Ice climbing trip in Norway
Matthias, Heike and Tanja have been partners for years. Everyday they check weather forecasts around the world, looking for cold. They are ice climbers delighted by long lines of pure ice. The type of line where you have to mentally force yourself to stay calm, stay safe, and keep moving.
February 9 2016
Locations: Utladalen, Gudvangen, Eidfjord
Team: Matthias Scherer, Tanja Schmitt, Heike Schmitt
Valley of Utladalen
It's Monday the 18th of January, we are standing on top of a wind-tossed icefall, like so many of the lines in Norway's frozen valley of Utladalen it remains nameless. Beneath us we see a 350m channel of brown of ice creeping its way up like a giant serpent: the snakeskin we have just climbed! A solid coldness has set in during the day and the drop in temperatures can be felt with every passing minute.
Climbing ice on the coasts of Norway has its specialities: Due their proximity to the sea the icefalls in the western fjords are bent are twisted creations. Massive storms, drastic changes in temperature, and the resulting fast freeze thaw cycles combine with long spells of warmth and rain lead to insane ice creations.
Coming to Norway without solid planning and an eye to the weather means playing roulette with your travel budget: you run the risk of experiencing a period of rain and thaw and the objects of your journey simply vanish in the changing conditions.
The line in Utladalen.
This year we checked Øvre Årdal and Eidford's weather map on a regular basis: After January 3rd temperatures began to drop solidly with peaks of -15°C, a daily mean of -3°C and average night time temperature around -8°C. It stayed cold for a whole two weeks. However this cold weatherwindow was not enough to let giant lines like ‘Vettisfossen’ freeze, and so our main goal was drowned in openly running water and frequently falling formations. Luckily our backup plan worked and we embarked to climb one of the many other impressive ice-lines in Utladalen.
Monday the 18th turned out to be the coldest day of the weather window, with a forecast of -16C without windchill.
Matthis Scherer and Heike Schmitt climb in Utladalen.
We are bundled up in our warm jackets. The last pitch, a 40 meter free standing pillar has been a drain on each of us. Matthias led this impressive pillar and the questionable sounds coming off his swings and the lack of protection made our wait to follow interminable. The column he was climbing on turned out to be of a glassy quality, completely chandeliered with small icicles like bottles staked in multiple, dubious layers.
Lightly hooking the ice to prevent the delicate layers from ripping off and smashing down onto our partners made us focus even more as we followed. The few screws Matthias had managed to get in were of 22cm, and gave us hope that they reached better ice somewhere beneath the poor layers. A dual point crampon like the Dartwin Matthias was wearing had performed in this kind of ice better than the Dart monopoints we were wearing. A monopoint simply has a much higher chance of ripping through the glassy terrain when precise footwork is impossible, and pure kicking brutality necessary.
We're all in high spirits now, the first day is here and we've already climbed something to make the trip worthwhile. It's only the afternoon but already the dusk is setting in, the vanishing sunlight touching the snow laden mountain ranges with a blushing pale pink. It's time for the headlamps, there's Abalakov construction work ahead and we are going to encounter the dark soon.
The ropes are by now frozen solid with a big crust of slushy, quickly frozen water. On the lower angled ice there is still water running and the ice is wet, making it hard to build the abalakov with our holes immediatley filling with water. To make the rope work well during the rappel we try to clear the ice from it as well as possible by ripping it through a Reverso. This avoids a lot of stress as we actually rappel. We have no further complications and in the light of our Nao’s we find our way safely to the base. A long and meditating walk back awaits us.
Måbødalen - Eidfjor
Our second destination on this trip is Eidfjord. It is our fifth time at this place and seeing the shores of Eidfjord with its wooden quay and shining white buildings lightens our hearts. But it's the first time that we actually see glittering ice and not stripes of water running down the dark cliffs directly at sealevel: a enlightening sight and a good sign for the ice conditions around!
We make some short exploratory trips to the places we know and have precise glimpses on ice conditions: The lines in Måbødalen and around the gorge of Vøringsfossen are all in. We check in at a beautiful hut of Liseth and prepare for the next day.
