North of the North Cape

Nordkapp_Norway_Mar2014_009The North Cape is one of those places that is on most traveller’s bucket lists. Known as the northernmost point of Europe, situated at 71°10´21˝N, some even claim it is closer to the North Pole than it is to Oslo. It may certainly feel that way and it is good tourism marketing, but it is not true. First of all, it is not the northernmost of Europe. The northernmost point of Europe is Cape Fligely, on Russian Rudolf Island (81°48′24″N), or if you don’t consider that Europe, it is the island of Rossøya on Svalbard, both over 1,000 kilometers north of the North Cape. Those places are definitely closer to the North Pole than to any sizeable city like Oslo. Those places are also virtually impossible to visit, so no travelers ever make it there. Unfortunately for the North Cape it is also not the northermost point of continental Europe, as it lies on a small island. That title goes to nearby Cape Nordkinn (71°08′02″N), a difficult place to visit, but a few hikers make it there every year.

In fact, the North Cape is not a record breaking place by any means. So should you take it off your bucket list? Absolutely not! It is a breathtaking place by all standards. Perched high over the Arctic Ocean on a 309 meter high dark cliff, surrounded by wind and weather, looking towards the North Pole, it is one of the most majestic natural sites you can possibly visit. And one of the best spots to watch the beauty of the North Cape is from… another cliff, over a kilometer further north. Further north? But only Svalbard and Russian Jozef Land are further north than the North Cape? So here is the final truth about the North Cape. Even on the island of Magerøya‎, where Nordkapp is located, there is a point further north than the famous cape. Cape Knivskjelodden (71°11’08″N) is the real northermost point of Europe excluding Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. It is much more difficult to visit than the ‘real’ North Cape, so only up to 400 people get to write their name in the visitor book annually. Compare that to the 200,000 people that visit the North Cape every year!

The trail that leads to Knivskjellodden makes for a relatively easy hike on a nice summer day (see a very nice blog post by Erica Haugli about this trip here) Problem is that there aren’t many nice summer days in this Arctic landscape. It is covered in snow for over 8 months and mostly hidden in fog, rainclouds or storm winds for most of the rest of the year. But that just adds to the challenge for all us adventure travellers. If you are well equipped and take a little time, this is one of Europe’s best hikes in any season. Being a winter hiker myself, I gathered a small expedition team to conquer Cape Knivskjellodden in March of 2014. Please follow me on a virtual journey to the northermost point of Europe:

Map of the island of Magerøya, with both the North Cape and Knivskjellodden indicated.

Map of the island of Magerøya, with both the North Cape and Knivskjellodden indicated. For my North American readers: we are talking about the same latitude as Barrow, Alaska here.

Our journey starts at the airport of Alta, the most convenient airport for trips to the North Cape. From here it is a 3-hour car trip to the island.

Our journey starts at the airport of Alta, the most convenient airport for trips to the North Cape. From here it is a 200 kilometer, 3-hour car trip to the island.

We drive to Magerøya, passing the town of Honningsvåg, advertised as the northermost town in the world. From there it is 35 kilometers to the North Cape, but the winter barrier at 13 kilometer from the cape is closed. We leave the car at the gate and continue on ski.

We drive to Magerøya, passing the town of Honningsvåg, advertised as the northermost town in the world. From there it is 35 kilometers to the North Cape, but the winter barrier at 13 kilometer from the cape is closed. We leave the car at the gate and continue on ski, pulling our pulka sleds.

The ski trip takes us over the snow covered road onto the high plateau that is the island. Along the way the sky clears and we are treated to beautiful Auroras over our heads. We ski until 10 in the evening, when we reach a large flat Arctic plateau to put up camp.

The ski trip takes us over the snow covered road onto the high plateau that is most of the island. Along the way the sky clears and we are treated to beautiful Aurora Borealis over our heads. We ski until 10 in the evening, when we reach a large flat Arctic plateau to put up camp.

In the morning our tent is the only sign of human presence on the mountain. Old skitracks reveal some activity earlier in the week. We are about 10 kilometers from Knivskjellodden.

In the morning our tent is the only sign of human presence on the mountain. Old ski tracks reveal some activity earlier in the week. We are about 10 kilometers from Knivskjellodden.

