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Ice Climbing in Norway with WIll Gadd

27-Feb-2012
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The massive ice climb we would call Sketchy Fossen shuddered like a beast and let out a deep, territorial growl. This behemoth of an icicle shifted down an inch, but I couldn’t tell if that was the beginning of its terminal separation from the rock wall or just a touch of stress relief. Either way, I didn’t settle. I felt like a mouse climbing the leg of an elephant, my tools and crampons little claws digging in. Is it better, I wondered, for the mouse to jump off or wait for the elephant to roll over? My mind slid sideways. A red light flashed and the mental intercom sounded: “I hope you’ve enjoyed this interlude, Will, but it’s now time to climb again.”

I tottered up the pitch and built an anchor. When Andreas, one of Norway’s leading ice climbers, arrived at the belay, he stated flatly, “That was difficult.” I could barely squeak a response. Some days you’re a man, some days you’re a mouse. Norwegian ice climbing brought out both in me.

2002: Rjukan, Hemsedal, Recon

The three best new-routing trips of my life started with an e-mail from Norway local Andreas Spak about an ice festival he was running in the small town of Rjukan. I was skeptical. I had imagined Norway as a land where bark-eating telemark skiers fall randomly down gentle hills. I dug around, but the only information I could find about Rjukan was the movie The Heroes of Telemark, in which an Aryan Kirk Douglas kicks Nazi ass while seducing the local women. The story, as I later found out, is mostly true. Apparently, in the early 1940s, Rjukan had a hydroelectric station that converted regular water into heavy water, a substance potentially useful for winning the WWII race to build an atomic bomb. The Germans invaded Norway and seized the station, but their nuclear ambitions were thwarted by intrepid local saboteurs. Over the years I’ve learned that any place with hydroelectric power and cold weather is a good bet for ice climbing—Ouray and Bridalveil Falls in Colorado are prime examples—due to the combination of water and steep terrain. I bought my ticket.

After only 16 hours of travel (I sometimes drive more to climb “locally” in North America), I arrived at the Rjukan Ice Festival and promptly deposited myself at the bottom of Krokan, a 400-foot-deep canyon smeared with ice. Within 10 minutes I was soloing a beautiful four-pitch line up a series of steps to finish at a huge power plant. The route, Saboteur, was named after the Rjukan heroes.

I learned a lot about Norwegians during the festival. For one, their Viking heritage makes them tough. When temperatures plunged to -25, I wanted to cancel my clinic, but it seemed poor form when mothers were still cheerfully pushing their kids around on toboggans. Second, everyone is a brute, but, fortunately, they are seriously friendly. Third, the theory that taxing the hell out of alcohol will reduce consumption is seriously flawed.

After the festival, Andreas and I piled into his car to begin our tour of the fjords of west-central Norway.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of climbing with Andreas. In fact, I have spent more time tied into a rope with him than anyone else. We’ve explored ice-filled mines in Sweden, dangled in the Cineplex in Canada, and done three tough trips in Norway. Andreas is a mix of computer programmer, hardcore music fan (don’t mess with the “hardcores” in Norway or they’ll burn down your church), married father of two, an excellent ice climber but lousy driver who putts along at numbingly slow speeds.

For this trip, I decided I’d spare myself and drive. I immediately took the car up to 130 kilometers per hour (80 mph).

“Um, the speed limit in Norway is 80, maximum,” said Andreas. “Do you know how much a ticket is going to cost for 130 kilometers per hour? About 40,000 Kroner!”

“Pesos, Kroner, what’s the difference?” I asked.

“About $6,000,” Andreas said.

I muttered about socialist nanny states under my breath and slowed down. We were driving along an excellent and perfectly straight road across the area’s dominant geographical feature, the Hardangervidda plateau, 2,500 square miles of expanse situated between 3,000 and 4,500 feet. The plateau, the largest in Europe, receives a tremendous amount of snow—this was the birthplace of telemark skiing and the successful polar explorer Roald Amundsen trained here. The snow that melts, feeding thousands of lakes, rivers, streams, seeps and flows before spilling over the fjords and valleys.

