Sunday, 27 November 2016

Botnajuvet Trilogy

It took me three attempts to reach the base of the climbs in Botnajuvet. Largely because of the approach notes in the Hemsedal Ice guide sent me on a wild goose chase. It advised me to descend into the nearby gorge of Lauvdøla, follow this for 100m downstream to the junction with Botnajuvet, and then follow this upstream for 200m up until the ice routes at its head were reached.

If first you don't succeed...

I first tried to reach Botnajuvet two years ago with Anna. We made a few attempts at trying to descend to the base of the Lauvdøla gorge via different ways but soon got cold feet (metaphorically). Partly because the audible running water at the bottom of the gorge and partly because the icefalls we were aiming for looked worryingly far away. Deep snow on the approach to the gorge and no snowshoes had also cost us time. We decided to cut our losses and instead climb the short icefall at Øvre Lauvdøla.

Descending to the Lauvdøla gorge on the first visit
(Shortly before aborting)

If first you don't succeed, try again

The second attempt was two weeks ago. Given the time lost on the first attempt through indecision, this time I was keen to reach the base of the gorge in efficient manner to allow plenty of time for whatever followed. The water in the base of the gorge was silent on this occasion, which boded well. Plus we found an easy way down that required no abseils. Once in the gorge our progress slowed dramatically. Much of the ice on the floor was still too weak to weightbear, meaning we needed to stick to the tops of boulders to avoid falling in the water. Many of these were large and difficult to mount and dismount. Weaving a route through the gorge was a little bit weaving way through the maze of broken glacier. 


Close to the junction with Botnajuvet the gorge floor dropped down in a deep step and made onward progress impossible along the floor. To bypass this we needed to climb the left side of the gorge to half height and then make an abseil from a tree back into the gorge lower down. Exiting the gorge in the direction of the ice routes at this point looked even more problematic, so were committed to following the gorge for the time being at least. 

Things didn't improve beyond the junction with Botnajuvet as a poorly frozen pool again stopped us in our tracks midway up. With our way barred we instead climbed out of the gorge via an easy Scottish grade II ice gully. No bad thing as we were tired of following a semi-frozen river by this point.

By the time were in vague proximity with the ice routes it was already 13:30. We still needed to descend back into the gorge and by this point had lost interest in trying to climb anything. Only Botnabekken at the head of the gorge looked worthwhile as other lines were still very thin in places. The main benefit to day was that at least I had learnt the best way to approach the routes having backtracked to the car park via a much easier route. Ironically I had actually used part of this exit previously when I had climbed the route at Øvre Lauvdøla a couple of years ago. Within thirty minutes I was back at the car.

If first you don't succeed, try, try again

With clarity over the approach I returned with Anna for a third attempt. The previous two days had been warm and windy but the temperatures were now back in the blue numbers. A sheltered gorge at high elevation seemed the best bet to find good conditions. Plus hopefully the warm weather would have stripped a little snow from the easier angled ice. 

We used snowshoes for the approach, which probably made things a little easier, although they weren't essential. The descent into the gorge was easy apart from a little bit of scrambling near the base following by a short ice step.

As a consequence of the warm weather from the previous couple of days, the icefall at the head of the gorge called Botnabekken (WI3) resembled a water slide with water running down its entirety. Another route called Botnaveggen (WI3+) looked much better however. Evidently Botnaveggen forms more slowly but is more resilient to bouts of warm weather. A couple of other lines also looked possible around WI3/4 but Botnaveggen looked the most eye-catching. 

Ice at the head of Botnajuvet


Anna was recovering from an index finger A4 pulley rupture and so I led the first pitch so that she could take things a little easy and test the finger out. No symptoms presented happily and she was able to lead the second pitch.

The climbing felt steady with just a few steep steps interspersed with easy angled ice. I still seem to remember what to do despite largely missing last season.

We climbed the main part of the icefall in two pitches totalling about 80m. Both pitches of similar difficulty. A further easy pitch of about another 30m took us to a point from where we could walk off.

The ice conditions varied on the route. Low down the ice had a tendency to shatter but was much improved after the first 20m. In places a weak top layer needed to be cleared in order to find better ice. Most of my screws felt solid although a couple hit empty pockets.

Anna starting the second pitch
Anna near the top of the difficulties on the second pitch

Botnajuvet was an atmospheric place to climb, in a setting that felt remote by Hemsesal standards. It reminded me a little bit of the Upper Gorge at Rjukan but with a more alpine feel. All in all it was worth the effort to reach, as much for the setting as for the climbing. 

