The best bet I ever lost was with Andy Burr over which of us was crazy enough to jump off the 50-plus-foot Henningsvaser, Norway, bridge.
At home I jump into the Colorado River after nearly every climbing trip, and at my first look at the bridge, I said, “I’ve run bigger waterfalls than this in my kayak. I’m jumping in.”
Then I walked out onto the bridge and actually looked at it, and at the tiny fishermen below, and suddenly wasn’t quite so brave. I voiced concern about the ocean currents. “I also don’t want to tick off the locals,” I added.
“I’ll do it for a steak dinner,” Andy said.
He nodded, and said almost nothing, just walked partway out the bridge, shucked off his pants, and plunged. He stuck the landing like a pro, but the cold salty water 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle took his breath away, and pounded him. For the next 10 days we heard, “Oh, my coccyx!” every time our van hit a bump.
Best of all, I still haven’t paid up.
How I found myself thousands of miles from home avoiding leaping off bridges with Andy Burr was simple: a friend had sent me a photo from the Lofoten Islands of Norway. In the image, he is about 1,000 feet above Carribbean-blue water, feet pasted to a perfect-looking dihedral. While everyone agreed the area looked amazing, nobody I spoke with had ever been there.
What little info I could find during hours on the Internet and phone calls to friends and magazine editors turned up much on that one route, located in the Presten area, and almost nothing on anything else. Hearsay held that Norway’s magical islands hosted thousands of Yosemite-quality routes from 200 to 2,500 feet tall, in a perfect setting with no crowds, all in a highly developed country where people spoke impeccable English. I decided that at least there was one route there, and shelled out $1,200 for a plane ticket. The only other alleged negative was that Norway was crazy expensive and it rained a lot.
Always the optimist, I set about recruiting the first four like-minded climbers I could find.
Rob Pizem was in as soon as I called. For some reason Rob trusts my judgment and every year he agrees to a trip off the grid with me. So far I hadn’t killed him, and 24-hour daylight appealed to him because he could climb nonstop and never sleep. Ari Menitove is an educated geotech engineer, so unfortunately he doesn’t simply take what I say on blind faith. He insisted on a little research himself and came back with the conclusion that the climbing looked amazing but that he was troubled by the weather and cost. Anyone who’s ever met my wife knows that I am obviously a very good salesperson: I convinced her to spend the rest of her life with me. So how hard could it be to get Ari to ignore the Weather Channel? A couple of phone calls later, he was in.
Brian Heppner is the UPS driver for my shop, a sports store in Avon, Colorado. I’ve invited him to the Bugaboos, the Ruth, Corsica, Cuba, Mexico and several other far-flung places but he works 60 hours a week and has a wife and son, so he usually can’t go. When he informed me that my proposed dates landed about two weeks after Mrs. Heppner was due with their second child, I crossed him off the list. Much to my surprise, two days later he called to say he was in. Brian is obviously a very good salesman, too.
I also asked Andy Burr, a climber and photographer friend. I always tell him that if he had any talent he could take a picture that actually makes me look like I can climb.
He tells me, “There’s only so much you can do with digital technology.” But he also said he was in.
While you can fly to Oslo and take an overnight train and bus ride to reach Lofoten, we instead traveled to Kiruna, Sweden, rented a car and bought groceries in this substantially less expensive neighboring country. Within 10 minutes of leaving the tiny airport in our minibus, we had our first of many moments showing we were far from home: a reindeer running right down the middle of the road.
An hour or so later we had carts full of food, pans, drink and everything else we could think of, and were on the road for Lofoten. The reports of food prices seemed exaggerated, as our entire bill came to 2,547 Kroner (about $380), not too bad for five hungry boys for a couple weeks. Oh, yeah, but then there was the beer. Mr. Burr never likes to go too long without his “medicine.” So as soon as we left the grocery store, our next mission was to find Andy some good Scandinavian brew, and holy smokes, beer was $30 a six-pack. The Red Bull that I bought cost just as much, so my recommendation is to go with neither. We spent as much on beer as groceries.
As we crossed into Norway, the terrain changed to craggy rock formations. The general appearance of everything was simply more rugged. But just in case we didn’t know we were in Norway, we came across a 35-foot troll in the parking lot of a restaurant, and somehow decided it would be a shame not to climb it to celebrate our arrival in Norse land. As Brian executed a perfect dyno to the troll’s little finger, however, we discovered that the entire thing was made of Styrofoam. The finger flexed under the load, ready to snap. Fortunately, Brian was able to reverse his V5 move, an Ugly American incident was averted, and we hurried on to the coast.
