The “secret” in Gaustatoppen Mountain

The story of the Gaustabanen tramway is all about dreams, the Cold War and impressive engineering.

"The Gaustabanen tramway would almost certainly not have been built today. You must have vitality to set about building a tunnel up to the top of such a mountain", says Helge Songe, author of the book "Gaustatoppen".

The idea for the tramway was first introduced in 1953. The plan consisted of a unique tourist facility that allows that most people to experience the summit on Gaustatoppen.

When the plant opened in 1959, the price tag totalled 14 million 1959-era Norwegian kroner, and what was meant to become a tourist adventure had ended up as a hermetically sealed NATO facility in one of Norway's most famous mountain.

«The Gaustabanen tramway would almost certainly not have been built today. You must have vitality to set about building a tunnel up to the top of such a mountain.»

— Helge Songe, author of the book "Gaustatoppen"

The tourist magnet

The story of the Gaustabanen tramway actually begins long before the track was completed, and there are several reasons why you can now make your way up to the summit on Gaustatoppen mountain almost without breaking a sweat.

The mountain has attracted tourists for over 200 years, not least thanks to the many artists who from the beginning of the 1820s went to Tinn to immortalize the mountain peak:

"The artists was the advertising people of that era. Artists came from Norway and abroad, and Gaustatoppen must surely be one of Norway's most painted and photographed mountains," says Songe.

Foto: Gaustabanen

Subsequently, the tourists followed in their wake, which were called "leisure travellers" back then, and in 1888 Dr. Yngvar Nielsen published the 'Travel Guide of Telemark' with a description of how you could safely make it up to the summit on Gaustatoppen Mountain," writes the author.

Gaustatoppen Tourist Lodge opened in 1893. The original structure was a stone cottage, and it provided shelter for the tourists who had set out on the strenuous journey up from Rjukan.

The lodge is now a popular accommodation for the more than 100,000 mountain enthusiasts who annually visit Gaustatoppen. Although most people come here for the view, the tourist lodge offers visitors a simple menu and a bed to sleep in.

If you want to enjoy the view while munching on a waffle, you can do that as well. During the tourist lodge's high season, almost 100 litres of waffle batter are used every day, which is equivalent to nearly 1,000 waffles.

Facts

1893: Gaustatoppen Mountain Lodge is completed.

1934: Opening of the weather station, which is the first technical installation atop Gaustatoppen. Broadcasted directly on NRK.

1934: The first Alpine skiing competition is held at Easter in 1934. The first downhill race is held on 31 March 1935.

1940: The World Cup in downhill skiing is cancelled due to World War II.

1953: Plans for the Gaustabanen tramway are announced.

1954: Work begins. Already in February of 1954, it becomes evident that NATO wants to sit in the driver's seat on its own.

1959: Opening. Tourism is not an option.

1977: The King's lift is completed. Even when King Olav came to inspect the facility in 1977, it was done in all secrecy by helicopter from Oslo.

2004: Commercial trial operations during one summer week and one winter week in 2004, plus two Saturdays.

2010: On 31 July, the first commercial trip of the Gaustabanen tramway takes place.

Source: Helge Songe, author of the book "Gaustatoppen"

A special day

Songe explains how the 15th of August, 1934, would prove to be a special day for Gaustatoppen after it had long been a mountain summit that was mainly used by hikers. In a solemn, live television broadcast on NRK, the father of modern meteorology, Vilhelm Bjerke, opened a new weather station at the top of the popular mountain.

Foto: Gaustabanen

Although Gaustatoppen would continue to be the people's mountain for a number of years, the opening of the very first technical installation up here was a small sign of what was to come.

But first, there was an ever so little alpine skiing adventure. In the 1930s, the alpine sport was extremely popular, and in Easter 1934 the very first alpine competition starting from the summit on Gaustatoppen was held.

On 31 March of the following year, the first downhill race was held on a five-kilometre-long course with a fall in elevation of fully 900 metres. Then, in 1939, yet another run was opened in connection with the planned World Cup event that coming winter.