We rappel into the gorge of Vøringsfossen and climb one of the easier lines with orange to red colored ice. The ice is of incredible hard consistency and we feel the immense drop in temperatures everywhere: carabiners freeze immediately, ice screws give us a hard time while cleaning and there is no way to keep the cold away resulting in facial burning and clumsy hands.
Moving helps a bit and we finish this climb pretty fast.
Valley of Gudvangen
The line which we are really excited is one we spotted on our way here in the valley of Gudvangen: an tremendous creations of huge columns placed over each other and connected to black rock through immense ice mushrooms. The sheer volume of this climb is enormous! A spectacular sight that sends us troubled dreams the night before and mixed feelings the following morning.
The primal ice pitches are of good ice quality, two easy pitches and we arrive at the bottom of the beast. While Matthias climbs the base of the pillar he breaks some of the medusas which come down with shattering sounds. He soon climbs out of sight. Following we notice the luminescent blue of the ice which leaves us wondering, as none of us has ever seen anything like it before in all our years climbing.
Behind the gigantic column we find a good place for belaying.
Now is the time. We look at each other as the moment of truth has finally come. Are we ready for it?
Tanja Schmitt and Heike Schmitt approach svartberg fall gudvangen
All of us have a close look at the structure of chaotic ice, created in monstrous, mind boggling dimensions. We can clearly hear the sound of water running inside, we observe the wet structure of tiny unprotectable icicles on the front pillar- all reasonable. What troubles us are the overhangs, those incredible medusas which block the way above. Will there be a way to get over them without breaking ? Will there be ice for a reasonable belay above or will they lead only into more chaotic structures impossible to protect.
Images of dark scenarios pass through my mind as we finally have to come to a decision.
Do or do not! There is no try!
Matthias Scherer on svartberg fall gudvangen
Matthias goes for it.
The ropes move as Matthias struggles his way above the medusas and disappears out of sight.
There are more chunks of ice coming down until finally the tension is broken and we hear the shout of, "On Belay!" Climbing this pitch is simply amazing with feet swinging out and pulling up on this giant medusas - a three dimensional pitch. We reach the belay in an euphoric mood! Now we'll make it, now there's nothing holding us back. The next pitch of this fall stays in the same crazy characteristics, a lot of ice comes down as the ropes move steadily up. Following is fascinating, figuring out the climbing moves in the huge overhanging medusas - never being certain that your foot or your scarcely anchored pick won't break the fragile ice.
The sun is setting again, the days are very short in January! But one last pitch and the beast is slain. We all put on our headlamps as Mat approaches the last pitch in the dark. Soon we all stand at the top high-fiving each other! What an INCREDIBLE climb! What a day! I prepare the abalakov and down we go! In a heightened spirit we reach the foot of the climb after building V-thread after V-thread and begin our march back, each of us deeply buried in the days experience.
Supermarkets are open till 22 o'clock and with relief we can fuel the car as well as us at this late hour instead of holding out a unplanned night in the car.
By midnight we reach our wonderful cabin and rest.
Heike Schmitt climbs in måbødalen
Sunday sees us heeding to Måbødalen one more time. We walk around an unfrozen lake above boulders and rocks until we reach one of the many 300-400 meter lines. Heike sets out for three long pitches of solid ice. Temperatures have risen enormously resulting in a constant dripping from above. The warm spell does not bother those icefalls in the gorge too much and has the advantage of the ice becoming a bit more plastic. On the steeper parts the ice is not so brittle anymore making the structures much more trustworthy. Heike runs the 60 meter ropes out and we’re starting to sweat as we gain vertical ground.
The last three pitches are my responsibility. There's one sweet pillar to climb and a sea of ice follows it. The third pitch becomes interesting again with funny ice features to climb before topping out at the end of the gorge into a wonderful birch forest. I build a belay on the biggest tree I can find and wait for the team to come up. By looking around I notice once again what an amazing place this is, with these colors of black and gold all around me and those beautiful trees. Truly a winter dream! Heike and Matthias climb up and we hug each other. We're all beaming with energy although our arms and legs are worn out, but this country has burnt its energy deep into each of our souls!
We will come back!
Text by Tanja Schmitt - January 17th -24th 2016