At this point, I don’t even remember how I found out about Trolltunga.

Maybe it was a post on Reddit, or some clickbait blog that lists the world’s most difficult hikes, like the stairs of death at Huayna Picchu or the Plank Road of Mount Huashan in Xi’an, China, an early contender for next year’s anniversary destination. After Costa Rica, I decided to make finding some ridiculously difficult hike around the world and go see if I could survive it an annual event on the anniversary of giving up booze forever, after I somehow survived seven years of hard drinking, getting drunk every single night and driving home on most of them.

Trolltunga is a cliff formed by glacial erosion during the Ice Age over ten thousand years ago, in the Hardanger Mountains of Norway, overlooking Lake Ringedalsvatnet. The path to it can only be traversed from March to October, as attempting it during the winter months carries with it the serious risk of death from exposure, among other dangers. In the late winter and early spring months, it can only be hiked with a guide, and there’s only one company which offers it – TrolltungaActive, the cost of which is 1,300 Norwegian Krone, which comes out to about $150. The distance is 28 Kilometers round trip, or about 18 miles, up heavy incline with snowshoes, carrying with you everything you need to handle a 12 hour mountain trek.

I figured after surviving the Valley of Desolation and Cerro Chato, I could also survive this.  Somehow, I managed to conveniently forget just how much I struggled with those hikes, despite not injuring myself or having to turn back. I convinced myself it would be worth it to stand on that ledge and take in that vista.

Hubris is a hell of a drug.

Just like with Paris, I got airfare for a decent price, just over $600, yet this time it wouldn’t be a direct flight. It included a seven-hour layover in Boston as well as three hours in Amsterdam, before arriving in Bergen, on the west coast of Norway.

Boston wouldn’t be a problem, as its one of my favorite cities to visit. Thankfully Logan Airport isn’t that far from the North End, where there’s seemingly an Italian bakery on every corner, but there was only one that I wanted to visit – Mike’s Pastry. It’s one of those famous establishments where the line goes down the block during summertime and they only take cash.

I caught an Uber since it was only a ten-minute ride from the airport, and the driver’s name was Silvestre. He had a nosering and was friendly enough to chat with in his thick Massachusetts accent. Dropping me off right in front of Mike’s, I was pleasantly surprised to find there was literally no one waiting in line to stand between me and my peanut butter cannoli. There were no tables open, though, so I stood outside on the sidewalk, untied the box and with the first bite, the sticky innards pulled my denture right out with nearly zero resistance.

I felt impossibly fucking awkward, and should have seen it coming a mile away, though it didn’t take away from how delicious it was.

Shamefully walking back inside, I found an open chair (not even a table, just a chair) and sat down to finish my cannoli. My embarrassment notwithstanding, I can confirm that Mike’s has earned its North End reputation.

From there I strolled about, walking to the Paul Revere statue for a Fallout 4 moment, and then to the TD Banknorth Garden to visit the Pro Shop. As much as I would have liked to walk away with a game-official Zdeno Chara jersey, the eternal question of “How often am I really going to wear this” won out and I settled on a Bruins keychain. Continuing the Vacation Rationalization in terms of what I could eat, I stopped in at Ernesto’s for a few slices of pizza. I figured I was doing enough walking, I could afford a few extra calories.

Taking an Uber back to Logan would have been repetitive, and even though I still had around four hours before my flight, I didn’t want to take any chances getting back through security, so I took a small ferry across the harbor. A huge tanker crossed right before we did, pushed by a tug. The driver remarked how the tankers leave little to no wake, but the tugs practically create surf.

Laptop pinball and a Wendy’s chicken sandwich passed the time in Logan, and as the boarding process started, I noticed a dude dressed almost exactly like Marty McFly, red vest and all. Once we were boarded, it felt like it took forever before takeoff. My heart sank when I found out two small, loud boys traveling with the Czech family I’d been sitting next to in the terminal, no older than five, would be sitting directly behind me for this six and a half hour flight over the Atlantic. One of them kicked my chair even before the rest of the passengers were seated. I wished I was dead a little bit.

As we were taxing toward the runway, I looked out the window to see another flight landing directly in front of us, and for a split second, I had a Final Destination moment where I thought there might be some miscommunication in ATC, and we were going to collide with them.

Just like in Breaking Bad, you can’t account for human error.

The other flight landed without slamming into us, and three more followed before we were finally in the air.

Delta has a fairly nice selection of new movies to watch on their seat-screens. Having only seen it once in the theatre, I watched The Last Jedi. Not to turn this into a movie review, but upon re-watching it, I felt like it was half-awesome and half-cringe, “sporadically interesting” as Rich Evans of RedLetterMedia described it. The parts that were good, I loved and made me feel like a kid again, and the parts that were bad, my eyes rolled so far back in my head they nearly popped out. Where they go from here and how they complete the current arc, I have no idea. The new trilogy had so much potential after The Force Awakens, now much of it feels wasted.