Eventually our rolling circus hit the quaint fishing village of Svolvær, Lofoten’s main town. As I attempted to navigate Svolvær’s roundabouts, and figure out where the nearest campground was, Rob shouted, “Hey, that’s the Goat!” Parking at the town cemetery, gazing up at the formation, we debated whether to try our first climb. We had been traveling nonstop for a day and a half. On the other hand, the weather was absolutely perfect and there wasn’t another climber in sight. Why wouldn’t we climb? Oh, did I mention it was midnight? Located between the 68th and 69th parallel, Lofoten is blessed with 24-hour daylight in the summer. I was wearing sunglasses. With no reasonable excuses to speak of (nobody ever died from lack of sleep), we threw together a rack and stumbled up the approach trail, only to find that we weren’t the only ones there after all.
Looming tall above the busiest port in the Lofoten chain of islands, Svolværgeita (or the Goat, as it’s usually called) has beckoned courageous Scandinavians for hundreds of years. With its two blocky “horns” sitting atop a 400-foot slab, the Goat was first climbed in 1910 and is still a prize today, as evidenced by the fact that we encountered eight other climbers on our midnight journey.
In order to earn your Viking cap for climbing the Goat, one has to jump from the higher to the lower horn, a gap about eight feet wide, dropping four feet. The landing zone is down-sloping and the size of a sheet of plywood. If you blow the landing you’re not going to die but it will certainly wreck your day. The stone lived up to the hype, the climbing was fun and engaging, and the positioning was otherworldly, with the port town lit up below us, red, blue and yellow colors glowing in the midnight sun. But the highlight of the Goat was laughing as four experienced climbers whimpered, moaned and made excuses about jumping the little gap between the horns. The fact that hundreds have jumped unroped, people have been married on top and every imaginable stunt has been done there reminded us of how silly rock climbing is in the first place.
“It’s impossible!” Rob swore. “It’s terrifying. It’s not worth getting killed on.” Rob has climbed hard 5.13 trad.
We finally threw in the towel and just enjoyed the incredible views.
Brian has an uncanny ability not to get lost. I, on the other hand, pretty much know only up, down, left and right, and even those are sometimes guesses. So even though I questioned every turn, a short time after leaving the Goat we pulled into the climbers’ campground on the beach of Kallebukta. Within walking distance of several 200- to 600-foot outcrops situated on a little bay, the camping was complete with water and a toilet, and it was free. Even though it was nearly 3:00 a.m., people were milling about and nobody batted an eye as we set up camp and began cooking dinner or breakfast or whatever it is you call it at that hour. The excellent Rockfax guidebook Lofoten Rock by Chris Craggs and Thorbjørn Enevold told us that Kallebukta is a central location for the bulk of Lofoten’s climbs, so we decided to call it home over the next week or so of our 12-day visit.
Brian and Ari had brought their trusty fishing rods and, as another budgetary measure, were intent on catching our meals. The saying goes that Norway is the only country in the world where the banks are never locked, as the national currency, codfish, is left drying by the millions outside on racks, free for anybody to plunder. Surrounded by water and constantly reminded of the abundance of fish by those visible on the racks, the two of them cast their lines into the sea day after day while Rob, Andrew and I taunted them about the lack of fruit for their labor. In the end, we laid off when their persistence did yield one catch. Not positive what the legal size for keeping a fish was, they decided to play it safe and released the monster back into the ocean. It was at least four inches long.
Behind us lay the crag of Paradiset, with its standout Butter Arms, a short and steep 5.13 that provided an afternoon of air time falling off the crux moves because of butter arms. Odin’s Bue, a 600-foot arching crack comprised of five solid pitches of 5.11 and a short scramble to the top, was a 10-minute walk up the road from our tent. With its short approach and high visibility, Odin’s is a sought-after tick for entry into Lofoten’s harder climbs. Ari and I ventured the 45 minutes up to Vågarisset (“The Daring Crack”) for 250 feet of perfect 5.10++ #5 and #6 Camalot splitter. I figured the climb would be no problem as Ari the offwidth slayer was my secret weapon. However, arriving at the base of the climb, we quickly realized that we were woefully under-racked. Option A was to turn around, do the scramble of shame and boulder on the many 15- to 40-foot eggs scattered about the dry bay beneath us. This was unacceptable. Option B was for us, which meant Ari, to sack up and run it out 40 or so feet over a pretty solid-looking #6. This seemed like a great plan to me. Neither one really appealed to Ari, so we sat there stewing until Option C showed up in the form of three Norwegian climbers.
If you’ve never met Ari, let’s just say that he has a rather distinct look. Most people who read climbing magazines have seen a picture of him, typically on some heinous-looking offwidth, gritting his teeth and sporting thick Buddy Holly glasses. Seems Ari’s offwidth-master status even extended across the pond because the arriving Nords looked at him sideways and ventured: “You look just like that guy on the big cracks in the magazines.” Then our newfound friends lent us all their large gear.
