Are you finished?

It has been dark for a few hours when we hear some noises outside. Ten to nine, a skier. “Are you finished?”, he asks. Are you finished? The words hit me like waking up roughly from a deep sleep. Why, are you finished? “Ehm, excuse me?” is the only thing I can utter. “Are you finished?”, he asks again. The words don’t make sense. “Ehm, yes?”. What a strange question. I ask him his nationality. “Finland.” It makes sense now: “Are you FINNISH?”

His pulk is broken. A fellow skier repaired it provisionally. He doesn’t trust the repair and wants to head back to civilization as soon as possible. He arrived late because he travelled two day-routes in one day. He doesn’t think it’s too late to arrive, for he met someone who arrived at half pas eleven at a cabin.

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We’re in Finland in the Urho Kekkonen national park. Our Finnish roommate wants to go to Lankojärvi, just like we do. Today it’s snowing and the route we’re taking has not been preceded by a snowmobile. We move slowly through this thick, white blanket of snow. At 1/3 of the route we stop for lunch. Too slow, we’re going to arrive in the dark. Via another mountain pass we head to Tuiskukuru, a cabin closer by. We run into our Finnish roommate once more, he will continue to Lankojärvi.

The detour to Tuiskukuru is well worth it. An empty landscape until the pass, from there snowy, statue-like shrubs guide the way into the other valley. The shrubs transform into trees that, covered in snow, taken on peculiar forms. It is a surrealistic world and we’re the only people here.

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A state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
– Kundera

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Earlier in the week we’re heading to Sarvioja in a howling wind. Only summer routes are shown on the map and that path goes to the left here somewhere. No idea where exactly. It is snowing and the wind is blowing forcefully. I should put on an extra coat and my mittens. My thumbs ache from the cold. Still continuing, a bit further we’ll be out of this wind.

Last night we admired the northern lights near Porttikoski: a cabin in the forest next to the river. Idyllic. Much unlike this place, cold and stormy. Where’s that stupid path? The location on the map is way too steep for skis and a pulk.

During this winter hike in Finland we meet one Finn and a lot of Czechs. Czech… They have a word for this plowing. Litost, untranslatable. Kundera describes it as “a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.” Such a dramatic word, I don’t know any equivalent in Dutch.

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“How are you doing?”, I ask. – “Fine, it’s just arduous.” We stop. Thicker coat, mittens and discussion. What options do we have? Option one is going back. That is not an option. Option two, betting to reach the planned hut. Not the best choice: there is quite a chance to not make it to the hut or even to be unable to climb this steep terrain. The third option is to continue into the next valley. There we can reach three places to sleep: an open wilderness hut, a turf hut and Luirojärvi. Luirojärvi is the furthest away and only reachable in the dark. We head for the turf hut and might reach it during dusk.

The coat and mittens are wonderfully warm. Soon my thumbs don’t ache anymore and feeling slowly returns to them. The end of the mountain pass is near. Litost, a dramatic word. It means something like feeling miserable and then becoming aware of it. According to Kundera it will be followed by revenge. Revenge on the thing that caused the misery, that is not caused by yourself of course.

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We continue skiing. At the end of the mountain pass we’re out of the wind and exactly there the sun appears again. We start our decent, the skiing is less tiring. The world looks a lot happier. Kundera can keep his revenge. We take the moment and have a break behind some trees. Hot tea, a biscuit and the sun in Finnish Lapland. Enjoying, a word the Czech will know as well?

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Turf hut Raappana is located in the forest on a peninsula. We arrive during sundown, where we could barely distinguish the stove pipe from the bare trees. The chimney is the only point of recognition of this tiny burrow under the thick layer of snow. We’re happy that someone already dug out the door.

The area inside is two meters by two meters. We’re out of the wind and dinner is simmering on our gas stove. Dinner, tea, then we slip into a comatose sleep. “Are you finished?” – “Yes we are.”

