Monday, March 08, 2010

Ice ice baby

Oslo Torp Airport isn't really anywhere near Oslo at all, despite what Ryan Air somewhat fraudulently might want to claim - however, as a stop for us heading for Telemark and the ice climbing Mecca of Rjukan it's the nearest airport. Or 'airstrip' might be a better word for it. It's tiny, and the plane after landing has to do a three-point turn, and go back whence it came to head for the shack which serves as a terminal building. Still. We picked up a rather snazzy 1.0 VW Polo Diesel, which at least was 'Winterised' - meaning it had snow tires, bum warmers, a scraper with integrated brush and the traction control disable button disabled. The amounts of snow here means we're grateful for any winterisation the car might provide. The sat-nav says it's about 180km, but having driven in Norway before I know how much the roads bend, and in the snow conditions, this could have been an arduous drive, but was actually surprisingly ok.

Rjukan is a very narrow gorge cutting a swathe through the Telemark mountains. I won't bore you with its claim to fame from the war - I'm sure you've all seen the film. Rjukan was 'discovered' as an ice destination for non-locals some years back. Partly due to the damming of the river, and partly an accident of nature, both sides of the gorge are essentially one frozen waterfall after another - literally hundreds - of different sizes and shapes. Combined with the fact that Norwegian winters are long and cold, and that the sun rarely reaches the ice due to the depth, shape and orientation of the gorge, this place is pretty much ideal for ice climbing, with very stable and predictable conditions. UK guide book powerhouse Rockfax recently brought out a guide to the place, which in equal measures opened the eyes of the UK climbing community, and pissed off the locals.

Neither me, nor Sarah has ever ice climbed before, and this trip should actually have taken place last Easter, but at the time the ice had actually started to go due to unseasonably warm spring weather - probably due to climate change stemming from all the UK climbers flying here, lining Ryan Air's coffers. Sarah gave me four guided days as my 40th birthday present. We're staying in a traditional Norwegian 'hytte' - mountain holiday hut, apparently a reconstruction of the workers' accommodation from when the dam was built. There's quite a few of them here, all in different pastel colours - our's is blue. It's rather spacious for our needs, it has another three beds, but was actually the cheapest option (not that that means much in Norway, with the pound to the krone ratio as it is).

The idea was to climb Monday and Tuesday, and then have Wednesday and Thursday free to do something else, or recover, and then climb again on Friday and Saturday. Unfortunately, our designated guide had sustained an injury whilst skiing the week before, and we had to move the Saturday session to the Thursday, which in retrospect was probably a better plan anyway. We'd failed to notice that there is a very nice ski centre just up the road - had we known we'd probably brought the skis with us that are now occupying space on the floor of Cath and Dave's spare room.

We met Andreas at the office of Rjukan Adventure on Monday morning to tool up - I'd brought a pair of crampon-compatible boots I had stashed away in my man drawer, and we'd also brought various climbing paraphernalia that might come handy - harnesses, belay devices, screw-gates, a few slings and a pair of tiblocks. Sarah borrowed a pair of boots, and we fitted crampons and chose tools - Sarah a pair of Petzl/Charlet Quarks, and I picked a rather tasty pair of Black Diamond Vipers. We drove up the gorge for about 5 minutes and walked down to the bottom of Nye Vemorkfoss, a three-pitch tasty little number. There were two parties on it already, and the Brits to the right had laced it like a sports route. Andreas muttered something about the freak-show being back in town. This 'foss' (waterfall) was on the right side of vertical all the way, and Andreas set off and set about excavating a belay bolt behind the ice at the first stance. As Sarah and I set off on the first easy pitch it became clear that there are advantages to being first, seeing the amount of ice that each climber dislodges pretty much continuously. As the belayer, compared to rock climbing it's much more vital to stand in the right place. I managed to rip my Arc'teryx Gore-Tex trousers twice, one per leg, with my crampons pretty much on the off. Joy. I wasn't sure what I had expected out of ice climbing. In theory, it ought to be easy. Not being restricted to existing holds, as a climber of many years I should find it a path. In practice, it's different. Swinging the tools - although very satisfying - soon tires triceps and forearms, and apparently my left arm is much weaker than my right in that I found getting solid placements off the left much harder. Second pitch was longer and slightly more sustained. What makes Rjukan so good for ice (it never sees the sun) also makes for cold hands when belaying. Three pitches saw us walking off the top around 3pm and the route had been what seemed to me to be a great introduction to waterfall ice. The next day followed a similar pattern - but this time on the sunny side of the gorge, just above the town itself. Four pitches, the two first very long, and slightly steeper than what we'd done before. Andreas demonstrating how best to use ice screws on belays, and also, somewhat disturbingly, showing how they occasionally melt free and may need replacing.

