TAC 31 Index
by Ian Johnston
Imagine Skye to the power of ten, or Torridon with hundreds of mountains over 3000ft. Imagine if the Cuillin ridge was a hundred miles long, a thousand feet higher, and had permanent snow and ice on its crest. Imagine Loch Coruisk and Upper Loch Torridon repeated every few miles, with utterly translucent, unpolluted water. The place you are imagining exists: the Lofoten Islands and the coastal Vesterålen area around Harstad and Narvik in the Norwegian Arctic.
The Lofoten Islands lie 200km north of the Arctic Circle. From seaward, the appearance of the main mountain chain gives rise to the seafarer's name for the group: Lofotensvall, the Lofoten Wall. The "wall" is in a fact a complex, heavily glaciated mountain area some 150km long, stretching down the main Lofoten islands of Langøy, Hinnøy, Austvågøy, Vestvågøy, Flakstadøy and Moskenesøy. The area around Svolvær and Henningsvær on Austvågøy is particularly popular with climbers, although "popular" is relative: you won't meet too many people! Prof Norman Collie made many climbs here around the turn of the century. Modern climbers will find routes of all grades on good rock, and tremendous new route potential.
The coastal area around Narvik and Harstad is particularly beautiful, a wonderland of fjord and mountain in every direction. This is superb walking country, with hundreds of 3000ft and 4000ft peaks and an atmosphere of exploratory mountaineering. You find cairns on sharp summits linked by granite ridges and arêtes, but few paths as known in Scotland. Whereas many routes on the Lofotens are of Alpine stature and difficulty, competent mountain walkers will find the vast majority of the Vesterålen mountains within their capabilities.
The best time to visit is late May to late July. Any earlier and the roads consist of compressed snow requiring ice tyres; any later and the weather begins to deteriorate. Summer weather can be very wet (à la Knoydart), but quite warm. June sees a period of 24-hour daylight and the famed midnight sun. Spring is more settled but there can be significant snow around. This tends to be thigh-deep powder requiring either Nordic skis (universally used to get around) or snowshoes; there can be significant avalanche risk during the afternoons. In spring and autumn one of the great attractions is the Aurora Borealis. Seen in their full Arctic splendour, the Northern Lights leave an indelible impression - I found the nightly displays an overwhelming and deeply moving experience. But having twice visited the area by ship in the darkness and intensely hostile Arctic weather of winter, I would question the sanity of anybody visiting as a tourist in this season!
The are some campsites: Cade's European Campsite Guide is particularly informative. Numerous farms provide bed and breakfast, and a network of bunkhouses are used by fishermen who dry fish on huge racks in season - but these are rumoured to be quite expensive. Wild camping is allowed, subject to the rules of the Allemansrat system.
Harstad is a well sited base. It has all the shops one could desire (What, even Tesco's? Sign me up for the next sailing! - Ed.) and a "frontier town" atmosphere. It can be reached by air, by coastal ferry from Ålesund in southern Norway (a wonderful journey), or by driving north from the ferry port of Bergen. A brilliant network of bus and ferry services radiates from both Harstad and Narvik, serving remote islands and communities with good roads and (free!) bridges where necessary: one of the world's best rural support programmes. Most of this funding comes from the prosperous south of the country. Norway sees no reason why its northern inhabitants should settle for poor services or have to pay through the nose for them. It's difficult not to draw comparisons with the north and west of Scotland.
Dosh, wedge, wonga; call it what you will: you won't have enough! Norway is expensive. At #4 for a small beer and #12 for a Big Mac (gulp), hitting the town can be a pricey experience. If you drive north - which on balance seems the best option - take all the food and drink you can. But be discreet with the booze: Norwegian views on the amount of alcohol necessary for "personal use" may differ radically from yours!
Go to the Norwegian Arctic, it's brilliant. The clarity of air, the cleanliness, the stunning scenery and the hundreds of aggy hills are a tonic for the soul. There is so much space, and so few people, that expeditions with a real pioneering flavour are possible simply by walking out of any town or village. The people are very friendly and welcoming, and English is widely spoken. You may not get a sun tan, but you will have the experience of a lifetime.
TAC 31 Index