Saturday, 28 February 2015

Hesthåggån, Oppdal

I can't help but compare the drive into Drivdalen with the approach across Rannoch Moor and into Glen Coe. There's a similar barren expanse before the valley closes in and starts its descent. Oppdal generally looks a lot more Scottish than other places in Norway that I've visited. The hills have a weathered look and comparative bleakness similar to the highlands. The milder temps and chill from the gusting winds during Saturday morning also felt very Scottish but fortunately we were sheltered for most of the day.

The farm tack leading towards Tøftfossen (WI4) was fit for ice skates. Soon we were aborting from this planned objective having seen the size of the cornice hanging over the route. It looked potentially impassable and so better to find another objective whilst the day was young. Maybe one for the early season next winter.

Approach track to Tøftfossen
The large cornice hanging over Tøftfossen

There looked to be plenty of alternative options in the valley and nearby Hesthåggån looked in good shape with plenty of climbing in a localised vicinity. Lots of substantial waterfalls to draw the eye. Some steady routes as well as some harder challenges should we require.

Hesthåggån, viewed from the roadside

We started on Venstre TV-Foss (WI3+). Anna lead the steady first pitch on good ice before the second pitch provided a shock to the system. Maybe a long rising traverse out rightwards would have gone at the grade but this almost looked an escape route. Most of the bulk of ice was located towards the left side but this was steeper and looked more sustained. It was mostly off-vertical until the final few metres so hopefully not too dramatic.

First pitch of Venstre TV-Foss (WI3+)

With just a few metres of height gained the ice was beginning to dinner plate. Largely because it was featureless with natural weaknesses for my axes. I veered leftwards following a faint depression that better accepted my axes but this direction led me beneath draped icicles that were too brittle to climb. I clearer their lower reaches with my axes to find smooth ice suitable for a screw. Many tumbled towards Anna, who unfortunately was right in the firing line. Gaining some wet ice to my left now looked the easiest option. First strike of my axe sent a large block tumbling but fortunately subsequent placements bit with ease. Moving from beneath the icicles onto the wet ice almost felt overhung but once mounted it was a quick pumpy bash to the top. A steep second pitch and all rather dramatic for a WI3+. Closer to 4+ by my chosen line although I only have myself to blame. To my surprise Anna appeared at the belay dripping wet, which was in contrast to me. Evidently I had triggered some drainage in the wetter ice whilst leading.

Sandbagging myself on the 2nd pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Høyre TV-Foss (WI3+), hidden around the corner, was next. It looked particularly impressive and worth climbing whilst in the area. This one was just a single pitch but needed the most of the rope length. Anna made fine work leading it and appeared equally keen to sandbag herself by finishing up the middle of the steep final wall. Another really good climb on another fat waterfall.
Anna approaching Høyre TV-Foss (WI3+)
Start of Høyre TV-Foss

We finished the day on Penis (WI4+), an isolated route at the left end of the crag. A clever play on words, as 'pen is' means 'pretty ice' in Norwegian. Lots of opportunities to climb different lines but the best one looked to be a bowl-shaped icy chimney in the centre. Steady climbing up to this point and then a short section of vertical climbing once in the chimney. Slightly harder than the top of Venstre TV-Foss but equally less sketchy. By the time we were abseiling from the route it was 17:30 in more than adequate light. Spring felt close at hand.

In the chimney on Penis
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Kong Vinter, Rjukan

The weather had been particularly warm in Rjukan between Wednesday and Friday, peaking at about 7 degrees. Both day and night. Lots of sustained thawing and little time for a refreeze before the weekend. Prior conditions at the higher venues I knew had been lean but often good. Therefore we would need to play it safe with venue choice. In between climbing there would be some evening entertainment associated with the Rjukan Ice Festival, which would hopefully make up for any less-than-perfect ice.

Rob and Charlene were visiting from the UK for the weekend and keen to make the most of the conditions. Kong Vinter would be our plan A. It looked suitably high and sheltered and potentially a good option for avoiding the festival crowds, who would hopefully stay closer to Rjukan. Our plan B would be the crag on Gausta, which was likely in good condition, albeit not the most inspiring place. With little snow cover the approach would probably be easy.