The old ski tracks lead to the North Cape, so after a few minutes we turn left onto virgin snow, covering the summer hiking trail to Knivskjellodden. It looks like we will be on our own on the cape.

The old ski tracks lead to the North Cape, so after a few minutes we turn left onto virgin snow, covering the summer hiking trail to Knivskjellodden. It looks like we will be on our own on the cape.

This is a winter expedition at its best! Making your own trail towards the horizon.

This is an Arctic expedition at its best! Making your own trail towards the horizon.

The weather is our friend. Under perfect sunny conditions and hardly any wind we make good pace over the Arctic tundra, following a few hidden stone markers.

The weather is our friend. Under perfect sunny conditions and hardly any wind we make good progress over the Arctic tundra, following the track along a few hidden stone markers.

After only a few hours we get our first views of the North Cape, now about 5 kilometers east of us. We still have to get down to sea level from here.

After a few hours we get our first views of the North Cape, now about 5 kilometers east of us. We still have to get down to sea level from here.

We gradually descent from the 300 meter high plain towards the frozen beach on the Arctic Ocean.

We gradually descend from the 300 meter high plain towards the frozen beach of the Arctic Ocean.

At this point we are passing the latitude of North Cape and we continue to head straight north for more than a kilometer.

At this point we are passing the latitude of the North Cape, from where we continue to head straight north for about 1,600 meters.

Strange animals must live in this part of the world. We see arctic hare tracks, accompanied by these 'slid marks' of animals (that same hare?) sliding down from the hillside towards the ocean. We also spot the large white hare halfway the slopes above us. It is larger than a cat! At the shore we see seals and many different species of birds. This barren place is full of life!

Strange animals must live in this part of the world. We see arctic hare tracks, accompanied by these ‘slid marks’ of animals (that same hare?) sliding down from the hillside towards the ocean. We spot the large white hare, halfway the slopes above us. It is larger than a cat! At the shore we see seals and many different species of birds. This barren place is full of life!

And after a few more minutes we see the end marker of Knivskjellodden.  The North Cape (to our southeast) in the background.

After a few more minutes we see the end marker at Knivskjellodden. The North Cape (to our southeast!) sits majestically in the background.

The marker shows our GPS location.

The marker shows our GPS location.

And the GPS more or less confirms.

And the GPS more or less confirms.

We open the DNT locker to get to the 'summit' book. To our surprise we are the first visitors to this place in 2014! Likely reason: the locker door is jammed so tight that people before us probably didn't bother.

We open the DNT locker to get to the ‘summit’ book. To our surprise we are the first visitors to this place in 2014! Likely reason: the locker door is jammed so tight that people before us probably didn’t bother.

It is so windly at Knivskjellodden that we ski back to the more protected beach at exactly the same latitude as the North Cape, clearly visible on the other side of 'our' little bay. This must be one of the best camping spots in the world!

It is so windy at Knivskjellodden that we ski back to the more protected beach at exactly the same latitude as the North Cape, clearly visible on the other side of ‘our’ little bay. This must be one of the best camping spots in the world!

The wind picks up significantly that evening, so we make a fire at the stone marker, adding a tarp for added protection.

The wind picks up significantly that evening and it starts to snow, so we make a fire behind the stone marker, adding a tarp for maximum protection against wind and cold.

We brought our own firewood, as there are no trees on the entire island. We also find some driftwood at the sea shore. We use my Sami knive (see here where I got it) to split the wood.

We brought our own firewood, as there are no trees on the entire island. We also find some driftwood at the sea shore (pallets make great firewood!). We use my Finnish Sami knive (see here where I got it) to split the wood.

That evening a silent hope came true. The sky clears to reveal gorgeous Aurora Borealis right above the North Cape. You can see the well-lit globe statue on the tip of the cape in this photo.

That evening a silent hope comes true. The sky clears to reveal gorgeous Aurora Borealis right above the North Cape. You can see the well-lit globe statue on the tip of the cape in this photo.

The myserious silent light show continues for about half an hour until it fades, like our camp fire. It gets too cold to stay outside and we head for our warm sleeping bags.

The mysterious silent light show continues for about half an hour until it fades, like our camp fire. It gets too cold to stay outside and we head for our warm sleeping bags.

