Almost every year, Philippe Batoux goes to Norway to climb on giant ice-falls. With his team-mates, they are hunting for the rare ice-falls starting at sea level in the fjords. Here is the story of his last trip.
Ice climbing: one ethic, monster routes
Norway possesses a striking landscape, with huge cliffs that plunge into the sea. Depending on the weather, long lines of ice cover the legendary fjords from top to bottom in winter. Unfortunately for ice-climbing enthusiasts storms from the west mean rain, which quickly melts the more fragile ice formations. After four ice-climbing trips to Norway, I’m convinced that climbing these gargantuan lines of ice will always be a complicated endeavor. Temperatures can move 15°C up or down the thermometer in less than twelve hours, not exactly ideal conditions for stable ice.
Juggling both the weather and avalanche risk is part of the game when climbing these monstrous pillars of ice above the Norwegian Sea. You need to keep an eye out for high-pressure systems and be ready to climb at a moment’s notice.
Norway is without a doubt the country with the greatest untapped potential for ice climbing. Its high latitude favors frigid winters. Wide open slopes of snow drop off abruptly over granite cliffs of all shapes and sizes. Yet ice climbing in Norway remains a marginal activity; only two guidebooks exist for the entire country: Rjukan and Setesdal. A few ascent reports here and there are available on the Internet. To go ice climbing in Norway just drive and you’ll spot plenty of lines from the road. Most of the time, it is hard to tell if a given line has ever seen an ascent. This is what makes Norway such a magical place, climbing here means non-stop discovery.
The local Norwegian climbing ethic is simple. They consider anything above tree line to be the mountains, where traditional climbing rules and bolts are not welcome. If a section of climbing proves too difficult, locals never place bolts to aid climb through. They figure that other climbers, who either encounter more favorable conditions or with better skills, will one day make haste of any once-unclimbable crux. Unfortunately a few mainland European climbers have failed to respect these unwritten rules and placed bolts to send routes that local climbers had been working on for quite some time.
Ice trip: Philippe Batoux’s report
Throughout January and February 2013, I had to work full-time at ENSA, so was unable to get away. Nevertheless I closely monitored temperatures in Gudvangen, and had a short window in early March to travel there if it stayed cold. Since the last ten days in February were sunny and cold, I immediately bought plane tickets.
I took off with Oliver François, a young, talented and highly motivated aspiring guide. He’s quick and efficient, with the requisite skills to climb the “monsters of Norway”. We know each other well as he was once part of the FFME’s (French Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) national mountaineering team. We’ve climbed together in Zion, in California’s Sierra Nevada (Yosemite), in the Kichatna Mountains of Alaska, as well as last winter in Norway. For this ice trip we had quite a few objectives in mind…
February’s stable weather quickly came to an end. The cold came and went. Rainy days were intermixed with days where the ice was excellent. In Gudvangen, we were able to climb one of the longest ice climbs in the world, just to the right of Into the wild (Jasper, Stoffer 2009): Grade V, WI6, 850 meters vertical!
The day prior we stood for quite a while at the base of the climb, in the pouring rain, discouraged and praying for the cold to come back quickly. Success always tastes sweeter after an initial setback.
- "Capitain Flåm": Flåmdalen, III WI5+, 200 meters.
- "Mobilhomefossen": Gudvangen, IV WI6+, 350 meters. An athletic line that climbs up fantastic rivulets of ice.
- "Guy Lacelle": Hjømo, III WI6+, 350 meters. The first 75 meter pitch of 5cm-thin unprotectable ice leads to a yellow-colored wall and up a strenuous roof pitch over ice that looks like a series of stacked beer bottles. Good protection (piton + yellow Camalot max and Aliens).
- "Line to the right of Into the wild": V WI6, 850 meters: the monster. The crux is a wall of not-very-strenuous but somewhat unconsolidated ice - you can plant your foot through to your heel with a little force; but a very heady pitch since you are placing screws in the same sketchy ice.
- "Freakyfossen": VI WI7+, 500 meters, a Gadd / Spak route. Attempt halted by an unbearable amount of running water. We plan to return; saga to be continued…
Products for ice climbing
Watch the 2012 ice trip video