Sitting next to me, a girl I guessed to be in her early 20’s with braided pigtails and braces was watching Thor Ragnarok, and I found myself pausing my movie to eye-hustle her screen at certain moments. Later I watched Cars 3, because I can’t help but enjoy anything Pixar makes. Miraculously, the kids sitting behind me behaved themselves before they fell asleep. I almost thanked them when we landed.

The landing coming into Schiphol Airport was one of the roughest I’ve ever experienced, with high winds and rain. I won’t even front like I wasn’t white-knuckling the armrests as we touched down. The girl noticed this and remarked that the roughest landings are usually the best. Her name was Hannah and she was flying home from Tampa to Scotland after visiting for a friend’s wedding, originally from Austria. It was bizarre to sit next to someone for almost seven hours on an airplane without saying a word to each other, and then strike up a conversation only after landing.

She recommended visiting Vienna sometime, though the part of the city with the densest population of tourists is also the one with the most people just trying to go about their day. I told her about the hike I was going on and, she also showed me pictures of places you can hike to in Scotland and it definitely made the list.

We chatted, walked to her gate, bid each other farewell, and she wished me luck on the hike. I still had a few hours to kill and later regretted not seeing if she wanted to have coffee while we waited for our respective flights. It’s not like I was ever going to see her again, and some company in the waning hours would have been nice. With the time change, everyone in the states was now fast asleep. Yet, exhaustion was setting in by the time I was getting ready to board the flight to Bergen, and I was noticeably tired.

I was however thoroughly amused by seeing all the pot-related merchandise in the Schiphol Airport gift shops. Amsterdam certainly knows the American tourist demographic well.

The final leg of the journey was without question the worst, though mercifully the shortest, and probably one of the worst flight experiences I’ve had.

I always make it a point to select the window seat, as listening to “Driving with the Top Down” from the Iron Man soundtrack as the plane goes from zero to two hundred in less than thirty seconds during takeoff, followed immediately by “Gotham’s Reckoning” from The Dark Knight Rises during the initial ascent never, ever gets old. The online check-in for this flight auto-selected me the middle seat. Fuck. Also, since it’s only an hour and a half flight to Bergen, it was a smaller plane with cramped seating. The man to my left had staked his claim to the arm rest before I ever sat down, and the woman to my right looked positively annoyed with the fact that she was even on the plane to begin with. Factor in my growing exhaustion, and I was rapidly approaching freak-out territory. The KLM crew managed to compensate by being extremely pleasant.

As we start the descent into Bergen-Flesland airport, I look out the window and my frustration gave way to a shit-eating grin seeing scattered snow-covered islands. I’m pumped walking through the terminal to ‘Immigrant Song’, having finally arrived in Norway.

Four out of the five fragile stickers were somehow peeled off my bag and its soaking wet on one side when it finally comes sliding off the carousel. Fantastic.

I find the rental car kiosk, and the attendant first assumes I speak Norwegian, before saying “I have a reservation,” and then immediately switches over to English. This ended up being the routine experience interacting with the locals. There wasn’t a single person I interacted with over the week who didn’t speak English. I have her add GPS to my rental, and she says the total price comes out to four-thousand, nine hundred.

My heart stops and jaw drops. “In Norwegian money,” she says. Exhale.

Having been awake for almost 24 hours to the minute, the exchange rate slipped my mind and that it takes about seven Krone to equal one dollar. Still, I didn’t realize that adding it would push the cost of the rental over the cost of even the flight itself — more than my rent used to be living outside of downtown. I begin to question whether or not I should have arranged for alternate transportation to the town near the hike, but in the end, it was worth it to be able to drive through the mountains, as well as be able to explore, clock the drive to the hike starting point the day beforehand and back to the hotel afterwards.

I’m thankful I rented a car in Costa Rica because it was just the preparation I needed for making the drive. More than once I had to remind myself to watch the road, as I was torn between slack-jawed amazement looking at the mountain cliff backdrops and not driving off of one of them. It was like a Disney ride – narrow winding roads, up and down steep hills, with ice and snow-covered rocks and waterfalls right alongside the road, and tunnel after tunnel. The music from Skyrim, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones had never been more fitting.

For the record, roundabouts are so much less stressful and more convenient than red lights, it’s almost criminal. I resent the intersection at 434 and 17-92 even more now, and I didn’t think that was possible.

The trip included two ferry rides across large fjords. One of them I got out of the car to see if I could take pictures, ending up in the wrong place below deck and got back to my car without ever having paid the attendant. I’m not sure if I’ll end up getting a bill for this from the rental car company, because on the second one, I paid. Still, even if I do, it’ll be like ten bucks.

