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Anatomy of a Catastrophe


It is late afternoon, somewhere between 4 and 6 pm. The sun is going down. We started driving home on a very narrow mountain road. "There is no way we are getting out of this if someone comes from the opposite direction," I think to myself. Even my fixer doesn’t know this road, so it is an exploration for both of us. We are driving slowly and observing remains of avalanches that recently made their way down the Ramnefjellet mountain.


1500 meters of free fall down the slope while clearing every tree, rock, and living being that is not firmly attached to the bedrock. I am almost admiring the destructive power of nature and listening to the story about a man who recently got swiped away into the lake nearby while driving home from work.

"He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is nothing you can do in that situation except let go," my fixer tells me.

I ask him if they managed to recover the body, and the response I get shocks me.

"The lake is around 400 meters deep, and his car is probably covered in rocks that took him down in the first place. They searched for the car, but there is no way to recover someone from that depth."


I get quiet for a minute while still observing the naked mountainside every few hundred meters. I think about this man. What a horrible way to go. He probably didn’t even realize what had happened before his car was already half full of water and sinking into the abyss.

"Stuff like that happens often. Every year, there is someone who gets taken away by the mountain. It is just a part of life here."

The condition of the road worsens the further we drive. It gets bumpier and narrower constantly. In a few instances, I am anxious because we are unable to see what is behind the road curve since the mountain rises far above us and there is no space to move if there is something coming from the other direction.

"When the road narrows down like this, you drive as fast as you can so you minimize the time you spend in these sections."

Although this makes sense, I can’t get the thought of crashing with a car behind the corner out of my head. I try to make myself more comfortable by looking at the mountain. It calms me down.

After around 20 or 30 minutes of driving, we pass the backside of Brigsdalsbreen – a sidearm of the biggest glacier in mainland Europe. The road is now leading us parallel to a long lake with crystal blue, almost turquoise, color. I have only once in my life seen water of this color, and it was in the other mountain lake I hiked to years ago. I observe the water with the now already slightly orange sky when we decide to stop to walk the dog.


After a few minutes of driving, we find a small wooden house located on the slope – at least a few hundred meters above the lake. We decide to park the car on the driveway since there is no other indent to stop at. Although the house seems empty, and we are not planning on stopping there for longer than half an hour, the driver is concerned about blocking the driveway.

"What about Allemannsretten?" – I say jokingly. A few days ago, we discussed this Norwegian cultural norm that everyone is free to walk around wherever in nature as long as you don’t disturb others and keep the environment clean. Even though while I was doing my research this excluded privately owned land, locals explained to me that in practice you can be wherever as long as you are not on someone’s front porch.

We get a piece of paper and write our personal information so the owner can contact us in case we are blocking his car. Now that we've solved this, we can stretch our legs.

I open the door and am immediately hit by the freezing air – the difference between the car and outside temperature is more than 25 degrees Celsius. This makes me feel alive. After the last one of us gets out of the car, the driver opens the trunk and lets the Border Collie out. At this point, we have been driving for a few hours, so the dog immediately starts stretching and running around.


We gather and start walking alongside the road and mountain slope next to it while talking about the lunch we had before our drive. Ten-ish minutes pass by, and a strange structure starts to our left. It is a steel net, but the biggest one I ever saw.

It is at least 10 meters high towering above us embedded in the mountainside.

I speculate that it is put there to stop rocks from falling on the road, and my fixer confirms. What I can’t quite grasp is the scale of the net. It is higher than some two-story buildings. What is it meant to stop from falling?

I spot a large sign in the distance. "I think there is some kind of a ramp," my fixer says while not completely trusting his eyesight. As we walk towards it, the blurry sign shifts to readable letters: Bomveg Kjenndalsbreen VINTERSTENGT for bil, sykkel og gaande. I read the translation out loud: “Winter closed – for car, bicycle, and hikers”.


I look at the big triangle that depicts a rock avalanche, and while shifting my view to the steel net to my left, I slowly start to realize the magnitude of danger at this place.

I take the camera out of my bag, and the lens instantly gets condensed from the temperature difference. I curse into my chin and change the lens to the only other option I had on me – a long telephoto. My fixer also starts to take some images as we move towards the lakeside of the road.

The scenery of the blue lake between mountains during the sundown is one of the most beautiful sights you could ever lay your eyes upon. While pulling the camera up to my face, with the corner of my eye, I spot a very weird landscape. At this moment, I realize my fixer and the rest of the group are already looking at it, but nobody is saying a word.


A big area next to the lake’s shore is of a completely different color compared to the rest of the terrain. All the vegetation is low and of a yellowish shade. The ground is very hilly, even for mountainside, and the rock is showing beneath the moss in multiple places. As the eyes stroll across, I spot a large cross erected at the highest spot of the shore.