If you were to customize an area for ice climbing (or making electricity, which Norwegians use in epic quantities as a sort of birthright, much like Americans’ relationship to gas), you couldn’t craft a better venue than the Hardangervidda. As we descended from the plateau and into a fjord, blue ice flashed off the imposing walls. “Is that climbed? It must be!” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” Andreas replied. “It’s a long walk and there’s better stuff farther.”

As I found out, there was always “better stuff” a little farther, and for two full days we saw enough ice to satiate generations of climbers. I keep searching for analogies to put the bounty I saw into perspective, but all I can say is that if you climb ice, you need to quit your job and move to Norway. Just some friendly advice.

Before you give notice, though, there are some difficult economic realities a visiting North American should know about. For example, Norway actually has a balanced budget that makes the Norwegian Kroner the world’s strongest currency. A snack and soda at a gas station will set you back $10. A Red Bull is $5—I know, I bought 12. A roll of duct tape is $15. Gas is $8 a gallon. Alcohol? Best to fill your duffel bag at the duty free before heading over.

There are two strategies for dealing with the high cost. You can ignore the exchange rate until the credit card bill arrives, or rent a hut, which every town seems to have and which you can book through the tourist offices. The first time I stayed in a hut I was impressed: Rations for three days consisted of a huge cooler of hot dogs, some weird flat bread and loads of beer. I never saw anyone eat anything but hot dogs or drink anything but water and beer. Impressive, and instructive for the visiting ice climber.

==

The Big Bang of world-class Norwegian climbing happened in 1977 when the well-traveled and talented American team of Henry Barber and Rob Taylor visited Norway on a hunch. Barber had been researching the world’s tallest waterfalls. The tallest, Angel Falls, was in the jungle of Venezuela, but another, the Mardasfossen in Norway, seemed promising. However, when Barber mentioned it to a Norwegian climber, he laughed—the falls had been drained for hydroelectric power. Undeterred, Barber continued looking and found the 330-meter Vettisfossen in a book on Norwegian waterfalls. When Barber, then at the height of his formidable climbing ability, and Taylor arrived to see the fall firsthand, “I almost shit my pants,” says Barber. The next day, he and Taylor climbed the jewel, Barber using a wood-shafted 70-centimeter Chouinard piolet (climbers today might use such an axe on flat glaciers) and a Chouinard North Wall Hammer, essentially a big-wall hammer with a long pick and a few teeth. Taylor used Pteradactyls, which to our modern eyes look like a fat steak knife crossbred with a ping-pong paddle.

Of the climb, Barber says that there was “water running full-force behind the ice that was a scant 10 to 14 inches thick. The roar of the water behind the ice, says Barber, “sounded like a freight train.” Further, when they placed screws, “Water would come shooting out like a fire hydrant, then it would all freeze up in about 45 seconds. Amazing place!”

After the Vettisfossen, Barber and Taylor made another half-dozen first ascents, barely scratching the surface of the hundreds of routes they saw, some with hundreds of meters of vertical ice followed by hundreds of meters of slabby flows. Norway, says Barber, made Canada’s big routes seem almost inconsequential.

Thirty years later, locals still talk about Barber and Taylor, and have maintained a high climbing standard ever since, although climbing styles are strongly regional and can be difficult for a visitor to figure out. On my first trip to Norway I did the second ascent of Fission, an M8+ in Rjukan. The top half of the climb was then on excellent natural gear up a perfect crack. A crowd of locals and visitors started debating how good the gear was as I clipped the top anchor. I said it was fine, no need for bolts. There was disagreement so I jumped and took a clean 25-footer from the anchor onto the bomber gear. Still not satisfied, the locals later retro-bolted the route. Turns out it was the only one in the canyon to require gear, and was simply bolted to keep things consistent.

But it gets weirder: In 2009, the Swiss climber Robert Jasper and friends climbed a couple of huge new mixed routes near Gudvangen, a town along the E-16 fjord highway. Andreas and I had looked at both lines, but decided they would take more bolts than we wanted to place, so we kept driving. After the climbs were bolted by Jasper, one of Norway’s climbing clubs took offense and said that the climbs, “did not meet the Norwegian standards of climbing in good style.”

I got sucked into the resulting international debate, as did Andreas who, in keeping with his hardcore music beliefs, threw some explosive gasoline on a very small fire when he told Jasper that he “should tell them to fuck off and mind their own business.” Jasper pleaded ignorance, and the world press had a field day reporting the various slams and slanders.