Back to the guidebook description 

The guidebook approach likely came into being because it roughly follows how the crow flies. I suspect the first ascensionists saw the icefalls from close to the parking area, made a beeline for them, and the guidebook description is possibly a remnant of this. The guidebook photos show excellent ice build-up in the gorge so maybe the approach was much easier when these routes were first climbed in 2010. That was an extremely cold winter in Norway after all!

Given the problems I experienced with the guidebook approach I've included a description of the approach that I used on my third visit together with a map.

Botnajuvet Approach

Follow the obvious cross-country ski track that leads south from parking area. After 400m the track bears right in a more a westerly direction. Øvre Lauvdøla is the gorge visible to your right. After 800m arrive beside a hut to the right of the track. Leave the track and walk approximately 300m North-West from behind the hut, crossing a broad stream that leads to the Øvre Lauvdøla ravine downstream. Head North for around 1km to the southern edge of Botnajuvet. It's possible to descend into the ravine on foot just to the East of where Botnaveggen faces. Total approach time is around 30 minutes depending on snow conditions. It's worth considering snowshoes if a lot of fresh snow is present.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Pastorale Først Sats (M3+), Skurvefjell

I missed virtually all of last winter due being totally wiped out by fatigue. Much of 2016 has been a slow recovery and for a long period I suspected moderately serious winter climbing might be a thing of the past for me. I've really improved in recent months but a steady return to winter climbing was naturally top priority. Plus I was happy just to be climbing anything at the start of winter so the psych for harder stuff wasn't there. No doubt that will change as I take my health and fitness more for granted.

After a big dump of snow last weekend together with strong winds I was hoping that there would be some favourable mixed conditions after a week of consolidation. I wasn't expecting much ice up high after such a dry autumn so it seemed sensible to stick to something that didn't rely on ice formation to meet the grade. Pastorale Først Sats on Skurvefjell Vest looked a good route to cut my teeth on as it was only 120m high and described as well-protected in the summer guide. This was also the first time that I was climbing with a new partner Alex, who himself had been on a slow road to recovery from leg injuries recently. 

A fine still morning greeted us. Much of the snow on the approach looked to have been scoured by the wind through the previous week. Apart from some locally deep drifts of snow the approach was straightforward, albeit fairly long.

Approaching Skurvefjell

We climbed the route in four pitches, partly to try and share the difficulties evenly, although the first and third pitches, which I led, proved to have the harder more interesting sequences of mixed climbing. We didn't bother to rack screws, although there was some useful ice in the chimneys. A thin coating of ice in places made protecting some the cracks harder work, particularly at the start of the third pitch, but otherwise gear was good.

Start of the second pitch

The snow was entirely unconsolidated but thankfully it was in manageable amounts. Often it needed to be swept to find gear and axe placements, which slowed progress a little. It certainly wasn't a semi-drytooling exercise and definitely full winter conditions.

My lack of mixed climbing and drytooling in recent years felt evident throughout both my leads with progress a little more hesitant and less instinctive than expected. It's something I want to get back to doing more of this season as it's what I enjoy most.

Top of the third pitch

We made steady progress although my focus at belays was on eating, drinking and layering up more than the typical to keep my energy levels up, rather than racing to keep the dead time at belays to an absolute minimum. After a casual starting time we topped out just as the sun had dipped below the hills and proceeded to descend under twilight.

The exit

Despite my layoff and previous uncertainty as to whether I'd return to this sort of climbing it felt strangely business as usual at the top of the route. I didn't even register the milestone. It was almost as though I had not missed a day's climbing in the last year. Climbing often generates that sort of bubble for me whereby all external life events disappear to the back of my mind.

In light of the strong easterly winds the previous week, wind slab was at the forefront of my mind when it came to the descent. In particular I was also concerned about the tops of sheltered southerly aspects behind the Øst and Vest buttresses acting as a trap. I'd climbed on both buttresses during summer of 2014 and vaguely remembered the decent down the west side of Skurvefjell Vest being much broader and shorter than the descent from Skurvefjell Øst. Hopefully the smaller Vest Buttress would also provide less shelter. Otherwise plan B would probably have been a long trudge east over the tops of both buttresses towards the mouth of Øvredalen. Fortunately this was never called for as the descent was relatively easy with just a few patches of moderately deep snow but no slab formation.

Head torches on we started the return trip. It's good to get the first winter route under my belt so early in the season. Hopefully it marks the start of a long winter.