Excerpt From “Nomadic Notebook — Norway”: Boots, Backpacks, and a New Life
This story is an excerpt from Dan’s recent book, The Nomadic Notebook – Norway, and a deeper dive into a previous story he shared with The Trek – Engineer to Backpacking Guide in One Year. After taking a leave of absence from his career as an aerospace engineer, Dan volunteered at a remote island lodge in Nordskot, Norway. Once there, he joined forces with his host – the powerfully built Jesper – as they worked to build up the lodge business. But partway through this adventure, Jesper surprised Dan by introducing him to a new career that would change his life forever…
Boots, Backpacks, and a New Life
I believe Jesper took extreme pleasure and pride in breaking a city-slicker to the Arctic island way of life. His large Viking face always cracked into a wide grin whenever he saw me toiling in the muck, chasing sheep, or giving the wooden hot tub its regular scrape down. But no matter my exhaustion level, I always grinned back; because I was having the time of my life.
That island work took me to every corner of the hospitality business. From assisting Jesper’s partner Astrid prepare breakfast for guests in the morning to helping clean cabins after they departed, I saw and did it all. And strangely, hospitality did not immediately return me to my engineering career. After all, the well-regimented corporate life rarely saw me cleaning up after others or hustling to prepare the perfect Norwegian breakfast in the morning – so why wouldn’t I put this island trip down to life experience and head back to my well-ordered life?
Novelty, of course, played a role. Here was something I’d never attempted before, and the exhilaration of exploring a new place and trying new tasks was significant. And yet, there was something else that I felt almost immediately. There was a strange thrill in meeting new people and facilitating their happiness that was instantly and strangely addictive. Every morning brought new faces and stories, while every task was immediately beneficial and appreciated. Meanwhile, every off moment could be spent exploring new mountains and islands that each seemed like an ideal locale for the trolls and fairies of Norwegian legend. Jesper had already changed the course of my life by showing me this world. But now he was about to personally usher me into a new career that would blend every aspect of what I loved about travel into a single job – guiding.
I started that morning utterly unaware of the turn signal approaching my life. It was a typically overcast morning with billowing waves of clouds breaking against the mountains – a gargantuan parody of the soft morning waves on the pier – before tumbling down their rocky sides into the valleys below. The snow had recently receded from the top of the nearby mountains on the mainland, and patches of vivid green materialized in those upper reaches to mark the beginning of summer. My typical morning task in those days was to wake early and head to the main building to lay out breakfast for the island’s guests. But this time, Jesper was waiting for me in the kitchen.
“I’m leading a group up into the mountains today,” he began without preface. I noted that he was strangely out of his island caretaker uniform of a hardy-knit grey sweater and hard-worn work pants that morning. Dark brown expedition pants complemented a technical-looking fleece that immediately transformed him from a grizzled self-sufficient Nordic islander to an adventure-ready explorer preparing to take on the mountains.
“You should come too, learn the route, and then you can guide guests so I don’t have to spend so much time away from the lodge.” In hindsight, I realized there was never a single question in this interchange, and he knew he didn’t need one.
I nodded emphatically, both envious and intimated by the amount of experience and confidence that poured out of his demeanor and clothing. I was an amateur rock climber and junior member of a search and rescue team back in Minnesota, but at that moment, I knew that I had everything in the world to learn about the outdoors, and Jesper was ready to teach. No question needed; I knew I was going.
The mountain in question was Sørskottinden. Towering above the small village of Nordskot, this mountain formed the southern watchtower of the massive rock wall that shielded Nordskot from the rest of Norway – the Nordskot Traverse. The traverse was a half-mile-long rock wall that heaved straight out of the soft mossy forest to form a jagged barrier hundreds of feet high on either side and only a few feet wide at its narrowest point. At the northern end of this intimidating fixture was yet another mountain, completing a giant’s castle with the soft turquoise hues of the ocean in sharp contrast to the vast towers of gray rock and occasional snow patch that shielded it from the rest of the world.
That snowy rock barrier exuded a perception of impenetrability, allowing nothing to pass from the picturesque rural houses of the village at its base to the outside world. But that was precisely what we were going to do – myself, Jesper, and three additional visitors to the island – and what I would do regularly in the coming months.
