The hike @ Trolltunga

Wed 9th of August

We started a little later than expected and that was perhaps our downfall in making it out onto the “tongue” (Trolltunga meaning troll’s tongue). There are two parking areas, one being 4km closer (8km on the round trip) but it fills early. We were too late and took the further one. Return, the hike from the further one is 30km. We made it within 3km of the Tongue, enough to see it from a distance: the two levels of rock, the long orderly line of hikers waiting for photographs, like ants, at the ledge, the hiking track undulating up and down rock gullies, well-populated with travellers moving both ways: to and from the endpoint.

We made it far enough to see and traverse alongside Ringedalsvatnet Lake which forms the magnificent backdrop to the famous image of Trolltunga. An achingly serene body of cold blue water. Its shore like a Sicilian beach perched against limestone cliffs, an electric blue sea one could almost dive into, until its utter inaccessibility at the base of near 1000m sheer cliffs kicks back in and the surface glazes over, near freezing and brutally hard like the terrain that surrounds it. As someone who’s spent most of their life living close to the coast, strangely, the distant lake seemed more familiar and approachable to me than the mountain-top on which we hiked which felt threatening and alien. This feeling of out-of-placeness contributed to a sense of caution maintained throughout the day. As a whole, the landscape is grand and elemental. One needs to note here how the sublime beauty of the surroundings adds an auratic character to the landscape and, inevitably, the photos taken. This is in part due to the layering and contrast of colours composing the scenery. The mountain sky is wrapped in low hanging clouds, yet open to sudden changes and bursts of sunlight. The summer sun is low, often unseen behind the banked clouds, but at times intense, showering the scene in shiny white light. The tops of the cliffs are a mixture of snow banks, light grey boulders flecked with a livid almost fluro green lichen and a paler green shade of mountain grass. The lightness of this top layer catches and reflects light. When the clouds come over it may be darker and gloomy but when the sun gets through it is radiant, shining brightly, shimmering as is the moving grass and bumpy topology of the boulders with snow banks swerving in between cooler gullys in the rock. The cliffs, huge alpine formations, touched only by cascading falls of melt water are dark, hard, slate grey, patterned with cracks and fissures. And the lake, born from the snow above, deep dark blue, bordered by a thin strip of aqua where it meets the stony shore at the base of the cliffs. The four layers: the bunched clouds and mottled sunlight, sparkling cliff top, dark rock walls, and the smooth, crisp surface of the icy blue lake, combine to create a visually stunning backdrop which emphasises the intensity of this rugged natural landscape.

The hiking is tough. Tough at least for someone from a flat country but perhaps more normal for Europeans or people from mountainous areas who are better-prepared and versed in the routines of alpine hiking. It is quite crowded, and the crowd is a mixed touristic crowd comprising a variety of body types, ages, relationships and motivations. The hike is relatively well-amenitied especially given its remote-feel, there are frequent signposts, bridges over the worst stream crossings, trail markers and emergency cabins, not to mention the presence of the Norwegian Red Cross on hand, at a ranger station and in helicopters. If the site was popularised on social media, these elements undoubtedly add to its accessibility and facilitate the hike and Trolltunga’s growth as a tourist destination. This infrastructure is likely developed in accordance with Norwegian outdoors culture and tourism, indeed, the local populace as a whole (store workers/ passport control) impressed me with a sense of responsible mountaineering. Tourist agencies like Trolltunga Active also help to promote safe hiking at the same time as they contribute to the growth of this destination. In such an environment, the decision to end the hike early was both easy and hard. Easy as a responsible, enjoyable choice (not to trudge on steadfastly); hard as we passed may people seemingly less prepared or more tired than ourselves heading toward the cliff (an “if they can, so can we” kind of situation). Such a scenario made me consider how far people are willing to go to get the photograph at the cliff, and, once having started the hike, if pride is an issue that stops people turning back. There are indeed many rescues each season.

The hikers comprise all types, seemingly skewed toward tourists or more casual hikers but also with hard-core hikers interspersed. I wondered why the savvy mountaineers wouldn’t find a less crowded path (this one showing signs of excess like the inevitable rubbish, boggy Nutella-like patches in some well-trodden areas of the path, and over-used toilet stops). Tourism in its connotations to luxury, knowledge, cultural enrichment and self-transformation is a stage  for self-transformation (like new year’s eve is). The traveller may pick a holiday destination which reflects an aspect of the aspired-to or ideal self and the values contained within (luxury, adventure, cultural sensitivity or empathy, cosmopolitanism, health… ). The rock ledge at Trolltunga is a stage par excellence. The photo opportunity that exists here provides a powerful opportunity for defining identity. The naturalisation of the photographic process at this space through the popularisation of the solo or group performance image in both traveller-created (social media) and official (DMOs) imagery creates a space of outwardly motivated performance. On the day I visited, a lengthy line of travellers wishing to take a photo on the ‘stage’ formed at the base of the ledge. The travellers take turns occupying the ledge and getting a photo. Other line members may assist in taking photos for those out on the ledge. At midday, the estimated wait time was an hour and a half.

