First published in Tidsskrift for Norsk Alpinklatring in 2021. Translated by Irmeline de Sadeleer.
Volume 1: Maren Salte Kallelid
Summer 2020. We are four stoked climbers going to Northern Norway, to the valley of Bjærangen in Norland, on the hunt for first ascents. Eirik is the leader of the expedition – let’s call this trip an expedition. Eirik and Ørjan visited the same valley the previous summer and put up two new routes. Now, Irmeline and I are joining the boys. Irmeline, Eirik and I drove 16 hours straight from Oslo, wanting to take advantage of the forecasted weather window. Ørjan would be joining two days later. On the last ferry, we finally see the contours of the mountains we are heading for.
We grab a few hours of sleep and leave our camp by the fjord at about 8am. After hiking a couple of hours up the valley, we reach the base of the mountains we had scanned the evening before. I comment on how the top part seems quite steep. My comment is left unanswered.
Eirik had studied photos of the mountain intensely since last summer and had several ideas for potential lines. Eirik and Irmeline have put up first ascents before. I am less experienced and less strong and have never climbed without a topo. The two discuss whether we should try to reach what looks like clean, vertical cracks a third of the way up the wall. Eirik estimates the climb as grade 7 (5.11). I am relieved when they conclude we can try that when Ørjan arrives. We rack up.
We continue up to the cliff. My pulse is quickly rising – am I in such bad shape? Every time I look up at the mountain looming over us, I feel dizzy and have to sit down. Irmeline encourages me, but I am starting to wonder if I am ready for this. If I turn around now, I will disappoint myself, but maybe that is better than having the entire crew turning around after we start climbing. The first pitch does not look that bad. Thinking that it steepens higher up, and that Eirik probably still has in mind the nice, hard-looking vertical cracks, I conclude that this might be one of the few pitches I would be able to lead. I get surprised looks when I propose to start.
The first pitch climbs easily and it feels liberating to climb exactly where I want. After about 40 meters, I find a ledge for building a belay. I am still nervous and in too much of a hurry, and end up with a hanging belay one meter over the ledge. But oh well, the first pitch is done, and we have launched!
While I belay up the others, I hear a sound. Did something move? No, for sure it did not. Eirik and Irmeline laugh when they see me dangling right over the ledge. Then we hear the sound again, and this time I see that a block in my belay moves. The following minutes are somewhat panicked. Eirik slightly freaks out – he probably feels that he has a lot of responsibility, having initiated this trip. Irmeline behaves more calmly, and quickly rebuilds my belay. I feel stupid.
The line follows a dihedral just to the left of the loose block, and we must trust that Irmeline, who is climbing the next pitch, manages to pass the block without touching it. Fortunately, she does, and continues to climb elegantly. She rounds a corner and is out of sight. The climbing is good, steep and hard, and we grade it 6+ (5.10+). It consists of vertical cracks and it requires both stemming and jamming. Eirik's rope length, the third, is about as hard, but more challenging to protect. He pulls on a piece, making it A0, something that could have been avoided by climbing more unprotected further to the left.
Eirik and Irmeline are euphoric, but my mind is still spinning around my unsafe belay and I am unable to enjoy the experience the same way as they do. I feel dizzy again but it gets better with more mental support and some food.
The fourth length doesn’t look too bad either, so I suggest that I lead. I get two surprised looks again: "Gee, that psyche of yours swings." I choose to climb the easiest way, around some potentially nice cracks, resulting in a hellish rope drag (5). Still worth it, I’m back in the game again.
Irmeline’s turn. The climbing is both technically and mentally challenging, but particularly nice (6+). Eirik then climbs a full rope length in a few minutes (5+). It feels good to have progression. We have now moved onto terrain with many large blocks. It gets steeper above us, and it is difficult to keep an overview of our line. I climb one more easy pitch (5) but it feels like climbing blind. On the 8th pitch, our line is wet. Irmeline moves into a large dihedral, tries to round it at the top, and discovers an unprotected slab. After a long hesitation, she swaps leads with Eirik. Turning around up here could be dicey and it strikes us all how vulnerable we are. Fortunately, Eirik puts up a pendulum at the top of the dihedral, swings himself over and bypasses the slab (6- A0). But it is a tired man who we meet at the belay.
The terrain flattens out, and after one more pitch (5) and some scrambling, we are three tired but happy climbers who reach the top.