The expedition began with a short boat ride, followed by an equally succinct drive to the trailhead. Astrid promised to meet our team at the other end of our journey, and her comfortable-looking jeep disappeared into the morning fog all too quickly. Now it was just the deep greens of the ancient forest and our team.
Jesper’s face crinkled into a smile as he presented me with a tightly wrapped, sixty-meter climbing rope. As he put it, the “honor” of carrying the rope was mine since it was my training hike.
“More like here’s another 10 pounds you don’t want to carry up there,” I scoffed while gesturing vaguely to the swirling mists that revealed only occasional glimpses of the stone massif in front of us.
“I don’t know what pounds are,” Jesper deflected with a wink. “Here, coil it up like this and sling it over your shoulder for the hike,” he continued as he heaved the rope over my head and shoulder and nodded approvingly like a parent sending their child to school for the first time.
That served as a signal to our group, and packs met backs as everyone shouldered their bags and appraised the adventure they’d decided to join. I could see from the stoned-faced determination carved into my group’s faces that they, too, were feeling the full weight of their decision to join this hike. The clouds mockingly parted just at that moment, and we were now looking the six-hundred-meter climb to the summit of Sørskottinden full in the face. My unexpected climbing rope slung over my shoulders made me feel like an interloper preparing to scale the walls of some colossal castle. With that last fleeting thought, Jesper plunged into the forest, and we all filed into a line to follow.
Within five minutes of hitting the trail, we started a steep ascent that would remain painfully constant for the next two hours until we hit the top. We climbed and climbed and climbed as the trail meandered between densely packed trees and boggy clearings. The occasional bubbling creek crossing added a couple long jumps to our day of track and field activity. But with every curve in the trail, I expected to finally catch a glimpse of our summit destination, only to see more trees rising up into the mist like a mocking peanut gallery filling an amphitheater to infinity.
There didn’t look like this much forest from the outside. I thought as I unzipped my fleece layer to keep from overheating and swiftly added, said every person who’s ever gotten lost. This potential epitaph gave me a smile, and I took the time to appreciate the ancient arctic forest we were exploring.
We were bounded by the deep greens of numerous pines, spruces, and birches that worked in tandem with the lighter greens from thick tufts of ground moss to paint a soothing pallet of color against the stark grey rock outcroppings that we observed with ever-increasing frequency. Swirling wisps of grey mist from the approaching cloud front soon added to the enchanted sensation as we were enveloped by the mist in a mysterious and ominous world. Then, just as the massive freighters on Lake Superior would emerge from the fog back home as a ghostly shade, the bare face of rock would thrust itself back into view as if the mountain itself was checking on our progress. Trees would drift by, disconnected and disembodied, singly bobbing past in the mist with no earthly connection as they marked our progress like lonely buoys at sea.
While an intriguing and engaging atmosphere, which kept our group plowing forward without the slightest hint of tiring, the doubt I felt earlier grew more intense as I thought of potentially rappelling and scrambling on top of massive cliffs when every surface was wet. Nonetheless, Jesper seemed entirely unfazed and confident as he led us forward. He’d occasionally turn back with a smile to check our progress or call out a friendly snippet of encouragement.
But just once, after turning back to the trail from checking on our group, I caught him running his hand over a rock outcropping. Shimmering black with moisture, I saw Jesper rub the dampness between his calloused fingers as he contemplated the dangers of climbing in such conditions, and his expression clouded to match the skies. He caught me observing him, and his two dark bushy eyebrows rose together like a mini pair of shrugging shoulders. Then, just as quickly, the lines on his face softened, and the friendly eye crinkles returned as he pivoted back to our group with another smiling round of encouragement.
Message received. We’d see when we got there. No use worrying the group until we knew what mighty Sørskottinden had in store for us. Perhaps one of the most vital lessons of my fledging career and there wasn’t a word spoken.
