Norway: XXXL Ice
If El Capitan is the Mecca of big walls, then the Sognefjord is the Mecca of big ice-falls. The abrupt banks of this immense fjord are scored with long lines of ice. Falls measuring over 500m/1,640ft are commonplace, and offer a unique climbing experience where everything is proportionate to the line itself: jellyfish that are 30m in diameter, petals at 45° jutting out over 10m, 75 metre-high and 20 metre-wide cigars... Text and photos: Philippe Batoux.
The kingdom of Norway is a vast country. It stretches over 2,500km/ 1,550 miles from south to north, from 58°N to the extreme latitude of 71°N.The coasts are rugged, ripped open in deep shreds: the fjords. A country with huge cliffs that plunge into the sea. In winter, depending on the whims of the weather, ice-falls can appear. Norway is undoubtedly the country with the greatest potential for ice-falls. Its latitudes are propitious to cold winter temperatures and vast slopes of snow loom above granite cliffs of all sizes.Yet ice-fall climbing in Norway remains relatively inaccessible; only three topos exist for the entire country: Rjukan, Hemsedal and Setesdal. A few accounts of climbing experiences can be gleaned here and there on the Internet. However, the absence of literature is no real drawback for climbing in Norway. All you need to do is drive, and to open your eyes to identify the best lines, which are often immediately above you. It is difficult to tell whether the line has already been climbed, and that's what's truly magical about Norway, for here, every climb is a new discovery.
The longest fjord in the world
Norway is, and will for a long time remain the Eldorado of ice climbing.A few ice-fall climbing aficionados have long-since visited Norway, more or less incognito. Guy Lacelle, Will Gadd and Rob Taylor have climbed lines here that fulfilled their wildest dreams... The kingdom of Norway is the richest country in the world.The Norwegians have vast natural gas and fuel reserves. Norway is ranked in leading position by the United Nations for its human development index (life expectancy, standard of living and education). The cost of living is high, which may explain the relative lack of ice climbers. However, the fjord region is a highly popular destination in the summer.There is consequently an abundance of accommodation options which are rented at low and more affordable rates in the winter. The Sognefjord is the longest fjord in the world. From Bergen, it stretches 204km inland as far as Skjolden. A multitude of branches are home to Norway’s big walls that plunge down into the sea at Auralndfjorden, Flåmfjorden and Gudvangen. And within the many arms of this immense fjord are the world’s most spectacular ice-falls. Unfortunately for ice climbers, and despite the latitude above 62°N, atmospheric disturbance from the west brings rain, hence destroying the most fragile structures. Only the upper portions of these immense edifices survive.After four ice trips to Norway, I am convinced that it is a complicated affair to climb these ice giants. Temperature ranges can exceed 15° in 12 hours: exactly the opposite of what is needed for ice-fall stability. Juggling with weather conditions and avalanches are what comprise the great challenge of climbing on these giant falls. You need to keep a watchful eye on the arrival of polar anticyclones and be ready to set off at the shake of a hat. Once on site, you need to play with altitude, for if a polar anticyclone is on its way you will need to descend and climb on the waterside in the fjords: Gudvangen, Årdal,Aurland. If, on the contrary, warm atmospheric disturbance arrives from the west, you will need to move inland and head for high altitude towards Hemsedal, Gol... The Norwegians apply a relatively simple code of ethics.They consider that above the limit set by the treetops lies a mountainous and, therefore, adventurous territory. The use of bolts is consequently prohibited. Setting off on these lines with just pitons and nuts, brings an added hint of commitment and much excitement. These rules, although initially perceived as restrictive, actually enhance and add a pinch of spice to the climbing experience.At any time, if the rock becomes too compact, or the ice too fine, your ascent can be brought to a halt, unless you find an alternative solution.And if you can't make your way any further, better conditions or more talented alpinists may one day enable the same difficulties to be overcome... Unfortunately, a few European climbers have failed to abide by these rules and, using bolts, have succeeded in overcoming lines that were long-since attempted by local climbers who had adopted respectful climbing techniques.
Above: Philippe Batoux only gets stranded on a boat. Never on ice…