"What happened here?" – one of us asks.

"I have no idea," the driver responds.

As we slowly start to walk down the slope towards this area, we hear a muffled, low-pitched rumbling.

“Rocks are falling.”


After this sentence, I don’t feel very comfortable being there, but curiosity is pushing me further. We walk the narrow path downhill while the driver is talking to us about mushrooms in the area – his latest interest. Every now and then, the rumbling of the rocks echoes in the distance, but we continue on the path.

A panel appears, with a lot of names on it. It is a tombstone. Two years on it: 1905 and 1936.

"In memory of those who were not found,” it says.

I notice almost all the names have one of two surnames: Nesdal or Bødal. We start to realize that the hills we are walking on were houses a long time ago. As the walk continues, another panel appears. Verses from the bible are written out in three languages: Norwegian, German, and English. One theme connects them all: Water.

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Some 50 meters further, there is a structure I can’t really discern. It looks like a huge pile of rust. I walk closer to it and realize that it is a large boat. A boat 400m inland. Crushed like a can. Steel is wrinkled, cracked, and in places opened completely. We walk around it and decide to find out what really happened here.


The area we were currently in is a place of two large catastrophes from the last century. On this shore, two villages were located: Nesdal and Bødal. These were thriving farming communities that were also well-known tourist locations. A steamboat stands right in front of us – a major attraction for visitors wanting to drift the beautiful lake.

Mountains surrounding us are cracked – constant movement of glaciers and large amounts of water slowly hollowed out rock over millennia. During the year of 1904, rockfalls in the area became an everyday occurrence. The mountain was giving its first warning signs. Locals living in Nesdal and Bødal weren’t occupied with this. Political tension in Norway was at the highest point in years.

Around midnight on 15th of January 1905, 350,000 cubic meters of rock tumbled down 500 meters from Ramnefjellet mountain into the lake. The sheer volume of rock displaced a huge amount of water and caused a megatsunami 40 meters high. This tidal wave swept through both villages, destroying, crashing, and killing everything in its path. In total, 61 people lost their lives. A steel boat was thrown 300m inland.

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As I’m reading this, I get interrupted by another rockslide in the distance. After a brief pause to listen, I continue…

Over the next thirty years, people rebuilt villages, and locals that survived moved back to their land. The community started to recover while people slowly left the disaster in the past. Tourism began flourishing again, and Loen soon became a spot where European royalists went for a vacation.

Unfortunately, the mountain was not finished. On Sunday 13th of September 1936, at half-past 4 in the morning, a rock almost twice the size of the Eiffel tower broke off the mountain slope and started falling 800m towards the lake, taking everything in its way with it. Once it reached the water, the rocks mass had a volume of 1,000,000 cubic meters. This caused a series of mega tsunamis much worse than the one 30 years ago, with the biggest one reaching 74 meters in height. This wave once again devastated now barely recovered communities. All boats that found themselves on the lake got either sunk or crashed, with the boat Lodalen being carried 150m further inland.

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In total, 100 houses and all communal buildings in the area were completely destroyed. Devastation did not stop at the two villages… The wave continued to spread alongside the lakeshore, hitting every structure and person unfortunate enough to find itself in its way. That day 74 people lost their lives, out of which 33 were never found.

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I stop and listen. Every few minutes, a new rock falls in the distance. How could this happen twice?


"Why didn’t they send experts to evaluate the area after the first time?" a driver asks.

We think about this for a second, but the scenery around us is overwhelming. Mountains towering above, some disappearing into the clouds. Multiple traces of fresh avalanches on each of them. Every trace leading towards the lake and… us…

"What should we do if a rock avalanche happens now?" – I ask, almost naively thinking how the nets could save us. Or in the worst-case scenario, how we can seek refuge in the cracks at the base of the mountain.

A simple answer returns: “We hug and say we love each other.” I stand there almost shocked, looking high at where the avalanche disappears in the clouds, only thought in my head is of people who used to thrive here a hundred years ago. A place of such natural beauty, straight out of a fairy tale, but deadly underneath.

As the day starts to fade away, we slowly start to make our way back up the mountain to the road. On multiple occasions, I turn around - a pile of rust looking smaller with every step. I am left with a feeling I never felt before. Some combination of adrenaline, awe, fear, and peace.

A walk towards the car is quiet – only the mountain occasionally reminding us how far the sound travels. As I sit back into my seat, I take one last look at the cross - the net does not feel so big anymore.


Big thanks to family Hemula for welcoming me as one of their own. This project wouldn't be possible without their help.

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