Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Climbing Stetind’s Sydpilaren (South Pillar): a punter’s guide

The classic view of Stetind from the campground/car park to the Northwest, punters start from here.
punter |ˈpəntər |

1 Football & Rugby a player who punts.
2 a person who propels or travels in a punt.
3 informal, chiefly Brit. a person who gambles, places a bet, or makes a risky investment.
• a customer or client, esp. a member of an audience.
• a prostitute's client.
• the victim of a swindler or confidence trickster.
4 sub-cultural, chiefly Brit. climbing: an active, often experienced climber with a genuine enthusiasm for the sport but who isn’t actually very good at it.

©New American Dictionary + a little help from me.

The less commonly seen North Face of Stetind. 1392 straight from the sea. No place for punters.

Climbing the South Pillar of Stetind was one of the best days of my climbing life. Although the crux pitches are not much easier than the hardest routes I’ve ever managed, the whole day went pretty smoothly. So I thought I’d write a ‘bluffers guide to climbing Stetind’, aimed very much at enthusiast punters, such as myself, with some tips and info to try and persuade those who want to give it a go but aren’t sure how they would fare, to go for it. Super-alpine Übermensch and sponsored heroes will obviously piss up it, and need not read any further (indeed that lot should stop arsing about and get themselves on terrifyingly massive North Face of Stetind!).

The South Pillar - between shade and light - emerges between the clouds. The start is at the left end of the obvious grassy ledge system, the finish is the summit 13 pitches later.
So first, how good do you need to be to climb Sydpilaren? I’ve been climbing for over 20 years now, never at a very high standard but I am pretty experienced. My top onsight grade is E1 (trad 6a/6a+-ish in Euros). I did onsight Red Square at Nesscliffe but I think everyone knows that’s not really E2. My best sport onsight is 6b, but that was some weird smeary slab climb, on steep stuff again 6a or 6a+ are the non-giddy heights I normally reach. I tell you this just so that you know that if you can get up similar graded routes or harder ones, you are perfectly capable of the hardest climbing on Stetind’s Sydpilaren. I do crack-climb a lot and I do climb mainly on granite - both of these are obviously of assistance considering that Sydpilaren is essentially a granite crack climb.

Looking down to Dave seconding pitch 10, the first headwall pitch and perhaps the crux of the route.
Stetind by any route is a climb and even coming down the normal route after the South Pillar needs some mountaineering skills. Overall it is a big day out for even competent teams and I think is closer in feel to an alpine route than to its famous, not-too-far-away neighbour, Vestpillaren on Presten, Lofoten. Vestpillaren has more of a super-cragging feel to it starting so close to the road. With Sydpilaren you are gonna need to get hiking first. With that mountaineering feel, the most obvious thing you need is a totally solid partner. I would recommend my climbing partner, Dave, but frankly it’s difficult enough finding days when he’s free to go climbing already, so you can’t have him. Find your own Dave.

Low on the approach, still in the trees.
The approach turned out to be trickier than we expected, particularly as we had cloud rolling around. After a few hours hiking up from the road, you get to a distinct steepening with a waterfall coming out of the glacial lake to your right. At the top of this steeping you get the view over to the Sydpilaren. There is a huge boulderfield ahead of you. Both the guidebook and Rockfax miniguide mention a huge flat boulder here, which is very easy to see, they then say follow cairns to an obvious gully that forms the start of the normal route. The problem is there are lots of cairns and no obvious gully. We went more rightwards and followed an obvious path continuing up; this turned out to be the wrong way - we were following the trail to the normal route and went much too high. We probably wasted an hour here hiking up, before finally coming back down and finding the start point for the traverse to Sydpilaren. The description only made sense as we came down at about midnight! I drew a sketch diagram for some friends who did the route a few days after us, they said it helped them so I have tried to reproduce it below.

Looking back across the boulderfield, where we went to right and got lost.

Excuse my pitiful artistic skills but it will probably make sense if you're there.
After the scary traverse scramble, crossing the moraine bowl, aiming for the curving ledge system that takes you to the start of the pillar on the skyline.
 We stowed some of gear at the point marked by the plastic pole and geared up. Then you traverse hard left following small cairns. The approach to the big moraine bowl is exposed and scary scrambling, it’s not hard but for about 50 mtrs a slip would be probably fatal. We very nearly used the rope.

