A week in the Norwegian wilderness of Jotunheimen can be an amazing experience, especially if you let your imagination run wild. The ‘Home of the Giants’ might even be the place to rediscover the lost world of your childhood.
Once upon a time, according to Old Norse mythology, Jotunheimen was the place where the giant trolls (jötnars) lived. In the ‘Home of the Giants’, you certainly feel small and insignificant. We’re reminded of this every time we see a hiker in the distance. They appear as tiny dots of colour in the vast, open mountain landscape with its deep lakes and high treeless valleys – the place is just so enormous and majestic you could almost believe that it might have been sculpted by mythical creatures.
How else do you explain the perfectly smooth cracks that split the cliff faces in two? Surely, this could only be the work of an almighty axe, wielded by giant hands? Were they in a rage? Could the huge boulders strewn over the mountain slopes not have been tossed there by giants, like marbles? Do the howling winds not carry the insistent whispers of some ghostly spirit?
Maybe the Norwegian poet Aasmund Olavsson Vinje had similar thoughts when he roamed through this wilderness back in 1862. He’s credited with baptising this wild landscape as the Jotunheimen or ‘Home of the Giants’. Aasmund Olavsson Vinje was inspired by Old Norse mythology with its trolls (jötnars), offspring of the primaeval god Ymir, who lived in the mountains. The trolls are the gigantic, supernatural creatures frequently referred to in Norse legends.
During our week-long hiking trip through Jotunheimen, we come to understand why the poet settled on the name. They are imposing mountains, as if made by giants. We keep stopping to allow our eyes to roam and take it all in. And we try to let our minds and imagination run free too, a skill we tend to lose as we get older.
As children, we dived into fantasy worlds on a daily basis. It didn’t take much to trigger. A pile of bed covers became a mountain where toy figures could hide or fight. If there were no toys handy, we used jelly babies or candies. Later on, books and films enthral us and as we immerse ourselves in mythic worlds of heroes and villains or good versus evil: Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings. As youngsters, we wonder how it would be if these imaginary worlds existed for real. But then our priorities start to shift.
You can find all the information, dates and tips for the tour in our Jotunheimen trekking guide.
As teenagers, the real world around us becomes more interesting: our friends, the girl or boy next door. As young adults, we often have no capacity left to indulge in fantasy. Career demands and the responsibilities of everyday life force us to be rational, running on autopilot from one deadline to the next.
Arriving in Jotunheimen means stepping into another world. At least for the next few days. The ferry transports us from Gjendebu across Lake Gjende – where we leave civilization behind and head into the mountain wilderness. We’re carrying everything we need in our backpacks: tent, sleeping bag, provisions. Kilometre after kilometre, hour after hour. Ahead of us lie muddy bogs, wild streams, high mountain passes and wind-blown ridges. We’re going to hike through wind, rain and snow, following where the path leads us.
Our state of mind takes us back to the fantasy heroes from the tales we read as kids. They too were exposed to the laws of nature and had to overcome obstacles and danger en route. In the world that we live in, we have sophisticated and highly functional outdoor equipment and there are no trolls waiting to eat us – nevertheless in the mountains of Jotunheimen you can’t help but feel a bit like Frodo Baggins or Sam Gamgee as they cross Tolkien’s Middle-earth on their quest to throw the ring into the fire of Isildur. Our trek is also a kind of adventure into the mind, and one that fills us with childlike joy – even in the drizzling rain.
The conditions fit the landscape. Wispy fog and low-lying clouds hang eerily over the ice-cold waters. This strange, unsettling weather seems more suited to a fantasy tale than bright sunshine. This is further accentuated when the weather deteriorates – as it often does on the Galdhøpiggen.
We plan to climb Norway’s highest mountain without our heavy packs, and instead leave them in the tents next to the homely Spiterstulen lodge. This way we can leave most of our gear back down in the valley. The modern mountain lodge might not exactly fit our Middle-earth vibe. However, we’re more than happy to ignore the fact for the evening.
In the morning, we crack on and pick up the trail that leads over the eastern ridge of the Galdhøpiggen. Behind us, Visdalen is bathed in a strange, mysterious light. But soon, we move up into the clouds and the view is obscured. Vegetation becomes sparse. We have the red markings on stones to guide us. It starts snowing, lightly at first, then heavier.
For his Jotunheimen hike, Philipp wore the lightweight HANWAG Makra Trek GTX trekking boot. After six days of hiking in rugged terrain, Philipp said: “I got zero blisters, despite not being able to wear the boot in before I went. That’s the way it should be.” Discover the HANWAG Makra Trek GTX in our webshop.