Odda, pronounced “Owed-yuh”, is a three-hour drive from Bergen. It’s ostensibly the base-camp for tourists who are hiking Trolltunga and other various trails, a very small town nestled in a valley. It’s home to a hydroelectric plant, and not much else besides hotels. The hotel I picked, Vikinghaug, was at the very end on a hill overlooking it, with a lake on the other side. Yet, this wasn’t so much of a hotel as it was a condo.

Literally, it was a three-bedroom apartment, with a full kitchen, dining room – even a washing machine in the bathroom. For $120 a night. I suppose if I need to do fiscal mental gymnastics, I’ll just pretend that the money I spent on the rental car went to the hotel instead. It was easily one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, and the view overlooking the town was absolutely majestic.

Once I got settled in, I went grocery shopping, which is always a fun experience in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. Trying to figure out what’s what and buying stuff you have absolutely no clue what it is based on nothing other than visual appeal is like a game in and of itself.

Just like in Paris, if you want to bag your groceries, you have to buy the bag and do it yourself. The first time I was caught off guard and ashamed to hold up the line, but now anticipating it, the thought of what most Americans’ surely indignant reactions to this would be was more amusing than anything. I bought a kind of pastry I’d never had before, which was so amazing, I bought a small plastic bin at a hardware store the day before I left just so I could buy more and transport them home without squishing them.

Every night at 9pm at the Trolltunga Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from Vikinghaug, TrolltungaActive, the company who organizes the winter hikes, hosts their pre-hike meeting. Even though I wasn’t scheduled until Saturday, I figured I would attend the meeting just to get a head start, despite having a fair idea of what to anticipate.

The leader of the meeting is Jostein (“Yo-stein”), whom I later learned was the owner of the company, an older man who spoke softly. For the few people attending Friday’s hike, he goes over all the details and what they’ll need. Good hiking boots, a rain resistant jacket and pants, gloves, sunglasses, a change of clothes, multiple layers, at least 2 liters of water, enough food to last for twelve hours and the anticipated burning of four to five thousand calories. All of the gear can be rented, even the hiking boots, and walking sticks as well as snowshoes will be provided. He then starts to detail how the actual hike will go.

There are specific checkpoints along the trail which are under deadline, and if they are not reached in time, the group must turn back. The first checkpoint must be reached within three hours, and those three hours are the most difficult part of the hike. If the group has not reached Trolltunga by 4pm, they must turn back regardless. With the sun going down, there would not be enough time to return before dark. The guides may also turn the group back if the weather conditions change on the mountains, which they can out of nowhere in minutes. If you are injured and can no longer walk, you must wait to be rescued by helicopter.

Of all the things he says, one stuck out the most – if any of the guides see that a hiker is struggling too much, they will send them back or make them wait for hours at one of two emergency shelters along the way.

Whatever happens, there are no refunds.

It starts to set in just how dead fucking serious this hike is.

>With Dominica and Costa Rica, it felt like we had all the time in the world, and at no point was there ever a mention of having to turn back, except when the rain wouldn’t let up on the way to the Boiling Lake, but that was extenuating circumstances. Even when I was lagging behind on Cerro Chato, the group always patiently waited for me to catch up with well-earned ribbing.

Still, I didn’t come all this way just to nope out at the last moment, though now I was legitimately concerned about being sent back. I’d worked out on the Stairmaster with a heavy pack multiple times per week since November trying to prepare myself for what I was up against. Jostein gives everyone a waiver and payment form to sign, and offers me a spot on the Friday hike, saying they have openings. I decline and confirm that Saturday is an anniversary of sorts for me.

The next morning, I got up and made the drive to the hike starting point near a smaller town named Skjeggedal (“Schegg-uh-doll”). It took about 30 minutes, up another steep, one-way mountain road. Thankfully I didn’t catch anyone coming down the other way. There are openings along the road to make room for oncoming traffic, however reversing down a one-way mountain road while it’s literally snowing to get to one was not an achievement I cared to unlock.

I drove back and decided to check out another smaller hike that led to a nearby glacier, in a park called Buerbreen (didn’t get the pronunciation) and while I wasn’t crazy about the idea of wearing myself out or even getting the day before the big one, I didn’t want to just sit around all day, either. From the map, there was a parking lot near where it began.

The one-lane road to the parking lot was almost completely covered in snow. Listening to the music from when Luke is told to go to Dagobah helped, but not much. I ended up driving right past the parking lot, because it was literally buried under three feet of snow. The parking meter had electrical tape over where you insert your card. So much for the glacier.

