Cold Hard Clash: Battling Arctic Ice in Northern Norway

Rock and Ice editor travels to Northern Norway for the Arctic Ice Festival and discovers a veritable ice climbing heaven.

By Michael Levy | December 28th, 2020

Tanja Schmitt on Finnkona, a route on Senja, an island in Northern Norwya. Photo: Matthias Scherer.

 

It had taken me my entire adult life and required traveling 4,500 miles around the world, but halfway up a frozen waterfall in Norway, I could cross something off the bucket list: I was finally in Conrad Anker’s pants.

I was also in Steve Swenson’s gloves… The French Ace Mathieu Maynadier’s jacket. And German ice-wizard Matthias Scherer’s sunglasses.

Matthias Scherer on Flågbekken. Photo: Heike Schmitt.

While the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to dawn on much of the world back in early March 2020—the frenzy of buying essentials like skim milk and toilet paper in unreasonable qualities was still weeks away—my main concern at that moment was that Lufthansa had lost my luggage during my four-flight marathon travel day to the Arctic Ice Festival here in the small village of Tennevel, in Troms, Norway. I was going to be here for nine days and, stranded without my personal gear, the Petzl athletes had taken pity on me and kitted me out as best they could.

I was now halfway up Flågbekken, a 150-meter WI 5, my feet wobbling in Asolo boots (a size too large, borrowed from Manu Moreau, the Petzl athlete-team manager). Whereas it had been a cool minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit when, jetlagged, I had woken up at the Fjellkysten Guesthouse to a pinkish pre-dawn light gilding the bald snow-covered tops of the Lyngen Alps, it was now well-above freezing in the sun. I was drenched in sweat. Even if I had mustered the stones below this classic climb of the area—its hundreds of ice petals rearing up in gravity-defying arcs like the heads of so many cobras—I was in no condition, headspace- or kit-wise, to lead it.

But that’s why it always pays to have a rope gun on your rack: I was following Philippe Batoux, French IFMGA guide extraordinaire and author of Mont Blanc: The Finest Routes. He had fired the first two pitches as one, placing a screw every 10 meters or so.

 

[Sign up for the 2021 Arctic Ice Festival, February 21-28, here!]

 

As I shook out on my tools—Petzl Nomics, also borrowed—battling the nascent blisters on my feet, I heard a not-too-distant explosion. Ice- or rock-fall? Another boom!—closer this time, and with the distinct sound of exploding ordnance, straight out of “Saving Private Ryan” or “Apocalypse Now.”

What in the heck? I wondered, as I felt another BOOM! closer still, vibrate through the handles of my tools. Artillery, for sure.

Great, this is how it ends, I thought. While fleeing a pandemic, I’m blown to smithereens by some unidentified invaders. 

At least I would die in an ice climber’s heaven. Because that, I was to discover over the following days, is exactly what Northern Norway is.

 

Arctic Ice

Huge new ice lines are put up virtually every year in Norway, and destinations like the Rjukan Valley are well-established as some of the premier ice-climbing spots in Europe. As Henry Barber discovered in the 1970s and Will Gadd did in the 2000s, the ice in Norway is big. Super fat and super tall. In 1977, when Barber first laid eyes on Vettisfossen, the 330-meter frozen column of ice in southern Norway, of which he and Rob Taylor would go on to make the first ascent, “I almost shit my pants,” Barber later told Will Gadd. It was that spectacular. In his own career, with hard first ascents perhaps more numerous than any living ice climber, Will Gadd wrote that “the three best new-routing trips of my life” were in central Norway. (A note on route names: in Norwegian bekken means a “little stream,” while fossen means a “powerful waterfall,” hence the common endings of many names.)

The climbing in Northern Norway, however, in and around the Lyngen Alps, has been slower to permeate the consciousness of the ice climbing world, trailblazers and everymen alike. News of massive new climbs on the hard-to-reach island of Senja—like the 400-meter WI 6 Finkonna, and the 400-meter WI 7 M9+ Finnmannen—have broken through to register on the climbing media’s radar, but the vast amount of climbing available to ordinary mortals, both tapped and untapped potential, has remained fairly obscure to the ice climbing populace.

