Nordic skiing…watching the Olympics you’d almost think this sport was easy. The athletes hardly looked winded gliding along soft powdery snow, swishing past whispering pines in idyllic settings. If given the same opportunity, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to try it? Especially when the tour operator claims, “If you can walk, you can ski.”
Thus, on an extended family vacation in Sognfjord, Norway early last April, I talked David and my 70 year old father into a guided Nordic ski trip. After all, we could all walk.
Our destination was Jostedal Glacier National Park, an hour’s drive north from our B&B in Luster. The highlight of the 2-3 hour excursion would be a visit to an ice cave, providing nature had created one that season. I had been cross country skiing years ago in Minnesota where I grew up, but had never donned long skinny Nordic skis. Neither had the guys. But after a few words of wisdom, “just pretend that you’re walking–lift your heels up,” we were apparently ready to follow our guide and a Japanese tourist into the snowy wilderness.
We skied through a long narrow valley toward Nigardsbreen glacier, the most accessible arm of Jostedalsbreen, mainland Europe’s largest glacier. (Only Iceland’s Vatnajokull is bigger.) Mountains towering on either side of us constantly rumbled as small avalanches tumbled to the base. We must’ve heard close to a hundred. Echoes bouncing off the mountain made the avalanches sound much closer than they really were. Yes, the snow was melting, but we weren’t in any danger our guide assured us before he skied waaay ahead. But the sudden booms and crashing rocks were a bit unnerving, and I attribute at least a couple falls to pure reaction—jerking sideways to avert the impending doom! Avalanche or not, it was tricky keeping skinny skis in those skinny toothpick ruts.
But the big challenge of the day, that none of us could maneuver, was skiing up. When we caught up with our guide he was sitting at the top of a small hill, waiting for us. Were we here? Where was the cave? Still another mile or so, he said pointing to steeper terrain.
We’d already been skiing for a couple of hours. Thinking we’d be back in time for lunch, none of us had brought food or water. My poor Dad was so dehydrated his lips were white. At least snow sufficed. We hadn’t anticipated a strenuous 8 mile trip that would take all day.
We tried to ski up the hill, following instructions to “just walk up in a V.” Sliding backwards, slipping sideways, tumbling downhill–we were a comedy of errors. Rather than endure our clownish fall act any longer, our guide removed his skis, told us to leave ours behind and follow him. Boy, could he move fast!
It was fun hiking through the snow. And surprisingly deep. Without those skinny skis to keep us afloat, we often sank up to our knees.
Reaching Nigardsbreen, our guide stopped at a crevasse and peered in. This is what we had come to see.
Crawling in after our guide, David immediately sang out “Waalaah!” Minutes later I saw why…
Nature had created a virtual cathedral, spectacularly sculpted from ice. We were standing inside Nigardsbreen Glacier, seeing the ice from within! The handiwork crafted by an underground river was truly mesmerizing. Sunlight streamed through a natural skylight, where snow too had fallen through. Large glacial rocks surrounded a mirrored ice pool, as if placed there purposely. I don’t know how deep the pool was. Even though it was frozen, I didn’t trust it enough to walk across it. I was perfectly content to explore the perimeter while David and the guide took tentative steps across the ice to examine the other side.
Water dripped continuously. The wavy patterned ice felt smooth overhead. I was impressed with the sheer magnitude—-the dome measured 30 meters deep by 20 meters wide—-and its surreal, vivid blue beauty. Dad decided that the rocks were perfect for napping, and stretched out to relieve his sore muscles. When he awoke I took his photo.
(Check this out! I never noticed this icy face until I processed this image today. Is it just me, or do you see something rather sinister lurking near my Dad’s right ear?)
Our guide, not the chatty sort, did reveal that this cave could collapse in a couple of weeks. This was probably the last tour of the season. He took out his camera and began taking pictures. We were lucky to visit this year, he said. It was one of the most spectacular. The year before, this grotto was only 2 feet tall, and nobody could enter. Lucky? Indeed! Worth the effort to get here? Oh yah, you BETCHA!