Ari scampered up the crack, clipped the anchor and let me know that I was on belay. I assured the locals that we’d be back with their rack in a few minutes. Only problem was that my constant whimpering for Ari to “Up rope!” caused their #5 to walk so far back in the crack that it was all I could do to unclip the rope from the draw. After hanging for a few minutes in an attempt to retrieve the cam, I told myself that we’d just get it on the way down. Our brilliant solution was to simul-rap, tie two nut tools together, lasso the cam and repeatedly throw a sling with nuts across the lobes, which in turn would retract enough to move the entire rig about .5 mm. Forty-six throws later we had moved the thing enough for me, just barely, to reach and rescue it from the depths of the chasm. We returned the gear slightly embarrassed, and sore from hanging, but proud to have averted another international incident.
About a 10-minute drive to the other side of Kallebukta’s peninsula we found a gold mine of crags right off the road. We sampled awesome two- to four-pitch lines at Festvag and Gandalf with the common theme being perfect rock, bomber pro, short approaches and fun, moderate climbing mostly from 5.8 to easy 5.11. There are hundreds of lines with either new rappel anchors or short walk-offs. On the 50 or so pitches that we climbed, we only pulled on one loose hold, or rather Ari did.
We had been told that the local ethic was ground up, on-sight. Any time it gets hard, I just revert back to my French roots (Brumbaugh, oui) and pull on gear. Ari, however, digs deep and will fight to the bitter end. As Rob and I watched from the adjacent 5.10 hand crack, offering friendly support like, “Dang, Ari, those RPs below you look pretty sketchy,” Ari up and down-climbed the techy, thin 5.12 crux Riz Raz multiple times. As his tips and feet slowly faded, he finally committed to the one move he couldn’t reverse, hucked for the finishing jug and got it. Only problem was, the jug exploded and Ari flew down the wall.
“Do it again, do it again!” was all Rob and I could muster up.
Ari ran back up the line and sent next go.
Just before we crossed that first bridge to Henningsvaer, we stopped in the parking lot that serves as the casting-off point for a path leading east back toward Kallebukta. If you don’t mind longer approaches, miles of walls are just waiting to be discovered here. Given our time constraints, we opted to repeat Vårkåt (Spring Lust), a 5.11+ on the Jomfru Pillaren. Vårkåt climbs a distinct splitter crack system up a 500-foot buttress and sees little traffic even though the guidebook lists it as one of “Lofoten’s Top 50.” The book called the line “unmistakable,” stating, “The whole line has been thoroughly cleaned so there is little chance of getting lost.”
As we rounded the corner and the buttress came into view, my eye flew to a striking line right of center.
“That will never go,” both Rob and Brian insisted.
With my big mouth, I talked our less opinionated navigators out of their directions and had us completely off route within minutes, stuck on scary traverses with some minor trundling thrown in before we were back where we were supposed to be, loving every inch of the five-pitch 5.11+ line. The route was mostly thin hands and fingers, but the obligatory 50-foot offwidth kept us honest.
I ran the last two pitches together in an attempt to save time. Nearing the top of the cliff, I could find absolutely no option for a belay. The wind picked up, the rest of the boys were nearly a 70-meter ropelength below me, and they couldn’t hear a thing I was saying.
“Sla-a-ack!!! How much rope do I have?”
I never heard any response except, every so often, a muffled, “Did you say off belay?”
I stood for what seemed like an eternity, with a whole lot of prayer and contemplation, then finally made the last moves (which of course ended up being all of 5.9) to a small ledge, set up a belay, and brought up Rob and Andrew, now cold and uncomfortable after hanging out for an hour.
“What in the world took so long?” they asked.
As we flipped through Lofoten Rock, we kept reading praises for Vestpillaren as a favorite route. Climbing it via the original finish, rated 5.11, our crew compared the line to the Moonlight Buttress, Astroman, the Rainbow Wall, the Rostrum, Fine Line, etc. Brian described the texture of the rock as “skateboard grip tape that doesn’t chew your hands.” Though warned that the line got crowded, and it was a perfect day, we only encountered one other party on the entire formation. Whether the grade is at your limit or a cruiser day for you, the moves are always fun and you are never far from belay-worthy gear. The summit register was written in a language none of us could read, except for one repeated word: “FANTASTICK.” Upon topping out, we were treated to an amazing 1.5-hour hike back to the car with 360-degree views of emerald green water and thousands of little islands sporting a lifetime’s worth of climbing potential.
All of us love to climb for different reasons. Rob’s main drive is to put up new routes. After scouring the guidebook for virgin lines, we voted to check out Lillemola, an uninhabited island a 10- to 20-minute boat ride from the main port town of Svolvær. The only drawback was that Lillemola had no fresh water source (thus the uninhabited part) and we needed to find a boat. Andy and Brian spoke with numerous commercial-tour-boat operators, who were enduring the off-season and excited to hear our plans, and we soon had seats on a 35-foot twin-225-horsepower boat for only $50 total. Ten minutes after leaving port we were on a white sandy beach below a 1,000-foot wall shooting right out of the green ocean.
