Study abroad is a journey of a lifetime, and that reality becomes even more apparent when you have that “aha” moment. You know, the moment that you see something spectacular, that you never imagined you could see, that blows your mind, leaves you breathless, and reminds you that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be? For Will Bennett seeing the Northern Lights was one of those moments. Will studied abroad in Oslo, Norway in Spring 2017. Below he talks about his adventure to see the Northern Lights.
New Heights & Northern Lights
On February 17th I embarked on the journey of a lifetime with eleven friends—united with hell-bent purpose towards one common goal: to witness the fabled Northern Lights…or die trying! So without further ado, here is the story of our adventure. All the trials and triumphs of my unforgettable expedition to Tromsø, Norway!
This arctic city is located 70°N, and 65,000 inhabitants are brave enough to call it home. Let me tell you, the place is truly one of a kind. I promise I’m not kidding when I tell you this: I simply wasn’t prepared for the sheer wilderness of the journey I was about to embark on…
Tromsø is famous for its breathtaking mountains & fjords. It is also home of the northernmost university in the world, so that’s pretty cool! The school is literally called “University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway.” I was seriously considering their study abroad program, but ultimately I’m glad I choose Oslo. Tromsø winters are ridiculously cold and dark, like something out of a Game of Thrones book! (“Winter is coming…and the night is dark and full of terror..”)
It is a bit surprising that a city so far north experiences year-round tourism. People come from all over the world to cruise the fjords under the midnight summer sun. And in the winter Tromsø is a prime destination for travelers, if they are lucky, to catch a glimpse of the famous Northern Lights. And that is exactly what came to do!
The funny thing is I remember being a complete zombie on travel day, not half as excited as I must sound while writing this. I had been up past 4 in the morning finishing my blog post about Kraków, Poland. After an hour or two of sleep, I met my friends in our student village. I had to sprint back to my room TWICE because I forgot my phone charger and then my passport. The funny thing is, I didn’t end up needing my phone charger very much.
Once we arrived at the airport our two designated drivers, Graham and Pedro, checked in and received the keys to our rental cars. There would be no messing around, we meant business. Most of us were Americans, in love with the boundless freedom of the open road. Besides, this gave us the best chance to get out of the city to see the Northern Lights, and on our own terms. Perfect.
We explored the house and claimed our rooms. It was quite big, as you can imagine. Historic or something, but I can’t quite remember how or why.
Shortly after claiming our rooms we walked to the nearby store to buy groceries for the weekend. Most of us decided to split into teams to take turns cooking a group dinner for our three days in Tromsø. Me, Andy, and Pedro made mashed potatoes, meatballs, and baked broccoli. It was ikke så verst—not too bad!
The drive to the mountains was magical. I don’t know if you ever feel this way, but for me, it was one of those out of body moments—as if I was watching myself from the third person. Like my life was some kind of strange and wonderful movie. I was surrounded by friends, singing along to great music, and in one of the most stunning places in the whole world. The air was thick with anticipation. We were electrified.
The drive was about an hour long, straight west of Tromsø. The Coloradans of our trip (and one enthusiastic Vermonter) were constantly analyzing the mountains. Searching the impenetrable wall of ice and stone for any signs of weakness. Strategizing our plan of attack.
And sure enough we eventually came upon the perfect spot—the one pictured above. Winter clothes? Check. Firewood? Check. Backpack and supplies? Check. Awesome friends? Check x11…What are we waiting for? Let’s do it!!
As we were cooking dinner over our fire, sharing a few laughs, something exciting happened. Brad started to go nuts! It was invisible to the human eye, but his camera saw something completely different: a tiny glimpse of the aurora. “So it isn’t all a hoax after all,” I thought to myself. The Northern Lights were somewhere out there…now it became a waiting game.
Well, of course, we weren’t going to just sit around idly waiting for the lights; after the meal, we continued our trek up the mountain. The trees were beginning to disappear, replaced with rocks and boulders. We were fueled up, ready to be out all night if that’s what it would take. Up we went, climbing higher and higher to get a good view of the lights.
So there I was hiking up the mountain, feeling more alive than I ever have before. The moon was full in the sky. It shimmered upon the inlet waters of the fjord and illuminated the surrounding snow-covered mountains. Somehow it felt like another planet. A completely different world.
Bob Dylan was playing on my iPhone in the breast pocket of my black Patagonia jacket, Blowin’ in the Wind. My buddy Zach and I were singing along, brandishing our air harmonicas. I was happily in the middle of another one of those movie-like moments. But at once the trance was broken. I stepped my left foot down into the snow…and it fell straight through!!
I nearly toppled over, utterly and completely surprised. I was proud to have caught my balance at the very last moment. When I recovered, I dusted myself off and stared deep down into the gaping hole I had nearly fallen into.