Instead I went back to the hotel and walked down into town, snapping pictures and having a look around. Another trip to the grocery store and I headed back up to the hotel, carrying my bag of goodies and bottled water. In a moment of foreshadowing, I realize how tired I’m getting just walking a mile and a half uphill carrying a heavy bag. “Oh dear,” I think, “this isn’t a good sign.” I immediately passed out on the couch. I want to believe this is because I hadn’t slept well and was still jet lagged from the previous night, even after being awake for a full day, not because I wasn’t in any way, shape or form ready for what I was going to be faced with the following morning.

That night, I have a delicious tenderloin dinner at the Trolltunga Hotel before heading to the meeting, this time led by Daniel, another guide for the company, along with Jostein. In attendance are three female college students from the University of Michigan, as well as a young couple from Australia. One of the students had blisters on her foot from hiking to Pulpit Rock earlier that day, and after a glass of red and originally declining, her friends talk her into it. The Aussies are gung-ho.

Daniel goes over all the same information from the previous night yet makes me feel better about the excursion by re-affirming to everyone that we go as a group. It’s not a race, and we only go as fast as the slowest person. He mentions how when Tom Cruise was in Norway filming one of the Mission: Impossible movies, he attempted the Trolltunga hike, and ended up turning back. He also mentions that the first Norwegian who hiked to the South Pole used it as preparation due to the similar terrain and snowy conditions. He asks if anyone has hiking experience, and I mention the few I’d done. The college girl with the blisters thumbs at me, saying I’ll be the one out in front leading the pack.

My mind drifts to the Valley of Desolation, crawling back up the rocky slopes in the pouring rain after walking uphill for three miles, not sure if I was going to slip, fall and break my neck, and of Costa Rica, my heart beating so hard on the way up it felt like it was going to tear itself out like a chestburster.

I sign the waiver, pay for the hike as well as dinner, and walk back to Vikinghaug in the falling snow.

The next morning, I leave at 7:20 to drive to Skjeggedal and it’s already snowing heavy even before I turn onto the mountain road. The forecast had predicted snow even 10 days out, and for days leading up to it. As it got closer, most of the other days had cleared up except Saturday.

No matter where I travel to, the Florida rain always follows.

There was a much larger group than was in attendance at the meeting, a full 15 people to the six of the previous night. Daniel goes over the same briefing for the new arrivals as we all gear up. Jostein asks me if I’m ready as he rings me up a few Kvikk Lunsj (a staple Norwegian chocolate wafer treat, not unlike Kit—Kat bars) in addition to my pre-purchased shit-ton of protein bars. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” I don’t say much to anyone else, with my final moments of mental preparation, strapping the snowshoes to my pack.

By 8:30, everyone is geared up and heads outside in the snow, gathering in a semi-circle around the map where Daniel goes over the route, saying, “if you didn’t pack enough water, that’s now your problem.” The first seven kilometers are the most difficult part of the hike, and where the most people are turned back. We are reminded about the three-hour checkpoint. As he’s talking, the score from the Hobbit is playing in one earbud.

“You’ll promise that I will come back?”

“No… and if you do, you will not be the same.”

We head out.

The first four kilometers are a winding road up the mountain which people are able to drive up and park at the top during the summer months. Everyone else is talking, but I’m saving my breath and listening to the playlist I’ve curated for months waiting for this. The walk uphill is manageable but walking through the snow is like a semi-hardened sand that occasionally gives way under your feet. It’s exactly what I’ve trained for, I tell myself, and smile confidently. Looking out over the mountain through the snow is no less breathtaking than it has been since the moment I arrived. After a bit, Jostein engages me, asking about myself how I’m enjoying it so far. I tell him the reason why I’m there and what I’m celebrating. He congratulates me, and I ask how far in we are.

“Don’t think about that,” he says, smiling flatly. It was barely past the first kilometer.

I go back to my music and notice that I’m having trouble feeling my fingers, starting to wonder whether or not the gloves I bought were good enough.

I’m still mostly with it when we reach a snow caterpillar, which Daniel informs us is the point in which we put on snowshoes. I was able to get the left foot on good with Daniel’s help, but the other didn’t quite go on right and felt misaligned. The same girl who had issues with blisters was having trouble getting hers to go on, and I tried to help as best I could, but it didn’t take long without gloves to lose basically all the feeling in my fingers and I could get a grip on the strap to pull it out.

This was the first time I’d ever worn snowshoes. They’re sort of like wearing reverse diving fins. It did not take long to realize how much your feet are weighted down with the snow they pick up along the way. I’d taken my earbuds out and could now hear clearly how heavily my breathing was increasing.

Daniel wasn’t kidding about this incline being the most difficult. It was easily twice as steep as the road. I was at the middle of the pack, and it didn’t take long for the gap in-between me and the person in front of me to widen. By now, any worry about my gloves was gone, as my fingers were now actually hot and getting warmer. My heart’s pounding and my breath is full heave. My misaligned right snowshoe is throwing my balance off and I’m almost fully supporting myself on my sticks.

