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Destination: Norway : Troll Tracks : An inn-to-inn ski trek through a pristine wilderness of powder

February 04, 1996|PAULA BOCK | Bock is a staff writer for Pacific, the Seattle Times Sunday magazine

HOVRINGEN, Norway — In the windy darkness, snow covered our ski tracks, piled up against the window panes and swirled over the roof of the Hovringen Fjellstue, a mountain inn at the top of Norway's Troll Trail. Inside, the red candles dripped to stubs and were replaced not just once, but twice on this stormy evening. Folk tunes wheezed out of an old accordion, and the cozy living room was filled with good conversation.

I love the sound of people talking. But we had not come to Norway in March, at the height of cross-country ski season, to talk. In such a winter wilderness, we wanted to ski. Gulps of cold air, diagonal strides that feel like flying, the intense quiet of snow falling on snow. This is why we had come to Norway.

Norway's topography, location and history make it one of the best places in the world for ski touring. Its glacier-worn mountains are high but not steep. Its longtime ski culture means hundreds of kilometers of ski trails sprinkled with huts and inns where you can eat lunch or stay overnight. Its long winter provides a deep snow base topped by fresh powder almost every morning.

Hundreds of kilometers of gentle terrain and prepared tracks mean you don't need to be an expert to enjoy cross-country skiing in Norway. You can base your holiday at one village, sleep in the same comfy inn every night and still ski dozens of different trails. However, if you want to ski inn-to-inn, it's best to know how to ski on broken snow in bad weather, how to use a map with a compass and how to deal with winter emergencies. You should be comfortable skiing at least seven hours a day loaded with a full pack, including extra clothes, food and first-aid gear. You'll also need to carry a sleeping bag if you stay in huts rather than inns.

Our plan was to ski from hut to hut and inn to inn on Norway's Troll Trail, a 160-kilometer (about 100-mile) cross-country ski route that winds through the rounded Rondane mountain range in central Norway. It can take as long as eight hours to ski between huts on the Troll Trail (often called the Troll Highway), and for much of it, there are no roads. If something goes wrong, you can't just hop a bus.

So before setting off on the hut-to-hut adventure, we warmed up by skiing a few days around Sjusjoen, a cross-country ski center on the plateau above Lillehammer's Olympic village at the southern end of the Troll Trail.

From there, we took the train and a bus north to Hovringen, a village near the northern gateway of the Troll Trail, at the entrance to Rondane National Park.

The brochures had us traveling hut-to-hut, under our own power, beneath endless blue Norwegian skies. Instead, we encountered a series of storms fierce enough to force the cancellation of World Cup ski races hosted by Norway, bad enough to make us stay off back-country trails where we would risk becoming lost or frozen or both. But while our Norwegian ski adventure, like the weather, was not what we had predicted, it still was fun.

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The Troll Trail, Troll-Loypa in Norwegian, gets its name from the mischievous trolls who goaded picaresque folk hero Peer Gynt on escapades that always ended in disaster. The ugly monsters are just legend, of course.

But for us, for now, so was the ski trail. If the wind had been blowing from Lapland, a 12-hour train ride north, or even from Greenland in the west (where there are 40 words for snow), that storm would not have been so bad. We would have gone to bed in anticipation of rising early to graze at a breakfast buffet piled with pickled herring, local cheeses and seeded rolls. And then, after a last sip of hot chocolate, we would have waxed our skis with Blue Extra, buckled into backpacks and skied seven hours to the east, to the next lodge.

Instead, the wind had swooped up from the south, out of Europe, laden with moisture and fury and more snow than I had ever seen. The flakes clung to the window panes like insects, then clumped together like lichen, and then covered the glass in rolling layers that resembled the hills we so wanted to tour.

Sno, the Norse call it. This, in particular, was dyp ny sno, new fresh snow. In Danish, there is pulver sne, powder snow like flour; to sne that sticks together when you make a ball; fin sne, fine snow like sugar, and slud, a miserable snow and rain combo.

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