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Photographs

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Bibliography

Karttakeskus ulkoilukartta
Saariselkä Sokosti
1 : 50 000

Practicalities

We finish our tour in Kiilopää. Buses drive from Kiilopää to the airport irregularly! The website of the airport states that buses drive only when an aircraft departs or arrives. This is not 100% correct. Buses drive only when an aircraft from a Scandinavian airline depart or arrive. We flew with a Dutch airline, no bus came and we’ve managed to get a taxi at the latest moment. Quite an experience: flying in a cab over frozen roads with 130 km/h.

Our home built pulk uses ropes instead of rods. Rods may break, ropes are durable and easy to repair. The disadvantage of ropes is that the pulk tries to overtake you while descending. To counter that we used the idea of an automatic brake from Ivo. The brake worked remarkably well. Even on the most steep parts where we couldn’t ski, the pulk braked long before hitting me.

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Norge pȧ Tvers

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Norge pȧ Tvers, traversing Norway. A route developed by Trondheims Tourist Association that roughly follows 63 degrees latitude, from the sea in the west to the Swedish border. We follow our own interpretation of the route.

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During the first days we meet only a few persons enroute and none in the cabins. It’s not yet Easter (Pȧske), the time of year in which a lot of Norwegians wipe the dust of their skis and go skiing. Because of this bustle the routes between the DNT cabins will be marked with willow branches to ease navigation. At this moment it take a few more weeks till Easter, no willow branches in the snow yet. It’s a good exercise in navigation in the snow. At the Ramsjøhytta we meet a volunteer from the DNT, one of the men that stick the willow branches in the snow each year. In this part of Norway they are slowly migrating to the system in use by their neighbours: fixed wooden poles. It will save a lot of work each year.

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At Storeriksvollen it’s the first time this trip we’re not alone in a cabin. The beautiful weather goes on day after day and we are doubting whether or not to spend an extra day in the mountains. It’s nice to be able to ask advice from the other guests. We decide to visit not one Swedish cabin, but two. The Norwegians we meet affirm it’s better to spend the night in the Swedish mountains instead of a village. But they are smiling as well as the Swedish cabins are quite different from the Norwegian ones…

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The next day we arrive in our first Swedish cabin in the afternoon. Maybe hotel is a better word for it. It’s not possible to order a three-course dinner, but there is running water from a tap, hot and cold, there is electricity and even internet. In the-middle-of-nowhere. It’s luxurious but also a bit strange as the atmosphere has changed as well. In all cabins up to now, you’ll lit a candle at night for lighting and drink a cup of coffee with the other guests. You’ll talk about the day, about ‘friluftsliv’ and the differences between the Netherlands and Norway for example. Here in the big rooms lit by neon lights the cosiness and personal attention has disappeared. I open the door and watch people bend over their mobile phones. It’s good progress to make these beautiful places accessible for everyone, but the typical outdoor cabin atmosphere is gone.

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The next day in the morning we meet a Swedish diplomat. He recognised our nationality by our accents. We may precede on the steep descent in front of us. While I’m still talking, Charissa is flying down. “It’s not so steep, it’s fine”, he says when I leave. I arrive at the end of the descend with trembling knees. Fast and so many icy grooves for the skis to change direction…

A bit further we’re climbing again. A dog strolls from behind a boulder. Usually it doesn’t take long for his boss to arrive as well. Not this time. I take the binoculars from my backpack. A dog, I thought, maybe it is a fox. The animal looks back at me, doubts for a moment and runs off in the other direction. Yes it’s fox, it’s clear to see now. It’s not the first time we meet a fox, but it surely is one of the longer moments.

The day before yesterday at Storeriksvollen we met a small animal we’d never seen before: an ermine. He happily ate all the leftovers… and the mice. Happy ermine, happy humans.

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The last evening we share the dorm with some Scotsmen with whom we talk a bit. We meet them again a few times when we descend into the valley the next day. Though they are a few years older than us, we notice they move at a high pace.