It’s Costa Rica all over again, except now the snow is practically coming in sideways.

Once I had to stop and catch my breath, I knew I was in trouble and don’t remember how long it took from that moment until I finally reached the top and collapsed in the snow, completely out of breath. One of the other hikers, a tall dude clad in orange and in orders of magnitude better shape than I am, walked over like Luke Skywalker, put his hand on my shoulder. “Breathe… just breathe.”

I confess to everyone my status as a former smoker. Even four years removed, you’re never as distanced from it as you want to be. I look up at the girl with the blisters and smile, “And you thought I’d be out in front.”

>Daniel and Jostein move me closer to the front, where they said it will be easier for me, and remind us that we go as a group. Everyone laughs as I remark, “Leave it to the Floridian to pass out in the snow.” One of the other guys is excited that he’s not the only person from Florida in the group, from Miami.

We press on and eventually reach the Checkpoint of No Return, with plenty of time to spare. Daniel congratulates us and says we’re making great time. I wish I could go into more detail about this, but a lot of the early part of the hike is a literal big white blur. The wind and snow were unrelenting until we neared the actual peak and were all but caught in a white-out. Only the strategically placed branches in the snow marked our path. It’s now very clear why they do not allow people do this hike in winter without a guide.

At the first rescue cabin we take our first elongated break to rest and eat. The snow has dampened everything in my bag, making it unnecessarily heavier. It’s at this point that I realize what happens to protein bars when it’s 30 degrees out – they turn into fucking bricks. Having had enough of the freezing wind, on go the balaclava and snow goggles.

Daniel tells us we’re going to walk in what’s called a ‘Roman March’, wherein each person takes turns at the back of the pack, and the lead person steps aside once they’ve reached it. It doesn’t take more than five minutes uphill for my breath to run out again and step outside the pack to rest. Everyone passes me.

At the ensuing immediate heavy incline, my feet get twisted up and I fall into the snowbank. Everyone pushes on. I try to get up using my sticks, lose my balance and fall again.

The group leaves my line of sight above the hill.

I am alone in the snow, borderline panicked, out of breath and now really fucking pissed off, yelling internally, ‘MAYBE THIS EXTREME HIKING SHIT JUST ISN’T YOUR THING, MY DUDE.’

Deep breath. Hoist myself up on the sticks.

‘They’re not going to leave you, but you have to keep moving.’ I get balanced and push on. My legs would beat the shit out of me if they could. At the top of the hill, Jostein is waiting for me. I figure this is the moment where I’m sent back, at the very least to the emergency cabin to wait alone for hours for the group to return.

He asks me how I’m doing, and if I’m hurt or in pain. I tell him I’m not injured, just exhausted and struggling with the snowshoes. I ask if he’s going to send me back.

He says no.

Reaffirming that the group is doing very well on time, he’ll only ask me to go back if I’m injured. He’s going to send Daniel to stay back with me and make sure I’m able to make it. The next time we stopped, I adjusted my right snowshoe and it helped me keep balance.

Daniel stayed with me the rest of the way. We were never further than a minute behind the group and caught up to them at every break we took. I told him about the previous hikes I’d done, and how I thought they’d prepare me for this, but nothing could have possibly done that. No amount of hours at the gym or walking around flat Florida national parks could have done justice to preparing for this experience.

Maybe if there were mountains on New Smyrna beach that I could’ve walked five miles up wearing flip-flops four sizes too big during a Tropical Storm carrying a bag full of wet towels — that might have done it.

We approach the second rescue cabin and Daniel asks how I’m feeling, and if I think I can make it. It’s another five kilometers to the peak, and then there’s the return trip to consider. He tells me I’m stronger than I think, but it’s up to me.

‘I came all this way, spent all this money… and Strittmatter would never let me hear the end of it if I didn’t make it,’ I thought. I told him I wasn’t going to give up unless I was injured.

One of the most difficult parts of the hike was shimmying up the side of a gorge, where we had go extremely slow, as one slip would put us at the bottom and add another 15 minutes onto getting back up, at best, and a broken leg at worst. Thankfully by this point the snow had completely stopped. We make it without falling in, and from there, it was only a few more kilometers. Daniel and I chat about places we’ve traveled to, and he recommends visiting Columbia, for its biodiversity as well as hiking.

At approximately 3:30 PM, we finally arrive at Trolltunga.

Everyone’s resting and takes off their snowshoes while Daniel carves a path in the ice down to the ledge. I tell everyone I feel shitty for not being able to keep up with the group. One of the hikers, who was from Maryland and works at Tesla, turns around.

“Man, fuck all of that. You made it.”

It felt wonderful to finally take off the godforsaken snowshoes, even if only for a half hour. As noted in the meeting, we had to leave the peak by 4pm, so we all had to hurry taking our pictures. When it was my turn, I queued up ‘Dystopia’ as I walked out onto it, with a Frenchman hiker in our group used my camera to film.

