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Northern Ice, in the Maewan's wake

Lionel Daudet, Aymeric Clouet, Philippe Batoux, and Yann Borgnet returned to fjords of Northwestern Iceland, where the Maewan Adventure Base team was unable to climb last year. They found, just as they had imagined, unbelievable lines of ice. Lionel Daudet regales us with this particular trip report.

February 25 2016

Ice climbing

L'équipe : de gauche à droite, Yann Borgnet, Philippe Batoux, Aymeric Clouet et Lionel Daudet © Philippe Batoux

The team from left to right: Yann Borgnet, Philippe Batoux, Aymeric Clouet , and Lionel Daudet.

Our story starts with a missing piece. In 2015, around the same time of the year, I was in Iceland with Aymeric Clouet and the other seafaring hardmen who had set sail on the Maewan. We passed right by Hornbjarg without stopping; not only were we out of time, but the ice was no longer climbable. Just imagine our situation: ice axes within reach, steep lines of ice (an understatement) chiseled by tears that had fallen from the Arctic sky, twisted this way and that by the area’s tumultuous weather, hanging from the dark rock walls, and plunging directly into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. “We’ll make the trip back,” we said to ourselves as we left the region with a bitter taste in our mouths and sea-salt on our lips..

So in fall 2015, we launched operation "Northern Ice, in the Maewan’s wake."

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

A glimpse of the Arctic fauna: a fox on the left, seals on the right. Lower left: transporting gear to base camp. Lower right: a tricky approach at the far end of Glymur Canyon.

Email messages sent back and forth, following the local weather and temperatures minute by minute, hour by hour. Swearing and other impassioned exclamations coincide with record temps. What the f_ _ k? Where did this f_ _ _ing high pressure system come from?

In other words, nothing has been a given during this incredibly strange winter, one in which I have spent most of my time climbing shirtless on the cliffs around Briançon (French Alps). In the end, with our scheduled departure apporoaching faster than a freight train, the mercury finally drops below freezing.


Let’s go!

Iceland here we come!

The team, slightly modified since last year, includes Clouclou (Aymeric Clouet) and Dod (Lionel Daudet), survivors from the Maewan, and newcomers Philippe Batoux and Yann Borgnet. We were ready to cross an ocean… this time by plane! It took one month to sail to Iceland last year; we had already suffered enough!.

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Aymeric carefully climbs amazingly sculptured waterfall ice not from Isafjordur.

Isafjordur is a quiet town near the fjords of Western Iceland, and an area that includes copious amounts of snow, ice, huge four-wheel drive vehicles that elicit barbaric yawps from Phil, as well as the bewlidering polar nights; it is truly bizarre to experience daybreak the early hour of… 9 in the morning. Luckily darkness only falls around 17:30/18:00.

Finding the right conditions to ice climb in Horn is not an easy task, with the number of cards stacked against us reaching close to a full deck. It was like trying to win a championship game of poker with one pair, maybe two. The current ice conditions and approaches? Unknown. The weather forecast? Not good. Getting there by boat? Uncertain. Not the best of starts; we have to wait at least three days before being able to making any attempt to reach our destination.

So we champ both at the bit and at our ropes and venture off to climb in the surrounding area, nabbing the delightful first ascent of Valagil, a waterfall we discovered… on a post card. Nevertheless, the approach required navigating around a rather turbulent plunge pool that blocked access to the falls like a well-designed moat protecting a castle.

Finally, a boat, hooray!

Well, perhaps poor Yann would not quite put it this way as he unwillingly shares his breakfast with the local fish population; add one more person to list of people unsure about participating in future sea/mountain expeditions. On the other hand, Phil and Aymeric handle the ride rather well, having already paid a more than heavy price to Neptune.

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Left: Phil on the third pitch of Mister Renard. Right: Dod on Fjalirfoss.

Hornvik Bay: a thin line of black sand cuts through the white landscape in a prefect semi-circle. Above us, summits wrapped in a velvety mauve, the unadulterated sky and galloping clouds leave an impression of serene desolation; the end of the world, our end of the world.

We flatten the ground before setting up our tent right next to a survival shelter, taking care not to disturb the natural habitat of Mister Fox, aka the local arctic fox, who sports not a white but a grey-brown coat, almond-colored eyes, and a bushy tail that sweeps back and forth across the snow. In the water, just a few meters away, several seals peacefully frolic about.

At least we’ll have plenty to eat of no one comes back to pick us up.

For our first night in Horn, Mother Nature offers a warm welcome by inviting us to dance with the Aurora Borealis. One quickly becomes enraptured with this heavenly show without a second thought. Shimmering iridescent lights and the sky so incredibly breathtaking as a profound sense of wonder and delight swells up inside you...

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Our base camp in Hornvik Bay, with the survival shelter beneath the Aurora Borealis.

