On the extreme northwestern edge of Europe, Norway's Lyngen Alps are not only renowned for their skiing. By midwinter, the waterfalls that flow from their summits freeze solid to form some of the wildest ice climbs on the planet. For the third part of our LEGEND winter features on skiing and climbing in northern Norway, British mountaineer and journalist Ian Parnell gathers his thoughts on the spectacular icefalls of the Lyngen Peninsula
Over the course of our trip, the running joke with our team was that no matter how tricky your ice line in the Lyngen Alps, it had probably been climbed by a Norwegian grandmother many years ago. Some previous visitors who had claimed first ascents, offering names and grades, seemed to have met a frosty reception from local climbers.
An ice route with a view
Discussing this situation with Norwegian climber Stein Tronstad, I mentioned the sociological theory of Jantelagen, or Jante’s Law. This concept was coined in the 1930s by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose to describe how small Scandinavian communities consider the public expression of individual achievement inappropriate. It has become fashionable to use the theory when describing all of Scandinavian society. Yet Stein thought this nonsense, pointing out that the theory could have applied in the past to any small town society in the world, and that the current Norwegian climbing scene was no longer as insular as it once was.
"The spirit of Norwegian climbing is the unknown adventure: a white line on a mountain that may or may not have been climbed. Who cares what it’s called or who climbed it first?"
Another activist I spoke to, Tromsø based British climber Dan Richardson, succinctly summed up the local approach: “The spirit of Norwegian climbing is the unknown adventure: a white line on a mountain that may or may not have been climbed. Who cares what it’s called or who climbed it first? It’s about those feelings associated with the unknown. For the most part the Norwegian climbing community has chosen not to record every individual ascent to keep this spirit of adventure alive.”
The incredible line of Gullyvers Reisen (WI5)
Over the next few days I personally experienced both the dark and the light side of that philosophy. Exploring the canyons in the Kafjord area Kenton and I climbed Gullyvers Reisen - one of the routes that had inspired me to visit northern Norway - reminding me of a pure ice version of Gully of the Gods on Scotland’s Beinn Bhan: a steep slot filled with a rich vein of grade V ice.
The others returned from a long day in the Orndalen Canyon, with Neil raving about another audacious lead by Garth. Buoyed by their enthusiasm, Kenton and I weaved our way over the partly frozen river bed the following day into the depths of what is the deepest canyon in northern Europe. At one point the gorge walls narrowed to 10 feet across before opening again to reveal a beast of a line, first climbed by Italian Kurt Astner and named White Chocolate. This season, the beast had grown jaws, and the central column had collapsed leaving a set of wide frozen fangs hanging over the lip of a sizeable roof.
Reindeer antlers with the 700m icefall of Skredbekkan (WI5) in background
If we hadn’t known Garth had found a way through, I suspect Kenton and I would have turned tail on the spot. Instead I forced myself on, fighting a gathering howl of panic. The second pitch saw me placing a short ice screw in the top of a foot-wide vertical smear of ice, and then scratching out some cam placements in a hollow flake in the roof. Behind hung the fangs, waiting. It was painfully obvious what had to happen: a long traverse across the transparent curtain of ice-teeth around the front of the jaws.
Throughout this trip, I’d felt physically capable thanks to three months of training, but mentally I was far from prepared. Six metres from the hollow flake protection, my demons descended, and I visualised the whole upper section of the route sliding off down the canyon. I survived, and the mental torment only cemented the memory of one of the most extraordinary routes any of the team had done.
Extraordinary formations on Flagbekkan (WI5+)
We’d spent much of our trip driving past a pair of stunning ice features high on the skyline each morning on one particular section of our drive north along the E6. The trees would open for a few seconds, and a monstrous pair of icefalls would flash momentarily into view high on the skyline. Initially we dismissed them as too far away to walk to, but then a rest day foray into the thickets of twisted mountain birch guarding the approach revealed the pleasant surprise of a shorter than expected walk in, and we were hooked.
Rising above the tree line our pace quickened as each of us rushed to get a better look at what we had dubbed Project Wall. 700m above the fjord, the twin lines soared up into a clear blue sky. Here were two huge, parallel vertical pillars; and the right hand pillar culminated in 30 feet of overhanging frozen gargoyles. It looked beautiful but utterly desperate. Worse still, I knew that steep ice routes usually prove harder than they look.
Looking out across Lyngenfjord
But I also knew this day was a special gift: to be at the base of a world class line in such a beautiful, remote place and to have no idea if it had been climbed before was the sort of opportunity that rarely flits into one’s climbing life. Both the lines the team climbed on Project Wall proved even better - and mercifully easier - than they looked.
Neil discovered a nervy but relatively moderate traverse on verglass-patched rock to gain a hidden ice ramp to gain the top of the hanging icy beast. On the column that Kenton and I selected, with each swing of my axe into the chandeliered ice I felt my demons lose their grip, and I was able to enjoy the sheer brilliance of the climbing in a unique situation high above Lyngenfjord.
Norwegie (WI6/M6) at Roadside, Lyngen
"Gathering in the frozen calm of the summit plateau, we realised we had experienced something extraordinary"
A unique situation at the top of a 3 pitch route with Lyngenfjord and the Lyngen Alps as the backdrop
Gathering in the frozen calm of the summit plateau, we began to realise as we stared out across the glowing Lyngenfjord that we had experienced something extraordinary. It had taken a roadside glimpse to trigger a true adventure. Unburdened by either guidebook lines or grades, we’d been freed of expectations, and left to trust our intuition and experience to discover these climbs anew.
This was Lyngen’s real magic at work.
You can find out more about Ian Parnell's photography on his photo blog