The good news was that Kong Vinter had climbable ice. The bad news was that we was not the only people to anticipate this. We descended into the venue first, however soon it was draped in abseil ropes as climbers arrived in steady flow.

...Something not steady was the heavy flow of water descending from the back of the gorge. Its loud roar creating an unusual ambiance for an ice climbing venue. Large scattered ice blocks littered the floor beneath, suggesting dramatic collapse in recent days. What's more, the amount of water flowing beneath the ice immediately right of this running section made me wary of further possible collapse with so little time for a proper refreeze.

Kong Vinter seen from the approach trail

Large amounts of running water on the far left side

The recent warm temperatures and strong flow of water below the snow also made me very cautious about the snow pack conditions spanning base the gorge.Venturing too far didn't seem an attractive prospect and others evidently had the similar inclinations to stay local. We crossed to Kong Bore in roped fashion, as though crossing a glacier filled with hidden crevasses. The pack felt ok but it was good to be cautious.

Rob checking the snow conditions before we opted to rope-up

Kong Bore (WI4) largely avoided the crowds as nearly every other party headed either back up Kong Vinter or King Kong. One party tried Dronninga but backed-off from mid-height. From a distance the icicles linking the top section looked weak and were not touching down. Routes further right looked thin but climbable, however looked dangerous to approach through the bottom of the gorge for fear of meeting running water. Ab'ing directly into these routes looked perfectly feasible though.

Climbers on Dronninga (before backing off)
(Photo by Rob Goodman)

Rob lead the first pitch of Kong Bore, starting on the left and then swinging back right to follow the thickest build-ups of ice. I had the luxury on second of following a more direct thinner line up the middle. The ice was brittle, often fracturing unavoidably on first strike, irrespective of my swing strength. Charlene and the second of another team both climbed generally below me and were subjected to my barrage.







We didn't bother with the second pitch as it looked only about WI2 and would make our descent more protracted. Better to abseil from the nearby solid tree whilst we could still get down in one.

Rob leading Kong Bore

At least four teams were now climbing on either Kong Vinter or King King with others stationed at the base of the routes. Better to stay where we were and keep climbing I thought. Besides a narrower line of ice immediately left of Kore Bore, not covered in the guidebook, looked alluring. It entered an icy chimney towards the top and looked a little more Scottish in character. We had no rock gear but hopefully it wouldn't be too hard and I could always abandon ship if things got out of hand.

Climber on King Kong

Climbers everywhere

More brittle ice presented in the lower part but my screws felt vaguely ok, plus I had plenty of them. Higher up the ice improved and offered some strong features to facilitate first time placements. At two thirds height the chimney enveloped the route, and the ice quickly subsided. A sling placement over a wedged spike would be my last runner with 10-15m remaining. It didn't fill me with confidence either...

Some thin ice, maybe 5cm thick, still coated the surface of some rocks. Otherwise the chimney was dry, which meant I could sometimes get hands involved whilst slotting a axe to safely protect a difficult move. A worrying assortment of blocks guarded the exit but appeared frozen in place. 'Pulling hard' didn't seem a sensible approach and so I did my best to climb gently and back-and-foot and bridge my way through the final metres. Soft snow at exit forcing my to actually 'climb' my way off the route. WI4, M4 I reckon in current conditions but possibly more ice in the chimney under normal conditions?

Climbing the ice chimney left of Kong Bore
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

By this point climbers were quickly thinning out, with many settling for one route and then leaving. Rob lead a full rope length up the left side of Kong Vinter (WI4), after which I lead another line towards the right, deliberately making things difficult for myself with a steep finish at the top. By now the ice was a little more hacked after so much morning traffic but this at least facilitated first time placements and made for fluid climbing.

Not the best conditions in summary but we got the most out of the day and finite number of routes we climbed meant there is plenty for me to return for... next season.

Rob climbing a line towards the left side of Kong Vinter
Me climbing a line towards the right
(Photo by Rob Goodman)

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Solisen, Alta

Our flight back to Oslo was due to depart at 6pm so any sort of unplanned moderate drama needed to be avoided. A venue called Solisen, south of Kløften, looked a safe bet, with some decent single-pitch routes in close proximity to the road.

