Ben: A little worried about the possibility of a cruise ship docking at our not-so-wild camp this morning, we set an alarm to wake up at a reasonable hour this morning. Beside – we need to get a normal sleep routine going since the 3-4 hours of darkness is kicking our butts.
Luckily no ship was in sight, so we packed up camp and headed to a dock-side picnic bench in the sun for breakfast. Today was slated to be an extremely difficult day – our hardest yet on the road. The goal was to climb the highest pass we have ever climbed on loaded bikes and the highest road in Northern Europe – the road through Jotunheimen national park.
Our guidebook introduced the route as a must-see scenic drive with a bit of caution, saying “Use low gears and use lot of patience both up (to keep the engine cool) and down (to save your brakes). Uphill traffic gets the right of way but drivers up or down dive for the nearest fat part of the road whenever they meet. Ask backseat drivers not to scream until you’ve actually been hit or have left the road.” All this if you wish to drive the road and we planned to do it with bikes. Bree noted that her engine was doomed to overheat, but off we went to see it for ourselves.
The day started kindly as we rolled up a gentle grade into the canyon behind Skjolden – following the glacial blue river skirting around a lake. Then, the route took a quick turn to the right, and it began. The climb was steep and the valley steadily dropped away as we banked around switchback after switchback. The going was slow, but we made steady progress up the steep hill.
Bree: Worries about this day had plagued for for more than a week since we decided this route was a mandatory part of our trip. We’ve never done a pass so high- we needed to go from sea level to more than 4600 feet in just over ten miles. I’ve been battling steady hip pain for weeks now, and uphill climbing is the worst trigger.
A bus does run along this route, and we decided well in advance that if I ended up in too much pain, I’d need to roll downhill, catch the bus, and meet Ben in Lom, but I desperately didn’t want to have to do that. I knew there was no way I’d enjoy the scenic route properly from the backseat of a bus. Today promised to be among the most epic and stunning rides we have ever completed and I was determined to survive it.
The beginning of the climb was somewhat gentle, and though the going wasn’t too tough, my hip ached mildly. Slowly, I kept at it, even as the road went from fairly kind to quite steep. Soon, it was so steep that I could no longer keep moving using an even spin. Lurching my body weight forward in order to complete each rotation, I cranked hard up, and up, and up, and up.
This went on until the cool morning shadows faded to nearly noontime sun, but we had no idea what kind of progress we were making because the GPS was stowed deep in one of our bags. A couple of hours in, we took a quick break to refill our water bottles from our dromedary and dug out the GPS. We were at 2,000 feet.
Encouraged that we were already half way there, we got back on the road, the grade persistently difficult. Though we were working hard, I was pleased to note that I was making it! My pain never got worse, so we just kept moving.
Ben climbed abit ahead of me, and with such short steep switchbacks, he’d often end up directly above me on the hill. He would holler down “Marco!” and wait for metro yell “Polo!” to indicate that I was still doing ok. Our game gave me the giggles and reminded me how strangely in our own world we are in here together.
As we climbed out of the canyon we’d been passing through, we hit new territory. The trees faded from dense woods to striking alpine tundra. I could see a hotel up ahead with a large number of cars gathered there and when we finally reached it, I understood why. Next to the flat topped fjordside mountains we’d just climbed over were alpine looking peaks reaching high into the sky, a breathtaking spectacle rising up from the green mossy hills.
We soaked up the stunning views while we paused briefly to inhale the day-old pastries we’d saved from yesterday and take our first stab at lunch. Then, we got back to the task at hand, climbing back and forth, back and forth, the road threading us up and across the rocky hills. For the next two hours, stunning snowcapped peaks unfolded majestically all around us as we climbed. We stopped at nearly every roadside pull out and on the road in between trying to take it all in.
I’m not a particularly gifted climber by nature (I’ve got long, lean legs) and normally a climb like this on my loaded bike is enough to do me in. Where drudgery might have normally accompanied a task as large as this one, today I was consumed by the magic of the moment. With the diagnosis of my hip injury last winter, I expected my summer to be weighted with the slow process of surgery and rehab. To instead have the opportunity to spend today pedaling my massive bike across the highest pass in Northern Europe was a gift, and I was basking in it. Even better, I was thrilled to note that I was actually fit enough to pedal this mountain without any serious suffering, able to enjoy the journey instead of simply enduring it. I positively couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
All along the way, drivers encouraged us onward. A wave from a German couple, two thumbs up from a guy in a motorhome, a whole lot of fist pumping from a guy in a speeding little car, all added to the magic of our day.
At one particular overlook we stopped and asked a Norwegian family if they’d be willing to take our picture (a rarity for us, we almost never get photos with us together!). They were stunned when they realized we’d come from Skjolden by bicycles and informed us that our luck with the weather was great many of these peaks only see 60 days of sunshine a year. We pressed on with a renewed sense of gratitude for the perfectly blue day that we were enjoying.
To be continued…