Jumping for a photo on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)
Article Words : Phoebe Smith | 14 April

Hiking, biking and climbing to Norway's fantastic fjords

Norway’s quirky trio of rock formations have become social media sensations – and are now linked by shuttle bus to make it easier to finish a trekking trilogy (complete with obligatory selfie) in four days

Snow lay thick on the rocks, an unmarked blanket of uninterrupted white. Above, the clouds scudded lazily over the tops of the mountains, cutting their height by at least a third, while the wind flattened the small pockets of exposed grass tufts that dared to peek above the icy tundra.

It was a good day for a walk – albeit one that required multiple warm layers and sturdy walking boots, so I couldn’t help but gasp as a girl approached me wearing a T-shirt, leggings, and a thin pair of socks under her sandals that sagged around her ankles, saturated by the snow. But then I’d forgotten one thing. This path was taking me to Kjeragbolten, one of the most photographed boulders in the world.

During the last Ice Age, a large ball of granite became wedged between two cliffs above Lysefjorden and now, every year, travellers complete the six-hour round-trip trek to take the ultimate selfie while perched precariously on top of it.

Kjeragbolten (Shutterstock)
Kjeragbolten (Shutterstock)

Kjerag is not alone. Two other rock formations in Norway have also acquired social media fame: Pulpit Rock, a doorstop-like wedge of cliff jutting out of the other side of the fjord, and Trolltunga, a pointed, tongue-like platform that dramatically sticks out over a lake and is four hours’ drive further north.

So prolific has this trio of ‘rock stars’ become that the tourist board has launched a shuttle service to take visitors from the quiet fishing town of Stavanger in the south to the northern city of Bergen, via the starting points for walks to each of them, meaning you can complete your selfie set in three-to-four days. And I’d come to bag the hat-trick myself, beginning with Kjerag.


Selfie-obsessed

“The biggest surprise for most people is the distance,” said Henrik Lilleheim, the parking attendant at Øygardstøl, where the bus drops walkers first. “These are by no means ‘get out your car, snap the shot and be on your way’ kind of things,” he warned.

Although Henrik is there to help organise the vehicles, he actually serves a greater purpose: keeping an eye on current conditions and advising visitors accordingly, which he rather aptly does via his Facebook page. “I mentally tick people off as they set out and return,” said Henrik, “as well as advise them to put on extra clothes or sometimes not go at all, although they don’t always listen.”

He looked me up and down, from my woolly hat to my heavy-duty waterproof jacket and boots. “I think you’ll be ok,” he grinned, pulling out his phone to show me a photo of himself stood atop Kjeragbolten completely naked.

Sporting a few more togs was my local guide, Line, and her husband, Paul, who were there to see me safely to the top. The walk-in consisted of three main undulations and we started up the first that rose steeply from the car park. There’s a series of chains and ropes to assist you in sections should you need them, though under the weight of the winter snow, which this season lingered until early July, many had snapped and it was easier to avoid them.

Walking to Kjerag's summit (Neil S Price)
Walking to Kjerag's summit (Neil S Price)

We were quiet on the way in, anticipation growing with each rise and fall of the terrain. When we reached the summit plateau and the giant cairn that marked the official top of Kjerag (the mountain, not the boulder), there was no one around but us. For a minute it was completely silent, then whoops of excitement from up ahead alerted us that the showstopping stone was nearby. We pushed on.

Kjeragbolten sits below a rise on the sprawling plateau. At first glance it looks innocuous, but as you near it you see the breath-drawing drop that hangs below and you start to feel your legs wobble uncontrollably.

Happily, it sits next to a large, flat rectangular patch where you can sit and watch the small queue of daredevils attempting to summon the courage (or talk the sense out of themselves, depending on your perspective) to clamber on, which is where I headed. I could immediately detect several different styles.

There were the cocksure, who would simply stride onto it as though stepping onto a pavement; the reluctant, who would gingerly lower themselves to a sitting position, then shift their body up onto it and stay in an uncomfortable-looking crouch until the photo was done; and then the oblivious, mainly those with selfie sticks who didn’t seem to give a second thought to the risky task, being far more concerned with getting the right setting on their mobile phones.

