My Gap Year in the Norway Outback

Mum had done some research and, being in the police, you can sure rely on accurate information! Her Norwegian friends had recommended something called ‘Folk High School’, which is a non-academic boarding school devoted to leavers, looking for a year out to establish friendships and have fun adventures, before moving on. There are over 70 of them in Norway, all priding themselves on different aspects, whether it be religion, music, art or sport.
 
I'm from High Wycombe but my mum is Norwegian and I've been bought up to speak the language so I wanted to put it to good use. Off I went!

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Heimtun Boarding House

It's all about daring 

In simple terms, the course you choose is the bulk of your time and then on top of this, you take part in extra-curricular activities each term. By the end of the year I had done alpine skiing, produced a film trailer, been husky riding, tried ice hockey and even made my own longboard. Pretty damned productive I’d say.
 
With their motto being ‘It’s all about daring,' I knew Valdres was the school for me, so dare I did. 
 
Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Winter
 
Similar to the Brits with UCAS, Norwegians apply to lots of different schools, but as an international you can almost guarantee that you will get your first choice. Each school will offer different courses depending on what they specialise in. Among some of the options for Valdres were husky riding, X sport, outdoor pursuit and paragliding, to name but a few. If that weren't enough, each course goes abroad too. I climbed Kilimanjaro
 
Even though I had specified sport, I still had to choose between X Sport, outdoor pursuit and piste. Mum advised to go for outdoor pursuit in order to really experience the Norwegian way of life, and I knew that soon I would have to replace those post-pub-walk-pints with packed lunches at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. A fairly good exchange when you see views like this.

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Ski Mountaineering Ski Freestyle Winter

‘I am just going out and may be some time’

On the 18th August 2011, off I went to Valdres Folkehoyskole (3 hours north of Oslo), not knowing a soul or what I was getting myself into. I was also worried that Norway would emerge victorious upon discussing past rivalries and desperate not to be haunted by Oates’ last words in the Scott/Amundsen Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole, in which he famously said, ‘I am just going out and may be some time’. I thought that I, myself, may soon be biting the dust when I saw the itinerary list:
  • Four-day glacier trekking trip
  • Mountaineering in Jotunheimen
  • Three-day snow cave trip
  • Terrain/ mountain biking
  • Four-days of ski-making
  • Three-day canoeing trip
  • Three-day horse riding trip
  • 24 hours solo in the wilderness
  • Cross-country skiing 
  • Skiing in Schladming, Austrian Alps
Our mismatched group of 14 spent the most time on excursions away from the school. Having never camped in the wilderness before, or experienced sub-zero temperatures, there was certainly a steep learning curve ahead. Here’s a quick overview of some of my favourite trips.

Besseggen

Our first whole-school trip was, by the time we had made the most of the photo opportunities, a nine-hour trek over Besseggen. This is Norway’s most famous mountain, where the highest point lies at 1,743m. Once we started walking along the mountain ridge and the outstanding landscape began to come into view, it wasn’t difficult to see why 30,000 people complete the very same route each year.

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Besseggen Mountain Hiking

How not to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid

Not being particularly attached to the animal world, I could think of 101 things that would be better than sitting still in a saddle, on the verge of passing out while the brawny beast beneath me would release extreme volumes of pungent aromas. All the same, I didn’t want to miss out, so onwards and upwards we went.  
 
Let me tell you now, that watching John Wayne, Brokeback Mountain or the Grand National does not give you an advantage over the others as I had previously hoped. Let me tell you also, that this recreational activity is much more back-breaking, bum-bruising and thigh-throbbing than it looks, and with that, any chances of looking elegant, vanished into the mushrooming mound of manure.

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Horse Riding in the Mountains

Walking along the farm there were, admittedly, some cute breeds, and the guide assigned a few Icelandic ponies to members of our group. I waited my turn, secretly praying for a yay, or neigh-high pony. Having a slight dislike of animals, as well as a severe fear of heights, was not a good combination when I ended up with the highest horse in the entire group.

Turns out he was also the least disciplined. After a few gulps of fresh water he would rear, before galloping in the opposite direction of where we were headed. This does not sound dramatic, but trust me, their speed deceives you. A walk is fine, trot is ok, canter is entering dangerous territory and galloping, well, you may as well be preparing your will.

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Horse Riding in the Mountains

All in all, however, it was a fantastic three days of riding, filled with breathtaking views and time in the evenings to talk around the camp fire, toasting marshmallows. The night skies were even clear enough for us to sleep under the stars, and on the final night we were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, which was an unexpected surprise, but a sensational sight nonetheless!  

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Northern Lights Horse Riding in the Mountains Camping

Nigardsbreen glacier

And so it was about time we embarked on yet another fun-filled adventure, and now, we were headed for Nigardsbreen, a glacier which got its name from the farm it crushed when it began to shift forwards in 1741. We arrived at the foot of the glacier by boat each morning, carrying our provisions for the day, and then received a crash course on fitting the crampons, tying the knots and using the ice pick.

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Nigardsbreen Glacier Trekking Abseiling

With the landscape constantly changing, we may have been the only ones to walk where we did which made the glacier an exciting place to be, and we discovered some hidden gems on the way, such as ice holes, tunnels, not to mention a bathing opportunity should one be that way inclined, but that didn’t particularly take my fancy!  

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Nigardsbreen Glacier Trekking

How to try and be William Cecil Slingsby

Considered the father of ski mountaineering in Norway, it only made sense that I followed in the good Sir’s footsteps. Alhough my feats were not quite so impressive, a good starting point for any ski mountaineerer is, firstly, to be in possession a pair of skis (about to happen), and secondly, to be a competent cross-country skier (never going to happen).

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Cross Country Skiing

Over a four-day period, we set about making our very own wooden skis with Thomas Aslaksby, a Norwegian goat farmer, cheese manufacturer and ski maker. The accommodation was a disused village school, and it turned out that having 18th century students staring at us while we slept, was rather spooky, but we took it in good heart, despite our imaginations getting the better of us!

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Ski Making

The days were spent sketching, etching and polishing to perfection, and with tea and sledging breaks along the way, the planks of wood started to gradually transform into a functioning set of skis. We each marvelled at our own masterpieces, created from our hard graft and although, practically speaking, I won’t have much use for mine, they will certainly be hanging up somewhere in a future abode.  

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Ski Making Outdoor Pursuit

Living in a snow cave 

Undoubtedly one of my favourite experiences from the entire year! We drove an hour by bus, prepared with food, waterproofs, winter clothes and avalanche equipment, until we found a suitable place with a sufficient amount of snow. Contrary to popular belief that snow caves are built, they are actually dug - so, in groups of threes/fours, we got digging and the job was complete within a few hours. When the darkness descended upon us, we lit some candles to add a little warmth ‘inside’  and snuck out to get some photos of our day’s work at the office.

Gap Year Valdres Folkehogskole Outdoor Pursuit Snow Cave

Reflection

These are just a few of the extensive list of activities and trips that I took part in during the year. Yes, it was incredibly fun and no, I wouldn’t change it for the world, but as they ask in any job interview, what did you learn / gain?
  • I learned to immerse myself in a different culture and way of life.
  • I learned the value of friendship and team work.
  • I learned about the feeling of success and self-worth.  
  • I learned how to deal with conflict and how to live with others in close proximity.
  • And best of all, I learned that these memories and experiences will stay with me forever and are a brilliant conversation starter for uni!