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April 11, 2016

Why Climbing This Rock In Norway Should Be On Your Bucket List

Text by Prabha Chandran

Lying on your belly and taking in the dizzying view of the iconic Pulpit Rock in Norway is a breathtaking experience everyone should have

After wowing audiences with the mesmerising beauty of Iceland’s windswept glaciers, SRK’s latest outing Dilwale may have set a trend — and made Scandinavia the next big locale for Bollywood’s love-struck couples. Norway has just given permission to a couple of film crews from Tollywood to shoot in the country, its stunning fjords and highlands providing the perfect Hobbit-like settings for fantastical dream sequences. The number of Indian tourists flocking to Norway has been rising steadily since 2012. Adding to the lure of the midnight sun in June is the grand spectacle of the Northern Lights in winter and some courageous Indians are braving the Arctic freeze to catch nature’s most dramatic son et lumière show.

There is also another trickle of visitors from India who have discovered a secret known to many hikers and trekkers around the world…Norway is famous for some of the world’s most breathtaking walking trails with panoramic views of its fjords, lakes, valleys and glaciers. Some trails meander through forests and highlands and are fine for beginners, others present more challenging climbs like the famous Besseggen Ridge in Jotunheimen National Park. Those who make the 800-metre ascent of the Besseggen will never forget the ethereal blue of the glacier lakes on either side of the ridge and the glaciated mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see. To me, it’s the closest earthly representation of paradise without exaggeration.

But there is a halfway house between a forest walk and mighty Besseggen — a stunning mountain trek that attracts thousands of tourists every year. It’s Norway’s iconic Pulpit Rock, or Preikestolen as it is locally known, rising 604 metres above sea level to a spectacular T-shaped plateau formed millions of years ago by retreating glaciers. The plateau juts out from the mountain like an apron teetering dizzyingly over the icy blue waters of the Lysefjord below. It’s almost impossible to stand on the edge and look down even if one has the sangfroid to do so — but it is common to see tourists lying flat on their bellies gently pulling themselves close to the brink to catch a vertiginous glimpse of the fjord. Adding to the overall feeling of precariousness is a much-studied jagged crack across the base of the rock though geologists believe it will not give any time soon. When it does, it will generate a tsunami in the fjord with catastrophic consequences.

There are probably few spots like the Pulpit that are accessible to amateur trekkers that will make one think of life’s Big Questions. Perhaps it’s the precarious positioning of this stratospheric rock with its insidious enticement to ‘jump off, jump off’ — and some have tragically — into the blue expanse below that makes thoughts of life and death inescapable here. Perhaps it’s the sheer beauty of its setting. Whatever the reason, the Pulpit draws some 2,00,000 enthusiasts from across the world every year and we were among them last summer.

So why climb a mountain with so many rapid ascents and descents while relying on a pair of 60-year-old knees that have definitely seen better days? Obviously, it’s a test of endurance, an affirmation that the long hours spent at the gym have compensated somewhat for the treachery of time, that there is still some juice in those old bones. Equally, it’s a lust for new experiences which replaces, as we age, the youthful pursuit of security, status symbols, the need to belong. When the horizon no longer stretches into infinity, the greed for life’s particular experiences, its iconic places and people can become irresistible and there’s nothing like an adventure to provide a post-midlife affirmation.

And there’s a third reason: there is little in modern life that constitutes real adventure. We live somewhat processed lives that are regulated by the state, technology and the schemata of globalisation. There are few dangers in navigating our tamed environment, so the innate need to surmount challenges is fulfilled by gravity-defying rides in adventure parks, jobs that threaten to annihilate us, extreme sports, extreme cooking, extreme whatever!

For all these reasons — but mostly for the abiding love of Norwegian mountains — we set off on an eight-hour drive across the country from south-east to north-west ending in the protected national park of Preikestolen, Jorpeland, at night. We check into a wooden cottage with a thatched grass roof perched on the edge of a lake — as romantic a getaway as any. The sun is shining but the forecasts warn of incessant rain the next day so we need to make a quick decision: should we risk the elements on that slippery slope tomorrow or should we take advantage of the midnight sun and do the trek tonight — on a full stomach of trout chased by red wine, not to mention the fatigue of a day-long car journey? In the end the latter seems the lesser of two evils.

At 9 p.m., we are the last of four trekkers to start the four-hour climb. The other couple, from Spain, intend to pitch a tent for the night on the summit. It sounds incredibly wild and romantic. A short but sharp initial ascent sets the dinner churning in my stomach but the path has been prepared for less experienced trekkers in 2012 by — believe it or not — a group of Nepalese Sherpas. These tough terrain climbers were imported into Norway to fortify the trail all the way to the top. It is no easy task given the weight and mass of the boulders but making the summit accessible in all seasons was a commercial decision. Developing the trail was controversial as Norwegians prefer their treks untamed, save for the odd wooden planks thrown across a stream. However, winter ascents are possible now except when it’s snowing and even then abundant caution is the best approach.

