By Michael Lanza
On a treeless tundra plateau deep in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, we stop before a bouncy suspension bridge over a roaring, snarling whitewater river. I shoot a glance at my 75-year-old mom. In a tone that contains more fatalism than enthusiasm, she reminds me, “I’ve never crossed one of these.”
I nod, and calmly assure her, “You can do this.” But the flushed look on her face tells me she’s not buying that line. I don’t need reminding that I’d planned this weeklong trek and convinced my mom she could handle it. I had even used a couple of words I’ve occasionally called on with her over the nearly three decades of adventures we’ve taken together: “Trust me.”
This week, it seems, I’m putting that trust to the test.
My confidence is not unfounded. I like to refer to my mom as The World’s Toughest Grandma. She didn’t even start hiking until her late 40s, when I first got her on the trail. After early forays up New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock, we moved on to bigger adventures together, ranging from a hut traverse of the Presidential Range to backpacking in the Grand Canyon when she was a spry lass of 62. But she’s never done anything as long or hard as this 60-mile trek. And she’s never been 75 years old on one of our big adventures, either.
It’s the second day of our hut-to-hut journey through Jotunheimen, and we’ve been hiking for five hours across a rugged, Arctic-looking landscape vibrantly colorful with shrubs, mosses, and wildflowers. Cliffs and mountains look like they were chopped from the earth with an axe. Lichen blankets glacial-erratic boulders. It’s beautiful, for sure, but rain, wind, and near-freezing temperatures have also made it a trial; the weather alone would be hard on anyone. Now we’re staring at this raging river spanned by a swaying bridge—which must look like a wobbly slackline to my septuagenarian mother.
Our multi-generation group eyeballs the bridge. In addition to my mom Joanne, the party includes my wife, Penny, our 11-year-old son, Nate, and nine-year-old daughter, Alex, and friends Jeff Wilhelm and his 20-year-old daughter, Jasmine.
Nate, our self-appointed guinea pig, forges across first, stopping midway to deliberately bounce the bridge like a diving board. (Not helping, Nate! I want to yell.) Alex strolls more cautiously across. My mom still looks like she might turn around and march in the other direction, all the way back to Oslo.
I recall another hike when I saw the same expression on her face. On a trip to Yosemite, when she was a youthful 58, she and I stopped at the base of the cable route on Half Dome while she contemplated scaling several hundred feet of dizzyingly steep granite. I told her we could turn back. We sat for half an hour in silence. Then she jumped to her feet: “OK, let’s go.” A little while later, we stood atop Half Dome, a beaming grin of disbelief on my mom’s face.
On this trip, I hope to see that look on my mom’s face again. Now I wonder: Have too many years gone by? Can she still make that leap of faith?
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Jotunheimen—which translates as “Home of the Giants”—contains the highest European mountains north of the Alps, starkly barren peaks rising to more than 8,000 feet. Thick, crack-riddled glaciers pour off them like pancake batter that needs more water. Braided rivers meander down mostly treeless valleys, and reindeer roam wild. But best of all, a trek in Jotunheimen combines pristine wilderness with the most luxurious huts I’ve ever stayed in—many featuring private rooms, hot showers, and restaurant-caliber meals—as well as flexible route options and side trips. It seemed perfect for my kids and mom. I figured, with such decadent huts, how hard can this trip be?
One small wrinkle: Thanks to an unusually cold summer, much of the ground here remains snow-covered in late July. And rather than the average summer highs in the 50s, the forecast calls for days of rain, high temperatures in the 30s, and winds that may explain how people first got the notion that reindeer can fly.
Indeed, we had to implement Plan B yesterday—our trek’s first morning. At Gjendesheim, a hotel masquerading as a hut on the shore of an 11-mile-long finger lake named Gjende, we awoke to the meteorological manifestation of misery: The temperature sat just a few hash marks above freezing, drizzle spat from the sky, fresh snow was visible below the low cloud ceiling on the mountainsides, and the wind blew like April in North Dakota. When we saw the forecast posted in the hut promising more of the same, my mom, kids, and Penny reached a quick consensus that the 30-minute ferry across Gjende to our next hut, Memurubu, looked like a fine alternative to battling the weather. Meanwhile, Jeff, Jasmine, and I pulled on our shells and set out to hike 10 miles to Memurubu via Besseggen Ridge.
