Sunday, September 01, 2013

Rock climbing in Arctic Norway; Narvik, Stetind and beyond.

Somewhere in Swedish Lapland
Just three months on and we’re driving north again. May’s snowy trip was sort of Dave’s half century ‘birthday party’; now it’s August and we’re hoping for dry, warm-ish rock to help celebrate my imminent 40th. We’re heading a bit further west this time, towards the Narvik area and Norway’s national mountain, Stetind. It was, almost to the week, ten years since Dave and I had last been this way - that trip I spent my 30th birthday splendidly drinking the night away by a campfire on a Lofoten beach and we had had seven days of great weather for climbing. The forecast looked good this time, but weather in Arctic Norway is always a bit of a gamble.
Eidetind and other Efjord peaks
It’s 17 hrs of grinding driving from the south of Finland to the North of Norway. On this journey the monotony was broken up by driving into Sweden a little after halfway - a route I’ve done fewer times than the road out the top of Finland at Kilpisjärvi. Swedish lapland is beautiful - you reach bigger hills sooner than in Finland and the Kalix river valley seems more interesting than the Tornio valley. Nevertheless, 17 hours is 17 hours and I think we were both happy when we crested the hill to see the sun setting behind the stunning Efjord peaks of the Kuglhornet and Eidetind. 

Stetind lurks above the camp area
At the foot of these two hulks, turn left and down a few more kms to where a tunnel spits you out, quaking, below the truly stupendous north face of Stetind. There are no alpine meadows stretching gently up to base of Stetind’s precipices. It is just 1400 metres of granite, surely hewn by some Norse deity with a battleaxe and following an angry child’s scribbled drawing of what a mountain REALLY should look like as his blueprint, plonked down on the fjordside. Some routes start literally from the beach. We pitched our tents late in the evening. Other climbers were milling around but more trickled back down as it reached midnight and the wee small hours. Stetind is clearly a mountain for big days.

Walking up the Verdenssvaet ("World Slab") approaching the Kuglhornet, Eidetind behind.
The next morning, Sunday, dawned bright but with some cloud still wrapping Stetind’s highest flanks. A decade ago we didn’t have internet access on phones to check the weather, but we do now and the forecast stayed good for the rest of the week. This clinched it and we decided on a warm-up route first, rather than throwing ourselves at the biggest objective of the week on the first morning - as we had done with Jiehkkevárri back in May. The Kuglhornet looked stunning when I had first seen it a decade ago but we had no idea how hard the routes were or how easy it was to descend. The guidebook gives all that info; perhaps killing some of the adventure, but also in another way opening up adventures to us. 

The South Face of the Kuglhornet. The East Ridge, about 8 full pitches, is the right skyline. The summit is the highest point in the picture.
Dave high on the East Ridge
We did the East Ridge - given 5- in the book although I thought rather easy for that grade. It is huge fun, and the views off the ridge, particularly over the north face are stunning, but it’s never particularly exposed for such a narrow ridge I don’t think the climbing was any harder that UK Severe. Looking off the summit overhang will make the hardiest stomachs lurch a bit. We got a tiny bit of drizzle on the top and were glad we weren’t on Stetind as that seemed to be catching all the showers going. 

Upper section of the Kuglhornet East Ridge
The descent is a walk, a bit steep and ‘jungle-ly’ at one point, but fine. There is supposedly a three rap alternative to the steepest bit that the guides use but we didn’t see the anchors. In the evening we accepted the inevitable, tomorrow would be Stetind day, so we better sort the rack and food out there and then and make an early start. One slightly shell-shocked looking Ukrainian climber at the campground had told us of their 24 hr epic, showing us his scarred fingers as evidence. Fortunately a Norwegian guide told us his friend had seen the Ukrainians the day before, moving carefully but VERY slowly up the mountain. Hopefully being experienced trad climbers and familiar with granite would help us move a little faster!
Showers over Hamarøy from the summit of the Kuglhornet

The South Pillar of Stetind
Monday morning dawned slightly cloudy, but still, and we were away from the tents at about 8.30 am. The walk up to the glacial lake is a scenic slog and we watched the cloud roll around the tight valley wondering what the day would bring. Lots of people had walked passed us before we left in the morning and we worried about queues; but when we got to the area where we were meant to traverse across to the South Pillar (6-) - arguably ‘the’ classic route on Stetind - the mountain was quiet. Could they all be doing the Normal Route leaving the entire South Pillar to us? This was the case as it turned out further amplifying the sense of size and loneliness on the route itself. Finding the traverse line to get across to South Pillar start, particularly with cloud rolling around, turned out to be hard. We went much too high at first and probably lost an hour before finding the right place. Here we racked and left one of the packs, spare gear and hiking poles. A big moraine bowl below the mighty south face (but above some terrifyingly huge, slick and wet slabs) lets you reach the start of the South Pillar, but to get on to this moraine is tricky. We eventually found the small path where you need to negotiate some not difficult but very exposed scrambling where we nearly roped up. After that it is just rough hiking for a few hundred metres to the base of the route.
At the top of the 9 easier lower pitches.
Dave somewhere on the lower pillar
The first section of the pillar is slabby, and mainly comprises of very pleasant long pitches of slabby crack climbing - the hardest little bits being no more than UK 4c. Pitch 6 is very long and has a complete bastard of chimney for anyone wearing a pack. Dave led that one, I seconded. Wearing the pack. Ho hum. Pitch 8 has suffered a big rockfall - you can see the scar from the roadside. The Norwegian guide told us you can still climb the original line but it’s loose, most traverse a bit left. There’s a good ledge there where Dave belayed, I climbed a fine, thin leftward leaning crack above. At the top of which you can lurch round the the corner into an easy groove and follow that to the huge ledge of the “Second Amfi” - the escape route to the normal route if you don’t want to climb the headwall.

