EXA is a crossing of the Amundsen pass on skis while pulling a 40kg sled: 100kms of snow-covered wilderness named after the great polar explorer. I don’t remember how I came to see the 2015 edition’s video in October last year, but I instantly knew I’d love to do it. I shared it on facebook, tagged a few friends who live in Norway with something along the lines of “Maybe in 2017? Anyone you know doing this next year?” 2017 seemed feasible because 2016 was too short notice for me to even think about putting a budget together. A few weeks later Mette, one of the friends I had tagged and briefly exchanged with on the subject, asked me if I’d be there in February (for the expedition). She had already signed up for the 2016 edition with her brother Morten and a friend! Slightly puzzled at first, I started thinking about going to at least check it out – the preparation, gear, location and logistics needed – and take the opportunity to see friends, ski, work on my winter skills and take some photos of this beautiful season, something you don’t get in Mauritius…
Perhaps two or three weeks of frantic planning and budgeting later, bang! Tickets were booked and funds saving initiated. I would go to Scandinavia after South Africa (see previous posts). Fast forward to mid-February and I was already trying to ski and gone hiking with Mette, within two hours of landing in Bergen. The weather was amazing and sunset on Livvarden was just stunning, with shadows and colors on the snow that you probably only get on the mountains.
From then on most of our activities were somewhat related to EXA. Since I was staying with Mette and Torbjorn I joined them on a Barry’s Bootcamp training, went running early in the morning (only once), watched the amazing mountain expedition film MERU and visited the outdoor equipment store a couple of times! We also had a couple of “meetings” with Mette’s brothers and family. True “born with skis on their feet” kind of Norwegians who go on family training camps every year, they are one of the most active and athletic I’ve ever met. Since I knew Mette from Australia in 2006, we had been running buddies, she played soccer in the university’s team and when I visited Bergen in 2012, she was running up and down a mountain every afternoon. Needless to say, fitness wasn’t an issue. Her brother Marius had participated in EXA twice; once in a team and once solo, so he was really encouraging and full of insights.
On Feb 17th I took off for a mountain sports festival in a small town called Sogndal, where I met a lot of fantastic people, skied some more and managed to join the festival’s photo team. I will write a dedicated article for this, but it was a great way to practice my “action photography” with all the do’s and don’ts related to the snow and cold, for the equipment AND the freezing bloke behind the lens! I came back to Bergen on the 20th for a memorable Masquerade Party, took a good couple of days to recover from the week that had passed, prepared some more and in the afternoon of the 24th we loaded the sled into the car, met Morten on the way and drove to Eidfjord!
Aside from the superb Fjord itself, Eidfjord is a small town that hosts Expedition Amundsen in the winter and a mountain marathon in the summer. With registrations closing at 8:30pm, we hurried to the Fjell & Fjord hotel for information and then to a sports gymnasium where the event’s crew was tasked in inspecting all the participants’ gear: completing the checklist is a strict requirement for making it through the start line. Since we arrived slightly late, our procedure was cut in half by the pre-race meeting, a presentation in a big room where the 200-odd athletes sat on the floor and listened intently to the race directors speaking Norwegian. “We have 6 people who speak only English so please come see us afterwards and we will tell you everything in English”, they said! As for me I had already met the media crew at the hotel, a group of four lead by Kai-Otto Melau who had been covering the event for some years now. Unfortunately I couldn’t go up on the Hardangervidda plateau due to the short notice and procedures needed to access the national park, so I was tasked with photographing the start and finish areas. More snow-covered landscapes anyway, I was happy with that!
The next day we took a three hour drive from Eidfjord to the start area at Haukeli and like most things you anticipate for a while, it seemed to pass by quite unceremoniously despite a certain emotional buildup. Surely I’m feeling that way because I didn’t do the race this time. It must have been quite something for the contenders. First they all got their pulk (sled) back and frantically took what they needed to wear and carry on their backs, shuffled a few things to have the essentials easily accessible, and made their way to the designated starting point. Two starts took place: one for individuals and one for teams, about half an hour apart.
They had a tough job from the very beginning, with a steep hill to zig-zag across before getting to the flatter plateau. I couldn’t be satisfied with shooting only the mass of people hurrying up the slope though, so I hiked up to the top and boy I’m glad I did. For about 30 minutes I could enjoy the vast wilderness that they would for the next day or two, just them and nature in a very cleansing form: white, cold, silent (or windy).
I was hot from the climb, no doubt as were they, so I took off my hat and could barely feel my ears two minutes later. This is a critical part of a successful expedition: staying warm and dry. Racers generally wore only a very breathable “net” type of shirt and a shell jacket with zippers under the arms to let out the heat, and sweat evaporate. When you had to stop for more than a few minutes, you had to change the base layer to something dry and wear a down jacket, or you easily got very cold. A few stopped briefly to change skis or have a quick drink or bite and quickly they were all gone.
As the last ones passed by and the file of skiers and sleds faded into the distance, some snow kiters had setup and launched across the snow, topping off a beautiful day in the sun for me.
Just after I came down the slope we drove back to Eidfjord where the two Norwegians of the team Kai-Otto and Andre left us to go shoot by night. Alberto from Italy and I stayed in Eidfjord, watching the live tracking to assess when the leaders would arrive at the finish line in Maurset the next morning. There I spent two days photographing the winners in each category and more, enjoyed the company of the friendly and dedicated Xtremeidjord crew in what I called the “Ops centre” (the spacious, warm and comfortable red-cross cabin at the ski centre) and in the Lavvo, the tent of the indigenous Nordic people where they prepared coffee and hot soup for finishers.
I spent quite a lot of time outside and relatively still, but Alberto was out most of the second night as skiers kept coming through. He had the task of photographing each and every one of them for the “Wall of Amundsen”, a collection of portraits for all contenders. The temperature dropped to -20. I brought him coffee and some food including a horrible sandwich with pesto in it, a kind of blasphemy for an Italian man, and whatever boiled eggs and fruit I also brought were frozen solid within the hour.
Meanwhile many athletes were out there skiing in the dark or sleeping in tents, with Kai-Otto, Agur and Andre capturing the nocturnal action. As I mentioned EXA had an excellent live tracking system which allowed us to know who was where at any time. At around midnight I had photographed the winners of each category. Mette and Morten had another 30km to go so I decided to get some sleep. They arrived around mid-day on the 27th, obviously tired and cold, with some blisters and probably quite hungry, really happy to have made the challenge and already talking about dos and don’ts for next time. To mark their accomplishment, each individual athlete or team had a small flag to plant on a snow pile with all the others – a gesture that feels really on point after all this effort!
Overall, EXA was a fantastic experience. Big thanks go to Mette for taking me along, Marius for the tips and putting me in touch with the right people, Morten for bearing with the nosy foreigner, Kai-Otto and the media team for the opportunity to join them and all the Xtremeidfjord crew that was so dedicated and obviously really enjoying the event. Now that I’ve seen the start and finish, I just want to go the whole way.
For all official information and more images, visit http://www.xtremeidfjord.no