Despite the hubbub, none of the Norwegians I’ve corresponded or climbed with have said much of anything—it’s hard to get worked up over 20 bolts in a fjord that has tunnels bored through the walls, concrete dams, and a truly inexhaustible supply of ice and mixed routes along an endless coastline.

 

After one too many of Andreas’ “there’s better ice down the road” remarks, I parked in a ditch in the valley of Laerda, a typical Norwegian region sprinkled with wooden homes, lots of street lights, a stave (nailless) church dating from the 1100s, and a population of just over 2,000. Fueled by sheer ice lust, we exploded out the doors. We hiked an easy 30 minutes to the start of a glimmering flow that from the road had looked like it would present a quick solo of about 150 feet to the steeper, longer business. In a pattern that would often repeat itself in Norway, the short opening step of easy ice was vertical, poorly bonded and a good 500 feet high. Also in a pattern that would repeat itself during the brief eight-hour Norwegian days, darkness caught us on a ledge four pitches up. I wanted to keep going, but Andreas suggested that climbing hard ice in the dark wasn’t prudent. I argued that cavers operate in the dark all the time, but Andreas’ sensibilities prevailed.

The next day, darkness again caught us but this time we were just one pitch from the top. Inexplicably, Andreas suddenly swore that it was now OK to keep climbing, and we finished what is still one of the finest ice routes I’ve ever done, Fokus, 1,650 feet of crazy-fun ice.

Two days later we battled up another big route with a short difficult mixed section where I suddenly became the rodent on the frozen elephant. Andreas was sure our route, Morke Mannen, was an FA but we were about to become FAN (First Ascent, Not!) victims.

==

There is still no comprehensive guidebook to Norwegian ice, and the multi-lingual confusion of the various nationalities who frequent the country has led to some major new routes receiving two or more “First Ascents.” After we climbed Morke Mannen I put a brief post up on my blog. A few months later Guy Lacelle e-mailed me with the brief comment, “I think we did that route five years ago. It was nice.”

Guy was a good friend—a good enough friend that I knew he, the ice purist, hadn’t climbed the M8 portion that we had bolted. I asked him about it and he said, “Oh, we climbed the trees and moss on the side and then walked back in on a ledge.” Cunning.

Today, if you’re on a new line in Norway and find a sling or old rap station and aren’t sure who left it there, just assume it was Canada’s Guy Lacelle, Norway’s talented Marius Olsen, Austria’s Harri Berger, Germany’s Robert Jasper or some super tough local Norwegian farmer (seriously) you’ve never heard of. To a Norwegian, a beautiful four-pitch line is as ubiquitous as a Volvo. The local attitude is as relaxed as your head will be after a few belts of aquavit, the local brew distilled from potatos and caraway seeds. There is just too much ice for anyone to get hung up on who did the first ascent.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the average fjord in western Norway sports 100 guidebook-worthy lines. Most of the development so far has concentrated on the multi-pitch, vertical flows, and even then perhaps only 10 lines in each fjord have been climbed and only 10 percent of the terrain has been visited. Then consider that there are 3,000 to 4,000 fjords, plus the interior valleys. You do the math. If you lead WI 7+ (all hard ice climbs are now WI 7+ it seems), countless routes await you, but the greatest opportunity for FAs are in the WI 1 to WI 5 range.

2007: Eidfjord, the Promised Land

In 2007 I was back in Norway. Andreas and I drove 30 minutes out of Eidfjord, a town where three major valleys come together, and I started screaming. The “biggest waterfall in Europe,” Voringfossen, is a 10-minute walk from the car and to be sure you find it, a sign reads, “To the waterfall.” Yet it’s the gorge below Voringfossen that holds the goods, a glutinous quantity of frozen treats. Five full-length raps down grade IV ice, which as far as I know is still unclimbed, deposited us in the bottom of the canyon.

Andreas and I ticked off three beautiful new routes and failed on several others. On one, I led 70  meters of vertical, sun-rotted ice only to find the three-foot-thick ice at the end of the pitch too weak to hold a screw. I down-climbed the pitch, pulling the ice screws I’d placed out by hand. That experience is the single stupidest thing I’ve ever done. But how can you say no to a route that beams 800 feet straight up?