1st headwall pitch, the crux of the route. Photo: D. Smith
I wanted to climb the headwall. This was just as well because Dave had hurt his back badly earlier in the summer and had felt it twinge again lower on the route. He took an industrial-strength dose of ibuprofen and announced he was still willing to give it go if I was happy to lead it. Ten years ago we had met some Finnish mates in the car park who had just done the route; Teppo told me, “the headwall is Finnish 5+, you’d cruise it, no problem”. After not trying Stetind that time, his words had stuck with me for a decade. Now was the time to find out if I was about to get the biggest sandbagging of my life or not. So I’ll just tell you this: the headwall is Finnish 5+, you’ll cruise it, no problem. Go get her tiger.

Three wonderful, well protected, pitches later and it’s just an easy couloir to walk up and you’re on the summit. And what a summit: the cloud were still rolling around so we only got views in some directions, but it’s as close to flying as I’ve been and I think, perhaps, want to be.
Last of the technical climbing, the summit awaits.
Descending from the summit via the normal route

Two tired and relieved middle aged men drinking beer
We stayed roped up, moving together and placing some runners between us, for the descent down the normal route. It is sickeningly exposed at points, but never hard. One abseil from bolts gets you down that route’s crux pitch, then more scrambling to the top of ‘Hall’s False Top’, where you can unrope and start hiking down. Finding our cached gear was straightforward, and below that we also found the described approach gully that we had somehow missed in the morning. We got back down to the tents in the twilight that is 1 am in far north’s August. We didn’t take headtorches and fortunately you can get away without them. A celebratory beer was drunk to finish off the probably the longest climbing day of either of our careers. It had also been one of the best.

I don’t think either of us felt like moving much come Tuesday morning, I washed in the stream, washed out some horribly sweaty clothes from the day before and made many cups of coffee. This adequately filled the morning. Oddly my thighs were killing from the hiking the day before. I hadn’t actually found it difficult at all, I guess I’m pretty fit from cycling, but clearly hiking uses slightly different muscles from pedaling a bike. In the afternoon we packed up, left the Stetind camp and took the ferry over to Hamarøy. 

The rural idyll of Sleppen cliff, Hamarøy.
In the afternoon we visited the local well-bolted sports cliff called Sleppen and did some routes. It’s a very chilled atmosphere but we found many of the routes total sandbags; completely the opposite to what the book suggests. We did one supposed 5-, which in about 15 metres had a number of moves WAY harder than the hardest moves on South Pillar!
Dave on the world's hardest 5-!
A few of the routes are also closer to bolted boulder problems than ‘routes’, but we giggled a fair deal, hung around a metre or so above the ground having fallen off four metre high routes and generally had an amusing time about as different from the day before as imaginable. We camped on a beach in one of the most heavenly spots imaginable that night

Wednesday, after an ‘invigorating’ dip in the Arctic Atlantic, we climbed the remarkable peak of Hamarøyskaftet, with an amazing summit and views out across the sea to Lofoten. The guide is about right, summing it up as a great hike interspersed with some boulder problems that would probably be fatal if you fell off them. We used a rope and were very happy to do so! It’s not a particularly technical climb, but it is great fun and good mountain day. We were buzzed by a RNAF trainer on the descent, close enough to wave to the pilot and see him wave back. He then pulled a very tight turn, came all the way back round the mountain and passed us again, closer, and this time flying on his side and giving us an even heartier wave - the definition of cool. In the evening we took the more southerly ferry back east across Tysfjorden to Kjøpsvik, where you drive up north past some more remarkable peaks and faces and back to the Stetind camp area.
Going up the Hamarøyskaftet...

...and coming back down again, Lofoten in the background.

Thursday, we hiked up to the amazing peak of Eidetind. On the trip ten years ago Dave and I had climbed Eidetind by following our nose in strangely competent display of mountaineering nouse. We later found out we had climbed Klubbruta, described now by the guide as the most popular route in the region. It is brilliant, so I can see why. 

Me high in the huge corner system Engelsdiederet, Eidetind. Photo: D. Smith.
Me at the top of the corner, abseils next.
This time we went for Engelskdiederet 5+, or “the English Corner”. This is equipped for an abseil descent after five pitches - so this was our aim, having summited Eidetind before. We left bags at the base and climbed just with rock shoes. It’s great climbing following a stunningly strong line for those five pitches, but I did feel a bit like you’ve only climbed the corner to where the abs start from, not the whole wall. 

Perhaps one to revisit in the future and to follow to the top of the mountain next time. In the evening we drove back east, through Narvik and up the pass back towards the Swedish border, camping in a beautiful spot above the tree line on the tundra.
Tundra camping near Haugfjell
Planning for a shorter day on Friday we went to the nearby Haugfjell area, an open valley and hillside covered in innumerable cliffs and crags. We went to Kjerringvegen, which seems to be the most developed sector - nice single pitch routes, sport and trad, overlooking a beautiful lake. I did Skidor är löjligt (“Skiing is Silly”), 5+, it being both the crag classic and a sentiment that as a poor telemark skier I can sympathise with.

Well, skiing is silly. Photo: D. Smith
 We also did a number of the mid-grade sports line, including Dave cruising the steep, juggy line of Jepperuta, a great 6- (6a-ish?), steeper than anything else we had climbed all week. In the early afternoon we packed the gear, went and swam in beautiful if rather chilly lake, put some clean clothes on, went back to the car and began the epic, through-the-night drive home.

Lazy Birds, 5+
Leaving Haugfjell, looking south towards Sweden.
Thanks to Dave for a brilliant week once again and for being such a solid and reassuring climbing partner, and finally for letting me use some of this great photos.

Somewhere in Finland at 4 in the morning, the long road home.

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