After another twenty minutes of pushing upward, we finally caught sight of a ledge looming above us, black with moisture and devoid of any trees beyond. A beacon from the mountain, saying that we were breaking from the forest and finally getting to the ‘mountaineering’ aspect of our trip. Almost simultaneously, I spotted the first shadow of the day. The sun, which had until now remained completely obscured, revealed itself as a hazy pale ball hovering in the clouds above us. Better than nothing.
The trail left the dirt and mud behind, replacing it with endless rocky gravel that again hinted we were approaching the mountain’s stony top. Up we scrambled, and I told myself that the clouds must be clearing with each step. Indeed, I was getting warmer and warmer as my shirt felt damp under the combined weight of pack and rope, but was this simply the consequence of our hike? We finally reached the top of the rocky beacon that had first hinted that we were approaching the top, and I heard a prolonged, deep sigh escape Jesper’s black beard. At first, I couldn’t see the reason for the sigh. He was simply looking at the slate grey top of the rocky ledge we had observed below. Jesper smiled and scrapped his boot against it, then the realization cleared the fog from my head just as the sun burned through the mist above us. The rock was grey, not the shiny black that we had nervously eyed up to this point. Grey, dry, grippy, and ready for us to take on the traverse.
Those last few minutes to the top of Sørskottinden revealed the first tiny fragments of the world around us. Hazy grey openings drifted through the clouds capturing the vibrant blues and greens of the surrounding fjords that our greyscale hike had all but erased from memory until now. One such drifting portal panned across the offshore islands, and we could just make out shimmering golden rays of sun dancing across the receding tides before our cloud bank once again closed ranks.
As we continued past the summit, the trail began to narrow, speaking volumes to the lessoned foot traffic that ventured this far. Our path took us down slightly, and my legs voiced their approval as we moved onto Sørskottinden’s grassy eastern shoulder. Here, Jesper called a short break while he plowed ahead to check rock conditions.
Our group was relatively spaced out at this point. Giving each adventurer ample space to maneuver and hike at their own pace. I took advantage of this space as I plopped down in a particularly cushy tuft of tall grass and pushed a finger into each boot to confirm their water resistance had held up to that point.
At that moment, the world threw back the curtain to reveal her dazzling masterpiece. What had previously been a solid wall of grey was now Leines Fjord. At my feet, the tall clumps of hardy grass fanned downward and coalesced into a stunningly lush field punctuated by vivid red barns – the type of white-trimmed barns that evoke nostalgia and contentment even in those who have never seen them. They’re simply meant to be there, keeping watch over their accompanying fields with dignified beauty. These fields then melded into the icy turquoise waters of the fjord, which pushed their way forward until another series of snow-capped mountains blocked their path, funneling the sea inland towards the large town of Leinesfjord that was a barely perceptible white haze of houses in the distance.
I thought about the cramped confines of the office that had been my life and the off-grey cubical that had once been mine for eight hours a day, five days a week. The safe career was there, along with a plethora of items that I was told I wanted. Yet, Sørskottinden and luck had just thrown back the veil on what I needed, and it was so simple. It was right there. The mountains, the calm, the ocean, and the adventure. I laughed at that moment, knowing that I had just made a monumental decision, and yet the most life-altering decisions are the easiest when you know what you want. This is going to be my office, I thought, this is going to be my life, and that beautiful fellow can make it happen.
Jesper had returned from his scout and beckoned me with an outstretched finger. I trotted over to him like a pup admiring the grizzled pack leader. I have no doubt that he knew the series of thoughts that had cascaded through my mind. However, like most Norwegians, Jesper wasn’t one for emotional conversations about such trifles as life’s wants and directions. But he knew and simply gave me a wink and a dry “It’s a nice view, isn’t it?”
I breathlessly agreed and stayed on his heels as he took me to my first look at the Nordskot Traverse. We now stood above that rocky arm that connected us to the next mountain. Indeed, the traverse looked like Sørskottinden had flung an arm around the adjacent mountain’s shoulder, and the two were now locked in a perpetual bond that we were fixing to cross. The entire length of the traverse was a rocky palisade, bounded by a 200-foot drop-off on either side that led straight back into the steep mountainous forest from which we had just emerged.