While we walked our bags from the boat to basecamp, we noticed a gurgling sound coming from the bushes. Drinking from the perfectly clear stream, we chuckled at the time we’d just spent rounding up bottled water. We were also surprised to hear a lawn mower coming from the yard just up the beach. The beta on our uninhabited island with no drinking water was a little off.
The stone and the setting, however, were spot on. Our private wall had only one route already, a 5.10 A2. We spotted several worthy objectives, but nearly all looked like they would require a lot of bolts (seriously frowned on by the locals) and time (a dwindling commodity). After a good bit of debate we settled on a series of cracks just left of center.
We rotated shifts gardening and scrubbing the first two pitches, which were completely overgrown with grass. Being unprepared for such a major cleaning project, we were stoked that the one house on the island had a friendly owner. He let us “borrow” a brand-new screwdriver and brush; when we returned the tools, the screwdriver looked like an ice pick and the bristled broom resembled a toothbrush. Our apologies and attempts to pay him for the tools were only met with smiles and his assurance that he was happy to have contributed to the climb.
Our new route followed a prominent left-leaning crack system for 500 feet of straightforward climbing on perfect rock. At mid-height, we handed the rack to Ari for a stellar bit of routefinding and he linked the line into a splitter through the upper headwall. Man Hands went at 5.11.
Another great thing about Lofoten is that cell coverage is pretty much everywhere. So when we finished our project earlier than planned, we simply called up our boat ride. A couple of hours later we were headed toward Stetind, known as the national mountain of Norway.
A friend of mine had sent me a book on the Stetind and none of us believed what it said. The Mountain’s South Pillar is by far the most popular route, with about 1,800 feet of 5.10 climbing—this seemed reasonable. What seemed impossible, however, was that the north face boasts a 50-pitch route 4,900 feet long. That would be Half Dome sitting on top of El Cap. When we caught our first glimpse, we were overwhelmed to step out of a car, walk 50 yards, and stand beneath a rock wall that is 380 feet short of a vertical mile.
The north face would have to wait for a return trip, as we simply didn’t have enough time. The South Pillar, however, was calling our names. We had been told that there was a staunch anti-bolting attitude in Norway, and it was confirmed at the huge kiosk at the base of the Stetind. Written in Norwegian, English, German, Spanish, French and Italian, a sign stated, “All bolts and permanent installations are strictly forbidden.” Our fears of routefinding on such a massive wall were soon allayed as we came across multiple museum-worthy relics in the form of rusty pitons. In the first several pitches alone, a couple dozen pins stuck out from the rock. We found it strange that while installing new hardware that might actually hold body weight was verboten, rusty junk littered the national mountain. Oh, well, it wasn’t our battle, and we just decided to enjoy the climb.
As the approach cut off over half of Stetind’s vertical relief, the moment we began climbing we were 2,000 feet off the deck, above a stark blue fjord leading straight out into the ocean. The higher we climbed, the better the route became, and the more amazing the views. The highlight of the line came a few hundred feet below the summit in the form of a 100-foot #3 splitter followed by a slightly overhanging offwidth roof. Cutting your feet loose on a perfect hand jam above 4,000 feet of granite shooting out of a fjord was something none of us had ever experienced before. Standing on top, we could see all the way back to the peaks surrounding Svolvær, five hours away, basking in the sense that we were ending a perfect journey. We had climbed hundreds of pitches of clean granite and even scored a new route. The weather had been nearly perfect, providing us with sunny days and just enough rain to rest our weary tips. The people treated us warmly and we’d avoided insulting them. No one had been hurt aside from Andy’s tailbone.
The only thing left to do was head back to Sweden and fly home. Everybody had warned me that speeding is taken very seriously in Norway. After two weeks, though, I had become immune to the speed-limit signs, certain that the reports were overblown. When I was pulled over, I was still hopeful, even after 20 minutes of trying to bargain with the cop were unsuccessful. When I learned that I was going only 12 kilometers—seven miles—over the limit, I figured it would be no big deal, and just accepted the ticket. It was $650!
“In America, the police will usually just give you a warning if it’s under 10 miles per hour,” I explained.
“Yes, I’ve heard this about America,” was his firm retort as he smiled and continued to write the ticket. I walked back to the van with my tail between my legs and for the first time on the trip was speechless. My friends found both aspects to be highlights.
A trip to Lofoten really would have been pretty affordable if we’d avoided beer and speeding tickets.
Mike Brumbaugh lives in Eagle, Colorado, a short drive from Rifle, the Black Canyon and Indian Creek.