By Caroline George
We arrive in Rjukan in the late afternoon. Seth Hobby with Northern Alpine Guides – our rigger / American expat to Norway / guide – shows us a few of the area’s great classics. The air is cold and dry in this little enclosed valley which doesn’t see the sun from the end of October through April, making it the perfect ice climbing destination. Dark yellow and blue frozen waterfalls cover the steep dark gneiss walls forming each side of the V-shaped valley. One long broken ice flow in particular catches our eyes: it’s a dead vertical ice climb that starts inside a deep chimney system and traverses horizontally on tiny ice blobs leading to another steep pillar. The route is called Lipton because of its black tea color, but it ain’t no “let’s have a cup of tea” kinda climb. Its rated WI7, which, on the water ice scale is the hardest a climb can be rated. Word is that the route isn’t in condition this year, so we will have to take a closer look at it before we commit to getting on it after a day of warming up.
We are staying in a yellow American style house, which is a local retired school building being remodeled into an Ikea style new hostel. We meet local climbers but also climbers from England. The Icelandic crew crack us up because they spend their nights knitting hats for their girlfriends! Every night, we take turns cooking meals in the shared kitchen, recounting the day’s events and planning for the following day. I love northern countries. People are so particular about how they eat meals; especially breakfast: the room is lit by candles only, to give it a “kushli”, read cozy, feel. Bread, crackers, cheese, ham, salami, milk, pate, butter, jam, cereal, yogurts, etc. are laid out on the table and a typical slice of bread has thinly sliced cheese, ham and pickles laid out on it. You can tell a lot about a country and its people by what and how they eat breakfast and this is one of my favorite things about traveling places.
We elect Krokan to climb at first and help shake off the brutal jetlag – we are 9hours ahead of Seattle time. Krokan is a natural Ouray ice park style of canyon, with routes after routes of ice and mixed climbing of all level and length. As I swing my tool into the ice, I am instantly surprised by how dry the ice is: the impact of the pick fractures the ice deep not only on the surface but way deep into the ice layers. Each swing requires a lot of cleaning to finally get a good pick placement. It’s a particularly dry ice year here in Norway and Krokan is the perfect place to get used to the ice quality, to the style of climbing that Norway has to offer, and to get a feel for the following day’s project: the local testpiece, Lipton.
Since word on the street is that “Lipton” isn’t in condition, we figure that no one will be rushing out to beat us to the climb. So we leave a little after 9am and are greeted by bitingly cold temperatures at the parking lot. It’s going to be a cold one, which isn’t ideal for doing a hard multi-pitch route, which requires spending a lot of time at uncomfortable stances belaying the leader. We hike/rappel down the steep access slope to reach the base of route, 800ft down. The excitement rises as we approach the route and find out if that first pitch is in. I look up at the crux – the second pitch – and realize that the blobs of ice are really narrow, offering no feet at all. I am already wondering how this is going to be possible. Chad gears up and leads the thin and steep first pitch. As I follow the pitch, I am struck at how brittle and aerated the ice is. The climbing is strenuous, especially with a backpack filled with a belay jacket, a thermos, some food and a headlamp. I look over from the anchor at the second pitch but can only see the first section. 10 ft of traversing ice lead to a blank wall and on to a wildly overhanging blob of ice. The bottom part of the blob is cut off making feet in existent. I look up at Chad: “You won’t be too disappointed if i don’t make it, will you?” Seth, who’s climbed this route before and has never seen it in such hard condition, is at the base of the climb yelling up: “Are you sure it’s even worth trying? It looks way improbable”. I rack the screws and draws on my harness and head toward the desperate looking second pitch. I put a piece of gear into a crack high on the blank wall before getting out on the overhanging ice blob. If I fall, I will land way into space with ascending up the rope as the only solution to get back on the route. Once I get on the blob, my feet are level with my hips and my knees are touching my ice axes. I am so crunched that I am not sure how to move on. I pull sideways to peak over the blob and see what is awaiting me beyond. My heart sinks: no feet, and the curtain only gets shorter. It seems so unlikely. If I commit, I need to be sure I can pull through the section because there is no turning back. Uncertainty creeps up, but I decide to climb on. Ice axe placements require a lot of swinging because the rock roof above is so close that my tool hits the rock each time I try to swing, sending it way away from where I intended to hit. With so much swinging and placing ice screws for protection being so tricky – because I am so cramped up that I can’t put the right amount of pressure on the head to get it to bight into the ice -, I am sometimes forced to hang on a screw to place the next. This pitch could go free with ice axe hooks and screw holes in place, but on a route that has seen little to no traffic and climb on really small blobs of ice that would most likely break if you were to fall on them, I am not willing to take the chance. So at times, I am forced to clip directly into an ice screw to place the next piece of protection. I make steady progress, figuring out how to manage the following section. As I near the top of the pitch, the whole hanging curtain I am climbing on fractures and I pray that it won’t break from underneath me, dragging me down in the process because of the screws placed in it. Luckily, it doesn’t. Following this pitch is just as hard as leading it because Chad has to carry the pack on his back, which adds to gravity. He has to make sure he doesn’t fall because it would be hard to get back on route, but he pulls through and I am so excited to see his head pop over the lip of the climb and share in the elation of this pitch! We are both blown away at what we have just climbed, at the exposure and the sheer difficulty.
Neither one of us has ever been on anything quite so wild before.
Chad gears up and leads the next pitch. I lead the last steep section, which goes up the left hand side of a broken pillar, inside a chimney system. The ice is brittle and it is hard to find good gear. This route is the real gift that keeps on giving. From the top, we rappel down on the V-Threads that we built on the way and make it safely back down to the ground. This route alone was worth traveling to Norway for.
We return to the hostel and are greeted by a nice and welcome Pasta Bolognese dinner cooked by the rest of the team. I am still in disbelief that we made it up the route and have a hard time falling asleep reliving the different sections of the climb. An unforgettable moment. We are now “en route” to another world-class ice climbing area – Eidfjord – where routes are long and some are still awaiting a first ascent. The road getting us there is very narrow and windy and it should take us 6hrs to cover the 250km to get there! We are so excited at the thought of maybe accessing routes by boat, and seeing the unlimited potential for new routing!