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 hand-me-down 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 forth by 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 draughty tent, another twenty-odd brave souls had set up camp for the night, pocketing the soggy, moss-covered, rock-strewn terrain with colourful splashes of nylon and canvas. 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 normal, reasonable people will do all kinds of stupid things for social media adoration. The Duck Face. Planking. Neknominations. Hell, entire product lines of selfie sticks and Snapchat glasses have been born out of our collective obsession with documenting and disseminating life’s minutiae to anyone within earshot. Dear friends, I must confess: I am among those people. My latest lapse in judgment had led me to this place, over a thousand metres above sea level outside of a small town in Norway.
It’s the kind of place that looks like a screen saver come to life. Mountains – lush and green, and topped with glacier snow – rise endlessly into the distance. 700 metres below, the perfectly still waters of the Ringedalsvatnet mirror the clouds above. Like a grand balcony above it all, a promontory juts out almost impossibly into the open air above the lake, like a tongue stuck out in mockery of its maker, daring explorers to peer over its edges.
I am talking, of course, about Trolltunga – literally, Norwegian for Troll Tongue – a place which reports estimate draws over 80,000 adventure-seekers a year. It’s not your grandfather’s travel hotspot. Not even your father’s, for that matter. Less than a decade ago – and before the advent of Instagram, I might add – less than 800 made the trip to Trolltunga in any given year. In other words, it’s a place whose popularity has skyrocketed seemingly 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 and had convinced my girlfriend into joining.
Full credit to any tourist who makes it to Trolltunga: the way there is 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 funiculars or gondolas offering breathtaking panoramas as you sip from a latte bought at the cafe and gift shop below. The way there is as it always has been: 27 kilometres round-trip by foot. (In fact, they’ve added an upper parking lot to shave eight kilometres off the trek, but the lot – with space for only 30 cars – fills up well before most reasonable folks have eaten breakfast.)
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 ago returned to their tour buses and plush hotels. It was going to be glorious. We had rerouted our entire weeklong 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 couldn’t fail.
We had made the drive from Flåm in the morning, alternating through tunnels, mountain passes, and ferry crossings to reach this village in the foothills. (It should be said: for a country as beautiful as Norway, there are an ungodly amount of tunnels. Not only do the Norwegians boast the longest road tunnel in the world – at just a shade under 25 kilometres – they’ve also build tunnels so large and vast, there are roundabouts in the middle of them. I guess that’s oil wealth for you.) 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. After paying $100 CAD in advance for overnight parking – perhaps another indicator of where all of Norway’s wealth comes from – we scarfed down a couple sandwiches, loaded up our bags, and set off for the summit.
14 kilometres and 900 vertical metres to go.
There’s a familiar rhythm that endurance athletes strive for, that magic moment when the mundane becomes effortless and time passes without register. It’s the same thing writers and creatives cherish so dearly: that fleeting headspace called “The Zone.” I had my own share of encounters with “The Zone” two summers ago while cycling across Canada: hours of riding that would dissolve in the blink of an eye as my churning legs and the bike’s spinning wheels became one, a marvellous marriage of man and machine.
This hike to Trolltunga was not one of those encounters.
The first four kilometres are probably the hardest: nothing but steady climbing up a gravel switchback road, before a dirt trail branches off and eventually levels out at the much-welcome plateau of Mågelitopp. Thinking ahead to the cooler temperatures at the mountaintop, I had made the mistake of starting the hike wearing a thick – and remarkably unbreathable – jacket, and by the top of the road, I had broken into a sweat so fierce that Richard Simmons would have been proud. My hair was plastered to my face, and as the sweat mixed with the SPF 60 sunscreen I’d put on less than an hour before, it found its way into the most vulnerable of places for anyone wearing sunscreen: the eyes. Holding onto whatever shred of dignity remained, I blinked through the pain.
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, warm clothes, and cooking supplies – had begun to protest in earnest. Hoping that we would find another plateau like before at the end of this part of the climb – or perhaps a cafe and lodge with free WiFi, if we’re playing the wishing game – we were greeted instead by a trail that would continue rising and falling through marsh and mud for another six kilometres before reaching its end. Here I was, a child being made to eat his vegetables before getting a taste of dessert.
Right around the 11 kilometre mark is when you really start to feel it. The sun continues to bear down from above, and as water supplies dwindle, you wonder if the end will ever be in sight. Compounding the problem is the fact that there isn’t a single outhouse on the trail to Trolltunga, let alone a rest station with pumps for refilling empty bottles. 10 hours round-trip is a long time to hold it in, especially with little privacy to be found on the trail. All that food and water you’ve been relying on as fuel for the trek has got to come out at some point. I prayed it would happen on my terms.
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 moments during the day, tourists wait up to an hour for a chance to get 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 that 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 only God knows. Never one for heights, when it came to our turn to get out on the ledge, 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 the next day. The latest crowd of Trolltunga’s visitors had already gathered by the time we reluctantly poked our heads out into the chill of the morning. By 9:00 a.m., a line had formed – the next group of tourists, cameras in-hand, eager for their shot on the ledge. 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 a dozen other social networks. All for a few ‘Likes’ – a tap of the thumb, really.
As I pondered the absurdity of our species, another thought came: I wonder which Instagram filter I should use.