We catch our breath on soaking moorland after 20 minutes as we head towards the main ascent. The fjord beyond our lakeside cottage swings into view as we turn around and a city shimmers on the horizon. It is Stavanger, oil capital of this small but rich country. In 2014, the country’s sovereign oil fund had grown so large that every Norwegian is now a millionaire — theoretically at least. Being a welfare state, Norwegians may have less disposable income than other Europeans of comparable wealth but what they do have, and enjoy in abundance, is nature’s beauty in a country that offers the best quality of life year on year.

My thoughts are interrupted by some returning climbers who pass us in single file, breathing audibly from their exertions, a few running down the stony paths like mountain goats. People of all colours and ages are returning from the day’s climb, even women carrying handbags, their feet shod unbelievably in heels. It’s just us and the Spanish couple going in the opposite direction. We pause a little later beside the icy blue waters of a mountain lake where we stop to get a drink. The pure water has a special taste and the pleasure of drinking straight from natural sources is a delicious one. Unlike its bottled cousin, this one has a cold freshness, a note of herb and a latent sparkle that makes it alive. The lake is also being visited by a gang of young Russian revellers equipped with backpacks and plastic shopping bags that suggest they will also be spending the night on the summit.

The sun has set technically at 10.30 p.m. but a translucent, golden daylight gilds the craggy mountainside and the sparkling blue of the sky and sea. I read somewhere that Van Gogh loved to paint in the long European summer nights when the golden light after sunset turns slowly into an inky blue, streaked with rose pink, silver and mauve…. I savour the scenery — one of the reasons I’m hooked on trekking.

The summit is now 10 minutes away according to the well-marked signposts and anticipation rises as the last few steps bring us in full view of the famous Pulpit Rock. A fierce breeze keeps us clinging to the mountainside like limpets as we tread a narrow path to the outstretched rock. The mountains opposite are even higher and a small glacier nestled in a cusp is clinging to the last rays of light. I know there is a particular trek, the Kjeragbolten, on the opposite side of the Lysefjord which needs an even stronger stomach. Kjeragbolten is a spectacular round rock deposited by a glacier between two mountains. It resembles the letter H with the round rock suspended 982 metres over an abyss. If Preikestolen is dizzying, this is terrifying, yet people climb the Kjerag. It is also a popular staging post for base jumpers but for amateur trekkers like me, the idea is incomprehensible.

The Italians who arrived on the Pulpit before us have set up a little blue tent for the night against the mountainside but I’m glad we’ll be descending soon. Faced with the stark drop from the Pulpit, I quickly lose my bravado. Being blown off the unsheltering rock could be a real possibility and it is disquieting to think that a family member once hit a golf ball 800 metres off the edge of this rock for fun, or that an acrobat did a headstand on the edge, resting on one hand, or that a concert took place here. I’m told the small detail of getting a grand piano up here was sorted by a helicopter winch. It takes all kinds of daredevils to enter the record books and my feeling of accomplishment gets dimmed further when two men walk a tightrope across the edge of the Pulpit a few days later.

Knowing there is no option but to look below before descending, I lie flat on my stomach and crawl gingerly as close to the edge as possible. When my husband edges further, I grab his leg in fear. Even with my belly pressed firmly to the rock, I’m dizzy at the expanse beyond. But there is exhilaration too tingeing the fear…the view is breathtaking, I feel thrillingly alive and I try to freeze the picture in my mind forever. Soon enough, I’m edging back to the mountainside turning my back resolutely as my husband tries the same feat across the other side of the rock.

A lively Japanese girl joins the summiteers and poses for photos with the Russian boys, striking ballerina poses for the iPhone which she has handed to the Italians. We decide to head back to the fjellstue or mountain lodge where we are staying the night, leaving the others to their photo sessions as the glowing night begins to fade. The trek down requires more attention as the danger of slipping is greater and the Norwegian twilight lulls the senses. I thank heaven my knees have held up and I am careful to tread lightly in a zigzag descent.

The fatigue of the unceasing day begins to gather but we keep going steadily and slowly till the distant city lights swing into view once more. An hour later we are in our cottage, tired but wonderfully elated from the spectacular climb. I already have a summit picture as wallpaper on my iPhone and Facebook, adding it to the store of precious memories from other climbs, including the 1,660-metre-high Besseggen. As I take my tired limbs to bed that night, I can’t get my body to calm down. Even fatigue is no remedy for sleep so I replay the climb and the feeling of being on top of the world as the sun begins its journey for a brand-new day at 4 a.m. Only in Norway….

Biting The Backstory
Visiting Preikestolen: For most visitors the easiest way is to take the ferry from Stavangar to Tau and then go by bus to the car park of Preikestolen which is the entrance to the hike. There is no fee for climbing. If you go early in the morning, you can do the hike and return to Stavangar for the night. In June, July and August — the best season for visiting Norway — you can also take the car ferry to Lysebotn from Fiskepiren (the fast boat terminal) in central Stavanger and drive back via Sirdal and Hunnedalen. And do not forget that Kjerag is a spectacular hike from above Lysebotn if you have the time.
Stay: There is a mountain lodge where you can stay the night in Preikestolen.

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