We name the route Stileik (9 pitches, 6+ A0). [Editor's Note: The route is named after the Norwegian word game Stileik, which means "path finding" and "game".]
Volume 2: Irmeline de Sadeleer
We sat and ate ice cream, watching the ocean the day after we came down from Stileik, when Maren started talking about a new climb. I felt my mood change from being thrilled by the thought of our previous ascent, to being nervous. Stileik was one of the toughest climbs I had done. All my leads had been superb but mentally challenging, and I was clearly proud. The route had given me a lot but also drained me of much-needed mental energy. Ørjan had arrived and he and Eirik were checking out lines for their climb the next day. A new climb meant that Maren and I would be on our own, without Eirik being there to help us out of whatever situation might turn up. The thought was exciting, but at the same time terrifying. Yesterday’s last pitch, which I failed to climb, was fresh in my mind. I had been so close to making a very unsafe decision by stepping out on that slab, as I could not have reversed my moves. And wasn’t the neighbouring cliff, which Maren had in mind, even steeper than the one we just climbed? Maren finally persuaded me to at least walk up the valley and have a look for myself.
I slept badly that night. During the approach the next morning I felt tired, a little nauseous and generally in a bad mood. While I did not say a word, Maren was on fire.
Eirik and Ørjan went up to the start of the face we had climbed two days before, with the aim of reaching the cool cracks we avoided during our ascent of Stileik. Maren and I continued up the valley to the next face, she full of energy, myself rather reluctantly.
When we came closer, I realized I had been fooled: the cliff was not at all as steep as it had seemed to be in profile. It was when I saw the nice, long and clean cracks that my bad mood disappeared, replaced by a desire for adventure and climbing. I immediately tried to persuade her to start off by the cracks. This time it was Maren's turn to be surprised. She laughed but her answer was clear: this was no time for playing around; we had to find the easiest way up, which was on the edge further to the left, as we had planned.
A little disappointed, but positively surprised by my change in mood, we scrambled first up to the edge, then did 4 pitches along it (4, 6-, 6- and 5+). The cracks were nice, the quality of the granite high and the climbing very sustained. The line was easy to follow, and it was all well protected. The ambience was just as good as our speed. This was a totally different experience than two days before. We were now crushing, and it felt so good.
After the 5th pitch, we reached a small ledge which turned out to be a crossroad, and chose to climb to the right, following a long laying dihedral for 3 pitches (5). At the end of it, it steepened into vertical, beautiful crack climbing, which looked harder than it was (5). We reached another ledge, and felt that we were near the top. After two more spicy and wet pitches (6- and 5+) and 10 hours of climbing, we topped out. Right on time as fog slowly settled.
We cheered and hugged, smiled from one ear to another. We were so proud of having opened this obvious line without major problems! Completing a female first ascent felt like an even bigger achievement than the ones I had done earlier with Eirik, even if the climbing and route finding were quite easy.
We quickly realized however that we were looking too often further to the right, where Eirik and Ørjan would top out. We had neither seen nor heard them, even if the two faces were close to each other. After having fueled up on chocolate, we ran over to the other top while the fog was thickening, and started on the descent. Eventually the phone rang; they had topped out an hour after us. Now, we could really celebrate. We named our route Hallologaland (12 pitches, 6-). Eirik and Ørjan put up the route Kraftkar (11 pitches, 7).
We met the boys at the base of the cliff and stood for a moment observing our three lines, before walking back to camp where gin & tonics were waiting for us. The good atmosphere only got better as the night went on.
Tips and tricks for climbing in Northern Norway
- Norway is covered by good quality granite. You are better off with American crack climbing skills than European limestone power.
- In the Alps you have alpine starts, in northern Norway you have “nordnorsk” starts. That means you start climbing late in the evening and through the night, in the midnight sun. The north walls become golden yellow during night and are not as intimidating as further south.
- All climbing is rather accessible, as there usually are roads or boats taking you far into the mountains. Rent a small car and bring a tent, or rent a campervan.
- Beware of a good chance for bad weather on the west coast and in northern Norway… it can rain a lot. Think Squamish. You can camp and walk nearly anywhere according to the law of freedom to roam.
- Most Norwegians speak English, making it an easy country to travel around in.
- Try Norwegian brunost, akevitt and fenalår.