Crossing the Lofoten (Part 1)

Day One: Moskenes to Tennesvatnet

Distance: ~ 10 km

Total elevation gained: ~ 780 m

Approximate route for day one, Moskenes ferry ramp to the NW shore of Tennesvatnet

It was just before 6 am on the 12th of October 2016, and the world was dark and quiet. I walked southeast along the dimly lit road that led to the town of Å on the Lofoten archipelago, Norway. To my right, great mountains rose, broad and jagged, silhouetted on the beginnings of a grey dawn. To my left the horizon was unimpeded, balanced on a flat black and silver stretch of ocean. The pleasant taste of salt and fish seasoned the air and a slight breeze carried misty droplets of rain, which tiptoed across the tarmac like snow. I stifled a yawn. The 4-hour ferry ride from Bodø to Moskenes permitted little rest, but I knew the sun was quick approaching, and like a curtain pulled, the receding darkness would reveal a setting too beautiful for sleep.

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The Norwegian sea lit by grey dawn

The gentle scuff of my leather boots on the road were met in harmony by another; for the next three weeks I would travel in the company of  Danny, a keen walker and photographer from Germany. We had met earlier that year and decided, despite the risk of meeting the infamous October storms, to try for a south to north crossing of the Lofoten islands. Along with a basic mapped route (which approximated a relaxed 14-day trek), we carried enough food to last on tight rations for half a month. In addition, we packed wet weather and winter gear, a sturdy tent, mats and sleeping bags, and two bivvies, which would enable open-aired rest on the bare, rocky peaks. A couple of cameras and an assortment of lenses were also included, as we anticipated excellent night-time solar activity.

In total, I found myself strapped to a fairly respectable 22 kg, while Danny enjoyed a monster 40 kg. He does not believe in “lightweight walking” and thus seemed fairly unperturbed when the scales at the airport rocketed up. I, on the other hand, was left silently praying that he wouldn’t pop a disc while lifting the bulky thing onto his back.

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The Lofoten Islands (Source: Google Maps)

As we veered off the tarmac at Sørvågen, however, the lofty mass didn’t seem to bother Danny. On the contrary, it was I who struggled to match his long and easy stride as we began the ascent. Our route took us north, along an unmarked, muddy trail on the eastern banks of Sørvågvatnet (vatnet meaning lake) and by sunrise we were at Stuvdalsvatnet, the main drink water source for the Sørvågen Township. Here we paused to watch the golden light strike orange flame into the autumn-flavoured hills. Sheer cliffs cascaded from heathy ridges and the lake was rippled quicksilver.

First light over Stuvdalsvatnet (Source: Sarek Abiskus)

From Stuvdalsvatnet, we climbed up a steep and slippery path supported by fixed chains. Rain fell intermittently and in the wet, with heavy packs, the ascent proved slow. Nonetheless, we soon reached Munkebu, a small mountain hut nestled under the Munken (797 m) and accessible to the public by way of a pre-arranged key. The inclement weather carried low-lying clouds, which draped themselves artfully on the surrounding peaks. Although very fitting to this landscape, it shrouded the Munken’s summit in white and, as a result, we decided to leave that climb for another day.

Walking towards the Munken
The Munken in clouds behind Munkebu hut

From Munkebu hut, we followed an undulating path to the west and then north, navigating a route high above the steep cliffs that plunged into Tennesvatnet. After a final descent, to reach the only water outlet from Tennesvatnet, we found a space to set our tent. That night we were treated to our first taste of the northern lights, which appeared as grey-green spotlights in the slightly clouded midnight sky.

A view over Tennesvatnet (Source: Sarek Abiskus)
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Northern lights appear in the distance (Source: Sarek Abiskus)

Day Two: Tennesvatnet to Buneset Beach

Distance: ~ 11 km

Total elevation gained: ~ 995 m

Approximate route taken on day two, NW shore of Tennesvatnet to a point overlooking Buneset Beach

We awoke to a thoughtful sky. Although cloudy and grey, the peaks were clear and as such the formidable Hermannsdalstinden (tinden meaning mountain) beckoned. At 1029 m, Hermannsdalstinden is one of the highest mountains in region, and is the only peak above 1000 m in western Lofoten. We left our heavy packs with the tent, and were thus enabled to make the short but steep detour with quick feet.