Visibility has become so poor that we can see neither the way ahead, nor where we are on the mountain. Instead, we’re reduced to stumbling about in the mist, hunting for the next waymark. To our right somewhere, there is a huge drop off the side of the ridge. We scramble over the blocky terrain using our hands. The wind is getting stronger, as is the snow. It’s almost as if the malevolent mountain is trying to force us back. Making us feel like hobbits on a dangerous quest. I have to think of the Fellowship fighting their way over Caradhras mountain where the sorcerer Saruman is controlling the weather in the Lord of the Rings. We feel alone and completely isolated up here.
As we cross the last big snowfield before the summit, the storm dies down. The wintry mountain is suddenly calm, quiet and almost peaceful. It feels like we’ve passed through an invisible portal connecting our world with the Chronicles of Narnia. Heading towards the summit, the idea doesn’t even seem too far-fetched. What awaits us here?
Stomping through the snow, we spy a small stone hut through the mist. Right in the middle of the Galdhøpiggen summit. Who could live here? An evil witch? Or friendly dwarves waiting to welcome us by a blazing fireside? Nothing of the sort. Instead, in the cosy room inside, we’re welcomed by a young woman – she’s a national park mountain guide. Standing at the counter of a small kiosk, she serves guests. In a flash, our daydream is over, and we’re reminded who we really are – hiking tourists, not the heroes of Middle-earth.
Grown men behaving like kids, imagining themselves tramping through some lost fantasy world – maybe it all just sounds a bit silly. I mean, how real can it be? I suppose it depends on how much room we give our fantasies. Sometimes, our imaginations have a mind of their own.
As kids, we end up half scaring ourselves to death. Terrified of the monster under the bed or what might be lurking in a dark cellar… Although, in reality, there’s nothing there to harm us. Our imaginations run wild. Fantasy takes over, the things we imagine feel so real they prevent us from sleeping, or send us running terrified back up the stairs.
In Jotunheimen, we pitch our tents in the evening in a secluded high valley. There’s no one else up here. In the night, I hear the wind howling and tearing at the flysheet. Amid the clamour, I think I hear sinister whispering voices, as if someone or something is prowling outside the tent. My childhood fears are back with me again.
Is it a monster, or a bear, coming to rip the tent to shreds and devour me? It’s not likely. We shouldn’t let our fears get the better of us. Thinking of films like ‘Blair Witch Project’ does little to help though. ‘The Ritual’, set in Scandinavia, is probably even worse. It tells the terrifying story of a bloodthirsty jötunn (troll) who pursues a group of hikers in the woodlands of Sweden.
However, the primaeval fears that literally freeze us to the marrow if we let them, are existential and not just random. They are more than ambivalent anxieties caused by unfulfilling careers or midlife crises. As the wind subsides, I drift back to sleep and all my fears fade away.
Our hike through Jotunheimen is drawing to a close. Of course we know that it was not giants, but glaciers that formed the landscape. However, maybe it’s no bad thing to imagine otherwise.
After all, there is so little place for magic and wonder in the modern world. Some seek comfort in esoteric ideas to help make sense of things. Others lose themselves in computer games to withdraw and escape from everyday life. In my opinion, being drawn to some mythical kingdom of fantasy wonderland is a perfectly understandable antidote to the urban rat race in our loud and busy cities – it also helps explain why outdoor activities are so attractive. A bushcraft expert once explained to me that he loved playing in the woods as a kid, and just never stopped.
Expert tips: Bushcraft for beginners
On our second to last day, we manage to pitch the tents just in time in the afternoon. Before it starts pouring down. The rain continues through the night. Lying on my sleeping mat, inside the refuge of my tent, I have no network coverage. When you’re hiking through nature, you don’t feel the need to reach for your mobile. However, back in the tent, you immediately feel that itch: I’ve nothing to do, I need diversion, otherwise I start to get irritated – the curse of permanent distraction. It takes a while to calm down and come to myself.
Half an hour later, I reluctantly accept that there really is no internet: no Youtube, no Instagram, no Whatsapp. I stop and watch the raindrops as they roll down the outside of my flysheet. Poring over the map, I trace my finger along the ridge lines and winding valleys, exploring the possible routes in my head.
As a boy, I used to spend hours studying maps. Here, in the pouring rain in Jotunheimen, inside my tent and protected from the wilderness, I feel like a kid all over again.