The Lyngen Alps lie in the county of Troms. Located above the Arctic Circle, here the winters are dark, best passed by drinking heavily and watching the aurora borealis. The best season for ice climbing is later winter and early spring, March and April, after the biggest ice flows have had a chance to form up during the permanent midnight of winter, but daylight hours have returned.

Matthias Scherer on Flåget. Photo: Matthias Scherer.

A number of the most knowledgeable people on ice climbing in the Lyngen Alps descended upon Tennevel for the 2020 Arctic Ice Festival, organized by the German trio of Matthias Scherer, his partner Tanja Schmitt, her twin sister, Heike Schmitt, and hotelier Tor Ivar Lyngmo. In addition to those four, Jeff Mercier, Philippe Batoux and Mathieu Maynadier, of France, along with Steven Swenson and Conrad Anker, of the U.S., also got in on the fun.

Scherer, 46, from Frankfurt, Germany, is an ice addict like few I’ve ever met. He’s that rare breed whose interest in rock climbing is negligible; if there’s no risk of impalement or frostbite on a climb, what’s the point, his philosophy seems to be. Talking in the Fjellkysten Guesthouse one night during the festival, he told that he had kept close track of all the routes he had done for the first 1,000 ice falls he had climbed—his definition of an “ice fall” is a flow that consists of at least two pitches, and from which you need to abseil down or build at least one Abalakov anchor—but then lost track. He rattled off highlights from his career: Repentance Super, in Cogne, Italy, a 300-meter WI 6 he and Tanya have climbed 50 times; Nemesis, French Reality, Killer Piller, and others in the Canadian Rockies.

But in his top 100 ice climbs, three of the top five are in Norway, namely Svartberg Fall, Gudvangen; Kjerrskredkvelven, also in Gudvangen; and the aforementioned Finnkona, Senja. (Check out Scherer’s full list here). When Scherer and Tanja first climbed in the North of the country in the winter of 2012, ticking some big classics, they knew they had found something special. Scherer has since been back 20 times.

There are several factors, it seems, that those in the know point to when explaining what makes climbing ice in Northern Norway so exceptional.

Unlike Colorado or the Canadian Rockies, or even more southerly areas in Norway, the Lyngen Alps is an ice-climber ghost town. Tor Ivar Lyngmo, owner of the Fjelksten Hostel, the most logical place to stay for climbing in the area, said there are probably no more than 50 climbers who visit each year.

As a result, explained Christian Dramsdahl, 44, a local who authored a new—and the first proper—guidebook to the area, the ice is untouched. “What’s special about ice up here is there’s no sign of other people there,” Dramsdahl said. “It’s virgin ice, you have to do all the work to get up the climb, nothing’s picked out. And it’s not crowded at all.”

Tanja Schmitt climbing in Northern Norway. Photo: Matthias Scherer.

Beyond the quality of the ice, there is the quantity and size of it: again, long lines abound. It’s not ice-cragging like in New Hampshire or the Ouray Ice Park. We’re talking dozens of 300-meter ice climbs, vertical most of the way. Skredbekken, for example, is a 700-meter—that’s over 2,000 feet!—WI 5, ice the whole way, no mixed shenanigans required.

To be sure, the rest of Norway has climbing that makes most of the rest of the world look like the kiddy end of the ice pool, too. In Rjukan, further south, you can walk 20 minutes and have 40 multipitch lines to choose from when it’s in condition, all easily accessible. For length, there are lines like Hydnefossen in Hemsedal, three hours north of Rjukan, that rival or exceed the longest in the North. But the conditions up North are reliable like none of the other areas.

“The big difference in the North here is that you have way more stable and cold conditions,” Scherer said. “Gudvagen, and all the climbs closer to the sea or in the south, you have to be ready to climb on quickly built up low-density ice that might not accept good screws. Rarely do you find ice with good screw conditions. Same goes for Eidfjord, mostly. Rjukan is barely frozen this year. But up here in the arctic it always freezes. Here in the North, you find safe conditions. I think that makes this place special.”

“And also,” he continued, barely able to contain his excitement about the variety of options in the region, “you have Spahnsdalen with a lot of climbs, then Flågbekken, then the Bardu area with a lot of climbs. There’s endless potential here. And then the big climbs like Skredbekken —you don’t find something like this in Hemsedal. The Bardu Valley, Sørdalen Valley, too, around here, have lots. And all this in a one-hour drive from here. That’s less driving than getting to things around Canmore.”