Photography in the mist
Lichen rocks overlook Krokvatnet

Our steps were briefly retraced as we climbed to the high-point directly west of our camp. From here, we followed a boggy path to the north, which took us down a slippery descent and then back up a fairly wet but easy climb to the first saddle southeast of the mountain. The trail soon became steep, and we made use of thick metal chains and soggy fixed ropes to lug ourselves up the cliffs. The final scramble was easier than it first appeared from below, however the drops on either side were sheer and care needed to be taken not to slip on the moss-laden rocks.

Approach to Hermannsdalstinden (Source: Sarek Abiskus)

A dramatic, exposed tip-toe got us to the highest point on Hermannsdalstinden. Here, we sat on the very edge of great piles of rock, and as the lords of Lofoten we watched the clouds move like smoke below us. The view from the summit was commanding; the surrounding mountains created a deep, sharp frame under the great expanse of ocean, which with its light blue and grey hues was hard to discern from the moody sky above. The sun, despite touching very little of the land about us, blasted through the far clouds and hit the water, which blazed a fiery white and yellow stripe towards the island’s edge.

Atop Hermannsdalstinden
Panorama from Hermannsdalstinden (Source: Sarek Abiskus)

The cold starkness of the landscape was matched with winter’s breath,  and the chill soon chased us from the peak. In less than an hour, the small orange pimple on the banks of a vast lake became our tent. Upon re-arrival we packed and readied ourselves for the trail to Forsfjorden; with heavy backpack our progress was again slowed. We followed an unmarked trail along a pipeline that carries water down from Tennesvatnet to a small hydroelectric plant, which presumably powers the nearby villages. Then, upon reaching the plant, we continued around the northwestern edge of Forsfjorden, with hopes to reach the small town of Vindstand before nightfall.

Camp for the first night (Source: Sarek Abiskus)

From up high there appeared no obvious path around most of the shoreline, however without too much difficulty, we found ourselves following a fairly well-trodden track. The first third of this route was slow going, crossing a few mossy boulder-fields, but towards the village the path thickened to a small dirt road. This we followed southwest, under a setting sun. The final stage of the day took us up a slight 80 m rise, on a sandy single-track marked as “Buneset”. The short trail from Vindstand village to Buneset beach is a common summer family outing (a short ferry trip, however, is the typical means of reaching Vindstand) and as such the track conditions were good. In the growing dark, we found a well-protected flat above the beach to set our tent for the night. Although visibility was poor by the time we reached camp, under the near-full moon I could just make out the distant motion of  waves and could hear the roar of the ocean below.

Our camp for the second night, above Buneset Beach
Overlooking Buneset Beach

Day Three: Buneset Beach to Horseid Beach

Distance: ~ 8 km

Total elevation gained: ~ 800 m

Route taken from a point above Buneset Beach to the shores of Horseidvatnet, behind Horseid Beach

We rose late and took a steep path east towards the saddle between Kammen (514 m) and Bruakseitinden (513 m). The mountains in this area are built with sheer cliffs and many passes that appear only moderately steep on the map are impossible to climb or descend without rope and climbing ability. Today, we planned to reach Kjerkfjorden from Buneset Beach, however we were unsure whether we would find a pass across the mountains (the suggested route involves use of a ferry from Vindstand to Kjerkfjorden). We opted to risk the effort, as it was my strong preference to do the crossing entirely on foot.

Starting the steep climb from Buneset

Nearing the top, we passed a couple of locals who were out walking their dog in the hills. The two ladies informed us that there was no safe route down from the other side of the saddle and warned us that a recent attempt had ended in the death of a man who fell while making the scramble. We also discussed with them the possibility of traversing around the south headland from Bunesfjorden to Kjerkfjorden, however again they told us that the route was impossible due to the sheer steepness of the terrain. Despite this news, we decided to continue up to the top for the view.

Once on the saddle, we dropped our packs and made for the top of Helvetestinden (602 m; Helvetestinden meaning hell mountain). An enjoyable, slightly scrambly walk led us to a spectacular setting. Here, the blue of the vast ocean met with the soft, dark sands of Buneset and the ragged grey peaks shot towards the heavens, small on the horizon like ancient witches hats, and towering in the foreground like watchful sentinels.