The void of that black abyss was thick and ominous. So thick, I could have cut it with a knife—spread it onto a slice of bread. I waited for my eyes to adjust, but my curious gaze couldn’t pierce through the deep gloom below.
Noticing I was being left behind, I began to scurry up the mountain after my friends. Then I was smacked with gut-wrenching realization—like a sucker punch to the stomach, it stole my breath. Froze me dead in my tracks. I couldn’t hear Bob Dylan anymore…
My breast pocket was open and empty, and so was my heart. In an instant, I was hit with the sad truth all millennials must come to terms with. We are addicted to our cell phones.
I have to admit, I felt naked standing there without it. I frantically retraced my steps, looked further down the mountain in case it happened to tumble and roll in the snow. In my heart I knew the truth, it was somewhere down in that Godforsaken hole…
“Oh well…the trolls have it now,” I said to no one in particular as I crumpled into the snow.
Desperately looking for some kind of relief—or at least a distraction. And that’s when it came…
Some might call it fate. Me? Well, I call it a worthy sacrifice to the Nordic gods. Right then and there, during my dismal moment of hopelessness, something truly incredible happened.
Almost at once the Northern Lights burst out into the sky—shimmering and dancing—growing stronger and stronger…it was just like a movie.
Luckily I had insurance on the phone. My Dad was a true hero: when I got back to Oslo he helped me navigate the headache of international Fedex shipping (thanks again Dad!). I didn’t have my phone for the rest of the trip, and for two weeks afterward, but it taught me a thing or two.
Don’t get me wrong, I would rather have had my phone. I’m just saying there was a silver lining. When we are willing to simply put our phone down, we might find there are more memorable moments in the day. Also, I learned there is SO much more time—time I am constantly wasting for five minutes here and ten minutes there.
I know this doesn’t sound too terribly insightful. But I think it is an important reminder that I, and many people I know, tend to easily forget.
Well, we spent a good long while up there on that nameless mountain. Some among us nearly got to the summit, but climbing conditions became way too dangerous. The rock footholds were starting to look like pebbles in comparison to the boulders pictured above and below. It just wasn’t worth continuing.
Like I said, I underestimated the wilderness of Tromsø. Truthfully I’m glad my naivety only cost me my phone—not a sprained ankle, broken bone, or worse.
Going down the mountain was ridiculously fun! We found the snowy channels between the rocky outcrops and slid down them on our butts. A hike of multiple hours was perhaps a twenty or thirty-minute descent. Of course, about halfway back down, Joey made an announcement to the group: “Wait, wait stop…I don’t have my phone…”
I was overcome with a surge of empathy—I couldn’t leave one of my soldiers bleeding out on the battlefield. Joey, armed with “find my iPhone” on a friend’s device, was in a dead sprint back up the mountain. I went after him.
I was stupefied by how insanely fast we were climbing. Between the speed and the adrenalin, everything was a blur. All my mind and body could focus on was finding the next foothold, moving like Gollum up the steep and uneven terrain. Doing all I could to keep up with Joey.
Time was of the essence. My phone froze dead before we even had a chance to call it. When we began the frantic ascent Joey’s phone was at two percent. Now find my iPhone was telling us it was at one…
Eventually, when we knew we were close, we stopped and listened. It seemed like we were holding our breath, but in reality, I must have been gasping for air like a dying fish. Nothing…still nothing…..beep!
Suddenly Joey spun spontaneously to his left, identifying the source of the noise like a trained pointer dog. He darted forward and rummaged through the rocks and snow. Then he raised his phone up triumphantly—like a gladiator raising the head of his fallen adversary.
It was beautiful. And I’ve never been so happy and so sad at the same time.
I didn’t realize just how dead exhausted I was until I was back sitting in the car. I watched out the window as we drove home. The thrill and excitement of the adventure was starting to wear off. I was doing all I could to suppress the melancholy thoughts that probed and burrowed into my mind. The sting of losing my phone was still painfully fresh.
The next moment I woke up, and we were parked outside of our Airbnb. I crawled up into my room, peeled off my winter layers, and was out cold the moment my head hit the pillow.
Tomorrow was another big day.
With no phone, I had no alarm clock. However, Graham (the enthusiastic Vermonter) is a bit of a morning rooster. He rallied the sleepy-eyed troops, making sure we would (eventually) get out the door at a reasonable hour. Of course, we were going on another nature excursion… what else!?
Five of us had crammed our cross country skies into Graham’s single, overstuffed ski bag. Fourteen dollars for the checked bag was a small price to pay for the chance to ski in such a beautiful and untamed landscape.
Our cars drove to a spot just outside of town. Then we decided it was best to split up into two groups. The skiers geared and waxed up; all the others hit the trails and began to hike.