This accessibility to virtually limitless ice with no climbers to speak of was a big impetus behind Scherer, Schmitt and Schmitt’s decision to transform the Arctic Ice Festival into a bigger event. I say “transform” because they are merely the new shepherds of an institution that predates them.

The festival was founded in 2010 by Lyngmo, who ran it out of the Fjellkysten Guesthouse, which he bought in 2008. Perched right above the dark, inky black waters of Lavangen fjord, with gleaming white mountaintops surrounding it, the aptly named Guesthouse (Fyell means “mountain,” kysten means “coast”) is ideally located as a home base for climbs in the North, in all those various unpronounceable areas Scherer had raved to me about. The festival was not a yearly occurrence early on, and was “more of a climber’s meet-up” than a formalized festival, Lyngmo said, but it had an intimate vibe. Despite this, world-class climbers, like Marko Prezjl, who came one year, attended from time to time.

The participants and athletes from the 2020 Arctic Ice Festival. Photo: Mathis Dumas.

“The hard thing was that the festival was based on volunteers and help from locals who had the time to give. It was pretty hard to keep up—we advertised in the Norwegian climbing magazine, and through Facebook and Instagram. But it was hard to develop it,” Lyngmo said.

When Lyngmo met Scherer three years ago, they got to talking. Both saw in the other an opportunity to grow the Arctic Ice Festival. Scherer already had the experience of running a successful ice festival in Cogne, Italy, as well as the support of his sponsors and their other athletes; Lyngmo had the infrastructure—a small hotel, vans, intimate knowledge of the local society and towns—to make a more commercial festival feasible.

Jeff Mercier (far left), Conrad Anker (second from left), and Matthias Scherer with two participants during the 2020 Arctic Ice Festival. Photo: Matthias Scherer.

In the week that I was there for the inaugural version of this new and improved Arctic Ice Festival, I saw the seeds of a world-class event sprouting. Some 20 paying participants, newbies and experts alike, received personalized attention from the best ice climbers in the world. They bolstered their skills with workshops on safety and ample time at several different ice flows. Nightly programming during the festival—usually post-sauna session—consisted of presentations from the athletes and guides. Among the presentations: Conrad Anker shared tales of Antarctica first ascents from The North Face expedition which included Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold, Savannah Cummins, Cedar Wright, Anna Pfaff and Pablo Durana; Jeff Mercier shared lessons and advice for how to stay safe in the mountains; Juho Knuutila gave a slideshow of his and Quentin Roberts’ strong attempt on the unclimbed North Pillar of Tengkangpoche in Nepal; Steve Swenson talked about his Piolet d’Or-winning first ascent of Link Sar last year with Graham Zimmerman, Mark Richey, and Chris Wright; and Scherer, Schmitt and Schmitt screened a film showing bold, cutting-edge ascents they did in Norway.

 

The Battle of Narvik

Turns out that on that first day, no one was actually trying to bomb me off of Flågbekken. While I’ll always remember fighting up that ice flow in ill-fitting gear as an epic battle, I learned—and as dilettantes of 20th century European history will doubtless know—that the region was the scene of a much more consequential battle in 1940.

Tanja Schmitt on Storstampen’s lower pillar. Photo: Matthias Scherer.

The port of Narvik, a municipality adjacent to the county of Troms, was a coveted strategic holding for both the Allied and the Axis Powers in the early days of World War II, due to the access it afforded to iron ore mined and traded by Sweden. On April 9, 1940, the German navy sailed into the Ofotfjord, the finger of ocean which Narvik overlooks, and dropped troops onto the shores thinking it would be a smash-and-grab campaign. But the Allies had other plans. For the next two months, Norway and the Allies resisted the blitzkrieg of Hitler’s Third Reich, withstanding the onslaught of the Luftwaffe. The Norwegians, aided by British and French soldiers and warships, won the first engagements at sea. Still the Germans persisted in their attack. The Norwegians held out for 62 days before succumbing.

The history of that campaign has pervaded the region ever since. It is a source of pride. The artillery I heard while climbing Flågbekken was a direct result of that history. Every year, NATO troops stationed at Elvegårdsmoen, the nearby Norwegian military base, conduct a pseudo-reenactment of the Battle of Narvik.

