As I stomp up a hill through a deserted Norwegian wood, something Collyn Ahart once said about challenges springs to mind: “You don’t have to be climbing mountains in a literal sense to be climbing a fucking mountain.” Except I’m killing two birds with one stone. I am climbing a mountain. A Norwegian one, solo, having a great peaceful epiphany in the silence of the rocks, except – physically – I’m a bit lost.
’You don’t have to be climbing mountains in a literal sense to be climbing a fucking mountain.’ – Collyn AhartThey are not just hills they are mountains, and they look like it in the way that everything in Norway looks big and beautiful. In my wifi-free state I can’t quite remember the exact words of the quote, but I continue through the rain. I have been walking for about thirty minutes. It has been raining steadily for 29 of these.
Bergen, in Norway, is the country’s second largest city. It is large by Norwegian standards, it has 250,000 people in it. This doesn’t mean but to me, so in layman’s terms it’s the size of Hackney in London. That’s the same in both population and probably in size, too. It does not match the intense human to coffee shop ratio that Hackney currently has).
It’s a funny sort of place, by East London standards. Norway, a county I have spent a week googling, having never paid much attention to it before, ranks highly for silence, icy mountains, banging views, fjords, and solitude. Most of these places, such as the super picturesque Lofoten which is way out west and take two planes and one ferry ride to get to, are in the North West of the long dangly shape that is Norway.
Bergen – despite taking only a two hour flight and a 30 minute bus to get to from London, instead of Lofoten’s rigmarole of a day and a half’s travel – is surrounded by nature. It sits on the west coast of Norway much further south and, somewhat neatly, it has seven mountains in one direction and seven fjords in the other. Historic parts of Bergen (the old harbour, Bryggen) and said fjords are all UNESCO heritage sights. Everything is pretty unspoilt (the National Geographic gives it awards for this fact). Everyone feels very conscious not to fuck with nature.
So, it’s pretty small. It’s all rather gorgeous. It also rains a lot. I have expected this wet weather and have prepare by bringing my least waterproof walking boots.
The seven hills of Bergen are constant. Every angle of the horizon is filled with hills; big, looming things. I have gone for a walk up one. Said mountain, Fløyen is the most popular – albeit smallest – of the mountains and a tiny funicular railway speeds up it for people excited and impatient to see the top (of which I am one). Travel photographer Connor MacNeill has advised: ”Get the funicular up the mountain. Take the photos.” I do so. Even in the rain there are bobbing umbrellas and oversized DSLRs.
The temptation to veer off in the exact opposite direction to the gift shop is high and I get immediately lost, ploughing into the forest. It takes only a few minutes before it is immediately silent. Once you’ve disappeared into the back of the mountain, away from the ridiculously good view, the paths disappear into solitude so quickly that you wonder how you got there. It’s like Narnia. You’re not that far away, really.
Suddenly I have found a stream and am watching the rain drop in to it. Then I am excitedly leaping around the forest excitedly [I squeak] and skip off, pleased to be in what feels like the first ‘proper’ nature in a very long time. How a place can feels so remote in so little time boggles my mind.
I shortly realise I am lost. Lost in this strange pseudo wilderness, but arrows occasionally mark the way (though I have no idea to where that might be). The path has been through with steps made of tree roots and huge slabs of concrete thrown together to mark a route forward. The arrows point endlessly upwards – and at each other too.
For the first minutes, the climb knocks my breath, makes me sweat, and feel slightly like a lost Londoner as I scrambled up what had turned into a steep climb. As the trees disappeared an, so too did the cover. My toes go soggy. I continued to grin like an idiot. On top, the hills are full of endless trees and Scandinavian films’ murder scenes.
The soft grounds disappears, the mountain turning into a thin path of wet rocks and tiny water falls between them. It is thin, and narrow and feels electrically blissful, despite my allusions of twisted-ankle-based-imminent-death.
’Looking away from a camera makes nature better, tenfold. Fact.’The silence of the mountain was what was eeriest. Minutes – well, perhaps half an hour – ago I’d been in the camera, umbrella laden tourist centre of Fløyen. Minutes later, having disappeared as quickly away from the gift shop as possible, the path felt a world away despite being only a couple of kilometres east.
Around the corner is a reservoir that I’m fast realising I am too soggy, sweaty and disinterested in reaching. I realise this at the same speed that my waterproof gives up its claims of being waterproof. It is the sort of distance away that is easy to call “around the corner” on a sunny day, but when it’s raining and you realise you’re the only person you’ve seen on the path, it’s easier to get more realistic with the clock.
The path requires some confidence in my feet, and careful ignoring of my mind which tries to remind me, with every great view, that I am very much alone and that wet rocks are slippery. “Do not fall over because you will twist your ankle and die, and no one will hear you because you are in that Scandinavian murder scene,” it says. I stop taking photos because toting an iPhone and camera seems to be asking for imminent trouble. The gleeful, damp plod continues. Looking away from a camera makes nature better, tenfold. Fact.
When I look up, the trees have cleared. I am above them, looking down. There’s no horizon, hidden by cloud. Rows of endless dark green trees disappear down the hill opposite. It’s the one time I really forget that civilisation is anywhere nearby. I stomp down the soggy ground to a nearby lake and watch the rain splatter across it for a minute or two, before I retreat, more drenched than ever, pleased.
’Everyone should find themselves with a mountain, however metaphorical that mountain may or may not be.’But back to the quote that I hug to myself on the way down the hill again: “You don’t have to be climbing mountains in a literal sense to be climbing a fucking mountain.”
When I think of this, I know Bergen is just climbing a large hill. Bergen’s mountains do not feel dangerous. and it’s not intrepid mountaineering. It is steep in parts and a little tiring, but they are not going to knock you about. The views are beautiful and the silence is blissful.
So no, you don’t have to be climbing Everest to be climbing a mountain. But in this case my personal challenge for the week is a small mountain. But there’s a lot associated with this, in a humble quiet sort of way. It’s in Norway. Travelling solo, both to Norway and up a smallish mountain for one of the first times ever, then stomping into some mind-opening silence is new. However accessible Berger may be, in by comparison to other places, or small the angle of said mountain may have been compared to other mountains or how much fun (that I knew I’d have) it was, doesn’t make it any less so. It’s my kind of mountain.
But you don’t need a challenge to give you head space – nature does that for you, whether you mean to or not. I have been standing on a silent mountain in the middle of Norway by myself, surrounded by trees, fresh air and a real feeling of emptiness with just the sound of falling rain for company for some time. These things are endlessly good for the soul, whatever your height above sea level.
It’s only on the way back, when the ring of kid’s laughter tells me that I’m back at the top of the funicular that I realise how intensely quiet it’s been. An alarm clock welcoming me back to the real world. It feels like my head’s been to a different place – like I’m suddenly back on mainland. In that few kilometres, it felt like disappearing from the world and something about that silence and emptiness felt intensely priceless.
Everyone should find themselves with a mountain, climbing it, however metaphorical that mountain may or may not be.