A short hike beyond Bergen. Bad idea

Stranded on a Norwegian mountain at -15C as the dark closed in, Sue Wheat regretted she had not planned her walk more carefully
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Know your enemy. As a traveller, your foe could mean the world with all its manifest dangers. Or it could be reckless advice from a travelling companion. Or it could be your own lapse in common sense. In my case it was all three.

This winter, I have discovered how easy it is to put one's self in mortal danger, and how essential prior knowledge and preparation can be.

There we were, climbing one of the seven mountains that overlook the port town of Bergen, Norway's "gateway to the fjords". I had boots (thin but sturdy), gloves, and a thick scarf that doubled as a hat. My companion had a leather jacket, no gloves, a scarf (thin), no hat, and Hush Puppies. It was, at a guess, minus 15C.

It was a a perfect day for one of those bracing walks that you only ever contemplate when you're on holiday. A local suggested a stroll to Rundemanen, "a beautiful walk - and it only takes about half an hour." Was there a way of making it into a complete circuit so we didn't have to double back? He smiled and said, "In theory - but don't do it, you'll get lost". We nodded and gave him the sort of look you give your parents when they tell you to drive carefully, or wear a hat.

It took us an hour and a half to reach Rundemanen, which disappointingly was merely a signpost at the end of the road. Our thirst for "a real walk" unquenched, we continued along a smaller path and found places that looked frozen in time. Magnificent lakes - their icy surfaces smoothed into unblemished stillness, waterfalls frozen into sheer walls of ice, and pine trees locked solid with hoary frost. We stopped, gasped, took pictures, pulled up our scarves round our ears, crossed an old wooden bridge (clickety-clack style in case of trolls) and pressed on.

At the end of the official path, we found a map on the side of a derelict building and decided to follow the "green route". Then came the immortal words: "I think I can see a path".

We followed a rough-hewn track through the undergrowth and began to feel we were really on a mountain walk. Clambering over ice-covered rocks, and tramping across acres of frozen bog, I joked about how great the path was (it was undoubtedly an animal track), and how glad I was to be with someone who had extensive orienteering experience from being in the Woodcraft Folk until the age of 15.

An hour later our "path" had lead us approximately a quarter of a mile away from Rundemanen and it was time to descend. I made for the road. But my companion had different ideas. "Let's go down the 'red route' instead," he said, and I realised I had a battle on my hands.

"Call me a wimp," I said, "but it took us 90 minutes to get here up a perfect road - just think how long it'll take to go down an unsigned, higgledy-piggledy track. And there's now only an hour before the sun goes down. "You're absolutely right," he said, and I looked at him in amazement. Then he walked off a few metres and for the second time I heard, "but it's OK - I can see a path."

What I did next was a big mistake. I followed this Hush Puppy-wearer- with-no-gloves, along an imaginary path, down a mountain, at minus 15C, with one hour to go before sunset, knowing we could quite easily be frozen to death in a couple of hours. It was stupid, foolhardy, and downright life-threatening. We had been walking since 9.30am without eating, drinking or resting. But I didn't want to be a kill-joy so I did it.

We followed "the path" falling every few steps like slap-stick artists.Then we saw the rope. A thick, blue, climbing rope. Having followed it along the ground with our eyes, to our horror, it disappeared down a sheer drop: anybody descending by the rope would need proper mountaineering equipment. We were stranded on a plateau with very little possibility of going back up and, it seemed, very little chance of getting down.

I looked at my watch, we had about half an hour left before the sun passed over the back of the mountain. Then I went through the options in my head - could we light a fire? But we didn't have any matches and I felt sure even an ex-member of the Woodcraft Folk couldn't start a fire with two frozen sticks. Could we just keep going down in the dark? If we didn't break a leg, as we had both come dangerously close to doing, we could easily topple over a cliff's edge in the dark. We would die. And no one would know.

To our left was an almost vertical drop with a scattering of tenacious trees. We could hang on to the branches, get ourselves down, and just hope there wasn't another sheer drop from there. So that's just what we did.

Minutes before sundown we finally reached a road. It was several miles away from the one we had walked up four hours earlier. I ached more than I have ever ached before, meanwhile my mind whirled with anger and astonishment at our lapse in sanity. It has since transformed into relief that the misadventure did not have tragic results.

Successful entrants for the pounds 25,000 Travel Bursary from Heineken Export in association with the Independent, are likely to have done their homework more thoroughly; we want applicants to return safely to tell the tale.

The Wildest Dreams Travel Challenge

The biggest obstacle to independent travel is cost. So Heineken Export, in association with the Independent, is offering a travel bursary of up to pounds 25,000 to help you overcome this hurdle.

Who can enter: Anyone aged between 18 and 35

How to enter: Fill out an application form giving details of your travel plans. These will be assessed by a panel of experts and a shortlist of applicants will be interviewed. Forms are available from the special hotline number 0171-231 5432; the Lonely Planet Internet hhtp://www.lonelyplanet.com.auor at STA Travel shops.

When to enter: By 26 April. Winners will be announced on 6 May. If you are planning to leave before then, don't despair, we may be making interim awards.

How much is the prize? The total bursary is pounds 25,000 and the amount awarded to winners is at the judges' discretion. It is possible that one exception proposal (say a tour of the 177 countries where Heineken Export is available) could win the full amount...

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