As I have already stated, nothing is ever simple. The days that follow prove this maxim.

When push comes to shove, the frozen waterfalls are far enouvh away that we decide to set up an advanced base camp at the lighthouse, on the other side of Horn, placing our temporary headquarters in a cabin with an icy cement floor. The perfect place to catch what eventually turned into a pretty wretched cold. As the waves crash forcefully on the ice-covered black basalt, the wind roars with a vengeance. The Lord of the Rings trilogy could have easily been filmed here; this is Mordor, but with ice instead of fire. The sky is grey, sooty, Tolkienian.

“The Two Towers,” an appropriately named volume since we're climbing right above several crumbing spires, the Fjalir, planted like stakes on the battlefield of a stormy sea. We need not look any further to name the first route we establish in Horn: Fjalirfoss. The ice proves scoured yet soft, spindly stalactites and rays of sun that we literally eat up; so delicious, so rare.

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Yann starts up the first pitch of Fjalirfoss.

THE best day of ice climbing: another approach alongside huge crashing waves, we amble from one polished stone to another, scraping along the snow-covered rock between the spires and the wall, uncovering old sailing ropes that we are too afraid to pull on. A few dozen meters above our heads thin-billed murres have established a launch pad. We laugh like little kids every time one of these birds takes off. You have to see it to believe as they frantically flap their wings, launching into the void as if on a suicide mission before finally plunging into the ocean after one hundred or so meters of clumsy flight. None of us have ever climbed in a place like this. Phil, who knows more than a thing or two about ice climbing, admits being truly amazed by the area’s mix of hostile landscapes, incredible light, and the immediate presence of the open sea.

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Left: the local fauna, thin-billed murres! Right: our end of the world.

Aymeric and Yann, our young rope guns, establish an incredible and extremely steep line that tops out on mixed terrain that requires Yann to take his time and focus. Its name? Maewan, but of course!

Veterans Phil and I rope up. We zigzag through a canvas of ice, weaving a strange tapestry before reaching a long horizontal ledge where fox tracks lead us to the final section of vertical terrain. This fancywork is aptly christened Mister Renard.

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Dod on the approach to Mister Renard

Shortly thereafter a blizzard arrives, slamming our dilapidated shelter with gale force winds. We spend the day warm and snug in our sleeping bags, listening to the howling wind scratch at the old weather-worn wood. Luckily for us, we only find out much later that the winds reached speeds of up to 40m/s or roughly 150km/hr. We discuss the situation, and I am positive to have surprised one of my fellow climbers staring at the roof with a skeptic look on his face. We try in vain to keep dry. This would be our trip’s motto (yes, there’s always at least one!), “Are you dry?” An obviously stupid question since the answer was always no. Yet in our particular situtation, tone means everything. A preemptory no? This means underwear and socks are completely soaked. A more subtle no? This means only soaked shoes and a slightly wet back.

We receive the following message, “pickup tomorrow at 15:00.” This is the only window possible. The next available window? Who knows… The alternatives? Travel to another fjord further inland by crossing over a pass; an impossible task with all of our gear, even using the pulkas. Head back on foot? It’s at least 50km as the bird flies to the closest road…still covered in a deep layer of snow!

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Upper left: scouting out routes along the water. Upper right: typical Icelandic weather. Lower left: Aymeric on the first ascent of Maewan. Lower right: Dod belaying, near Arnarfjordur.

We’re now fleeing Isafjordur. On the ice-covered asphalt, the sound of our studded tires biting into the frozen surface offers reassurance. We arrive at the capital city at night. As luck would have it, the road closes right after we arrive. Iceland is truly unique.

We are able to do a little more climbing in a magnificent canyon just a 1-hour drive away. The sketchy approach crosses plates of ice frozen in place over the rumbling water; the roar generated by Iceland's biggest waterfall is deafening. Glymur is a monster to say the least. Beautiful pitches up delicate features; frost, ice, snow, water, we are no longer able to tell on exactly what type of surface we are climbing.

Then the party is on until the wee hours of the morning: intoxicating blondes, people and noise in every direction. We’re almost wide awake and ready to go at five in the morning when we drop off Phil at the airport.

We thoroughly enjoyed experiencing Iceland in its natural state, and we have forever fallen in love with its beauty...

© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Phil on Glymur.

We have already started to think about next year, about coming back for a longer stint. It is hard, dare I write impossible, to climb every day in Iceland. That is the price you pay to experience the magic of Horn. Why not approach the area by kite surfing next time? Several Icelanders are on standby, ready and waiting to join us.

The adventure never stops, exploring Horn has just begun.

With future lines calling out to be climbed, there will almost certainly be a season three.

-- Lionel Daudet, Reykjavik, February 22, 2016.


© Philippa Batoux - Northern Ice, dans le sillage de Maewan

Sublime lines just waiting for a first ascent.

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