"The World Cup of downhill was supposed to be held on Gaustatoppen Mountain in 1940, but then the Second World War broke out and the event was, of course, cancelled," says Songe.

The Gaustaløypa run was 4.5 kilometres long and had a fall in elevation of an incredible 1,300 metres, which even made a big impression on veterans of the european alpine scene. The Rjukan downhill skier, Elisabeth Spockeli, was the very first person to set off on the impressive slope, and she did so with norwegian Crown Prince Olav as an eager spectator.

It didn't take long for NATO to take over the entire facility, which was originally meant to be open to all.

Helge Songe, author of the book "Gaustatoppen"

A ground-breaking idea

After the war, Norway's interest in alpine skiing continued to flourish, and locally in Tinn municipality, the tourists were welcome guests to Gaustatoppen Mountain, in both summer and winter.

"The idea of a tramway inside the mountain came about already in 1951, while the final plans for the Gaustabanen tramway were announced two years later," says Songe.

On Saturday, 13 June 1953, the news appeared in local newspapers. "Plan for tunnel tramway to the summit on Gaustatoppen Mountain", wrote the Rjukan Dagblad.

Intrigued newspaper readers learned that the planned facility would be significant for television, air traffic, weather forecasting, but most of all for tourism. The armed forces were also interested in having access to the summit, and the plans entailed dividing the costs equally between tourism and defence.

Foto: Gaustabanen

In the autumn of 1953, the airline Widerøe carried out a comprehensive survey of the summit from the air, and in late September 1953, the first light bulb was switched on at the summit.

The project progressed very quickly. Norsk Hydro was selected as the contractor on assignment from the Ministry of Defence, and work on the tunnel began already in February 1954. By then, it was just over six months since the newspapers had first reported about the plans.

Foto: Gaustabanen

"It didn't take long for NATO to take over the entire facility, which was originally meant to be open to all. In reality, NATO had basically taken over the Gaustabanen tramway once construction began, "says Songe.

NATO constantly announced new security requirements during the planning process, and the dream of a tourist facility diminished little by little. Meanwhile, with the first cut of the shovel, NATO had secured full funding of the Gaustabanen tramway, and from then on, the Alliance fully controlled the project:

"I imagine it must have been disappointing for the tourist industry and the local community, but it's not certain the tramway would have been realized if the armed forces hadn't footed the bill," writes the author.

Spectacular engineering feat

The entrance to the Gaustabanen tramway at Langefonn is situated at 1,125 metres above sea level, and the exit at Tuddalstippen is located 675 metres higher up.

"It's really cool, and there aren't many facilities like this one. The fact that it's a little rustic just makes it even more exciting," says Songe.

Foto: Gaustabanen



The first leg consists of tram which takes you 850 metres further into the mountain along the horizontal track. From here, you switch to a vertical track that takes you upward in a 1,040-meter-long tunnel with a gradient of 39 degrees.

Foto: Gaustabanen

"The Gaustabanen tramway would fit right in as a location for a James Bond movie. It's a spectacular and innovative move to decide that you're going to build a tramway of this kind," says Songe.

Not least, it took innovative thinking to undertake the transport of such large amounts of rock and mass out of the mountain.

Foto: Gaustabanen

When you park at Langefonn nowadays, you are actually standing on top of the masses that were removed from the tunnel. The rock from Langefonn was transported out using two small locomotives, and the rails were lengthened as the tunnel constantly became longer and the fill site grew larger.

Foto: Gaustabanen
Foto: Gaustabanen
Foto: Gaustabanen
Foto: Gaustabanen

When the tunnel collapsed

Building a tunnel in Gaustatoppen Mountain was anything but risk-free. In a construction project of this dimension, it's not so strange that some unforeseen problems arose along the way. But something hidden inside Gaustatoppen Mountain came close to causing the entire project to be put on ice, literally.