The vertigo-inducing Kjeragbolten, (Neil S Price)
The vertigo-inducing Kjeragbolten (Neil S Price)

Looking away from the spectacle, I was suddenly in awe of the impressive scenery beyond the boulder. Below my feet the mountain flanks swept down to the choppy waters of the fjord where tiny boats bobbed like croutons on a watery soup. Metres away, a waterfall sliced through the blackened rocks, melting away any hint of snow. I looked back at the people on Kjeragbolten and wondered how many would take a moment to enjoy this view.

Walking back, the clouds thinned, revealing the township of Lysebotn far below – so deep is the valley that from October until late February or early March, sun never reaches it. Now it was illuminated in the dim glow of the afternoon light. Stood up here, surrounded by snow, it was like peering out of winter into another season.

“Do you think people would come here if there was no boulder at the top?” I asked Line. “Absolutely not,” she laughed. “People need a draw; it’s about getting that photo. But,” she said, looking around, “they really should…” From Øygardstøl a road of 27 hairpin bends weaves its way down to Lysebotn.

There, a few metres from the ferry port that would allow me to connect with a bus to my next stop in the morning, sat a walkers’ hostel. Dotted all around Norway, they offer simple dorm beds or private rooms, as well as good, hearty home-cooked meals.

That evening, sat with Line and Paul, we watched BASE jumpers leap from Kjerag as the sun set, eating stew and toasting the selfie-takers for bringing the bus to this fjord.

Pulpit sermons

Dawn broke before daylight had the chance to reach its fingers into the depths of the town, so I made my way by the light of my headtorch to catch the ferry, bidding Line and Paul farewell. It was from boat’s upper deck, about an hour later, the wind so strong that it blew my hood clean off my head, that I first saw Pulpit Rock, its triangular wedge shape immediately recognisable.

Looking down on Pulpit Rock and its terrifying glory (Neil S Price)Looking down on Pulpit Rock and its terrifying glory (Neil S Price)

Rain pattered on the car windows on the drive up to Preikestolen Fjellstue, the large outdoor centre at the start of a four-hour hike. I began walking through the gnarled wooden branches of a forest, the atmosphere becoming heavier as I stepped out onto an open rocky plateau.

Climbing stone steps, teetering across a wooden bridge over a crevice, and following a sloping walkway higher still, I emerged onto a flattened area. The cloud was so encompassing that if I held out my hand in front of me, I struggled to define my own fingers. I waited. Slowly I began to make out what looked like the shadows of people.

The sharp horizontal line of the cliff edge gradually became clear, then the even sharper vertical line revealed itself too, disappearing into the mist below. Taking another less-used path to go higher still, it deposited me around 15 metres above the crowd and, as the cloud properly lifted, I got to see Pulpit Rock in all its terrifying glory.

People swarmed all over its glacially formed 25m-by-25m square with their phones in hand, lying on its edge or venturing as close to it as they dared to get a shot of the drop. But my view was definitely better; from there I could see across the entire length of the fjord, with Pulpit Rock appearing dramatically stage-like in the foreground. I could have sat there for hours.

Pulpit Rock (Shutterstock)
Pulpit Rock (Shutterstock)

The most popular of the three sites (due to its shorter hike), its path is well looked after and in 2014 was widened to avoid bottlenecks. Despite the odd selfie stick putting in an appearance, walkers should be thankful, as the increased unofficial marketing of the place on social media has made it more accessible for us all.

But it’s not just the walking trail that’s benefitted. Back at Preikestolen Fjellstue, increased demand has seen a new 27-room hut constructed for walkers. An eco-friendly affair, it mixes reclaimed wood with space-saving design quirks that wouldn’t be out of place in an IKEA catalogue.

Those attempting to do the trio of walks in three days wouldn’t have time to stop there, as the bus leaves in the afternoon for Trolltunga, but I treated myself to a stay. At dusk I took a stroll to a nearby lake where a giant wooden troll stares out to sea, then dined in the hut’s restaurant on local vegetables and fish from the fjord, all served on slate wedges.

Images from the edge

The journey to Tyssedal, for Trolltunga, would take most of the next day, meaning a day off from walking. I worried that my legs would get itchy sat on transportation, but instead I was treated to a drive through prime fjordland, punctuated with thundering waterfalls, mirror-flat lakes lined with fir trees, and clapboard houses perched on tiny islands.