Views from the saddle to Stamprevtinden (748 m)
Climbing to the top of Helvetestinden
Views to the north, atop Helvetestinden

The energy we received from the beauty of our surrounds coaxed us into attempting the route that we were forewarned of. Both Danny and I could climb and we were sure that if we were careful and split the weight of Danny’s pack, we would make it down the route unharmed. After a little investigation, we found a pathless zig-zagging traverse down what we decided to label the “Drug smuggler’s route”. The slippery descent traveled between the sheer, great flat rock slabs. It took us two trips down the first trickier section with our split luggage, but soon we were consolidating our gear and heading down the steep but safer terrain towards Kjerkfjorden.

A successful descent of the “Drug smuggler’s route”
The colourful village of Kjerkfjorden

We reached the shores of Kjerkfjorden inlet as the light began to change, but the going here was easy and soon we were threading our way through the lovely village houses of Kjerkjorden. We pressed on under a setting sun and made the well-trodden 300 m climb north towards Horseid beach. Once over the rise, we found a flat spot to set our camp on the north-eastern shores of Horseidvatnet. This locale was a special one, held in the arms of great mountain cliffs and is quiet as a still morning after freshly fallen snow.

Nestled between mountains

Day Four: Horseid Beach to Stormarkpollen

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Route taken from Horseid Beach to Stormarkpollen

Distance: ~  7 km

Total elevation gained: ~ 600 m

This morning we rose at 9 am, however our start was delayed by the pleasantness of the sunrise. We had very early on decided not to rush through the walk, enjoying many opportunities to take photographs and absorb the beauty of the landscape. Danny ran the kilometer or so to Horseid beach with his camera to take advantage of the delicious morning light, which just barely kissed the tops of the mountains surrounding, and I enjoyed the peaceful setting by the lake.

Morning light
Reflections on the lake

By the time we were ready to leave, the sun had just began to melt the frost underneath our feet and the sky was clear and fresh, and a bright brilliant blue. The climb to the saddle between the Markan and Kråkhammartinden was short and sweet and our little bedside lake quickly reduced to a dark blob on the valley floor. We deposited our bags on the saddle, and raced up the Marken, to the north. On its summit we reveled in the excellent panoramic views, and Danny opted to remove his clothes and go for a glory shot. The wind was bitter cold, and even dressed in multiple layers of clothing I could very well imagine the extreme chill that would have gripped him in those brief naked moments.

Views from the saddle (before the glory shot)

We retraced our steps to the saddle in under 15 minutes, and continued along a rough path that veered east of the Markan. This took us across a small saddle before dropping to Fageråvatnet, on a more difficult path. Every now and then our progress would disturb a snowshoe hare, which with its white, fluffy fur was incredibly conspicuous as it moved swiftly from rocky hovel to rocky hovel.

This side of the mountains didn’t seem to catch much of the Autumn Norwegian sun, and as such at 4 pm the hills and heath were still coated in a thick, crystalline frost. We stopped often to admire the contrast between the white ice and the few fluorescent orange leaves that still clung to spidery trees.

Afternoon frost

The ground became progressively boggier, as we we picked our way around the small lake. The track continued in this manner even as we dropped towards the ocean inlet – Stormarkpollen. Walking alongside the small stream (Fageråa) that fed into the inlet we passed a lonely hunter with gun and dog. Many Norwegians head out into the wilderness in search of bird and rabbit prey, occasionally also bagging moose that stray across the bridges that connect the mainland to the islands. We also spotted two silky black seals, which followed us as we trod beside the cold, still inlet. Every now and then one would pop up for a closer look, slowly moving forward before again backing off, like a shy, curious child. I was later informed by a fisherman on the island that many of the Nords dislike the animal, as they carry a worm that can be passed onto fish. While the fish can still be safely consumed once cooked, the appearance of the flesh is ruined and this greatly drops the value of a catch.

Evening descends over Stormarkpollen inlet

We made our camp tonight by the edge of a forest, next to a stream and about 1 metre back from the sea. Finding wood and a small pit we were able to make a small fire to burn paper rubbish and warm frozen hands. We sat by the dancing flames and watched a full moon rise over jagged crags. The stream’s voice was gentle and consistent, but the ocean was still and silent. There was not a whisper of wind and our tent was quickly painted with ice crystals. A perfect cold, clear night in Norway. The stuff of dreams.

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Moon rising over our tent, campsite on the forth night

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