Typical climbing on the lower pillar, slabby cracks and corners. Dave on pitch 4 I think.
The climb itself is made up of basically two sections - the first 9 pitches are on the slabby lower pillar and aren’t too hard. The hardest sections are given Norwegian 5- in the guidebook, about UK 4c, but those are just a few odd moves - most of the climbing is more in the V Diff-Sev range. Rockfall on pitch 8 has changed the route slightly; Dave took a belay on the big ledge below and left of the scar. Above we found a nice, safe, alternative bit of climbing that was slightly harder - probably Nor. 5 or UK 5a; see the picture below. This made our P8 shorter and P9 longer, but worked well.

Me on the left-leaning thin crack. A little higher the crack meets the arete where a big step left takes you into an easier groove. Follow this to the Second Amfi. Photo: D. Smith.
At the end of pitch 9 you hit a big ledge, the “Second Amfi”. The ledge is traversable, supposedly without difficulty, and it takes you out to the normal route from where you could either follow that to the summit or start the descent. I think knowing that is an option is really important as if you get freaked out by the headwall above, you know chickening out that way is a possibility. But don’t do that, man up, and do the headwall! It’s a pretty imposing bit of rock - noticeably steeper than the lower pitches - but the three pitches that get you up it are really great. The first one (P10 overall), given UK 5b in the Rockfax miniguide, is perhaps the most sustained, but I’ve seen some say it’s really only 5a. Whichever, the climbing is good and protection excellent so even if that’s the top of your grade, you should still go for it and just keep plugging those cams and nuts in. The next (P11) is only short - 20 mtrs or so - but I felt sustained and very airy. The climbing is great though, and again there are loads of solid runners to be had so it's not really scary. That lands you on a big comfy ledge from where you see up the slightly slabbier corner that makes up the crux of pitch 12. There is one distinct crux move on this pitch and the gear before it a bit more spaced. Nevertheless you can arrange a number of runners before doing the crux and the the move is all about balance anyway, fine for stout legged types as myself. Pitch 13 isn’t really a pitch, a few easy moves got us from the ledge where I had belayed at the top of P12 into a huge easy gully. We stopped belaying at this point and just walked roped together to the summit. It’s really easy.

Made it! Summit celebrations. Photo: D. Smith.
The Summit is huge - football field-sized, wander around and make yourself feel a little sick as you look down the west and north faces! Don’t forget to sign the very cool summit register in a bolted on box.
Dave signs the summit register.

Looking over to the descent ridge from near the top of the South Pillar. The descent follows the ridge down from the top left; the notch on the ridge is where you need to abseil. Then more scrambling takes you to the big cairn on the top of Halls Fortopp.
The descent is well described in the guidebook. On the summit we changed back into our approach shoes and roped up alpine style with one of our ropes, maybe 25 mtrs apart. Then we made sure there was at least two runners between us as we moved. This was easy and quick to arrange mainly using our double set of cams. The summit plateau narrows and begins to drop, you really couldn’t get lost even in cloud. There are a few step downs that require care but it’s not difficult. Soon it narrows down to a pavement-width ridge, sickeningly exposed but not difficult, and after a few metres of space walking along that you hit the bolted abseil point on the top of the “Mysosten Block”. You abseil 15 metres down the south side to a big ledge. From here we continued alpine style again, with much exposed but straightforward scrambling to the huge cairn on the top of Halls Fortopp, the obvious peak SE of the main summit. Here you can stop stressing-out, un-rope and collapse on the floor with relief; only (lots of) hiking now remains between you and your choice of celebratory beverage back at the car park/camp area.

Dave about to balance across to the abseil point on the Mysosten Block.
All in it took us 16.5 hours car park to car park. If we had found the approach better we would have been quicker but not by much, and during the day we were moving for most of the time except whilst belaying. Of course some people will climb much faster than us, but I don’t think we were particularly slow either. Unless you are happy to simul-climb big sections I wouldn’t think many parties would be hugely faster than we were and we met people who had been quite a lot slower! As I said, it’s a big day.