“The British soldiers have it the worst,” Scherer said, describing the truly miserable sounding war games and training exercises. “They are made to jump into a hole in a frozen lake, wearing all of their gear and their skis, and then, after they climb out, survive for five days. Imagine jumping into a frozen lake wearing all of your ice climbing gear…”

Maybe it is the legacy of the Battle of Narvik—surviving in the bitterest of conditions, withstanding unjust intrusions on their sovereignty—that informs the historical hardman approach and outlook to ice climbing in Northern Norway. You suffer, and you don’t make a big deal about it. Trying conditions are par for the course for ice climbers here. “It’s a rough climate. It’s harsh. You have to be dedicated,” Dramsdahl said

Records of what was climbed and when in the North are sparse. “Those guys who did first ascents in the 1980s, they were happy about climbing these things for themselves, they didn’t need to prove anything to anyone else,” Dramsdahl said. “It was a challenge and a goal for themselves. There weren’t that many people who realized how hard it was, so what reason did they have to go and talk about it?”

Will Gadd, in a feature he wrote about Norwegian ice for this magazine about a decade ago, noticed similar trends throughout the country: “Today, if you’re on a new line in Norway and find a sling or old rap station and aren’t sure who left it there, just assume it was Canada’s Guy Lacelle, Norway’s talented Marius Olsen, Austria’s Harri Berger, Germany’s Robert Jasper or some super tough local Norwegian farmer (seriously) you’ve never heard of. To a Norwegian, a beautiful four-pitch line is as ubiquitous as a Volvo. The local attitude is as relaxed as your head will be after a few belts of aquavit, the local brew distilled from potatoes and caraway seeds. There is just too much ice for anyone to get hung up on who did the first ascent.”

Scherer echoed these sentiments about ice climbing in the North: “You never know here in Norway if you did a first ascent or not!” he said, slouching down in an armchair and throwing up his hands in a combination of irreverence and frustration.

As for me, I didn’t need even to toy with the idea of new routing. The classics available were plentiful and my time was short. The day after Flågbekken, Philippe Batoux rope-gunned me up the 400-meter Rubbenbekken (WI 5+), in the Bardu area. Texting a photo of the line to my colleagues back home in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, they responded with drool emojis. Stack all the individual pitches of all the ice climbs in our little home Valley on top of one another and they might be as tall as Rubbenbekken—and there were scores of Rubbenbekkens within just a couple hours of where I stood. Just around the corner, for example, were the side-by-side Storstampen (WI 4, 200 meters) and Storstampen 2 (WI 5-6, 200 meters).

The author during his nighttime descent from Henrikafossen. Photo: Erik Djupvik.

On one of my last days there, I teamed up with a local ice climber named Erik Djubvik. We set our sights on one of the most popular moderate classics around, Henrikafossen. Some 350 meters of WI 3 and WI 4. We nearly didn’t make it to the base. With no trail to follow, we post-holed up a snow field, sliding two steps backward for every three we took forward. Avy conditions were questionable. When we finally got to the first pitch, I started up in subzero conditions, and encountered some of the hardest—super dense, that is—ice that I have never climbed. Anything but the truest swing would glance off the glassy surface like a ricocheting bullet. The spindrift that came down into our faces on each successive pitch turned our faces red and numb with cold. When we finally reached the top, once again bathed in the pink glow that seemed to begin and end every day, Eric and I hugged and immediately started rigging a V-thread rappel. On the descent our rope got stuck on the second of five rappels—Erik re-climbed the pitch by headlamp.

When I stumbled back across the threshold at Fjellkysten at 9 pm later that evening—my frost-covered ice screws, ice tools, alpine draws, still dangling off my harness; and actually mine, Lufthansa having finally gotten my bag to me—Scherer saw me and let out a deep-timbred, “Yeessss, Michael!” celebrating my return and first full-on experience of the Northern Norway climbing experience: Empty, hard, cold, transcendent.

I felt like I was returning from an epic trial—a battle, perhaps. Victorious, I settled down with a beer, put my feet up, and chatted into the evening, disappointed that I would have to leave in the morning for another 24-hour travel day back to pandemic-wracked reality.

But excited to return for more arctic ice climbing in Northern Norway, as soon as I could.


 

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