The horizontal snow had finally abated with clear skies and uninhibited views of the coastline and hills now predominating. It was good to see what the Alta area looked like before leaving. Despite the clear weather it was biting cold, with a considerable wind chill.

We parked directly beneath the routes. The approach was relatively short, however some exceptionally deep snow made things more protracted. Sometimes the snow extended to my waist, needing me to clear the top foot of snow with my hands in order to advance a step. Not particularly tiring, given the depth of powder but certainly time consuming. Mechanically I climbed the slope in this fashion, following the repeatitive clearing process with each advancement, slowly forming a deep trench in the direction of the ice. By the time I looked up from my burrowing the ice was getting close at hand.

We obvious routes to head to was a pair of WI4s, which looked to hold the most ice and be the main draw card. The right hand route, called Solisen, wasn't properly formed, although a line of sorts looked possible towards the far right. It's delicate ice curtains otherwise failed to meet up one another. Stolpen (WI4) further left looked much more appealing with possibilities looking to range from WI3-5. It's main wall was steep and lacking features but further left were easier lines that snaked around the back. Atmosphere added from a large roof of rock extending over the start of the ice.

Stolpen (left) & Solisen (right)

I followed an interesting line that curved around the back of the face and then veered rightwards up a couple of steep steps in the direction of a tree immersed in the ice. Easy climbing above the belay quickly brought me to a frozen pool. To my surprise its surface broke at the edge, where it began to steepen, and promptly I submerged my left boot in icy water to my ankle. Not a good start the day's climbing but fortunately my gaiter kept most of the water out. The ice for the large part was a decent quality although easier angles were still coated in the hard layer of icy snow that needed to be discarded. Some of the best climbing on the trip nevertheless.

Stolpen (WI4)
Then on the flat icy summit it was my right foot's turn to break the surface and unexpectedly meet with water. I attempted to make an ice screw belay but repeatedly struck water after a couple of inches, instead opting for a distant tree. By this point Anna was getting cold at the belay and consequently suffered from hot aches during much of the climb.

Bubbling water through an ice screw hole
Top of the ice
We had time for another route but opted for a nearby short WI3 called Solisinnet. It wasn't formed anywhere near as fat as in the picture in our guide and looked very easy for the grade via a weakest line on the left. I consequently did my best to make things as hard as possible for myself, finding the line of most resistance up a short narrow icy buttress in the centre. Unpredictable ice made things sketchier than anticipated. One axe placement triggered a hairline horizontal crack across the buttress. Then brown-yellow ice to my right, which I had anticipated would be good for screws, also developed cracks around the perimeter of a large section, indicating imminent departure. Thoughts of retreat crossed my mind but the saving grace were some good axe placements higher up that encouraged me to push on.

Solisinnet (WI3)
The final day's climbing was good, however highlight was undoubtedly the protracted Arctic sunset over the neighbouring lake. A fitting conclusion to the trip, made more special by the four days of start-stop snow preceeding. We lingered to take pictures and enjoy the colours but ultimately knew we needed to head to the airport.

The ice conditions in Alta were a mixed affair in summary but we made the most of our time and definately found some adventure. None of the routes that we climbed were on the agenda prior to the trip and were primarily dictated by conditions. That of course means there is certainly plenty to return for, which is always a good thing. Isberget and Borrasbekken both deserve a return trip as looked exceptional for the grade. Maybe next time though I'll visit a month later to see if the ice conditions improve.

View from the top of the crag
Sunset over Trangdalsvatn

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Øytunfossen (WI3), Alta

Expecting to see the Northern Lights whilst in Alta was looking an optimistic affair, given the extended periods of snowfall since our arrival. At least we had witnessed them clearly during our inbound flight whilst above the clouds. The snowfall probably peaked during Saturday morning when it escalating into a moderate blizzard, culminating into some of the flattest light conditions I have needed to drive. Now I understand the need for the red markers at the side of the roads.

After two days of failure it seemed sensible to lower the bar a little and make finishing a route the priority. A 150m WI3 route called Havørna sounded a safe bet. Particularly with it's one minute approach and other routes in the immediate vicinity. Surely an easy mission? As it turned out the 883, which branched from the E6, didn't look recently ploughed so we were again scratching our heads for a plan B.