The following morning the wind has picked up, blowing the snow up into clouds. Later the clouds pull in to create a real Arctic blizzard. We break up camp and follow the track back up the plateau.

The following morning the wind has picked up, blowing the snow up into clouds. Later the clouds pull in to create a real Arctic blizzard. We break up camp and follow the track back up the plateau.

Conditions are much more difficult than during our descent the previous day! We ascent on snowshoes into a complete white-out. Without compass and GPS it is impossible to navigate in this white blur.

Conditions are much more difficult than during our descent the previous day! We ascend on snowshoes into a complete white-out. Our old ski tracks have disappeared and without compass and GPS it is impossible to navigate in this white blur.

Because of the deteriorating weather we make the decision to head back to the safety of our car and visit the North Cape the following day (see my trip report in this blog post). We do not want to be trapped by the weather at 15 kilometers from the nearest open road. When in doubt, always choose the safe option. You should not underestimate the force of Mother Nature in this part of the world, nor should you overestimate your physical condition and equipment.

An easy stroll under perfect summer condition, this trip took us three days in winter. The road closure (very common here in winter) added about 8 kilometers in both directions to the 9 kilometer (one way) trip from the Nordkapp road to Knivskjellodden. In total we traversed 34 kilometers in two and a half days, on ski’s and snowshoes. We camped along the track, using special winter expedition equipment. Temperatures varied from -15C at the start to just below freezing at the end. Storm force winds at our last day added significant wind chill. Do not attempt to copy this trip unless you are an experienced skier or winter hiker and bring the right equipment and enough food.

17 thoughts on “North of the North Cape

  1. What a wonderful expedition. I loved viewing your journey through the eyes of your camera. I think the strange animal tracks you saw were made by otters. They slide down to the ocean on their bellies. Last year I had one that slid past my gallery every day and into the harbor. I see from your instagram photos that you strolled right past my gallery. Too bad I wasn’t there. It would have been so nice to visit with you. Erica 🙂

    • Thanks for solving the slide-tracks mystery Erica. I had not thought of otters before, but it makes total sense. Pity we didn’t get to see them. Next time I will make sure to knock on the door of your gallery. It would indeed have been nice to meet you.

  2. Reblogged this on experiencenorthcape and commented:
    Yesterday I received one of the best comments to date: “This blog post was my inspiration to actually go to Knivskjellodden myself last week. See my winter expedition blog report here: http://travelsinorbit.com/2014/04/01/north-of-the-north-cape/. Thank you for your great information about this wonderful place Erica!”
    Please read Remco’s account of his winter expedition to the northern most location in the North Cape. His photos are breathtaking and I guarantee you’ll want to come and Experience North Cape yourself!

  3. Wow! Erica, what a reblog. “Getting off the beaten track”, that’s for sure!!! For me, a South African from temperate climes, this ‘winter hiking’ is a foreign concept and in the realm of expeditions and historic heroes. Amazing that with planning and good fitness levels one can trek off through extraordinary winterscapes. Such a fascinating insight into intrepid hiking and hikers. For an armchair traveller how wonderful it is, to come along on a virtual tour. Thank you Remco.

    • Glad you liked it Liz, thank you for the compliment. I still think you shoud visit. Wildlife, although very different than in your area of the world, is abundant! Wouldn’t it be great to write about seals, arctic hare, otters and puffins that you met on just one day? 😉

  4. Hi!
    I have a question for you, about the technical gear you used during the expedition.
    Especially about the ski.
    Did you rent it in nordway? if yes, where?
    Thank you!

    • Hi Giovanni! Thank you for reading. We use special cross country trekking ski’s that we have ourselves. There will likely be places in Honningsvag where you can rent this type of equipment, but I don’t know for sure.

  5. Hi, have you found out which animal made the “strange marks” sliding towards the ocean? I live in Tromsø and this winter I have spotted similar tracks around my house in the countryside (also pointing towards the sea). I am super curious to know which animal is making this tracks since I have never seen that before. Thanks!

  6. Hi, have you found out which animal made the “strange marks” sliding towards the ocean? I live in Tromsø and this winter I have spotted similar tracks around my house in the countryside (also pointing towards the sea). I am super curious to know which animal is making these tracks since I have never seen that before. Thanks!

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