on the tundra.

During their very short summer, flowers are blooming. Patches of sweet edible blue bells nicely colour the surrounding greenery. Some pillows of purple moss campion lay on the side of the trail. Some can be as old as 400 years!

I cross a stream lined with mosses of various greens and light oranges, and I filter some water for the rest of the ascent with my Katadyn pouch. If the water looks crystal-clear, it is literally ice-cold as it has justmelted from the above glacier: it can be full of bacteria and must be filtered by the rocks before it becomes drinkable. In fact, over millennia, the ice has trapped dead animals, and plenty of archaeological artifacts. I remember what my guide Jo Jordet explained to me a few days ago by the Ice Tunnel on the other side of the mountain. Thousand-year-old tools used for reindeer hunting, a 3,300-year-old shoe and others dating back to the Viking Age, a 1,300-year-old ski binding, and even a rare 1,700-year-old tunic have been found close-by, spat out by the retracting glacier. Recently, a 40,000-year-old wolf head got pushed up by the permafrost, a hairy rhinoceros was found and 24,000-year-old frozen organisms started to come back to life after being warmed up! Worse, in Siberia, a reindeer herd that got frozen released anthrax bacteria as it melted, mysteriously killing people in a nearby community. In a nutshell: the decomposing of organic material is stopped once frozen, and as soon as it defreezes, it resumes… There is a no brainer: I take the time it takes to properly filter the water!

Gaining altitude, the landscape brutally changes and I enter a world of stones that have been pushed out by the glacier. Amongst them, some islands created by the permafrost stick out.

As I am about to step, I suddenly change my landing! Even in this inhospitable terrain, plants grow: I was about to step on an endangered glacier buttercup – the highest growing flower around here! Around me, I notice a rare sight: I see some of its white flowers, some dark pink ones and a few in-between taints. To increase the chances of survival of their species, the delicate glacier buttercup that grows as high as 2,370 meters changes colour after pollination: the white flower turns dark pink and closes to signal to the rare insects that they should simply pollinate others! As it takes it about 7 years from a seed to a grown-plant, it is understandable it is trying to reproduce as much as possible!

As I keep making progress, I notice the rocks being covered by different types of lichens. The easiest to notice is reindeers’ favourite: gold-skin lichen. Full of proteins, a handful is enough to sustain a reindeer for three full days! Close by, some brown lichen is growing. It has a 1,000-year long history in Norway: when harvests were bad, it was ground and added to the flour by local farmers for its high carbohydrate content. Today, the pharmaceutical industry has researched the bread lichen preventive action against cancer. Another plant with superpowers!

I pass patches of snow, following tracks of hikers before seeing more red T’s marking the trail. The yellow map lichen that has been present on quite a few rocks seems to become rarer. As Jo taught me, it is used to date the melting of the ice: lichen cannot survive covered by ice, so it helps dating for how long the area has been ice-free as it starts growing only 10 years after the ice has melted. As it grows very slowly at a rate of roughly 0.5mm per year, measuring its diameter helps refine the approximate period of the melting of the ice: a 10-centimeter diameter lichen patch would be at least 200 years old!

I eventually reach to ridge line. I notice a rather large area that seems darker with no map lichen: I have entered the 10-year belt showing me the retraction of the glacier. Lower down on each side, the blue ice of the glacier reflects the sunlight. Far in the distance, I notice an ant trail: if I decided to hike from the demanding Spiterstulen side, the most popular and easier route is via the Juvasshytta onto the glacier. Dozens of hikers are roped and are slowly making progress on the ice. I should still have enough time to reach the summit of Galdhøpiggen before it gets busy.

After conquering close to 1,400 meters of positive elevation over only 7 kilometres of distance, I eventually reach the roof of Northern Europe! Wherever I look, I am surrounded by these old giant mountains covered in snow and glaciers. I enjoy this moment when it feels like time is standing still. I bite in my insect bar to take a bit of strength before carefully making my way back down the same route. Beyond the great physical challenge that this hike represents, I am grateful for the knowledge I have gathered at the Ice Tunnel about polar fauna and flora that has helped me appreciate my surroundings at a much deeper level. And even more so as at the given rate, 90% of Norwegian glaciers are to melt away by the end of the century, according to scientists…

Travel tips:

  • For a fascinating tour, visit the Climate Park and its amazing Ice Tunnel: you will learn about permafrost, arctic world and visit a beautiful tunnel with ice sculptures by artist Peder Istad.
  • The Norwegian Mountain Centre in Lom showcases some of the archaeological artefacts that have been uncovered from the melted ice. This new type of archaeology that has developed with climate change has revealed artefacts as old as 6,000 years old! Norway represents more than half of all archaeological finds from the ice globally.
  • The Elveseter Hotel is a great base to explore Jotunheimen National Park and hike up Galdhøpiggen, either from the Juvasshytta side on the glacier with the mandatory guide or the more demanding Spiterstulen side that can be done in autonomy.
  • Tideman painting in the Elveseter Hotel, Norway
  • Author Claire Lessiau at work in the cosy Elveseter Hotel, Norway
  • Wood carved and rose-painted interior of the cosy Elveseter Hotel, Norway
  • Wooden exterior of the Elveseter Hotel, Norway
  • Column at the Elveseter Hotel, Norway
  • For the GPS track of the hike and more specific details to help you plan your trip (zoom out) in Norway refer to our interactive map (short tutorial)!

For more in Norway:

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