Fast forward a few days when we are bored waiting at the airport. I browse through some websites to find an update of climber Dave MacLeod. He made a new film, let’s take a look. We see someone running through the Scottish hills, almost falling in the soggy ground. Some running on jeep tracks, then bogs again. An old Landrover climbs. Then a close-up of the driver. By the time I processed the thought that I’ve seen this person before, the screen shows an interview. I immediately recognise the name! I was right, this is the guy we’ve been talking with in the last cabin in Sweden. We never knew we were talking to a well-known Scotsman.

Photographs

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Video

Bibliography

DNT, Nordeca
2742 Merȧker Sør
1 : 50 000

With additions from Turkart UT.no and Sveriges Länskarta.

Ski eller skøyter

Cautiously I step forward. A few meters back the snow changed into a sheet of ice. First it’s still relatively soft, the kind of ice you can kick steps into. Now it is hard and blue. We’re searching for small imperfections where the sole of our shoes has some grip. Another step further. I notice that I’ve slipped when I’m already on the ground and feel the acceleration of gliding over ice. Turning to my belly is astonishingly easy even with the heavy backpack. Automatically I brake on hands and feet like I’ve learnt years ago. I don’t notice any braking. Maybe on hands and knees? Nope, no difference. Suddenly I’m halted in a snow dune. When I look up, searching for Charissa, I see her gliding the same trajectory, halting next to me in the snow dune. Ski eller skøyter, skiing or skating?

This year we’re in Trollheimen for a week of skiing. We want to ski Trekanten, The Triangle. “According to the media all of Norway is going to ski for the Easter holidays. The ones that don’t go are pathetic. Statistics tell however, that less than ten percent of the Norwegians go for skiing.” (Source: Henk Brugman – Een Leven In Noorwegen) Trekanten is the most important tour for Easter for the people living nearby: a triangle through the valleys of Trollheimen. Beautiful views en route and two high passes according to Norwegian standards.

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The first part is groomed and tracks are made. It’s Sunday and most Norwegians can be found cross-country skiing. A small tour to the staffed mountain hut, eat a meal there and then back home. A family trip with dog and children or perhaps as sports activity, like running in the Netherlands. A few times we’re almost blown from the trail, such heavy winds are blowing. Everywhere blown twigs and pineapples can be found. This is the only part of our route that has tracks.

Instead of Trekanten, The Triangle, for us it’s more like Linje, a line.

Suddenly in the evening, it’s quiet. All day long the wind was whistling and howling. Even in the Gjevilvasshytta the wind could be heard when suddenly it’s gone. In the morning it’s still gone when we leave. We ascend through the forest or at least we try. There’s so much ice that our skis don’t have any grip. We put on our ski-skins, not to remove them for the rest of the week. When we leave the forest, the wind picks up again, just like yesterday. This is what will be waiting for us the coming week: old snow with ice and drifting snow gathered in dunes.

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We make a day trip to Grȧfjellet where we meet a herd of reindeer. In these conditions the route from Jøldalshytta to Trollheimshytta is too ambitious for us. We get up early, cross the frozen river and start the ascent along the Langfjellet massif. The snow changes into snow over ice into one big sheet of snowless ice. We should have brought our crampons. The higher we go, the more difficult it becomes. We don’t make it to the pass and return to Jøldalshytta. Instead of Trekanten, The Triangle, for us it’s more like Linje, a line.

Tomorrow he’ll get up early, he’ll ski 45 kilometres back home via the tracks.

When we return to Gjevilvasshytta the next day the wood stove is already burning. An elderly man, Yngvar will spend the night there. He’s skiing Trekanten and was at the Trollheimshytta yesterday. He brought no map as he knows the area well and took the southerly route to the cabin instead of our northerly route. Even with his 64 years of ski experience (Do your own math to find his age …) he found it one of his most difficult crossings. The way from Trollheimshytta to Gjevilvasshytta was as difficult as the one the day before: a small ridge crossing with descend took him three hours. In the beginning of the evening he’s a bit shy for he cannot speak English that easily. As soon as we put our map of the area on the table, he starts talking, very nice. Tomorrow he’ll get up early, he’ll ski 45 kilometres back home via the tracks.