While most of the traverse was a straightforward hike with a dash of scrambling, it started as a single twenty-foot ledge dropping from our current position on Sørskottinden’s shoulder down to the traverse itself. For this section, Jesper showed me how to set up a rappel. I finally unslung the rope I’d lugged since our day started and followed Jesper’s every move as he explained the anchors, procedure, and safety. I was no stranger to rock climbing or the hardware, but the thought of ushering a large group safely through this maneuver sharpened my attention.
“Here, you try it,” Jesper instructed as he handed me two anchors to wedge into a distinct crack in the rock.
I fumbled with the anchors like they were two squirming creatures instead of the familiar hardware I’d handled a hundred times before. My nervousness at being observed by such a professional – and three additional pairs of onlooking eyes – oozed through my every action.
I worked through my incompetent dexterity as I finally opened the proper filing cabinet in my head for rock climbing, and the anchors finally slipped into place with a satisfied grunt from Jesper. From there, he and I finally made use of that cumbersome rope and anchored it to the rock. Guests who were experienced could rappel themselves down to the waiting ledge. For those that weren’t, we lowered through a simple pulley tool. Once it was just me and Jesper left at the top, we removed the anchors, wrapped the rope around a conical rock, and rappelled down one at a time using the rock as an anchor. At the bottom, we simply pulled on one end of the rope and slipped it out from around the rock, where it then fell into a pile at our feet. No going back now.
After we reassembled at the bottom of the rappel, Jesper offered another lesson as he demonstrated tying butterfly knots in about twenty-foot increments in the rope. The guests and I watched in rapt attention, imagining our fates woven into those knots as Jesper explained the principles of rope team hiking. We’d all connect our harnesses to those knots and hike spaced out enough to leave just a little slack between each person. Therefore, if someone took a wrong step and fell, the rest of our party only had to drop to the ground, and the immense friction of sixty meters of rope on rock would keep the unlucky hiker from plummeting off the side of the Traverse. A fine tactic when discussed from safety; I hoped we wouldn’t have to put it to the test that day.
The going was cautiously easy as we carefully chose our footing or opted for the occasional butt-slide to safely navigate the rocks and keep a safe distance between us and the edge. In fact, the endless panorama of fjords enraptured our attention and made the traverse seem to fly by. But as we neared the end, where it once again rejoined the mountains, I noticed the edges of the traverse narrowing sharply into a distinct flat-topped rock.
Probably just an illusion, I told myself, and we continued to pick our way forward. There must be an easy path around that.
Several minutes passed, and I occupied my thoughts with how Jesper would expertly find a hidden path to take us around the obstacle. An observer to a magic trick, I held my breath for the magnificent finale when our group came to a stop just as the traverse began to bottleneck to this single point. Instead, Jesper turned to me and again signaled me forward with his telling smile.
Damn, I thought as I shuffled to join him. No way around after all.
“I call this the ‘hugging rock,'” Jesper said through his smile. “This is where everyone needs the most help.”
“Not surprising,” I replied dryly, studying the obstacle before us. “Help from not dying, I suppose.”
The ‘hugging rock’, as I always called it after that, was more of a stone pillar cleanly sheared off at about ten feet. It measured only about three feet wide at the top and funneled the climber onto a stony spine with sheer drop-offs on either side before the traverse finally opened up again onto the next mountain’s shoulder.
While the rest of our rope team maintained their distance and proper rope tension, Jesper showed me how it was done. His instructions were precise, right down to where feet and hands needed to be as he lifted himself partway up the pillar. Then, in one fluid motion, he heaved himself up and onto the rock, scrambled his way across the stone spine with surprising nimbleness for such a tall man, and turned to observe my rendering of his instructions.
“Okay, foot here,” I said aloud as I tried to replicate Jesper’s smoothness. “Right foot… somewhere…” my foot scrambled and scraped against the rock as I fought to find the proper placement, “right there.” I threw my left arm over the top of the pillar onto its almost flat surface, desperately working my fingers into every mossy crevice, trying to find the correct hold.
“No, nope!” Jesper called for his safe perch on stable ground. “A little more to the left… left!”