Known as “the most famous hike in Norway,” Besseggen is one of those iconic places that draws a crowd on a nice summer day. In wind-driven, bone-shivering rain and snow, though, we saw almost no one. The three of us constituted the only spots of color on a treeless plateau of rock and tundra freshly painted white. Dressed for winter in multiple layers, gloves, and a wool hat, I had to remind myself that it is the middle of July.
And then came the magic. Four hours into our hike, the clouds lifted like a stage curtain, revealing snowy mountains rolling away to far horizons. Before us, Besseggen Ridge tilted sharply downward and narrowed to a gooseneck land bridge separating the emerald Gjende from another lake, the hypnotically blue Bessvatnet. Green mountains erupted from the water. (Picture the Scottish Highlands flooded, with equally unpronounceable place names.) The seemingly improbable sculpturing of earth and water stirred the same awe I’ve felt in places like Patagonia and Iceland. For a moment, I wished my family were there.
But only for a moment. As we scrambled down several hundred feet of exposed, rain-slick ledges, another image crowded my thoughts: of a family we encountered in the wailing whiteout earlier on Besseggen. Well before catching up to them, we heard the girl, around my daughter’s age, crying and screaming, “Cold! Cold!” She wasn’t just whining; the girl was clearly hypothermic. We persuaded her parents to turn back to Gjendesheim, the fastest retreat off Besseggen.
Now I’m a bit concerned about how my kids and mom will fare in the days ahead, trekking rugged miles over snow-covered ground, fording frigid rivers—some days through hours of the kind of cold rain and wind that suck the life from your body like one of Harry Potter’s dementors. And there won’t be a ferry or shortcut most days.
I chose Jotunheimen looking for the wildest adventure I could take my kids and mom on—and have them like it. But I didn’t expect to be testing their limits.
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The World’s Toughest Grandma isn’t about to let her grandkids show her up—or perhaps she just realizes that she really has no choice in the matter. So after Nate and Alex cross the suspension bridge, mom steels herself and goes for it. She moves slowly, stepping gingerly to minimize any bouncing. Watching her, I marvel at her ability to go far outside her comfort zone at an age when most people just want to take it easy. This trek may be pushing her limits, but she seems determined to not let it defeat her.
After the bridge, we descend a hillside of boulders and ground-hugging greenery, past jet-engine-loud waterfalls. In a steady shower, we hike beside another long, narrow lake framed by naked hills.
While my mom walks with Penny, I quicken my pace to catch up with Nate and Alex, recalling a family trip we took to the Columbia River Gorge last summer with my mom. At 74, she hiked 12 miles to Tunnel Falls and, the next day, seven miles and 3,000 feet up Dog Mountain. On that trip, my eight-year-old daughter couldn’t keep up with her grandmother. In Jotunheimen, though, Alex’s pace eclipses my mom’s. My mom hasn’t slowed much in a year; Alex has leapt forward. As much as I feel joy and pride at seeing my kids grow more capable, I feel a pang of sympathy for my mother, forced to accept this generational changing of the guard, as inevitable as rivers flowing downhill. The sight of my kids pulling away from my mom has a disorienting effect on me as well: It feels like looking simultaneously in opposite directions, into my own past and future.
I was in my early 20s when I first took my mom on a hike. I was single and steering hard into a lifelong passion for the mountains; she was a middle-aged mother with only two of five children out of college—and a few years younger than I am now. At a time in life when many young adults and their parents spend less time together, growing more distant, my mom and I found something to bring us closer.
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At a basic level, two things have made my adventures with my mom possible. The first and most critical is her ability to do something that many people cannot do: step outside her comfort zone. She has been places and done things that, based on her experience prior to the middle of her life, would seem as familiar as Saturn. The second is that, for reasons still inexplicable to me, she has trusted me when I’ve said, “You can do this.”