Highlighting the performative aspect of this space, I saw some travellers with props or artefacts of self-presentation such as national flags, juggling sticks and special outfits. The arduous walk did it seem strengthen and confirm this process of identity construction. I saw moments of self-doubt or questioning from travellers on their way to the ledge. The challenge inherent in the hike seemed to legitimise or add power to the eventual photos which would be taken. The rock becomes a sacred, ritualised space for expressing identity. The magnificent and auratic quality of the surroundings makes it so. In the photographic process that takes place on the ledge (lining up, turn-taking, performing, capturing), identity is expressed. In addition to the audience present at the sight, the wider reception of performances is implicit in the variety of photographic equipment (smartphones, professional quality SLRs, point and shoots, 360 degree cameras, GoPros, drones, tripods, monopods and selfie sticks) used by travellers to capture unique and personally significant images (we met one pair of travellers who had to line up twice after their first photograph proved to be overly zoomed in). Social media could be seen as the context for such images given the Trolltunga’s significant online presence. Indeed, a study performed on-site indicates that 90% of visitors intend to share photos from their trip on social media (Evers, 2015). Travellers may participate in the hermeneutic circle, re-creating images they have seen online. On a deeper, metaphorical level, the physical environment: the open space, chill air, elemental quality of the sheer cliffs and exposure of the traveller whilst on the ledge itself could be compared to online social media space and the invisible, potentially dangerous and yet thrilling quality of the internet audience.

References
Evers, A. B. M. (2015). Transforming a Norwegian Landscape into an Iconic Tourist Attraction: The Trolltunga Experience [Unpublished Masters Thesis]. University of Stavanger.

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1) Pay parking at the lower lot.

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2) New bridges under construction

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3) Stone stairs

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4) Hikers

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5) Scenic opportunities on the way

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6) For king and country. A flag for the hike or for the photo?

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7) Grand nature

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8) That’s it in the distance

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9) Signage

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10) Happy hikers

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11) Route info at the tourist information center in Odda town.

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12) Season guide

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Trip to Trolltunga

Sat 5th of August.

Yesterday we arrived in Norway. To our, and almost all international passengers surprise, there were huge, freeform lines snaking around the insides of the relatively small passport control hall. It took us a good two hours in the end with a mix of camaraderie and complaining from those waiting with us. When we made it to the front, the man seated in the booth – twenty-something, blonde long hair tied back in a pony tail, clear face – asked why we were visiting Norway, and we gave our reply “Tourism …. Trolltunga”. To our surprise, while doing the various checks he had to do with our passports, he proceeded to give us an update on recent conditions at Trolltunga. The hike had been closed because of torrential rain, however, it looked like weather conditions would improve. Having finished with our passports he added some further information hurriedly: the police had been waving people away from the start of the track, we should be careful not to get lost, and, apparently, Tom Cruise was looking to film the next Mission Impossible movie at the site some time this season. Surprised, a little worried, and generally in awe of his friendly demeanour, we were waved through.

The forecast on Google showed rain all week. “What if we can’t go?” I lay in bed thinking after my jetlagged 5 am start,  morning light just starting to squeak through the cracks of the blinds in our AirBnB room. C’est la vie, Shoga nai, No worries, mate. If it were too rainy, too muddy, too dangerous, or Tom Cruise was occupying the site with wires, stunt coordinators, a film crew and catering, then we couldn’t go. That’s all. It was our explicit mission for this trip, travelling a long way, at considerable expense. But even without the same end point, the effort remains the same. We have prepared to visit Trolltunga: planned, packed,  researched, trained, strategized, imagined and anticipated our experience there. We’ve tried on and purchased hiking boots, prepared photographic equipment and data storage, climbed a small but challenging mountain close to our house in the morning light to prepare our legs. Virtually, we have climbed the mountain with two middle aged American men over a time span of about 7 minutes on a YouTube clip: started in the car, paid parking, done the ascent, been advised of walking conditions and come down. We’ve ambled (or, depending on how tough you consider negotiating the results of Google Search to be, hiked) through various tutorials, weather reports and periphery information. Had anticipatory chats with friends and loved ones describing our destination, shown photos of it on our smartphones many times. Booked accommodation. Created contingency plans. Speculated on necessary and unnecessary items. We, or at least I, have visualised the experience, imagining arriving, starting, the pain of the uphill, savouring the researcher role I am to play in observing the actions of other tourists at the top, the well-earned rest in our beds that night. So, what if we are not actually able to live it? Will the university request for me to give my funding money back?

Not all tourist experiences are “successful”. The unplanned, unexpected deviations, whilst perhaps little appreciated in tourist literature, are as significant as those processes that work from start to finish as expected. The emotional experience of living the trip makes it so. If we don’t climb those stairs, see the view, take a photo, we can’t say that we were on top of the rock, but we can still say we have been to Trolltunga. Why? Because that is the contours which our trip followed. We packed, planned, anticipated. We will still go to the head of the trail, observe the peripheral structure around the site, breath the air, see the mountains, feel the ground, imagine what it would be like to go up. Thus, we may not get the money shot, but we have still had a version of the Trolltunga experience as best we could. And in this unpredictable world we all share, even the Tom Cruises, the plan b is always a possibility. One you can make your own, be proud of. Who knows, not hiking Trolltunga could be more enlightening than hiking it!

So, even while whether the hike is possible remains to be seen (it could in fact be do-able but conditions adverse, which will make us think about how bad we want it), we will have our Trolltunga experience. The internet will prove part of this (checking for recent info, like on TripAdvisor) and our instincts also. We might start and turn back. Such tough emotional experiences likely make for deeper connection and experience. The journey is, after all, as important as the destination (even in fieldwork).

[Note: As it turns out, the location for Mission Impossible is another Norwegian clifftop: Pulpit Rock, meaning the immigration officer perhaps had this location in mind rather than Trolltunga]