A 27-kilometre hike for likes
Social media has drawn thousands of people to a remote part of Norway for a beautiful vista, including Martin Bauman, who reveals whether the arduous hike was worth the Instagram love
I can see my breath. Dear God, I can see my breath. I lay curled in the fetal position, extremities drawn inward like a tortoise retreating into its shell. Burrowed deep into my sleeping bag, I was wrapped in every layer I had, fleece hoodie pulled tightly around my head. Tendrils of cold air crept through the tent, like glacial fingers sent from some vengeful Norse god. To my right, my girlfriend had metamorphosed into an actual sleeping bag, nothing but polyester visible in the dark of the night.
Beyond the confines of our drafty tent, another 20-odd brave souls had set up camp for the night, pocketing the soggy, moss-covered terrain with colourful splashes of nylon. Mere metres away, the mountain vanished into nothingness, the rock face plummeting into the abyss below.
We were fools, all of us. Lemmings on a cliff.
Perfectly reasonable people will do all kinds of stupid things for social-media adoration. The Duck Face. Planking. Neknominations. Selfie sticks and Snapchat glasses have been born out of our collective obsession with documenting and disseminating life's minutiae. Dear friends, I must confess: I am among those people. My latest lapse in judgment had led me to this place, more than 1,000 metres above sea level outside a small town in Norway.
The place looks like a screen saver come to life. Mountains – lush and green and topped with glacier snow – rise endlessly into the distance. Seven-hundred metres below, the still waters of the Ringedalsvatnet mirror the clouds above. Like a grand balcony above it all, a promontory juts out into the open air above the lake, like a tongue stuck out in mockery of its maker, daring explorers to peer over its edges.
This is Trolltunga – Norwegian for Troll Tongue – a place that reportedly draws more than 80,000 adventure-seekers a year. Less than a decade ago – and before the advent of Instagram, I might add – fewer than 800 made the trip in any given year. The place's popularity has skyrocketed hand-in-hand with our social-media use, becoming a veritable Hashtag Wonder of the World. Like any self-serious backpacker with an Instagram account, I was determined to see it for myself.
Full credit to any tourist who makes it to Trolltunga: It's not easy. There are no tour buses you can take to the top, with cheery guides prattling on about legends of Norway's trolls; no gondolas offering breathtaking panoramas as you sip from a latte bought at the café and gift shop below. The way there is as it always has been: 27 kilometres round trip by foot.
My quixotic quest was to hike to the top of Trolltunga, camping gear on our backs, and spend the night at the summit, taking in both sunset and sunrise when all the day-trippers had long since returned to their shuttle buses and plush hotels. We had rerouted our entire week-long trip in Norway to make sure the Trolltunga hike lined up with the best possible weather in the forecast, and all week, the momentum had been building to this moment. It was going to be glorious.
We had made the drive from Flam in the morning, alternating through tunnels, mountain passes and ferry crossings. By the time we reached Tyssedal, otherwise known as base camp for Trolltunga hikers, the early-afternoon sun was shining bright and warm above a cloudless sky. We scarfed down a couple of sandwiches, loaded up our bags and set off for the summit. Fourteen kilometres and 900 vertical metres to go.
The first four kilometres are probably the hardest: nothing but steady climbing up a gravel switchback road, before a dirt trail branches off and levels out at the much-welcome plateau of Magelitopp. Thinking ahead to the cooler temperatures at the top, I had made the mistake of starting the hike wearing a thick jacket and by the top of the road, I had broken into a sweat so fierce that Richard Simmons would have been proud.
As the trail levels, it becomes a beautiful terrain of rocks, marsh and charming cabins with near-360-degree glacier views. For sensible people, this would be a worthy hike on its own. Indeed, we saw more than a few Norwegian couples out for a walk with their dogs, enjoying the calm of their surroundings. The spell lasts for less than two kilometres before reaching the second significant stretch of the ascent, another two kilometres of nothing but climbing up boulders formed into a giant mountain staircase.
I had stripped my jacket at this point, exposing a soggy, long-sleeve T-shirt underneath. My shoulders and hips – bearing the weight of a tent, sleeping bag, clothes and cooking supplies – had begun to protest in earnest. Hoping that we would find another plateau, we were greeted instead by a trail that would continue rising and falling through marsh and mud for another six kilometres. Compounding the problem, there isn't a single outhouse on the trail to Trolltunga, let alone a rest station with pumps for refilling empty bottles. Here I was, a child being made to eat his vegetables before getting a taste of dessert.
The final 200 metres of the trail is a beautiful moment. After hours of trudging along, you come to a place where you can see people gathered up ahead: some pitching tents, others huddling around their tiny camp stoves. At some point, the rocks part and there it is – the famous cliff ledge. And, for all of social media's tendency to ruin places, it really is quite the sight.
At peak times, tourists wait up to an hour to have their photo taken on the Troll's Tongue. We had arrived late enough that the crowds had dissipated, leaving only a small gathering of those who were planning to stay the night. You get your smattering of characters on a hike like this: One man stripped naked for his photo on the ledge; another proposed to his girlfriend. One woman struck a series of poses with a beach ball for some reason. Never one for heights, I inched forward with the reluctance of a man on his way to the gallows. My girlfriend was already peering over the ledge. Photo captured.
We spent that night shivering in our tents, before making the long return trip to the parking lot and our waiting car the next day. The latest crowd of Trolltunga's visitors had already gathered by the time we poked our heads out into the chill of the morning. By 9 a.m., a line had formed, and I laughed at the predictability of it all: tens of thousands of tourists, driven by the desire to see this place and be seen doing it – across Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and other social networks. All for a few "likes."
As I pondered the absurdity of our species, another thought came: Which Instagram filter should I use?