How Climbing Kjeragbolten Reawakened All My Fears
My phone alarm rang out loudly from the nightstand, and instantly I sat up and enthusiastically shut it off. It was still dark outside, but I had never been so eager to wake up at 4 am. Today was the day I was going to climb the infamous Kjeragbolten, and I had only allotted one day in my busy itinerary to do so. I had been monitoring the weather all week long, nervously updating every hour in hopes that the rain forecast would change.
Dark clouds gathered in the sky, eagerly awaiting their opportunity to purge their heavy reserves. I climbed into my car and began driving through Stavanger’s maze of roads, slicing through the thick fog that seamlessly merged the horizon with the sky. There wasn’t any rain yet and I had to try to make my hike; it was my primary reason for visiting Stavanger in the first place, after all!
A Promising Start
I pulled into the Kjeragbolten parking lot at 7 am sharp. Invigorated by the ghostly scenery that ushered me through my two and a half hour drive here, I was encouraged by what I saw: only a few scattered hikers who had camped there overnight and, most importantly, no rain!
The air felt dense as I loaded up my backpack for the four hour, seven-mile round trip hike. Although it was still miles away, the presence of the boulder was palpable, like a predator looming in the brush eyeing its unsuspecting prey. I was ready for it. Visions of what it would be like to conquer Kjeragbolten, standing atop it while I bravely surveyed the small village 3000 feet below me, filled my head. My excitement was building, and the weather was still cooperating despite the darkening clouds. My trusty travel companion and I walked to the parking meter, payed the 100 NOK fee, and began our hike.
No Pain, No Gain
The Kjeragbolten hike weeds out those not truly motivated early on, starting almost immediately with a punishing and lengthy climb. Thanks to the humid air from the impending rainstorm, I began to pour sweat in my layers as my hiking boots searched for stable footing on the smooth boulders as my ever-intrepid travel friend bounced ahead of me, energetic as always. Normally I advise others to avoid using the built in chains on mountain paths and concentrate on their own footing, but in this case it was impossible. I eagerly wrapped my hands around the chains, polished smooth from countless other climbers that had come before me.
The mountain teased me with peak after peak of steep climbs, a new one appearing in the distance just as I crested each hill. The Kjeragbolten hike continued this way until I reached the halfway point ahead of schedule in about an hour. Finally the terrain leveled out and I could enjoy the tiny ships and distant buildings of Lysefjord far below to my right.
Feeling sweaty but accomplished, I began to play a game of find-the-trail-marker. Things are fairly well marked, but the face of Kjerag at this point is so vast that I frequently found the orange trail markers a hundred feet to my side. It didn’t matter in the end, as long as I kept Lysefjord to my right and stayed relatively near the edge of the mountain then I was in good shape.
My leisurely stroll along the side of Kjerag went quickly thanks to the jagged cliffs and flowing river below them giving my eyes plenty of scenery to process. Before I realized how far I had come, I spotted an object that conspicuously stuck out from the otherwise smooth terrain. In front of me was a path marker, pointing me inland to Kjeragbolten. My excitement grew with the peak in my sights. I crossed a small icy patch of ground and reached a steep drop-off.
There it was.
Suddenly my entire attitude changed. Seeing Kjeragbolten in person, I realized that I was really about to stand on that wedged boulder. I hastily scrambled down the last small dropoff and along the frozen ground. My heart rate began to pick up pace, not from the hike but from the anticipation that I would be suspended 3000 feet in the air by nothing but friction.
I’m Not As Brave As I Thought
I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only had I successfully avoided rain for the entire Kjeragbolten hike so far, but I practically had the place to myself with only 6 other people there. It looked like an early start and looming rain clouds paid off after all. Now all I had to do was climb that boulder! Easy, right?
Climbing over a few scattered obstacles, I noticed a distinct change in the texture under my feet. In what I can only imagine is a cruel joke by the Norse gods to weed out last-minute scaredy-cats, what had been solid rock for the past six kilometers now gave way to soft sand which immediately adhered itself to the soles of my shoes. I approached the access point for Kjeragbolten, just behind the famous view. The path narrowed to less than a foot wide and I could feel my feet slipping on the sandy surface as my heart now began to race. I reached the final step to mount Kjeragbolten.
