Cracks under pressure: The Blue Ice Hike

Text & photographs by Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The winding glacier road leaves the peaceful village of Jondal, bordering one of Western Norway’s most picturesque fjords, the Hardanger Fjord. Passing bucolic hamlets and farms, in only 19 kilometres, this narrow route elevates us from the waters of the fjord at sea level to an ice world at an altitude of 1,199 meters. A magic place where adventures await the ones who are ready to beat the cold and are curious to explore what lies beyond the end of the road…

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Inside the ski renting shop, we swap our hiking shoes for robust mountain boots, and grab the rest of our essential gear: a pair of crampons, a helmet and an ice axe. Thorbjørn Helgesen, our glacier guide for the day, equips us with a harness thanks to which we will all be roped together to explore this hostile territory full of loose rocks, deep cracks and treacherous snow bridges.

I check my back pack one last time: gloves, sunglasses and sunscreen, my VSSL first aid kit, a few slices of polar bread with local fish spread in a tube as lunch in the cold will be quick, a Real cranberry energy bar, and plenty of water in my Laken aluminium bottle. My Vipole hiking poles are attached to the side of my backpack, just in case. As the clouds cover the ski area we start from, I have all my layers on: a long sleeve woollen technical T-shirt, a dawn jacket and a windproof jacket. I feel ready!

Things have changed greatly since the rich and famous have put the Juklavass Glacier on the map. Very appreciated for its low altitude compared to the Alps and its proximity to the fjord where it was easy to arrive by boat, the utmost luxury was to be carried up all the way to the glacier in a horse-drawn carriage before being transferred onto a sledge to explore it. On the other hand, local farmers would use the glacier to shorten their way from valley to valley.

Today, all geared up, travellers are eager to conquer the glacier themselves, or at least a small part of this white immensity, under the guidance of a professional who knows how to read the dangers of this inhospitable landscape.

We follow Thorbjørn as he starts hiking up through the dense summer snow creaking under our sturdy soles of our boots. A chilly wind is picking up, and we warm up thanks to our increasing heartbeats. Over these first 200 vertical meters, the group organically divides itself by pace. This is essential as we will be roped as soon as we start walking on the glacier for safety reasons. In order to get enough weight to counterbalance a potential fall down a crevasse, a minimum of three people on a rope is required. In order to walk at a proper pace as technical passages have to be taken slowly, a maximum of 11 people is preferred.

Arriving on a flat, right before walking on the ice, our group of 11 is formed, as other guides take care of the other guests.

In a clear step-by-step procedure, Thorbjørn demonstrates how to put on our crampons, heel to the rear, and adjusting till the nose of the shoe touches the metal in the front. A simple strap holds the crampons tightly in position. These crampons are going to help us walk on vast slabs of ice which is shaped into all sorts of different directions by the howling wind and pressure of its own weight!

Thorbjørn takes out a long rope of about 50 meters and starts to connect us all one after the other, about three arm spans apart. “I have guided thousands of people on this glacier”, Thorbjørn reassures us, and continues: “No one has ever fallen into a crack: it’s just a safety precaution, like wearing a seatbelt when driving.” Safely roped, we are now ready to step onto the icy part of the glacier that we follow while gaining some more altitude.

Steadily, our crampons pierce the ice and their metallic sound paces our walk. The only other sounds I hear are that of water flowing underneath the ice we are walking on. In the heat of the summer, temperatures melt the ice away, and for several years, the glacier has been retracting.

We keep pushing until we reach some rocks from where we are protected from the cold wind. From there, the snowy mountain peaks, altitude lakes and fjords can all be seen. “Let’s sit down here for a quick lunch”, Thornbjørn suggests. We all sit down as we can, still being all roped together to grab a quick bite. Thorbjørn has an extensive route planned for the day, and luckily, we do not have much break time as we are cooling down fast despite a few sun rays. As we are chatting, he explains a bit more about the glacier: “What we refer to as the Folgefonna Glacier is the reunion of three glaciers on top of this mountain towering the Hardanger Fjord. We are currently walking in the Juklavass Glacier.” I take another bite of the fish spread on polar bread. Thorbjørn continues after grabbing a mouthful of his sandwich: “Contrary to what many believe, it is not the remains of the enormous glacier that once covered the whole of Norway during the last ice age about 11,500 years ago. The Folgefonna Glacier only formed 5,000 years ago. For a glacier to form, you just need more snow to pack on it in the winter than the amount that melts away in the summer. Then, slowly, the former layers of snow get buried under the new snow and compressed so much that the air is pushed out. The snow re-crystallises and basically turns into ice. The continuous pressure applied to it by the weight of the new snow and upper ice layers make the ice move slowly: now we are talking about a glacier!”

Thornbjørn finishes his sandwich: “Get ready to move on”, he instructs, “it is a bit chillier today than I expected, so let’s stay warm!”