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Though normally we like to travel with our tent, the DNT cabins are our favourites in the winter. During this tour we meet other people in the cabins during three nights. Of course they are all Norwegians, Trollheimen is not well-known abroad. In the guest-books of the cabins we can find only a handful of foreigners each year. Last night we share the cabin with a Norwegian woman who speaks English very well. We learn a lot about Norway, the Norwegians and their culture.

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Photos

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Movie

Bibliography

DNT, Uglant IT
Trollheimen
Turkart 1 : 50 000

Henk Brugman – Een Leven In Noorwegen (Life in Norway)

In between Thai food and white skies

It’s Friday, eleven o’clock in the evening. Our airplane lands in the snow on Olso airport. Ten centimetres of fresh snow has been falling the last hours. Next day we check in at Strand Fjellstue, a nice mountain lodge with Stefan and Surina as its enthusiastic owners. They serve the best Thai food that we’ve ever tasted. Strand Fjellstue is our starting- and endpoint of this tour. We’ll be sleeping in DNT self-service cabins, a more luxurious stay than the tarp we normally use.

It’s still snowing when we want to leave the next morning. The low hanging clouds make for poor visibility, which doesn’t make the navigation easier in this sloping landscape. Stefan tells us that the easiest route to Storkvelvbua goes around Ongsjøfjellet (fjellet = mountain). A long route but easier to find in this weather. We put our skis on, cross the frozen lake and start our ascent.

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At the end of the ascent we can choose to climb further to mountain pass Leppskardet or we can choose the longer route that Stefan told us. We choose the last one. The visibility is still low and we trust our own navigation capabilities and the scarce signs we find (this day we find about three signs in total). Willow branches put up in the snow show the route. It is going to be a long day, half past five we arrive at the cabin which is packed in ice. “I think I see a light indoors”, Fred says, but immediately corrects himself. “No, it’s very dark indoors.” and the cabin seems to be vacant. Till we arrive at the door and find nine pairs of skis standing in the snow.

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In the cabin we find nine Norwegians, the stove is burning, water has been made and they offer us some hot water for making tea. Instead of clearing two beds for us, they show the small room for us to use. We prepare our food and over dinner we talk about the routes and about Norway. They are doing a three day tour. The day before yesterday they arrived, today they made a day trip and tomorrow they’ll return to the valley. During the day trip they did not use the willow branches for navigation and needed to rely on their GPS. We already decided to use the marked trails in this bad weather and get that as an advice as well: “Stick to the sticks.”

Stick to the sticks.

After dinner everyone is doing his or her own thing. We take a look on the map, some people play cards and others read a book. We prepare a hot chocolate and they offer us a brownie. The home-made brownie melts on our tongues. Such a luxury, such a luxury.

“There are two ways to fall: the faceplant and the bumplant.” Fred has the chance to practice both.

Just before we want to leave in the morning one of the Norwegians hurries to the cabin. “There’s a herd of raindeer in the valley. More than one hunderd animals!” The same herd we saw yesterday just outside the cabin. This herd has returned from the north early this year. It’s time for us to submerge ourselves in the monochromous world of snow and willow branches.
We cannot judge depth because of the clouds. Drift of snow cannot be seen either. As Ernst Arbouw describes in his article (page 46) in the Dutch magazine Hoogtelijn: “There are two ways to fall: the faceplant and the bumplant.” Fred has the chance to practice both.

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Candlelight dinner.

We’re brushing our teeth in Oskampen when Charissa says: “Grab the camera, I see a fox!” Special for us Dutch, but as we learn later, foxes can be seen regularly here. At Strand Fjellstue they know a fox that walks the same route near the mountain lodge each day.

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The last night we spend in Nordbua. Not a DNT cabin, but a cabin from the local tourist association: Gausdal Fjellstyre. There are less facilities than in a DNT cabin, but mattresses and a stove are present. What else do you need? We’ll be enjoying the last freeze dried meal with candlelight for this week here.

We want to move on fast, but to where? We hang against the wind to keep standing and feel the gusts of wind pulling forcefully on our backpacks.