Fortunately from the this point in the trip the weather began to clear up. We drove back to Kløftan to try a one of the easier regional classics. Øytunfossen (WI3) looked great from the road. Well formed and inviting, resembling a scaled-down Rjukanfossen, progressively broadening with depth. Our route description indicated a 5 minute approach but maybe that was very late season with running shoes because it took a good 30 minutes through the deep snow to reach the route.

Øytunfossen from the road
Gearing up. Car in the distance... 5 minute approach?

The ice on the first pitch was a mixed a affair. Hollow, crusty frozen snow on top of easier angles that needed stamping through, then wet ice on the steeper parts. Water was running despite temperatures of around -6 degrees. More so when Anna started puncturing the ice with her axes. One of the ice screws runners was already submerged in ice by the time I came to remove it. Evidently the icefall had a strong flow of water.

Anna leading the first pitch
A submerging ice screw

Second pitch the ice became drier and accepted my axe placements first time. Still some hollow icy snow to stamp down immediately above the belay. Then some steeper climbing, maybe half a grade harder than expecting. Our first route completed in three days...

Me leading the second pitch

The volumes of water were rapidly freezing over everything, creating a sheet of ice around the ropes. It shattered free with some forceful belaying but it wasn't just the ropes. Carabiner gates were freezing shut. Anna appeared at the top of the route with axe leashes covering in a thick layer of frost, resembling a couple of snowy dreadlocks. Thankfully we were not flying that evening, else our baggage might have been overweight.

Snowy dreadlocks
Blue skies from the top of the route

Friday, 13 February 2015

Borrasbekken (WI4) & Nussurabekken (WI3), Transfarelv, Alta

Borrasbekken looked a stunning route when viewed at a distance from the E6. It trailed down the hillside like river of ice and begged to be climbed. It would need a fairly long approach through flat forest but it looked worthy of an early start.

The major topic of conversational during the walk-in was the snow pack. Lots of surface powder but deep down there would regularly emit a loud, deep cracking sound that would radiate outwards. Whole plates of snow around us would subtly sink. Clearly all was not well with the snow pack and descending Borrasbekken by any means other than by abalakov felt a scary prospect.

Forest approach

Closer inspection of the base of the route indicated that unfortunately it wasn't quite in ideal condition. The first pitch looked much harder than its listed WI4 grade. Hard for WI5 in fact. The lower part was a conglomerate of icicles, poorly filled-in, and offering little in the way of protection. Climbing at the limit of my ability AND on poor protection was too big an ask and so reluctantly we walked away knowing conditions had dealt us a poor hand.

Borrasbekken from the E6
First pitch of Borrasbekken
Icicle formations
The upper half of the route looked in excellent nick

We therefore followed up yesterday's failed attempt at a regional classic with a non-attempt at another regional classic. At least we had put ourselves in the position to be lucky. The ice on the lower part of Borrasbekken looked as though it was screaming for a moderate thaw in order to consolidate a little. Maybe mid-February is too early for optimal conditions this far North, where there is less daylight and more persistent cold temperatures.

Nussurabekken was the only other route in close proximity and therefore the natural plan B. It extended up the hillside in three sections of ice with large breaks in between. Typically WI3 but currently the first pitch again looked desperate for the grade. About WI4+ I would estimate. Lean and steep but aided with some good rests. Less than perfect ice for screws but at least allowing some strong natural hooks to substitute. At the very top I lost my nerve, where the angle eased back. The ice repeatedly fractured in multiple layers, shedding themselves deeper. Lacking confidence to pull over the top I clipped to a high axe and rested. Then proceeded to siege my way from the icefall by clipping a sequence of screws to my harness higher and higher whilst wildly hacking at the brittle layers of ice. Deeper and deeper I hacked, searching for some sort of solid bite until eventually finding the confidence to pull myself over the top. Anna looked equally unimpressed by the time she joined me at the belay.

Nussurabekken... WI3
Abseiling from Nussurabekken
The following two sections of ice on Nussurabekken

Anna: Can we go now?

Lee: Yes!

