Misson Impossible

The Utla river, containing the deepest gorge in Norway, had become somewhat of a misson impossible. The river flows through Jotunheimen national park and is flanked by 2000 meter high peaks, the mountains being rated among the most spectacular ones in Norway. It drains the glaciars without much to delay the water, and cascades through one particular canyon called ”Styggegjelet”, or ”Ugly canyon” in english. At times, this gorge narrows in to only a few meters width, and the canyonwalls are polished so no escape is possible, and even scouting can be a challenge. Add the valley´s fantastic background as one of the harshest places the vikings settled, and its reputation for containing sheer wilderness, I just could not say no when asked if I wanted to join on the first descent of the river in 2002.

Allan Ellard, Mikey Abbot, Benjamin Hjort, Flemming Vatne (Schmidt), Russel Tepu and myself hiked in from Sognefjellet, a 10 km hike through barren highlands surrounded by glaciars and jagged peaks, to drop into the waters of the Utla. On our three-day trip we had low water, but got turned around by the entrance to Styggegjelet. It simply seemed like too big of a task to take on, with Flemming having to be back at work as soon as possible! We shouldered our kayaks and hiked what is known as the ”Churchtrail”, climbing 600 heightmeters in about the same distance, and passing some of the most amazing peaks in Norway. It is a very talked about hiking trail, famed for the insanely steep hill, and I definitely agreed on the legitimacy of the fame as the trail finally descended back to the river. We got down to the exit of the canyon after 1,5 days of hiking, where the highest freefalling waterfall in northern Europe cascades into the Utla. (Vettisfossen, 275 mts). The Whitewater warriors had come fresh off the Yarlung Tsangpo with the tales of their multiday hiking over the pass to avoid the Great Bend, so for them the “Churchtrail” was notthing but a stroll in the sun, but for me, it has stood out in my memory as the worst portage I have ever encountered.

Since then a couple of norwegian groups have made it through the canyon, and the tales of immense beauty, great whitewater and exciting blind corners had kept me thinking of a return for a while. After seven years I had finally forgotten the hardships of the “Churchtrail”, and invited the Riverangels  (www.riverangels.com) to come and join me. The prospect of having a group of competent female paddlers to go on an adventure with kept me excited throughout the summer, but as it turned out, only Nouria Newman from France found the time to join me. She escaped the strict training agenda for the upcoming World Championships in slalom in Tacen, and brought her creekboat along for a 9-day steep misson with me. We started off with the classic Ula, then headed to the lower Rauma in sunshine and low water. As I always suspected our paddling style is the same: No fuzz, run or portage according to your own descision, and if there is a big pool at the bottom, you do not always need safety. After two days of creeking together I felt totally confident to drop into the Utla just the two of us.

We looked at the weather forecast, and realized the window would be very small. Nouria only had a few days left, and even with rain on the horizon we hoped for a bit of luck and packed our kayaks. It was going to be Nouria´s first multiday experience, and I could read the excitement in her face as we paddled the heavy loaded boats across the first lake. The scenery was just as amazing as I remembered it, and we hauled, carried and paddled our way down to the confluence of the ”Small-Utla” and the ”Big-Utla”. I noticed the waterlevel was already high, and voiced my concern to Nouria. Her response was just like I hoped: ”Well, we might as well try and get down the river, instead of hauling our kayaks back up the trail.” That is the spirit I like!

The first night got spent in the first canyon of the Utla, not the infamous one, but nevertheless an amazing gorge with some big drops that are left for future hucksters. We got to a little campsite wedged in between the canyon walls half an hour before dark, and I marked the riverlevel before crawling into the tent. 11 hours of hiking and kayaking put us nicely to sleep, and even with the rain hitting the fly, I think we both fell asleep smiling. It had been a good day.

The next day we rose early despite the faul weather, and I noticed the level was the same. But, it was still raining. We quickened our pace down the river, trying to fight what we knew was a rising flow. Passing Vormeli, one of the oldest farm settlements still left in Norway, we hiked around a slide I had had my eyes on to run on this trip. The water was simply too high, and by this time we were rushing. The entry to the Ugly Canyon was a few kms downstream, and we simply hoped to beat the water. Arriving to the point where I had had to climb out 7 years ago, I looked up at the mountside, then back down to the river. Eventhough I hadn´t gone through the canyon ever, I knew it would be a gamble. Question was, could we still make it through the tight spots in the gorge, or would we encounter one of those blind drops with no way around it? The groups before us had talked about class four whitewater, that could all be scouted, but was this high level too high to even scout the drops? Would there be eddies?  It took us about ten seconds to agree on keeping on going. We were simply too curious to see what was in there…

6 hours later we stood staring at a riverwide hole that you could not get around. Wedged in between the polished walls, you could not even catch the last eddy before the horizonline, because if you did, there was no going back from there. We had put up rope-systems in the rain to portage the entrance to the canyon, then dropped back down to riverlevel only to find no eddies and sketchy class four kayaking that led into class six portages. It had been six very hard hours. But standing there staring at the towback of the hole, we knew we had lost. I hade made it 1, 5 kms further into the canyon than seven years back. Nouria had made it halfway through Norway´s deepest canyon. And that was it. But that also meant that we were about 150 meters lower than when I last had to hike out. Pluss, we were looking at scrambling out without a trail to follow this time. Without much fuzz we tied our kayaks to a tree using our slings, then rigged a carrysystem for our drybags to get them on our backs. And then hell started.