Our rack being sorted out the next morning.
Gear is always very personal to what you have, like and how many runners you like to put in. There are lots of pitches on the route that are 50 mtrs long and there is no fixed gear, so reckon on needing three pieces for the lower belay, however many runner you place on a 50 mtr pitch and then three more pieces to make the next belay, i.e. quite a lot. We took:
  • 10 Wallnuts, (size 1 to 10); our basic wires.
  • 10 Metolius ultralight nuts; a second set of wires - lighter than standards ones and they rack very neatly.
  • 6 Wild Country Superlight Rocks; these are amazing because they make even the Metolius nuts seem heavy, although with just one wire it's best not to look at them for too long after placing them.
  • 12 quickdraws; three of these were slingdraws with tripled 60 cm slings - very useful. 8 were Edelrid 19G quickdraws which I was lucky enough to have been sent for review. They are very small but, man, are they light - weighing the same as about four or five of my normal quickdraws. They really were perfect on this route.
  • 2 DMM Torque Nuts; mainly because being a punter I feel a bit naked without at least a couple of hexes.
  • 2 Wild Country Rocks on Spectra; mainly because these are Dave’s lucky charms and he gets nervous without them regardless of how old they actually are and how worn the cord is!
  • 5 DMM Dragon Cams, purple to blue (#1 to #5).
  • 5 BD Camalots, purple to blue. BD and DMM sizing now matches so, in short, we had two of each mid-range cams.
  • 4 Wild Country and DMM small cams - I think between #0 and #1.5 in Friend/4CU sizing.
  • About 4 slings, 2 120s and 2 60s, and about the same number of locking krabs.

We probably could have had just two sets of nuts, and maybe only one of the bigger sized cams, but we used everything at some point and I would have been nervous having a significantly smaller rack. We’re lucky that between us we have a lot of lightweight gear - most of cams were racked on DMM phantoms for example - and by using the lightest option we had for everything, even though we took a lot of gear its still wasn’t horribly heavy.

For ropes we took two 60 mtr half ropes. Theoretically a skinny 60 single would work fine too and be light, but if for some reason you had to retreat back down the pillar it would be a ‘mare. I also like being tied to two ropes on stuff that is hard for me, but that’s being British I guess. Finally, in a very un-British move I wore my crack-gloves and Dave taped up. Whilst this isn’t really necessary, particularly for easier climbing, on long climbs I think I climb a lot quicker when taped-up. It also just helps your hands survive the week if you are climbing lots of granite every day.

Tactics: Dave had the relevant pages of the Rockfax miniguide in his pocket, but they “escaped” during the approach meaning we never got to try its descriptions for accuracy. I had scanned and printed the relevant pages of the (rather big and heavy) guidebook and packed them in plastic bags, and that was what we used to get up the route. Stupidly when scanning it I hadn’t pushed the book down hard enough on the plate and it meant I couldn’t read the comments close to spine that accompanied the pitch by pitch topo diagram. Between that and losing the other topo we inadvertently added a sense of mystery and adventure to our climb!

Me reading the descent description in the midnight gloom. Photo D. Smith.
We both used approach shoes which turned out to be the perfect choice. I had some very light fell running shoes with me in Norway too but I wasn’t sure how their very aggressive sole pattern would work on the easy climbing during the descent. Both of our approach shoes have soles designed for easy climbing and they worked perfectly on the descent, you don’t need boots. It wasn’t too cold or windy on the day we climbed but we figured if it rained we could get cold fast. Hence we decided not to take a bothy bag up the route, but rather to take both shell jacket and pants each. I walked up in one base layer and changed for a dry one at the gearing up spot. That with, at times, my superlight windshell over it was all I needed on during the climb. On the summit I put on my microfleece between those two layers as it was windier and cooler. Dave wore his shell for some of the climb to add a bit of warmth, but neither of us needed the hats and gloves we had also packed. We were both fine in just basic softshell trousers, but it’s nice to know you have the over-trousers had the wind really picked up or the rain began.

We both took the food we thought we’d want/need and 2 ltrs each of energy drink. We drank most of one 2 ltr bag on the approach and then took the second with us on the route. I tend to drink a lot, but as it wasn’t too hot this was enough until we got to streams on the lower descent. We left one rucksack and our walking poles at the gearing up point and took the other with us on the route, meaning the leader could lead without a pack. I think this system worked well; the second carried the pack, a lightweight 30 ltr model. It held two pairs of shoes, two sets of waterproofs, the drink, some snacks and some ab tat for emergencies. It wasn’t bad to climb with at all but leading pack-less was also great.

We were doing the descent in the late evening having summited at about 2130. We were too late in the year to see midnight sun, but even in at times cloudy weather we didn’t need or want headtorches. Even walking back down through the forest at about 1 am, it was still light enough to see the path.

Finally I’d say make sure you have some good beers and some good single malt stashed in your car as when you get back down, probably at some ungodly hour of the morning, you’ll want to celebrate.

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