The 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. 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 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, pulling our pulka sleds.
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 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.
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 progress over the Arctic tundra, following the track along a few hidden stone markers.
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 descend from the 300 meter high plain towards the frozen beach of the Arctic Ocean.
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 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!
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.
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.
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 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 (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 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 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.
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.