There was no more discussion on the matter. We waved the white flag and set about ab'ing back down the pitch. The following two pitches looked par for the grade but the walking distances between them, combined with the high finish, meant we would be finishing the route in the dark with just a couple of daylight hours remaining. We decided to end the fiasco and run away... or as best we could manage given the deep snow conditions.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Normalveien (WI4), Isberget, Alta

A three pitch route called Normalveien at an area called Isberget was high on the agenda during our trip to Alta. It looked an amazing line from the topo and even better in the flesh, winding its way up the type of cliff face usually reserved for much harder routes. The other routes on the cliff side were not fully formed and we were uncertain about the first pitch of our chosen route due to forest cover obstructing our view. The walk to the base of the route was however relatively short and initial impressions were that the route might be climbable. There looked to be a thinner ice towards the top of the first pitch but definitely worth a closer investigation.

First pitch of Normalveien

The climbing moved between steps and ledges. The easy angled sections and shelves were banked-out with unconsolidated snow. I needed to methodically sweep this in order to discover the contours of the ice beneath. On steeper sections the ice was a little fissured, encouraging me to be conservative with screw placements to guard against the unexpected. The combination of snow sweeping and regular screw placements made for progress slow and sieged.

Me versus snow
Midway up the first pitch

Towards the top of the pitch the ice narrowed into a pair of columns. They had looked steep from the ground but manageable. At closer inspection the ice looked brittle and 'flash-formed', with holes running through like a honeycomb. The left-hand column in particular was best not interfered with. The right.hand column was consolidated enough to have a try but finding screw placements looked an optimistic affair. The best I could do was to place a couple of screws at the base.

I sunk an axe into a small area of dense ice at full reach, climbed up to it and bridged wildly against a blob of ice on the neighbouring right wall. Then the challenge of finding a higher axe placement. The ice shattered and cracked wherever I aimed due to its fragility. The only patch of decent ice appeared to lie where my existing axe rested and I blowing my sound placement in the process of trying to find second was of real concern. With fading arms I backtracked down to my two screws a metre of so beneath my feet. The column didn't seem on. Concerns were also rising in my mind about the ice immediately above, which looked steeply slabbed and featureless and likely thin. Better to know when to quit than to push on regardless. I made a belay so that Anna could climb up to join me. Then we escaped the route with an abalakov.

Definitely one to return for if ever I am in the area again.

Wild moves for WI4
Before (left) and after (right) the snow-sweeping

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Couple of Routes at Kløftan, Alta

Anna and me planned an easy first day (of five) in Alta after a late arrival the previous evening. No alarm clock set... get up when we wake up. Of course a late start at sixty-nine degrees North somewhat limits options. Our unadventurous plan therefore was for something short and close to the road. Lots of fresh snow lay on the ground further dissuading too much exploration..

Kløftan looked to have a good density of routes. Nettisen (WI3) and Nettisenkløfta (WI4) looked suitable entry points for our trip and close to a lay-by. The latter proved to be too thin to consider but Nettisen looked worthwhile.

Nettisen (WI3)

A very short bash through the snow brought us to beneath the route. A gentle-angled start held a lot of snow but ceased where the ice steepened. I followed a weakness up the centre of the fall, over a step, and then up a short steep corner. The ice was hard and brittle, shattering regularly, needing care to find sound placements. Then, as the angle eased back, the snow clearing began. A delicate rising traverse right to the top of the ice followed. Rather spicy for a 3 but partly due to the ice conditions.

Leading Nettisen

It was only 2pm and we had hopes of cramming a second route into the day. Nearby Kløftanisen (WI3) looked the obvious candidate. This prominent icefall lay 500m back down the road and was wider than it was higher and climbable by many lines. We chose a short line up a blunt rib at the right-hand end, which was largely snow-free, until exiting onto the easy ground above. Anna led the main wall before I continued up a short isolated second tier a little higher. Not quite as good as Nettisen due to the contrived nature of climbing such a wide fall. Largely free of drama though, apart from fading light. Sunset was 3pm (not 3.30pm as I had vaguely recalled). Nearly two hours earlier than Oslo. Hopefully tomorrow the alarm clock will make a re-emergence.

Kløftisen (WI3)... close to the road

Anna leading Kløftisen