From the start of the last day the snow sticks to our skis. In the morning it is +2C already and wet snow falls from the sky. We decide to go for the short route, via mountain pass Leppskardet. In the meantime the wind is picking up fast. The higher we climb, the worse the weather gets. Just under the mountain pass we’re in a white-out again: We see white everywhere, the horizon cannot be found. Claustrophobia in the wide open plain. The wind is blowing at at least eight Beaufort. The willow branches are 25 meters apart, but sometimes Charissa needs to go ahead to find the next stick. Finally we are saved by the sign at the mountain pass, completely covered in ice.

We want to move on fast, but to where? We hang against the wind to keep standing and feel the gusts of wind pulling forcefully on our backpacks. No willow branches to be found anymore. We try to find them, but fail regardless of our attempts. The map told us that the next 60 meters will consist of a steep descent and the terrain will flatten out afterwards.

We need to yell to hear what we’re saying to each other. Eventually we decide to keep our bearing to north-north-east and carefully descent inside this white cloud. Step by step we descent, watching the compass. We see some grey spots, but cannot identify what it is we’re seeing. Trees, rocks? We make a few cautious steps when suddenly the cloud dissolves a bit. We see trees and we see where we need to go to. Quickly we descent to the trees. There we find the next willow branches. Finally time for a break, the first energy bar and cup of tea of this day.

It starts to rain when we continue to follow the willow branches. In the afternoon we arrive at Strand Fjellstue soaking wet. We can dry our gear in the drying room and are offered a delicious cup of Thai soup. Despite all Norwegians we speak say it’s “a horrible winter”, we have enjoyed the last week! We’ve seen a fox, raindeer and grouses, all days we’ve dined in candle light in comfortable warm wooden cabins. Holidays!

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Film

Route
Strand Fjellstue (Espedalen)*
Ongsjøsætran
Leppbua
Storkvelvbua*
Svarttjønnholet
Storhøliseter*
Jotunheimstien
Oskampen*
Øyvassbua
Skriurusten*
Storkvelvbua
Nordbua*
Leppskardet
Strand Fjellstue*
*: overnight stay

Bibliography
2492, Huldreheimen, Spȧtind
DNT Turkart
1:50 000

Example tour by DNT

Carnival at Baraque Michel

As half of our country is being reigned by fools and madmen, we drive to our southern neighbour country. Enroute it’s nice and quiet, we are driving towards the snow. In the morning the weather is cloudy, in the afternoon the sun reveals itself. All day long a harsh wind is blowing, it feels as a very cold day.

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The trees have a hard time under the weight of the snow

As an example we used Joery’s Haute Fagnes Trail again, but this time another part of it. While skiing we take a path to the left or a path to the right, when suddenly we’re lost. Where are we? All forest roads look the same and the 30 cm thick layer of fresh snow covers some of the creeks. We ask some passers: Do you speak Dutch? English? Français? Mmm, nope. And he doesn’t know where we are either. His friend does, his friend with a map. And they talk German to each other. Now we can communicate again. We take a path back and a shortcut to our “original” route. An hour later we meet them again!
Enroute it is quite busy (like a Sunday) on the main forest roads, but outside these main roads it’s nice and quiet. We do a small tour and then slowly we return to the car. At half past four we’re back in the parking lot, which is incredible busy.

Click here to see all photographs.

Film

Bibliography

IGN Carte Topographique, 1:50 000, No 50-50A: Malmédy

From Vercors to Hautes Fagnes

Vercors

The last bits of snow are visible in the Netherlands as we leave. The car radio plays Frank Zappa’s “Don’t eat the yellow snow”. We drive to Col de Rousset from the north over the plateau. At the start the road is free of snow, but half way the plateau the road is still snow covered. At Col de Rousset we turn to the road to parking de Beure. This road is also snow covered, but small stones have been scattered on the road. We just manage to reach the parking without the need of snow chains.