The view is even more magnificent than it looked in all the pictures, and it was worth every bit of the struggle it took to get there. Of the accomplishments in life which cannot be taken away, this was one for the record books.

Without the music, it was eerily silent other than the voices of the people in the group. Everyone takes turns getting photos out on the ledge. I didn’t think to pose for a proper picture, and I look fucking dreadful in the few snaps he did take All things considered, it’s probably a good thing I was wearing the balaclava.

As the deadline to return approaches, I decide to get a head start, get my snowshoes on and head back out with Daniel, who’s now switched to skis. It was a fairly decent head start until I decided we should have music, since I didn’t want to have carried a Bluetooth speaker the whole way for nothing. Of course, it wouldn’t work because herpderp Airplane Mode and the rest of the group caught up.

Though I was still struggling, the return trip didn’t seem as difficult as the trip there. Daniel and Jostein decide to keep me at the very front, remembering the “Slowest person goes first” line from the meeting, as the uphills continue kicking the shit out of me.

When we reached the gorge, everyone took the chance to slide down. I was the only one in the party who elected to pass, as I was determined to get back down without falling, which I did.

We stop and get a wonderful group photo at one of the more picturesque spots along the hike.

I eventually just play music from my phone; Daniel recognizes it as the soundtrack from Skyrim, which gets us on the topic of video games. I was glad to hear he was also a member of the PC Master Race, which eventually led to the topic of Valve, and he casually mentions how a he took a Valve employee on the hike recently, asking him about That Game which so many of us have all been patiently waiting for.

My eyes light up. He says they wouldn’t say anything other than alluding to “big projects” with a huge grin. Typical.

Making it back to the first rescue cabin, we take another break and I realize that at this point, my outer jacket may as well be lined with lead due to the all the moisture, and into my pack it goes. The hiker from Maryland recognizes the Skyrim soundtrack from my phone and I remark that I can’t be the first person who’s thought to bring that music along on this hike.

As we head back down the initial steep ascent, I find it’s now easier to walk in the fresh snow rather than the path we’d formed coming up, as it acted as a sort of cushion and was much easier on all of our completely fucking destroyed knees. Two of the other hikers, Tom from Houston and one of the college students each independently remark, “How did we make it up this hill to begin with?” I answer by saying I almost didn’t.

At this point, everyone is going at their own pace and spread out across the trail. I’m walking by myself after making it down the hill when my playlist gets to ‘Light of the Seven.’ Completely fucking spent and running on fumes, the realization was setting in that I had actually made it to the peak, did not get sent back, and was going to complete the hike. I’m not ashamed to admit that I barely kept it together and was glad no one else was around me.

Back at the caterpillar and the final stunning vista, we can at long last take off the snowshoes, both a literal and figurative weight lifted. I tell everyone I brought a tripod so we can get a group picture without having to make Daniel or Jostein take it.

It’s Costa Rica all over again, except this time I didn’t have to fuck with the timer settings.

Going back down the road was a walk in the park. Daniel and I are the last ones down the hill, as we talk about our mutual passion for World War I history, and now it’s his eyes to light up as I tell him about the tour of Ypres I got last November. Later, I chat with the two Frenchmen and tell them how I visited Paris last November and survived on street crepes. They had a disdain for Paris and instead recommended visiting the south, Nice and Marseilles. Finally, I caught up to Jostein, who was walking with the three college students, asking me if the hike had been a good way to spend the anniversary.

I tell him quitting booze was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, so it was only fitting that the hike had also been one of the hardest things. He says that this is the hardest hike they’ve had so far this season because of all the fresh snow.

Finally, at around 8:45, we arrive back at Trolltunga Active.

We turn in our equipment and exchange numbers and email, with some of the group saying heartfelt goodbyes, having bonded over the course of the hike, yet another reason I felt shitty for not being able to keep up. I didn’t get to know the people in the group as well as I would have liked, save for a few.

Driving back down felt no less than fucking victorious, playing ‘Forth Erolingas’ for the mountain to hear.

Unfortunately, all the restaurants in Odda were closed by the time I made it back into town, so I wasn’t able to have proper dinner. By the day’s end, I’d walked 51,822 steps over 24.08 miles, and burned 5,322 calories. When I totaled up all the spent protein bar wrappers from my bag, I’d barely eaten 2,000. Those pastries came in handy.

In a cruel twist of fate, after my sinuses cooperated all day on the hike breathing easy, they clogged up almost on cue as soon as my head hit the pillow, and I wasn’t able to get a good night’s sleep. Go figure.

