Notes Novel from Norway

Antics in The Arctic

It all started with an e-mail from Steve C.

“How about this for a climbing venue?” was the question attached to a link to the Rockfax website where an extract from the newly published Lofoten guidebook could be found.

Never one to hang about, Steve downloaded it, and the very next time we were in the Peaks, he purchased the guidebook. Question is – could we make it there? The pictures were enticing: beautiful views, stunning rock and a welter of routes at grades that the two Steves can lead. It had to be done.

Days later we had booked the flights and hired a car for an eye-watering total of £1800 (Norway ain’t cheap!!), and we started collecting gear. Having investigated Rorbus (fishermen’s huts which can be rented out), we decided our credit card bills were already big enough, and chose the camping option. Next problem: the baggage allowance on the final flight of our three-leg hop was only 15kg + 8kg hand baggage. An extensive wardrobe was not going to be possible, and as we expected the weather to be a bit autumnal we had to choose very carefully. I laid out my normal alpine trip clothing on the spare bed, cut it by half, and then threw a few more items out for good measure. The Sunday evening before departure we packed, our baggage just meeting the set allowances.

The journey out was hassle free: Oslo Gardemoen Airport has the feel of a public library about it with its parquet floors and quiet, unhurried atmosphere and at Bodø we walked into the arrivals lounge and fifteen minutes later walked back down onto the tarmac for the final twenty minute hop to Svolvær. Our first view of the Lofotens themselves came as we descended through thick cloud to see myriads of rocky lumps emerging from the sea, surrounded by azure water and tiny golden beaches.

In reality the weather was a bit more unwelcoming than that – with a cold wind blowing, and grey clouds hugging the mountain tops. We pitched camp at Sandvika – a pretty ordinary site but which featured wonderful showers that we partook of later in the trip – cooked a meal, and went for a wander down to the sea. Later on, back in the tent, I marvelled that despite being past 11pm it was still broad daylight outside. Would we be able to sleep?

Well, sleep was no problem – but the next day we woke up to rain. We opted for an exploration of the local area and discovered Kalle, one of the recommended wild camping sites. It is situated on a wonderful golden sandy beach, but has the most hideous dry pit toilets you can imagine. We have done smelly loos in the Alps, but you needed to hold your breath to even get close to these, and we all doubted whether we could hold it long enough to actually get in there and do the deed itself.

Just to get our feet off the ground we climbed our first route at Paradiset (think a smaller version of Chair Ladder in coldish Easter conditions and you’ll know what it felt like).

A bit further down the road you come to Festvåg and the Gandalf climbing area. There is wild camping here too – and we spied out a pitch just over the headland in what turned out to be a bit of a damp sphagnum moss patch, and decided to move. Camping at Sandvika was going to cost £23 per night for the three of us, so we could save substantially by roughing it a bit. To say the pitch we had chosen was bracing is an understatement, but when we woke the next morning, there were promising signs of a change in the weather. There was blue sky showing through, and while thus far we hadn’t been able to see anything except low lumps in the water across the sea, these revealed themselves to be full-scale mountains. Wow! The temperature was also improving and we couldn’t believe we were in the Arctic.

First route on Gandalf was . . . Gandalf (5). After an awkward struggle to get out of a niche about 3m off the ground, the climbing rapidly improved and we were soon regretting our decision to wear Buffalos. The friction was superb, and the views stunning. We went back down to the bottom (friendly walk-off, shoes needed) and did Guns ‘n’ Roses (6-). Another great route, but getting three people up three- or four-pitch routes was quite time-consuming so we called it a day and returned to camp before taking a trip to the climbing pub in Henningsvær. Two half-litres of beer (Steve C was driving) came in at £11 (ouch!) so we decided that this was not a place to spend a lot of our time.

Next day the weather was wonderful and we chose a trip to Djupfjord to do the classic Bare Blåbær (5-).

The definition of ‘happy’

Our route up to the crag set the tone for all our other walk-ins: having been sold a pup by a pair of local climbers who directed us up what must have been their own favourite route to the crag, we arrived hot and sweaty and thrashed to within an inch of our lives by birch saplings (Steady on, Pete!). A quick lunch and we were off, following hot on the heels of a local guide and his client, but ahead of the natives who seem to stay up late and start out late (the chance of being benighted is zero).