Foto: Gaustabanen

There is permafrost inside Gaustatoppen, and on the way up inside the mountains, the construction workers encountered several thousand-year-old ice. When they finally made a breakthrough in early summer 1957, something happened that no one had foreseen:

It turned out that the tunnel functioned as an enormous chimney for hot air, and the hot air had caused the ice to melt. The rock slide that occurred was unavoidable.

The work had then been going full speed ahead for three years, and there was now serious consideration about shelving the whole prestigious project. Incredibly enough, the laborious work continued after new rounds of planning meetings. What they did was turn everything on its head:

Large stone blocks could still loosen, and the engineers therefore determined that reinforcement work had to be done from the top down in the tunnel, instead of from the bottom up.

"It was an insane project. The fact that it was completed at all shows how important Gaustatoppen Mountain was as a centrally-located communications hub for Norway. NATO must have considered it to be hugely important," says Songe.

Foto: Gaustabanen

The reinforcement walls were now cast in sections that were then hoisted into place from above with the assistance of helicopters from the US Army. When the most dangerous sections were secured, the work could continue in the lower part of the tunnel.

Foto: Gaustabanen

Looking back, this story shows that building a tunnel up to the top of a mountain from the inside requires a good dose of courage and confirms that it's okay to think big sometimes:

"The only thing missing is the ability to raise the antenna up and down inside the mountain," laughs Songe.

Considering the scope of the facility, the Gaustabanen tramway was also finished in a relatively short amount of time.

"The HSE policies were probably a bit different back then, but no one lost their lives during construction," writes the author.

5. oktober 1963: Forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen ønskes velkommen av oberst Bjørn A. Rørholt.
5. oktober 1963: Forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen ønskes velkommen av oberst Bjørn A. Rørholt.
Foto: Gaustabanen
5. oktober 1963: Studietur med forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen.
5. oktober 1963: Studietur med forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen.
Foto: Gaustabanen
5. oktober 1963: Studietur med forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen.
5. oktober 1963: Studietur med forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen.
Foto: Gaustabanen
5. oktober 1963: Studietur med forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen.
5. oktober 1963: Studietur med forsvarssjef Folke Johanessen.
Foto: Gaustabanen

Why Gaustatoppen?

When the Gaustabanen tramway was opened in 1959,there was no longer any talk of tourism in connection with the tramway inside Gaustatoppen Mountain. The Gaustabanen tramway had become an exclusively defence installation.

From then on, the iconic mountain top in Telemark would play an important role in the overall communications system in the country, and Norway's topography meant that communications at military facilities were given extra attention.

Foto: Gaustabanen

Even before completion of the facility, the Norwegian Armed Forces Communications Division had set up provisional radio relay systems at Gaustatoppen Tourist Lodge.

Foto: Gaustabanen

In particular, the coordination of the Royal Norwegian Air Force required a large number of trunk circuit communications. According to Songe, the requirements were made even stricter when Norway joined NATO.

Due to Norway's location so far north and the common border with the Soviet Union, Norway's main role in the NATO Alliance's defences was to serve as a base for early warnings and intelligence. The author states that this required secure communications

Foto: Gaustabanen

"At the time, NATO was something new and the alliance was important to the defence of the country following the Second World War. The facility also provided the local community with much-needed jobs. We don't know how many people have worked there, but many locals from Rjukan have got work in connection with Gaustatoppen Mountain," he says.

Around 1960, the radio relay system in Norway was the largest integrated microwave system in Europe, and the station on Gaustatoppen would serve as a hub in the military radio relay network in Norway for 50 years.

Foto: Gaustabanen

Tension in the air

Today, there is little doubt that the facility in Gaustatoppen Mountain played an important role during the Cold War:

"The Norwegian Armed Forces have put a lid on what was going on. I'm still trying to figure out what they were talking about and what was revealed up there. There is a lot of tension related to it," says Songe

Foto: Gaustabanen

The Soviets were also curious about what was going on inside Gaustatoppen Mountain. Songe states that berry-pickers were regularly observed in the area around the mountain who were driving cars with Soviet diplomatic license plates and which had long antennas on them.

