Feral Words

Author blog of William A. Young; journeys through the mythology of the northern fringes of Europe

Ice & Stone – Crossing the Lyngen Alps

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The mountain range known as the Lyngen Alps sits upon a peninsula in the shape of a spear-head, stabbing out from the north coast of Lapland into the cold sea beyond. The highest of the Lyngen peaks, Jiehkkevarri, is the tallest of all the mountains in Arctic Norway. East and west of the range stretches out a labyrinthine tangle of fjords and islands, on the fringes of which cluster little settlements of the Norwegian, Sami & Kven peoples. It is a region not short on wonderful places; but even among them, Lyngen certainly stands out. This is a brief report on a hiking trip I undertook across the southern portion of the range, up onto the slopes of Jiehkkevarri.

I got off the bus at the small township of Nordkjosbotn, on the southwestern limits of Lyngen. Norkjosbotn is at once a sea-side and a mountain town; sitting at the head of the salt-water Balsfjord, amidst a landscape of soaring peaks. I consumed a final cooked meal in one of the roadside eateries- at £20 for a burger and chips, good value for Norway!- before setting off, upwards.

The summer weather had not been kind to Lapland that year. The midnight sun had wheeled around the sky as per normal, but the residents had seldom been permitted to see it do so by a glowering bank of cloud that squatted for weeks over the northwestern coast, covering the land with darkness and rain. As I arrived in Nordkjosbotn, this cruel, obscuring cloud had begun to ease a little, and the shapes of the mountains were starting to emerge. The legacy of the rain still remained, however; as I climbed up the steep path from the edge of the valley, I passed a waterfall swollen far beyond normal summer volumes.

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Beyond the top of the falls, over the crest of the valley-wall, a broad plateau opens out. The country here rapidly shades from the mixed woodland characteristic of the coast into birch woods; and these in turn swiftly give way to tundra. In the centre of the plateau sits the lake called Storvatnet; the ‘Great Lake’. I hiked past it and camped amidst the trees. From the edge of my wood, I could look back and see the summits of the mountains behind finally breaking out of the cloud; a sight I had not been able to glimpse for some time.

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The next day, I ascended further into the mountains, heading for a pass south of the mountain called Piggtinden. As I rose, the character of the environment altered swiftly; this far north, small changes in altitude mean big changes in vegetation. A few hundred metres up from the plateau, the tundra began to fade away into bare, barren rock. Although it was the middle of July, broad snow-fields still occupied large swathes of the terrain; tendrils of white following the lines of streams, and faults in the rock. My map had indicated a vague path, but I had learned by this point not to expect to see any trace of one on the ground; the Norwegian mapping agency marks out routes where passage is possible, not just routes that are regularly traversed.

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By the time I was at the summit of the pass, only about 500 metres above sea-level, vegetation had disappeared entirely. The world was composed of nothing but slippery rock and old, greying snow. I spent what seemed like an age picking my way over piles of boulders, before eventually reaching the other side, and gazing down into the valley beyond. Watching the dark grey clouds scud around the rock and snow of the mountains, I can only imagine what most folk back home would make of my ‘summer hoilday’! I was loving it, though…

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Beyond the pass, the mountains drop down to the valley of Lakselvdalen. Descending northwestwards, the view back throws the mountain of Piggtinden into jagged relief. Its name bears no relation to pigs; the actual translation is “spike peak”. From a certain angle, it’s easy to see why.

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Beyond Piggtinden, I follow the Lakselvdalen valley northward. The sun made one of its rare appearances, showing up just long enough to cast its light on the bare stone of the mountain called Rødaksla; the “Red Shoulder”.

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The walk through the wooded lowlands of Lakselvdalen lasts for only five miles or so, before my route diverges eastwards into another pass; this one running through the long- and appropriately named- valley of Langdalen. This particular valley is given two appellations on my map; the second is a name in the language of the Sami reindeer-herders, the more guttural, alien-sounding “Guhkesvaggi”. The ascent from the woods is steep and swift; reaching the edge of the pass, I find myself just above the treeline. The view to the south takes in the mountain of Durmalstinden, and, beyond it, the northern slopes of the peaks around Piggtinden.