Over the decades, even after I married, had kids, and moved across the country, we still made time for at least one annual trip. We’d hike and talk about family, books, recipes, and harder subjects, like her wishes for the end of her life. Those times entered a lockbox of memories—which will someday be my most prized legacy from her. And they have inspired me to take my kids on regular father-son and father-daughter trips of our own.
My kids and I pull ahead of the others through a cold, steady rain to Fondsbu hut, on the shore of Bygdin lake. Inside, we all peel off wet clothes and boots and feel warmth creep back into our bodies.
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At dinner, boisterous trekkers fill every chair in the hut’s 67-seat dining room for two sittings. They’re mostly Norwegians drinking heartily and bellowing “skol!” at frequent intervals. We dig into salad and bread followed by turkey with home-fried potatoes and vegetables—and for dessert, chocolate mousse with sorbet. Then Sjølborg Kvålshaugen, the hut warden, stands before the packed room, hands clasped. Six feet tall and strong-looking—with a beautiful voice that stills the Norwegians—she sings, a cappella, the jazz classic “Whenever We Say Goodbye.”
The warmth and food and good cheer lift everyone’s spirits. But after dinner, Sjølborg informs me that most of the way to our next hut is snow-covered, and tomorrow’s forecast calls for rain and temps barely above freezing. At our bunks, I share this news with everyone. My mom says nothing, her smile gone; Nate and Alex burrow inside their sleeping bags.
That’s just how a mutiny begins: when they don’t talk to you.
Olavsbu and Leirvassbu Huts
Given the forecast, we unanimously agree on hunkering down for another night at Fondsbu—the park’s numerous trail options let us easily shave a day and one hut from my original itinerary. While the others read, play games, drink hot cocoa, eat chocolate, nap, and generally exult in the comfort of the hut’s two spacious living rooms, Jasmine, Jeff, and I again suit up for the worst that Norway can throw at us. We head out for a four-hour hike past icy lakes and white cascades, below dark mountains that occasionally peek through the gray fog—enjoying every moment. Knowing a hut awaits has a way of making miserable weather seem beautifully mystical.
But that rain delay is our last mulligan. Any more days off will affect our reservations at later huts. So we hit the trail again on our fourth morning, in a cold wind and intermittent rain on a 10.5-mile, mostly uphill hump from Fondsbu to Olavsbu hut. Alex, Nate, and my mom happily deploy the three trekking umbrellas I brought, until the wind keeps inverting them and threatening to Mary Poppins my featherweight children to Sweden. When we stopped for a hurried lunch on wet rocks, I see the frowns and tight grimaces on my family’s faces as they quietly huddle like penguins. The day ends with a long descent over snow that my mom negotiates slowly. She and I arrive at the hut well after everyone else, walking the home stretch in a raw, driving deluge.
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The next morning, the thermometer outside the Olavsbu hut reads zero Celsius and the wind—which seems to rarely rest in Norway—moans a Gregorian chant. But the sun finally shatters the persistent overcast. So even as we again wear multiple layers and set out across snow-covered ground, the spiritual lift the sunshine gives us feels palpable. Everyone walks with a quicker, lighter step as we pass beneath peaks whose blades of gray rock carve into the oceanic sky. Jasmine, a preternaturally ebullient person who I think could find reasons for optimism living as a galleon slave, says, “I can’t believe how beautiful it is here! I’m just so happy!” My mom is doing great, clearly enjoying the scenery.
Then we come to another stream crossing.
They’re a regular feature of a Jotunheimen trek, and most hikers cross them easily. But for a 75-year-old, the pushy water and slick rocks pose a real challenge. This one—100 feet across, swift, calf-deep, achingly cold with snowmelt, its bed paved with cobblestones—looks harder than average. A walkway of rocks, some slightly submerged, offers a route across that would save us from a numbing ford—if everyone can avoid falling in.
I survey my family’s expressions: Nate, eagerness; Alex, uncertainty; my mom, mortal dread. I tell everyone that I’ll lead the kids and my mom across one at a time—quietly hoping we don’t end up with any broken bones or frigid immersions.