Haute Route Jotunheimen: The Throne Hall of the Mountain Gods

Photo courtesy of Johan Wildhagen /  Palookaville Climbing above Gjende Lake.

Photo courtesy of Johan Wildhagen /
Palookaville
Climbing above Gjende Lake.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In the winter of 2012, Norwegian adventure skiers Stian Hagen and Johan Wildhagen had just finished an ascent of Toubkal, a peak in southwestern Morocco, the loftiest of the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Having done the classics of European mountaineering, they then wondered “what’s next?”

Inspiration struck. Elephant in the living room! They had been ignoring their childhood experiences of hiking summer trails and skiing winter ski routes in the Jotunheimen, the contiguous mountain ranges of southern Norway that include the country’s loftiest peaks. They would go home to the Jotunheimen and there put together an haute route, a multi-day, high-elevation ski traverse. Though new, the thought merely connected two aspects of outdoor life, each famed in its own right.

The Jotunheimen takes its name from the Jotun, in turn from the Old Norse Jötnar, a race of giant gods that live in one of the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. Literally, “Jotunheimen” from the Old Norse Jötunheimr, translates to “Home of the giants,” but more poetically to “Throne hall of the Mountain Gods.” This aspect has been celebrated by generations of writers and poets. The deeds of the Jötnar influenced the themes of the four operas that make up Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Most famed in Norway was playwright Henrik Ibsen, who had braggart Peer Gynt roam the Jotunheimen to leap astride a reindeer from the Besseggen Ridge into Gjende Lake below.

Photo courtesy of Johan Wildhagen /  Palookaville Downhill from Besshø Peak, with Gjende Lake in the background.

Photo courtesy of Johan Wildhagen /
Palookaville
Downhill from Besshø Peak, with Gjende Lake in the background.

The designation haute route came into English somewhat by accident. In the mid 19th century, Englishmen of means flocked to the Continent to explore the Alps and then to return to England to write travelogues of their adventures. One such travelogue was “The High Level Glacier Route from Chamonix to Zermatt,” published in 1862 in Passes and Glaciers, a publication of the Alpine Club, founded in 1857 in London.

In 1911, French skiers reported the first traverse of the same route on skis. Understandably, they wrote in French and so shunned the longer name in English. They just called it Haute Route, literally “High Route.” That simple name traveled back across the English Channel, and from 1912 on, English writers began using it. Why the English so readily embraced the French name most likely was due to the warming of Anglo-French relations of the time. Railroads had brought Paris closer to London, and travelers flocked in both directions across the English Channel. Moreover, Haute Route was shorter and more easily dropped into casual conversation upon returning from a hiking vacation in the Alps. With time, Haute Route became the generic term for a traverse at high elevation through mountains, the pièce de résistance of traverses on foot in summer and on skis in winter.

Photo courtesy of Johan Wildhagen /  Palookaville The start of the climb up from Glitterheim Lodge.

Photo courtesy of Johan Wildhagen /
Palookaville
The start of the climb up from Glitterheim Lodge.

The Haute Route Jotunheimen envisioned by Stian Hagen and Johan Wildhagen now is being set up in cooperation with the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT). It starts at Gjendesheim, a large DNT staffed lodge at the east end of Gjende Lake. From there, the route goes in stages of about 10 miles a day over Glittertind and Galdhøpiggen, the two highest mountains in Norway, to end five days later at the Krossbu Lodge.

In the winter of 2014-2015, along with other adventure skiers, Hagen and Wildhagen test skied the route. Aside from the ease of skiing at about half the elevation of the original Haute Route in France and Switzerland, they reported some significant advantages. Anyone who has skied the Alps will enjoy the renowned stillness of the Jotunheimen. Even on the busiest of days, there seldom are queues of skiers going anywhere. Moreover, the staffed lodges along the route—Gjendesheim, Memurubu, Glitterheim, Spiterstulen, Leirvassbu, and Krossbu—are more comfortable than their counterparts in the Alps.

For further information, visit the Haute Route Jotunheimen website at høgrutajotunheimen.no (at this writing, in Norwegian only; pages in English will soon be accessible on the website).

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 25, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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