We leave parking de Beure with skis and pulk, but soon change from skis to snowshoes. The snow is 1.40 m thick, a beautiful white and thick blanket. It is not easy to climb with skis through the thick layer of powder snow. At the top of the drag lift we meet a Frenchman who’s making a small tour with snowshoes, skis and backpack. He’s jealous of our pulks. Now he is …

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Enroute from parking de Beure

The sun is shining and we progress fast. In the forest to Pas des Econdus the continuous climbing changes to a more sloping climb and descent. The pulks are sliding along and past us on the steeper descents. The aluminum tubes that make sure the pulks don’t run into our shoes can’t handle the forces and bend. The tubes on Fred’s pulk are bend first. We have a spare rope with us that we use to proceed.

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Montagne de Beure

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Montagne de Beure

At the plain after Pas des Econdus we pitch our tent. It’s already dusk when we have dinner. During the night the temperature drops to -6 C in the tent and it starts to snow. At dawn the wind was blowing strongly and it was still snowing. Because of the broken aluminum tubes of the pulks it’s hard to descend. Because of the pulk troubles and the one broken ski pole, we decide to return to our car.

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Bivouac under Tête de Faisan

Our plan is to leave the pulks and everything we don’t need in our car, buy new ski poles and try again with only our backpacks. Too bad, without crampons and ice axes we cannot climb the Grand Veymont anymore. More snow has fallen last night, this time we need the snow chains to leave the parking. We cannot find ski poles until we arrive in Crest, half a day later.

When we arrive at Col de Rousset the next day, the wind is blowing with 6 Beaufort and stormy gusts. The snowing continues and low clouds arrive. We hear that this kind of weather will remain the next few days. We’re in two minds for a while but finally decide not to start. Unable to take all our gear, bad weather and heavy backpacks will make this a tough survival instead of holidays. Especially for us as inexperienced snow-hikers.

We drive a while at the plateau to find a place to spend the night. If we could find a guesthouse, we could do some day-hikes. Unfortunately all ski pistes are closed and thus all gîtes and guesthouses are closed too. Silently we head back home. What a pity, all planning, preparation. We looked forward to this trip so much.

Hautes Fagnes

On our way home we spot some snow in Belgium. Unexpected. The next morning we decide to spend the rest of our holidays in the Hautes Fagnes. In one-and-a-half hour we unpack our backpacks and repack them. The tent stays at home, the tarp we take with us. Extra food stays at home together with the rest of the gear that we don’t need. Fast we search for a nice tour and we leave.

According to the weather report, 40 cm of snow should be present in the Hautes Fagnes. On the road that runs around the Stausee there’s just enough snow present to ski cross country. At the end of the Stausee we are happy to leave the road. We pack our skis on our backpacks and walk on a footpath till dusk. In the Hautes Fagnes it’ll become -5 C at night too.

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Bivouac

Enroute a lot of animal trails can be seen. Thé biggest difference to hiking in summertime. The snow cracks under our feet as it’s still freezing. The thickness of the snow is around 10 cm, so skiing is possible. This tour will be a hybrid one: partly skiing, partly walking. Especially the footpaths along the Eschbach and the Steinbach we can recommend, they’re beautiful. The freezing of last week caused frozen sheets of ice on the creeks and many frozen icicles have been formed. Slowly the clouds roll in. Tomorrow the thawing will start and it will rain.

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Eschbach

We didn’t have time in our one-and-a-half hour of preparation to take the hunting into account. On one part of the tour we would like to do, we find the well-known yellow and red signs. Für Ihre Sicherheit, time to turn around. Unfortunately we walk partly where we walked yesterday, but on the other hand, it’s a really nice route. When we walk over the planking of the peat bogs we see how fast the thawing is proceeding. Last night the thermometer showed 0 C and on some parts of the planking the snow is gone completely. The wind picked up fiercely over the flatland, so we’re happy to return through the woods. When we drive back home, the rain starts. Two beautiful days.

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Enroute to Reinartzhof

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Movie

Bibliography

IGN Carte de Randonnée, 1:25 000, No 3236OT: Villard-de-Lans

IGN Carte Topographique, 1:50 000, No 35-43: Eupen