I followed his instructions as I flailed my arm further out to the side of the rock and leaned in to find the correct hold. “There!” I finally had a good grip, and the rock’s name was suddenly brought into sharp relief. I was clinging to the side of a stone pillar, both feet tucked into subtle pockets as my body hung precariously over an incredibly scenic yet equally catastrophic plummet into the fjord below me. The only way around that fate was to give this lousy rock the biggest bear hug possible and shimmy my way upwards to get up and over.
“Stop right there!” Jesper called. He was clearly waiting for this exact moment. When the realization of the height, exposure, and awkwardness hit me, my eyes no doubt telegraphed those feelings better than any words. “This is exactly how all your guests will feel,” he continued. “Think about how to coax them through it.”
“I’m trying to get myself through it first!” I called half-jokingly, half pleading for quiet as I calmed my racing thoughts and focused on the problem at hand. Foot up, hand creeping forward, a firm push, a quick whispered expletive, and I was suddenly standing on that hugging rock. The entire Nordskot Traverse and fjord sprawled dramatically behind me, almost too close for comfort as one half-step back would permanently add me to the landscape.
I quickly scooted forward, Jesper continued ahead to maintain our rope tension, and the guest behind me now had to conquer the same obstacle.
“You’re up,” Jesper said, echoing the voice in my head as I turned back to offer moral support for the herculean effort unfolding behind me. This particular guest was nearly a foot shorter than I, and her disadvantage in reach made the heart-pounding climb over the hugging rock a much more prolonged ordeal.
But she made up for what she lacked in height with gusto as she took on a look of stone-faced determination. She hurled herself at the first set of directions I offered. But that resolve seemed to melt as she hugged the rock, realizing she didn’t know what to do next but was fully committed to moving forward since backtracking involved looking down.
I summoned the confidence I’d seen Jesper project earlier and called out advice. “Your left foot to that shelf on your left.” She stared at me blankly for a moment before wiggling her right foot. “Your left!” I called again.
She finally responded, although it sounded more like an exploding gasp she tried to form into words as an afterthought. “I … ah … I am afraid of heights!”
This was the first I’d heard of this malady during the entire hike. I couldn’t move to her to assist as that would defeat the purpose of our rope, nor could the person behind her move forward to help.
I took a deep breath. “Stop for a second and look at me!” This time she complied immediately. “Look, I’ve got you,” I held up the rope snaking through my harness to emphasize the point. “You’re not going anywhere. Just breathe, and pull with your left hand. It’s just like a ladder, only it’s hiding.”
She laughed at my poor humor attempt, but it had the desired effect. With a warrior howl, she scaled the rock and pulled herself to a standing position in one fluid motion. She first stood there like a deer in the headlights, wide-eyed, arms held cautiously out to the sides like something might push her over, and seemingly checking in with her body to make sure everything had made the climb.
“You did it!” I called to help her brain realize the hard part was behind her.
She looked straight into my eyes and soul. First in shock, and I feared she might teeter back over the edge. Then a smile slowly started forming at a dimple on her left cheek. It creased downward to her lip and then arced back to her right cheek to form such a massive grin that I never thought possible from such a little woman. Her hands shot straight upward, and she screamed in triumph.
I barely knew this woman. We had only met that morning and talked intermittently during the day. Yet at that moment, I cared for her success as if we were the best of friends in the world. And for an instant, we were. I raised my arms in celebration before snatching my phone and capturing a quick picture of her moment on top of the world. She was my first guest as a guide, and her triumph and accomplishment still make me smile whenever I remember that moment.
I looked back at Jesper as we began to move forward again. I was still flush with exhilaration from that triumph, and his usual laconic response was a simple wink. It was enough, and I grinned broadly again. I could love this job, I thought, as we slowly began our descent.
If Dan’s experiences in Norway spark your imagination and interest, explore his full book, “The Nomadic Notebook – Norway”, at Amazon and Barnes & Noble (also available for Kindle, Nook, and wherever you find your E-Books). Don’t forget to follow his Instagram @purdytravel to get the latest updates as he releases future publications covering his experiences in Nicaragua, Scotland, Peru, and Nepal!
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