There is only one word to describe this climb – magic! The position is wonderful, the rock amazing and the friction . . . sticky. We zipped up the crag pretty niftily for us (two seconds moving at once on some pitches) and took the advice of the guide who said that the top two pitches were worth doing, and they were. (We had met some friends of Chris Craggs the night before who had said they weren’t.) We abbed back down, avoided losing our ropes in a nasty off-width crack, and set off back down the valley, stopping en route to “skinny dip” in Djupfjordvatnet (a freshwater lake above the fjord itself). It was bloody freezing. Perhaps being in the Arctic should have given us a clue?

Day four took us to Pianokrakken, where we did Applecake Arete (5+) and then endured the worst descent path in the world. Next we had a go at Pizzatyven (6). We made it up the first grotty approach pitch, climbed the second pitch (nice) but failed to notice the rather new looking tat on the belay bolts at the top. Steve G huffed and puffed, scrabbled about, made some hideous moves, hung on the gear and then finally gave up after Steve C suggested that if it was that difficult, maybe it wouldn’t be that easy to get us all up? Retreating without leaving gear took a while, but we made it back down safely. Only later, reading the description, did we notice that the route is given E2 5c and often used to practise aid climbing . . . D’oh!

Next day we headed off to Rørvika where there is a crag of single pitch 6s which I thought might be good practice for my two trusty leaders to have a go at. Sadly I didn’t read the guidebook description of the approach properly, so we ended up scrabbling up a hideously chossy gully, and as punishment Steve rolled a portable-TV-sized rock down on me which drew the first blood of the trip. Nice try Steve, but you’ll have to do better than that! Once there, Steve C led Moody Blue (6-) – lots of loose rock on the first bit (one substantial chunk that I pulled off landed exactly where Steve had been belaying but fortunately he was in the bushes elsewhere at the time) followed by a trickily thin traverse, and then Steve G did a sport route called Automatic for the People (6-). This was great – long and sustained with some very thin moves on it. We descended by the very easy approach/descent route and then went to display our finely toned and dazzlingly white bodies on the beautiful beach below.

After dinner, spurred on by our successes earlier, we decided a spot of midnight climbing was in order and headed up to Store Festvåg for Lundeklubben (6). The second pitch features an overhanging jamming crack (these are a bit of a feature of Lofoten climbs) and I was not looking forward to it at all – but having climbed easily up the steep corner crack past the jammed wooden puffin (read the guidebook or come to the slideshow!), I found it actually remarkably do-able. We topped out at 11.30 pm, posed for a photo with Henningsvær in the background, then returned to camp for fish soup and bed by 2am (still light!)

Next day we headed off to Svolvaer to do Forsida (5+), the classic route up the Svolværgeita “Goat” which overlooks the town and the local graveyard. I led the first pitch (!) and then my two gallant leaders took over. Steve G made the slanting whole-body jamming crack on pitch 4 look hideous while Steve C just walked up it, and I managed to bugger up Steve G’s rope on the final pitch by looping it round a ring bolt to get it out of my way for the difficult moves. Oops!

The “special” bit of the Svolvaer Goat is the move from one horn to the other. In the olden days climbers would jump between the two (think Adam and Eve but higher and dodgier), but since a rock fall this is no longer recommended. Steve C had managed the manoeuvre successfully, but there was no way I was going to do it – even with ropes in front of and behind me, the wide bridging move and perilous lean across to the other side was horrific. I opted to be lowered to the little col between the horns where I perched and subsequently had wonderful views of the shenanigans as the Steves attempted to get off the horn and back onto the ab rope. I have never seen my Steve look so scared before, and I thanked my lucky stars for my cowardly nature! Back down on terra firma we returned to Svolvaer, organised a birthday barbecue and cake for Steve C, and visited Sandvika for an illicit shower and clothes washing session. A great (if scary) day.

The weather was again glorious when we got up the next day. Sadly our packing for autumn conditions was proving a bit misjudged, and my thick down sleeping bag made getting up a panicky scramble once the sun hit the tent. On the agenda for day 8 was Solens Sønner (6) at Sjøsvæt, and this proved to be a real adventure. The photographs in the guidebook look amazing, so we slogged up the Lofoten1 path and geared-up at the bottom of a glorious, smooth golden granite slab. The two Steves eyed up the route, and it was only when I innocently asked what the UK grade equivalent was that Steve C realised it was E3 5c. He was obviously feeling lucky, so we pressed on.