I crouched down to cautiously mount the suspended boulder. The step was larger than it looked from a distance. As my hands landed on the surface of the boulder, my eyes lined up perfectly with the crack where Kjeragbolten met the side of the cliff. I could see the gaps in the meeting point and the water from the nearby falls disappearing into the abyss 3,000 feet below. Although it had been wedged for over 50,000 years, it seemed like an awfully tenuous connection. Was today the day the boulder would lose its grip?
Now on my hands and knees and halfway paralyzed by fear, I inched my way on to the cold, smooth surface of the boulder. The grip from my hands inspired a little bit of confidence, but as soon as the sandy soles of my shoes made contact with the slick boulder, all of that confidence disappeared. Although my feet remained attached to the rock, I could feel every grain of sand rolling under my shifting weight. I decided it was better to start my Kjeragbolten experience with a crawl and proceeded to the top of the boulder.
A Humbling Experience
I had never done something so death-defying that made me feel so fearful at the same time. Jumping off the biggest bungee jump in New Zealand? No problem! Skydiving? Put me in the front of the line! Yet there I sat, on top of the mighty Kjeragbolten, with my ass firmly planted to whatever sense of ground I could find. My companion, fearless as always, stood at the edge of the nearby waterfall and began to snap photos. I couldn’t have my memento of this experience show me sitting like a scaredy-cat! Slowly I positioned my feet underneath my body and rose. My knees felt like Jell-o and my leg muscles were suddenly incapable of stretching to their full length. The trusty hiking boots that I had worn on all 7 continents no longer inspired the same confidence thanks to their sandy bottoms. Regardless, I continued to raise my body.
Finally I stood up, although still with bent knees. My arms slowly extended in a tentative but triumphant pose which I hoped looked braver in the photos than it felt in my mind. I had done it. I had stood on Kjeragbolten, albeit with a bit more effort than I had anticipated! The entire time I stood there I pictured a strong gust of wind blowing me over the edge, but somehow I had managed to stay in place. Satisfied with my performance, I climbed down to review the photos.
I had neglected to set the exposure compensation for the sky behind the boulder! Livid with myself for my lack of foresight, I couldn’t leave Kjeragbolten without a decent photo of my accomplishment. Back to the boulder I went, although thankfully the second time was slightly easier now that I knew what to expect.
A Sign From Above
Finally satisfied with both my performance and the photos, I took my place at the edge of the waterfall (which really was less scary than it looked!) to photograph my travel partner. She had plans of her obligatory travel handstand, but even this professional stunt woman had second thoughts after climbing onto the boulder. Instead, she settled for a celebratory leap and I settled for only a minor heart attack instead of a full on stroke while I watched her do what she does best.
As she casually hopped off the boulder, I came to meet her. Now that we were both satisfied with our experience, the skies finally followed through on what they had been threatening all day. Rain began to dot the landscape and we happily headed back down the mountain to the parking lot.
Passing large numbers of late-comers on our way down, I thought about what they were in for. With as nervous as I was in dry conditions, I couldn’t imagine how paralyzing it would have been to attempt to mount Kjeragbolten in the rain. At the same time, I also knew that the majority of those people would have the same attitude as I did and wouldn’t leave without mounting the mighty rock.
With as many visitors as there are each year, I realized that even with my usual daredevil attitude there are plenty of humbling places in the world. There are no recorded deaths from falling off the boulder itself (BASE jumping is another story…), and I had been in plenty of deadlier places, but nothing shook me to the core like Kjeragbolten did. For the next few days, my childhood fear of heights reemerged on every cliff I walked along, forcing me to stand at least four feet from every edge where I would usually be peering over.
Fog clouded my glasses as the pouring rain pummeled my face and seeped into every open crack in my raincoat, but all that mattered to me was that I had accomplished my goal and survived. I couldn’t believe how worked up I had gotten over a major tourist attraction. Perhaps I wasn’t as brave as I had thought. Maybe it was the four hours of sleep, or maybe there was something in the air at Kjerag that day that awakened my fears, but I climbed down that mountain with a different perspective of adventurous activities than I had before.
I can’t wait for the next one.