Nor­way: XXXL Ice

Vertical (English) - - Special Report -

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…

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