Wednesday was our rest day, and we drove up to the ski centre at Gaustablikk some 20 mins down the road. Half a dozen lifts, and a very large mountain to the side which looked ideal for touring and off-pisting. Shame we hadn't brought our kit. We were keen on some cross country anyway, so we drove on to Kvitåvatn next door where Andreas had recommended we rent cross country kit. We were met by a friendly man speaking a curious mixture of Danish and Norwegian, and when he heard Sarah speaking English he switched to a flawless English. Turns out that he was from Norfolk, but living and working in Norway for the last 25 years. Married to a Danish lady. Like most places in Norway there were oodles of prepared cross country tracks of varying degree of length and difficulty. Trevor recommended we started with the 10k green, and if we wanted more we could tackle the reds, either 6, 10 or 15k after lunch. The day was perfect for it - 5 below, blue skies, searing sun, no wind. We did the green, as Trevor had suggested, and had lunch in the snow. We then carried on with the red 10k and were rewarded with breathtaking views of Gaustatoppen and the remote expanse of the Hardangervidda, the central highland plateau. Although I cross-country skied a lot as a child, I haven't done it in anger for decades, and I'd almost forgotten how much fun it is, and even small down hills are exhilarating. For Sarah, this was probably her third time, but having done plenty of touring she seemed to have it licked. It was a very nice day out.

Next up was more ice, and we dedicated Thursday to some actual instruction at Krokan, home of stacks of short, steep single-pitch routes. This time I'd been given a pair of Nomics. Andreas quickly soloed up and set up a top rope. The first two days had felt comparatively straight-forward, but this was a different kettle of fish. I was first up, and the ice was rather beaten out, so I tried to re-use other people's placements rather than banging in my tools. My arms were burning when I reached the top, and it had felt utterly desperate. 'NOW CLIMB DOWN!' shouted Andreas from the bottom. He must be joking, clearly. I reversed about 4 metres, and then slumped, spent, onto the rope. Sarah managed up and down. Andreas patiently explained the basics: top tool and feet should form a balanced triangle. Arm straight. Look for next placement. Stand up, remove, and place the next tool. Straight arm, feet up onto the same horizontal line. Kind of obvious, when explained. I tried again. Felt better, but still pumped silly from the previous attempt. Couldn't get around the top bulge for ages, axes glancing off the ice uselessly. When I eventually pulled over, Andreas shouted 'REMOVE YOUR CRAMPONS!. CLIMB DOWN!'. To my own surprise, I actually managed to reverse the route without crampons.

We had some lunch. Andreas then gave me two ice screws, and said that he'd give me a shout when to place them. Getting a screw in whilst hanging from one arm on steep ice turned out to be a rather pumpy affair. My first attempt went in only half its length due to the ice being uneven, so I had to unscrew it and move it. My left arm wasn't happy, but I managed it and carried on. Andreas later pointed out that in that situation you just clear the ice with your tool instead. Placing one higher up was even harder. Sarah was up next, without the benefit of crampons. She was swearing at her "spazzy" left arm, refusing to get the tool in, and also refusing to wind the screw in. One small slip, and she boshed her head against the blunt end (thankfully) of one of her ice tools - a nice gash resulted. Andreas shouted - 'IF THERE IS BLOOD SPLATTERED ON THE ICE YOU CAN HANG ON THE ROPE, OTHERWISE CLIMB ON'. A hard task master. I had one more go to take down the rope, and suddenly it all started to come together (on my 8th attempt). Hook the tool, straight arm, legs up, stand up, next tool. Almost easy :) - I could get used to this thing.