On the vast snowy area, we can clearly distinguish three different ice formations. “We call them Panorama 1, 2 and 3. Let’s push to number 3 to see if we can explore some crevasses!”, Thorbjørn recommends. As we are picking up the pace, always making sure the rope is rather tight between us all, our bodies warm up again. It is quite tricky to walk comfortably as the angle of the first extensive ice slab that we cross forces our ankles in weird positions. We learn how to position our crampons parallel to the slope with our toes pointing downhill to alleviate our ankles and knees. We explore panorama 3 with its concealed snow bridges. “Tight rope!” Thorbjørn instructs. “Tight rope!”, I repeat to the next one on the rope who also passes the instruction down until the last hiker. In case of a fall, a tight rope limits the damages and it is critical that everyone on the line respects the order of our mountain guide. To secure our passage he uses his ice axe to check the depth of the snow to decide on the safest route. He retracts a little and we all do the same. “It’s too dangerous here”, Thorbjørn exclaims. “Let’s back track a bit.” And so do we, avoiding stepping on a weak snow bridge that may hide a crevasse as deep as 30 meters. Unsettled by the surrounding cracks, Thorbjørn prefers to move down to another part of the glacier.

We descend and take in the view on the faraway fjord a little bit more before we need to be extremely focussed on where we step. As we reach the ice that looks quite uniform from a distance, we notice the different shapes, textures and hues of the glacier. Deeper blues reveal a lower air content in the packed ice that refracts the sunlight in the blue part of the spectrum.

Along a wider crevasse, Thorbjørn stops. “Stop!” echoes along the rope as we all mimic and repeat. After securing a patch of ice block with his axe, he takes an ice screw from a carabiner hanging on his harness and manually screws it swiftly into the ice. Two carabiners, strong enough to hold a small car, are connected to the screw. On such technical passages, safety is key and to ensure that the whole rope can pass, everyone has to clip the downstream rope in before unclipping the upstream rope in order to move forward. Every time one of us reaches the ice screw, everyone has to wait, keeping the rope tight until that person is through. We study Thorbjørn’s path as he climbs down about two meters to cross the depth of the crevasse and then climbs up on the other side. After the carabiner operation, I get closer and I feel the rush of adrenalin as I see the depth I am about to cross. I firmly slam my ice axe into the ice on the opposite wall and start climbing. “Remember, wide feet!” Thorbjørn shouts. I forcefully kick my crampons into the ice wall rising from the crevasse. I trust them with my weight and push up and before I know it, I am already out. Or that’s what I thought! As I am about to take my last step out of the crevasse, I hear “Stop!” and I feel the downstream rope tensing. The next in line has just reached the ice screw! Now this is a real cliff-hanger, I think… as I hold my position as best as I can, just hoping for the “go!” to resonate as soon as possible. Once I am across, it is not really the moment to relax, as I must stay focused on the movements of the other members of the group and maintain the tension in the rope appropriately. To make sure everyone stays focused, Thorbjørn’s instructions were very clear from the start: “no photos but when we take a break, gloves on and ice axe in the hand”. The whole process repeats itself until all 11 of us have conquered the tricky part that we all longed to explore. We have all cooled down and in search for more places like this we ended up with a dead-end. “We have pushed quite a bit today!” Thorbjørn states. “Let’s head back as we still have a bit of distance to cover.” In a long line, we all follow in our guide’s footsteps, walking legs wide like cowboys to not stumble over our crampons on the long downhill back to the ski resort. As we lose altitude, the ice gets slushier, and soon we are walking through puddles. The last bit through the snow is easy, and once our gear is returned, we look back at the majestic glacier. Looking at the map, we have barely covered any distance on this glacial mass that gets as thick as 280 meters locally, and we realise what it must have been like for farmers to cross it all in the old times.

Driving down the glacier road, we soon are back in Jondal where it is nice and warm to the point it is bathing time! Once we stripped off our layers, we dive into the 20°C water of the fjord enjoying the sunrays. What an amazing place! Where else on the planet can you explore a world of ice and go for a swim in the fjord only 19 kilometres away?!

Travel tips:

  • It takes only 19 kilometres from the fjord to the ice on a narrow asphalt road that crosses many ecosystems in this rather short distance. The Glacier Road is simply stunning, and driving it up the glacier will leave you want to discover it more. It is definitely worth spending time exploring the road, and the best way would be by bike. For options, reach out to Folgefonni Breførarlag, the glacier road experts in Jondal. As these 19 kilometres will take you up 1,199 meters, guided e-bike tours are a great way for all to enjoy the Glacier Road.
  • Keep in mind that many other outings in nature such as kayaking on the fjord right from Jondal or hiking can also be arranged by Folgefonni Breførarlag.
  • The Jondal area is easily reachable from beautiful Bergen with its international airport and cruise terminal: it is only a 2-hour drive. Day tours are even arranged from Bergen, even though it feels way too short to enjoy the beauty of the area!
  • Folgefonni Breførarlag was founded in 1994 and remains a family business run by Åsmund Bakke whose goal is to share his love for the glacier with all. As such his adventures are nature experience more than extreme sports and are adapted to every fitness level. Folgefonni Breførarlag operates from the Juklafjord information centre in Jondal that serves as a small exhibition room about the glacier, a tourist information centre and a coffee shop.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

This article was published in the 12-million reader e-magazine Beyond Boundaries by Xtreme Adventure:

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