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I tried to camp for the night in the pass of Langdalen, but the wind didn’t allow me to sleep. I was woken within a couple of hours to find my tent flattening itself around my body as intense gusts pushed it down. The valley, surrounded by steep, high slopes, was acting as a wind-tunnel, channeling the onrushing breeze into a gale that seemed to focus specifically on the spot where I was trying to sleep. I tried to resist for a while- the warmth of my sleeping-bag was painfully difficult to abandon- but was eventually forced to concede defeat, and got up to pack my things away. It was now about 12:30 in the morning; this was not a problem, however, as the midnight sun meant there was quite sufficient light to progress under. I kept hiking until about 3:30, before eventually finding a spot shielded by a tangle of dwarf birches. Behind their sheltering wall, I raised my tent and slept, soundly and gratefully.

The next morning, I woke to this…

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The interior of Langdalen contains a broad valley of tundra, birch wood and mire. The river flows unimpeded, and there is nowhere any evidence of a road, a fence, or even a path. The mountain in the centre has a name only in Sami; it is called Biellogaisa. I spent a good few hours just wandering round this little plateau; for some reason, it caught my imagination. Thereafter, I followed the course of the river downhill, through some woods, to the eastern coast of Lyngen. There, fresh water mingles with salt as the river drops into the Storfjord; the “Great Fjord”, in English.

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For the next stretch of my journey I followed the coast road northwards for about ten kilometres. Small farmsteads and forest intermingle along the coast, while from the shore opposite rise up mountains almost as high as those of Lyngen itself. In the distance are visible the mountains that form the meeting point of Norway, Sweden and Finland.

I spent one night camped by the shore, before tramping onwards and turning again west, into the interior of Lyngen, at a village called Furuflaten. This small settlement sits at the mouth of the River Lyngdalselva, a gushing torrent of whitewater that drains the eastern slopes of the great Jiehkkevarri. Here, the trail is very well-defined; this particular valley draws a large number of visitors. This fact swiftly worked in my favour, for it was because of the numbers of visitors that a footbridge was constructed across the Lyngdalselva. Without it, there is no way I would have been able to cross the river, for the normal rainwater run-off I have grown used to is here redoubled by the meltwater that pours off Jiehkkevarri’s glaciers. The combined stream they create is a body of water not to be trifled with…

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Following the river upstream, I eventually arrive at another plateau. This one sits embraced within the stony arms of Jiehkkevarri, and its heart is a broad, gravelly plain stripped bare of vegetation by periodic floods of meltwater. Around it sits a ring of thickly forested slopes, behind which can be glimpsed the glaciers, curling down from the mountain corries to the fringes of the grey plain below.

P1090608I camped a few days here, exploring the woods and the subsidiary valleys around the central plateau. I had hoped to get a proper look at the summit of the mountain; but in this I was to be disappointed. The halo of billowing cloud never departed from Jiehkevarri, and it retained its air of mystery until I finally left. The icy fingers that protruded from its summit, however, were far easier to reach, and I had the opportunity to have a good, close-up look at one its glaciers…

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The time on the edge of Jiehkevarri marked the end of this particular stage of my journey. Afterwards, I walked on to a nearby ferryport to catch a ship for the further shore; that’s a different story, however. If you enjoyed this account enough to consider visiting Lyngen yourself, it is easily reached from the cities of Tromso or Narvik; the bus between them runs through Nordkjosbotn, where I commenced my journey. Both of those cities have airports, and act as transport hubs for Arctic Norway. Maps are easy to come by; I can’t recommend highly enough those on the Norwegian government’s Statkart website. They are a brilliant planning tool.

To conclude; I do have one image of the summits of the Lyngen peaks that isn’t largely obscured by clouds. It was taken a year before this journey, from the shore opposite, through a bus window. Any proper photographer will probably laugh at the sheer technical ineptitude of the shot, but it does manage to reveal what was hiding in the murk. If you get lucky, and the sun shines upon you, then Lyngen looks like this…

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© William Young and Feral Words, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to William Young and Feral Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2014 by in Fennoscandia and tagged , , , , .
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