Next day was our last climbing day with Andreas, and the plan was to tackle some 'proper', steeper classics, perhaps Sabotorfossen. However, come the morning there was quite a bit of snow in the air, and a bone-jarringly cold -13 which apart from anything else would make the ice brittle as bone china. Andreas seemed unperturbed, and suggested we tried to reel off 'Host', 'Vemork Brufoss East' and 'Vemork Brufoss West'. We abbed off the road railings to the base of 'Host', and my fingers were already hurting with the cold. Andreas ran the two pitches into one, and Sarah set off first. Due to the brittle ice, Andreas had to work for it, and actually placed some gear for once. Sarah did not have a good time, with tools shattering the ice, requiring eight or more swings to get a solid fix. Adding to that some twists in the double-ropes didn't help, and several times she had to creep under or over my strand to untangle herself. Thanks to her, my path was more unencumbered, and I could focus on the climbing. It was a really good route, and suddenly I felt I was on a proper ice climb. When I pulled over, my arms still felt fresh.

Brufoss West was unfortunately heaving with climbers of varying degree of ability ('bloody freak show', Andreas said), and we walked across to East instead. Worryingly, I couldn't see the ice from the top, but the instruction was to ab to the bottom and climb up. As I abbed down I was confronted with 70m of frozen waterfall, rather steep in places and with runnels, massive icicles, the works. Very steep to the right, marginally less steep to the left. I quickly decided to award myself the luxury of the easiest line. I soon got absorbed in the flow of the climbing - not a single person in sight, a neverending sheet of ice, and the chunk-chunk of solid placements. It was as these things go a pretty memorable climbing experience, and I was cheesily pleased with myself and how I'd climbed the pitch. Pulling over, my smile dimmed somewhat when I was greeted by Andreas complaining about me having dodged the meat of the pitch, the vertical ice runnel to the right. Sarah abbed down and set about the 'proper' way. Andreas ran off to take some photos of Sarah off the bridge, and when he came back he said that she was doing well, but looking a bit tired. When she pulled over, she was smiling, but looking slightly worn. In retrospect, I think that ice climbing favours the brute-force and ignorance approach of a man, rather than the technical subtlety and foot wizardry of a woman, and Sarah occasionally found it difficult to get her tools to stick. As I'd gone left, Andreas sent me down the rope again to do the right-hand variation. Another 70m.. The ice architecture was spectacular - organ pipes, and very steep, but in the back of the runnel some good hooks, and some bridging - awesome. Sarah dropped down to try the left variation.

And so for the last day - we'd said that if the weather looked nice we'd return to Gaustablikk to do some more x-country, and it'd dawned clear and very cold. We packed our sacks and headed back up to pick up some kit - and this time we'd attempt the long loop around the main mountain peak, nearly all of it above the tree line, 23km in all. Trevor pointed to a map and warned us about a particularly steep downhill where to make things worse an avalanche had slid over to the right. He suggested we might want to take our skis off and walk rather than to zig-zag down in the powder to the left like some people did. Toothpick-narrow x-country skis, powder and steep down hill is a somewhat sub-optimal combination. We picked up the track and it was glorious. The first 5 or 6k was a steady, but never arduous gentle climb working our way up the contour lines of the mountain. As we reached the steep downhill Trevor had mentioned, there was never any question and we removed our skis and walked down - at the bottom of the hill we decided to have a cuppa and enjoy the scenery, and it turned out to be a choice spot for people watching. Quite a few folks out and about, and some were ballsier than others and a few people actually attempted the drop on skis, but as long as we sat there no one managed to remain standing. One lady dusting her self off exclaimed that such down hills were 'special interest only', which made us smile. We set off, an as we came around the mountain we were hit by a rather persistent wind which made conversation hard - and unfortunately it would seem we'd have to do most of the remainder with the wind in our faces, which took a bit of the enjoyment out of it. Some long downs took us out of the wind and back onto the frozen lake, and we found a secluded spot in the sun to finish our thermos and our packed lunch and thaw up a bit.

And so all that remained was to get back, pack up and head back to blighty. Some friendly Brits in the hytte next door had kindly donated four bottles of Tuborg on their departure the night before, which will certainly earn them some good karma points. With the Norwegian prices, we'd not bothered with any alcohol what so ever for the whole week, and probably as a consequence, those beers must rank as some of the best ever.

Anyway - ice climbing, in summary - I loved it, whilst Sarah remains less convinced. I would certainly like to do it again. As an ice climbing destination, at least from as far as I can tell, the Rjukan hype seems to be true, and the best climbing is to be had in March, whereas all foreigners seems to insist in coming in December or January - the two coldest, darkest, most miserable months. As mentioned, it is worth noting that there is an excellent ski area here with awesome touring and off-piste options for a few days if you want a break, and endless x-country tracks. Norway's spectacular scenery is hard to beat.

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