The next day was quite literally a Zero Day. Aside of driving into town and having Chicken Fried Rice at the Glacier Restaurant (the only place open – even grocery stores in Odda are closed on Sundays) I hardly got off the couch. My calves were screaming with each step, though not as loud as I thought they would. One of the most frustrating parts of the entire trip came when arranging for parking in Bergen, as the hotel had a limited amount and sold out of spots on the day. Serves me right for not planning in advance, after Reddit told me the parking in Bergen is downright awful. Next time, call instead of email, as during our exchange they confirmed to having just sold the final spot, and don’t wait until the last minute.

It rained off and on the entire day, to boot, with a heavy fog drifting over the town. As the light slowly faded, I walked outside and sat on a bench swing overlooking the lake behind the apartment, listening to music from Silent Hill.

Then I built a few small snowmen, as specifically requested, and also since I’d never gotten to actually build one before. The first one looked like a mutant snow mosquito. The second one had angry eyes and a leaf toupee.

The next morning, I woke up to check out of the apartment and drive to Bergen to stay a few more nights and hike the top of Mount Fløyen. I made one last trip to the grocery store to get some more pastries to take home, though I still needed a box to carry transport them in. I stopped at a cafe for coffee and breakfast, and ordered a pastry with something in the middle I had no I idea what it was, and told the lady at the counter, “I’d like one of whatever those are.” It was fucking delicious.

There were two different routes to Bergen from Odda. Both of them took around three hours, according to Google Maps. One was the way I came, with two ferry rides, and the other was along a coast around 60 kilometers longer. I took the scenic route on the way back and had to stop to get gas first.

This led to a delightfully awkward moment at the gas station where I assumed that in Europe you still have pay before you pump. Apparently only Americans are this untrustworthy, as when I attempted to pre-pay, the lady looked at me like I had three heads. Yes, Virginia, in Europe they trust you enough not to dine and dash at the gas pump.

Other than being held up for 30 minutes by road construction and the ever-present fog, the drive up the coast was less exhilarating than the drive in, now knowing what to expect, but still breathtaking views in every direction.

Upon reaching the Thon Orion Hotel, I was able to park in the No Parking zone just long enough to check in and literally run my luggage to my room, all the way at the very end of the 5th floor, without getting a ticket. I ended up parking at a nearby garage for $25 a day. Bergen is a wonderful city with no shortage of things to see and do, but for the love of god, don’t rent a car if you don’t have to. You can walk everywhere.

Right down the street from my hotel is the Bryggen Waterfront, built in 1702, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s mostly gift shops with the same chincey fare in each store, as well as a few restaurants, but with very unique architecture. After a three-hour drive, I was famished. The fact that I can stand in the middle of a city, take out my phone, open Yelp and find something exactly to suit my tastes never ceases to amaze me. I settle on a place called Bryggeloftet & Stuene, which had good reviews for traditional Scandinavian food.

I always want to try the unique local dishes when I can. Who wants to travel to a foreign country to eat a burger and fries? Each restaurant has their menu posted outside so the tourists can check it before settling, and as I looked it over, it all seemed pretty standard cuisine except for one item:


I could literally have Rudolph for dinner.

I know that my vegan and vegetarian friends will be disappointed in me, and please forgive me for being a carnivorous savage, but it was one of the most delicious and tender cuts of meat I’ve ever eaten. It mixed perfectly with the brussel sprouts. If you ever get the chance, don’t pass it up.

Afterwards I walked around taking pictures of various statues and architecture before heading to the Bryggen Waterfront to purchase the necessary travel excursion items: A patch of the flag from the country I’ve traveled to, as well as an actual flag. For this trip specifically, I would have loved to find some kind of miniature Mjölnir, but no store had them. In fact, I didn’t see any references or items from Thor films as they relate to Norse mythology. Can’t say I was surprised, really. There’s a distinct difference between comic books and the stuff they’re based on.

On the final full day, I had two objectives: to find a hard-plastic bin in which to take home the food I bought without it getting ruined and take the Fløibanen, a cable car of sorts, up to the top of Mount Fløyen to do some less completely insane hiking.

Google Maps showed a hardware store near the center of town, but after walking around the whole block where it was supposed to be, I couldn’t find it, only signs for something called the ‘Galleriet’. Going inside, I should have realized what this roughly translated to, as the inside of the building was a fancy six-story mall, with the hardware store on the very top level. Say what you want about Norway being the model socialist paradise, but I assure you capitalism is alive and well. Indeed, they had the absolute perfect sized bin, which will now accompany me on all international trips as coffee, chocolate and snack storage.

Off to the Fløibanen.

I’d bought my ticket the day before online, a round trip costing all of about $12, and they give you the QR code you can scan at the gate. The lady at the ticket counter tells confirms this is all I need to do. I wait for the initial crowd to gather and board, since its first come first serve seating, and I’m determined to get a front row seat.