The skiing conditions were fantastic. It was sunny, or at least as sunny as you can expect the Arctic circle to be in winter. The air was crisp and cold, but not unbearably so, and there was more snow than we were used to back in Oslo.
The five skiers were Graham, Trond, me, Vince, and Brad. Vince might try to tell you otherwise, but this is also the order of skiing ability from strongest to weakest. We fell into a rhythm and skied at a reasonable pace for a few kilometers, occasionally stopping for water, a picture, or simply to take in the scenery.
We skied up, and up, until we stood at the base of a mountain. Somehow, between our numerous breaks, a few members of the hiking group had caught up to us. We waved, said hi, and began talking about our afternoons thus far. When we turned back around, we saw Trond had ditched his skies and was already a good 50 meters up the mountain. We did the same and went after him.
The hike was steep and icy. After just a few steps I decided to run back and grab my ski poles for stability. I was tired from last night and the skiing, but new adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I could see out over the valley we skied through, and in the distance, there was a marvelous view of the city. I simply had to get to the top!
Overall, climbing the mountain was nearly as thrilling as seeing the northern lights; it felt like such an accomplishment after a long ski. We knew it was going to get dark soon, so we tried to hustle down the mountain. Back at the bottom, we strapped our boards back onto our feet. I prepared mentally for the perilous downhill descent.
It is much harder to go downhill on cross-country skies compared to alpine skies. There is less stability, and it’s harder to turn and slow down. I should have remembered this before I followed Graham’s advice, “Just stand in the tracks! Drag your poles if you need to slow down, you should be fine!”
This probably made perfect sense to Graham, an ex-racer who skied the whole way back on one single ski (Vince had somehow snapped a binding on the way up, and Graham offered to switch with him).
However, I once again underestimated the wilderness of Tromsø, and overestimated my own abilities.
Me, Trond, Vince, and Brad watched as Graham went down the hill like a madman on one ski. The other was strapped to his back. I can’t lie to you, he looked like the very definition of a bad ass.
We glanced around at each other, wordlessly evaluating to see who was crazy enough to follow that up. I thought to myself, “what the hell,” jumped into the ski tracks, and just flippin’ went for it!
At first, it was fun! Then about ten seconds later I realized I was in way over my head. I dragged my poles into the ground, but I only kept going faster and faster! And so I began to panic.
I knew I had to get out of the tracks, or I was never going to slow down. Somehow I lifted one foot out, and then the other. But I was wildly off balance. In a split second decision, I thought it was a good idea to bail out into the snowbank on the left-hand side…
I watched as the tips of my skies went piercing into the massive pile of snow. Time seemed to slow as I realized my terrible mistake before I even heard the noise…CRACK!!
My momentum flew me forward, but my feet were cemented into the snowbank. I went toppling into the snow and surprisingly was unharmed. But the tips of both my skies were completely snapped in the wreckage…
First my phone and then my skies…all within a period of fewer than 24 hours. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty devastated at this point. The skies weren’t even mine—I had borrowed them from my “Host Family,” the Tronstad’s.
(To my surprise, they weren’t mad. Not even the slightest. In fact, they offered me grandpa Trond’s skies the next time I joined them for dinner… Without a doubt, the Tronstads are among the most incredibly generous people I have ever met. If you’re reading this, tusen takk for skiene!!)
“Well it certainly can’t get any worse,” I grumbled to myself. Then, for some reason, I began to laugh. Maybe it was at my own misfortune, or perhaps because I haven’t gotten used to talking to myself… It’s an odd compulsion I have started to develop—especially because I am away from my twin brother Sam, who I am used to always having around to talk to. Haha… I hope it doesn’t turn into a habit. It makes me feel like my Mom. And I always used to make fun of her for it!
My skies were broken but not annihilated. I figured I could at least give them one last ride before they ended up in some dumpster. I reminded myself, it’s just another material thing. It doesn’t matter. My health, my outlook, and the people around me DO.
Suddenly the world seemed a bit brighter, and I eagerly took on the new challenge. I had to be careful, but I skied back to the car without another fall. I made sure to enjoy the nature around me—to truly and entirely embrace it. I knew I may never make it back here again.
Tromsø, thank you for an unforgettable journey. You took me to the peaks of mountains and to the very summit of my soul. The journey wasn’t without hardships. But somehow that was the best part. More than anything I’ve experienced, Tromsø has felt like a microcosm for life. It’s beautiful and it’s hard. It’s about the people around you. It’s an adventure worth living.
Thank you so very much for reading. I love getting to share my travel stories with all of you. Your support and feedback means the world to me. Also! Definitely, take a look at this awesome video made by our very own Bradley Lazar. Finally, if you enjoyed the read, go ahead and share it on your timeline.
Until next time,
Will the Wanderer
This post originally appeared on Will’s blog, Wandering with Will.