My destination was a small hotel just outside the larger town of Odda, where the following morning I met with my guide, Jostein Soldal of Trolltunga Active. “This area was hugely popular with Victorian tourists,” he said. “That’s actually what built up the town in the first place.”

As he spoke I was being fitted for a mountain bike and handed a climbing harness. Most opt to do the 10 hour there-and-back walk to reach Trolltunga. But not me. I was convinced that the real joy of Norway’s famous three selfie spots was the getting there, so I’d signed up for a group cycle and via ferrata climb to take me to the top.

A bike ride on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)
A bike ride on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)

We set out on a wide track that edged lake Ringedalsvatnet. I could feel the suspension bounce as the track became rough, and felt myself squeeze on the brakes involuntarily as little stones popped under my tyres. The biking required concentration, but the mountain scenery that surrounded us made it impossible – so much so that I had to do a skidding emergency stop when the bikes in front of me came to a sudden halt.

We left our wheels and followed a track up through the trees. Clambering over rocks, we reached the first of a series of metal ladder rungs drilled into the rock face, all heading vertically up.

“If you can climb a ladder, you can definitely climb this,” said Jostein as he demonstrated the correct way to clip onto the steel safety cable that ran alongside it. Via ferrata are fixed routes that allow non-climbers to ascend verticals that are usually only within the abilities of skilled mountaineers.

Despite my reservations, I found myself clinging to rocky overhangs and hauling myself up sheer rock faces. Every time it got a little too scary, I would hum the James Bond theme tune in my head while trying to ignore the drop beneath my feet.

Within minutes of topping out, we reached Trolltunga – where a queue had already formed to get the photo. Some sat right on the edge and dangled their feet, others pretended they were about to dive off, and two groups had stripped to take part in naked selfies (or “nakies” as they are known – they happen that regularly). As I watched the poses, Jostein laughed.

A naked selfie on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)
A naked selfie on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)

“You might not believe it, standing here now, but for a long time this area was forgotten. After the Victorians left, we fought hard to attract visitors. But over the last five years, mainly due to social media, people have been rediscovering this place, and numbers grow every year. We’re a bit like Angkor Wat or Petra: both were rediscovered by explorers, and now Trolltunga has been rediscovered too – this time by explorers carrying selfie sticks.”

As I walked away, packing my harness in my bag, I stopped far from the crowd to look at the opposite ridge and the endless peaks that seemed to rise wave-like beyond. It’s easy to dismiss these wonders as photo-stops only, but none of the three rocks here in Norway can be reached without putting in time, effort and hard work.

Group selfie on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)
Group selfie on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)


Their resurgence in popularity is helping communities grow, launching green initiatives such as the new shuttle bus and sustainable walkers’ hostels. Perhaps most importantly, they’re getting people not normally interested in hiking to head outdoors and discover the joy of reaching a place powered by their own two feet.

Like many before me, I gazed at the thick snow all around, the sun bursting through the clouds, and reasoned that I might have come for the photos, but I would leave with so much more than could ever be captured on camera.

Make it happen...

Fly in to Stavanger and back from Bergen. Norwegian offers daily flights to both from London Gatwick, Birmingham and Edinburgh. British Airways offers daily flights from Heathrow; flight time is from 1.5 hours; prices start from £45 each way. A shuttle bus between the the cities and the three hikes is available from Tide Bus; prices from around 300NOK (£24). Car rental is available from both airports if preferred.


Accommodation

There are many options available in both Stavanger and Bergen. The author stayed at Skagen Brygge (Stavanger), a short walk from Old Stavanger with views across the harbour. Doubles from 2,055NOK (£165), which includes a complimentary evening meal and breakfast too.

Activities

Hiking both Kjerag and Pulpit Rock all paths are waymarked. Trolltunga is a more serious undertaking. The route is marked but is long. For a more exciting route to the top, try the Himmelstigen with Trolltunga Active (1,100NOK [£88]). You will cycle the first 7km on a fairly flat but rough track, then clip in to climb the last vertical 200m by via ferrata.

Dangling on the edge of Trolltunga (Neil S Price)
Dangling on the edge of Trolltunga (Neil S Price)



Main Image: Jumping for a photo on Trolltunga (Neil S Price)