Back to Rjukan! Back to the land of the ice and snow, of the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…
… Where was I? Oh yes, Norway. This would be my 4th visit to that little industrial town in the heart of Telemark, not the most attractive of locations but boasting the highest concentration of easily accessible icefalls anywhere in Europe. Or indeed beyond, as we were surprised to meet a couple of climbers who had flown over the Pole from Washington State, claiming that was actually easier than driving around at home, looking for good ice.
Scouse and I were both well aware of our limitations – averaging one week ice climbing every 2 years can’t exactly be called experienced – so we had started modestly, by going to Vermork Bridge and mistakenly climbing a WI4. (It was supposed to be a WI3, but in my excitement I led us to the wrong icefall.) With both of us sporting new boots, and me trying to climb leashless for the first time, it was an eventful few hours, involving my very first fall on ice (no harm done) and Scouse pulling off some mighty moves to finish the route. We moved on to a much easier WI3 to get our nerve back, which apart from my bottoming out a screw in some thin ice (hugely annoying) passed without further mishap.
Day 2, we wanted a multipitch route, so went to Bolgen in our little rented Fiat 500. Short walk in, but another pair had just started the route so we had to wait. Bolgen is a 4-pitch WI3, quite wide so I thought we’d be able to avoid falling ice from the other pair. Why don’t I learn? After a long day, waiting on belays and dodging ice. we had to finish the abseil back down by headtorch. We counted it a successful day though.
From a mild start, the temperature had fallen rapidly. We went to the Lower Gorge the next day, but found the sudden cooling had made the ice very brittle and under thermal stress. Each axe placement dinner-plated and shattered, and more worryingly, large deeper cracks appeared through the ice. I’ve never encountered that before, so we climbed very cautiously, and I backed off after triggering a sequence of cracks that threatened to join up underneath my next moves. In the hostel later, a pair of Swedish ice climbers said they’d found similar conditions, and despite being much more experienced, had also never seen it happen before. So we felt our honour restored.
By mid-week, the daytime temperature was down to -12 C. We set off to Krokan, but found with the short easy walk in, we didn’t warm up and by the time we’d geared up we were frozen and suffering. After some debate, we decided we were too old for this shit, and we bravely sacked it off and went to climb in the sun at Rjukan Central. Here it was much nicer, in direct sun, blue skies and good views of Gaustatoppen, almost an Alpine feel to the day. We climbed a meandering line up the falls, given WI4 in the guidebook but a soft touch with good plastic ice and neve.
Friday arrived, and we felt we were now climbing well enough for our main objective, the stunning amphitheatre above Mael. This is a big day out, with 3 abseils to reach the bottom, and then a 4-pitch WI3 being the easiest way back out. This time we had the route to ourselves, just one other pair on the WI4 icefall next to us.
The ice was still very brittle, so it was hard going. By the end of the second pitch, we’d hacked our way up one side to belay in some trees. A shorter pitch got us to a wide ledge, with a steeper pitch above. I led up this next pitch to a final steepening, which Scouse then threw himself at. He had to stop after about 15 metres, as there was water running down the final ice wall. Puzzling to see this at consistently sub-zero temps. I tried an offshoot to the side, but by now the light was going and I was spent. Reluctantly I backed off, arms like jelly, and set about drilling an Abalakov.
One long abseil got us back to the big ledge, where we could walk off into the forest. I say walk, but once in the trees it was a case of wriggle, squirm and curse our way up. There followed a couple of hours of thrashing through the woods, at night, with no map and only a vague idea of where the track was. Hilariously, we got within 20 metres of it at one point, only to decide we’d gone wrong and head back the way we came. What larks!
On the way back, we stopped at the pizza takeaway. Only £18 each, and well worth it. Honestly.
The next day, Scouse’s big toe, which had been on the end of several hundred kicks into hard ice, had gone purple. Nothing more to be done than go swimming, have a sauna and muck about in the rotating outdoor pool. And then doss in the TV lounge with a talkative Swede until it was time to drive back to Oslo, and home.