Foto: Gaustabanen

The few civilians who rode on the tramway in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s had to obtain clearance in advance. The first time Songe himself rode the Gaustabanen tramway to the top was in 1980 when he was Head of Culture in Tinn municipality.

"Anyone who requested a ride on the tramway had to be vetted all the way in the top ranks of NATO. You had to reckon with a planning period of between a week and fourteen days in order to get to the summit via the tramway," he says.

According to Songe, people who had been politically active on the left were regarded as "individuals under suspicion", and people with a Marxist-Leninist background were prohibited from taking the tramway:

"I know several people who did not get to ride it," he says.

Foto: Gaustabanen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
Foto: Gaustabanen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
Foto: Gaustabanen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
Foto: Gaustabanen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
29. mars 1977: Kong Olav besøker Gaustatoppen
Foto: Gaustabanen
The King's Lift

When you exit the cable cars at the top today, you have to walk through a 110-meter-long tunnel to get out into the daylight. That's all you get to see of the facility up here.

Hidden from the outside world are several rooms with technical equipment, backup power, a ventilation system, and an apartment for the staff members who were working up here, not to mention the famous "King's Lift" that goes from the radio relay room up to the office and apartment building at the summit.

The need for the "King's Lift" first presented itself back when the Norwegian Telecommunications company was doing construction work on Gaustatoppen at the beginning of the 1970s, but its completion was given extra priority when King Olav decided to come for a visit in 1977, hence the name.

Kilde: Helge Songe, author of the book "Gaustatoppen"

Prominent guests

Songe says that there was an acceptance among local residents that they basically had nothing to do with goings-on at Gaustatoppen. He believes that for the local people, the mountain, therefore, had greatest significance as a symbol and an attraction. The mountain was the emblem on Tinn municipality's letterhead, and it has always been a big attraction for hikers:

"No one in the local community knew what was happening up there, or who was up there. In 1961 the then Defence Minister, Gudmund Harlem, even held a meeting of the Nordic Defence Ministers up there without anyone here knowing about it," says Songe.

Foto: Gaustabanen

A number of prominent people have visited the Gaustabanen tramway in secret; including everything from NATO big wigs to foreign ministers. Even when King Olav came to inspect the facility in 1977, it was done in all secrecy by helicopter from Oslo.

"It's incredible what kind people have been to Gaustatoppen without the local residents knowing anything about it," says Songe.

Juli 1960: Nigerias forsvarsminister, Majekodumni.
Juli 1960: Nigerias forsvarsminister, Majekodumni.
Foto: Gaustabanen
2. juli 1959: Formann i NATOs  infrastrukturkomité, E.H. Merill.
2. juli 1959: Formann i NATOs infrastrukturkomité, E.H. Merill.
Foto: Gaustabanen
27. september 1961: Nordisk forsvarsministermøte med Gudmund Harlem, Sven Olof Morgan Andersson og Poul Hansen.
27. september 1961: Nordisk forsvarsministermøte med Gudmund Harlem, Sven Olof Morgan Andersson og Poul Hansen.
Foto: Gaustabanen
30. august 1962: Israels statsminister David Ben-Gurion
30. august 1962: Israels statsminister David Ben-Gurion
Foto: Gaustabanen

Gaustatoppen remains important for communications in Norway, and due to the mountain's location, there would have most likely been broadcasting equipment and a weather station at the top, with or without the tramway.

"However, there would not have been a NATO facility without the tramway. It has been used to transport vast amounts of people and equipment to the summit, and not least, it made access possible regardless of weather conditions. Having the tramway inside the mountain enabled NATO to man the facility all year round," says Songe.

It was as recently as 31 July 2010 that the very first commercial trip of the Gaustabanen tramway took place. Almost 60 years after plans for a unique tourist facility in the mountain were introduced, visitors could finally take the tramway to the summit.

Foto: Gaustabanen

Source: The book "Gaustatoppen", and interviews with author, Helge Songe.

Foto: Privat

15 extraordinary minutes

A trip with the Gaustabanen tramway is a 15-minute historical journey on the inside of one of the most legendary mountains in Norway.