The first pitch was straightforward, but the second involves a friction traverse, followed by a thin crack-line to the belay – a long 45 metres. Off he went. He placed high gear to protect the friction traverse, and then a lot of swear words indicated that he was finding the bottom of the crack a bit tricky. He moved up. Rapidly. Now twenty-five metres out. Only four extenders left (he had started with 13). Lots more rapid movement and then whoops of relief. He had made it. It was a superb lead up a fabulous pitch – well done Steve! The friction traverse was freaky, the moves into the crack-line really thin, the crack itself wonderful. And then came a second thin section where the first crack petered out and you had to move across to another one. En route Steve’s nut key had been pressed into service as another useful extender!

The next two pitches had bolts on them (two and one respectively) but this was pretty well all the gear there was in the entire 50 metres. However, the climbing was easy spider(wo)man stuff – especially for the seconds – although both leaders had their moments of hesitation! We commented on the dodgy nature of the abseil gear (a single bolt and a frayed rope tied to a whippy sapling) at the top of pitch 3, but the reason for its presence became clear when I abseiled back down the line of the last two pitches to the top of the second pitch. The rope wasn’t long enough by about 2 metres. Bugger. As I began the abseil descent I had joked that I hoped I was heavy enough to stretch the rope to the ab station, but I hadn’t considered what to do if I wasn’t. Some protracted tying and retying of knots and prussiks in various configurations, accompanied by the annoyance of shouted instructions from above (“Shut up and let me think!” was my answer) got me safely off the rope and onto the bolts, and then the Steves came down to join me. It was easy enough for the second person to get off the rope, but not so easy for the third – the ropes would have been out of reach to pull without care – so some extensive knitting was required, but eventually we were all down safely.

A celebratory beer was required so the Steves went foraging in Henningsvær while I fetched water from the tap across the road and had a go at slacklining with some friendly Norwegian climbers. The two Steves cooked dinner while I went fishing – I caught a small cod that we fried up as a starter.

After a brief shower of rain, which caused a late start, day 9 took us to Gandalf again (our local crag!) where we did Gamle rev (6) and Gollum (5). Both routes feature jamming cracks. In Henningsvaer afterwards we bought Haddock hats (a local outdoor fashion item, not a joke shop disguise), and then played cards as a cold and gusty Northerly wind rattled the tents.

The wind was even colder the next morning, so we decided on another route in Djupfjord. We opted for Coley Smoke (5) which is given 3* but in our opinion is not worth any of them, and it proved to be by far the lowest quality route we did in the entire trip. It wasn’t helped by the fact that it was absolutely freezing in the wind, and the entire climb was in the shade, so our warmest clothing was absolutely essential. Coley Smoke also features the most viciously sharp hand-jamming crack in the world! Having given up on the idea that hot showers were necessary we had the obligatory skinny dip in the lake, and then decided to have a fire and fumigate ourselves in the smoke. Steve caught a fish (smaller than mine, but we ate it nevertheless).

Saturday 2nd August took us into Svolvaer for some shopping (should we buy Bog, or Sodd or Snürring, we wondered?), and then we went back to Kalle to Honnikornsvæt to do Puffrisset (5+). The star feature of this route is a wonderful jamming crack, sharp enough to draw blood, and the whole climb looks out over the pretty beach and towards Svolvaer. It was gloriously sunny and boiling hot, and as we climbed we had the extra entertainment of watching the local farmer baling silage in the fields, and a tractor equipped with a giant pair of sugar tongs stacking the lumps on a trailer. Back at the car we decided we had three options: do another route, cook and eat or have a shower, but that we only had time for two of them. We ditched the shower and went to do a sport route called Drømmen om Michaela (6) at Tjedbergvika that was steep, fingery and technical (about UK 6b) – great fun.

All week we had been wondering whether we should have a go at Vestpillaren (6) the classic 12-pitch route up Presten, a truly amazing conical slab of rock just up the road from Gandalf. Despite lots of people saying we should have a go the fact that there were three of us, moving quite slowly, and that two of the pitches of grade 6 are towards the top where retreat is difficult were off-putting factors. Someone else had said that the pitches of 6 are 6 all the way – for 50 metres – so it certainly wouldn’t be any kind of pushover.