When at last I got back to the belay, Andreas, in stoic Norwegian style said, “Will, what do you think? Maybe we could not do that again? ”

2010: Back to Eidfjord. Freaky Fossen

In 2009 I got it into my head that it would be fun to climb for 24 hours straight and raise money for the dZi Foundation, an organization that sponsors community projects in Himalayan India and Nepal. At Ouray’s 2010 Ice Festival, I climbed about 25,500 feet from noon January 9 to noon the next day. When I arrived in Norway a month later, I had already climbed more than 500 pitches of ice that season, and felt pretty much invincible.

After a good day of new routing I was drinking a beer in the Eidfjord Hotel and surfing the Internet. Skrikjofossen popped up on the list of “Biggest Waterfalls.” I asked Andreas about it, but he didn’t know anything. The map showed that it was less than an hour away. OK, then, let’s go climb it.

The next morning we had to slam on the brakes in the middle of the road when we saw the blue monster hanging in two tiers above the town of Lofthus. “Fossen” is Norwegian for “waterfall.” Who knows what Skrik means, but we immediately started calling it Freaky Fossen—it seemed to fit the look.

Much of the initial climbing involved clawing through tentacles of five to 10-foot icicles dangling below massive mushrooms. I had to stand to the side on insecure ice with bad protection, knock a few icicles down, which inevitably meant getting smacked with a few baseball bats, move into my cleared area, climb a foot or two then smack more icicles down, and repeat for hundreds of feet. Fortunately the belays were protected in apartment-sized caves with flat floors. At one belay I traversed about 30 feet, then climbed to a big roof and started cleaning. One larger-than-normal dangler hooked its frozen tendril on the rope between my first  screw and the belay; it broke off and rocketed toward Andreas.

He got pounded hard. After he could breathe again he said, “Will, what do you think? Could we please not do that again?”

It took two tries before Andreas and I got up the last pitch. We had been fighting hard all day, and were hopeful that the final pitch would offer one-stick blue ice to the top of the plateau. I started upward with confidence—and retreated in seconds. The icicles didn’t so much explode as vaporize. Normally I would just dig until I hit solid ice, but if I beat on the ice here, I broke straight through the free-standing pillar and out the other side. It was like a 150-foot pillar of broken bottles and smashed wine glasses. I swung again at the crystalline mess, but couldn’t see how to climb it, much less protect it. It seemed criminal to smash the clear icicles, like deliberately taking my ice tools to a glass sculpture. Retreat suddenly sounded OK, and if I were on the first pitch I would have. But not 1,500 feet up.

Staring at the ice was like peering into a Rorschach blot, and I figured that if I looked long enough, a hidden solution to the unclimbable ice would appear. My friend Sonnie Trotter once said about crack climbing, “I climb rock, not the spaces between the rock.”

I couldn’t climb the ice because it was simply too fragile, so what about the spaces? I started finger-jamming slots too delicate to hook, and pinching slippery columns. The tension ate at me. Once again I was a mouse riding a behemoth, but this is what I love about ice climbing—just when I think the beast is going to get the best of me, I find something new. The picks started sticking. The spindrift swept away the tacky fear as I built a belay in the darkness.

Andreas cleaned the pitch and called it an, “insanely steep, death-pillar-hell, monster of an ice route.” I agreed.

Freaky Fossen prompted a long talk with many friends about ice grades. I’ve since decided that rating ice climbs above grade 5 is about as accurate and worthwhile as rating whitewater, and that egos are part of the equation. Ratings are for technical difficulty, but ice climbing and surfing are more about a wild experience. The hardest waterfall ice climbs get their ratings not for physical difficulty but for what is going on inside the leader’s head. How do you rate emotion? Does a Grade 7 become a 5 after two ascents? Certainly, if someone were to go up and do the second ascent of Freaky Fossen with the icicle clearing done, it would be a lot easier. And what does a rating mean when somebody could go and do it next year and find the ice formed completely differently?

Kayakers have given up on rating difficult rivers—they just tell a story and show a photo. I could rate Freaky Fossen WI 7+ as this is a magazine article and it’s expected, but it would be a meaningless grade. I’ll just go with Andreas’ description and Christian Pondella’s photos and let you judge.

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