”Sure we can sleep here”. I tried to sound convincing as we looked at the only spot close to flatness on the sloping hillside. A deer had used it as its sleepingpad, so surely we could get our tent to stand up there. With a bit of creative landscaping including using branches, firs and stones we managed to pitch the tent in the vaining daylight. We had hauled, crawled, cursed, fallen, climbed and roped out of the gorge about 300 heightmeters. In about 4 hours. That left us with about 600 heightmeters to go the next day. To reach the trail. We tried to forget about the descent back down to the riverlevel as soon as we reached the pass above us, and the other 15 kms of hiking still ahead of us. Collapsing into our sleepingbags, landslides started sounding through the valley, and we drowned our negativeness in a big bag of M and Ms.. If mr Deer had found it safe to sleep just here, of course we would not be taken out by a landslide, right? Just before falling asleep I mumbled to Nouria: ”So, is this the last time you will ever join me on a multiday?” The grin on her face told me that I had finally found another girl that actually enjoys crazy missons. Sweetness!

 The next day it took us 11 hours to reach the take-out. We had had to freeclimb some pretty seriuos walls in our kayaking gear, and Nouria had lost both soles off her brand new shoes. We both agreed that deers are the most blessed animals in the world, as we found several tracks to follow through the dense vegetation up from the gorge. Withouth those, it would have taken us a lot longer. When we finally reached the trail, or what we had simply re-named ”the highway” on our climb out of the gorge, we finally allowed ourselves the last M and Ms. Doing some interviews we both had to admit that ok, there were times where we definitely had felt like crying. I think that says it all about the hardships we had just gone through, as none of us can ever recall crying anywhere close to a river, only when Nouria messes up a race, or I have walked rapids I really wanted to run back in the days.

But, as Nouria summed it up: ” I don´t think it would have even been possible to get a search and rescue team in there to help us. There was no other way than up. So up we went. ”  Finally reaching the bottom trail after the descent back down to riverlevel, we had 7 kms left to walk. At that point we had walked almost 2000 heightmeters up and down in about two kilometers as the crow flies, and we had fought through scenery worthy of the ones in the Lord the Ring triology. The road from the exit of the canyon was flat, and all we could do was 20 minute walks at a time, then we both just had to lie down. To put it this way, we got passed by retired people on bikes and housewife running teams, and one lady even told me to ”Hurry up then young people”. Lying exhausted on the ground, I almost hit her.

We got to the car after another 12 hour day, on the third day, without our kayaks, without having completed the misson, a few kgs lighter as ordered by Nouria´s slalom coach, and with some sketchy moments behind us. And eventhough I will never eat M and Ms again, the hamburger in the town of Øvre Årdal tasted just as good as I remembered it from seven years ago. We did a little pit-stop at Allan and Lizzies place not far from take-out, and Allan took one look at our haggard appearance and started laughing. ” I really hoped you girls were not in there this weekend” he grinned, and I caught myself feeling like a little girl getting the finger pointed at me. But, as we told him our tale, I could tell that he still carried that same urge to go through the canyon that had turned us around that first time. So at least we got an A for effort.

As we made our way back home across the mountains, I swore I would get those kayaks out of there this season. We both agreed that it had been a hell of an adventure, and that we definitely had to start planning the next misson. And did I mention that Nouria is the reigning junior Freestyle World champion, and a very talented slalom paddler? Yeah girl! The way forward is to do it all. Why? Because we love all aspects of kayaking, and all parts of the sport benefit eachother. Ok. Maybe not Open Canoeing. But I know that both of us had used skills from years of playboating, along with the finesse from slalom training to get us down the rapids with heavy boats. And riverunning and creeking had given us the mindset to cope with horizon lines, rising water, blind rapids, read and run without a guy leading the charge. In addition, we were confident in putting up the ropesystems required to portage the heavy boats, and we both have a healthy view of safety requirements. But I think what really makes us a good pair on the mulitday adventures like this one, is the fact that there are normally moments where you just have to get it done. To put our bums on the ground and start crying, waiting for somebody to portage the 35 kg heavy kayaks, put up the ropes, make the descision whether to run or not, probe a rapid, or to simply rescue us out of the gorge was never an option.

Two weeks later I hiked back into the gorge with Jakub Sedivy. The river was really low, the weather was sunny, but cool, and we were determined to get her done. And so we did. But that is a different story. It took me 7 years, three attempts, 5000 heightmeters climbing in and out of the gorge, (1300 of these with a 35 kg kayak on my back) 42 kilometers of plain hiking and some amazing times with friends from all over the world. It only proves that giving up is not an option. Ever.


For more photos of the misson, go to www.riverangels.com

Video coming shortly.