Next day, Gaukerisset (6-) on Lille Festvåg – my only failure – it had a really strenuous traversey move that you couldn’t see – but above, the climbing looked wonderful. I lowered off at the difficult bit and the two Steves topped out and abbed off. We then went to do Tromsø Ekspressen (6). Not to be defeated this time, I conquered the long layback crack with a bit of buttock smearing, and we competed for the belays with a group of Czechs climbing Gollum equipped with a couple of rope “chocks” and little else. That night we dipped in the sea to freshen up and then had dinner. Steve G caught a fantastic mackerel that we would have for breakfast the following day, and which would get its revenge on its captor later on . . .

To be honest, even going slowly as we were, ten days of continuous climbing is pretty knackering so we decided we needed a day of rest the next day, and took time out to tour the rest of the islands. We therefore set off West. Much of the Lofotens look pretty much like The Lakes – green peaks with craggy bits sticking out. Eggum is wonderfully wild, with a huge cliff that as far as we could tell has no climbing on it at all (yet). Perhaps its proximity to a Nature reserve was part of it? It was at Eggum that the mackerel made its reappearance. Later on we visited the Viking Museum and took stupid pictures of us wearing a Viking helmet, and then went to Leknes, which is a dreary place with not much going for it as far as we could see. We took the scenic route home then, having dumped Steve G to sleep off the after-effects of the mackerel, Steve C and I went to Pianokrakken to do Pianohandler Lunds Route (4+). I led three of the five pitches on what is a very nice climb (although the route description is a bit misleading).

Next day we decided to do Rom and Cola (5+) on Alkoholveggen. This involved an hour’s walk-in on Lofoten paths, and some very tricky route finding, weaving a route back and forth under a series of overlaps. At one point, Steve had 25 metres of rope left on one rope, and was hard up against the belay device with the other! There was only one place where I found the climbing at all difficult and this was on the penultimate pitch after I had been left sitting on a belay, all on my own, contemplating the massive drop into the valley! The top pitch was a wonderful corner crack that required a bit of jamming, a bit of bridging, and bit of lay-backing – a bit of everything really! The view from the top was great, but the abseil was down a boggy gully. “Minging” sums it up. En route up the climb Steve C had dropped his Swiss Army Knife, and we found it later, stabbed, knife-blade down into the ground at the bottom of the crag – it is a good job that it wasn’t busy there: in truth, we hadn’t seen a soul all day! On the way down we contemplated a dip in Kallevatnet, but the clouds of mosquitoes persuaded us that this wasn’t an option. Back at camp we had Chilli cowboy style (barbecue flavoured beans rather than kidney beans) and sank a few beers before retiring to bed. Although it was still light, the nights had turned distinctly darker – whereas earlier in the trip we were treated to the sun dipping behind one peak and popping out again before disappearing behind another peak, by this point the sun was disappearing for good about 30 minutes earlier.

Wednesday 6 August was our final day of climbing. We went back to Pianokrakken again to do Lys og Skygge (5+). This is another good route, but much steeper than the others which had mainly tended to be slabbier. The descent is a 50m free-hanging abseil. Wow! Thereafter, we had pretty much run out of steam so the two Steves had a play on a short 6+ route with a tree start. After a couple of small falls but no submissions, Steve completed the first pitch, but they abseiled off when the second pitch proved to be up a totally unprotectable rounded arête. We then packed up, headed back to camp and after dinner went into Henningsvaer and spent our final evening in the pub. There was a great singer on, and we chatted with some members from an Oslo Angling Club whilst drinking our way through £60 worth of beer (easier than it sounds, believe me!)

All in all Lofoten is a great climbing destination. It has to be said we were incredibly lucky with the weather – had it rained it could have been a truly miserable (and extremely expensive) experience – but go there, and find out for yourself!


1. Bloody horrible, easily lost, steep path, tangled with birch saplings and laced with holes for you to break your ankles in

PS: Apologies go to Steve C for any errors with things like route gradings which in the typical male’s pursuit of factual accuracy he corrected for me, but which, in a typically female way, I have ignored! (Well, I lost the email, actually)

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