All winter, social media has been brimming with reports about fatbikers riding the ski trails in the local mountains, accompanied by photos of their smiling faces as they cheerfully roll along. Bogged down with work, I’ve tried to live vicariously through the bits and bytes of their twowheeled escapades on the interwebs. So far, it has worked fairly well. But only barely. And only until now. With spring hitting my hometown down in the valley and blowing a warm wind across the mountains, followed by frosty nights, the reports have changed. The fatbikers aren’t just riding the trails in the mountains. They’re riding everywhere. With thaw during daytime and frost at night, a crust has started to develop. One that’s solid enough to carry both man and bike away from the ski trails and into the wild.
I know. Norwegians are supposedly born with skis on their feet. It’s the dirty secret behind these past decades of world dominance on the cross country ski trails. The obvious would of course have been to grab the backcountry skis and head for the mountains. But what if I could start the trip in my home town, then slip into a side valley, leave the green grass and budding birch trees behind, and crawl up into the mountains? To winter? And finish off by ascending the highest peak in the district? On a bike?
Paradoxically, the arrival of the crust coincides with a total absence of time to take advantage of it. Instead, one day after another passes by in an ever greener Kongsberg. The nightly frost disappears in the mountains and eventually the crust collapses. My hopes of summiting the local mountain peak by bike dwindle like dirty snow in the sun. It’s not going to happen. I’m too late.
Or at least that’s what I think. A couple of weeks of warm weather later, a brief period of cold nights in the mountains refuels my hope to the extent that I consider giving it a go. To top it off, my buddy Håkon is game to come along. He opts for a more leisurely approach, though, and chooses to drive up to the ski trail just below the tree line.
I roll out of town early one morning in late March, pedaling into the local side valley on buzzing high pressurised fat rubber, carrying tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, some food, a weather forecast that predicts freezing temperatures during the night on the local mountain, and a solid chunk of optimism.
My shape can’t be too shabby after the long winter, I’m thinking to myself as I pass a young woman out training on her bike. We exchange discrete smiles as I rumble past with my shit show of gear strapped onto the bike. Birch trees lightly sprinkled with tiny, fluorescent green leaves give way to birch trees with naked, black branches strutting into the grey sky as I muscle chunky steel and oversized rubber up the hills and into the mountains.
“Have you seen the latest weather report?” asks a red-bearded face from the car window beside me, half way up the hill.
“Yup! There’s going to be frost tonight, but only barely,,” I reply.
“Nope,” Håkon says. “I’ve just learnt that it’ll be seven degrees Celsius.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
He isn’t kidding. We adjust our tire pressure, roll off the gravel and in between the last few pine trees, and onto the snow. And sink right in. Immediately. Our fatbike winter summit attempt comes to a staggering halt in a whopping five seconds. Sensible outdoor people would most likely have found a patch of bare ground free of snow, set camp, gathered wood, lit a nice little campfire, and told tales under the starry sky. We obviously aren’t sensible outdoor people.
“Er, it might get better a bit higher up,” I suggest.
“Mmm,” says Håkon.
So we push on a little higher, but still sink in.
“Err, it might get better a little later in the night,” I try.
“Mmm,” says Håkon.
It doesn’t get any better.
“Err, we might get lucky after a couple of hours of sleep,” I reason.
“Mmm,” says Håkon, and rolls out his sleeping bag beside a tiny, solitary spruce and goes to sleep.
After two hours of sleep, I check the early morning snow conditions by carefully stepping onto the snow, only to realise that it will hardly hold the weight of a starved lemming. Ever the optimists, we still decide to push on, hoping to reach solid crust higher up on the steep mountain slopes. But there’s no way of hiding the fact that the snow gets sloppier and less cooperative the further we push.
“We better get down before we’re stranded in this mushy slush,” says Håkon.
We turn around, retrace our steps, and do what we should have done in the first place: find ourselves a patch of bare ground free of snow, set camp, gather wood, light a nice little campfire and tell tales under the starry sky.
The story could have ended here, by the sparkling fire. A totally worthy finish to the trip. But it doesn’t end here. The following week, weather reports spark the hope of a last attempt to scale the mountain on a fatbike. Whether it’s due to an overly positive mindset or an onset of selective memory is hard to tell. In any case, I find myself rolling up the valley with a high frequency cadence on an early April morning, buzzing with optimism and the usual gear and food for a couple of days. The only negative is that Håkon is stuck at work, unable to take part.
I decide to try my luck from the north this time. True, it’s a huge detour, but by heading into the mountains from the north, there is the slim possibility that the snow-covered slopes might be slightly more protected from the sun’s snow-eating rays, and, hopefully, topped with a crust that can carry me and my bike to heaven.
After climbing close to a thousand metres from my hometown, the moment of truth greets me after a lung-bursting push up an alpine ski slope. And it works. It. Works! Even though the snow crust barely keeps me floating on top of the snow, I can more or less ride wherever I want, stopped only by the occasional nose dive when my front wheel digs in. A couple of kilometres later I hit the slopes of the Blefjell mountain range, rolling out of the shade and onto the sun-exposed flanks of the mountain. My wheels break through the crust immediately, disappear into the coarse snow, and the bike comes to a full stop.
Four hundred metres of vertical bikepushing later, I top out on the peak. Snow-covered mountains are littered throughout the horizon and the unmistakable feeling of winter creeps under my skin as I make ready to spend the night on the roof of the world.
The next day, I wake up to a layer of crust on top of the snow. Solid crust. Real, solid crust. I take down camp as fast as I can, wanting to get a head start on the sun. I quickly attach all of my gear to my bike, turn around, look at the mountains surrounding me one final time, and eagerly pedal off. Today, I don’t have to sneak my way along shady slivers of barely supportive snow. I can ride wild. Ride wherever I want. And instead of five percent cycling and ninety percent bikepushing, it’s the opposite today. No wonder my face is covered by a smirky smile all the way back home to Kongsberg.