The next car arrives, I go to scan my code, and up comes the Apple Pay prompt. No, I’ve already paid. I turn on Airplane Mode. Same thing. Now I’m annoyed and holding up the line. I walk back to the ticket kiosk and tell the lady what happened, and she says there’s a known issue with Apple Pay. I always think back to Wheatley’s line from Portal 2 at these moments. “Ohh, that just cleans right off, does it? Well that would have been good to know… a little earlier.”

She prints me out a paper ticket, and I wait for one more departure before getting on, claiming my front row seat, so I can have a bird’s eye view of Bergen as we’re slowly pulled up the mountain. Just like the drive in, it’s like a Disney ride, sans some cheesy video with a semi-famous celebrity with a cartoon sidekick giving us trivia about the mountain

Reaching the top, I grab a map from the gift shop and attempt to pick the best trail. Since its more fun to just explore and see where the trails take you, I give up and start down a path. TrolltungaActive provided the sticks we used for their hike, but thankfully I brought my own for this one, because even on gentle inclines, walking up and down narrow snowy paths isn’t the easiest thing and my legs still have more than a bit of Fuck You in them from a few days prior.

Of all the signs on the trails which point in various directions to locations I cannot pronounce, I end up picking one called Sandviksfjellet, about 4 kilometers out.

I stop to rest on a bench overlooking a small frozen lake, and from the trail out runs a Golden Retriever chasing a bird. I worry for that he’s going to fall in, but doesn’t, and instead grabs a large stick in a THIS IS MINE moment and runs toward me, stopping to take one look and heading back off towards his owner. I managed to get my phone out and film it just in time.

As I’m trudging up and down with my sticks, there are some people who are actually running along the path. Here I am just making sure I don’t slip and break my neck, and these people are trying for their Personal Best. I gladly step aside and let them pass.

It took about an hour to get to Sandviksfjellet, providing a fantastic panoramic view of the nearby larger frozen lake. Goes without saying, but without any kind of serious deadline to make it back, I took my time relaxing at the peak.

The last objective of the trip was to photograph Bergen at night from the mountain, but I still had a few hours before sunset, so I dropped my gear at the hotel and walked around looking for a place to eat. Indecisive as ever, I eventually settled on a place called ‘Olivia’ right on the waterfront. It was not my first choice, as it was insanely packed thanks to the dinner rush, and figured it would take at least an hour to get my food and risk missing the sunset.

It took less than 30 minutes from the moment I sat down to the final bite.

They fucking killed it. My chicken penne pasta hit a bullseye, after another day of semi-frozen protein bars on the trail. In Europe, you’re not required or encouraged to leave tips, but I made an exception for this place.

I made it back up to the top of the mountain up the Fløibanen again with time to spare and managed to get some stunning shots of the city as the sun slowly fell. A tripod, two second delay and manual exposure makes all the difference when it comes to night shots. Camera phones don’t stand a chance. It was worth it to stand out in the freezing cold without gloves on and wait for nightfall and the perfect way to end my week in the country.

That night as I was packing everything up, I realized that I still had the bottle of water from the Trolltunga hike. What was in it wasn’t the water it contained originally, but melted snow I had packed in it during a break on the return trip. It will now be permanently saved.

Making it back to the airport and dropping off the rental was a snap, not so much getting through check-in and security. I always seem to forget that the more stuff I bring back, the heavier my bag is going to be, and will probably break the weight limit, which it did. Somehow, they let it through anyway without having to pay extra, only look like a jackass holding up the line and rummaging through my luggage trying to see if there was anything I could move to my already at-capacity backpack, which I couldn’t. They also declined to give me a claim check.

This caused a near-heart attack trying to get through Customs in Schiphol when they asked for it, I told him I wasn’t provided one and they said I wouldn’t be able to leave without it. I answered their four questions, described the bag and what was in it, and they confirmed they could give me the number at the gate. THANKS FOR THE ANXIETY OF TELLING ME I MIGHT BE STUCK IN AMSTERDAM INDEFINITELY. At least I’d get to hang out with Tal.

Just like leaving Paris, I got tapped for an extra security bag toss at the gate and it wasn’t nearly as stressful, now knowing what to expect. When I asked the man checking everything what specifically was looking for wiping everything down with this weird little piece of cloth, he answered, “Residue.”

He didn’t have to say what kind.

An empty seat next to me made for a relaxing flight home and getting through customs in Detroit was a breeze. Unfortunately the pre-teen girl behind me on the flight to Orlando could not help but kick the back of my seat repeatedly. I found myself missing those five-year olds.

It’s safe to say that every hill or flight of stairs I find myself walking up for the rest of my life will take my mind back to those hills, my feet feeling like they were encased in frozen cinder blocks, a bag of wet clothes strapped to my back and being unable to tell where the horizon stopped and the sky began as the snow raked across my face.

However far there is to climb, I’ll live.